We just returned from a jam-packed whirlwind trip to Orlando and it was absolutely incredible. One of the reasons the trip went so smoothly is because we have visited Orlando more times than I can count and over the years we have collected a lot of tips & tricks to help us avoid crowds, save money and have fun. Today I am sharing those secrets with YOU!
The BEST Universal Orlando Tips from a Pro
1. Stay on Property
This is the BIGGEST tip I have for you because staying on the property makes all the difference in the world and is worth EVERY penny. Let me explain. At first glance, you might notice that you can find cheaper hotels near the Universal Resort in Orlando. But, let’s take a closer look.
The three resorts on property (Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Royal Pacific Resort and the Hard Rock Hotel specifically) include FREE Universal Express Passes for each hotel guest (which gives you front of the line access to the most popular rides in the parks), early park admission, priority seating at many restaurants in City Walk and FREE transportation around the resort. The Universal Express Passes alone would cost you $84.99 per person x 4 guests = $339.96 per day. So, the $100 you are saving a night on your room is NOT worth it!
Staying on property also means you can take advantage of the beautiful walkways and boat rides available to hotel guests. It’s a convenient way to get around!
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Upgrade to the Concierge Level
While we are on the subject of staying on-site at one of the hotels I also want to mention the added benefit of upgrading to the concierge level. At Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort concierge guests enjoy a complimentary breakfast buffet which includes morning pastries, hot coffee, tea and cocoa, hot dishes like eggs and breakfast potatoes and more. Guests can also fill up on bottled water, cans of soda and snacks which are set out each afternoon. They even offer tasty small plates in the evening (we had fajitas one night and delicious mojo pork another) and cocktails & desserts late night. It’s a great way to save money (as you won’t be eating out as much) and make life a little bit easier 🙂
These resorts are also home to some fantastic pools offering a great midday escape from the chaos going on inside the parks.
2. Arrive Early & Leave Late
If you stay on property you will want to take advantage of the early park entrance in the morning. But, even if you are not staying on property you will want to plan on arriving prior to the park opening hours and that is because they begin to allow guests to enter the parks early (up to a certain point) before the park officially opens. If you are one of the folks who enters early you will be able to breeze through several wait times on the most popular attractions before the crowds arrive.
That said you will also want to stay late. Both Universal Parks tend to die down around 4pm. Guests who stay later enjoy much shorter wait times which is why we like to get in early, then take a midday pool break at the hotel and return to the parks around 3-4pm.
3. Buy tickets with an American Express Card
When you purchase your Universal Resort Park tickets with your American Express card, you gain access to their lounge inside the park. Here you can relax in the air-conditioned lounge plus score bottles of water, chips and granola bars too! The lounge is located right next to the Shrek character meet and greet.
4. Plan for 3 Days
I believe that 3 days is enough to conquer both Universal Studios & Islands of Adventure ‘IF’ you have the Universal Express Passes. If you do not have the express passes then you will want at least 4 days at the parks to be able to hit all of the popular attractions. Of course, this will grow once they open their Water Park this coming June (2017). But, again notice that you need one less night at a hotel when you have the Express Passes which are included in the price of your stay at the on-site properties that I mentioned above. Another reason why it is actually cheaper and much better to stay at one of the hotels on the property!
5. When to Visit to Avoid Crowds
There are two times a year where I feel like you can count on avoiding large crowds. One is the entire month of September as everyone is back in school and either just visited over summer or is planning to visit over the holidays.
And, the second is visiting between Dec 3rd- 15th. The closer it gets to the school winter breaks the more the traffic picks up. But, visiting Universal during the holidays is extra spectacular! In Universal’s Islands of Adventure, you can see The Grinch musical show which is a wonderful performance. And, in Universal Studios you can witness authentic balloons and floats from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade! Plus, both parks are decked out with holiday lights too. It’s my favorite time of year to visit!
6. Use Child Swap
One way to breeze through the crowds when traveling with infants and toddlers is by utilizing the “child swap” program at Universal. The “child swap” allows families traveling with little ones to wait in the queue together once while allowing both adults a turn to ride. How it works is one parent stays off the ride and waits in the designated “child swap room” with the child who is not tall enough to ride. While the rest of the family hops on the ride. When they are finished the parents swap roles and the parent who initially stayed back is given a chance to ride without having to wait in line again. Instead, they simply walk to the front of the line in the “child swap” designated area. Another added benefit of using the “child swap” is the second parent can take up to 3 guests with them. So, several people in the family get to ride twice!
7. Single Rider
Guests 10 years or older, also have the option of a shorter wait by being a “single rider”. Since most people ride in groups of two or more, if there is an extra spot available the attendants will ask for a single rider and you’ll be able to skip ahead in the line. At some queues, there is even a special line reserved just for “single riders”.
8. Harry Potter Tips
Avoid the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the A.M.
I know this sounds contradictory to every other thing you might read BUT trust me. The first place every person heads to is the Harry Potter area in each of the parks making both of these lands complete madhouses in the morning. Even for guests with early entry. Unless you are going to be one of the first people in the park and you are going to run straight to one of the Harry Potter rides forget it. You will have much better luck heading into these lands around 4pm when everyone else in the park has already ‘been there, done that’.
Check out the photo above. That is my kids walking into Hogsmeade during early park entry on a non-holiday visit. Can you see the crowds in there- INSANE!!! I mean for good reason of course. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (both Hogsmeade & Diagon Alley) are the MOST INCREDIBLE themed lands I have ever visited. Absolutely, spectacular in so many ways. However, if you can be smart and avoid the crowds I promise the experience will be even that much better.
Take Time to Really Explore the Harry Potter Lands
As I just mentioned, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is absolutely amazing. And, I am not just talking about the main attractions. I urge you to really explore these lands as there are magical elements hidden all around you. If you buy an interactive wand at Ollivander’s you can actually cast spells around Diagon Alley and make magic happen right before your eyes! You can also ask the goblin in the Money Exchange any question and he will respond. Ask him about the dragon in Gringotts next time you visit 😉
Try a Butter Beer + Secret Menu
You can’t visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter without getting your kids a Butter Beer. Who can blame them with that tasty marshmallow topping? But, if you really want to impress your kids, head to The Three Broomsticks and Hog’s Head Pub and order a Pumpkin Fizz. It won’t be on the menu because it is a secret item. And, knowing that will make you the coolest parent alive!!
Take the train in between the parks
Don’t miss taking the Hogwarts Express between the parks. Not only is it a super convenient way to get around, but it is also one of my favorite Harry Potter experiences too! I am not telling you why because I don’t want to spoil any surprises. You’ll just have to trust me on this one.
image provided by Universal Studios
9. Tips for Toddlers (height requirements)
We did notice that many of the rides had a 40-inch height requirement as our youngest is not quite that tall yet. But, that doesn’t mean there is not a ton of rides and shows available for smaller toddlers. I recommend checking out Seuss Landing where multiple rides have lower height requirements, Shrek 4-D, Fievel’s Playground, Camp Jurassic, the Curious George Water area and a day in the Park with Barney- a live show and playground area.
Youngsters 34-inches tall can ride E.T. the ride which happens to be a favorite in our family. I was so sad when our CA park got rid of it and so I make sure we hop on it every time we visit the Orlando parks.
Once kids reach 36-inches tall they can test their thrill-seeking skills on Woody the Woodpecker’s Rollercoaster (above), Skull Island: Reign of Kong (below), Flight of Hippogriff & more.
Little ones who hit the 40-inch height requirement can ride the Seuss Trolley Train, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, the Simpson’s Ride (although it is a little frightening), Transformers, Spiderman, and more. And, once youngsters reach 42-inches tall they can also ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, Men in Black, Popeye and Bluto’s water ride, and Jurassic Park… The Ride just to name a few. Check out our experience on Jurassic Park below:
10. Buying souvenirs
It’s unavoidable your kids are going to want to take home a treasure to remind them of their incredible vacation at Universal. Be smart and use Universal’s package pick-up & free package delivery to on-site hotels. Package pick-up sends your souvenir to the front of the park so you can pick it up on your way out versus lugging it around all day. If you are staying on-site they take it a step further and deliver it right to your hotel. Just one more reason staying on property is such a smart idea!
11. How to Save on Food
Universal offers several different dining plans that can help you save money and make life a little easier too. Choose from full service or quick service plans. With up to 100 dining locations to choose from inside both parks and in City Walk your family will have plenty of options to choose from. The full-service plan includes two of our favorite restaurants at the Universal Resort- Mythos Restaurant and The Cowfish (yes sushi + burger fusion is a thing). But, we do find the quick service plan a little easier on the pocketbook. View the plans, list of participating restaurants and pricing here.
Family Style- Louie’s Italian Restaurant
Feeding a large family at a theme park can cost an arm and a leg. One way we save at Universal is by ordering a whole pizza pie from Louie’s Italian Restaurant. While a single slice will run you about $7 bucks, a whole pie so roughly $30 and comes with 8 slices. Don’t forget ice water is always complimentary so drink up.
Cheap Shareable Treat- Lad Lard’s Pink Donut
Growing up The Simpson’s was one of those shows I would watch with my dad. Most jokes went right over my head but that didn’t stop me from laughing. Walking through the Simpson’s area brought back so many memories. So, I was a complete sucker when my kids requested an enormous pink sprinkled donut from Lad Lard’s. Luckily, it was under $5 bucks and easily shareable!
Just for fun… Moe’s Tavern
Not really a savings tip BUT something fun to do while in the Simpson’s area is to while in the Simpson’s area is to head to Moe’s tavern to try a Duff Beer. While you are there order the kids an alcohol-free, orange-flavored Flaming Moe. The dry ice makes it smoke and the kids will get a kick out of it!
Head to City Walk
Another tip I have found that works well is to leave the parks and head into City Walk for lunch. Here you will find better tasting options in my opinion and a wider variety of eateries. It may not save a lot of cash but at least you get better quality food for your money and at lunch its a ghost town so very little wait times too! I personally loved the Bread Box which serves delicious sandwiches, soups, and salads. It was a healthier option and the kids loved the bench swings located at some of the booths.
City Walk also has some fun photo opportunities and great shops and because it is so quiet during the afternoon you can get a bunch of fun shots.
*Tip- if you stay at one of the hotels I mentioned previously your room key will also help you get priority seating at many of the restaurants in City Walk.
Skip dinner at Toothsome Chocolate Emporium
Wait what?? You read that right. Dinner here includes a ridiculous wait time and your room key does not grant you priority seating at this hot spot. However, the specialty here is clearly dessert and you can skip the long wait and head right inside and order your tasty treats at the counter.
Make sure you try at least one of their INCREDIBLE Artisanal Milk Shakes. Hands down the BEST flavor is Marshmallow Crisp: Vanilla ice cream, rice krispie treat, marshmallow fluff, fresh whipped cream and a giant marshmallow on top. You would think it would be one of the chocolate ones, but trust me the marshmallow takes the cake!
BONUS: Don’t Miss These Off-the-Beaten-Path Attractions
You most likely know about all of the most popular attractions. But, there are a few things that most people are unaware of that we think are absolutely worth your time.
Live Raptor Photo Opportunity- I mean where else can you get a photo with a live raptor- ha! What makes this so incredibly fun is the employees are steadfast in the delivery of their character. The kids were actually starting to question if the dino was going to be real. Check out the video:
Jurassic Play Area- After you ride the Jurassic Park River Adventure, you can go to the Jurassic Park Discovery Center. Here you can relax in the air-conditioned room while kids check out all the cool dinosaurs. Make sure to wander over to the eggs. If you’re there when a baby dino breaks out of its shell, your kiddo might be lucky enough to name the newborn and get an official birth certificate!
Character Meet & Greet with Shrek & Donkey- who wouldn’t want to spend time with this hilarious duo. Make sure to check the guide for times so that you can hang out with these totally awesome and funny characters. Check out our experience below:
Fievel Playground- stop by this awesome play area to give the kids a chance to run wild. There is plenty for both little and big kids to do and it’s also a nice break for mom & dad. Liv loved playing in the ball pit and the older ones enjoyed the water slide and swinging from the giant rope.
Hello Kitty Shop– if you have young girls (or teens) they will LOVE the adorable Hello Kitty Shop located inside Universal Studios. They have every type of Hello Kitty product imaginable PLUS an adorable bakery/ candy shop too!
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