This page tells how to the basics of planning a Universal Orlando vacation, and touring the resort efficiently. For those wanting more specific touring advice, we've created Universal Studios touring plans and Islands of Adventure touring plans, for adults, parents with small children, parents with 'tweens, and seniors. For those who want to create their own custom, computer-optimized touring plans, our online touring plan software is the place to start.
How Much Time to Allocate
Prior to the debut of the Wizarding World, some visitors found they could see everything of note at both Universal parks within a single day. Not anymore: touring Universal Studios Florida, including one meal and a visit to Diagon Alley, takes about 10-12 hours, while a comprehensive tour of Islands of Adventure will take a few hours less.
For that reason, we recommend devoting a minimum of a full day to each Universal Orlando theme park, especially if this is your first visit. Three days is ideal, particularly with a park-to-park pass, is it will allow you to fully explore each park and revisit your favorite attractions. An on-site stay of four or more days will allow you to sample the parks in smaller bites while taking full advantage of the resort's other amenities.
Tip: Get to the park with your admission already purchased about 30-45 minutes before official opening time. Arrive 45-60 minutes before official opening time if you need to buy admission. Be aware that you can’t do a comprehensive tour of both Universal parks in a single day.
Which Park To Visit?
Universal Orlando's parks are both spectacular, so if you can only visit one, you can't really go wrong either way. If you've visited Universal since 2010, when the first Wizarding World opened, but have not yet seen Diagon Alley, you're going to want to go to Universal Studios Florida. If you've never been to Universal Orlando, or at least not in this decade, the decision is down to what type of attractions you prefer. If you are a fan of simulators, screen-based experiences, and live shows, then USF is right for you. If you prefer big outdoor roller-coasters and wild water rides, IOA is your destination.
Of course, if you are a Harry Potter devotee, you're going to have to visit both parks to get the full Wizarding World experience. Incidentally, USF is a much better park to visit during inclement weather, due to its larger percentage of indoor attractions.
Selecting the day of the week for your visit
When readers asked “what is the best day to visit Universal Orlando,” we used to reply that Sunday was the least crowded day at the resort (presumably because people are starting their vacations at Walt Disney World), followed by Monday and Saturday, and Thursday was the most crowded. While that is still generally true, there are too many other variables – including weather and special events – to make this a reliable rule of thumb.
The best way to know which day to visit Universal Orlando is with our crowd calendar at touringplans.com/universal-orlando/crowd-calendar. No matter which day you visit, arriving early and following a touring plan makes a much bigger difference than what day of the week it is.
Integrating a Universal Orlando Visit with a WDW Vacation
While Universal Orlando has made strides recently in convincing visitors to make UOR their primary destination, for many travelers a stop at Universal is still a side-trip in their Walt Disney World-centric vacation. If you are devoting the bulk of your Orlando holiday to Disney, but still want to make a detour to Universal, you have three primary options:
- The Day Trip: Most Disney guests who want to sample Universal take a single day out of their vacation to visit USF and/or IOA. This is the simplest solution for guests with their own cars, or shuttle transportation between the resorts can be arranged (see page xref). The day trip has a couple drawbacks: the per-day cost can be high, especially if you want to visit both UOR theme parks, and (depending on transportation arrangements) you'll probably arrive after rope-drop and depart before closing.
- The WDW/UOR/WDW Sandwich: An increasing number of guests take a night or two out of the middle of their WDW trip and stay on property at Universal. Again, transportation can be handled through a private car or shuttle bus. This method allows you explore Universal over the course of two or three days, and enjoy the perks of staying on-site, like early park admission to the Wizarding World. You can also use Disney's Magical Express for free transfers from and to the airport at the beginning and end of your trip. The main drawback is that you must check in and out (and back in) to your Disney hotel, or pay for nights in a WDW bed you won't be using.
- The Split Trip: The best option if you want to divide your vacation roughly equally between Disney and Universal is a split trip, where you stay at one resort for the first half of your visit, then transfer to the other for the remainder. You'll only be able to use Disney's Magical Express on one end of your vacation (arriving or departing), so look into the 3-way transportation offered by outfits like Quicksilver (see page xref). To decide which resort to visit first, check Touring Plans' Crowd Calendars for both properties, and visit Disney on the days it will be less busy, since crowds can make a bigger difference there than at Universal.
Universal Orlando Operating Hours
The Universal Orlando website publishes preliminary park hours up to 6 months in advance, but schedule adjustments can happen at any time, including the day of your visit. Check universalorlando.com/Resort-Information/Theme-Park-Hours.aspx or call ☎ 407-363-8000 for the exact hours before you arrive. Off-season, parks may be open as few as 8 hours (9 a.m.–5 p.m.). At busy times (particularly holidays), they may operate 8 a.m.–11 p.m.
Universal's website publishes the official operating hours, but on most days, the parks open earlier. If the official hours for both parks are 9 a.m.–9 p.m., for instance, turnstiles for the park (or parks) participating in Early Park Admission will open between 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m., and those not offering early entry may still open their gates as early as 8:30 a.m.
Queues to rides and attractions usually close to new guests at exactly the park's official closing time; if you are already in line at closing, you will be permitted to stay as long as it takes for you to ride, barring technical malfunctions. (One exception to that rule is Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, which closes its queue an hour or more before the rest of the park, depending on how long the line is.) The main gift shops near the front of each park remain open 30 minutes to an hour after the rest of the park has closed.
Because the day parking for both Universal theme parks and the CityWalk shopping, dining, and entertainment complex is consolidated in the same parking structures, chaos can ensue on days when both parks close at the same time. Fortunately, Universal usually tries to stagger the parks' closings by at least an hour, but occasionally both USF and IOA empty at the same time, resulting in an epic flood of humanity heading to the parking garages.
An Orlando woman, obviously very perturbed, comments thusly:
Both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure share the same parking lot. IT MAKES NO SENSE for the two theme parks to close at the same time (especially since Islands has no night finale). I cannot even explain the amount of people. It was insane at closing (and other people were coming IN to go to CityWalk so it was SUCH a big mess)!
If you are unlucky enough to find yourself in such a situation, we suggest taking a side-trip to CityWalk and sitting out the stampede with a snack or drink. If you haven't yet exited the park, you can try lingering inside the gates as long as possible, browsing the shops which remain open past closing time. Security guards will eventually gently shoo you out, but not until most of the parking mess has cleared.
“Technical rehearsals,” or “soft openings” as they are commonly called, are when Universal uses its paying guests as guinea pigs, and allows them to preview an attraction that isn't yet ready for prime-time. Technical rehearsals may be held anywhere from a few weeks to a few days before a new ride officially opens, but are never pre-announced or guaranteed; front-line employees may be instructed to deny that any opening is possible until the moment they open the queue. In exchange for bragging rights that they were the first inside a hot new attraction, technical rehearsal participants must accept the possibility of waiting a long time without ever getting to ride, as the soft opening may end at any moment.
For theme park junkies who live in the area, technical rehearsals can be both a blessing and a curse; some folks stood in front of Diagon Alley for over 30 consecutive days waiting for a soft opening, and even then the Gringotts ride never had a public preview before grand opening. Unless you are a local with lots of time on your hands, or on an extended vacation and obsessed with the about-to-open attraction, avoid spending any of your valuable time waiting for a ride that may or may not open. Instead, enjoy everything else the parks have to offer, and keep your ears open (and an eye on our @touringplans Twitter feed) just in case.
Last updated by Seth Kubersky on January 26, 2015