The minute I boarded my flight to Orlando and saw it filled with piping young kids carrying Disney themed strollers, tiaras and magic wands, with exhausted parents trying to get them back in to their seats, I realized that Orlando is all about it’s theme parks. There are indeed quite a few things to see and do in Orlando besides the theme parks (a separate blog post on that will be coming soon). Despite that, when you hear Orlando, your mind immediately pictures theme parks, Disney world, Universal Studios, long lines, thrill rides, large numbers of people and kids, bright colors and sunshine. Before I get down to the details of my trip and tips, let me just brief you about the list of theme parks in Orlando. It can get a little overwhelming and confusing if you’re new to reading about the theme parks at Orlando.
To begin with, there are three major resorts in Orlando –
- Universal Orlando Resort
- Walt Disney World Resort and,
- Sea World, Orlando
Each of the above resort is made up of several theme parks. The Universal Orlando resort is made up of two theme parks – Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The Walt Disney World Resort is made up of six theme parks – Epcot, Magic Kingdom Park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park and Disney’s Hollywood Studios plus two water parks – Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon. The Sea World comprises of – Discover Cove and the Aquatica (Sea World’s Theme Park). You can usually buy a combined discounted ticket for all the theme parks that fall under a resort.
Apart from the three major resorts, there are a few other standalone theme parks – Legoland (quite far from Orlando), Gatorland and Fun Spot America. These theme parks are standalone theme parks and do not fall under any of the above resorts and could be equally good. But they are not as popular as the first three. Now that you have a rough idea about the different theme parks in Orlando, let’s dive in to the first one – Universal Orlando.
As with any theme park, if you don’t plan your trip ahead, it’s going to be a little overwhelming the first time you visit Universal Orlando and will most likely end up spending quite a bit. I’m going to answer a few basic questions that would help you plan your trip efficiently with you having to spend as little as possible but still have a wonderful time at Universal Orlando.
When do I visit? ‘Orlando Informer’ has classified a typical day at Universal Orlando in to 4 categories – Slow, Moderate, Busy and Very Busy. On a slow day, crowds and lines would be minimal. The wait time for rides would be less than 30 minutes and it would seem great to visit the park on such a day. But let’s face it. There is a reason why the crowd is minimal. One possible reason is bad weather. In my opinion, as surprising as it may sound, it’s better to avoid visiting the park on such days. The parks close much earlier (at 7:00 PM) and there is a possibility that some of the attractions may be closed because Universal performs it’s routine maintenance checks during slow periods meaning, you’ll end up missing a few rides/shows. The best time to visit the park in my opinion would be on the Moderate or the Busy days. I visited the park on a Busy day (without the express pass) and I had an amazing time. The wait times for rides on Moderate days would be between 30 to 60 minutes and on a Busy day between 60 to 90 minutes. But this is the case for only a few rides. For most of the rides, even on a busy day, the wait times were 30 minutes on an average. You would wonder if the rides with minimal wait lines are not so great – hence the lower wait lines. But that’s not the case. The Dragon Challenge at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter had a wait line of just 5 minutes throughout the day I visited and it was great. Likewise, the Jurassic Park River Adventure had an average wait line of 25 minutes and that’s an amazing ride as well. So never judge a ride by it’s wait line. On the very busy days, the wait lines could be longer that 90 minutes. If you happen to visit the park on a Very Busy day, you may want to think about getting an Express Pass (~35 USD/Rs. 2300 per person). You can still do away without one, if you’re well planned and geared up for an early morning and a late night stay (Parks are open until 10 PM on very busy days). Please visit this website before you decide when to visit. It classifies each day into one of the above 4 categories and you might want to have a look at the calendar before you book your tickets. There are also several other crowd calendar websites for Orlando but I found this one to be perfect for my planning.
Where do I stay? A lot of blogs advice you to stay at one of Universal Orlando’s Resort Hotel to get early access to the parks and a free ‘Express Pass’ to skip lines. Trust me, this is absolutely unnecessary. The ‘free’ Express Pass comes at a cost. You end up paying much more as room rents than you would if you decide to buy a pass. The average rent for a room for two would come up to Rs. 7 to 10K (and a few even more) and I can guarantee that you could find an amazing Airbnb room closer to the parks for the same price for three nights (which is exactly the amount of time you may need if you want to cover just Universal Orlando and perhaps a few other places). Make sure you stay in an Airbnb apartment within a radius of 6 miles from Universal and ensure you DO NOT rent a car during your stay. Instead, you can hire a Lyft/Uber cab to drop and pick you up. This saves so much on parking costs at the park (~20 USD/Rs. 1300) and on gas. I happened to stay in an Airbnb apartment (we booked a single room) and we paid around Rs. 10,000 for three nights which was a great deal and our stay was amazing.
What ticket should I purchase? During my visit to Orlando, I purchased the single day single park ticket and I experienced the Islands of Adventure (the park I decided to visit) to the fullest. So, if you want to include both parks on your list, then get the two day park-to-park ticket. You would need one entire day for a park and since there are two parks at Universal Orlando (Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios), you would ideally need two days. The cost would come up to 265 USD/Rs. 17,659 per person for two days. It does sound pretty expensive but it’s totally worth it and this would be the only ‘big’ money you would be shelling out. If you think this is beyond your budget, you can buy the single park single day ticket which is much cheaper (USD 105/Rs. 7,300). But you would be missing out on the ‘Diagon Alley’ or the ‘Hogsmeade’ part of the park (depending on which one you decide to visit) because, Universal was smart enough to keep one part of the Wizarding world of Harry Potter in one park and the other part in the other park (Diagon Alley is in Universal Studios and Hogwarts/Hogsmeade is on Islands of Adventure). So, if you buy a single park ticket, you cannot visit both the parts of the Harry Potter world. Also, you will not get to ride on the Hogwarts train (which was a big miss for me) that connects both the parks. If Harry Potter is the only reason you are planning to visit Universal, you have a third option to buy the park-to-park single day ticket and you will have plenty of time to visit both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade at both the parks on a single day. This option would cost you roughly around – 165 USD/Rs. 11,000. You can also check for great deals deals on Undercover Tourist. At times, you could buy a two day ticket and get two additional days free (However, I’m really not sure if 4 days of Universal Orlando makes sense).
All the prices mentioned above are for adults. There is a discounted price for children.
Where/When do I purchase my tickets? Please purchase your tickets online. You could skip the ticket purchase line at the park and also, ensure you print your tickets. You could then head straight to the entrance without having to wait in any lines. You can check the park timings on Universal’s official website for open/close timings before you book/visit.
What do I carry along with me? Carry as less as possible. I would suggest carrying a single back pack for an entire family. Take your wallet, your phone, lots of snacks (pack a light lunch like sandwiches and fruits), a water bottle that can be refilled, your printed tickets, sunglasses and a sweatshirt with a pocket zipper. Dump your bag in the lockers upfront (near the entrance to your left – 10 USD for a locker) and carry only your sweatshirt, sunglasses, phone, tickets and your wallet. Put them all in your sweatshirt pocket and zip them. That way, you don’t have to even carry a sling bag and can walk freely. At mid day, during lunch, you can visit your locker and take out a few snacks and munch on them. Alternatively, you can just pop in a granola bar in your sweatshirt pocket and munch on it when you’re hungry. Avoid lugging around a camera unless absolutely necessary; you could click all your pictures on your phone. This day is more about fun than pictures. Some rides (roller coasters mostly) will not allow you to carry your phone/wallet/glasses. Don’t worry. There are free lockers near several rides. You can quickly pop your phone, sunglasses and wallet in to the free lockers near the rides and get them back after your ride. Lockers either use your fingerprint/a pin/your ticket, to open and close. So make sure you don’t forget your pin or you don’t lose your ticket because you will need it to open the locker. Also, make sure you remember your locker number (I usually take a picture of the locker I put my stuff into).
When should I arrive at the park? Arrive as early as possible. Period. If the park opens at 9:00 AM (which it usually does), arrive at 8: 50 AM. If the park opens at 8:00 AM (on very busy days), arrive at 7: 50 AM. Sounds crazy but if you want to get the most of your money, you better ensure you don’t waste a single moment. Also, the wait lines are much shorter early in the morning and late in the night. The wait line for the Harry Potter Forbidden Journey ride was only 20 minutes on a Busy day. So make sure you reach the park before it opens and rush to the ride that you really want to go on but usually has a long wait time.
What rides must I go on? Go on all possible rides (except maybe for the kiddie rides unless you have kids). But ensure that you have a priority list. My priority was simple – All the Harry Potter rides. As soon as I entered the park, I ran straight towards the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride and there was only a 20 minute wait line. Once we were done with the HP rides, we went straight to Jurassic Park and then to the Marvel Universe. I had a clear plan and I knew my priority and by doing this I covered all the rides I wanted to go on. Make sure you download the official Universal Orlando Resort app before you go. You have free wi fi through out the park and you can access the app anywhere. The app has a map of the theme park and also information on every ride (wait time, location, etc.). It also has a map of all the restaurants and rest rooms throughout the theme park. Make sure you download the app and play around with the app before you leave so that you get the hang of using the app.
Where do I shop? Souvenirs inside the theme park are quite expensive. One key ring will cost you around 10 USD (~700 INR). You can perhaps get a tiny little souvenir just for name’s sake from the park and get you other souvenirs from dollar shops outside the theme parks. The dollar shops will have your standard Disney, Marvel and Harry Potter Souvenirs as well but at a much lower price.
Where do I eat? Eating inside the park can turn out to be very expensive. A meal for 3 could easily cost you 50 USD (~INR 3500). If you are extremely tired and want some rest, find a restaurant and take a seat inside and have a good meal (not too heavy if you plan to go on rides after lunch) before you head out again. If you aren’t too tired, head to your locker, and have those sandwiches you packed for lunch with some fruits and cookies. Another option is to grab a slice of pizza (which may not be as expensive as having to sit down in a restaurant and eat). The restaurants in the Wizarding world of HP – Hog’s head and Three Broomsticks – are always fully packed during lunch time and you may end up loosing some precious time. You could just have a peep in to the restaurants to take a look but head out elsewhere to grab lunch. Also, make sure you try the Butterbeer. There are two versions – Frozen and Cold. I like the frozen one better. If you are a huge group, you could get both.
When do I leave the park? Make sure you don’t leave the park until all rides are closed. It is during the last one hour, did I go on maximum rides. I went on the Flight of the Hippogriff twice, Forbidden Journey 4 times and the River Adventure the second time – just in the last one hour. Can you believe it? The wait times are reduced considerably and some of the rides – especially the River Adventure at Jurassic Park are better enjoyed at the night (It does seem more scarier in the night – just like in the movie). My sister and I got lucky with the River Adventure. We went on the ride 15 minutes before it closed and there was absolutely no one but us. Imagine riding through a forest, encountering raptors and the t-rex with no one else for company at night. It was amazing. Likewise, we never got to go on the Flight of the Hippogriff ride due to it’s extremely long wait time of one hour. The wait time reduced to less than half an hour in the last one hour. So make sure you stay right till the end.
A few random tips (may have already covered most of them above) –
- Parking is expensive. Always get dropped and picked up in a cab.
- Arrive before the park opens and leave only after all rides are closed – the wait lines are much shorter at night
- Pack light and carry lots of food.
- Paid lockers are available near the entrance. Rent one. It’s very useful. Dump most of your stuff in the paid lockers. Free lockers are available near the rides in case you want to drop in your phone/wallet.
- Free wi fi is available throughout the park.
- Finish Harry Potter rides at the start.
- If the wait line for a ride is too long, do it at the end (15 minutes before the park closes).
- Do not hesitate about doing rides again. It’s fun. I did the Forbidden Journey 5 times and most of it in the last one hour.
- Take the ‘Single Riders‘ line where ever possible (not all rides have a single rider line). You will not be seated with your friends/family and will be allotted seats randomly but the lines are much shorter for the single riders and moves really quick. My advice – take the single rider line during your second time in a ride. In some rides, waiting in the lines is an amazing experience by itself (for instance, you will be taken through the Hogwarts castle while waiting in the line for the Forbidden Journey) which you will miss in a single rider line.
- Express passes are almost always not necessary if you have one day for an entire park.
- Make sure you wear a plastic poncho when taking the water rides (you can also buy one at the theme park). There are paid dryers available in case you do get wet.
- The Universal Orlando Resort app is must. Apart from providing you with a map of the theme park and letting you know of the wait lines, the app also classifies the rides into – 3D/4D, thrill and water rides. Knowing this can help you get prepared for the ride (wearing a poncho or stowing away your things in a locker, etc).