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 somewhere else may give you pause, but a day at Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure is a worthy gamble. Find out what skills and tricks transfer – and what don’t – in this guide to Universal 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 I found myself looking at a week solo in Orlando without my young kids (ages 7 and 2), 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.
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.
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 Orlando visitors therefore skip park hopper tickets because of budget and logistics. Park hopping is easier at Disneyland – simply due to the close proximity of the two California parks – making 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 park hopper), 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 Universal parks – Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure – are within walking distance of one another, making hopping easy to dodge crowds. My personal view is that the add-on is worth it, particularly 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. You really need to budget for the add-on if you have Harry Potter fans in the family.
2. Express Pass Works Differently than 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 you a pretty penny. There are two types of Express Pass: the regular Express Pass that provides cut-the-line privileges once per ride or the Unlimited Express Pass 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 $39.99 (for standard Express Pass in Universal’s Islands of Adventure only) or as high as $84.99 (for two parks Unlimited Express Pass).
Since Express Pass comes at a price, the big decision is whether it is worth the cost. Take a look at the rides that offer Express Pass (two Harry Potter rides do 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.
3. The Lockers
There are lockers at Disney for travelers who need to store larger items but they certainly aren’t used by most 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.
Sounds great, right? The problem is that the number of lockers are grossly inadequate to meet demand. The lockers outside of Dragon Challenge and 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 in late April (not exactly 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.
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, free parking, Extra Magic Hours, and other perks.
Universal also has several on-property perks for guests staying in one of the five 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 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 Unlimited Express Pass (note: this benefit is not available to guests of the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort or Cabana Bay Beach Resort).
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 (age 7 and 2) 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, Dragon Challenge, or Revenge of the Mummy are definitely more of a challenge than Disney’s Tower of Terror or Rock N Roller Coaster.
6. Single Rider Line
Disney 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.
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 gives out “Rider Switch” tickets that allow a second group to come back to a ride through the Fastpass line or cut the line (when there is no Fastpass line). Because Disney requires that Rider Swap returnees enter through the Fastpass line, this can mean a little bit of an extra wait for the second group riding. But the Disney also allows the second group to hold on to a Fastpass ticket and use it any time later in the day (or sometimes even later in the week), so it’s a more flexible system.
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?