Universal Orlando Resort continues to be as popular as ever with guests to the Central Florida area. In the early '90s, Universal Studios opened with rides like Spielberg's E.T. and an active movie and television studio—remember Nickelodeon's "Double Dare" and "Clarissa Explains It All?" Today, it's evolved into its own stand-alone travel destination, encompassing two theme parks, an entertainment complex, five resort hotels and a new onsite water park and resort on the way.
But one thing hasn't changed: Universal's iconic globe still revolves around the movies, transporting guests to another world where they become part of the story. While the resort may not be quite as popular as its well-known neighbor down the way, Universal lures a loyal following, from a huge Marvel fandom and devoted Potterheads to thrill-seekers and casual vacationers just wanting to have some fun.
So whatever kind of movie fan you are, we have a few highlights and tips to help you get the most out of your trip to Universal.
1. How Do I Get There?
Universal Orlando Resort is between downtown Orlando and Walt Disney World on Interstate 4. Just off the exit, there are two parking garages for all visitors to CityWalk, Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure. Regular parking is $20, with a preferred parking option for $30. Elevators and moving sidewalks funnel everyone from the garage to the security station at CityWalk where bags are checked. Florida residents can enjoy free parking after 6 pm, and all resort guests get free transportation from their hotels to CityWalk, either by bus or by water taxi.
2. What Is CityWalk?
CityWalk is a 30-acre shopping, dining and entertainment complex that serves as the grand entrance to the theme parks. Past the movie theater, putt-putt course, restaurants, shops and bars on the left-hand side is Universal's Islands of Adventure, and on the right-hand side is the entrance to Universal Studios. CityWalk really becomes alive at night when crowds leave the theme parks, hungry for a fun meal at Margaritaville, an elegant sit-down dinner at Emeril's or anything in between. (Burgushi anyone?)
CityWalk is also home to a half-dozen night clubs, like Rising Star and Pat O'Brien's. Another must-see: Blue Man Group. Performances of the fabulous, funky trio are offered nightly inside their resident theater beside the Hard Rock Cafe.
3. Where Do I Buy Tickets?
Both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure have a box office for purchasing tickets, or you can buy them in advance online. A one-day, one-park ticket costs $115, and a one-day ticket with a park-hopper, which allows entrance to both parks in one day, is $170. When purchasing any theme park ticket in Orlando, this rule is true: Multiple-day passes yield a greater savings. For instance, a four-day pass to Universal is $234.99 for an adult or $299.99 with the park-hopper option. (Note of Interest: To ride the Hogsmeade Express train between Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you need a park-hopper ticket, since Diagon Alley is at Universal Studios and Hogsmeade is at Islands of Adventure.)
One word of caution: do not buy tickets from a non-official vendor, such as a kiosk on the side of the road. If it sounds too good to be true, it's likely a scam.
4. Does Universal Have a FastPass+ Like Disney?
Universal's answer to Disney's FastPass+ is the Universal Express Unlimited Pass. Disney allows guests to make three free reservations for attractions where they can go to the front of the line. Universal offers guests unlimited access, (except for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions), but there is a cost involved. Express passes for one park start at $69.99, or for $79.99, you can use them for both parks in the same day. With wait times often exceeding 60 and 90 minutes, the Universal Express Unlimited Pass may very well worth the up-charge. The less you wait in line, the more you get to do.
Another good way to avoid longer lines is to utilize the single-rider line. You and your party will still be in line together, you just likely won't be seated together on the ride. One last tip is taking advantage of the child-swap system. If your child is too small for the ride, they can wait with another adult in your party in the designated child-swap room. When you are finished with the ride, the other adult may go to the front of the line for their turn.
5. What Hotels Are on Property?
There are currently five official Universal hotels on property: Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Loews Portofino Resort, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort and the Hard Rock Hotel. Cabana Bay Beach Resort offers two pools, a lazy river, restaurants and a bowling alley, all in a retro, '50s theme. Both the Royal Pacific and Portofino are known for their over-the-top themes, fine dining options and high-end amenities, while Sapphire Falls surrounds guests with lush tropical styling and a laid-back atmosphere. Hard Rock is popular for its lively pool scene and rockin' music vibe. And coming in August 2018, guests will have a sixth option to choose from, as Universal's Aventura Hotel will debut.
Guests of all Universal resorts get special perks. Guests of the Hard Rock and the two Loews resorts get a free Universal Express Unlimited Pass to avoid the lines. And all resort guests get free transportation and early admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions.
6. What Are the Best Roller Coasters at Universal?
Universal is known for some of the fastest, most-thrilling roller coasters in town, if not the country. The Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit (the one Jimmy Fallon and Kevin Hart rode on "The Tonight Show") is the signature coaster at Universal Studios with a 17-story drop at an adrenaline-pumping 65 mph. To ease the pain, you can create your own playlist for the ride, if you can acutally hear it over your own screams. Also at Universal Studios, Revenge of the Mummy takes passengers on a wild ride through a dark tomb, where you'll actually feel the heat from a raging fire. Don't worry, Brendan Fraser is there with a comic relief at the end. Over at Islands of Adventure, the Hulk has consistently been named one of the top roller coasters in the country. Guests go from zero to 40 mph straight out of the gate before turning upside down on seven inversions at 67 mph.
7. Is Universal a Good Place for Small Kids?
Yes. While the bigger roller coasters, 3-D rides and events like Halloween Horror Nights are geared toward teens and adults, Universal offers plenty of fun for the whole family. Children under 3 get free admission and can enjoy attractions tailored to them. At Universal Studios, small children can climb and slide at Fievel's Playground, splash around or shoot balls with Curious George, watch the Barney live stage show or see Dora the Explorer in the Superstar Parade.
At Islands of Adventure's Seuss Landing, favorite childhood books come to life with rides, shows, attractions and meet-and-greets with the Grinch, Thing 1 and Thing 2 and the Cat in the Hat. At Camp Jurassic, smaller children can climb and slide on the prehistoric-themed playground and take a gentle glide with a pteranodon. At Toon Lagoon, carnival-style games are fun for all ages along with interactive water elements for cooling off. Character breakfasts are also offered at the theme parks and resorts, creating adorable photo opportunities while the children get one-on-one attention from their favorite characters.
8. What Attractions Are the Most Popular?
There are several extremely popular rides at Universal. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Diagon Alley is still nearly as busy as it was when it opened. Expect to see a 60-minute wait time for the signature ride there, Escape from Gringotts Bank. Also inside Diagon Alley, Ollivanders wand shop is a popular attraction along with the new Hogwarts Express train which transports guests over to Hogsmeade. Inside Hogsmeade, Universal's original Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride remains popular, but the line is worth it with magical experiences while you wait.
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Transformers, two 3-D rides, are also very popular and notable for their cutting-edge technology. Because of the recent release of "Jurassic World," the new Raptor Encounter at Jurassic Park provides one thrilling photo op. Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and The Simpsons Ride are also fairly new additions. But don't let their theater settings fool you—you're in for a wild and entertaining ride. Download the free Universal Wait Times app for your smart phone to best manage your time.
9. What Special Events Does Universal Host?
Universal hosts special events throughout the year, many of which are included with the regular ticket price. Halloween Horror Nights in the fall brings guests eight haunted mazes with detailed costumes, graphic scenes and intense visual elements. The Macy's Holiday Parade at Christmas brings all the amazing, larger-than-life balloons from New York's famed Thanksgiving Day Parade to Orlando. In the spring, Universal hosts an extended Mardi Gras celebration complete with elaborate New Orleans-style parades, concerts, special food and fanfare.
10. What Should I Bring to the Parks?
A day at any theme park can be grueling. It's a tremendous amount of fun, but not without work. (You will easily max out your Fitbit's daily goal.) Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes, sunglasses, sunscreen and light clothing. Hats are also a good idea. Summer showers are common, so bring a packable poncho, which also comes in handy on the water rides if you don't want to get soaked. For children, a small towel and a change of clothes are a good idea.
Universal does allow guests to bring in snacks, drinks and a small cooler, but no alcohol is allowed. Strollers and wheelchairs are available for rent, or you may bring your own. Stroller parking is available at each attraction, and lockers are provided for free to guests riding some of the more turbulent rides. For more information, check Universal's rules and regulations.