You know every nook and cranny of the Magic Kingdom. Epcot is your home-away-from-home. But this trip… you are ready to cheat on Disney. As a die-hard Disney fan, going to another theme park may give you pause. But a day at Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, or Universal’s Volcano Bay is a worthy gamble. (And for at least another month while we wait for Disney World to open, Universal is the main game in town!). Find out what Disney skills and tricks transfer – and what don’t – in this guide to Universal Orlando for Disney fans.
As a Disney super-fan, going to any other theme park makes me feel a little guilty. My loyalty to Walt runs deep. When a trip awhile ago brought me solo to Orlando without my young kids for a full week, however, the options were endless. If there was ever a time to cheat on Disney, this was it. Without little ones in tow, Universal’s famous thrill rides were calling.
For the first time in over 20 years, I set out for a day at the Universal Orlando Resort. As a Disney expert, I feared I would be out of my element at a theme park for the first time in many years. Every rule of line aggregation and every crowd assumption was thrown into disarray for me. Always up for a challenge, however, I decided to go on a mission to learn how to do Universal in the same way I do Disney… efficiently.
Assuming you are ready for the challenge too, what does a Disney super-fan need to know about visiting Universal Orlando? The good news is that a lot of the skill set you likely already have transfers. Some of your favorite Disney hacks will work. But some won’t. Here’s what the Walt Disney World faithful need to know about Universal Orlando.
(Editor’s Note: Since this post is being published at a time when Universal Orlando has reopened its parks with special conditions, not all the usual rules apply for now. I’ve called out any exceptions or differences in the “What’s Different Now in 2020” in each section below in italics. Be sure to check out these first-hand tips for a reopened Universal for even more of the specifics.)
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7 Tips for Disney Fans Visiting Universal Orlando Resort
1. Park Hopping is More Valuable
One of my favorite tricks to avoid crowds at Disney parks is to know how and when to park hop. In Orlando, the parks are spread out and require transit time for hopping. Many Disney World visitors therefore skip park hopper tickets because of budget and logistics.
West Coasters know, however, that park hopping is much easier at Disneyland. The close proximity of the two California parks makes the extra cost of park hopper tickets worth it for more people.
When deciding whether to get Universal’s “park-to-park” ticket (the Universal version of a park hopper ticket), your decision-making process should be more like Disneyland. Why? Because Universal Orlando’s layout is much more like Disneyland than Walt Disney World.
The two regular Universal theme parks – Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure – are within walking distance of one another, making hopping easy to dodge crowds. (Volcano Bay, Universal’s water park is a bit farther afield.) There are park-to-park ticket options for the 2 standard parks or for all 3 parks including Volcano Bay.
My personal view is that a park-to-park add-on is worth it, particularly the two park option for visitors who only have a single day at Universal. Plus, the only way you can ride the Hogwart’s Express between Diagon Alley in Universal Studios and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure is to buy park-to-park tickets. If you have Harry Potter fans in the family, you really need to budget for the add-on.
Want to save money on Universal Orlando tickets? Whether you buy single park or park-to-park, Trips With Tykes affiliate Get Away Today offers discounts off of the direct-from-Universal pricing. See Universal Orlando ticket deals here.
What’s Different Now in 2020: While park hopping will be limited at Walt Disney World in 2020, park-to-park tickets are available at Universal Orlando during its limited reopening. Reservations are not required to enter parks like Disney World will be requiring, although limited capacity restrictions are in place.
2. Universal’s Express Pass Works Differently than Disney World’s Fastpass+
The Universal equivalent of Disney’s Fastpass system is called Express Pass. Unlike Fastpass+ at Walt Disney World where using the system is free, Universal’s system will cost most guests a pretty penny. The only exception is for anyone staying at one of the on-property Premier Universal resort hotels where Express Pass is included in your stay.
There are two types of Express Pass: the regular Express Pass that provides cut-the-line privileges once per ride or the Express Pass Unlimited with no such per ride limits. Each of these two types of Express Pass is available in either a single park version or a park-to-park version.
Depending on which one you choose, the Express Pass can be as cheap as $69.99 (for standard Express Pass in a single park) or as high as as $179.99 (for two parks Unlimited Express Pass during Christmas week). Express Pass for Volcano Bay, Universal’s water park, is quite a bit cheaper, starting at $19.99.
Since Express Pass comes at a price for most guests, the big decision is whether it is worth the cost. Take a look at the rides that offer Express Pass (the brand new Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure does not!) and see if your group will be likely to take advantage of a lot of them. For families with older kids who can take advantage of single rider lines, Express Pass might not be worth it because other line-cutting strategies are available.
Express Pass is often a must-do, however, during busy times if budget allows. What many visitors don’t know is that you can purchase Express Pass in the park if you find lines growing longer than you’d like. So, if you are going in low or regular season, wait to purchase until you get to the park to see if you really need it (see why my friend Karen of Desert Chica says it was a big mistake to pre-purchase her Universal Express pass online in advance!).
What’s Different Now in 2020: Virtual queues for some popular rides are being required now, but Universal Orlando’s Express Pass allows guests to skip those queues on eligible rides also offering Express Pass.
3. The Lockers
There are lockers at Disney for travelers who need to store larger items, but they certainly aren’t a necessity or used by all visitors. At Universal, if you want to ride any of the thrill rides, you are going to need to understand and use Universal’s locker system. Why? Since Universal boasts some real thrill rides guaranteed to make you lose your lunch, losing your glasses and wallet are also a serious consideration. Hence, the locker requirement.
On any of the serious thrill rides, such as Revenge of the Mummy in Universal Studios or Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in Islands of Adventure, Universal requires that guests stow their loose articles in a locker before riding. Small cross-body purses and even cell phones are not allowed on many of these rides, which is very different from Disney where you can often just tuck a backpack between your legs. Lockers are located right outside each ride that requires them. They are free for enough time to wait and ride on the attraction.
Free sounds great, right? The problem is that the number of lockers are grossly inadequate to meet demand. The lockers outside of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey were full every time I rode, meaning I had to wait just for a locker to free up. People were pushing and shoving in the very tight spaces around the lockers and tempers were flaring. I had one locker malfunction and getting a Universal employee to help fix it ate up another 10 minutes of my time. I visited on a weekday and not during a high season, so I cannot even imagine how the system functions on busy weekends or holiday periods.
If you are used to packing everything and the kitchen sink for a day at Disney, seriously rethink that practice at Universal. Travel light so your entire family can squeeze all your belongings in a single locker. If you have young kids and will be using child swap for the adults or older kids to ride the thrill rides, don’t use the lockers at all. Instead have other members of your party hold your belongings while you ride and save serious frustration.
What’s Different Now in 2020: With current distancing requirements, you can probably imagine that many guests are reporting that the locker situation is that much worse since guests can’t all cram into the tiny areas at one time anymore. Plan accordingly – the locker line may be longer than the ride line!
4. On-Property Hotels
Disney fans often choose to stay in Disney-owned hotels to take advantage of many well-known on-property perks. Disney guests get free Magical Express transportation to and from the airport, Extra Magic Hours, and other perks.
Universal also has several on-property perks for guests staying in the Universal hotels, although they aren’t quite as extensive. The most useful of these is early park admission where guests get access to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Volcano Bay one hour early. Also valuable for guests who stay in one of the either Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, or Loews Royal Pacific Resort is free Express Pass Unlimited (note: this benefit is not available to the hotels that are designated as anything other than Premier).
5. Attraction Comparison
Let’s talk ride quality and thrills. You’ve probably heard that Universal isn’t the place for little kids, especially in comparison to Disney. I agree, to an extent. Universal Orlando has a number of extreme thrill rides perfect for tweens, teens, and adults that are not the right fit for toddlers, preschoolers, and young kids.
That said, I must admit that I was still ready to bring my entire family to Universal Orlando on my next trip for one major reason — Seuss Landing. This is the best-themed young child area I’ve seen at any theme park nationwide outside of Disney. I adored it traveling solo, and my kids would have loved it too. The theming was immersive. This single area of the park was enough for me to heartily recommend Universal’s Islands of Adventure to families with young kids like mine. When combined with the fun of Harry Potter in Hogsmeade, Islands of Adventure is the park to visit with young kids. If budget is a consideration, forego the park-to-park option and stay in Islands of Adventure on a trip with just little ones.
Of course, if you have tweens and teens, your kids may love Universal even more than Disney. Crazy thrill ride options like Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit or Revenge of the Mummy are definitely more of a challenge than Disney’s Tower of Terror or Rock N Roller Coaster.
What’s Different Now in 2020: Most of the top thrill rides are currently operating on a virtual queue system to keep physical lines shorter. Standby lines may not be available at all. Additionally, the virtual queue spots run out as the day goes on. Be sure to check the app early and often to snag reservations for your must-do thrill rides.
6. Single Rider Line
Disney World offers single rider on a few of its thrill rides, but the single rider option is available on many more attractions at Universal. Like at Disney, groups that are willing to split up to fill empty seats will wait a lot less.
Since I was solo, I used the single rider lines on every ride where they were available (when Express Pass wasn’t offered). I rarely waited more than a few minutes to ride anything. I was even on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in under 15 minutes during the busiest times of day. The bottom line? Single rider is an amazing hack for families who are willing to utilize it – even more so than at Disney World.
What’s Different Now in 2020: Single rider lines are currently on pause in 2020 to keep space open on ride vehicles. Fingers crossed for their return in safer times because they rock at Universal when available!
7. Child Swap
Like at Disney parks, Universal Orlando offers a program where adults can trade off riding and staying with kids too small for certain attractions while only having to wait once. At Disney parks, this program is called Rider Switch. It’s known as Child Swap at Universal Orlando.
I’m not sure one system is better than the other. They are just different. Knowing how each system works allows you to know how to best hack the system for your party.
Universal has Child Swap waiting rooms in most of the major thrill rides. Parents can wait in line together and then head to the rooms when one parent is riding. Parents then switch off, with the second parent skipping the line entirely. Universal’s Child Swap requires that the second group of riders must swap right away.
Disney doesn’t have these waiting rooms but instead assigns a “Rider Switch” allotment, linked to your ticket or MagicBand. Because Disney requires that Rider Swap returnees enter through the Fastpass line on almost all attractions, this can mean a little bit of an extra wait for the second group riding. So score 1 for Universal’s system that has almost zero wait for the second group.
That said, the Disney system arguably has its advantages too. It is a big more flexible, because it works like a Fastpass with a one hour return time. And Disney’s system allows one adult to go elsewhere with a young child (like on a snack or bathroom break) instead of making a non-riding child wait in the line the whole time.
The bottom line: both systems are important line-cutting hacks for travelers with small kids. Use them!
Are you a Disney fan who has visited Universal Orlando? What other tips would you offer?