Have you every visited a theme park and felt like you had the place all to yourself? Has your family ever felt just a little special as you bypass the line for a ride and walk right in? Have you ever scored that great deal on your ticket, lunch, parking, or souvenirs? No? Well it’s time for your family to feel like a VIP, and there’s no easier place to do this than at Universal Orlando. Read on, to learn how to skip the lines, avoid the crowds and save money at Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando.
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How to Skip the Lines at Universal Orlando
- Purchase Universal Express Passes for your family to skip the lines at most of the rides. There are two types of Universal Express Passes, one lets you skip the line once per participating ride or the Universal Express Unlimited lets you skip the line as many times as you want. Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure express passes range in price, depending on the season. There is a $40 express pass for Volcano Bay. If you are staying on Universal property at Portofino Bay, Hard Rock Hotel, or Royal Pacific, Universal Express Unlimited passes (for everyone) are included with your room rate. That is a fantastic deal! Universal Express passes probably aren’t a necessity during the off season at the parks, but they do save you a lot of time. They are also wonderful if you have small kids in your family, because your ride waits are pretty minimal and that keeps everyone happy.
- Check the ride wait times on the Universal app. Check the wait times for the rides you can’t miss and get in line when the wait times are low. Be sure to refresh the app periodically so the wait times update. I also start checking the wait times a few days before we arrive at the parks, just to get an idea of what to expect.
- Arrive at the park well before rope drop. This insures a closer parking spot, shorter lines for your family at ticket windows, security, and at the turnstiles to enter the park. Sometimes the parks even open before the official opening time, and you should be able to ride a few rides before those wait times start rising.
- Buy your tickets in advance and load them into Universal app. No need to carry the paper tickets with you. Your family’s tickets can be scanned straight from your phone, but you still may need to show your id. The last time we visited the parks, we were very surprised at the long lines at the ticket windows.
- If you don’t have express passes for the rides, use the single rider line to skip the line. Of course, don’t do this with young kids.
- Staying on-site at Hard Rock, Portofino Bay, or Royal Pacific? Show your hotel room key for priority seating at many of the sit down restaurants at Universal Orlando. This includes select restaurants at both parks, CityWalk, and the on-site hotels. Just ask at the restaurant when you arrive if they honor the priority seating benefit.
- See the long security line at the park entrance? On-site hotel guests go thru security before they get on the water taxi, or along the walkways before arriving at the park. This saves so much time when arriving at a busier time.
- Buy Volcano Bay passes in advance (online or at on-site resort concierge desks) and set up your account online. This will save you a lot of time once you arrive at Volcano Bay. Setting up your account online entails registering your tickets and setting up an optional credit card and PIN. This info is linked to your TapuTapu band that you receive once you arrive at Volcano Bay. Your TapuTapu band will be used to enter the virtual ride lines, charge your purchases (if set up) and will unlock special features around the park (like spraying water at unsuspecting guests).
- You can only reserve one ride at a time at Volcano Bay. Go early and ride a couple of popular slides before they get busy and start their virtual lines. Sometimes the slides at the back of the park have a shorter wait time than the others.
- You can order food ahead of time, at select restaurants, thru the app. This includes Red Oven Pizza Bakery, Bread Box Handcrafted Sandwiches, Mel’s Drive-In, Today Café, and quite a few other places. Menus and prices are on the app and online.
- Make dining reservations at the restaurants that your family has picked out. Only a day or two in advance, is necessary. Reservations can be made thru the Universal Orlando website or the restaurant’s website. Reservations can’t be made thru Universal’s app, but the app does list the phone numbers if you want to call in a reservation.
- To save valuable time that can be spent on the rides, eat lunch before 11:30 or after 1:00. Eat dinner early, or late to save on waiting. Some restaurants do not take reservations, and have reported up to a two hour wait during the most crowded days at the parks.
Tips on Avoiding the Crowds at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure
- Check crowd calendars to get an idea of the crowd levels to expect while you are visiting the parks. While these are just a prediction of the crowds on any given day, they use historical data, current events, and other statistics to predict crowds at each of the parks. You can find our favorite crowd calendar here.
- Check convention calendars to get an idea of how busy the airport, parks, and surrounding areas may be. Orlando is a very popular destination for conferences, conventions, and trade shows and this can impact the attendance at the parks and occupancy rates at the hotels. You can check the convention calendar for the Orlando Orange County Convention Center here.
- Early entry in the mornings is available to all guests staying on-site at an Universal Orlando resort. These guests can enter the park one hour before the general public. This is a huge benefit if you want to explore the Wizarding World of Harry Potter before it gets too crowded. You will want to check Universal’s website, or the app, for the schedule of which parks open early on which days. Also, only select attractions open early and this info is on the website as well. Certain park pass holders can take advantage of early entry, and it may be included in select vacation packages.
- If your time at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure is limited and your family really wants to experience everything, you should consider using a touring plan. Let someone else tell you how to navigate the parks, ride which rides when, when to eat, and when to stop and watch one of the many shows. These touring plans require you to enter the park early and likely stay all day. We have loosely based our schedule on some of these plans in the past, and it is a very helpful way to avoid crowds and save time. You can find our recommended touring plans here.
- Visit in off season. The least crowded times to visit the parks are in late August thru mid-October, and mid-January thru mid-February.
- Is your resort pool too crowded for your family? If you are staying on-site, you can pool hop! The resorts at Universal Orlando have amazing pools and you can check out every single one of them! We spent a couple of afternoons lounging around the pool at Portofino Bay and had the place almost to ourselves.
- If you are a guest at any of Universal Orlando’s hotels, you can take a free shuttle to SeaWorld and Aquatica. Check with your hotel’s ticket center for more info. A day at another attraction could be a nice break from the crowd’s at Universal.
- Historically, the least crowded days are Sunday and Monday. I guess I wouldn’t mind starting my week off at Universal Orlando.
- Stay on-site and take a break in the afternoon back at your hotel. The parks get busier and the rides have the longest lines during the afternoon. This is when you leave…and then come back. We recommend taking an afternoon break at the fantastic pool at your hotel. Head back to the park at dinner time and hit those final rides.
- Is rain in the forecast? Don’t skip the parks like everyone else! Universal Studios Florida has a lot of indoor attractions that aren’t dependent on the weather.
How to Visit Universal Orlando on a Budget
- If your family likes using dining plans, buy the Universal dining plan and the math works out to a free snack for each day you purchase. You can buy the dining plan for one day at a time.
- Read the restaurant menus on the app or website before your family is starving, hangry, and in desperate need of food. This way, you can pick the restaurants that serve food your family will eat, and for the prices you can afford. Prices are included on the menus. Extra tip – eat at the more expensive places for lunch, when menu prices are a bit cheaper.
- Bring your American Express card to the park for special discounts. Current discounts are 10% off when you use an American Express card to purchase the Universal Dining Plan or buy a My Universal Photos package and receive free prints. Check app for updated deals or visit the Amex Card Center in the CityWalk Parking Hub for info.
- Login into your American Express credit card account (if applicable) and watch for Universal Orlando offers to add to your card. There are usually a couple of offers each year that could save you money on your vacation package (hotel and tickets).
- Show your on-site hotel room key and get into clubs on CityWalk for free.
- Buy tickets thru AAA, Undercover Tourist, various corporate programs, or Costco Travel for discounted prices.
- If you purchased your tickets with an American Express card at the park, or on the Universal Orlando website, your family is able to access to the Amex lounge located in Universal Studios Florida.
- Room rates are seasonal and based on demand. If you are flexible on your travel dates, you will want to check the rates for a range of days and book those cheaper nights. Friday and Saturday nights are more expensive, and I’ve seen the room rate increase from $30-$80 for those nights. One night’s deposit is required at booking.
- The premier hotels at Universal (Hard Rock, Portofino Bay, Royal Pacific) offer complimentary express passes with your stay. If you are visiting during a peak time and are planning to buy express passes, check the nightly rates for these hotels and it will probably be cheaper than staying at a different resort and buying your passes separately.
- Don’t mind switching hotels during your stay? Consider spending one night at a premier hotel because this includes express passes that are good for two full days (check-in day and check-out day). Use the express passes for the two days, and then spend the other nights at one of the lower priced hotels.
- The Florida weather usually messes up family’s vacations a few times a year. If you booked your room or vacation package thru Universal Orlando or Loews Resorts, and are unable to travel to Florida due to a “named” storm, you may be able to reschedule your vacation or receive a full refund.
- Planning to visit Universal Orlando a couple of times in one year? Check into annual passes. Annual passes come with some nice benefits that may save you some time and money on your family’s next trip.
- Check Universal Orlando’s website for current promotions, and sign up to receive their emails.
- Florida residents can get discounted tickets when purchasing thru Universal’s website.
- Don’t assume that the vacation packages offer big savings. Price each option individually, and decide what your family will use.
- If need to rent a car, check the Universal Orlando website for rental car discounts with Avis and Budget. There are also car rental desks at most of the on-site hotels for convenience.
- Bring your own souvenirs. You can easily buy Universal themed trinkets or toys somewhere else for a much better price, and surprise your kids with them when you arrive.
- Want to save some money on snacks at the park? You can bring your own snacks and bottled water into the park. Snacks have to be small and not require heating.
So, can you now picture your family walking right onto the rides, feeling like you’re the only one at the pool, and saving some serious money in the process? Of, course! Enjoy your trip to Universal Orlando, but first do these 10 Things Before you leave….
1. Watch videos of the rides on YouTube
There is nothing worse than going on a theme park ride, having your kid be terrified during the ride, and potentially ruining the rest of their life! I needed to know which rides my kids could handle, and which rides would have to wait for our next trip. By watching videos of the rides on YouTube, they were able to tell me “no way” or “YES, I CANNOT WAIT TO GO ON THAT RIDE”. The best ride videos we watched were by Inside the Magic and UnderCover Tourist.
2. Read the restaurant menus
There are a lot of places to eat in the parks, at CityWalk, and at the on-site hotels. You don’t want to waste your time and money by eating bad food! So, I searched online and read through some menus. This helped us decide where we really wanted to eat, and also gave us an idea of how much $$$ we were going to be spending. You can find menus on the Universal Orlando website.
Vicki started That Was a First to inspire families to turn their typical family vacation into a bucket list adventure, by providing in depth information and travel tips for destinations across the country.