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In September my family spent a few days visiting Universal Studios Orlando before hoping on a cruise ship to the Bahamas. Universal Studios was a bunch of fun, but it also required quite a bit of planning. I want you to have a great trip too, so I am sharing my best Universal Studios tips.
When my husband and I were debating where to take our family for vacation we couldn’t decide between Disney World, Universal Studios, or a cruise. We always enjoy cruising as a family, but our kids had never been to Disney or Universal Studios. Ultimately, we told the kids our options and asked them to choose one or two locations.
Both kids asked to go to Universal Studios and on a cruise. Hannah and Ben are both very into everything Harry Potter right now, so it seemed like the perfect time to tour the Magical World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
Three out of four members of my family are fairly introverted so we decided to visit Universal Studios in the first leg of our vacation adventure. We got all of the crowds out of the way early so we could relax by the pool the last few days.
These tips are what helped my family to make the most of our Universal Studios visit.
10 Universal Studios Tips
One of the wonderful perks of homeschooling is that we are not tied to the public school calendar. We can take a vacation whenever it fits our moods and budgets.
Take advantage of this flexibility and go to the park when the crowds are the lowest. The online crowd calendar predictions are slow, moderate, busy, and very busy.
Lower crowds = more rides accomplished in one day.
Lower crowds also make everything a little easier – shorter ride lines, cheaper lodging, easier parking, and smaller lines for food and snacks.
We went on a ‘slow’ crowd day. There were only a few rides with a wait time over 20 minutes, but there were still a lot of bodies in the park. You could not pay me to visit the parks during ‘very busy’ days.
Stay off property
This Universal Studios tip goes against every other recommendation I saw during my planning phase.
Hear me out though. Renting an Airbnb in Orlando worked out great for us.
Staying off property in an Airbnb is an affordable way to have:
- plenty of space
- a full kitchen
- laundry facilities
- extra perks such as a private pool
Both sets of grandparents came to Orlando with us so we chose a 5 bedroom house 5 miles from Universal Studios. It was actually cheaper to rent this huge house with a private pool and hot tub than to rent 3 basic hotel rooms on the Universal resort!
Our rental house was only about a 15 minute drive from the park and it was near a plethora of restaurants and grocery stores.
Staying in a Universal hotel does include the benefit of early admission. However, we decided that we would rather have the extra space, and money, than get in the park an hour early.
If your kids are Harry Potter fans you will want to come prepared. There are multiple areas in Diagon Alley where kids (and kids at heart) can use their wands to make magic happen.
Kids aim the microchips in the tip of their wands at cameras in several shop windows to turn on animatronics. It is pretty fun to watch. My kids are 11 and 14, so I wasn’t sure if they would think it was magical or ridiculous. They understood how it worked, but their eyes still lit up every time the motion began.
The wands are for sale at Ollivander’s Wand Shop, but they are pricey. If you buy one there, expect to spend around $50 for each wand.
I knew that my Harry Potter fans wanted to try out the wands, but I also knew that I did not want to spend $100 on wands that would be used for 2 days.
We asked around and found two friends who had these special wands. They were happy to let us borrow them.
I always worry that we will accidentally break something anytime we borrow anything. We had been in the park for less than an hour when it happened.
My daughter dropped a wand and scratched the chip early on the first day. We immediately went to Ollivander’s and asked for a repair. Despite the high price of the wands, repairs are completely free. Within just a few minutes the wand had a new chip and was as good as new.
Buy shirts (or robes) before going to the park
A friend suggested that I buy my kids Hogwarts robes before arriving in the park. This is a great Universal Studios tip if you are traveling during the winter months. However, September in Florida is hot and humid enough without wearing a long black cloak.
Instead of Hogwarts robes I decided to buy everyone in my family a Harry Potter themed t-shirt. I surprised the kids with the shirts when we were packing the night before the trip.
We saw a few of the same shirts in Universal Studios and they cost twice what I paid for them. Plan for everything in the parks to be marked up.
Besides the benefit of saving money, purchasing shirts before the trip gave me more options. Etsy and Amazon fantastic choices.
Arrive 30 minutes before the park opens
One of my biggest time saver Universal Studios tips is to be a morning person (even if you are not normally).
Every morning we were dropped off on the top floor of the parking garage half an hour before the park opened for regular admission. It takes time to walk through the parking garage, go through security, walk through Universal City Walk, and check in at the admission gate.
Arriving 30 minutes early meant that we were walking up to the park entrance right as the gates were being cleared away.
We were not spending a bunch of time waiting for the gate to open, but the lines were not long yet. It was great!
Honestly, the first 1.5 – 2 hours the park was open were our favorite times. We walked right onto several rides with no line at all.
Download the app
We tended to explore one area of the parks at a time – Diagon Alley, Simpsons World, Hogsmeade, and Marvel were family favorites. When we were ready to move on we used the app to decide where to head next.
The app tells you the current wait time at all of the rides.
We maximized the number of rides we went on by choosing to go to areas with low wait times.
The app will also help you navigate your way around the parks. The parks are huge! To give you an idea of the size, I texted my mom and dad to request pick up when we were in the Marvel area. They left the Airbnb immediately and we got to the parking garage pick up area at the same time. They were 5 miles away!
There are very few, if any, maps displayed and it can be confusing. We got lost trying to get to the exit when we were just following signs. The app helped us find our way out.
Keep your tickets and ID on you
I purchased and printed our tickets out at home and we presented them every morning when we arrived at the gate. I thought that would be the only time we needed them. Nope.
Scanning tickets is how you obtain a free locker to store all of your stuff while riding rides that don’t allow you to carry anything.
It is also how you ride the Hogwarts Express. That makes sense, because you are technically visiting another park (make sure you buy the multi-park ticket!).
You will also need to scan your fingerprint to make sure that it matches the fingerprint associated with your ticket. I think this system works well most of the time, but it is definitely not perfect.
For some reason my fingerprint never scanned properly. I don’t know if it was too much sunscreen, too much sweat, or something random, but I needed to show my ID every time I entered the park or rode the Hogwarts Express. . .which happened multiple times a day. I had my ID in my backpack so it was fine, but this would have been a nightmare if I left my ID back at the house.
Take a mid-day break
Every day we took a mid-day break and went back to the house. This let us eat a lunch that I knew for certain was gluten-free, sit in the air conditioning, swim in the pool, and avoid the crowds for a while.
The Florida heat has a way of sucking the fun out of things, so after a few hours of walking around we were not having fun anymore. We were hot and tired of people.
A few hours of recharging in the Airbnb and we were ready to go back to the park for a few more hours.
It might be because my family is pretty introverted, but a bit of afternoon downtime was exactly what we needed. We would have been miserable if we had pushed through and stayed at the park nonstop all day.
Share butter beer
This was another tip from a friend that we found really useful.
We mostly drank water, but stopped for butter beer and pumpkin juice a few times when we needed a little pick me up. The Harry Potter drinks, butter beer and pumpkin juice, are really sweet.
Butter beer tastes like a cream soda with caramel syrup added and then topped with extra sweet whipped cream. It was delicious, but a little bit was plenty.
Pumpkin juice tastes like apple cider with a shot of Starbucks pumpkin flavoring added. It was also incredibly sweet.
We bought a total of 3 butter beers and one pumpkin juice over 2 days. Each time we stopped we bought one drink and split it among the four of us. Sugar can be a fun treat, but I’m pretty sure drinking a full butter beer in the heat would give my family stomachaches.
Sharing helped us keep the sugar content a little lower and saved some money too.
Recognize the sunk cost
Going to Universal Studios is not cheap. This two day portion of our vacation cost the same as the 5 day cruise portion!
It can be really tempting to want to force everyone to ‘get their moneys worth’ out of the trip. Honestly though, this mentality tends to cause frustrated parents to yell at children while they are melting down.
My husband and I went in with the attitude of ‘The money is already spent. Let’s have a good time – whatever that looks like. When it stops being fun, we will change course.”
The idea that the money is already spent and can not be returned is sunk cost. That money is gone and there is no way to get it back.
Recognizing the sunk cost let us say yes to leaving the park when the kids wanted McDonald’s rather than park food. It let us focus on actually having a good time together instead of making everything go the way we imagined.
Overall, this was a wonderful vacation. My entire family really enjoyed the detail in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. We have spent years reading the Harry Potter books and watching the movies, so it was a really neat experience feeling like we were part of it all.
Have you ever been to the Universal Studios Parks? Do you have any tips to add? Leave them in the comments!
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