This 2023 Universal Studios Orlando planning guide includes park strategy tips, tips on the best food at Universal Orlando, what you can’t miss between Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida, should you stay on-site at Universal, and more – as is our goal across all our articles across destinations – save money, and experience more.
Universal Studios Orlando has changed dramatically over the last 12 years since the opening of the Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle section of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. That first opening kicked off a decade of investment into Universal Orlando that has made the resort a worthy addition to your Orlando vacation. Of course, many guests will be adding a stop at Universal Orlando to their existing Walt Disney World vacation, but more and more I have heard from readers or met people in the Universal theme parks that are there exclusively for a couple days at the resort.
Here are just some of the experiences Universal Studios Orlando has added over the past ten years: FIVE Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions, a next-level Bourne stunt show, a popular Despicable Me simulator attraction, a King Kong ride experience with one of the largest Audio-Animatronics I’ve ever seen, and most recently an incredible Jurassic World: VelociCoaster roller coaster. In addition, Universal has opened five new resort hotels, a water park, and construction is underway on a third theme park.
Now that I’ve demonstrated how much Universal Studios Orlando has evolved, let me give you this advice. There is simply too much to see at Universal Orlando in one day. For the best experience of all the best the resort has to offer, you’ll want at least two days to experience the best of both theme parks.
Universal Studios Orlando Crowd Levels 2023
During the school year, Universal Studios Orlando has weekly crowd patterns that feel more like Disneyland than Walt Disney World. There is a substantial contingent of local pass holders at Universal Orlando that flock to the resort on weekends making the weekdays the best time to plan your visit to the parks. This is something good to consider if you are adding on Universal Studios Orlando days to your Walt Disney World vacation.
When school is not in session (holiday period or summer vacation), Universal Studios Orlando crowds do not follow the same logic and there will be substantial tourist crowds regardless of day of the week.
Based on the fact that Universal Orlando is still largely used as an add on to a Walt Disney World trip or other trip to Orlando, I will refrain from attempting to share the best months to visit the resort. For our recommendations on weather, crowd levels, and general advice on time of year to visit, check out our Walt Disney World crowd calendar.
During my recent mid-week trip to the resort (May 2022), I was pleased to see that no lines were too long and even the most popular attractions didn’t have lines much longer than an hour. This reinforces my advice to stick to the mid-week days for a visit to Universal Studios Orlando.
The only major holidays to consider for visiting are Christmas at Universal Orlando and Halloween Horror Nights (details below).
What’s new at Universal Studios Orlando in 2023?
As I started to outline above, there has been a LOT of change at Universal Studios Orlando over the past decade. New attractions, hotels, waterpark, and third theme park currently under construction!
The biggest hype remains around the new Jurassic World: VelociCoaster, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and the Bourne Stunt Spectacular. The first two attractions are in the Islands of Adventure park and the stunt show is in the Universal Studios Florida park.
The Bourne Stunt Spectacular is one of my favorite experiences at the entire resort. The show blends technology and stunt performances to create an incredible live performance. Of course it is difficult to pick a favorite because I was also incredibly impressed with the storytelling power of Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. Both must-sees!
I’ll dive deeper into the must-see attractions at Universal Studios Orlando and how they fit into our suggested day strategy below.
How Many Days to Visit Universal Orlando
Universal Orlando is worth two days at minimum – the two parks are enormous and filled with enough attractions that one day just isn't enough to experience everything.
The only reason to only do one day at the resort is if you have a time constraint or do not enjoy any of the more thrilling attractions that Universal Studios Orlando has to offer. Even if this latter point is the case, I would suggest you check out all of the entertainment throughout the resort. During my next trip I plan on taking in even more of the atmospheric street entertainment and shows. You can read more about our tips for adults at Universal Orlando here.
Each trip I discover something new. Most recently I stopped to watch the Blues Brothers show and didn’t even have time for the Universal Horror Make-Up Show. They also have a nighttime water show – think World of Color in Disney California Adventure – to end the night at Universal Studios Florida park.
Over these past ten years, Universal Studios Orlando has invested heavily to provide entertainment and activities for the entire family in an attempt to diversify from their heavier screen and thrill attractions. While they still rely on these elements for their “E-Ticket” attractions, there is so much to do to fill multiple days.
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As I mentioned above, you’ll want to consider the Park-To-Park tickets because they are the only way you are able to experience the Hogwarts Express. Also, with a Park-To-Park ticket you’ll be able to avoid starting the day in the park with the biggest crowd prediction and then switch over to experience more across both the parks.
If you are a member of an organization that may qualify for discount tickets or are interested in the Annual Pass option, you should read our guide to discount Universal Studios Orlando ticket options.
Universal Studios Orlando Express Pass
The Universal Studios Orlando Express Pass gives you access to a shorter queue for almost all attractions and shows across the resort. The queue experience feels very much like Disney Genie Plus at Walt Disney World and Disney Genie Plus at Disneyland (what was Disney's FastPass), but the access is different. The pass is paid and there are no specific return times for its use. You can walk up to any attraction, scan your Express Pass, and enter the queue.
We found the Express Pass to be worth every penny. Since we had Express Pass we could take our time and prioritize other things in the morning (like exploring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter areas!) since I knew we could experience things with minimal wait times even if we waited to ride until later in the afternoon. I will always make room in my budget for Express Pass- it was a lifesaver. We never waited longer than 10 minutes in any lines with it.
Pro tip: The further in advance you purchase Express Pass, the cheaper it will be. The price is dependent on the day you pick and the price goes up the closer it gets to the date. Sometimes Express Passes will even sell out for certain days so if you know you want it, I wouldn't hesitate.
You’ll have the option to purchase the Unlimited Express Pass or the one-per-ride Express Pass. There is a price difference here. We happily opted for the one-per-ride Express Pass on our last visit and found riding each attraction once per day was enough for us. There were just a couple of cases – the two Harry Potter attractions – where anyone wished they could lap the attraction again.
Three of the Universal Studios Orlando hotels provide the Unlimited Express Pass to their guests as a perk for staying there. The Loews Royal Pacific, Loews Portofino Bay, and Hard Rock hotel are considered the top tier of Universal Studios Orlando hotels and provide complimentary Unlimited Express Passes for their guests. If you are considering purchasing an Unlimited Express Pass, it is likely worth it to align your stay at one of these hotels to have both a great hotel experience and the Express Pass. While the rooms can be pricey, they are more affordable than comparable Walt Disney World hotel rooms.
NOTE – The Jurassic World: VelociCoaster and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure do not currently offer Express Pass so it will come as a shock to the system to wait in these lines after breezing through the Express Pass lanes all day. Taking advantage of the Universal Studios Orlando hotel guest perk of entering the parks early should help you to avoid these waits (details below).
Universal Orlando Packing Tips – Different Than Walt Disney World
When packing for your time at Universal Studios Orlando there is one key difference from our Walt Disney World packing list to consider. Many of the attractions at Universal Studios Orlando require that you store all large bags and loose articles in lockers (the lockers are free for a certain amount of time while you ride and are opened with your park ticket) before boarding. This can be very time consuming and just adds a layer of frustration to getting on the attraction. Read some of the other Universal Orlando free things.
With that in mind, if you are able to pull off just carrying a fanny pack for the day, you’ll be very happy. With a fanny pack or small tightly fitting cross body bag, you’ll be able to avoid the locker situation and the headache of moving your stuff in and out. Here are some of our favorite cross bags for a day in the parks.
Getting to Universal Studios Orlando from Walt Disney World
Universal Studios Orlando is about a 20-30 minute car ride from Walt Disney World depending on time of day and where in Walt Disney World you are coming from. When driving in the morning you will probably hit some I-Drive traffic.
I recommend utilizing Lyft and Uber at Walt Disney World and stick with the recommendation for getting to Universal Orlando. The perks of utilizing the ride share services for your transfer from Walt Disney World to Universal Orlando are that you don’t have to have a set departure time locked in, you’ll go directly from your hotel to the Universal Studios Orlando resort entrance without any other stops, and you don’t have to worry about the extra layers of renting a car.
We have found that the cost is typically under $25 each way and sometimes is even less if you utilize the “Wait and Save” feature.
Benefits of Staying On-Site at Universal Orlando
The Universal Orlando resort has 8 on-site hotels (there is a boat service from some of the hotels as seen in the photo above) that provide an option for every budget. Much like the Walt Disney World resort hotels, the hotels at Universal Orlando are grouped into four different tiers that dictate what resort perks guests will receive.
The main distinction is between the top tier and bottom three tiers. The top tier of hotels (the Loews Portofino Bay Resort, Hard Rock Hotel, and Loews Royal Pacific Resort) all receive complimentary unlimited Express Pass and priority seating at select restaurants on property.
All other Universal Orlando hotel guests receive the great perk of up to an hour early entry to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and select other attractions. The Early Entry perk rotates between Universal Studios Florida and Island of Adventure. There is not a standard schedule so you should check your dates here for information on which park is offering the Early Entry.
For the best prices on all of the official Universal Orlando hotels and tickets, you should request a quote from our travel partner.
The prices of the Universal Orlando hotels seem very affordable when compared to a similar quality level of hotel at Walt Disney World.
Current Impact of COVID on Universal Studios Orlando 2023
The Universal Studios Orlando resort has largely returned to normal operations after a couple rounds of COVID spikes. Face coverings are no longer required for fully vaccinated guests but all guests are encouraged to wear the face coverings when indoors. Proof of vaccination is not required.
During my recent trip (May 2022), I saw some guests wearing face coverings when in a crowded indoor queue. Other than that, the pandemic fell to the back of mind. This is very similar to what we shared in our Walt Disney World right now guide.
Universal Orlando seemed to be back to normal levels for all aspects of entertainment. There were a number of shows and street entertainment available in addition to characters for meet and greets.
Many of the shows that had previously been closed due to COVID – Poseidon’s Fury which is one of my favorites – are now performing once again. The Universal Studios Orlando resort also offered virtual queues for some attractions when space available prevented necessary physical distancing. This system is still sometimes used on the busiest park days. See details on the Virtual Queue below.
Universal Orlando Touring Guide and Tips
Through our trips to Universal Orlando we’ve gathered a number of touring tips and strategies. The two theme parks have a variety of experiences that will cause different priorities of where to start your day when you first enter the two parks.
Here are some Universal Orlando tips and call outs to improve experience:
- If Harry Potter is a priority, especially the spells in the areas with a wand, go here first. We prioritized Harry Potter so we started our day at Universal Studios Florida and went straight to Ollivander's in Diagon Alley. After we had bought our wands we spent some time doing the spells. This was a good choice because within two hours of park opening every ‘wand spot' had a small line and it was a bit crowded to try and do them. Doing the spells first thing in the morning gave us more room and time to enjoy them.
- Don't forget to factor in the possibility of rain! Rain is extremely common in Florida, especially if you're visiting during the summer months. Universal will have to close many outdoor rides when it starts raining including popular new favorites like VelociCoaster and Hagrid's Magical Creatures. If you have outdoor rides that are a must do then I recommend doing them early in the day.
- Universal Orlando hotel guests have early access to one of the theme parks during their stay. This means that non-hotel guests should look to avoid starting their day in the park where hotel guests had early entry as the lines for the most popular attractions will already be too long and take away any benefit of rope dropping the park.
- The Hogwarts Express is a must-see attraction. The train transports guests between the two parks within The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade. Guests must have a park to park ticket in order to enjoy the attraction. Don’t make this mistake – if you wait until the mid afternoon right when it would make sense to park hop you might end up with a long line for the experience. Our longest line with the Express Pass was for the Hogwarts Express because we went right at 2 pm when the rest of the crowd was park hopping. Be sure to check the Universal Orlando app for wait times before heading over to ride.
You can read more Universal Orlando planning tips for your trip here.
Top Universal Studios Florida Attractions and Shows
This section deserves its own article, but for now I will include it in this Universal Studios Orlando planning guide.
In addition to the attractions below, Universal Studios Florida is where you can find one of the two Harry Potter themed land s- Diagon Alley. If you're a Harry Potter fan, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is not to be missed in either park! These immersive experiences are heaven for any Potterhead and breathtaking even for those that aren't big fans. Don't miss it.
Attractions at Universal Studios Florida
Here are the Universal Studios Florida attractions ranked with a few comments:
- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts – story roller coaster in 3D
- Revenge of the Mummy – campy thrilling roller coaster
- Despicable Me Minion Mayhem – 3D attraction fun for the entire family, develops a long line because it is the first attraction upon entering the park
- Transformers The Ride 3D – very jerky screens based attraction, not my favorite
- Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket – high speed roller coaster and whips you around corners
- The Simpsons Ride – 3D attraction
- E.T. Adventure – Dark ride that shocked me with the level of detail and scale of the attraction, HIDDEN GEM!
- Men In Black Alien Attack – Super fun shooting game that is also much larger inside than you would expect, HIDDEN GEM!
- Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon – not too intense screen based attraction
- Kang & Kodos' Twirl ‘n' Hurl – fun for kids
- Woody Woodpecker Nuthouse Coaster – fun for kids
- Hogwarts Express (If you have park to park tickets) – see our tips about riding between the two park
You can read a review of all the rides at Universal Studios Florida here.
Shows at Universal Studios Florida
- Bourne Stunt Spectacular – this might be my favorite experience at Universal Studios Orlando, MUST DO!
- The Blues Brothers Show – fun street show
- Fear Factor Live
- Universal Studios Orlando's Cinematic Celebration – fun evening fountain show similar to World of Color at Disney California Adventure
- A Day in the Park with Barney
- Universal Studios Orlando's Horror Make-Up Show
- Studio Brass Band
- Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees (Harry Potter themed)
- The Tales of Beetle Bard (Harry Potter themed)
- Animal Actors on Location
- Universal's Superstar Parade
- Universal's Holiday Parade featuring Macys (only during the holiday season)
Top Universal Islands of Adventure Attractions and Shows
Universal's Islands of Adventure is home to many thrilling attractions and is a popular theme park with many guests. So popular in fact, that it won TripAdvisor's #1 Amusement Park In The World Choice Award the past three years in a row.
This is also where you can find one of the two Harry Potter themed lands- Hogsmeade along with the Hogwarts Castle! If you're a Harry Potter fan, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is not to be missed in either park! These immersive experiences are heaven for any Potterhead and breathtaking even for those that aren't big fans. Don't miss it.
While I’ll share more beyond this Universal Orlando planning guide, here is the ranking of attractions for Universal Islands of Adventure:
Attractions at Islands of Adventure
- Jurassic World: VelociCoaster – new high speed roller coaster, one of the most popular attractions at the resort right now
- Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure – storytelling coaster, my favorite Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction, MUST DO!
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – storytelling thrill attraction, the first Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction with the queue that winds through Hogwarts – even if you don’t ride, you should walk through Hogwarts Castle
- The Incredible Hulk Coaster – thrilling roller coaster
- Jurassic Park River Adventure – water attraction, you will get wet!
- Skull Island: Reign of Kong – screens based attraction on a jeep similar to Kilimanjaro Safari, the coolest part is a massive Audio-Animatronic Kong
- The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man – jerky screens based attraction, incredible technology but outdated story as this is based on the animated Spider-Man TV show
- Doctor Doom's Fearfall – drop tower ride
- Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls – water ride similar to Splash Mountain, you’ll get SOAKED!
- Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges – meandering barge ride, you’ll get SOAKED!
- Poseidon's Fury – very cool indoor show that winds through the abandoned temple of Poseidon, HIDDEN GEM!
- Storm Force Accelatron
- Flight of the Hippogriff – small children’s coaster in Wizarding World of Harry Potter
- The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride! – think PeopleMover but triple the length of the line
- The Cat in the Hat – fun dark ride attraction
- One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish
- Pteranodon Flyers – flyers that circle the Jurassic Park themed area
- Caro-Seuss-el – carousel
- Hogwarts Express (If you have park to park tickets)
Shows at Islands of Adventure
There are plenty of Harry Potter themed entertainment options in Universal's Islands of Adventure among other iconic options. Make sure to allow time for entertainment in your day- Universal does a great job with its entertainment options. If you have your heart set on Ollivanders, we recommend going there first thing in the morning as lines get quite long.
- The Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle
- Frog Choir (Harry Potter themed)
- Triwizard Spirit Rally (Harry Potter themed)
- The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad
- Oh! The Stories You'll Hear!
- Raptor Encounter
There's so much to see and do, it's a bit overwhelming at first! This is why we recommend planning ahead and picking your priority stops in advance so you don't miss out on anything you really want to see.
We recommend making The Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle a priority, they're spectacular.
Characters at Universal Orlando
There are a variety of characters waiting to take that awesome picture with you at both Universal Studios Orlando and Universal's Islands of Adventure.
Some fan favorites are the Minions, Dr. Seuss characters, Scooby-Doo and the Gang, Marvel characters, the Simpsons, the Men in Black, and the Grinch even comes out to greet guests during the holidays.
Check out the app or ask the nearest Universal Studios employees to find out which characters are available.
Virtual Lines at Universal Orlando
During COVID, Universal Orlando utilized virtual queues to assist with physical distancing. At this point, there are only two attractions that utilize the virtual queue on rare occasions – Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon and Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure.
It is still helpful to know the “how to” of this system so keep reading in case Universal does implement a virtual queue during your visit!
How to Use the Virtual Line
Universal Orlando CityWalk – Restaurants & Entertainment
CityWalk is the dining and restaurant district located just outside of the two theme parks. Unlike Walt Disney World’s Disney Springs, CityWalk is right outside the gates of the two parks and an easy option to pop out to for a meal before returning to the theme parks.
The area has a variety of restaurants worthy of your time. Our top recommendations are CowFish for sushi and hamburgers and Toothsome Chocolate Emporium for dinner and over the top desserts. CowFish is a fun concept that blends the fish and sea with something for everyone. The prices are not terrible for theme park sit down dining.
CityWalk is also home to an outpost of Voodoo Donuts. This donut shop boasts mischievous decor and interesting flavors (cookies and cream with oreos, pineapple). It is surreal for me to see the shop open at both Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood because I have been to the original location in Portland, Oregon.
To get the full run down of all the current entertainment options (they will vary depending on the time of year) check out Universal Orlando's website here.
Volcano Bay- Universal's Water Park
Volcano Bay is one impressive water park with a large variety of water attractions, beaches, and lazy rivers to chose from. If you're going to pick one water park during your Orlando vacation, this should be it.
There aren't much in the way of entertainment, shows, or dining options at Volcano Bay but there are plenty of water attractions to keep you busy!
There are over 19 attractions to choose from, you can view them all in detail on Universal Orlando's website here.
Our top five favorite recommendations are:
- Honu of the Honu ika Moana
- Kala & Tai Nui Serpentine Body Slides
- Krakatau Aqua Coaster
- Maku of the Maku Puihi Round Raft Rides
- Raki of Taniwha Tubes
There are also options for a lazy float down a lazy river or some sunbathing in beach resort settings if you're just looking for relaxation as opposed to thrill rides.
You can also find great options for toddlers and smaller children at Volcano Bay- not just thrill slides and water attractions.
Families also have the option of renting their own cabanas for the day to ensure some more relaxation with your own personal spot along with poolside service.
As for dining, there are a few options for drinks and dining in Volcano Bay but don't expect as many as you would find in the other Universal Orlando parks.
Universal Studios Orlando Guide – Ready to plan your trip?
Whether you are planning a day trip from Walt Disney World or a couple days at a specific resort, I hope this Universal Orlando planning guide has given you a good overview for your trip to Universal Orlando.
Please comment any questions that you have about your Universal Orlando planning and I will get them answered and update the guide!
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You can discover more about planning your trip from these links:
- Walt Disney World Cheap Food Guide
- Discount Walt Disney World Tickets
- Walt Disney World Character Guide
- Guide to Epcot Food and Wine Festival
- Guide to Walt Disney World Transportation
Disclosure: We have used all the products recommended on Mickey Visit. We may receive compensation when you click on links to some products featured.