Sometimes, the best time for a vacation is when your schedule allows it! For many busy families, that means times when the tadpoles are out of school, including spring and summer breaks. If you’re planning to visit Universal Orlando Resort during a peak period, then naturally you may be wondering what the park experience will be like: How can I make the most of my time if there are long lines? Will I be able to get everything done that I want to do? How early do I need to arrive?
Over the years, we’ve gathered our tried-and-true touring tips. The parks reaching capacity is not particularly common — especially now that it's been well over two years since the parks reopened after their extended closure in 2020 and are no longer operating with a limited capacity — but it's still possible. As of October 2022, the last time a park filled up was when Universal's Volcano Bay hit capacity for a day this past August. The sooner you can purchase your tickets, the more availability you'll find (and if you're visiting during a peak time, that means you'll have a better shot at selecting your preferred dates).
Visiting Universal Orlando during a busy time does not mean you're in for less fun or more stress. Much like our green friend Shrek, it just means there are more layers to understand. In this post, we’ll cover exactly what to expect during those rare days Universal Orlando hits full capacity and how to make the very most of a busy day so that you are toadally ready for action.
Our Top Touring Strategy When Universal Orlando Is Busy
While the lack of a park reservation system can make for a more last-minute approach, if you know you'll be visiting Universal Orlando during a busy time, the best piece of advice that we have is to plan ahead. Since you'll need to select your ticket's start date in advance, and dates can sell out, you'll want to hop on tickets ASAP for your best shot at your preferred dates. Likewise, hotel reservations are more likely to fill up during busy times — and some of the most useful time-saving perks are offered to Universal hotel guests, which we'll get into below.
Entry at the theme parks is first-come, first-served. That means you should plan to arrive early, especially when crowds are highly anticipated. Around this pond, we like to say that the early frog gets the fly! A good rule of thumb is to arrive at the entrance gates about an hour before the parks officially open since the gates have a habit of opening a few minutes early. That way, you can make a beeline to the hottest rides and get on them with minimal wait times. If you’re staying at one of the Universal Orlando Resort hotels (or if you’re a premier or preferred annual passholder), you should definitely take advantage of Early Park Admission. Be sure to budget time for parking or taking transportation to get to the parks, going through security checkpoints and walking through Universal CityWalk.
When to Expect Universal Orlando to Reach Capacity
As of June 2021, Universal Orlando Resort has been operating at pre-pandemic capacity. We haven't heard of either of the two theme parks hitting capacity since those pandemic-induced capacity restrictions disappeared. However, Volcano Bay did hit capacity several times just this past year, during spring in both April and May and during the heat of summer in both July and August.
You can pretty much expect to be able to get into both Universal's Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida without any problem — no matter the day. However, the dates most likely to see any of the parks reach capacity are the week between Christmas and New Year's, Memorial Day weekend, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekend. If you can, we’d advise you to avoid visiting any weekend during the summer season, as weekdays are usually — although not always — less crowded. If you DO visit during the summer, consider using the weekend as your "downtime" if possible; hang by the pool or plan your shopping!
The start of spring break season — another time it's not uncommon to see big crowds in the parks — is always early March. However, the end of the season fluctuates, thanks to Easter. The date of the holiday changes every year, and many school districts adjust their spring break or give additional days off because of it. Typically, when you have a later Easter, there is a longer, but overall less crowded spring break season. Next year, Easter will fall on April 9, so there will be an overall shorter, but more crowded, spring break season, compared to this year when Easter fell on April 17. Florida universities generally have spring breaks during the first or second week of March. In 2023, the public schools in Orange and Osceola Counties will have spring break from March 13 to 17, so that week may see busier weekdays due to locals being out of school.
The summer break season normally lasts from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend — though the second half of August usually sees crowds slowing down since Florida schools, along with many U.S. school districts, start the school year in mid-August. For the best times to visit Universal Orlando, I share more advice on when to visit the parks in this separate post.
What Happens When Universal Orlando Reaches Capacity?
So, what exactly happens when the Universal Orlando capacity limits are met? Once the parks are completely full, no one will be allowed to enter until capacity lowers. Most of the time, the parks will reopen later in the afternoon or evening, but it’s not guaranteed. For live updates, you can call the Universal Orlando capacity hotline at 407-817-8317, check the park hours on the Universal Orlando app or website, or follow Universal Orlando's Twitter account. If you call the hotline, you must first indicate which park you're going to (Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure OR Volcano Bay) via the phone menu, and then you'll be asked if you're a Universal hotel guest (if not, choose the "other" option).
Certain guests are considered priority guests — Universal hotel guests and single-day ticket holders. As the team members monitor the parks’ capacity, they may stop guests from entering as they near capacity but continue to allow priority guests inside. Priority guests will also be among the first to enter if the parks reopen later. If you arrive and the parks are closed due to capacity, then you'll have to wait in line. There is a separate line for priority guests.
You should not leave the parks if you’re already inside or else you may have to wait to re-enter if the parks are at capacity. Universal opens up a pathway to hop between parks so you don’t have to exit or take the Hogwarts Express. (By the way, this special pathway will open up on busy days, even if the parks have not yet reached capacity. It's also possible for the pathway to only have one-way access.) This means you should plan accordingly by packing everything you need, so you don’t froget anything in your car or hotel room. In this case, it’s worth spending $10 or $15 (depending on the size) for an all-day locker if you’d rather not carry certain items around with you.
Tips for Planning Around a Busy Time at Universal Orlando
- As we mentioned before, we’d recommend avoiding weekends, as the parks are more likely to reach capacity on Saturdays and Sundays versus visiting during the middle of the week.
- Consider staying at one of the Universal Orlando hotels. If you’re able to spend the night before, not only will you be well-rested, but you’ll be super close to the parks, which is a big advantage when you’re aiming to arrive early. You’ll also have the Early Park Admission benefit, which will allow you to enter one of the parks an hour before the scheduled opening time. If you’re staying at a Universal Premier hotel, you’ll also receive free Universal Express Unlimited passes.
- If you’re not staying at a Universal Premier hotel, then consider purchasing Universal Express passes. You’ll still have to wait in the Express lines, but the wait times will be considerably shorter. For example, we just recently rode The Incredible Hulk Coaster and used the Express queue where we ended up waiting less than 10 minutes ... whereas the standby queue hit a two-hour wait.
- Before you arrive at the parks, download the official Universal Orlando Resort app and our Orlando Planning app. The Universal Orlando app holds a lot of handy information, and you will be able to access mobile food ordering and the Virtual Line Experience for select rides. Our Orlando Planning app includes our Crowd Calendar, preset and customized park plans, interactive maps, wait times and information about rides and restaurants — all hopful tools!
- Ahead of time, make a priority list of the top five rides and shows you want to experience, particularly if you only have a day to visit the parks. When the parks are busy, you may not be able to get to everything, so you’ll want to make sure to manage your expectations. If you’re able to tackle at least one ride during Early Park Admission, then aim for two rides before lunch and two rides after lunch. Wait times usually vary between 60 and 180 minutes on the busiest of days.
- Once you arrive, head to the back of the park first. Many of the casual theme park goers without a plan get in line for the first ride they see, so rides near the entrance will be long in the morning. On a recent trip, we made a beeline to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and we hopped on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey when it was only a 45-minute wait (and it only took 30 minutes). By the time we exited the ride, the wait time jumped to 85 minutes.
- Eat before or after peak meal times (roughly from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.). You can bring small snacks that don't require refrigeration with you to hold you over until you're able to eat.
- Keep in mind that on busy days, quick-service restaurants will not have pick-up windows for mobile orders. Instead, mobile ordering is used exclusively for table delivery (aka, you'll need to wait in a line, and once you're seated with a table number, you'll order your food). Use our previous tip to avoid long lunch or dinner lines!
Do you have any more questions or concerns about Universal Orlando's capacity procedures during busy periods? Let us know in the comments below!