Most people who research Disney World vacations also consider Universal Orlando Resort.
Fans of Disney may consider Universal as "the other park" but I am here to tell you that both parks are equally amazing for different reasons.
If you are considering booking a trip to Universal Orlando Resort, here we'll cover all of the basics of the resort.
Universal Orlando Resort is made up of two theme parks, Universal Studios and Island of Adventures. It also includes a water park called Volcano Bay, and a shopping and restaurant area called City Walk.
It was also announced that a third theme park called Epic Universe is being built and should be opening in 2025.
This is the original Universal Orlando theme park. But it's changed a lot over the years.
Today you'll find a total of 8 lands in this park:
The idea of each land being that you are walking through the movies.
When touring this park I tend to group areas of the park together in 3 groups.
First, is the Wizarding World area. This is located towards the back of the park. While this area will often have higher crowds, there is only one ride in this area. So unless Harry Potter is your only goal, I would save this area for later in the day when touring the park.
The second area is the front of the park. This will include the rides in Production Central, New York, Hollywood, and San Francisco. This area has several rides that often hold higher wait times. When touring the park, start here and work your way back to knock out these higher wait times early in the day.
The third group is World Expo, Springfield, and the Woody Woodpecker Kids Zone. This is usually my last stop on any Universal touring plan. You'll find lower wait times, lots of photo opportunities, food, and shopping.
Rides and Attractions at Universal Studios
Island of Adventures
The second Universal park is Islands of Adventure. This park offers more thrill rides than Universal Studios, but that doesn't mean kids will feel left out. With areas dedicated to Dr Seuss, Marvel, and classic Cartoons, there is something for everyone at this park.
Universal Islands of Adventure is split in to 8 lands:
When deciding how to tour this park, I typically suggest starting at the back of the park. The Wizarding World at Islands of Adventure offers 3 rides, and (the typically more crowded) Hogsmede area. So if Harry Potter is a priority, you definitely want to start here.
Jurassic Park is the other area you'll want to visit early. Velocicoaster lines can get long very quickly. Plus so many amazing photo opportunities in this area (including meeting a raptor!) can make this a busy part of the park.
Rides and Attractions
This water theme park offers several slide rides, lazy rivers, wave pools, and more. You'll find lots of seating and food and drink options. This water park is unique in how they handle a couple of things. Long lines and carrying cash around. So they offer an interactive bracelet called TapuTapu to help skip lines (more on that in a minute).
This water park is divided in to 4 sections:
Rainforest Village is where you will find the more intense water attractions, while River Village will offer the most laid back options.
If you're looking for shopping, dining, and entertainment without a park ticket this is your stop. City Walk serves as the entrance to Universal Resort. So when you park, bus, or Lyft over to the parks you'll first walk through the City Walk area.
This is a great opportunity to experience unique dining (both quick service and sit down) and shopping.
Since Universal doesn't allow you to carry on bags or backpacks on many of the attractions, I've often purchased souvenirs in City Walk on my way out of the parks.
Universal offers 8 resorts:
*These are premier resorts that give an EXTRA perk of Unlimited Express Pass.
Similar to staying at a Disney World resort, staying at one of these hotels can give you some perks when you are at the Universal Parks
Universal Parks offer a paid way to skip the lines on almost every attraction at the parks called Express Pass.
When you have Express Pass you don't need to make reservations or grab times on an app for rides. If you have this pass you can show up and skip the lines. You'll find a dedicated queue for each ride. You simply scan your park ticket to enter. Just note that you can only skip the line one time on each ride. There is no re-riding with Express Pass.
If you are staying at a participating Universal Resort this perk is included for free. If you aren't staying you can purchase this pass as an add on to your park ticket.
It is important to note that depending on how many people are in your party and the number of days you are visiting, sometimes staying at a Universal Resort is cheaper than buying these passes. It's a smart idea to have a travel agent who handles both Disney and Universal compare these prices for you to make sure you don't overpay (we can help you with that here).
Express Pass Unlimited
Express Pass Unlimited is the same as regular Express Pass, but with one big difference.
With the unlimited option you are able to re-ride your favorite rides as many times as you would like!
Similar to Disney World's rider switch program, Universal Parks offer child swap if you are touring with a child who doesn't meet the height requirements of certain rides.
Here is how you take advantage of this perk:
I actually find this system to be way better than what Disney World offers. My experience with Child Swap has been pleasant waiting rooms with cartoons or movies playing. There are seats and often changing tables as well.
This system is also better in how relaxed Universal is about Child Swap. At Disney if your child is scared to ride, but otherwise meets all height requirements, you cannot take advantage of rider switch. At Universal no such rule exists. They also don't limit how many people can ride in the second group. So if you have older children (or multiple adults) they will be able to ride every ride twice. As long as there is always one adult with the child, Universal is amazing about letting older kids ride twice.
If you head to Volcano Bay water park you'll be given a wrist band called TapuTapu. The lines at this water park are virtual. If you want to ride you tap your wrist, and you'll be notified when it's your turn to ride. So in the mean time you can enjoy the lazy river or a cold drink.
You can also use this wrist band to make purchases at the water park. So you wont have to carry your wallet around with you or worry about having wet cash.
Bags on Rides and Lockers
Many of the rides at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure do NOT allow bags or backpacks on the rides. So what do you do with those souvenirs and park bags?
Any rides that do not allow bags will offer complimentary lockers for you to store your belongings. You'll find them in the ride queues, and team members will direct you where to go to take advantage.
Just note that the lockers are on the smaller size. If you have a large bag you will need to pay to store it in a larger locker.
Unlike Disney World parks, small children will not be able to ride any rides in your lap. There are no rides that have no height requirement. Even rides in Seuss Landing will have a height requirement. So if you have little ones keep that in mind.
That isn't to say there aren't things for little guys to do. Areas like the Curious George area or Fievel's Playland will be a blast for little guys. There are also tons of character meets.
Plus, the child swap system is the best in the game. So don't feel guilty if you want to enjoy the parks, but have a little one. Swapping so all adults (and big kids) can ride and even re-ride is easy.
Universal Parks are very different from Disney World Parks. At Universal you'll find larger thrill rides, and fewer rides for smaller children.
Universal can be enjoyed by anyone! But generally speaking, you'll get the most out of Universal if everyone in your group enjoys thrill rides, if the people in your group are tall enough where height requirements wont be a huge issue, if you are a huge Harry Potter fan, and if you love Marvel Superheroes.
Universal might not be for you if you are traveling with small children (toddlers or babies), you aren't a big Harry Potter fan, or you aren't a big fan of large roller coasters and thrill rides.
We personally found our 4 year old was just the right age for Universal. She didn't mind waiting with us and hanging out in the Child Swap areas, there were enough characters she enjoyed, and she could ride everything at Seuss Landing. I suspect if she were any younger, she may not have gotten as much out of the experience.
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See you at the parks,