Universal Orlando Trip Planning Guide (2019 - 2020)

If you’re planning a trip to Universal Orlando Resort, you’ve come to the right place! In this guide, we cover everything from flights to hotels to riding all the best rides. Buckle up and get ready for some excitement—it’s time to plan a trip to Universal Orlando!

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Basics of Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Orlando Resort comprises the following:

  • Two theme parks—Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure

  • One water park—Universal’s Volcano Bay

  • Seven (soon to be eight) “official” hotels

  • A “downtown” dining / shopping district, CityWalk Orlando

The one other thing everyone knows about Universal is that it is home to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The Wizarding World is not its own park, nor is it entirely in one park or the other.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is actually two themed lands. One land is in Universal Studios Florida (Diagon Alley) and one is in Universal’s Island of Adventure (Hogsmeade). They are connected by the Hogwarts Express attraction.

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Dates and Events in 2019, 2020

Universal Orlando Resort has a variety of events throughout the year, but the calendar for vacationers is anchored by three major events:

  • Mardi Gras is celebrated on select dates in February and March

  • Halloween Horror Nights occur select nights September 6 to November 2, 2019

  • Holidays at Universal Orlando Resort is scheduled for November 16, 2019 to January 5, 2020

Halloween Horror Nights is the event you’re most likely to need to know about, both because it is a unique experience and because it will significantly impact park hours at Universal Studios Florida.

Universal’s New “Epic” Park

In August 2019, Universal announced they would be building a third theme park—Universal’s Epic Universe. As no timeline has been announced for this park, there’s no reason we’d recommend delaying a trip in anticipation of the park. These things take years upon years.

Copyright Universal |  Fair Use Claimed

Copyright Universal | Fair Use Claimed

How Long to Visit Universal Orlando Resort

With two parks and one water park, we think a good length of time to visit Universal Orlando Resort is three full days, one in each park. Some people will find three full days excessive, but a half-day spent at the hotel pool isn’t the worst thing.

If you need to cut this down, you could cut Volcano Bay (the water park) completely or down to half of a day and get down to two days.

Additionally or alternatively, you can purchase Universal Express Pass to “skip the lines” and consolidate the highlights of the two theme parks into a single day (more on this option below).

A single day is also sufficient to experience The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, if that’s all you really want to do.

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Getting to Universal Orlando Resort

We’ll break this down into two parts—flying to Orlando, and then getting to the resort itself from either Orlando or Walt Disney World.

Flying to Orlando

There are two main airports that service the Orlando area, Orlando International Airport (MCO) and Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB).

As with Walt Disney World planning, we recommend flying to Orlando International Airport (MCO). It is closer to Universal and offers a wider variety of transportation options. Also, frankly, if you run into confusion you’ll have much better luck finding information online about traveling through MCO than SFB.

Getting to Universal Orlando from MCO

Universal offers the Universal SuperStar Shuttle between MCO and the resort. Click that link for our review. The roundtrip cost is $39 per person.

Besides being a shuttle, this service is nothing like Disney’s Magical Express service. There is no luggage pickup or delivery service, for example.

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Alternatively, an Uber from MCO to Universal Orlando should run you about $20 to $30. This means that with two or more people, it will probably be most cost efficient to use Uber (don’t forget tip, though).

You can book other popular shuttle services, like Mears shuttles, or grab a taxi. Finally, for $2 per person, you could take about 2 hours and use public transportation to get to the resort, but we definitely see no reason to recommend that.

Getting to Universal Orlando from SFB

We have no experience with SFB, and really we never intend to gain any. There is a bus service between SFB and Universal Orlando. Beyond that, we can’t really speak to the options. We’d probably recommend an Uber, which should cost between $40 and $60.

Getting to Universal Orlando from Walt Disney World Resort

There are several transportation services that run between Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World. And you can find every sort of “tour” operator under the sun to plan some package for you. Truth be told—you just need to take an Uber or Lyft (or a taxi if you’re not comfortable with those services) to get between these two destinations.

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Are there situations when some other shuttle service might be better? Perhaps. But shuttles can be unreliable and charge per-person. An Uber between these two destinations will run you around $20 to $40 with no hassle.

The only situation when we’d look for something other than Uber is if we needed to make sure we had sufficient number of car seats, in which case we’d either drive ourselves or book some sort of specialty transport in advance.

Where to Stay

There are three main options for staying at Universal—Universal Hotels, non-Universal hotels, and Airbnb.

Universal Hotels

We can’t claim to be experts on any of the Universal hotels. Unlike Walt Disney World, where we’ve stayed at every hotel and visit all of them pretty frequently, we’re only beginning to visit Universal’s hotels.

But while we can’t go in-depth as to our thoughts about them individually, we can provide you an overview of some objective factors to consider.

Universal’s seven (soon to be eight) hotels are (links are to our reviews):

  • Premier Hotels (from $228 / night): Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando, Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando, Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando

  • Preferred Hotel (from $168 / night): Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando

  • Prime Value Hotels (from $120 / night): Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Universal’s Aventura Hotel

  • Value Hotels (from $85 / night): Universal's Endless Summer Resort - Surfside Inn and Suites, Universal's Endless Summer Resort - Dockside Inn and Suites (opening March 2020)

Like at Walt Disney World, guests of Universal’s hotels get access to special perks. Unlike Walt Disney World, the perks are different by which “tier” hotel you book!

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First, all guests of these hotels get access to Early Park Admission. This allows them to visit select attractions for an extra hour before the parks open to other guests.

Universal moves this perk between Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida, but as of publication it is only scheduled for Universal Studios Florida in the near future.

Second, guests of Premier Hotels only get complimentary Universal Express Pass Unlimited, allowing them to “skip the line” on select attractions at the parks an unlimited number of times.

We’ll cover Express Pass more below, but it’s important to quickly discuss the economics of this perk. Universal advertises it as being worth up to $170+tax per person per day. That’s technically true—and we do think it’s often good value—but the true value depends on the day.

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You definitely do not need Express Pass every day of a multi-day visit. And you don’t even necessarily need Express Pass Unlimited at all.

To be clear, we think this perk definitely justifies a night or two at a Premier Hotel (if the right prices are available), we just don’t think you should look at Express Pass and think “well three days of Express Pass for four people would be over $2000, so duh I have to upgrade my hotel!

Non-Universal Hotels

We don’t have too much to say about non-Universal hotels, but there are a lot in the area that are as close or even closer than some of Universal’s hotels. Look at a map of the area and zoom in pretty much anywhere, and you’ll see hotels.

Besides looking at the hotel websites to see what walking times they project and what shuttle options they advertise, we highly recommend visiting Trip Advisor pages for the hotels and then searching for “walk” and “shuttle” in the reviews. This will give you visitor reports on shuttle and walking experiences.

Keep in mind that by staying at a non-Universal hotel, you won’t have Early Park Admission included in your stay.

Airbnb

Finally, we remain big fans of Airbnb, though we’re less inclined to go out of our way for a deal at Universal than over by Walt Disney World because hotel prices near Universal are so competitive. Airbnb is a good option for people with cars (or willing to pay for Uber) and who would like access to a full kitchen.

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Choosing Your Universal Orlando Ticket

Universal Orlando’s ticket options are needlessly confusing, but we’re happy to cut through some of the nonsense. Essentially, Universal requires you to make three decisions:

  • How many days?

  • How many parks? (one, two, or three)

  • Do you want park-to-park (aka park hopper)?

We’ll break down the tickets by these three questions. All prices in this section are pre-tax, from the Universal website (as of publication date), and for a single adult.

Just for a quick reference:

  • Tickets range from $115 for a 1-Day, 1-Park ticket to $360 for a 3-Day, 3-Park, Park-To-Park ticket

  • Additional days after day 2 tend to cost $10 to $20 per day

  • Adding Volcano Bay to your ticket costs about $55 to $75

  • Park-To-Park privileges cost about $60 to $70 for the total length of your ticket

How Many Days?

We covered how many days you need much earlier in this post. The biggest price gap is between 1-Day and 2-Day tickets. That second day costs about $110. After that, adding days typically costs $10 to $20 per day.

How Many Parks?

For the most part, Universal treats the resort as having three parks—the two theme parks and Volcano Bay, the water park. However, the don’t always treat Volcano Bay as an equal, so it’s important to pay attention to whether your purchase—particularly tickets and Express Pass—includes Volcano Bay or now.

Universal divides its tickets into three categories—1-Park, 2-Park, and 3-Park. 1-Park tickets allow admission into exactly one park. These are only sold for one-day visits and cost $115 for a theme park or $80 for Volcano Bay.

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There really isn’t a reason you’d be reading this post and get a 1-park ticket. Remember, the flagship area of the resort is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is split across the two theme parks. If you only have a single day, you’ll definitely want to spring for the 2-Park 1-Day Park-To-Park ticket for $170.

To decide between 2-Park and 3-Park tickets, you need to decide whether or not you’ll be going to the water park, Volcano Bay. 3-Park tickets (with Volcano Bay) typically cost between $55 and $75 more than tickets without Volcano Bay.

2-Park tickets allow admission into Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, not necessarily on the same day (that’s covered next, in “Park to Park”). You can buy these tickets for visits of any length.

3-Park tickets allow admission into Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and Universal’s Volcano Bay water park. You can buy these for visits of two days or longer.

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Park-to-Park (Yes, You Need It)

Park-to-Park tickets allow you to visit multiple parks on a single day. Park-To-Park privileges apply to the entire length of the ticket. Obviously you can only buy a 2-Park 1-Day or 3-Park 2-Day ticket if you get park-to-park. Park-To-Park tickets cost between $60 and $70 (total) more than tickets without Park-To-Park.

Without Park-To-Park, a 2-Park, 4-Day ticket (for example) would allow you to enter just one park each day. Whether you do the same park all four days, or alternate, or some other combination is up to you.

While we’re always a fan of ticket options that allow you the flexibility of moving between parks, Universal Orlando has a particular feature that basically forces the average guest into getting Park-to-Park. You cannot ride the Hogwarts Express without a Park-to-Park ticket.

The Hogwarts Express attraction connects to two halves of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which you’ll recall are in two different parks. Riding it thus requires you to be allowed in both parks on a single day.

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Annual Passes

As I’m neither a Florida nor California resident, I never had to think too much about Disney’s annual passes. The options are limited for non-locals, and I visit each resort multiples times a year and on major holidays, so I have a Premier Passport.

Looking at Universal Orlando’s annual pass options got me a bit dizzy. At some point, we might unpack all the options, but we just want to hit the highlights here.

First, you should definitely look into a Seasonal Pass. That pass costs $305+tax for a 2-Park pass, which is the same as a 2-Park 3-Day ticket. Of course, substantial blockout dates apply, but if your visit fits the dates, it can definitely make sense to get a pass—particularly because annual passes can get you access to hotel discounts.

I personally saved $255 on a Universal hotel stay by getting a seasonal pass ($305 pre-tax) instead of a 2-Park 4-Day ticket with park to park ($320 pre-tax).

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Second, you can upgrade fully paid annual passes. Universal allows certain passes to be paid for on installments. If you pay fully upfront for your pass, you can pay to upgrade it at a later time, if you decide. This means that if you’re unsure the perks will make sense ahead of a trip, you can start with a seasonal pass and then upgrade later, if need be.

Finally, the highest level perks clearly target locals. As a frequent Walt Disney World guest who will sometimes pop over to Universal, the perks of the Premier Annual Pass offer me little. Express Pass after 4PM makes most sense for guests who will visit on the evenings, after work. Early Admission makes sense if you’re never staying at a Universal hotel.

Really, for vacationers its the reduced blockout dates that will be the biggest factor in upgrading your pass. If you can plan around the blockout dates, though, there’s probably minimal reason you’ll need to upgrade to a higher level pass.

Buying Your Universal Orlando Tickets

You can purchase your Universal Orlando tickets directly from Universal online, if you’d like. In the past, we purchased discount tickets from Undercover Tourist with no issue. We recommend you check out our guide to buying discount Walt Disney World tickets, as those brokers tend to sell Universal tickets, as well.

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Planning Your Time at Resort

You’ve booked your flight, picked your hotel, and navigated the maze of ticket options. Now it’s time for the fun part—actually visiting Universal Orlando!

Getting Around

Universal CityWalk (discussed more below) is the hub of Universal Orlando resort. The only way to enter the two theme parks is by first passing through Universal CityWalk.

Shuttle buses connect Universal CityWalk (and by extension, the two parks) to the hotels. There are also walking paths connecting six of the hotels to CityWalk.

Guests at the Endless Summer hotels have a walking option, but it is unappealing, long, and mostly alongside a highway. Water taxis also connect some of the hotels to CityWalk. More on CityWalk below.

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Park Itineraries and Guides

Through September 2019 (at least), the only park with Early Park Admission is Universal Studios Florida, and that park has the early hour daily. That means all guests need to have a plan for visiting or working around Early Park Admission.

Changing parks, we also have an Islands of Adventure rides guide, including a list of the best rides. Our one day Islands of Adventure itinerary also provides guidance for spending a full day at that park. For tips on your morning—including whether or not you should start with Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure—we have a guide to morning rope drop at Islands of Adventure.

We’re not huge water park fans, so we honestly haven’t made time to put serious thought into Volcano Bay. Undercover Tourist has a good guide to Volcano Bay.

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Universal Express Pass & Express Unlimited

We have a separate post that covers the ins and outs of Universal Express Pass and Express Unlimited. We’ll give a very brief rundown of it here, though.

Express Pass is a paid add-on that allows you access to an express line with a shorter wait on most Universal attractions. You have to purchase it for specific days, but guests of Premier Hotels get the unlimited version for every day of their stay.

Because it can be so expensive (over $150 per person some days), we think you should be very careful about purchasing it, and very deliberate with how you use it.

It’s a total waste of money—in our opinion—to just blindly decide you have to have Express Pass every day of your visit. That’s why we dedicate a full post to it.

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CityWalk

CityWalk isn’t a theme park, it’s a shopping, dining, and entertainment district similar to Downtown Disney or Disney Springs. Unlike Downtown Disney or Disney Springs, it’s virtually impossible to miss CityWalk (not that you want to miss any of the three) because all entrances to the theme parks go through CityWalk first.

Guests taking the Garden Walk pathway will just touch the edge of CityWalk en route to Islands of Adventure, but will walk through more of it en route to Universal Studios Florida. All other guests will pass through almost all of CityWalk on their way to the parks because parking and guest drop-off are on one end and the parks are on the other.

CityWalk has a variety of restaurants, and we highly recommend making a reservation if you’re planning to dine at them. Keep in mind that at the end of the day as guests exit the parks, CityWalk becomes very crowded and the restaurants fill up.