Earlier this month we visited Florida for the first time. We stayed for five days in the Florida Keys and then had an extra day tacked on at the end. Super, duper, extra last minute, we decided to drive up to Orlando and do Universal Studios because why not, right? I mean, when in Florida…! Because we only had one day (and a crowded, summer day, at that) we really hustled to get in every experience that we could. And you know what? I feel like we totally did it. We saw all we needed to see in one day. So I want to share with you how to do Universal Studios in one day (in Orlando…I still haven’t been to the one in California, and I grew up just an hour away from it!).
How to do Universal Studios in One Day
First of all – if you’ve never been to Universal, here are 6 things I wish I’d know BEFORE we went.
Here’s what you need to know: Universal Studios is separated into two parks. I am pretty sure this is designed to make more money (you have to pay to get into each park), and it works. Well done, Universal.
To make you think you must visit both parks to get the full Universal experience, they have broken The Wizarding World of Harry Potter up into both parks (extra well done, Universal). So you must buy tickets to both parks if you want to see Diagon Alley AND Hogsmeade. Which of course you do, because they are amazing!
If I had planned this trip in advance, I probably would have planned it over two days – one for each park. But since we were so last minute and didn’t have two days, we needed to cram it all into one day – and I’m glad we did. I don’t think two days was necessary. One day was very, very expensive (as you’ll see below), but if we’d done two days it would have cost us even more in hotel and food expenses (and park tickets!).
Before we went I asked my friend Sarah for some advice. She spent a week in Orlando last summer and had some really helpful tips for me. Like, buy the Express Passes! And with that…
Are the Express Passes at Universal Studios worth it?
The Express Passes at Universal in Orlando are similar to a Fast Pass as Disney. You get on all the rides with a much shorter line if you have an Express Pass. With a Fast Pass, though, you can only reserve 3 rides a day. The Express Pass is for all the rides (except new ones).
There are two Express Pass options – one that you can use once per ride, and one for unlimited rides (meaning you can use it over and over again on your favorite ride). The price difference between the two was about $20. The cost of the Express Pass alone was nearly the cost of the admission ticket, so it basically doubled our costs to get in. I can safely say that it more than doubled the amount of rides we were able to get on, though, making it worth it for us.
The kids went on 18 or 19 rides each in one day, on a busy July day! The Express Passes are sold in a limited amount, which keeps the lines down. Most of the lines in July were about an hour long. I don’t think we waited more than 15 minutes for a ride with our Express Passes, though. If you’re cramming two parks into one day, and it’s a busy day, this investment is probably worth it (it was definitely worth it to us).
The Express Passes don’t work for new rides, so unfortunately we weren’t able to use it for the new Hagrid ride (the line was 3 hours long, when the park opened, for that one!).
Which park at Universal Orlando is Harry Potter World in?
Harry Potter World is broken up into both parks. You’ll find Diagon Alley in one, and Hogsmeads in the other. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you’ll want to visit both. I can’t say enough good things about it. It was magical!
If you can only visit one park, look at the other rides in that park and make sure you choose the park that has the most rides you are interested in. If I haaaaaad to pick a favorite Harry Potter world, I’d pick Diagon Alley. It’s mostly shops, but you will actually feel like you’re in Diagon Alley…even down to finding it in the first place! And don’t forget to look for Knockturn Alley while you’re there!
Also, sidenote: the Frozen Butterbeer is the best butterbeer.
Are the Harry Potter wands worth it at Universal?
You can buy your favorite Harry Potter characters wand and use it all over the park. The wands are beautifully packaged and come with a gorgeous map and instructions for how to use them around the park. They are also expensive, around $45 each. We bought a “community wand” (Sirius Black’s wand!) that the kids could share. Some of the lines to use the wands were a little long. The kids loved it and I would say it was worth it, but I’m glad we just bought one and shared it rather than splurging on one for each kid. I mean, one wand was a splurge, to be honest!
Can you back and forth between the parks at Universal Orlando?
Yes! But you need a ticket for each park. The Hogwart’s Express will take you between parks. You can buy a Park-to-Park ticket, which will get you into both parks on the same day. The Park-to-Park ticket was considerably cheaper than buying two separate tickets, which was definitely one bonus to cramming it all into one day!
Buy tickets and Express Passes before you go to save time (and sometimes money – there are some deals on the Universal Orlando website!).
Plan your meals out and try to avoid the lunch and dinner rushes.
Lunch took longer than we had hoped. My son is a huge, huge, huge Simpson’s fan so of course we wanted to eat Krusty Burger. I would probably not do Krusty Burger again. The fries were great but the burgers all came with a weird cheese sauce and I kind of felt like it was a dressed up gas station burger. But the real reason I would avoid it is because the lines were so long, and seating was minimal…I walked circles for fifteen minutes before snatching up a dirty table when I saw someone else leaving. We spent over an hour here, waiting to get food and eating, and with limited time to get everything in, it felt a little wasted. And that was eating lunch around 2pm, which I would think would be an off time.
We did get a giant donut though, so there’s that.
For dinner we did The Leaky Cauldron, and that was very good – and also not crowded when we got in for dinner around 8:30 that night!
Is the Prime Parking at Universal Studios worth it?
We paid for the Prime Parking. I mean, we’d might as well have just handed over our bank account number and told them to drain us dry at this point – and this was first thing in the morning! But regular parking is $25. Prime is $40, and we parked basically as close as was possible to the park entrance. Once the park closed (at 10pm) we had to drive back to Ft. Lauderdale to catch a 6am flight the next morning, so this was actually well worth the $14 upcharge. We didn’t walk as far to get in to the park, we got back to our car quickly when the park closed (with two kids, that was helpful), and we avoided all the traffic leaving the park because we got out so quickly.
The Prime Parking spaces are right next to the handicapped spots.
I think if it’s worth it or not just depends on how much you want to part with $14 in exchange for a sweet parking spot! Another option would be to get there super early (the parking garage opens hours before the park) and get the best spot you can bright and early…then walk to the park entrance and be ready to make a run for your favorite ride when it opens!
Some hotels offer a shuttle service and you can avoid parking fees completely!
Get there early.
Express Passes or not, get there early and plan on spending the whole day there. We spent about 7 hours in the Islands of Adventure Park (the kids love Jurassic Park, and did the ride four times!). We spent the remainder of the day in the Universal Studios Park (which had the Simpson’s world and Diagon Alley). We got there when the parks opened and stayed until they closed. My fitbit said I had 23k steps and my feet would definitely agree.
Download the app!
The Universal Studios app had two really helpful features: maps of each park and height requirements for all the rides.
Bring your own water.
Water bottles are expensive. You can bring up to 2 liters of water with you, and refill it at drinking fountains. This is cheaper and quicker than buying it throughout the day. Some of those lines get long! You could also bring your own “small snacks” according to the website, so if you want to plan accordingly you could bring in your own food and potentially avoid the food lines, period.
Is Universal Studios worth it?
So you can probably tell by now that we spent a lot of money and a ton of energy on our trip (that three hour drive back to Ft. Lauderdale with a 6am flight the next morning was NO JOKE). Was it worth it?
Yes. I am glad we did it. I loved, loved, LOVED The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (I could have spent all day in Diagon Alley). The kids were so excited about it, and haven’t stopped talking about it. I feel like the memory will last a lifetime. I don’t think we’ll do it again any time soon (next time, we’ll do Disney!), and that makes me extra glad we made this trip work!
I will say this – most of the rides are 3D rides, or rides that involve a screen of some sort. I didn’t expect this and I had crazy motion sickness, so I avoided a bunch of the rides. But it was still worth it to me, just for Harry Potter world and to see my kids having so much fun!
So, yes…you can do both parks at Universal Studios in one day and have an amazing time!