Guide to Planning a Trip to Universal Orlando (2023)

When you start to plan a Universal Orlando vacation it is important to understand the Universal theme parks, what type of tickets to purchase as well as how to plan your Universal Orlando itinerary. This is our full guide to planning a trip to Universal Orlando.

universal orlando vacation planning
This post contains affiliate links and sponsored content. All opinions are my own. Learn more here.

Universal Orlando Resort is located in Orlando, Florida. There are three Universal theme parks: Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and the water park Universal’s Volcano Bay.

Universal is opening a brand new theme park called Universal’s Epic Universe in summer of 2025.

Universal Orlando also has numerous on-site Universal hotel options as well as an entertainment complex called Universal CityWalk.

In this article I am going to go through the most common questions for how to plan a trip to Universal Orlando, share a 3 day itinerary for Universal and share many helpful Universal Orlando planning articles that are worth checking out.

Check out our partners for the best deals on theme park tickets, hotels, and attractions to save money on your trip! Theme park tickets, resorts, and car rentals check out Undercover Tourist .

Are you visiting a city and want to research hotels? Check out City attraction and theme park tickets check out CityPass

Basics for Planning a Trip to Universal Orlando Vacation

When planning a Universal Orlando vacation there are a few questions to ask yourself to help you plan the best trip for your family.

When planning a trip to Universal Orlando (or Walt Disney World) you need to plan for a few specific items. They are:

  • Transportation Needs
  • Park Tickets/Theme Park Admission
  • Accomodations
  • Dining

How to Get to Universal Orlando Resort

Transportation from the Orlando International Airport to the Universal Orlando Resort is something you need to consider.

There is not a specific shuttle that takes you to and from the airport and parks. There is on-site transportation so if you are staying on-site for your entire trip you do not need a car.

We have used many different types of transportation from Uber, Sunshine Flyer, and a private car from Mears. All of them are around the same price point for our family.

I suggest comparing prices for all three to help you decide which fits in your budget.

How Many Days Should You Spend at Universal Orlando

If this is your first visit to Universal Orlando I suggest planning at least a single day at each of the parks. That would be one day at Universal Studios, one day at Islands of Adventure, and one day at Volcano Bay.

This time frame allows you to see everything at each park and not rush through anything.

You will most likely want to plan full days at the Universal parks. If you are visiting during spring break or the busy season you will need the day to see everything.

I find that 4-5 days is the sweet spot to get everything done and explore the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Universal offers ticket deals often for 4 days at the parks. You can also check with our partner Undercover Tourist to see what specials they have available.

This may seem like a lot but you can spend a week at the Universal parks and still not experience everything there is to see and do. When Universal’s Epic Universe opens a week at Universal will be more common.

We plan time at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to use our wands, explore the shops, look around, and ride the attractions. If you are a Harry Potter fan you definitely should plan time to really explore the Wizarding World.

There are also great restaurants, shows, pools, and attractions throughout the resort hotels and parks.

We like to take our time to explore and don’t like to wait in long lines when we visit the theme parks, because of this we like to add a day or two onto our vacation to visit attractions we may have skipped or missed.

diagon alley gringotts bank at wizarding world of harry potter.

How much does a trip to Universal Orlando cost?

The major costs of a Universal Orlando trip is tickets, accommodations, food, and transportation. Tickets and accommodations are usually the first thing people look at.

For our family of five, tickets are usually the most expensive part of the trip.

On a recent visit to Universal Orlando our price breakdown was this:

  • Tickets: $1624.10 (Purchased annual passes)
  • Surfside Inn and Suites for 6 nights: $644.00
  • Flight: $1500.00
  • Food Budget: $150.00/day

Food and transportation are usually the places we try to save the most. We will splurge on a few meals during vacation but also order take-out on some nights.

We also pack to-go breakfast to save money on meals out.

We almost always purchase an annual pass for our Universal vacations. If we visit 2 times in a calendar year the annual pass is worth it. Each pass was $305.00, if you price out a 4 day ticket you will find the cost is very comparable.

Annual pass holders also receive resort room discounts that save money too! We saved around $30.00/night using our annual pass holder discount for our recent stay.

Learn more about how to plan Universal on a Budget.

Universal Orlando Ticket Options

  • One Day Theme Park Tickets- This ticket will allow you to enter 1 park for the day.
  • 3 Park/3 Day- This ticket will allow you admission to one park each day for 3 consecutive days.
  • 2 Park/Park-to-Park- These tickets allow you to park hop between Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.
  • 3 Park/Park to Park- This offers the above but also includes Universal’s Volcano Bay.
  • It is important to note that you must have a park to park ticket to ride the Hogwarts Express. The Hogwarts Express takes guests from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Diagon Alley(Universal Studios) to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Hogsmeade(Islands of Adventure).
  • They also offer 2 day tickets, 4 day tickets, etc. Learn more here.

I highly suggest checking prices from our partner Undercover Tourist. They often have Universal ticket deals and buy 1 get 1 offers.

Where to Stay When Planning a Trip to Universal Orlando

I always recommend staying on-site when visiting Universal or Disney because it is convenient and I like staying inside the “theme park bubble”.

Guests staying on-site at Universal do have some perks. Early park admission allows on-site guests early access into the park before the general public. This can allow you to skip the long lines and ride some of the most popular attractions.

At the premier Universal hotels Unlimited Express Pass is included with your stay. This allows you to skip the regular lines. Guests can also purchase Express Pass at an additional cost.

Express pass is pricey and it almost always makes sense to stay at a premier resort if you are considering purchasing it. Read More: Is Universal Studios Express Pass Worth It?

Universal Orlando Resorts Review (Universal Hotels We Have Stayed At)

Best Month to Go To Universal Orlando

The best time to visit the parks are when the crowds are low and the weather is nice.

Florida is very hot and rainy in the summer, although late summer is one of our favorite times to visit because of low crowds.

Low crowd times like when kids are in school, are often less expensive making it a great time to visit.

During school breaks the parks are busy. This is usually the months of March, April, and July. October through December are busy around holiday breaks.

The least busiest months are January and September.

Universal Orlando 3 Day Itinerary

We have visited Universal Orlando Resort many times in the last few years.

We are Universal annual pass holders, even though we live in New York, and find the price of the pass to be comparable to the price of a 4-5 day ticket.

For this visit we visited the parks and Volcano Bay. We also had Express Passes for our 3 day visit.

Express passes allow you to skip the regular line and it cuts out a lot of wait time. This allowed us to quickly ride all of our favorites during our visit.

If we do not have express pass we take advantage of the single rider line. The single rider line will split your group up but the wait time is shortened.

Express pass is included with your hotel accommodations for Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, and Loews Royal Pacific Resort.

I recommend checking the prices of the resorts and see if they fall within your budget. If they do the perk of the Express Pass is great to have.

If not….do not worry! Our visits without express pass are always a success and we never miss attractions we want to experience.

Without an express pass you have to be prepared to arrive at the parks before park opening and have a plan on what rides and attractions you will experience first.

Be sure to check out our updated Universal Studios Itinerary and Islands of Adventure Itinerary that details the most popular attractions and current availability. Also check out the end of this article for more Universal Orlando vacation posts.

Day 1: Universal’s Volcano Bay and Universal’s Islands of Adventure

Volcano Bay and Islands of Adventure Day 1 Overview

  • Volcano Bay attractions in the morning.
  • CityWalk for lunch. Moe’s/Burger King
  • Island’s of Adventure Water Rides: Dudley and Popeye
  • Hotel to relax and dinner.
  • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley

We started our morning sleeping in and then took the bus from our resort to Volcano Bay. Universal’s Volcano Bay is one of the most beautiful water parks I have ever seen. It is stunning and you feel like you are on an island oasis.

volcano bay entrance for our universal orlando vacation
Entrance to Universal’s Volcano Bay

If you are arriving by car you will park at the Universal Orlando Resort parking garage and take the bus from there to Volcano Bay.

If you are staying at an on-site Universal resort you will be provided with transportation to the park.

My biggest regret about the day was that we slept in and didn’t arrive early.

We had a late night the day before and we needed the sleep but I like to arrive early at a park, especially our first visit, so we can get settled and not feel rushed.

Even though we arrived a little after 10:00am we still had little wait times for the attractions and got to ride the attractions we were looking forward to doing.

When you arrive at Volcano Bay you are given a Tapu-Tapu which is a band you will wear during your day at the park. You must return it when exiting.

Before you arrive at the park you should connect your Universal Tickets with a credit card on the Universal App.

By doing this you can use your Tapu-Tapu to charge meals and lockers, and keep your valuables locked in a locker.

Volcano Bay lockers can be used throughout the day, even if you leave the park and return. I would pack lightly to purchase a small locker for the day.

volcano bay

You also are not provided with towels. We didn’t realize this until the day before and I didn’t pack towels for the vacation.

Honestly I thought this would be a bigger issue but we didn’t really need towels because it was so hot. If you do want a towel they can be rented at the park or bring your own.

After we figured out all the logistics of getting our locker, applying sunscreen, and deciding if we needed towels we made our way to the right of the park to explore.

We kept our sandals/flip flops on us and at the entrance of all the attractions they have canopy cubbies to leave your shoes. If you are not comfortable with this you would have to use a locker.

We made our way through the attractions and most were ride now. Volcano Bay uses a virtual que. You scan your Tapu-Tapu and it tells you when to come back for your turn to ride.

If the wait times are low, like they were on our visit, you will see a ride now posted and do not need to scan your band.

We did this until we arrived at Krakatau Aqua Coaster. This is the main attraction at Volcano Bay and typically the one with the longest lines.

We scanned our Tapu-Tapu and had a return time for 75 minutes. This allowed us to explore more of the park and return when it was time to ride.

During our wait time we went on TeAwa the Fearless River. This is unlike anything we have every experienced. It looks like a lazy river but is basically a lazy river and wave pool mash up.

Everyone must wear a life jacket and it is a bit intense for little ones. The height requirements is 42 inches. The Fearless River was our family favorite and we went around multiple times.

After that it was time for our ride on Krakatau Aqua Coaster. It was a lot of fun but we all loved the river attraction the best.

At this point it was lunch time so we collected our things to have lunch at CityWalk. Volcano Bay has great dining options but we had plans to ride the water attractions at Islands of Adventure.

tapu tapu return at volcano bay
Tapu-Tapu at Universal’s Volcano Bay.

We didn’t get to see everything at Volcano Bay but for a first visit we got a great taste of what they have to offer.

I would love to add it to our Universal Orlando vacation next time to explore the rest of the park and relax at Waturi Beach with my toes in the sand and the volcano views.

We stopped at CityWalk for lunch at Moe’s and Burger King. Nothing fancy and it was quick to make it to our next destination.

Our next stop was Universal’s Islands of Adventure for the water rides. Islands of Adventure has 3 water ride attractions but 2 of them you get soaked on.

Dudley’s Do-Rights and Popeye’s Bilge-Rat Barge will get you drenched. Jurassic Park River Adventure is the 3rd water attractions but you don’t usually get soaked like the other 2.

We planned to visit Islands of Adventures with our bathing suits/cover ups/flip flops to ride the water rides and then head back to the hotel to relax and get ready for the night.

They are both really fun rides and we always make a point of riding at least once.

After our day we were ready to rest a bit at the hotel. We headed back to the Surfside Inn and Suites to get ready for our Harry Potter evening at the parks.

Harry Potter has two locations at Universal Orlando Resort. They are The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Diagon Alley (Universal Studios) and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter-Hogsmeade(Islands of Adventure).

To experience both in one day you need a park to park ticket. The best way to visit both worlds is to ride the Hogwarts Express.

hogsmeade at Islands of adventure

We started at Hogsmeade. With our wands in hand we tried our spells and visited the shops. We also used our Express Pass to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Flight of the Hippogriff.

Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure is a popular attraction that has long wait times. Currently express pass is not available at the attraction.

After we explored we took the Hogarts Express to Diagon Alley. I know this is backwards and if you are a Harry Potter fan I suggest doing Diagon Alley first and then take the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade.

We ended up back at Hogsmeade at the end of the night but we could have saved time by doing Diagon Alley first.

At Diagon Alley we watched the Tales of Beedle the Bard show. It is a 10 minute puppet show that was really entertaining and well done.

After that we used our Express Pass to ride Escape from Gringotts. We love Gringotts and try to ride it as much as possible during our visits.

night show at Hogwarts
Night show on the Hogwarts castle at Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

The parks were close to closing and we took the Hogwarts Express back to Hogsmeade to watch the evening castle projection show.

The castle show runs from dusk until park close but I like to end our day with the show.

Day 2: Islands of Adventure/Pool/Universal Studios

Islands of Adventure/Universal Studios Florida Day 2 Overview

  • Arrive at park opening at Islands of Adventure to ride Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike
  • Ride Jurassic Park and Spider Man.
  • Lunch at Mythos. (make reservations)
  • Explore Seuss Landing and ride attractions.
  • VooDoo Doughnuts at CityWalk
  • Pool at Surfside Inn
  • Universal Studios in the evening for dinner and show.

One of our goals for this vacation was to ride Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventures. It had been posting lines of 300 minute waits and we were nervous we might not ride it.

Arriving early allowed us to ride it twice without waiting longer than 45 minutes.

The best way to ride with a short wait time is to arrive about an hour before the park opens. We always do this and it gets us ahead of the crowds.

Bring your coffee and breakfast to go and be among the first in the park. We did this two days during our vacation and it allowed us to ride without waiting too long.

After Hagrid’s we took our time exploring and taking full advantage of the Express Passes. We rode Spider-Man a few times, Jurassic Park and then went to Mythos for lunch.

Mythos is a sit down restaurant and is on the pricey side. We decided to splurge because it was my birthday!

Honestly, Mythos was okay. The food was good but it was a bit pricey. I would save it for special occasions and be sure to check the menu before you arrive to make sure it is a good fit for your family.

After Mythos we went to Seuss Landing. Seuss Landing is one of my favorite areas of Islands of Adventure. I wrote a post about everything we love at Seuss Landing you must see but it really is just a fun place to explore.

Having the Express Pass saved us a lot of time at Seuss Landing because we were able to bypass the lines and walk on to all the attractions.

carousel at Islands of adventure
The carousel at Islands of Adventure.

After Seuss Landing we walked back to the buses for some time at the resort pool. On our way back we stopped at CityWalk for VooDoo Doughnuts.

VooDoo Doughnuts have some really fun and unique doughnuts to try. We had tried to stop in a few times before but the lines get really long especially later in the day.

VooDoo Doughnuts at Universal’s CityWalk.

When we visit the theme parks we like to start our day early and then head back to the hotel to relax and have some pool time. This works for us because it is usually the hottest time of the day and busiest.

At Universal it is easy to go back and forth during the day because of the Universal bus transportation between resorts. It was under ten minutes to take the bus from our resort to the parks.

That night we went back to Universal Studios Florida. Again the Express Pass allowed us to have flexibility in our schedule, not worry about wait times, and get on everything we wanted to ride.

We started with dinner at Monster’s Cafe(closed to reopen as Minion Cafe in Summer 2023!) and then did Fast and the Furious and a few other rides before getting a spot for the show.

At this point it was almost closing time. I really wanted to see the evening show Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration.

We ended up getting a close spot across from the Fast and the Furious ride, unfortunately we were at the back of the the show and couldn’t see much of the water projections.

Next time I would find a spot on the other side of the water.

Universal Studios Florida nightly show

Day 3: Best of Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure

Best of the Park Day 3 Overview

  • Started our day at Universal Studios.
  • Ended at Islands of Adventure.
  • We did our park favorites.

Day 3 was our last day at Universal before we headed back home from our Universal Orlando vacation. We used the express pass to take advantage of the short lines and created a best of day.

We started our day at Universal Studios and did Despicable Me, the Jimmy Fallon ride, the Mummy, met Beetlejuice, rode Transformers, Men In Black, E.T., and Gringotts.

All of this was done in under a few hours because of the Express Pass.

Meeting Beetlejuice at Universal Studios Florida.

There are so many characters walking around at the Universal theme parks. Learn more about the characters on our post about the 65 Meet and Greets at the Universal Orlando Parks.

After that we took the Hogwarts Express to Islands of Adventure and checked out a few of the stores. Then it started to rain. The rain can often be part of a Universal Orlando vacation.

It is unpredictable but if you are prepared it won’t affect your day.

We put on our ponchos and made our way to Seuss Landing for lunch at Circus McGurkus. By the time lunch was over the rain had stopped and we finished our day with a ride on Spider-Man.

rain at islands of adventure

It was early afternoon and we had done all of our favorites at the park. We walked through CityWalk to the resort buses and started packing for our flight home the next day.

We loved taking our time to enjoy all the entertainment and attractions during our Universal Orlando vacation. It is a great family friendly destination and we can’t wait to plan our next visit.

Planning a Trip to Universal Orlando: Theme Parks

Universal Studios Vacation Planning

Islands of Adventure Vacation Planning

Planning at Trip to Universal Orlando: Resorts

Planning a Trip to Universal Orlando: Dining

Universal Orlando Trip: More Helpful Articles

planning your universal orlando vacation

Sharing is caring!