Post UPDATED for 2014!

My goal with these Tuesday posts is to highlight a specific location or element of vacationing; there is so much to cover and I feel that I’ve been dedicating a lot of time and attention lately to cruising. As you can probably tell, cruise vacations are what I know best and are therefore my niche, but that’s not the only thing I know.
Today, I’m going to focus on an extremely popular family vacation destination that isn’t Walt Disney World: Universal Orlando resort.

First things first: Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World are owned by different companies. Some of you may know this, but many do not. There is no business relationship between the two parks, so if you go to Orlando with plans to visit both parks, expect to purchase two separate tickets.
Universal Orlando resort is comprised of three different elements – two theme parks (Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios) and their entertainment complex, Citywalk.
Universal Studios Florida is the original component of this now-vast theme park resort. The park opened in 1990 with the promise of letting its visitors “ride the movies”. And that it does. The attractions at Universal Studios are heavily based on both classic and contemporary films, with featured attractions such as “Revenge of the Mummy” (my personal favorite), “Twister”, “Shrek 4:D”, “The Simpsons Ride” and “Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem”. Over the years, they have redesigned and updated some of these rides to appeal to more contemporary audiences – for example, “The Simpsons Ride” used to be “Back to the Future”. They also added the park’s only bonafide roller coaster, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, in 2009. The park itself is split up into 6 different areas: Production Central, New York, San Francisco **, World Expo, Hollywood, and Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone.

* UPDATE: 2013 saw the addition of “Transformers 3-D” and a full expansion of The Simpsons region, complete with Springfield-inspired restaurants and shops.

Universal Studios is the home of some pretty great annual events that you don’t want to miss! Mardi Gras runs from February to April and features a nightly parade – with beads! – and a “free” concert every weekend by a national recording artist. Mardi Gras 2012 featured Kelly Clarkson, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper and Boyz II Men, to name just a few. (The concert is included with the cost of admission.) Another extremely popular event is Halloween Horror Nights, which runs from late September until early November. The park is transformed with haunted houses and random frights designed to scare the pants off of its visitors; for this reason, this is not the place for the kiddies. Halloween Horror Nights is NOT included with the price of admission; expect to pay a separate entrance fee.

Islands of Adventure is the sister park to Universal Studios Orlando. It opened in 1999 and is heavily focused in thrill rides and your typical “amusement park” atmosphere. This park is also home of the wildly popular Harry Potter attraction – “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” – which opened in 2010. They went so far as to completely reconstruct Hogwarts, which is truly a sight to behold! While Islands of Adventure has attractions that are film-based (Jurassic Park, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey), the goal of most of the rides are to get a scream out of the park’s guests (just check out The Incredible Hulk Coaster, which is my favorite ride in the park!!). Islands of Adventure also has Seuss Landing, with several rides designed for the little ones in your family.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

** UPDATE: 2014 will see the Diagon Alley expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which will be situated within Universal Studios and has replaced the San Francisco/Amity region of the park. A real life Hogwarts Express will link the two components together, however a park ticket granted admission to BOTH parks will be needed to experience them both!

Universal Citywalk is the third component to Universal Orlando Resort. The area is filled with restaurants, shops and nightclubs and charges no separate admission price to explore the area. Once you park in the garage, you will be directed into Citywalk before you arrive to the theme parks, which are connected to Citywalk on two different ends. After 10pm, the nightlife at Citywalk begins to pick up and the 8 nightclubs and bars on the property start jumpin’! At this point, the clubs begin charging a cover for entry. If you plan to bar hop, you can purchase a Citywalk Party Pass for $11.99 (which, in my opinion, is completely worth the cost).

In addition to its multiple attractions, Universal Orlando Resort offers three hotels that are located on the property: The Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Two MAJOR benefits to staying at one of these hotels, in addition to your proximity to the theme parks, are the fact that you will earn a FREE express pass with the purchase of park admission (express pass = skip the lines) and early access to” The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Islands of Adventure.

*** UPDATE: Universal’s newest resort, Cabana Bay Beach Resort, opens on March 31, 2014. This is a moderate and value priced resort that will allow families to enjoy the on-site amenities of Universal Orlando Resort in family suites or standard rooms.


Wet ‘n’ Wild Waterpark is also owned by Universal, and is located just down the street from the resort. This park is the home to some of the CRAZIEST waterslides you’ll ever see including the Bomb Bay, which will literally drop you 76 feet, almost vertically. If you prefer less action, there’s always the lazy river or the wave pool!

So there you have it – a comprehensive overview of Universal Orlando Resort. Interested? Here are the all-important details about pricing, as well as my personal recommendations on when to visit:

Ticket Prices (for 2014 season):

1 day, 1 park ticket : $92 (adult), $88 (child ages 3-9), 0-2 free

1 day, 2 park ticket : $128 (adult), $122 (child)

** admission to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure

2 day, 2 park ticket: $146.99 (adult), $136.99 (child)

** admission to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure

When to Visit:

Peak tourist season runs, understandably,  from June until September. Additional peak seasons are Spring Break (usually during March or April) and in December around Christmas/New Years. Kids are out of school and many working adults take vacation during these periods, so expect large crowds and long lines. In the summer, also be prepared to melt in the central Florida sun.

Being a Florida resident, we know to avoid theme parks during these peak seasons. If you want a less chaotic and more comfortable vacation, I strongly suggest you think out of the box. If possible, plan your vacation during January/February, or September through November. If this is not realistic for you and your family, aim for the early summer. Many international groups arrive to Orlando in July/August, making the parks unbearably crowded (in my opinion).

Although I love Disney for its nostalgia, I have to say that Universal Orlando is my favorite theme park in Florida. We’ve been there more times than I can count – thanks to annual passes – and have a wonderful time each visit. This vacation is fun for a family with kids or adults who just love having a good time!