It’s too hard!
That’s what your lazy brain tells you when the idea of a family vacation to Universal Studios Orlando comes up.
Just use my ultimate guide for Universal Studios Orlando that is perfect for any mom… even if you’re super duper lazy.
This guide is not too long or too short. It’s just right. And it includes all the essential info you need to know to make smart decisions without wasting half a day of research.
Your family will think you’re a rock star.
Take my word for it.
Budget Tip: Save up to $74 per ticket by buying online in advance from Theme Park Center.
Where To Stay Near Universal Studios Orlando
Universal Studios recommended we try their family friendly retro-themed Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Big pools, a waterslide, a beach-inspired sand area for castle-making or volleyball, and the American-style Bayliner Diner make it a relaxing, laid back place to spend your evenings or down-days not at the theme park.
Our Tower Family Suite featured a living room (with fold-out sofa for the kids), kitchenette and separate bedroom with two queen beds. 2 bathroom sinks meant that getting ready in the morning was quicker. I found it provided plenty of room for the four of us, plus my sister who came to visit for her birthday.
The bonuses of staying at a Universal hotel are well worth the resort fees. You can enjoy:
- Early park admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter 1 hour before the public (tip: the Hogwarts Express train which connects both halves doesn't run during that time).
- Free package delivery to the hotel room for any items purchased in the theme parks.
- Free parking at the main CityWalk parking garage.
- Free transportation to the theme parks and CityWalk – a shuttle leaves every 10 minutes starting early in the morning until 2am.
- “Pool hopping” privileges allows you to use any other related hotels’ recreational facilities – for example, you get to use the Hard Rock Hotel pool even if you are staying at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort.
- Free Wi-Fi Internet in all hotel rooms and public areas.
- Free scheduled transportation to SeaWorld, Aquatica, and Wet ‘n Wild.
- And all guests staying at Portofino Bay, Hard Rock, and Royal Pacific also get free Universal Express Unlimited passes for both parks. More on this later, because this is my number one must-do when buying tickets to Universal.
We loved the hotel. The pool was ultra relaxing, and with lifeguards on duty I spent most of my time soaking in the hot tub while the kids happily swam supervised in the pool.
Bayliner Diner was ok. The majority of breakfast foods were sitting around waiting to be purchased, however omelettes were freshly prepared and my preferred option. While they could freshly prepare omelettes there was nowhere to get fried eggs and the scrambled eggs were in a warmer and looking rather clumpy.
We also had lunch at Bayliner Diner one day. The pizza was not too bad, but the burgers were freshly made and rather tasty. They have a drink refill system that works terribly. You have to purchase a souvenir cup to use the freestyle soda machines. If you use a normal cup you have to use a different machine that rarely worked. Every time we wanted a drink we had to ask staff to fix it. I think the hotel would benefit from sorting out those drink machines, because it was rather frustrating.
But there were other places to get a great drink, plus they have a Starbucks!
The resort houses a bowling alley (called Galaxy Bowl), ideal if the weather turns sour. And the fitness room was huge with expansive windows overlooking the beautiful pool area.
Tickets for the theme park can be purchased in the lobby area, and online tickets (booked in advance) can be conveniently printed here. Just be aware you can not print the express passes in advance - they have to be printed on the day they are to be used. We found this out the hard way.
Where To Eat In Universal Studios Orlando
I loved the themed restaurants at Universal and was bummed that with 2 days up our sleeves I wouldn’t have time to try them all. I wish I tried a British-style pub meal at The Leaky Cauldron which sounded fab (so if you went here, let me know in the comments below). Instead, here is where we stuffed our faces:
Lard Lad Donuts @ Simpsons Land
For only $4.99 (+ tax) you can enjoy your very own Giant Pink. You’ve seen the giant pink iced, sprinkled donut on The Simpsons TV series and movie, and now you can enjoy your very own. This donut is as big as your head so we shared it amongst 2 adults and 2 kids. After a month without sugar it was by far the best possible reward ever.
Butterbeer Stands @ The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
My sister and I tried the famous Butterbeer back in London at the Harry Potter Studios. We were not fans, but we were told the US version was different so we went in search of Butterbeer. It’s not hard to find, wherever you go in Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade you will find shops and stalls selling the famous Butterbeer. And this is one you can drink in the morning, as it is non-alcoholic. While slightly different and a bit sweeter than the UK alternative, I am not convinced it’s something I would drink again. But you must do it at least once! It’s a soda topped with a sweet-scented cream froth that will leave you with a white moustache.
NBC Sports Grill & Brew @ CityWalk
At first I had to wonder why Universal would recommend a sports bar to a family. But this brand new restaurant is so much more than sports on big screens (although there’s plenty of that). Families will love this place with its built-in foosball tables and loud, lively atmosphere. That’s right, we were seated at a glass-topped foosball table, which kept the kids amused for several hours during dinner.
We got to try the soft pretzel for starters, which was bigger than a small child. Also try the Wisconsin fried cheese curds, so soft and mouth-watering. The menu covers burgers, salads, ribs, and steaks. All in very generous portions and for a reasonable price. Try the brownie sundae for dessert; again, you might like to share.
Best Way To Get To Universal Studios Florida
The majority of the Universal hotels are within walking distance to the theme parks. Hard Rock is the closest and Cabana Bay is the furthest requiring a 30-minute walk.
With young kids, the free shuttle from Cabana Bay Beach Resort was a lifesaver. Instead of adding that walk on top of an already FitBit-crazy-steps day. The shuttle bus dropped us off at a central hub and it was a simple escalator up to the top level. From there an airport-style security check takes place (but with almost no queues) before taking the travelator to CityWalk, just outside the theme park entrances.
You can park at the same hub, but parking costs are similar to Disney at $20 per day, per car. If you leave your car at the hotel, overnight parking is $12 (see latest prices).
If you are at one of the other Universal hotels you can also reach CityWalk and the theme parks by boat! How cool is that?
And if you get tired in the park then use the Hogwarts Express train to make your way between the 2 theme parks. It’s a mini show and it changes in each direction so make sure you travel both ways.
Tell Me More About Universal!
In Orlando you will find 2 Universal parks – Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. If you are a magic-loving Harry Potter fan you might spend the entire day at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which spans both parks – Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida and Hogsmeade in Universal’s Islands of Adventure.
But there is so much more to Universal than Harry Potter. For instance, Mia’s favourite ride (that we went on more than 5 times) was the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. It features 3 world-first manoeuvres — the Double Take (the world’s largest non-inverted loop), the Treble Clef (track built in the shape of the musical symbol) and the Jump Cut (a spiralling negative-gravity move).
The worst part about this ride? Caius was too small and was very upset that he couldn’t come on with us. The best bit? You can choose your own music to ride with. So each time it’s like a new ride! But choose quickly, I got a random country song after taking too long - an interesting choice for a rollercoaster, haha!
Our Favourite Rides At Universal Studios
Escape from Gringotts
Most of the Harry Potter rides are unbelievable, but this was a family favourite. My 5-year-old found the story scary. He still wanted to ride, but he did so without the glasses because he didn’t want to watch the accompanying 3D film. You first enter the Gringotts bank underneath a hot fire-breathing dragon. The queue moves fast as you pass through the bank’s grand marble lobby where goblins are working. Then strap in for a multi-dimension 3D thrill ride with special guest Harry and Voldemort.
On a side note Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in the Hogwarts castle is bit terrifying for young children. There is a height restriction which both my kids passed, but flying dementors and lots of dark and scary noises means if your youngster scares easily then perhaps give that one a skip!
Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem
Our kids’ favourite. It all starts with Gru addressing the audience, followed by mountains of giggles as a fart sound effect fills the air (thankfully it smells like bananas). Once you head into the auditorium a 3D roller coaster cinematic ride ensued. There’s always a queue, but you can use the Express Pass and get in super fast. It’s a must for both kids and adults.
You might like to utilise the child swap for this dark ride. It’s a roller coaster through the shadows with hot flames, scarab beetles and, of course, mummies. My 5-year-old surprisingly loved this ride, but my more sensitive 7-year-old was not even keen to try. For adults this is an awesome ride!
This gyrating ride through the world of the Simpsons was a firm family favourite, but even with the Express Pass the queue can be quite long so head here at the start of your day. The bonus is that while you’re waiting they show Simpsons episodes which makes you forget about the wait.
Tickets For Universal Studios Florida
There are two types of tickets you can buy for Universal. A Base Ticket will give you admission to Universal Studios Florida OR Universal's Islands of Adventure. While the Park-to-Park ticket will give you entry to BOTH.
I recommend the Park-to-Park Ticket so you can visit both parks in one or two days.
A discounted 1-day ticket is US$160.94 for adults and $153.73 for kids (use the above link for the discount). If you buy a 2-day ticket, however, you can get a 3rd day free! A 2-day ticket will set you back $226.88 for an adult and $216.92 for a child.
I recommend buying your tickets in advance via Theme Park Center which will save up to $74 per ticket.
Do You Really Need An Express Pass?
If I had to do it again I would not hesitate to get the Express Pass, regardless if you have kids. Nearly every ride has an Express line, which can save you anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours.
Without an Express Pass you will need at least 2 days to do both theme parks. With the Express Pass (on a quieter day) you could squeeze everything in 1 overloaded day. We still used ours across 2 days and it just meant that the rides we loved the most could be re-visited once, twice or six times.
With kids in the equation, skipping those hour-long queues was paramount to an enjoyable family day and I highly recommend building it in to your budget.
The Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride did not support the Express Pass, so use the mobile app to establish the shortest wait time and choose the optimal time. We ended up waiting 25 minutes which wasn’t bad considering we gradually walked through the whole Hogwarts castle, being entertained by interesting talking characters, screens, enchanting decorations and more.
You can get two types of Express Passes. The Universal Express Pass can be used one time per ride. The Universal Express Unlimited Pass can be used unlimited times on any of the participating rides each day that your pass is valid. Prices vary so check Universal for latest prices.
You can also get these included for free at certain Universal hotels.
While You’re There…
Blue Man Group
The first time I saw the Blue Man Group was in New York without the family. When the opportunity came to see it again with the family I was over the moon. I couldn’t wait to introduce them to one of the most amazing live shows I’d ever seen.
The Blue Man Group have a permanent home at the Sharp Aquos Theatre, a building right outside Universal Studios in CityWalk. It’s a smart choice to tag this activity on one night after finishing at the theme park.
While the show contained some elements from the show I had seen in New York, it also included some new, surprising routines.
I have never heard my 5-year-old son laugh so hard. It’s the perfect family show! And the ending is phenomenal.
When choosing seats make sure you pay special attention to the “Poncho” zone. There was a bit of spit flying around from the stage. The theatre seats 1000 people, but no matter where you are seated the zones are arranged in such a way that you will always have a good view.
If you are still unsure what the Blue Man Group is, it’s best described as a comedic rock concert, theatre production and dance party all rolled into one. If that doesn’t help, then go see it!
A great place for a day away from the theme parks. The kids will get to exercise their creativity and parents can enjoy a moment’s rest while they run from exhibit to exhibit in a safe, enclosed space. Read more here.
Plenty of young families are flocking to Disney World every day, but I prefer Universal Studios Orlando. The crowds are thinner, it will also cost you less and the rides are way more crazy. Sure, the Magic Kingdom is a magical day out for young kids, but if you had to choose just 1 park (and love adrenaline-pumping thrills) then Universal Studios Orlando takes the cake.
Or if you have the time (and money) up your sleeve, just do both theme parks. It’s up to you. Read here about our 1 day at the Magic Kingdom.
Top Lazy Hacks For Universal Studios Florida
We used the child swap service a few times, but you can also utilise this for a bag swap. If your bag/backpack is too big for the lockers (or just contains fragile/valuable items) then simply have one person in your group wait with the bag/s in the child swap room and swap once your party finishes the ride. We had a backpack which would not quite fit in the provided lockers outside several rides. We also didn’t want our photography gear getting ruined on the water rides so we found this a super handy service.
Men In Black Tour
If it’s a slow day at the park (like when we went before Spring Break in March) then ask a team member to show you the giant immigration room at the Men In Black ride.
Ministry Of Magic Phone Booth
Oh, I love this one! Dial 62442 (MAGIC) on the red phone booth outside Leicester Square Station, it will connect you directly with the Ministry of Magic (for free).
Harry Potter Postcards
Want to make your friends jealous? Send a postcard from Hogsmeade Village and it will get a special Hogsmeade Village postmark.
Choosing your own song on Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit gets even better with “hidden tracks”. After lowering the restraints, push and hold the ride’s logo for around 10 seconds. When you release your finger, a number pad will show up. Enter a three-digit code, then push enter, and a mystery song corresponding to the code will be played. Most of the tracks are located between 101-132, 301-312, 501-508, 701-718 and 901-904. If you hit a different number, you’ll hear the default song.
Your Own Food
Universal Studios allow you to bring your own food into the park. If you want to save money, bring in your own snacks and lunch and eat at the picnic tables just across the road from Mel’s Drive-In near the lake. In saying that, a cup of popcorn at Disney World will set you back $8, and at Universal less than $6!
Use the App
The Universal Orlando resort app for your smartphone is a must. You can download it for free and check wait times to minimise your downtime. We found it fairly accurate and I loved the interactive map feature, which gives you directions from wherever you are to the ride you want to get to.
Be A Star
At the Fear Factor show you can go at least 70 minutes early to be cast in the live show. But beware participants eat some pretty disgusting creepy crawlies!
Avoid the crowds
Use the Crowd Calendar by Undercover Tourist to predict what days are better for visiting so you spend more time on rides and less in queues.
That’s A Wrap
Yep, it’s that easy. Everything you need to organise an awesome family vacation at Universal Studios Orlando… even if you’re lazy.
So what part are you most excited about doing? Lazing by the pool? Thrilling roller coasters? Or the giant pink donut? Share it in the comments below.
Budget Tip: Save up to $74 per ticket by buying online in advance from Theme Park Center.