10 Best Tips for Universal Studios that will help make your family vacation one epic adventure and a little more relaxing for the parents.

Our family recently got back from a two-week trip from Florida, and hands-down, our kids’ favorite part of the two weeks was our 5 night- 6-day stay at Universal Studios. From the thrill rides to our stay Cabana Bay Beach Resort to the most amazing meal at Chocolate Emporium to Butterbeer, our kids are still dreaming about Harry Potter and Superheroes.

collage of photos from 10 best tips for universal studios

It was a pleasure working with Universal Studios in which inspired this post. All opinions expressed are my own. 

This post may contain affiliate links. See my Full Disclosure for further details.

Like every vacation, along the way you learn the dos and don’ts. From places to eat, worthwhile theme park rides and what to pack, there are always things that you learn. So today, our family is sharing our 10 Best Tips for Universal Studios. Since our family’s ages range from 6 to 38, we have every group covered, from the little ones, pre-teens, teens, and adults.

So if you are thinking about traveling to Universal Studios or are headed there soon, be sure to save this post because these tips will help make your trip more enjoyable and one to remember for all the right reasons. XOXO San, Jake & the kids

Don’t forget to pin these 10 Best Tips for Universal Studios to your favorite Pinterest board for later!

universal globe sign at universal studios


To me, there really isn’t a better way to get the most out of your stay at Universal Studios than to stay onsite at one of their hotels (there are different perks depending on where you stay). It will literally change your entire vacation and what you get out of it.

photo of kids in the starlight pool at universal studios

For sanity’s sake. The ability to get into the park an hour earlier than everyone else is a huge reason why staying onsite is important. You beat the majority of people entering the park, and you get first access to the rides before the crowds arrive. When we entered Universal’s Islands of Adventure, we hit up the Harry Potter rides first. We pretty much walked in and got on Dragon Challenge in less than five minutes. We rode the other side immediately (the kids wanted to compare the two) afterward without waiting and literally could’ve ridden it 4 more times with no line. It was nice to get a couple of must-do rides done early, leaving us with less stress and tons more time to squeeze in all the must-do rides for all 5 of our kids.

sandra's kids on a universal bus

BONUS TIP – Get there 30 minutes before it opens. This allows you time to get in, walk to your destined ride, use the restroom if needed, and be set and ready to go right when the rides officially open. Depending on where you stay, water taxis leave 30 minutes before early admission and run until 2:30 in the morning every day. Shuttles start 1 hour before early admission.

Naps for all. By the time 2 PM rolled around, everyone – even Jake and I – were exhausted. Tired from the heat, people and humidity. We typically left the park between 12:30-2pm, stopped by City Walk for lunch, and then headed back to our hotel for a cool down. It always ended up with all 7 of us falling asleep. One day, we even hit up the pool first for a swim for a quick cool-off, heading to the room afterward for a quick and much-needed snooze. Refreshed, we headed back into the park for more rides and entertainment. There was no stress of having to stay all day because we knew we could easily leave and come back. If you weren’t staying on property this could not be done with such ease.

photo of 3 kids asleep in a bed

All about the kitchenette. While eating at some amazing eateries along City Walk was a huge perk, it was really nice to be able to eat at “home” when we wanted. We brought in some of our own food to our hotel and had breakfast every morning in our PJ’s while coordinating all 7 of us getting ready. We totally eliminated the groaning and complaining, “I’m hungry” or  “when are we going to leave”. Everyone was, for the most part, able to get ready at their own pace. {Psst, there is a full-service Starbucks in the lobby at Cabana Bay} The kitchenette had a microwave and mini-fridge – enough for some milk, yogurt, jelly, cheese and a few other necessities like bottled water. In the morning we had cereal and yogurt with granola. Twice, we ate lunch at our room as well, making PBJ’s with fruit and chips. Another perk that can be a real money saver.

TIP #2 Get the Express Pass

I love the Express Pass; it is worth every penny! The longest line we stood in was about 30 minutes, and that was the exception. Typically our wait was 15 minutes or less – and that included the Harry Potter rides.

It was awesome to get in line knowing that you’d be able to get on the ride quickly. Sometimes the wait in lines was much longer than we could’ve waited with five kids, especially in the heat. In addition, some of the rides you have to remove everything from your pockets and body to be able to ride. And I mean everything, including phones, pocket change and anything else that fall out. Don’t try to cheat this – you have to go to the end of the line. They have convenient lockers near the entrance of each thrill ride which allows you to store your stuff for free for a short time. If you keep the locker longer than this, you get charged hourly until a daily maximum is reached. That means you could pay a small fee to stand in line – so put those few dollars towards an express pass instead. There is an option for all-day lockers if you like, but I suggest paring down what you bring to just the necessities.

While the Express Pass is expensive, if you only had one day to be there – it’s a must. That way you can ride all the rides you want and enjoy a few shows while you’re at it. Otherwise, you’ll be going from line to line, feeling more stressed about trying to get everything in and, well, the complaining alone from the kids instead of enjoying the experience. If you’re staying a few extra days, the express pass isn’t as much as a necessity as it is a perk. Remember, if you’re staying on property at these hotels Royal Pacific, Hard Rock Hotel and Portofino Bay Hotel, the Express Pass comes with your stay.

BONUS TIP Depending on where you stay, instead of taking the shuttle back in the afternoon or evenings, take the water taxi. This is a relaxing, beautiful ride. The Royal Pacific,  Hard Rock Hotel, Portofino Bay Hotel and Sapphire Falls offer direct service water taxis.

photo of sandra's 5 kids standing in hogwarts park in universal studios

BONUS PARK TIP As of July 1stHarry Potter rides are now included in the Express PassSo, “Step into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure.”


The Child Swap has to be my favorite thing Universal Studio’s offers. Lots of our friends worry about taking their family to Universal while they have small ones because they don’t want the family to have to split up on rides and in the park. With child swap, having a small one almost serves as an advantage. We’d wait in line with the whole family, and when it was our turn to ride, I would wait in the child swap room with Cannon (our 6-year-old) watching a movie they have constantly playing while Jake rode the ride with the other four kids. When they’d finish, I’d swap and immediately ride. Because they don’t want the swapper to ride alone, they let our four kids ride the ride again with me, meaning our kids got to double dip every thrill ride. This resulted in fewer requests for repeats later in the day, allowing us to explore more of the parks.

BONUS PARK TIP Have something to do while waiting in line. Heads Up! Is a great phone app to play as a group and can make the time pass more quickly. Also, check out which rides you can ride ahead of time to prepare the little ones.


This cup helps you stay hydrated. We preferred purchasing the cup at our hotel – Cabana Bay. This was a great afternoon treat with unlimited Slurpees or an ice cold drink. While we were in the park and in the hot sun, we kept hydrated with water bottles we brought and would just re-fill them as needed.

BONUS PARK TIP If you have an American Express card, stop by their lounge to cool down, cold water bottles and snacks.

photo of girl in bathing suit at castaway resort pool holding refillable cup


If you are headed anywhere with your kids, you have pretty much learned you always need a purse, backpack or an entire suitcase to fit the needs of everyone in your family. So while you’d like to maybe just take in your purse, you need to take a small backpack. Besides the obvious like your wallet, phone, and keys, we have about 10 things that are essential to pack when spending the whole day at Universal Parks.
Water bottles – We froze about 3-4 bottled waters every day and used them to keep out things cool and have ice cold water. We had two that were just cold, not frozen that we could drink right away. You could also refill these if you wanted.
Sunscreen – I’m sure I don’t need to go into details why. I mean, come on, you’re in sunny Florida.
Snacks – We packed trail mix and granola bars for our little ones to munch on while walking from ride to ride or while we were in line. These were easy, accessible and didn’t take up too much room. Plus we brought things that wouldn’t melt. While our granola did have some M&Ms the water bottles were enough to keep them from melting. Everything we packed was devoured each day.
Umbrella – This is Florida, so be prepared for rain – sometimes torrential. It rained almost every afternoon we were there. Most people suggested rain ponchos, but we preferred umbrellas. The rain ponchos get hot on the inside, causing you to get wet from your own {possibly stinky} sweat. Also, be prepared for your shoes and sandals to undoubtedly get soaked. If you like ponchos better, take them, but order or buy them before because in the park you’ll end up paying considerably more in the parks.
Chaffing bar – Nuf said.
Hand sanitizer & a small packet of wet-ones – Lots of people mean lots of germs. Lots of ice cream means lots of stickiness. Plan accordingly.
Ibuprofen (for kids and parents) – If this isn’t obvious, then you are either in your early 20s or only have one child, but still pack this must needed item- you never know when you or one of your kiddos will need it.
Ziplock Bag/Waterproof bag – to put things in you don’t want wet (like electronics) when going on a water ride or when it rains.
Portable phone charger – If you’re like us, you’ll take tons of pictures to save those memories and constantly check the Universal app for directions and wait times. Having this will make sure you’ve got enough juice for the whole day.
Sunglass and/or hat – be prepared to stow these on the thrill rides.
Earplugs – Without going into too much detail, I have ear issues that have caused me to lose my hearing over the years, and I never thought I’d have to wear earplugs at a theme park – but I did. Some of the rides have speakers in your headrest and you are blasted with the sound effects and music. For everyone, especially those young kiddos, this may be a nice thing to have on those 4-D rides.

BONUS TIP make sure your bag is small enough to fit in the lockers, so take only what you need. To save a few bucks, pack a lunch. Another thing that saved the day, at least for my husband and son, was compression shorts. His favorite was the AND 1 Performance Boxer Briefs. It saved his entire vacation.

TIP #6 – RIDE THE HOGWARTS EXPRESS between Universal Studios Florida™ and Universal’s Islands of Adventure™

photo of hogsmeade station for hogwarts express at universal studios

One of the coolest additions to the Wizarding World has been the interactive wands that allow ordinary muggles like us to do spells all around Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. The wands cost $45+ each and you can choose from character wands or wands with themes based on your birthday. All around the wizarding parks, you’ll find plaques on the ground showing how to do the spell and where to aim your wand. Helpful park wizards are also on hand to help you get the spells just right.

Not only do you get a unique souvenir, but walking around casting spells is truly a magical experience that made me feel like a wizard. You can purchase the interactive wands at Ollivanders in either Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure) or Diagon Alley (Universal Studios). Purchase your wand right away – once you start using it, you’ll want to try all the spells.

photo of girl holding a wand at ollivanders wand shop

BONUS TIP There are interactive and regular wands, but make sure you get a wand that is interactive. It’s a few more bucks, but worth it.


Universal provides free WiFi throughout the park, so bring your device loaded with the Universal Orlando Resort App, which is free to download. This allows you to check out the rides online before heading to the park, making it easier to have a plan. It also is invaluable, showing real-time wait times for rides. It also allows you to set reminders so you don’t miss a show. It’s definitely important.

BONUS TIP The apps show wait times that are usually correct and will let you know when rides reopen after lightning delays.


photo of universal studios boardwalk restaurants sign

Our family preferred eating at the restaurants along city walk for two reasons.

First, the selection. There were so many places to choose from, and there was something to please everyone, which is a miracle in itself since there are 7 of us. Second, we found it so much cheaper for our family.

Cowfish Universal Studios

Inside the theme parks, there wasn’t a large selection of kids meals. In fact, almost everywhere we went for a meal inside the park didn’t have a kids menu. That meant adult prices for a meal that usually ended up with leftovers that would just go to waste. Along City Walk, there were plenty of restaurants, and every place we stopped at offered a kids menu. Not only did we save money, but also wasted less food. While you could split meals inside the park, to keep everyone happy and to their own plate, we opted to eat most of our meals along City Walk. Plus, it was a nice air-conditioned break.

Our family favorite was Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen! Just for the appetizers and desserts alone, this will be a long-time favorite. More details on our meal there to come.

Chocolate Emporium Universal Studios

BBONUS PARK TIP Everyone eats late, so try to hit up dinner before 6PM – there will be little or no wait.


Since Volcano Bay just recently opened, this place is getting a lot of attention. And the park fills up fast to its capacity quickly, so be sure to get there early – about 30 minutes before it opens. If you are staying on property, you get that extra hour, which is huge, because this place fills up to capacity sometimes only an hour after it opens to the general public. At one point, the most popular ride, Ko’okiri Body Plunge, was at a 380-minute wait. So get that one out of the way along with Honu.

Volcano Bay Universal Studios

Also, as soon as you are in, run and claim your spot for the day. Try to get chairs on the north side of a tree and in the shade if possible. Don’t leave valuables at your spot without you there. We found people desperate enough for spots in the shade, they’d move our stuff.

And it’s incredibly important that you school yourself on how to use the bracelet effectively to maximize your time there.

Volcano Bay at Universal Studios

BONUS PARK TIP Don’t leave the park until you are ready to go for the day because once you leave, you’ll only be allowed back in if they are not at capacity. Bring towels too, otherwise, you will be paying to rent them. Eek!


Now, this last tip is solely based on our families personal opinions – lots of opinions. Therefore, if you are not a thrill ride seeker, I would only check out the rides with the * as most of the following rides are for people who love to have their stomachs in their throats. The following opinions range from age 6 to 38.

1. Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit™ – the kids’ favorite and probably the scariest {Mom was too chicken to ride it}! You pick your favorite song to listen as you enjoy one of the longest rollercoasters we’ve been on.

Rockit Roller coaster Universal Studios

2. The Incredible Hulk Coaster® – 5 stars in all of our books! We used the kid swap on this ride as Cannon (6 years old) wasn’t tall enough to ride.

*3. Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts™ – great ride for all of our Harry Potter fans! {Includes mom too!}

4. Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls® – a great water ride that you will not be dry from after riding. We all loved this and it was especially great to ride on a hot afternoon.

*5. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey™ – did someone say Harry Potter? Of course this made the Top 10!

Butterbeer Universal Studios

*6. Fear Factor – not a ride but a live interactive show. If you want to be a contestant, you need to show up early to audition and sign your life away with waivers. But in the end, it’s worth it if “fear is not a factor for you.” It wasn’t a factor for my husband who auditioned and won the live show while we were there. I am not sure who was more proud, the kids or me.

Fear Factor Universal Studios

7. Transformers 3D Ride – we love Transformers, so this was a ride was one we were all looking forward to, and it did not disappoint.

Transformers Universal Studios

*8. Hogwarts™ Express: Hogsmeade™ Station – Harry Potter fans, this is a must! All your Potter dreams will come true. The only downside, according to my daughter Jordan, is that they don’t serve chocolate frogs.

9. Jurassic Park River Adventure™ – my kids loved this classic ride and the dinosaur exhibit outside of the ride. In fact, the instant we got off the ride, we got back on. The drop at the end of the ride and the splash of the water made this ride amazingly fun.

Jurassic Park Universal Studios

10. Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon™ – this ride made the top 10 not really because of the ride itself, but more for the funny and entertaining acapella “rap” group singing to you while you waited.

Jimmy Fallon Universal Studios

BONUS TIP Mix in a show when you start to feel hot. It’s a nice cool break from the heat. Also, don’t be afraid to sit out Storm Force Accelatron if spinning around in a circle for a minute might ruin the rest of your day.

Honorable Mentions: Men in Black Alien Attack, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Skull Island: Reign of Kong, Ollivander’s, Universal Orlando’s Horror Make-up Show, & Doctor Doom’s Fearfall

BONUS TIP Watch the movies or read the books before going. This makes the entire experience more fun. Using single rider lines is a great option too if you’re about maximizing time. We used them, letting my husband go first, which allowed him to wait for the kids as they came off, and myself or the oldest going last. Mix in a show when you start to feel hot; it’s a nice, cool break from the heat. 

Universal Studios Tips with a Family

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  1. Universal Studios really knows how to do excellent customer service. Our family of four went during spring break. I was recovering from ankle surgery and was wearing a boot. A staff member told me to go to the customer service booth and request a special pass since I had the boot on. Not only did I get a pass but so did the whole family. It turned out to be the medical version of the express pass but there was no charge. My husband lost our go pro and after searching we went to lost and found and gave them our information. They gave us a card with their direct (toll free) number and told us to call every few days if they didn’t call us. After we got home, we got lucky with the second call. They had a go pro they thought might be ours and said they would ship it to us at no charge. If it wasn’t ours we should call back and they would send a pre-paid envelope so we could return it, again at no charge. When the park closed, if you were in line they let you stay and ran the ride until everyone had their turn. Because of the boot I was taken up elevators and in the back way to make it easier for me to get to the rides and everyone was so solicitous and courteous. I had been dreading wandering around the park in the boot, but the staff made the experience special, not just tolerable. I wish everyone had their customer service training. I look forward to going again and you made staying on site sound like something I would definitely consider. Thanks for the tips.

  2. This looks like such a fun trip! We haven’t done this with the girls yet. We are waiting for them to be a little bit older. But definitely saving this!

  3. I love the tip on the refillable cups. We did that recently and all shared a cup — we just found out that they limit how often you can refill.

  4. Thank you for sharing this useful information. I appreciate the effort you took to write it. Please make more posts like this I will continue to support you.

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