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Universal Orlando Resort Tips for First Timers + Discounts for Everyone!

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Universal Orlando Resort has something for every pop-cultured kid and kid-at-heart. But with so much to see and do, planning a visit can be overwhelming. Universal Orlando Resort is made up of three theme parks: Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay, which opens on May 25, 2017. A fourth venue, CityWalk, is an expansive entertainment, shopping, and dining promenade. Here's a look at what to see, ride, buy and eat in each park. Plus, learn tips on where to stay, which tours to book, and how to save money on your Universal Orlando Resort vacation!

Universal Orlando Resort Tips for First Timers

Universal Orlando Resort Tips for First Timers (Photo credit: Pilar Clark)

What to Do at Universal Studios Florida

Action comes to life at this movie- and television-themed park through rides, shows, movie sets, and attractions. Unique shops, real working film crews, and character meet-and-greets add to the fun.

Simpsons fans will love wandering through a brought-to-life Springfield at Universal Studios. Hop aboard the Simpsons Ride through Krustyland with Krusty the Clown, all the while being chased by a revengeful Sideshow Bob. Afterward, you can satisfy your junk food cravings with a Krusty Burger or a Lard Lard donut. Parents can ever grab a frosty beer at Moe's Tavern.

Meet the Simpsons at Universal Studios Florida (Photo credit: Universal Orlando Resort)

Meet the Simpsons at Universal Studios Florida (Photo credit: Universal Orlando Resort)

Kids can battle alongside Optimus Prime in Transformers. According to one commenter on, “It is so immersive that you actually feel as if you are in the city battling the Autobots. Special effects, such as the wind rushing over you while you're at the top of the building, add so very much to the realism.”

Be sure to join Gru and his Minions on an adventure in Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem. After this 3D ride, check out the Minion-inspired Minion-inspired Super Silly Fun Land with its more than 80 different water-play features, movie-themed arcade games, and a Silly Swirly Fun Ride. I mean, how could you not love a place called Super Silly Fun Land?!

Universal Orlando Resort is the only place where you can sip a sweet Butterbeer outside of London ~ Universal Orlando Resort Tips & Discounts

Universal Orlando Resort is the only place where you can sip a sweet Butterbeer outside of London (Photo credit: Pilar Clark)

For my family, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley is easily the most magical part of Universal Studios Orlando. Of course, you must sip Butterbeer at the Leaky Cauldron. Universal Orlando Resort is the only place where you can buy this very sweet elixir outside of London. Little wizards will want to shop Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes in search of practical joke objects, such as Extendable Ears and Skiving Snackboxes, plus Fred and George's special WonderWitch products, like Love Potions, and  Pygmy Puffs. Then, climb aboard the multi-dimensional thrill ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. Lastly, travel to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade on the Hogwarts Express.

Watch out ~ objects are closer than they might appear in Jurassic Park! ~ Universal Orlando Resort Tips and Discounts

Watch out ~ objects are closer than they might appear in Jurassic Park! (Photo credit: Pilar Clark)

What to Explore at Islands of Adventure

Islands of Adventure is split between child-friendly attractions and tween-and-up thrill rides. All feature superheroes and characters from cartoons, comics, and storybooks. Children can step into the pages of their favorite Dr. Seuss books at Seuss Landing. On warm days, plan to get splash happy at Toon Lagoon, for which you may want to pack a swimsuit and/or change of clothes. If you've got a comics lover in your clan, be sure to join in the battle of good versus evil at Marvel Super Hero Island.

The Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal Orlando Resort

The Incredible Hulk Coaster is a thrill-seeker's dream come true (Photo credit: Universal Orlando Resort)

Older kids and adults can take on the fairly scary dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. Then go for a hair-raising ride through Skull Island: Reign of Kong. Thrill-seekers will definitely want to channel their inner Bruce Banner on The Incredible Hulk roller coaster. This 3,700-foot-long ride is regarded as one of the best steel coasters in the world and features seven inversions including a zero-g roll, a cobra roll, two vertical loops, and two corkscrews.

The Wizarding World of Harry Pottery ~ Universal Orlando Resort Tips and Discounts

Will the wand choose your wizard at Ollivander's Wand Shop? (Photo credit: Pilar Clark)

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade at Island of Adventure will delight muggles of all ages. Pass through Hogwarts' castle gates and explore passageways, classrooms, and corridors from the books. Craving a sweet? Pick up chocolate frogs at Honeydukes. Next up, see if the wand chooses your young wizard at Ollivanders. Keep an eye out for Buckbeak on Flight of the Hippogriff. Feeling sleepy? Get your pulse pounding on Dragon Challenge. A must for true fans: take flight on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a state-of-the-art attraction that immerses riders in the magic, characters, and stories of Harry Potter.

Hogwarts Express ~ Universal Orlando Tips and Discounts

The Hogwarts Express is a funicular railway, people mover, and amazingly immersive experience (Photo credit: Pilar Clark)

All Aboard Hogwarts Express

Universal Orlando's two Wizarding World lands – Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure and Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida – are connected by the Hogwarts Express. The replica of the steam train from the Harry Potter films magically transports guests between the two lands. A park-to-park ticket is needed to ride.

Once settled in your train car, look out the “windows” as you travel through the English and Scottish countryside. You might see Hagrid, Fred and George Weasley, Hedwig and others. Don’t miss the shadows that appear in the corridors outside your compartment. Harry, Ron and Hermoine, and even Dementors, may come by. Different journeys are shown on each trip.

Volcano Bay is Universal Orlando Resort's highly anticipated third theme park ~ Universal Orlando Resort Tips and Discounts

Volcano Bay is Universal Orlando Resort's highly anticipated third theme park (Photo credit: Universal Orlando Resort)

Coming Soon…Volcano Bay!

Launching in May 2015, the Volcano Bay Waterpark will have four themed areas. Each is based on the story of the Waturi, an ancient tribe from Polynesia. This park will feature a 200-foot volcano called Krakatau in its center. This main area will also offer speed slides and an aqua coaster.

Three villages will complete the park. Wave Village will feature a multi-directional wave pool. River Village will offer a winding river and activities for young children. And Rain Forest Village will have raft slides, speed slides and whitewater rafting.

Guests will wear TapuTapu wristbands in Volcano Bay. Special technology will eliminate traditional lines. Instead, guests will tap the band against a totem outside a ride, then receive a notification when they can return. The TapuTapu bands will also trigger special effects throughout Volcano Bay.

Cabana Bay ~ Universal Orlando Resort Tips and Discounts

Staying on-site at Universal Orlando resort comes with plenty of perks like early entry and special front-of-the-line express passes (Photo credit: Pilar Clark)

Why Stay On-Site at Universal Orlando Resort

Several benefits  come with staying on site at Universal Orlando Resort. The biggest perks include early entry to Islands of Adventure plus Universal Express Unlimited Passes for everyone in your party for the duration of your stay. Guests must stay at a preferred or premier hotel to receive the Universal Express Unlimited Pass benefit.

The Universal Express Unlimited Pass gives you access to an “express” line at almost every ride and show in both parks, but is not available for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, Hogwarts Express, and a few others. For those rides, take advantage of early entry.

Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is one of five on-site hotel options at Universal Orlando Resort

Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is one of five on-site hotel options at Universal Orlando Resort

The proximity of the on-site Universal Orlando Resort hotels to the theme parks (just a 5-10 minute walk) is another benefit of staying on-site. Water taxis can also transport guests from Premier category hotels to CityWalk’s main dock. Cabana Bay provides its own shuttle bus to CityWalk's main entrance. Shuttles are available to transport guests between the four Universal Orlando Resort hotels.

Universal Orlando Resort is home to five on-site hotels:

Click on the hotel names above to discover available discounted rates!

Islands of Adventure ~ Universal Orlando Resort Tips and Discounts

Impromptu parades and dance parties on the streets of Islands of Adventure are part of the meet-and-greet fun (Photo credit: Pilar Clark)

Tour Universal Orlando Resort Like A VIP

My family had the opportunity to take a VIP walking tour during our visit to Universal Orlando Resort. I highly recommend this tour for first-time visitors. We opted for the Private VIP Experience: 1-Day 2-Park Tour. A friendly tour guide led our group of 12 guests through Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. Plus, the tour came with plenty of perks. We received priority front-of-the-line access to all rides and attractions. Continental breakfast, a private buffet lunch, and reserved seating at shows were also included.

There are other Private VIP Experiences available in addition to regular VIP Experiences. All include seven hours with your own tour guide in Universal Studios Orlando and Islands of Adventure, and visits to a minimum of eight attractions chosen by the tour guide.

Dine with confidence while visiting Universal Orlando Resort ~ team members are trained to assist you with food allergies and dietary restrictions

Dine with confidence while visiting Universal Orlando Resort ~ team members are trained to assist you with food allergies and dietary restrictions (Photo credit: Pilar Clark)

Tips for Dietary Restrictions and Special Needs at Universal Orlando Resort

If you have food allergies or other dietary restrictions, ask any team member for assistance. Table-service restaurants have more flexibility than fast-casual sites. All food service team members are trained to help. Since both of my children have life-threatening food allergies, I appreciate Universal Orlando Resort's efforts to accommodate dietary needs.

For those with other disabilities, Universal Orlando provides an Attraction Assistance Pass (AAP) free of charge. Head to Guest Relations at either Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure just after entering through the turnstiles to get one. There is a third Guest Relations area outside the park entrances, but it becomes crowded quickly. The AAP decreases wait times for those with special needs and abilities. Universal’s free guide, The Rider’s Guide for Rider Safety and Guests with Disabilities, is available for download. It offers information on everything from height restrictions to service animals, to descriptions of attractions for those with sensory issues.

Universal Orlando Resort Discounts

For discount Universal Orlando Resort park tickets and hotel packages, check out Undercover Tourist. You can save up to $81 per ticket off park entrance fees by purchasing your Universal Orlando Resort tickets in advance through Undercover Tourist! What's more, you can often save big bucks on Universal's on-site hotels when you book through Undercover Tourist. Check out current Universal Orlando Resort hotel deals now.

More Universal Orlando Resort Tips

Want to learn more Universal Orlando Resort tips? Get The Unofficial Guide Universal Orlando or Frommer's EasyGuide to Disney World, Universal and Orlando.

Have you ever visited Universal Orlando Resort? Got any tips or questions not covered here? Let us know in the comments below!

A Note from The Offbeat Travel Mama: Many thanks to Family Forward, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, and Universal Orlando Resort for making our first visit a memorable one. As always, opinions and experiences are my own. 

About Pilar Clark, The Offbeat Travel Mama

Pilar Clark and travel have been besties since slap bracelets and tight-rolled jeans were a thing. Planning geek-inspired adventures around film and fiction has taken her throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, Europe and the Caribbean. Her professional background - award-winning writer and surgical technologist-in-training - is just as eclectic. Pilar lives in Chicago with her husband, two children and rescue pup, Haggis. She is also the gypsetting storyteller behind Say hello to Pilar on Instagram @pilarclark #explorewanderland.

  1. Hi, I just stumbled upon your site while researching for my upcoming (hopefully) Orlando trip. I live half the globe away in Malaysia and will be travelling in a family of 4 (2 adults, 2 kids ~ age 11 & 7). Do you think it’s a good idea to do 4 nights Universal Studios and 4 nights Disney World? I am worried I’ll be theme parks overdose….

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Pamela – I would think 2 nights would be plenty for Universal Studios unless you want to add a 3rd night to enjoy their waterpark. And, yes, personally I get a bit overloaded on theme parks after several days of amusements. I advise building in a couple of down days exploring other things to do in and near Orlando like a beach day, pool day, fishing, hiking, bike riding, or exploring the town of Celebration. Have a wonderful time on your vacation whatever you decide!

  2. Thanks for the great information! I’ve booked a week at Universal December 16-22, at Cabana Bay. I’m really torn about if I should upgrade to Royal Pacific, to get the Unlimited Express…. Its an additional $722(CAN), but that’s cheaper then adding the express to the Cabana Bay reservation. If it was a few hundred more I would go for it, but its pretty significantly more. I just cant decide if I will regret not making the change…. I don’t mind 30 minute ride waits, but I’m afraid of 1+hours wait for each ride… can I live without it?

    • Pilar Clark says

      Hi Nina! Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’m so excited for your upcoming trip! If it’s your first-ever time visiting, I would strongly consider the upgrade. That way, you’ll be sure to have plenty of time to see and do everything on your family’s must list. I can’t speak to what the wait times will be like, but if you download Universal’s official app, you can view current wait times are like now and perhaps gauge what it might be like when you go. That way, you can make a more informed decision. Hope that helps! Keep us posted on your plans.

  3. Agness of aTukTuk says

    This is a great place for kids as well as for adults! It is on my bucket list and with your tips I can cross it out sooner than expected!

  4. These are excellent tips! As many time as we’ve gone to Disney, we haven’t made it to Universal yet!

  5. Cassie Tucker says

    Thanks for all of the great advice! My husband and I have talked about going to for Harry Potter for awhile and we wouldn’t have thought of a lot of this.

  6. We are hoping to head here during the summer! These are great discounts!

  7. Toni | Boulder Locavore says

    This is awesome! We’re not first timers in Universal Orlando but I didn’t know some of these before I read your post. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Annemarie LeBlanc says

    Me and my husband are late bloomers (we just started reading the Harry Potter books) so we’d probably me thrilled to see the Harry Potter World. I am going to bookmark this page for reference when we do get to have another vacation there.

  9. Our Family World says

    What a fun and beautiful place! I’ll make sure to bring my family there esp my kids.

  10. My family recently visited Universal Orlando for the first time, and had a blast! I would definitely stay at an onsite hotel, and recommend one that offers express passes. We saved so much time, and avoided the complaining that comes with waiting in line! My biggest tip is to do some planning before your trip…pick some restaurants out, preview the rides, and freshen up on your Harry Potter knowledge.

  11. Amanda Love says

    It’s so worth it! My daughter and I loved going there. The kids will definitely have a blast, without a doubt. They can spend time in their favorite charatcers’ world!

  12. Ann Bacciaglia says

    These are great tips. I am always looking for ways to save on our trips. I am hoping to go to Universal next year.

  13. Marcie W. says

    Universal Orlando looks like a fabulous place for families! I could not pass up anything involving The Simpsons and the kids would sure love a Harry Potter experience.

  14. Universal Studios is such an awesome place! My family and I have been there several times, and we totally love it!

  15. You have covered these locations pretty in depth, not sure I have anything else to add. Appreciate the beautiful photos and a more in depth look at some tips and discounts for Universal Orlando 🙂

  16. Pam Wattenbarger says

    I’m so glad that you covered food allergies. It can be hard to travel when you have food allergies. Also, I really want to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

    • Pilar Clark says

      It can be difficult for sure, Pam. But with some advanced planning, I like to think that almost every destination is accessible to everyone.

  17. Mandee Suchland says

    It has been over 15 years since ive been to Universal! We are going this summer with my kids for the first time and i am stoked! I am way too excited to get some butter beer! These are great tips and i will keep them in mind!

  18. Rach Ferrucci says

    I think you covered everything and all my favorites are included. I can not wait to go see all the Harry Potter stuff, I’m a wizard at heart!

  19. Vera Sweeney says

    This is such an amazing resource. You really went into some great detail on this one. Bookmarking!

  20. Jen Rattie says

    I am so bookmarking this! We’ve been planning another trip to Universal, and these tips are going to make it awesome.

  21. Stacie @ Divine Lifestyle says

    Thanks so much for sharing such a detailed post. Universal is my family’s jam. We love it there.

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