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Universal Orlando Planning Guide
If you’re planning a Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure vacation, this 2021 Universal Orlando Planning guide is for you. This comprehensive Universal Studios planning guide will cover:
- How to plan a Universal vacation
- Universal Orlando Tips and Tricks
- How to save money at Universal Orlando
- The best time to visit Universal
- What kind of tickets to buy for Universal
- …and so much more!
I am a Universal Annual Passholder and a certified Universal Travel Advisor. Even more important, I love theme parks, and Universal is my favorite.
Universal Orlando has expanded from a day-trip during a Disney vacation to a destination all its own.
In the past couple of years, Universal has added Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure, the Bourne Stuntacular, and is opening the Jurassic World Velicocoaster in the coming weeks.
Universal recently announced that construction has resumed on Epic Universe. This is exciting news and Epic Universe will likely double the size of Universal Orlando as we know it.
This 2021 Universal Orlando planning guide covers Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay.
Universal Studios Planning Guide
To start this Universal Orlando Planning Guide, let’s go over some of the most common questions about visiting Universal Orlando.
Where to buy Universal Orlando tickets
Since this is a Universal Orlando planning guide, it only makes sense to talk about where to get tickets first.
There are three ways to buy Universal Orlando tickets. You can buy tickets at the park, in advance online, or through a Universal Travel Agent.
Be careful about purchasing tickets online or anywhere else that is not official. If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
You don’t want to spend your valuable vacation time in an all-day timeshare presentation, do you?!
I highly recommend buying your tickets through an approved travel partner such as a Travel Agent or Undercover Tourist. Undercover Tourist offers great deals on all of the Orlando theme parks.
There are many really scammy sites out there, so make sure you’re booking through an approved partner (such as Undercover Tourist.)
Do you need a rental car in Orlando?
I like to get around as needed while on vacation, so I like to rent a car. I recommend renting a car from Discount USA Car Rental.
Discount USA Car Rental offers the best rates available whether you’re flying into Orlando or Sanford.
I always fly into Sanford, which has more expensive rental cars than the Orlando Airport. With Discount USA Car Rental, I tend to save $10-15 per day on my rental cars.
What is Universal Orlando?
Some people refer to Universal Orlando as “Universal” or “Universal Studios.” Universal Orlando is technically comprised of:
- Universal Studios
- Islands of Adventure
- Volcano Bay
Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are the main theme parks. They are next to each other and connect via CityWalk or through the Hogwart’s Express at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
To truly experience Universal, you need a park-to-park ticket. Like a Disney “park hopper” ticket, this ticket allows you to visit both parks in a single day.
Unlike Disney, it’s much easier to visit both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios in one day due to the proximity.
Even if the Hogwart’s Express wait is long, it only takes about 20 minutes to walk between the two parks.
Volcano Bay is Universal Orlando’s waterpark, and it is arguably the best water park in the Orlando area. To access Volcano Bay, you’ll need to park in the main parking garage and take a bus.
A view of Volcano Bay from Cabana Bay Beach Resort.
Alternatively, some resorts (such as Cabana Bay Beach Resort) have direct access to Volcano Bay.
CityWalk is the dining, shopping, and activity area that is similar to Disney Springs. City Walk is also connected to most of the Universal Orlando hotels via the “Garden Walk.”
When to visit Universal Orlando
If you’re traveling with children, you’re likely limited to school holidays. Unfortunately, many other people are traveling with children on those dates as well.
If you can avoid popular dates such as the summer, winter holidays, spring break, etc., you will find fewer crowds and, sometimes, better prices.
If you’re traveling without children or willing to pull your child out of school for a couple of days, you will find that traveling outside of the popular dates will save time and allow you to do more things at the parks.
Although Universal Orlando is currently limiting capacity, we do not have hard numbers as to what that means. It is important to note that capacity has been reached on weekends.
Unlike Disney, Universal Orlando is not doing a reservation system. The one way to ensure you have a spot at the parks is to stay at a Universal Orlando Resort Hotel, and more on that later.
The best days of the week to visit Orlando are Monday-Thursday. If you have to visit on the weekend, I recommend purchasing an Express Pass and arriving early.
Special Events at Universal Orlando
Universal has many special events throughout the year. The most popular are Halloween Horror Nights, Mardi Gras, and Christmas.
Although Halloween Horror Nights was canceled for 2020, I do expect to see it back in 2021. Christmas at Universal and Mardi Gras: International Flavors of Carnaval were slightly modified in 2020 and 2021, but Universal did a fantastic job.
I would even say that Mardi Gras 2021 was better than last year, but you’ll have to read my Mardi Gras at Universal blog post to learn more about that.
Halloween Horror Nights
Halloween Horror Nights is a hard-ticket event (not included with your regular tickets) and takes place at night.
This special event features scare actors, haunted houses, special food and drinks, the HHN tribute store, and more. It is not recommended for guests under 13 years of age.
Christmas at Universal Orlando
Christmas at Universal features Grinchmas, a holiday parade with Macy’s balloons, the Holiday Tribute Store, and more.
Several areas in Universal Studios are decorated, including Diagon Alley, where Universal features a special projection show at Hogwart’s Castle.
Some of the shows around Universal are also Christmas-themed during this time of the year.
How many days should I spend at Universal?
Gone are the days where guests spend one day of their Disney trip visiting Universal. In fact, there are plenty of people who enjoy Universal vacations without visiting Disney at all.
I recommend spending no less than 3 days at Universal Orlando. If you are a Harry Potter fan, it would be easy to spend even more time enjoying the parks.
Universal Orlando does not offer as much for young children as Disney, but older kids, teens, and adults could easily spend an entire week at Universal.
And yes, I said adults. There are plenty of things for adults to do at Universal too!
What kind of tickets do I need for Universal?
When Universal Orlando added the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, they did something brilliant. Universal split the Wizarding World between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
Hogsmeade (the town where students attending Hogwarts would visit) is located in Islands of Adventure. Hogwarts Island, I suppose.
Hogsmeade is home to Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure, The Flight of the Hippogriff, and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. So yes, three of the four Wizarding World rides are in Hogsmeade.
Before you assume that you only need to visit Hogsmeade, the ever-so-iconic Diagon Alley is located in Universal Studios, and it’s a must-see all on its own.
Escape from Gringotts, Ollivanders Wand Shop, Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, Knockturn Alley, and more are located in Diagon Alley.
This is why, again, I recommend having a park-to-park ticket. A park-to-park ticket is also the only way to ride the Hogwarts Express, a must for any true Harry Potter fan.
Is Volcano Bay worth it?
Hopefully, I have convinced you to purchase park-to-park tickets, but is Volcano Bay worth it? Volcano Bay isn’t just another waterpark.
I’m not a big “water park” person, but I was so impressed by Volcano Bay. Volcano Bay is massive and features and feature attractions such as the Krakatau water coaster and more.
If you like water parks, if your kids like water parks, or if you’re visiting Universal when it’s hot (almost always), I would include at least one day at Volcano Bay.
Do you need an Express Pass at Universal?
If you plan to visit Universal during a slow time and on a weekday, you probably won’t need an Express Pass. If you plan a summer vacation or vacation during the holidays, you’ll likely need the Express Pass.
The best rides and attractions at Universal Orlando
It should be noted that the best rides and attractions at Universal will be dependent on you. I wanted to include this just so that you are aware of the rides and attractions that are the most popular.
If you see lower wait times for any of these rides or attractions, make sure to hop in line ASAP.
Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure
Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure is currently the newest ride at Universal Orlando Resort. This will change when the new Velocicoaster opens, which will make Islands of Adventure even busier!
This Motorbike Adventure is a thrilling roller coaster with multiple launches, a backward section, and a drop section. It does not go upside down, but make sure kids do some other coasters before trying this one.
Skull Island: Reign of Kong
Also located in Islands of Adventure, Skull Island: Reign of Kong is a very popular ride despite being 5 years old.
The wait times can be long, so try to ride early or later in the day or use an Express Pass. If you’re visiting on a very busy day, I would say it’s okay to pass on this one, but there are a lot of people who would disagree with me.
The Incredible Hulk
This is the big, green roller coaster that you can’t miss as soon as you walk into Islands of Adventure. It’s a very popular roller coaster and typically has a longer wait.
If you find a wait time of 30 minutes or less, hop on because wait times can often be an hour or more.
Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem
This is the first ride you see after walking into Universal Studios. Because it’s the first ride, it also has one of the longest wait times.
Unless you have a little minion who loves the Minions, this ride is worth skipping. It is cute, but it’s not worth waiting an hour. This is also, in my opinion, one of the worst rides for those with motion sickness.
Let me know in the comments if you’d like to see a blog post with all the rides that are bad for motion sickness.
For now, here are the rides that will make you sick at Universal:
- The Simpsons Ride
- Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem
- Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
- The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
- Transformers: The Ride 3D
- Storm Force Accelatron (a teacup style ride)
- The Bourne Stuntacular (mot a ride, but the effects can cause motion sickness.)
I have a lot of problems with motion sickness, so these rides may not be as bad for you as they are for me.
Regardless, I recommend bringing whatever you use if you are prone to motion sickness.
The Bourne Stuntacular
The Bourne Stuntacular is not a ride, but, as the name implies, a stunt show. It is based around the Bourne movies. When it first opened, I thought it was odd that it was based around movies from so long ago.
As it turns out, there are newer Bourne movies, and they are worth checking out! You can also check out 30+ movies to watch before going to Universal for more movies that will get you excited for your vacation.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, as a whole, is easily the busiest area of Universal Orlando. This is partially due to the newest ride being Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure.
However, it’s mostly due to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter simply being so darn magical. If you love a good controversy, you can even check out the Wizarding World of Harry Potter vs. Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge.
Suffice to say, if you’re a fan of Harry Potter, or even if you’re not, the entire Wizarding World is a must-see.
Under-rated rides at Universal
I thought it would be fun to share some of Universal’s under-rated rides in this Universal Orlando planning guide.
I thought about sharing over-rated rides at Universal, but I’ll save that for another day.
The Mummy (Universal Studios)
The Mummy is one of my favorite roller coasters. Not just at Universal, period. I love the Mummy. It’s so fun, and it’s dark, and it’s hilarious to ride with first-timers who have no idea what is happening.
I don’t even love the Mummy movies, but the ride is truly one of the best in Universal. The wait time is often relatively short, so make sure you check it out too!
Animal Actors on Location (Universal Studios)
The Bourne Stuntacular gets all the love, but Animal Actors on Location is the best show in Universal. In my opinion, anyway.
This adorable show features dogs, cats, birds, and even a pig. It’s fun for kids, but honestly, I will see it without my kids any day. I go to this show so much that they are starting to recognize me.
If you love animals, this show is a must-see. It’s located near the Spongebob Store in Universal Studios.
Pteranadon Flyers (Islands of Adventure)
I was trying to think of an under-rated ride at Islands of Adventure, and this is the only one that came to mind.
Now, you can’t ride Pteranadon Flyers without a child, but if you are a child or have a child, you’re in luck.
One of the highlights of this ride in the past couple of years has been having a birds-eye view of the construction on the Velicoaster.
A bit more on rides at Universal
I had a few more tips for rides and attractions in this Universal Orlando Planning Guide and didn’t know where to throw them in, so here they are.
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit is the large red roller coaster just inside Universal Studios. You get to choose a song to rock out to during your ride, which is a lot of fun!
What you might not know is there is also a Rip Ride Rockit secret song list. Make sure to know the numbers for your favorite songs before you get on the ride.
Unless you’re a Fast and the Furious fan, Fast and Furious Supercharged is worth skipping. It’s fairly new, and Universal still closes it down when the parks aren’t busy. That is because we all hate it. 😂
E.T. Adventure is a ride with a lot of nostalgia for some, but it’s horribly over-rated, in my opinion. If you grew up riding E.T Adventure. Then you’ll love it. If you didn’t, you could skip it.
Dining at Universal Orlando Resort
Dining at Universal is much simpler than dining at Disney. There are fewer in-park options, and reservations are rarely required.
Universal does not offer many fine dining options, but Mythos in Islands of Adventure is often rated as one of Orlando’s best theme park restaurants.
Mythos is one of the best theme park restaurants out there!
Both The Three Broomsticks and Leaky Cauldron are popular with Harry Potter fans. However, both restaurants are often rated better for their ambiance than their actual food.
Universal is also behind Disney in accommodating guests with allergies or dietary preferences, but they are adding more allergy-friendly and vegan options all the time.
Although Universal offers dining plans, and although they aren’t essential, they can help make your Universal vacation a little bit easier.
Universal Dining Plans
Universal currently offers four different dining plans. The Universal Dining Plan, Quick-Service Dining Plan, Quick-Service + Coca-Cola Freestyle Cup, or just the Coca-Cola Freestyle cup on its own.
Which Universal Dining Plan is best for you? Let’s go over the dining plans and prices.
- Universal Dining Plan (only available as part of a package): Includes 1 full-service meal, 1 quick-service meal, 1 snack, and 1 non-alcoholic beverage. Meals include beverages, and the full-service meal includes dessert.
- Quick-Service Dining Plan $25.99/day: Includes 1 quick-service meal (with beverage,) 1 snack, and one non-alcoholic beverage.
- Quick-Service Plan + Coca-Cola Souvenir Cup $34.99/day: Includes 1 quick-service meal (with beverage,) 1 snack, and one non-alcoholic beverage. Plus, one day of Coca-Cola Freestyle refills. Additional “Freestyle refill” days can be purchased for $9.99 per day.
- Coca-Cola Freestyle Souvenir Cup $16.99: Includes the Freestyle refillable cup and one day of refills. Additional days can be purchased for $9.99 per day.
The Coca-Cola Freestyle Souvenir Cup allows you to refill your cup at locations throughout the parks and CityWalk. It is important to note that the cups do not work at the Universal resorts.
I’m not really sure why, but I was told they’re on a different system. Just a heads up! If you’re a soda/lemonade/Gatorade drinker, the souvenir cup is definitely worth it.
If you’re a water drinker, like me, just bring a Berkey Sport Filtered water bottle (Orlando water is disgusting), and you’re good to go.
Is the Universal dining plan worth it?
The Universal dining plan can be worth it if you use every part of it. On average, it can save $10-$20 per day but make sure actually to use it.
Even if you typically drink water, it can be fun to use the beverage credit for something like Butterbeer or Pumpkin Juice in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Where to stay at Universal
One of the biggest questions about planning a Universal Orlando vacation is where to stay at Universal.
At first glance, it does seem more expensive to stay in a Universal Orlando Resort. That is because it is more expensive to stay in a Universal hotel, but it’s worth it in many situations.
You may find a better deal at a Partner Hotel, but here is what they don’t tell you.
The shuttles from the Partner Hotels only run limited routes.
This means you’ll either have to pay to park, walk or Uber back and forth between your hotel room unless you’re arriving and departing at certain times.
It’s much easier to stay in a Universal Resort and enjoy free transportation throughout the day. You’ll also find Universal resorts for almost any price range.
It’s also fun to plan a resort day and hang out at the lazy river at Cabana Bay. You can also pool hop at all of the resorts, no matter which one you’re staying, and enjoy the restaurants or spas at any other resort as well.
Checking current pricing for all Universal Resorts on Expedia here:
- Hard Rock Hotel
- Loews Portofino Bay
- Loews Royal Pacific
- Aventura Hotel
- Loews Sapphire Falls Resort
- Cabana Bay Beach Resort
- Universal Endless Summer Resorts – Dockside Inn and Suites and Seaside Inn and Suites.
I also have a Loews Royal Pacific tour and review. As a bonus, the Premier Resorts are all closer to Universal, and you can walk or take a water taxi.
What to pack for Universal
I have a detailed post about what to pack for Universal, but I wanted to share the quick version in this Universal Studios planning guide.
Here are a few things to keep with you at Universal Orlando:
- A small backpack or bag. If you can get away with it, bring a bag or bags small enough to fit in Universal’s free lockers. Unlike Disney, Universal does not allow bags on most rides, with the exception of 3-prong fanny packs on some rides.
- Sunscreen. It’s hot and sunny in Orlando. If you tend to burn, make sure to have some reef-safe natural sunscreen on hand.
- Water bottles. Why pay $5 for water and create more plastic when you can just bring your own?
- Snacks. Universal has plenty of snacks, but they also allow you to bring in snacks if you’d like.
- A lanyard. Most park guests keep their park pass in a lanyard. I have an entire blog post about lanyards for Universal (seriously) if you want to check it out.
- Motion sickness medicine, if you need it.
- Universal App, on your phone, of course. You can check ride times, look at a map, mobile order, and more.
What to wear at Universal
- Lightweight clothing. Make sure to pack layers in the winter as mornings are cooler, but it can get hot in the afternoon.
- A mask, an extra mask, and another extra mask. Like it or not, masks are required at Universal right now. Make sure to bring extras because they will get sweaty, wet, dropped, snotty, etc.
- Comfortable shoes. I wear Teva sandals but choose whatever is comfortable for you. Remember to bring extra socks, or even extra shoes, if you plan to go on water rides. This is exactly why I wear sandals!
My typical Universal attire includes a tank top, shorts, Teva sandals, and a Loungefly backpack.
How to save money at Universal Orlando
Maybe you found this Universal Orlando planning guide because you want to know how to save money at Universal.
I know you’ve been waiting for it, so here is how to save money at Universal Orlando.
First, I’ll be honest: theme parks are expensive.
The tickets, the food, the souvenirs, it adds up! The best way to save money at Universal is to set a budget and stick to it. Whether it’s a good budget or souvenir budget, decide how much you plan to spend before you leave.
Purchase an annual pass if it makes sense for your family. If you plan to visit more than once a year, an annual pass might make more sense than purchasing multi-day park tickets.
Sides and snacks
Choose sides or kids’ items at restaurants. I am the queen of sides. I can eat at Thunder Falls Terrance in Islands of adventure for about $6.
During special events such as Mardi Gras, it’s easy to save money by eating the smaller but surprisingly filling snacks.
Express Passes are expensive, but they’re also a great way to see everything with limited time. If you’re visiting during a busy time (summer, Christmas, etc.), it might save money to stay in a Premier Resort vs. purchasing Express Passes on their own.
Bring your own food
The best way to save money on food? Bring your own. Universal allows you to bring in food and snacks, so this can be a great way to save money if you don’t want to splurge on theme park food.
Universal Souvenirs are cute, but they are pricey. There are plenty of stores around Orlando selling discounted Universal merchandise.
You can even pick up Universal-themed Souveniers at Wal-Mart and Target!
My youngest son loves the little snapping dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. They are $12; Target sells them for $5. You’re welcome.
Universal Orlando Tips and Tricks
I’ve shared a lot of Universal tips and tricks throughout this Universal Orlando planning guide. If you’d like more, make sure to check out 15 Universal Studios hacks.
You might also want to read 20 things to know before going to Universal.
Universal Orlando Planning Guide
Are you planning a Universal Orlando vacation? Did this Universal Orlando Planning Guide help? If you have any other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments below.
Although I’m a certified Universal Travel Advisor, I only book a few Universal trips as my main focus as a Travel Advisor is honeymoons.
You can always contact me for availability. I also send out a weekly email with all the theme park updates, so make sure to sign up below to get the latest.
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