Seven Do’s and Don’ts for Universal Orlando Trip Planning

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Over the past decade Universal Orlando Resort experienced a growth spurt with amazing new attractions, an explosion of on-site hotels, a new tiki-themed water park, a relaunched dining and shopping area, and the groundbreaking Wizarding World of Harry Potter. With the continued addition of attractions, more hotel rooms, and a rumored future third theme park, many guests are looking to book their first on-site stay or trip to Universal. Many might be familiar with tips and hints to book a Disney vacation, but they might not be familiar with staying at Universal Orlando. In this article we will cover seven DO’s and DON’Ts of booking and planning a Universal Orlando Resort vacation.

 

Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Affordable luxury themed to the South Pacific. Also complementary Express Passes.

DO Stay On Site

Many guests stay at Disney and commute to Universal for one or two days. They think it is a hassle to change hotels during a trip, moving will waste time, or the Universal hotels do not offer the amenities and guest service the Disney hotels do. In fact switching to a Universal hotel could save a family time, money, and hassle in the parks all while offering world-class service.

Cabana Bay’s two-bedroom suites are the best value in Orlando. They’re my go-to room at Universal.

Universal’s hotels are run by luxury hotel company Loews and offer similar amenities, for less money, than a Disney hotel. During the middle of March 2019 a one-week stay at the Grand Floridian cost $726 per night plus tax while a comparable Universal resort, the Portofino Bay, cost $369 per night plus tax. Both resorts offer transportation to the parks, fine dining, upscale pools, on-site spas, and impeccable theming. Universal also offers discounts on multi-night stays, so if you stay several nights in a row the daily rate will decrease.

Around the resort guests staying at all Universal hotels can visit the Wizarding World and Volcano Bay an hour early, charge to their resort key, receive priority access to CityWalk clubs, and have packages delivered to their rooms. Guests staying at the top-tier Premier Resorts have priority walk up seating at select restaurants at Universal and complementary Unlimited Express Passes. More on Express Passes in a second.

Staying on Universal property also reduces commuting time as all resorts can access the parks by bus, boat, and/or walking path. Universal Orlando is a compact resort that fits into a several-hundred-acre site, and all the resorts and parks are located close by, just like at Disneyland Resort. Yes, the “Universal bubble” is real and just as magical and awesome as Disney’s.

 

The Incredible Hulk Coaster is the fastest coaster at Universal Orlando.

DON’T Buy an Express Pass (Stay On Site!)

Express Pass is Universal’s line skipping service, but unlike Disney’s FastPass, Express Pass lets guests bypass the standby line at anytime. While FastPass requires booking 60 days in advance what park to visit and what you want to ride, Express Pass is more forgiving by allowing for spontaneous touring decisions and choices.

Express Pass is offered in two versions: one use per attraction and unlimited uses. Prices start at $69.99 plus tax per person with prices increasing on more crowded days and for use at the two “dry” parks.

Express Passes are a great addition to your Universal vacation, but do not buy Express Pass. Instead book an on-site stay at a Premier resort (Portofino Bay, Hard Rock Hotel, or Royal Pacific) to take advantage of the complementary Unlimited Express Pass benefit. The Unlimited Express Pass benefit is valid for each day of the stay, including check in and check out dates. A family of four could check in Monday morning, use their Express Pass at the parks, check out Tuesday, and then continue to use the Express Pass on Tuesday.

The complementary Express Pass benefit is only valid during normal operating hours at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. Express Passes for Rock the Universe, Grad Bash, Halloween Horror Nights, and Volcano Bay are a separate purchase.

If an Express Pass is something your party is interested in, stay on site at a Premier resort–you’ll save at least $400 per day over buying Express Passes and commuting from another hotel.

 

Reign of Kong is a high-tech dark ride that takes guests on a trek into Skull Island, where you come face to face with a massive King Kong robotic figure.

DO Buy Tickets Online (Even on Universal’s Own Site)

Universal offers a substantial discount for purchasing tickets online and a “Best Price Guarantee”. Discounts of up to $20 on admission are available by purchasing tickets online, including the day of use. Universal tickets can be picked up at Will Call, printed out at home, or scanned from a cellphone. Universal Orlando’s app offers in-app ticket purchases; so do not wait in line and buy tickets at the front gate, instead buy them on your smartphone.

Buying online also gives the peace of mind one is receiving the lowest ticket price. If a guest finds the same ticket option at a lower price from an authorized reseller within seven days of purchase, Universal will refund them the difference on a Universal gift card. Call 1-877-589-4783 or visit online to request a refund.

Here at TouringPlans we are huge fans of authorized ticket reseller Undercover Tourist. I have saved hundreds of dollars by purchasing SeaWorld and Disney tickets through them over the years. While they do not offer a similar best price guarantee, their tickets are frequently the lowest prices around. If you are buying admission in advance shop around at Undercover Tourist and Universal to see who saves you the most.

 

Vivo Italian Kitchen at CityWalk. Fresh pasta and a great value.

DON’T Stress About Making Dining Reservations

Everyone who has planned a Walt Disney World vacation knows the drill: 180 days prior to the start of your vacation go online at 7:00 a.m. to book restaurant reservations. Popular locations in the parks and resorts book up nearly instantly and walk-up reservations are near impossible to find. Guests can wind up waiting over an hour for the most popular restaurants on property without a reservation.

Dining at Universal is comparatively more relaxed, with walk-up and day-of reservations at popular restaurants frequently available. If there is a wait for restaurant, then guests staying at a Premier Resort can show the host their room key and receive priority seating at select restaurants. If you are looking to dine at CityWalk close to park closing consider booking a reservation 24 hours in advance.

To book a restaurant reservation visit the Universal Dining website for phone numbers or links to book online; character breakfasts, dinner shows, and other events can be booked through Loews Hotels’ ticket website.

 

Diagon Alley
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley as it’s rarely seen: with no crowds.

DO Check Locations of My Universal Photos Before Buying

One of Disney’s best offerings are Disney Memory Maker and the PhotoPass photographers. Dozens (hundreds?) of PhotoPass photographers are stationed around the parks to take the perfect family photos. You can find them at popular locations like Cinderella’s Castle but also character meet and greets, and random nooks and crannies around the parks (looking at you Tangled bathrooms). Even on-ride photos are included in your Memory Maker package.

Universal also offers a photography service, My Universal Photos, which gives unlimited digital downloads of on-ride photos and character meet and greets. Packages start at $69.99 plus tax per family for unlimited digital downloads, one free photo printout in the park, and two free photo printouts at home. While comparable on paper to Disney’s service there are considerably fewer photographers around the Universal parks.

My Universal Photos is a good deal for guests who like on-ride photos and staged photos at meet and greets, it is not for guests looking for Disney’s platoon of photographers. Check with Universal for their list of locations prior to purchase to make sure it is the right decision for you.

 

Voodoo Donuts, 2018 Best New Addition. Open for breakfast at 7 a.m. daily. (I’m partial to the maple bacon bar.)

DON’T Eat Breakfast in the Parks

Breakfast might be the most important meal of the day, but by eating breakfast in the parks you are missing prime touring time. Attractions such as those in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter experience their shortest waits of the day at park opening. While a leisurely sit-down breakfast in Three Broomsticks sounds wonderful at home the reality is the restaurants are crowded with guests who purchased vacation packages with breakfast included, the meals are expensive ($16.99 plus tax), and the food is not as high of quality as the lunch and dinner options.

Instead of eating a breakfast in the parks go to the first seating for lunch at 11 a.m. By this time the parks will be filling up with guests and you will be ready to take a break from touring. Lunch crowds will be minimal at 11 a.m., even at Three Broomsticks and Leaky Cauldron, plus the selection of entrees will increase and be of higher quality.

As for breakfast instead consider picking up something at your resort, Voodoo Donuts, or Starbucks in CityWalk, or bring your own granola or Cliff bars. I can vouch that Cliff bars taste better when you’re walking through an empty Escape from Gringotts queue.

 

Cabana Bay Beach Resort has TWO pools! The active pool with water slide (pictured) and a relaxing pool with lazy river.

DO Check Out Other Resorts, CityWalk, and Pool Hop

The Universal Orlando resorts are a hidden gem; their fantastic theming, great restaurants, wonderful lounges, and amazing amenities often go overlooked. While planning your next trip to Universal, plan half a day or more just to hop between the resorts to marvel at their design and atmosphere. Each resort has their own unique features whether it is Portofino Bay’s courtyard area, Hard Rock Hotel’s memorabilia, the Wok Experience at Royal Pacific, Strongwater Tavern at Sapphire Falls, Bar 17 at Aventura, or bowling at Cabana Bay.

Resort guests are also allowed, nay, encouraged, to resort pool hop while staying at Universal. So if guests want to try out Cabana Bay’s lazy river, Sapphire Falls’ water slide, the underwater music of Hard Rock, or the adults-only pool at Portofino they are greeted with open arms. While at those pools make sure you check out the pool bars, each offering unique food and drink options.

Blue Man Group at CityWalk combines music, comedy, and technology to create an awe-inspiring show.

For many, CityWalk is just a stretch of shops between their cars and the parks, but many of Universal’s hidden gems are found here. Fantastic restaurants like Vivo, Antojitos, and Cowfish offer fresh and unique food options. Catch a movie at Cinemark Theaters or try out the Hollywood Drive-In Mini Golf course located near the parking garages. Margaritaville, Rising Star, and Pat O’Brien’s showcase live acts nightly while the Hard Rock Cafe frequently hosts major acts. The popular Blue Man Group performs a nightly show that combines music, comedy, and technology in their own custom theater. CityWalk is bustling with activity right up until it closes at 2 a.m.

 

Those are seven DO’s and DON’Ts for planning a trip to Universal Orlando. If you have suggested DO’s and DON’Ts to add to this list, leave them in the comments below. We will be back next time looking at the DO’s and DON’Ts of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Joseph Matt

Avid amusement park and video game fan. Enjoys picking up rare beers at breweries, exploring cities, cooking, and leading the young men of his fraternity.

15 thoughts on “Seven Do’s and Don’ts for Universal Orlando Trip Planning

  • January 28, 2019 at 11:13 am
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    Thanks for a great article! We know almost nothing about Universal, but are planning on giving it a try for my husbands 50th birthday. I learned some interesting things from this article – looking forward to the Do’s and Don’ts for Harry Potter!

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    • January 29, 2019 at 11:56 am
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      Thanks! I’m looking to have the Potter one complete in March.

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  • January 28, 2019 at 1:16 pm
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    Spot on, I’d say. Once you go Express Pass, you’ll never go back…

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  • January 28, 2019 at 2:33 pm
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    We’re now at the point where we go to Universal more often than Disney, as it’s truly become a vacation destination for us. There is a considerable lack of heavy planning and way more of a relaxing, go with the flow speed involved with prepping for a Universal trip, which may be the best part. The hotels are superb, incredibly inexpensive, and you really feel like you’re on vacation!

    Reply
  • January 28, 2019 at 3:10 pm
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    There is no comparison between Disney and Universal. Universal creates a much better environment if you want a more relaxed atmosphere. Fast pass is a joke at Disney. Anyone who buys that is crazy.
    We got it free because it was part of a package, but couldnt use it cause all times to reserved were full!!! The only time i was disappointed was the 1 hr wait for a restaurant. I should’ve made 24 hr reservation.

    Reply
    • January 28, 2019 at 3:27 pm
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      Wait …you got free fast passes at Disney because “it was part of a package”? If that’s the case, I’ve got these awesome birthday and first visit buttons I’d like to sell you…

      Reply
  • January 28, 2019 at 3:56 pm
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    This is probably a tip that would only be used by cheapskates like me: Stay offsite, use a custom touring plan, and show up early. That’s what we did this summer while visiting on CL7 & CL8 days, our first visit to Universal in 20 years. The lines in the morning were incredibly short for everything except for the Harry Potter attractions as they were open early for onsite guests. Even then, we waited as the touring plans stated we should and didn’t queue up for those attractions until mid-morning, waiting less than 30 minutes one time in standby so we could experience the queue, then the rest of the time walking straight on to Forbidden Journey and Gringott’s using the single rider line. We were able to do everything in a park that we wanted to several times over by mid afternoon. At that point we noticed that the onsite guests with express passes were showing up and the standby lines became unbearable, so we left the park at the same time the normal Florida afternoon shower would hit and shut down half the rides anyway.

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  • January 28, 2019 at 6:23 pm
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    Perfect timing! We are WDW regulars thinking about going to Universal this summer in late August (the week before Labor Day. We are a family of 7 and are used to staying in 2br DVC villas on points. I’m hoping we can find onsite accommodations to suit us that won’t break the bank. I am having a hard time figuring out if we will NEED express passes then or having the extra hour in the morning would suffice. Let the planning begin!

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    • January 28, 2019 at 7:26 pm
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      If you stay onsite, stay at one of the resorts that includes express passes. With a family of 7, that’s a no brainer. Paying for express passes for 7 would add up quickly.

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    • January 29, 2019 at 11:58 am
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      I’ve found that Express Passes are not required for touring, if you show up early and use a touring plan you’re good. But Express offers more options and flexibility if you cannot or are unwilling to get up early, follow a plan, etc.

      Reply
    • January 29, 2019 at 3:12 pm
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      Bella, please do share what you can find onsite at Universal comparable to a 2br DVC villa!
      We’ve looked, and have not yet found 🙁

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      • January 29, 2019 at 5:26 pm
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        So far my best option might be the volcano view 2br suite at Cabana Bay. The hotels with included express passes that can hold all of us in “one” room are layouts in which parents will not have privacy from children because of open walls and shared spaces. Privacy might be worth more than express passes! Hopefully this will hold up in a week with predicted crowd levels of 4-5.

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  • January 28, 2019 at 8:43 pm
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    If you are splitting time between Disney and Universal, DON’T go to Universal first. I totally agree you should stay on site at Universal due to the ExpressPass benefits and easy walkability. But go to Disney first. The 180 day window for dining reservations and the 60 day window for Fastpass open from the first day of your stay. Other folks are going to Disney for the whole week and will snap up those Be Our Guest and other prime dining reservations and Flights of Passage fast passes before your booking window even opens if you are headed to Disney for the second half of the week. So head to Disney first, then chill at Universal at the end of the week.

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  • January 28, 2019 at 10:19 pm
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    My kid and I went to Universal Orlando last October; stayed at Cabana Bay, bought univeral dinning; it was fantastic. I’m glad we didn’t buy any Express passes since it was off season and there were no lines at all. I think the most time we waited was 20 minutes for Skull Island. The only thing I regret is not trying the lavender Earl Gray ice cream at Madam Florescues. People raved about that.

    Reply
  • January 29, 2019 at 6:44 am
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    The very best thing about Universal is that everything is so close together. If you stay onsite, going back to your room for a rest or swim and then back to the park later in the day is super easy and quick. And the Harry Potter areas are AMAZING! It feels like you’re really in the movie, and Forbidden Journey is the most unique thrill ride I’ve ever been on.

    Reply

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