How to Conquer Florida's Universal Studios in One Day
Credit: WireImage

If Orlando seems to be popping up on your vacation radar more than ever, you shouldn't be surprised. Tourism numbers in the amusement-packed city have been booming for the past few years, partly due to the many openings and expansions at Universal Orlando Resort. With attractions ripped from the pages of Harry Potter and a way to experience Minion mania in real life, you too may find your family adding a day trip onto your Florida vacation just to see it all first-hand.

It can be tough to tackle a theme park in a weekend, let alone three theme parks, but with some insider knowledge and this see-it-all itinerary, packing it all into a single day can be easier than zipping your overpacked suitcase pre-flight:

Get a handle on the grounds before you go.

Universal Orlando Resort comprises two separate parks: Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. Both have Harry Potter rides and experiences, as well as intense roller coasters and activities for young ones, but generally speaking, Islands of Adventure has more thrills than the movie-centric Studios. Download the Universal Florida app in advance so you can familiarize yourself with the lay of the land as well as check wait times on-the-go upon arrival.

If you can, stay on-property the night before.

Staying nearby is essential for getting there when the gates open, but park hotel guests get an extra hour of amusements each morning with paid admission, which is essential for fitting it all into one day. (This is especially true outside of summer and holiday seasons, when the parks close relatively early.) Not staying nearby? Arrive extra early, as security can slow you down, along with the lengthy trek through Universal’s CityWalk en route to park entrances. Remember which fingerprint you signed in with, too—scanning your ticket incorrectly when reentering can take up to five minutes to sort out.

Be sure you’re buying the right ticket—and bypass most roller coaster lines

You should purchase park-to-park admission tickets, as it’s the only way to visit both locations as well as board the Hogwarts Express, as well as consider purchasing front-of-line Universal Express Passes. They allow you to bypass lengthy lines on select rides for a fee, allowing you to see even more on your short visit. (Guests at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, and Hard Rock Hotel receive them complimentary.) There are two versions—the Universal Express Pass allows you to cut the line only once, while the unlimited allows you to do so as much as you’d like—but since you’re short on time, opt for the standard one, which is about $20 less. It may seem expensive to buy a $65 pass on top of one-day park tickets (which can cost around $150 for children and $155 for adults), but it actually equals out to what a two-day park ticket would be, without the added cost of refreshments and souvenirs. Do take note before you buy—there is no Express Pass access offered on either of the main Harry Potter rides.

Your ideal itinerary starts with a Minion-filled morning

Start the day at Universal Studios to become minion-ized on Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem’s 3D simulator before battling Decepticons face-to-face on TRANSFORMERS: The Ride-3D, which have long lines in the afternoon. From there, head straight to the park’s immersive Diagon Alley to ride Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts before grabbing an early lunch at the Leaky Cauldron, whose delectable fish & chips will make you think you’ve been floo'd to London. Wander through the whimsical stores on its cobblestone streets as you exit to King’s Cross Station and board the Hogwarts Express train, an attraction mimicking the journey of Harry and friends that doubles as transportation to Universal’s second park, Islands of Adventure.

Spend the afternoon conquering death-defying attractions

Once you arrive, explore the wand stores and sweets shops of Hogsmeade Village as you make your way towards its signature attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Afterwards, head to Jurassic Park River Adventure to experience dinosaurs and water-fueled drops, and Skull Island: Reign of Kong, an entirely new and immersive adventure, both of which are nearby. If The Incredible Hulk Coaster is once again open, ride it—the track and theming has recently been overhauled—before return to Hogsmeade to experience the quick inversions of the dueling Dragon Challenge coasters. (Though you’ll see them earlier in the day, the two Harry Potter rides are best split up to avoid dizziness and aid in lunch digestion.)

End your day with a gradual succession of coasters

Take the Hogwarts Express back to Diagon Alley, which provides a completely different experience than the way over. When you arrive, head back to Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour and opt for the Butterbeer soft-serve or uniquely flavored scoops on offer. From there, explore the impeccable theming of The Simpsons-themed land before boarding Revenge of the Mummy’s dark indoor coaster as a prelude for the biggest ride in the park, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. The over-the-top twists and turns are worth riding for the choose-your-own-soundtrack element, but can be somewhat of a rough ride. Finish on a calm note with E.T. Adventure, a must-do dose of nostalgia that fully stands the test of time.

Do what works best for your group

Traveling alone or with friends? Make the most of single rider lines, offered on both Harry Potter rides as well as select rides and coasters. Have children in your party? Check height requirements in advance so no one’s disappointed in person and utilize Child Swap, available on most rides. You should make the most of Fievel’s Playland and Seuss Landing, too, which serve as some of the most charming areas in the parks.

Simply accept that you can’t do it all.

Since you’re only there for one day, some attractions will need to make the chopping block. There’s no time for entertainment or shows, and if it means being unable to ride The Simpsons Ride, so be it. Since the park has plenty of simulators and roller coasters with inversions, be careful to time out your meals accordingly, no matter what itinerary you choose. And, if you need an afternoon pick-me-up, there are Starbucks located in both parks, both on New York street at Universal Studios and near the entrance of Islands of Adventure.