2021 Universal Orlando Planning Guide

Universal Orlando Resort, along with its sister properties around the world, brings movies, TV shows, comics, and literary universes to life, with the beloved Super Mario World to hopefully arrive sometime in the next several years (fingers crossed!). From thrilling roller coasters and immersive 3D adventures to refreshing water attractions and rides just for the kiddos, Universal Studios Orlando, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and Universal’s Volcano Bay are filled with fun for the whole family. 

In this Universal Orlando planning guide, we hope to give you some helpful tips and easy-to-follow suggestions for making the most of your vacation to Central Florida. So, whether you are a first-time visitor or annual passholder, whether you want to save some money and precious time, beat the crowds and the heat, or just want to figure out the best rides, restaurants, or place to stay, this is for you. 

Feel free to check here back in the future – we’ll be updating this post regularly so make sure you have the most up-to-date information possible (Updated February 18, 20201). Now, without any further ado, here’s what to know before going to Universal Studios Orlando and Islands of Adventure. 

COVID-19 & Universal Orlando

Universal Archway entrance with trees

As you can imagine, things are currently looking quite a bit different at Universal Orlando Resort as a result of the COVID-19. The resort did actually close for a few months at the beginning of the pandemic, but has remained open ever since, albeit with some health guidelines in place. We do anticipate that this will continue, unless state officials force them to close, that is. 

In general, one of the most noticeable changes – due to social distancing, and aside from the obvious mandatory face masks and temperature checks (100.4°F or below or you don’t go) – is decreased capacity limits. However, unlike at Disney World, guests visiting Universal Orlando are not required to make a park reservation beforehand. While this is great for allowing some flexibility in your schedule, it is also causing the parks to reach capacity from time to time, stranding people in long parking plaza lines or outside the turnstiles. So, you’re going to want to keep your arrival time to as early as possible. 

Some other changes you can expect include:

  • Floor markings indicating where you should stand 
  • Empty rows and seats on rides
  • Hand sanitizer provided prior to boarding ride vehicles
  • Increased cleaning 
  • Virtual lines and mobile food & drink ordering on the mobile app
  • New parking procedures

Unfortunately, in addition to these changes, some things at Universal Orlando Resort are temporarily closed due to COVID including Volcano Bay (currently set to reopen March 31, 2021), some locations in CityWalk Orlando, and some Universal Orlando hotels. However, there is a phased reopening planned for the closed resorts. Additionally, special events like Holidays at Universal Orlando Resort and Mardi Gras have been altered due to the pandemic, while 2020’s Halloween Horror Nights was canceled. 

Aside from all this (and it does seem like a lot), a trip to Orlando Universal Resort feels pretty normal, all things considered. In fact, things feel a step closer to normalcy over at Universal when compared to Disney World. Which, we guess, is both good and bad. Regardless, we’re thrilled to have the parks open in whatever form they exist, and we’re sure you’ll enjoy your time there all the same. 

When to Visit Universal Orlando

Attraction sign in rocks and skulls

If you’re here reading, we can only assume that you’ve been wondering which is the busiest month to go to Universal Studios and when are the least busy days at Universal Orlando. And while crowds are definitely one thing to keep in mind (that’s for a different post on another day), there are several things to consider when picking the best time to visit Universal Orlando. 

First, a promotion may be one thing dictating your vacation dates. If you are paying for your Universal vacation with a special deal on discounted room rates or free days if you  come on certain dates, the only wiggle room you’ll have on when you can travel is within that specific range. This is a great way to save some cash, which we all love, but it can also be tricky to work around depending on the dates and your schedule. 

If, however, you do have some flexibility in your travel dates, other things to remember when choosing a time for your Universal vacation are holidays, special events, school closures, and, of course, weather. 

January and early February are both great options. It’s low season, so the parks are quieter, and kids will have largely returned to school by the first week of January. Plus, the temperatures tend to be pleasantly mild and rain is relatively scarce. 

Your only pitfalls here are the holidays that fall on three-day holiday weekends like MLK and Presidents Day. Holidays and long weekends bring out locals, annual passholders, and tourists alike, so the parks can get packed. Rock the Universe, Florida’s largest Christian music festival, also usually takes place toward the end of January, and while the concerts only take place at night, the parks do fill up with festival goers during the day. So, depending on your interests (and hatred of crowds), it’s either a great time to plan a visit or the perfect time to take a pass.

Once mid-February and the first UK half-term hit, things start to get busier with the arrival of the Brits on holiday and the start of Universal’s Mardi Gras celebration. With all the festive food and entertainment, this can obviously be a fun time to visit, as long as you don’t mind the crowds. 

This busy streak lasts all the way through March until the beginning of April due to the influx of Mardi Gras, Easter, and spring break crowds. In the Orlando area, spring break typically begins around the middle of March and continues until around early April, generally coinciding with the Easter holiday. This makes it one of the busiest times to visit the Orlando theme parks. However, March also means spring is coming, so if you’re going to fight the spring breakers, at least you can do it in pleasant temperatures.

If you’re hoping for comfortable weather and fewer people, April and May could be your best months to visit Universal Orlando. It’s shoulder season, so you should also be able to enjoy some cheaper prices. The last week of April is a great time to travel before it starts to get too warm, however the end of May can be crowded due to Memorial Day and the start of summer break. 

Without a doubt, summer is the worst time to visit Universal Orlando. June, July, and August ridiculously hot and sticky outside and the parks are filled with families on vacation. Unless this is the absolute only time you have available, or you happen to find walking through thick crowds a delightful challenge, we recommend sticking to the last part of August as school . If you do need to travel during the summer, keep in mind that rain is an everyday occurrence during Central Florida summers. Generally, it’s light and fleeting, but you can almost certainly count on an afternoon shower. 

Shoulder season returns starting in September and continues through October and into the beginning of November. Between Labor Day and the start of the Halloween Horror Nights festivities is definitely another sweet spot. Temperatures are kinda starting to mellow out (or maybe that’s just our wishful thinking), school is back in session, and the crowds aren’t as bad. If you’re visiting during the fall, unless you’re going to Halloween Horror Nights, steer clear of the UK’s second half-term holiday, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and any school breaks to avoid the crowds. 

From mid-November to the end of December, it’s time for the holidays at Universal Orlando Resort. Holiday decorations start to appear, festive events kick off, and though it can be very busy, it’s an especially magical (and pretty!) time to visit. The Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s holidays are obviously packed, while early November and early December are on the slower side. Plus, the temperatures are milder, and the chances of rain are slim. 

If you decide to brave the crowds and visit over the winter holidays, we highly recommend you take some time to enjoy everything Universal Orlando has on offer. From Christmas in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Grinchmas to the Macy’s Holiday Parade and Universal CityWalk’s New Year’s Eve bash, it’s a cheerful celebration you won’t soon forget. 

How Long to Visit Universal Orlando

Universal Globe surrounded by a lake

Ok, you’ve picked out your dates – now you’re wondering, how many days should I spend at Universal Orlando. In truth, the answer to this question varies wildly. First, how much time you have available to spend and how much time you’d like to spend are, unfortunately, two completely different things. Additionally, there are other things to consider, like if you’ll be going to other Orlando theme parks. 

In general, Universal Studios Orlando and Universal’s Islands of Adventure can both be accomplished in one to two days – one if you arrive right away at park open and/or streamline you to-do list to just your must-dos, two if you’d like to have more time to see everything. For first-time visitors, three days with a park-to-park pass gives you plenty of time to do everything in both parks and still return to your favorites. Of course, if you’re planning to do Volcano Bay as well, you’ll want to tack on another day, and we suggest saving at least a night or a chunk of a day to enjoy Universal CityWalk. 

Where to Stay Near Universal Orlando

Hotel surrounded by a lake and boats

While the theme parks will obviously be the highlight of your trips, you’ll also be spending a decent bit of time in your hotel room. So, where you choose to stay can help make or break your experience. Fortunately, as this is Orlando and two of the most visited theme parks in the world, you have plenty to choose from. 

Universal Orlando Hotels

Staying on property has more than its fair share of benefits: you’re close to the parks and you can get in early, complimentary transportation is provided, you can charge things to your room and have those purchases delivered to your room for you, and it opens up a whole new world (sorry Universal!) of things to explore during your vacation. Plus, if you decide to stay at one of Universal’s premier resorts, you’ll get free Universal Express Unlimited Ride Access. Those are some sweet, sweet perks. 

You’re able to choose from four different resort categories when it comes to price and amenities: value, prime value, preferred, and premier. Value and prime value hotels are much more casual – and affordable – than the preferred and premium hotels, making them great choices for families or those looking to save some money. Meanwhile, the preferred and premium hotels offered elevated atmospheres with upscale amenities.  

Value Hotels | Starting at $88/night

Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn and Suites 

Calm & coastal; 2 Queen Rooms and 2-Bedrooms Suites

Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suites (Temporarily Closed)

Colorful & beachy; 2 Queen Rooms and 2-Bedrooms Suites

Prime Value Hotels | Starting at $132/night

Universal’s Aventura Hotel (Temporarily Closed)

Modern & stylish; 1 King Rooms, 2 Queen Rooms, Kid’s Suites

Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort 

Vibrant & retro; 2 Queen Rooms, 2-Bedrooms Suites, and Family Suites

Preferred Hotels | Starting at $181/night

Loew’s Sapphire Falls Resort (Temporarily Closed)

A Caribbean paradise; 1 King Rooms, 2 Queen Rooms, Kid’s Suites, Sapphire Suite, 2-Bedroom Suites

Premium Hotels | Starting at $252/night

Hard Rock Hotel

Sleep like a rock (star); 1 King Rooms, 2 Queen Rooms, King Suites, 2-Bedroom Suites, 3-Bedroom Suites

Loew’s Royal Pacific Resort 

A South Seas escape; 1 King Rooms, 2 Queen Rooms, King Suites, Kid’s Suites, 1-Bedrooms Suites, 2-Bedroom Suites, 3-Bedroom Suites, Presidential Suite

Loew’s Portofino Bay Hotel 

An Italian seaside retreat; 1 King Rooms, 2 Queen Rooms, 1-Bedroom Suites and Villas, 2-Bedroom Suites and Villas

We know that staying on property isn’t for everyone – some need a break from all the craziness while others are looking for a vibe that a theme park resort can’t provide. And that’s ok. Fortunately, there are plenty of hotels to choose from in the area. However, they won’t share the same perks that you can get by staying on Universal property.  

Universal Orlando Vacation Packages

Hotel entrance with grass and water fountain

Vacation packages – they’re a convenient one-stop shop for all your travel needs. Sure, they can be more expensive than if you decide to book everything separately. But, do they make life simpler? You’re darn tootin’. Given that, there are a couple of things that you should keep in mind when booking a Universal Studios Orlando vacation package. 

Don’t give in to temptation and book directly from Universal’s website. Even if you have a promotion, chances are that you’ll still wind up paying the same thing as everyone else. With a little creative thinking and research, however, you can find better deals by booking with an authorized ticket reseller like our preferred travel partner, Undercover Tourist

By purchasing your Universal Orlando tickets with an authorized retailer, you’re working with someone who truly knows what they’re doing  and can get you the best deal possible for actual theme park tickets. Tickets are bought in bulk, and you benefit from the savings. Plus, you never have to worry about hidden fees. 

Having said all that, a “package” assumes that you’re combining numerous things: park tickets, a hotel room, possibly airfare or other transportation, and maybe even dining. That all adds up quick. Additionally, theme parks are notorious for being expensive, and that includes rooms rates. So, if cost is an issue, it may be worth your while to book your tickets and room separately and stay off-property, 

Universal Orlando Tickets

Hogwarts Castle and grounds at night

Overall, guests are able to choose from: One-Park-Per-Day Tickets which allow you to visit either Universal Studios or Universal’s Islands of Adventure or Park-to-Park Tickets (i.e. 2-Parks – 1-Day) which allow you to visit both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, or a 1-Day Volcano Bay Ticket. 

The cost difference starts at around a $50 if you’re only planning on going to the parks one day, which isn’t a small amount when one-day tickets start just over $100 already. But, that difference drops to around $20 a day for a two-day ticket. We think a park-to-park option is great, especially if you’re planning on visiting for only one day, as it lets you flit between parks at will. 

Similar to Disney, pricing for Universal Orlando Resort tickets utilize dynamic pricing, meaning that ticket prices increase or decrease depending on when you are visiting and how busy the parks are anticipated to be. For example, weekdays are cheaper than weekends, and high season (summer, long school breaks, and major holidays) tickets are more expensive than low season (like after school resumes in January) tickets. 

So, depending on when you choose to stay, you can stand to save a decent chunk of change. We recommend tucking that little tidbit away somewhere safe in your brain – your future self, and bank account, will thank you. Of course, as we previously mentioned, you can also save by buying discounted tickets from an authorized seller like Undercover Tourist

Universal also has something called the Express Pass which, similar to Disney’s FastPass, allows you to skip the regular line at certain attractions. Unlike Disney, however, this is not a complimentary service. LAME. Trust us, we know. Guests have the option of upgrading to include one of two different Express Pass options. The Universal Express Unlimited pass is $99 per ticket, while the basic Universal Express Pass is $69 per ticket. With the basic option, you are only able to skip the line of each participating ride once. At $30 difference, opting for the Unlimited version seems like a no-brainer. 

And, if you’re wondering, “Is the Express Pass worth is at Universal?” We say, it depends. Being able to skip the lines definitely has its perks (as we already know from skipping all those long queues *for free* over at Disney). Plus, even with a pandemic happening, lines at Universal are still incredibly long, so upgrading to an Express Pass can save you valuable time. If you’re spending a couple days or more or planning to arrive later in the day, unless you’re on a mission to do absolutely everything in the park, you can probably take a pass. 

Dining at Universal Orlando

Chocolate Factory exterior at night

Ah, food. It’s not a rollercoaster or a waterslide, but that still doesn’t mean it isn’t one of the best parts of our vacation. Universal Orlando dining runs the gamut, from snack carts to Marvel character and even Halloween Horror Nights “scareactor” dining. So, depending on which types of Universal Orlando restaurants you choose to enjoy, dining can become not just something you need to do to make sure you don’t collapse into a hot, cranky mess, but an experience that is a memorable part of your trip. 

Dining options can be found throughout the Universal Orlando Resort, whether you’re relaxing at Volcano Bay, fueling up between rides at Islands of Adventure, buying souvenirs at Universal CityWalk, or unwinding for a long day back at your Universal Orlando hotel. 

In the parks, most food options are quick service. While some, like those found in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, feature themed cuisine (like fish and chips or shepherd’s pie at the Three Broomsticks in Diagon Alley), most offer up basics like burgers, sandwiches, salads, and pizza. These are safe bets if you’ve got a family of picky eats or not a lot of time. There are also some quick-service restaurants in the resorts and at Universal CityWalk. 

Your next option is full-service dining, which is just like what it sounds like. You’ll have a server, your food will be made fresh to order and delivered to your table – it’s great for dinners after a long day at the parks. Full-service restaurants, including fine dining, can largely be found in Universal hotels and throughout CityWalk Orlando, however there are a couple at each of the theme parks. Advance reservations are typically suggested, especially during the busy season or for restaurants you really want to try. 

Looking for a meal with character? Try character dining! Kids can have breakfast with the Minions at the Despicable Me Character Breakfast or enjoy dinner with Captain America and other Marvel favorites at the Marvel Character Dinner. And depending on the season, you can even mingle with monsters during Halloween Horror Nights or have some grub with the Grinch during Grinchmas. Advance reservations are definitely need here. Keep in mind that character meals are currently on hiatus due to COVID-19. 

Need something to drink after fighting all those crowds? We don’t blame you! Luckily, Universal Orlando has plenty of options to choose from. While there aren’t really any bars in the parks, alcoholic beverages can be found at certain restaurants and drink stands in all three. Of course, you can also find bars and lounges all through Universal CityWalk, as well as in the resorts. 

With all this being said, you are not required to eat at Universal Orlando restaurants. In fact, Universal allows guests to bring outside food and beverages into the parks (as long as they’re in a soft-sided container, no coolers allowed), which is a great way to save some money. So, feel free to bring a stash of snacks with you into the parks. You can even have groceries delivered straight to your hotel to make your life especially easy. And who doesn’t need that on vacation? 

Enjoying the Universal Orlando Resort

Spiderman in the street

With two different theme parks, a water park, and an entertainment district, there’s certainly no shortage of fun things to do at Universal Orlando Resort. Which is exactly why you need to go in with a plan. Of course, that doesn’t mean that your trip needs to be all timed out down to the minute, so please go ahead and put down your notebooks.

For first-time visitors especially, approaching your Universal vacation all willy-nilly is a recipe for disaster. You waste a lot of time standing in long lines and may even be forced to skip an attraction if the wait is too long. This can be avoided with just a bit of pre-planning. 

Your planning should start before you ever get to the parks. You’ll want to look up park hours, which attractions and entertainment you absolutely can’t miss, and any special events that might be happening. Also make note of the park that is open the latest. This will allow you to prioritize things accordingly. Once you’re at the parks, the key to success is arriving early. We’re talking park open if at all possible, as this will allow you to get a jump on the crowds. Remember that if you stay at a Universal Orlando resort, you will also be able to get into the parks early, so be sure to take advantage of this. 

For guests traveling with small children, you are also going to need to be looking out for height limits at each attraction. If your kiddo is too small, no worries – Universal offers something called Child Swap which allows an adult to stay behind with the little one while the others ride. Then, when the first group finishes riding, the parent who stayed behind can skip the line and go on the ride. This is a park hack that we love because it saves both time, hassle, and fun for everybody. 

Special Events

Depending on when you visit, there may be a special event happening that you’d like to take advantage of. While there are several events that take place at Universal Orlando Resort throughout the year, with a few even happening at the resorts, the big ones to remember are:

  • Mardi Gras – Typically running from the beginning of February to the end of March, this exuberant celebration features food inspired by Carnival festivities around the world, colorful floats, street entertainers, music, and, of course, beads. 
  • Halloween Horror Nights – Typically running from the beginning of September to the beginning of November, this frightening fest offers a series of scares like immersive haunted houses inspired by both cinematic horror and cult classics. 
  • Holidays at Universal Orlando Resort – Typically running from mid-November to the beginning of January, Universal Orlando transforms into a winter wonderland, with Christmas decorations bedecking the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the Grinch bringing his special brand of Christmas cheer with Grinchmas. 

Getting to and Around Universal Orlando 

Although it’s not nearly as big as Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando is by no means small, meaning it can be a challenge to get around sometimes. Fortunately, Universal provides a few different options to help guests get where they need to go including complimentary shuttles and water taxis. 

Alternatively, if you are staying off property, needing to get to and from the airport, or you would simply rather not ride a bus or a boat, other ground transportation is always an option. Services such as Uber, LYFT, or a Mears taxi are always available, and there is plentiful parking available. Daily parking rates are $26 for regular parking, $32 for RV/bus parking, or $36 for prime parking per vehicle. When COVID isn’t happening, valet parking is also available. For those needing to park overnight at your Universal Orlando hotel, you will also need to pay a parking fee. Where self-parking is concerned, premier hotels charge $28 a night, Sapphire Falls charges $26, prime value hotels charge $18, and value hotels charge $15. 

If the thought of being without a car on vacation makes you itch, getting a rental car is always an option. Depending on which size vehicle you want, daily rates will run you anywhere between $12 and $30. Car rental partners are located at Orlando International Airport, as well as in the Universal Orlando area. Universal resort guests can also get up to 25% off the base rental rates with an offer code. You should be aware that rental prices do tend to be a bit higher if you get your vehicle from the airport. 

Mobility Needs

Universal Orlando is huge. And while the whole place is much more condensed than Disney World, getting around can be exhausting. For some, strollers or electronic mobility scooters make getting around much easier. Given their size, however, they can be a pain to lug around. The remedy? Rent instead! 

By getting your rental delivered and picked, you’ll be able to spend less time wrangling your chariot of choice and more time relaxing and having fun. If you’re in the market for a rental stroller or mobility scooter for your Universal Orlando vacation, Amusement Park Rentals is our company of choice, with reliability, customer service, and quality that can’t be matched. 

Final Thoughts

Universal Orlando has become more of a time investment over the past several years. Before it was all about Harry Potter whereas now it’s only 70% about the Wizard and 30% about the other attractions. Typically we would only suggest you spend 1 day at the resort but now we highly recommend doing it over 2 days with a park-to-park ticket. While Universal is getting better at theme parking, they are still lacking in the kid-friendly area. Keep this in mind while you plan your vacation. Overall though, if you’re in Orlando you definitely need to visit the Universal Orlando theme parks.

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