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, which are especially important right now, when park capacity is limited. Unlike Disney World and SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Orlando did not implement a reservation system upon reopening, which greatly impacts our advice. The parks can (and do) hit capacity — and recently, Universal has been closing out dates for potential ticket sales in advance as they reach capacity, which means planning ahead is a must since you must select a start date for your ticket! 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 when Universal Orlando's capacity limits are reached 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 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. A good rule of thumb is to arrive at the entrance gates about an hour before the parks officially open. 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 the temperature screening and security checkpoints, and walking through Universal CityWalk. Check for Virtual Line passes as soon as you are on property; you do not need to wait until you are physically inside of the parks to do so.
During our latest visit to Universal Orlando, we went in the middle of the spring break season on a weekday. We expected to wait in long lines for the temperature screening and security, but we actually passed through both quickly, and we were inside Universal's Islands of Adventure right at its official opening time. However, we were not early enough to snag Virtual Line passes for Hagrid's — they were already gone. From past experience, we've noticed that the Virtual Line system can open up to a half-hour before the park opens. Ultimately, it depends on when a ride's standby line reaches capacity, so exact timing may vary. While it remained busy throughout the day, the parks themselves did not reach capacity.
When to Expect Universal Orlando to Reach Capacity
During this past holiday season, the parks would consistently close due to Universal Orlando capacity limits. In fact, there were even a few days during the last week of December when the parks closed within the first 10 minutes of the official opening time and didn’t reopen later in the day (yikes!). Since the week between Christmas and New Year's is typically the most concentrated, single busiest time of the year, we don’t expect the parks to reach capacity that quickly until perhaps when the holiday season rolls back around.
However, it is very likely that the parks will reach capacity during holiday weekends, as well as weekends in general during a typical busy season. For instance, the parks hit their capacity limits by 1 p.m. on the Sunday during Presidents’ Day weekend. The following Saturday (February 20, 2021), the parks reached capacity by noon.
With this current spring break season (and the summer months following quickly behind), the dates most likely to see the parks reach capacity are Easter Sunday, Memorial Day weekend, Fourth of July and Labor Day weekend. If you can, we’d advise you to avoid visiting any weekend during spring break season, as weekdays are usually — although not always — less crowded. If you DO visit for spring break, consider using the weekend as your "downtime" if possible; hang by the pool or plan your shopping! As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues, we’ll be sure to update this post if any policies or capacity limits change, though we expect social distancing guidelines and mask requirements to stay put at least through the end of the year.
The start of spring break season 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. For 2021, Easter falls on April 4, so there will be an overall shorter, but more crowded, spring break season, especially compared to 2019 when Easter fell on April 21. Florida universities generally have spring breaks during the first or second week of March. This year, the public schools in Orange and Osceola Counties had spring break from March 15 to 19, so that week in particular saw more weekdays reaching capacity 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 Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure OR Universal's 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
- Like 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, you might wait 45 minutes instead of 90 minutes in the regular standby line.
- 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 our most 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!