Genius Guide to Planning Your Universal Studios Orlando Vacation

Jennifer Flodin Ultimate Guides, Universal Studios Leave a Comment

You're starting to plan your trip to Universal Studios, and you're beginning to feel overwhelmed.

You might be asking questions like these:

When should you visit? How long should you stay? What should you do while there? What are the best rides and attractions? What should you wear? Should you purchase express passes? Where should you stay?

Well, if you're whether you're asking all of those questions or just one, you're in the right place because I will be answering all of them in this ultimate Universal Studios Orlando guide.

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Best Time of Year to Visit


Before you can start planning your amazing vacation to Universal Studios Orlando, you'll need to figure out what time of year you should visit.

If you've already chosen dates, you can skip this part, but I definitely recommend verifying that the dates you chose are good ones.

The best time of year to visit tends to be in mid to late January and February (except for the week of Valentine's Day).

However, before we move on, I want to take the time to explain why this is the best time to go, so that if it isn't possible for you to visit during that time that you can pick another one that is adequate.

How to Pick the Best Time to Visit

When picking dates to visit Universal Studios Orlando, you want to choose dates that allow you to avoid two things: heat and crowds.

Both of which can make your vacation miserable.

So, in order to avoid the biggest crowds and the hottest heat, don't visit during the summer.

Just don't do it if you can avoid it.

Spring and fall can also be rather hot in Florida, so if you plan on visiting during one of those seasons make sure you pack light clothes for during the day and a jacket for at night. In fact, I'd recommend workout leggings and a t-shirt or a tank top. But, I'll talk more about that later!

Also, try to avoid weeks surrounding holidays. Those tend to be incredibly crowded.

Plus, check for special events at the park, such as Holloween Horror Nights and Mardis Gras because these events draw a large crowd (unless, of course, you're interested in attending one of these special events).

If all of that information totally overwhelms you, you can check this crowd calendar to help you pick dates.

How to Stay Safe in the Heat

If you can't avoid visiting in the midst of the Florida heat (aka summer), I have some tips to help you stay safe!

Tip 1: Wear Sunscreen

The sun is incredibly strong in Florida during the summer time. For example, in July, the Mean UV index for Florida is an 8. To put this into perspective, Forefront Dermatology says that, in a UV index of 8, you can burn in about 15 minutes.

I know that wearing sunscreen sucks because it can be greasy, but it's totally necessary if you're visiting in the summer, late spring, and early fall.

If you hate wearing sunscreen as much as I do, I'm sorry.

But, being a Floridian who wears it a lot, I've got some solid suggestions for you.

Use this Banana Boat sunscreen for your face. It's literally the best stuff on the planet.

And this is my favorite sunscreen for my body. It can get a little greasy, but it works the best for me, so I use it anyway!

Tip 2: Wear a Hat and/or Sunglasses

It'll most likely be bright, so I highly recommend wearing these no matter what time of year you visit.

However, they're especially important when the sun is at it's strongest.

The hat will protect the top of your head and help shade your face.

Check out this great, lightweight Nike hat.

The sunglasses will (obviously) help protect your eyes.

Plus, the park is a lot more fun when you can actually see. Being blinded by the sun is no fun!

The last two pairs of sunglasses I've owned were from Jessica Simpson. They last long enough (if you don't lose them or break them that is). And, they're super cute and don't break the bank. Win-Win!

Click here to check out these Jessica Simpson Sunglasses.

Tip 3: Wear Light, Breathable Clothes

This is important when it's hot.

Honestly, I've found that the most comfortable theme park clothes are workout clothes.

You don't feel self-conscious or gross when you start sweating in them because that's literally what they're for.

Additionally, they'll be so much cooler than regular clothes.

And, lastly, most workout clothes have stretchy waste bands which is perfect for enjoying theme park food! Just saying...

Leggings are my favorite thing to wear wherever I do a lot of walking. So, you best believe that I pack my fair share of leggings on every vacation, especially when I'm visiting a theme park.

I am in LOVE with my Nike leggings. I've had them for three years. I work out in them often; I walk for hours on end in them; I even wear them while I travel (yes, they're comfy enough for long-haul flights). And, they look just as good as the day I bought them. They have been a GREAT investment.

Check out this pair of versatile Nike Leggings. (Hint: they're not as pricey as you think!)

These are my favorite casual leggings. They're super comfortable and incredibly affordable. But, you might need to watch your bum because they're a bit more see-through than the Nikes. I mean, it's not terrible, but if you have a big, round butt (like me), you might experience some technical difficulties. But, that's not worrisome if you pair them with a longer top.

If you prefer shorts, these rock. You won't even notice you're wearing any. Unless, you start chaffing of course, then you'll be acutely aware of the fact you're wearing shorts. This anti-chafe balm works miracles. It has seriously saved my skin on multiple occasions.

Click here to view Under Armor's lightweight shorts.

Also, I like to wear flowy tops, like this one. While you may think that a tank top would be the best choice, I recommend wearing a shirt that has sleeves helps protect your poor shoulders from the sun.

Flowy tops not your thing? Girl, I get you. Try this top instead. It's super cute, more fitted, but not skin tight.

However, if you choose not to wear workout clothes, I totally get it. Just don't wear jeans or jean shorts. Seriously.

I've made the mistake. You don't have to.

Tip 4: Drink Plenty of Free Water

You didn't know that Universal served free water, did you?

Well they do!

But, shhh: they don't really like to talk about it.

They do have to serve it according to Florida law, so no dirty looks will be given from team members. Although, other visitors might look upon your free water with envy.

How do get free water?

It's easy! Just ask.

Yep. If you're at a restaurant or snack bar that has a soda fountain, just ask for a cup of water.

It'll be pretty small, but you can technically ask for as many as you'd like as often as you'd like.

You don't even have to buy anything to get one.

Where to Stay


At a Universal Studios Resort Hotel

Universal Studios Resort Hotels are great places to stay because you have access to food, buses, and express passes (if you stay at a premier resort).

If you plan on spending most of your time in Orlando at Universal Studios, this is a great option!

Plus, Universal does offer some affordable hotels (starting in the low $100 range).

You can get info on budget resorts here.

If you're looking to spend a little more money and get a FREE express pass, you should check price and availability at the Loews Royal Pacific, Hard Rock Cafe, and Loews Portofino Bay.

If you really want Unlimited Express Passes, I highly recommend you do the math and see if it's worth it for you to stay at one of the Premier Resorts.

Those express passes start at $90 per person per day, and only go up on busy days. You'll probably find that getting one of the expensive hotel rooms (that includes the express passes) doesn't cost you much more than if you got a cheaper hotel and purchased the passes separately, and you get to stay in a nicer room!

At Another Hotel (off property)

Staying off property doesn't always have the same benefits as staying on property (like avoiding parking fees and getting free express passes).

However, if you choose wisely, you can find a great hotel at a fraction of the cost off property.

My best money saving tip is staying near by the parks so that you can Uber to and from them.

Last time I was there, this saved us $10 in one day. That's almost a meal in the park! 😂

The closest hotels you can book are located on Major Blvd.

Most recently, I stayed at Fairfield Inn and Suites Near Universal Studio. It was nice, clean, and super close! While I'd usually tell you to book through Booking(dot)com (my favorite booking website), Marriott offers a lowest rate guarantee on their website, which is pretty great!

If you're looking to stick to a strict budget, I definitely recommend staying at the Fairfield Inn.

If you still feel like you'd like to check out the other options on Major Blvd, no worries. I've included a map of nearby hotels below. (But, I'm telling you, Fairfield Inn is where it's at!!)

Hotel Comparison

To make choosing the best hotel for you, ultra easy, I've put together a short comparison table below.

All of the hotels listed below had a 4.5 star rating on Trip Advisor (which included about 10,000+ review for each of them). Safe to say, I don't think you can make a bad choice! (Since the ratings were the same, I did not include them in the table.)

HotelOn Property?Available TransportationFree Express Passes?Price
Loews Royal PacificYesShuttleYesClick Here to Check Pricing and Availability
Hard Rock CafeYesShuttleYesClick Here to Check Pricing and Availability
Loews Portofino BayYesShuttleYesCheck Pricing and Availability
Cabana Bay Beach ResortYesShuttleNoCheck Pricing and Availability
Fairfield Inn and Suites Near Universal StudioNoUber, Drive, Limited ShuttleNoCheck Pricing and Availability

OR...Choose Your Own Hotel!

Best Place to Purchase Tickets and Passes


You might be wondering where you can get the best deal on Universal Studios Orlando tickets and passes.

Well, I'm old school, so my answer is quite simple.

The best place to get tickets and passes for Universal Studios is from Universal.

The tickets they sell are guaranteed to work.

Buying ticket from discount retailers can be risky.

However, I understand the draw: I mean, who doesn't want to save money?

So, to help you out, here are a couple of reputable sites that sell discounted Universal Studios Orlando tickets:

Honestly, I think that these sites often just offer the same deals that Universal Studios is running, so I'm not sure how much you'll actually save. Make sure you compare prices and read all of the fine print!

I've never tried using these sites for discounted tickets, so I have no idea how safe buying tickets is from them. But, I do know that they're reputable in other ways. In the end, the choice is up to you!

And, keep in mind that if you're a Florida resident, you can get discounted tickets directly from Universal.

The Difference Between an Annual Pass and a Season Pass

If you're planning on a lengthy stay, it might be more economical for you to purchase a season or an annual pass.

Or, if you intend on returning later in the year, it will also likely be cheaper for you to just purchase a pass instead of tickets.

You'll notice that Universal offers two kinds of passes: season and annual.

So, what's the difference?

Season passes have black out dates, which means you can't visit the parks during the most popular times, which won't be a big deal if you plan on avoiding them anyway.

Season passes are typically cheaper than annual passes because of the restrictions.

When you purchase an annual pass, you can visit the parks any time during the year (excluding special events). This will include the summer months. And, because of it's flexibility, it's more expensive than the season pass.

Should You Buy an Express Pass?

Express passes are incredibly nice.

They are way better at Universal than at Disney because fewer people have expresses passes, which means you get to the front of the line super quickly.

Universal doesn't offer complimentary express passes, so you'll have to purchase then if you want them.

The prices of express passes vary.

You can purchase regular express passes, which gives you one pass for each ride. Or, you can purchase the express pass unlimited, which, as the name suggests, gives you unlimited express passes for every ride.

Can you guess which one is cheaper?

You're correct. The regular express pass is cheaper.

The price also depends on how busy Universal expects to be on the day you plan on visiting.

The cheaper the express passes, the less likely you'll need them.

Whether or not you need express passes completely depends on how much time you have to spend at the parks.

If you don't have much time to spend at the parks, express passes will help you experience more rides. You just have to be willing to spend the money in order to make that happen.

How to Get Free Express Passes

If you stay at one of Universal's Premier resorts (Portofino Bay, Hard Rock, or Royal Pacific), you get complimentary express passes for everyone staying there.

And the best part is that they're express pass unlimited.

So, if you plan on purchasing express passes, consider staying on property.

While the premier hotels can be a bit pricey, the complimentary express passes will likely even things out. Plus, you'll get to stay at a world class resort. Not too shabby!

Check the price and availability of the Loews Portofino Bay Resort here.

Check the price and availability of the Hard Rock Cafe here.

Check the price and availability of the Loews Royal Pacific Resort here.

How to Avoid the Lines Without Express Passes

If you don't want to spend the money on express passes, I totally get. I have never purchased express passes before, although I have been tempted.

I've got some tips for how you can still avoid the long lines.

Be Strategic

You don't need to plan out your entire day, but you should have about 5 rides picked out for each park that you know you don't want to leave without riding.

This will help you prioritize the rides and manage your time more effectively.

Download the Universal Studios App

The Universal Studios app will give you up-to-date wait times for all of the rides and attractions in the park.

This makes it easy for you to pick the shortest lines possible every time.

Additionally, this app will give you access to some of the virtual lines Universal has. For example, you can jump in the virtual line for Minion Mayhem using the app.

Park Highlights

Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure both have amazing rides and attractions.

In this next section, I'm going to share my favorite rides and restaurants from each park!

Universal Studios


Universal Studios has a wide range of rides.

It has a couple of amazing roller coasters, but mostly includes simulators and 3-D rides.

Best Rides

Harry Potter Escape from Gringots

This ride is a fun mix between a roller coaster and a 3-D ride!

It is certainly not the most intense roller coaster at Universal, but it has a fun story that takes you through the ride!

If you love Harry Potter, you will adore getting the tour of Gringots! The line takes you down in the heart of Gringots before sending you on a wild ride!

Revenge of the Mummy

This is my favorite roller coaster ever!

It’s indoor and dark. With tons of flashing lights, sharp turns, and a fun story, you’ll love this exhilarating ride!

While this ride is fast and intense, it doesn’t flip you upside-down, which is perfect for those who like to stay upright!

I always have a smile on my face when exiting this ride.

The Simpson's Ride

Everything about this ride is fun if you enjoy watching the Simpsons! You’ll even have fun if you don’t care for the show; I promise!

While in line, you get to watch funny clips from various episodes of the Simpsons. Then, right before you get on the ride, you watch a short video that sets up the ride. Get bored watching safety videos? Well the Simpsons manage to make it enjoyable! I won’t say anymore on the subject; just know that they put a lot of effort into the details of this ride.

Once on the ride, you get into a car and are lifted up into a large simulator.

It's amazing.

Despicable Me Minion Mayhem

This ride is fun for all ages, especially if you enjoyed any of the Despicable Me movies! This ride is 3-D and your seats move, but there is stationary seating available. This ride is similar to the Simpson’s ride; however, since you’re not as close to the screen, it’s not nearly as intense.

Plus, there's a virtual line, which makes it even more amazing.

Transformers: The Ride 3-D

This ride is similar to the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman (located in Islands of Adventure). You get into a cart that drives you through mayhem as you try and help the Transformers kick the bad guy’s butt!

Even if you don’t care for the movies, this ride is still fun.

Keep in mind that this ride can be a little nauseating, so you might not want to eat right before you get on.

Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket

This is easily one of Universal’s most popular roller coasters! The line for this ride can be incredibly long!

Still, it’s a beloved ride, and if you enjoy roller coasters, you won’t want to miss it!

This ride isn’t for the faint of heart; personally, this ride intimidates me more than the Hulk.

Still, even those who aren’t big on roller coasters should try everything once, right?

Shrek 4-D

If the Shrek movies were as big a part of your childhood as they were mine, you will adore this attraction.

It's a 3-D movie with some physical elements that make it 4-D.

In the movie, the quirky gang of misfit fairytale characters take you on a fun adventure.

You’ll sit in a theater, put on your 3-D glasses, and watch the story unfold! Just lookout, it’s a 4-D attraction, so don’t think you’re safe!

Best Restaurants


The Leaky Cauldron

This restaurant is quick-service, which makes it pretty affordable, compared to some of the other options.

The atmosphere is incredible.

You'll feel like you're eating where Harry stayed in the 3rd book in the series (Prisoner of Azkaban).

The food is delicious.

If you've heard terrible things about traditional brittish food, don't let it stop you from eating here.

You will seriously love it. There's nothing gross on the menu.

Simpson's Fastfood Blvd.

In Springfield, there's a building that has a ton of different counter service restaurants that, of course, are Simpson themed.

I usually order food from Cletus' Chicken Shack or Krusty Burger, but there are a ton of other places to get food, such as Luigis, the Frying Duchman, and Lisa's Teahouse of Horrors.

It's such a fun place to grab a bite.

(Btw, I highly recommend the Clogger from Krusty's, but heads up, it will clog you up. 😂)

Islands of Adventure


Best Rides

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey

While technically a roller coaster, this ride doesn’t move like your traditional coaster. Instead of facing forward, you sit facing the right-hand side. Then a mechanical arm moves, tilts, and sways you through the ride.

It’s a fantastic ride, but it can be a bit nauseating, so keep that in mind.

lso, one of the best parts of the ride is that the line exists inside Hogwarts! So you get to see some pretty iconic rooms as you move through the line.

Flight of the Hypogryph

This is essentially a kiddie coaster, but it’s so much fun!

I definitely would not recommend waiting more than 20 minutes for this ride for three reasons: (1) it’s a short ride, and (2) the line is hot because it’s outside and shade is scarce, and (3) the line is slow moving.

Still, if you can catch it when the wait time is below 20 minutes, you should definitely ride it! The coaster always makes me laugh, so hopefully you’ll enjoy it too!

The Incredibly Hulk Coaster

This ride is an incredibly intense roller coaster. It shoots you off at a high speed right into a huge drop. While this coaster isn't for the faint of heart, it's a blast!

This roller coaster is incredibly popular, so be prepared to wait in a long line to ride it. However, I believe there is a single riders line, which is always almost always shorter.

The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman

This is a 3-D ride, that wheels you around as you help Spiderman save the day!

This ride is a classic and is always enjoyable!

The line is a outdated. After you go through some of the newer lines, you’ll wonder how such bad props were allowed to be used in the Spiderman ride. Just remember that it was built a while ago, and just hasn’t been updated. Don’t let the lousy props make you think that the ride isn’t fun though!

What the line lacks, Universal makes up for with the ride!

Storm Force Accelatron

This ride is especially great if you have children. They will LOVE it!

Have you ever ridden or heard of the Tea Cups ride at Disney’s Magic Kingdom? This is essentially the same thing.

I will admit that I love this ride.

You can fit a max of 4 adults in one of the carts (it's a bit snug). But, I’d say you could fit 2 adults and 2 children comfortably. However, the more adults you have, the faster you’ll spin around because, let's face it, adults are stronger than children.

Best Restaurants


Three Broomsticks

This restaurant is where Harry tried his first Butterbeer, which means it's the perfect place for you to try you first one, too!

This restaurant serves some traditional Brittish food, such as Fish and Chips (yum).

Plus, with fantastic decor, you'll have plenty to gawk at.


This restaurant is bit pricey and requires a bit of a time investment.

It isn't quick service, like many of the other restaurants I've mentioned.

However, if you're interested in sitting down for a bite to eat, Mythos is a great spot.

It's located in a relatively quiet area of the park. The building is made of stone (or at least, what looks like stone).

They serve great food, and offer an awesome atmosphere. Plus, the view from the back of the restaurant isn't bad; it overlooks a pond.

Confisco Grille

This is another full service restaurant.

It serves a wide-range of food, from Italian to Mexican to Greek. This makes it great for groups or families that can't seem to agree on what to eat.

The restaurant is decorated with confiscated good from all over the park.

Don't worry; they're not actually confiscated. But, it makes for fun decor!



The bad news: as you can clearly see from the length of this post, there is a lot you need to know before visiting Universal Studios.

The good news: since you're reading this, you've finished this post and now know everything you need to plan an epic vacation to Universal Studios Orlando! YAY!

Since it was a lot of information, let's do a quick recap.

  • The best time of year to visit is mid to late Januaray and February (except for the week of Valentine's Day).
  • To stay safe in the heat, make sure you're wearing sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, and light clothing.
  • Don't forget to take advantage of free water!
  • Express Passes are worth the money if you're super short on time.
  • Consider staying at a Premier Resort to get complimentary Express Pass Unlimited.
  • To avoid long lines without an Express Pass, make sure you know which rides you can't miss and download the Universal Studios app to have updated wait times at your finger tips.

Well, that's it in a nutshell.

You should feel totally ready to book your vacation now!

But, you can never know too much. So, head over to my 13 Universal Studios tips post to learn even more awesome tips for visiting the parks! Inside, you'll find great tips on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, water rides, and more!

And, just in case you were wondering (I know you totally were), my favorite ride at Universal is Revenge of the Mummy.

Which rides are you super excited about riding? Let me know in the comments below!

Know someone who needs to read this post? Share it with them!

Genius Guide to Planning Your Universal Studios Orlando Vacation

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