I’ve just returned from my 7th trip to Universal Orlando the past few years, and I realized that I’ve unintentionally acquired a lot of knowledge about how to have a great trip. So I’m writing this post! But first, a question I get a lot is why we always choose to fly across the country to Universal Orlando instead of going to Universal Hollywood, just an hour from our house.
Universal Orlando Resort vs. Universal Studios Hollywood
These are very different parks. Universal Studios Hollywood has stayed true to its movie set origin – it still has the iconic tram ride, letting you see where a lot of movies have been filmed. The park has expanded to have several rides as well as themed areas for Harry Potter and the Simpsons, but it’s not a vacation destination. Rather, it’s a great place to spend a day when you’re in LA.
Universal Orlando is a group of three theme parks and is a definite vacation destination. There are dozens of rides and attractions throughout Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure including several roller coasters, there’s a water theme park (Volcano Bay), and there are five onsite hotels. There’s enough to occupy everyone from young kids to teens to adults for several days.
Our kids love Harry Potter. Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter is essentially twice as large as Universal Hollywood’s. The village of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle are similar at both parks, but Universal Orlando also has Diagon Alley (our favorite area) as well as the Hogwarts Express train that goes between the parks.
Where to Stay at Universal Orlando
I mentioned above that there are five onsite hotels. These are (listed in order of Budget to Luxury):
- Cabana Bay Beach Resort
- Loews Sapphire Falls Resort
- Loews Royal Pacific Resort*
- Hard Rock Hotel*
- Loews Portofino Bay Hotel*
My personal favorite from a design standpoint is Cabana Bay, with its 1950s/1960s theme. Plus it’s next to the Volcano Bay water theme park, so if you’re planning on heading there a few times, it’s very convenient. It’s typically a lot less expensive than the others. There’s a bowling alley too.
My favorite based on location and pool is the Hard Rock Hotel. All of the hotels except Cabana Bay have water taxi service, but unfortunately Florida gets a lot of lightning, which stops the water taxis from operating. The Hard Rock Hotel is only a couple minutes on foot from the gates of Universal Studios so you never have to wait for a water taxi or walk far if it’s raining.
The three hotels at the bottom of the list, marked with asterisks, include Universal Unlimited Express Passes with their rooms. This means that you can skip the lines at virtually all rides (now including the Harry Potter attractions as well). These passes normally go for $84/day/person or so, so if you have a family of four or five and you’re spending $200-250/night for a room at those hotels, the passes easily justify the higher room rates.
From a kid perspective, we loved the Minions Suite at Portofino Bay. Half of our suite was a very nice, standard adult room. Then on the other side of a vault-looking door there’s a full Minions-themed room with rocket ship beds and a kid-sized table and chairs.
Both Sapphire Falls and Royal Pacific are nice and priced in the middle of the spectrum, but if you’re trying to decide between them, go for Royal Pacific because of the Express Passes.
All things equal, I’d choose the Hard Rock Hotel given that it’s typically less expensive than Portofino Bay, it has the best location, and it comes with Express Passes.
There’s a good comparison chart of the five hotels HERE.
When To Visit Universal Orlando
We have one rule with all theme parks: visit mid-week when schools are in session. Universal Orlando is no different. We always go the last week in August. We’re not back in school yet but the Florida schools are, and it’s never crowded. Plus, September 1 is officially the first day of Hogwarts. Universal doesn’t do anything special to celebrate that I’ve seen, but it’s a fun day to be there, get into your Hogwarts robe and walk into the castle.
When we’re at Universal, we head into the parks early in the day (all of the onsite hotels let you in to one of the parks one hour before non-guests), play for a couple hours, get lunch in the parks or at CityWalk, have downtime in the room or at the pool, and then head back over around 4pm. This means we’re not fighting crowds or sweating during the hottest time of the day. 7:00-9:00pm is the absolute best time to be in the parks – there’s rarely more than a 5-10 minute wait for any ride. Note that in the morning the gates generally open 15 minutes before the posted opening times. If you want to ride without waiting early in the day, wake up early and be there when they open. I prefer to head to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter first. It’s also your only chance to get photos without anyone else in them.
How to Save Money at Universal Orlando
Stay onsite to get free Express Passes, and think about going for 3-4 days. I personally prefer getting 4-day park-to-park passes. That lets you spend several mornings and evenings at the parks and you can relax in the middle of the day without feeling like you should be in the parks getting your money’s worth. Universal has periodic specials where you can get a 4-day park-to-park pass for the price of a 2-day pass, so keep an eye out for that and other deals.
While at the parks, save money by planning ahead. If you’re heading to Volcano Bay, bring your own towels. And take your own refillable water bottles into all of the parks. Although you’ll still want to buy a Butterbeer. Because it’s really good.
The food at Universal Orlando is excellent. Our favorite places to eat in the parks are Mythos and Lombard’s Seafood Grille. At CityWalk, we love the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium, Vivo Italian Kitchen, Cowfish, Antojitos, and Red Oven Pizza Bakery.
Mama Della’s at Portofino Bay Hotel is excellent – our favorite restaurant at any of the hotels.
The Three Broomsticks and Leaky Caldron in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter are worth visiting for the atmosphere.
Take a backpack, good walking shoes, sunscreen and sunglasses. You may want to bring a small towel as well, in case you get soaked on the water rides. I’ll sometimes carry a good camera with me if I’ll be there when the light is good; otherwise I rely on my cell phone camera. You’ll need to leave everything in lockers for several rides, but the lockers are free.
I have several other posts on Universal Orlando:
- Why You Want to Visit Universal Orlando During the Holidays
- Volcano Bay: What You Need to Know
- What Can I Take into Volcano Bay?
- Halloween Horror Nights
- Why We Prefer Universal Orlando to Disney World
- Four Seasons Resort Orlando: The Hotel That Made Us Skip Disney World (our favorite non-Universal hotel)
What questions do you have? I’ll continually update this post with tips based on what you want to know!