When Universal first made the announcement that they would be joining Disney in Central Florida back in the late 1980’s, there was an opportunity to be had with the plethora of properties that fall under the umbrella of the media giant. Between opening Universal Studios Florida in 1990, Islands of Adventure in 1999 and the most recent opening of Volcano Bay in May 2017, the park up the street from Walt Disney World is definitely worth checking out when you’re planning a trip!
Let’s look at the 10 things you need to know about Universal Orlando before you go:
How Do I Get There?
Universal Orlando is not exactly within walking distance of Walt Disney World. You’re going to want to google updated traffic information, due to the ever lasting construction in the area’s interstate highways, but you’re looking for Exit 75A and 75B off Interstate 4. When you arrive at the resort, there are multiple parking garages for guests who drive and a full transit hub for those who are taking transit or dropping off from various forms like Uber or Lyft.
What is CityWalk?
CityWalk is Universal’s equivalent to Disney Springs, with over 30-acres of shopping, dining, live entertainment and the main corridor which leads guests from the parking structures to the theme parks. To go through the full slate of offerings would be a post in itself, but the highlights include brands like Hard Rock Cafe, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, Blue Man Group, Emeril’s Restaurant Orlando, Starbucks, Hot Dog Hall of Fame, NBC Sports Grill and Brew & The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium!
Where Do I Buy Tickets?
Just like any theme park, there are ticket box offices outside of each park, but we definitely suggest buying them online prior to arriving at the front gates. This will save you time by not having to wait in a lineup and will also give you piece of mind knowing that you can just scan your pre-printed vouchers and get into the park. They sell individual park tickets, park hopper tickets and annual passes. The longer you stay, the more that you save…so think about things long-term because a single day may not be enough to explore everything.
Annual Passes are available for 2-park and 3-park varieties (Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios and Volcano Bay)
We recommend utilizing the official Universal Orlando Website or a partner travel agent to purchase your tickets!
Does Universal Have a FastPass+ Like Disney?
Short answer: Kinda.
Disney’s FastPass+ system is included in your ticket price, so when you load your tickets onto your MyDisneyExperience account, you’re able to book your reservations in advance. With Universal, they have a system called the Universal Express Pass, which is purchases separately from your tickets. This gives you a separate line, which basically allows you to skip the regular paying guests who are waiting in standby lines. With wait times usually exceeding an hour or more for the bigger attractions, this is an expense that we would suggest…but with an explicit piece of information to know beforehand…it doesn’t included every attraction. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Escape from Gringotts, Hogwarts Express and other select attractions don’t fall under this paid pass.
Universal does offer a single-rider line at a few attractions (Spider-Man, Hollywood Rip Ride Rock-it, Men in Black, Mummy, Transformers, Gringotts, Dr Doom, Hulk Coaster and Dr. Doom’s Freefall.
What Hotels are on Property?
There are currently a five official on-site hotels: Loews Royal Pacific Hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel & Spa, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort and Cabana Bay Beach Resort. All five hotels are located in close proximity to the theme parks. The hotels offer guests free water taxi or shuttle bus service to the Universal Orlando theme parks, which is a bonus!
What are the Best Attractions at Universal?
This is what makes the Universal Orlando Resort unique, as you’re more likely to find coasters and attractions that cater to an older crowd than your traditional Disney attraction. Doesn’t mean that it’s bad…just that it’s a different experience.
Best coasters are the Dragon Challenge (formerly known as the Dueling Dragons), Incredible Hulk and the Revenge of the Mummy. Must see attractions are Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Escape from Gringotts and the Hogwarts Express…basically anything Harry Potter!
We are also fans of the various lands in the Islands of Adventure park, like Jurassic Park, Seuss Landing, and the Marvel Super Hero Island.
Is Universal a Good Place for Small Kids?
We’re on the fence, but there is definitely a wide selection for the younger adventurers. Universal Studios has Fievel’s Playground, Barney Live on Stage, Dora the Explorer and a bunch of other characters that the smaller kids would get a kick out of. Over at Islands of Adventure, Seuss Landing is by far the place to be, with attractions that involve The Grinch, Cat in the Hat and Meet & Greets with Thing 1 and Thing 2. Toon Lagoon is another spot for the kids, but most didn’t grow up with the characters that inhabit that Island, with attractions themed to Popeye and Dudley Do-Right.
What Special Events Does Universal Host?
By far, the most popular event is Halloween Horror Nights, which includes haunted mazes themed to franchises that are continuously being adapted to the theme park environment. Macy’s Holiday Parade is another hit, as the larger-than-life balloons from the NYC Thanksgiving Day Parade make their way to Orlando and thrill guests by their immense size! Universal also plays host to the Mardi Gras celebrations, with parades, concerts, food and beads…lots of beads!
What Should I bring to the Parks?
Look inside the bag of any theme park go-er and you’ll find different strategies. Some folks like to keep things light, where there are those who like to prepare for every possible situation. The main thing that differentiates Universal Orlando from Walt Disney World is that you’re unable to take your bags on most attractions and have to leave them in lockers provided by Universal. You get a location-specific allocation of time before you’re charged anything, and it usually gives you enough time to get through the stand-by line.
Just as a reminder, you should definitely bring comfy walking shoes, sunscreen and light clothing (not dark). Ponchos, change of clothes and deodorant is definitely a must bring! Universal does allow guests to bring in snacks, drinks and small coolers, but zero alcohol and selfie sticks are allowed past the security gates.
What’s new at Universal Orlando Resort?
The resort is undergoing a massive expansion, with the Skull Island: The Reign of Kong, Transformers, Race through New York starring Jimmy Fallon, and Diagon Alley all being opened in the last five years. The newest addition is the Volcano Bay Water Park, which is a nice mix between a traditional water park and a theme park, with 18 attractions, wearable technology which allows you to skip the lines and so much more!