Your bags are packed and your wands are ready. You need a little Grinchmas, right this very minute. You can already feel the hot Butterbeer in your hands, and you are curious about what lies behind those ominous Skull Island gates. The Universal Orlando Resort is a great place to spend your holiday vacation. But with the tadpoles out of school and parents taking a break, the Orlando theme parks experience a surge of visitors during the holidays. It can be a bit overwhelming — especially with all the epic entertainment to see and tasty treats to try — but over the years, we've figured out the best way to conquer those infamous wintertime crowds.
This holiday season, every Orlando area theme park will be busy. You should plan on longer waits for attractions and larger crowds everywhere you go on your visits to Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Keeping calm and not losing your temper like the Hulk (one of our favorite green guys), is the best way for you to approach the busy times. That is, unless, any of you wizards know some crowd-vanishing spells. Ready to celebrate the most wonderful time of the year with minions, wizards and your favorite superheroes? Keep reading to find out how to have a magical vacation at Universal Orlando this festive season!
Tips to Survive the Universal Orlando Holiday Crowds
1. Stay On-Site at an Official Resort Hotel
This is unequivocally the single best way to manage the Universal Orlando holiday crowds. If you can, stay at one of Universal's premier hotels that offer Universal Express Unlimited ride access. This unlimited skip-the-line ride access for your entire length of stay, including check-in and check-out, will save you more time than anything else. (Valid theme park admission is required.) Plus, if you were going to also shell out for Universal Express passes for each family member, it will also save you a bundle. The hotels that offer it are Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Universal's Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort.
Additionally, all of Universal's hotels offer one hour Early Park Admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which will give you a hop on all the other park guests, especially during the busy holidays. The hotels are all super close to the parks, which makes it easy to get to them or to take a break when the afternoon Universal Orlando holiday crowds hit their peak. In the rare chance that the parks reach capacity, hotel guests will be among the first to be let in once capacity lowers and they can allow more guests into the park.
2. Consider Universal Express Pass
When you’re faced with the long lines of Universal Orlando holiday crowds, the Universal Express Pass can be a smart option, especially if you can't stay on site. This paid pass lets you skip the regular attraction queue by going through a separate, reserved entrance. Universal offers two passes, the Universal Express Unlimited Pass, which you can use over and over again, or the Universal Express Pass, which you can use one time only at each attraction. Each pass is only valid for one day and includes most but not every attraction. The only rides that do not have Express access in either park are Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and Pteranodon Flyers at Universal's Islands of Adventure. Also, the pass doesn’t guarantee immediate boarding. You’ll still find yourself in a line with other people that have purchased a Universal Express Pass, but it’s much shorter than the regular line. If you’re willing to pay the additional per-person fee, then the Universal Express Pass is a time-saving option to consider.
3. Arrive Early and Stay Late
This holiday season, arriving early is probably the single-most important tip for managing holiday crowds. This is also the best way to ensure you get into the park, especially on weekends. Getting the most out of a holiday visit requires some endurance, as well as a willingness to use the off hours for theme park fun (hey, this is a survival guide). Arriving at the park early — before the gates open — is your first step to beating Universal Orlando holiday crowds. We recommend getting to your chosen park 30 minutes before it opens. Universal typically lets visitors in 15 minutes before the posted opening time. If you’re there when this happens, then you can make your way over to the roped off area that’s closest to your first destination. Once the rope drops, you’re off. Depending on the day and crowds, you can get a nice amount of attractions in during those first few hours after park opening.
Closing time is another way to get in some last-minute rides. Generally, crowds are reduced during the park’s last hour of operation. There’s a good chance that lines will be less than 15 minutes on everything. However, we recommend targeting your final attraction of the evening and getting in line for that about 15 minutes before closing. As long as you’re in the queue when the park's closing hour hits, you’ll get on.
4. Visit on a Weekday
This is another especially good way to ensure you experience lower crowds. Because so many locals visit on the weekends, we recommend avoiding them if you absolutely can. If you cannot avoid it, you most definitely should arrive early at the parks.
5. Have a Plan
Crowds and lines can cost you lots of time. The best approach to surviving the Universal Orlando holiday crowds is coming up with a plan. We offer park plans for each of the parks that are great for crowd level 5s, 6s, 7s and 8s, which cover most of the season. Our crowd calendar can give you an idea of what your days will be like. Start your planning with our printable Quick-Start Universal Orlando Planning Guide. For the tadpoles, make sure to print out our packing list coloring page that they can use to help with the planning.
Your trip within the parks will go a lot smoother if you arrive with a plan in place. Figure out your must-dos. Do you want to ride The Incredible Hulk Coaster more than once? Is riding Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure the only thing you want to do? Are you looking forward to dining at Toothsome Chocolate Emporium, or will a quick slice of pizza do? We always put together a short list of priorities by family member. That way we can best strategize and make sure no one, especially Tad and Lily, are left out. Prioritize what you want to do, and understand you might not get in everything, especially when navigating through Universal Orlando holiday crowds.
6. Review Your Safety Plan
Take it from two experienced frog parents — it is REALLY easy to lose track of your tadpoles in a crowded theme park, especially during the surge of Universal Orlando holiday crowds. You take one innocent moment to snap a picture, turn back to your little ones, only to find them gone. Thankfully, we have a safety plan. We designate a spot in each area of the park to serve as our meeting place in case somebody gets separated. If your little ones have cell phones, then keeping in contact may not be a problem. The littler tadpoles should know to find a Universal Orlando employee if they get lost. Think about dressing everyone in the same bright color and take a picture of your children that morning so you have a recent one with what they’re wearing. Read more on our Theme Park Safety Strategies.
7. Download our iPhone App
As mentioned above, our Orlando Planning App offers pre-set and customizable park plans. It also has wait times in an easy-to-use interface, which makes it a great tool for managing the Universal Orlando holiday crowds. The map feature makes it easy to navigate and see your plans and wait times. It won’t drain your battery life, and it covers Universal, SeaWorld and Disney World. Did I mention it’s FREE? It’s a must-have for your theme park trip.
8. Know the Parade and Show Schedules
Showtimes are great tools for planning, as they help you prioritize your day and beat some of the Universal Orlando holiday crowds. Pick up a park map or check the official Universal Orlando app when you arrive, look at the various show time options, then get planning. Try to schedule things so that you’re not having to dash across the park to make a show time. You can hop from Diagon Alley to the 1 p.m. Animal Actors on Location pretty easily, but not so much if you’re at Revenge of the Mummy. If you're planning to get a prime spot in front for Universal's Holiday Parade featuring Macy's at 5:30 p.m., prepare to plop down at least an hour before step-off.
9. Be a Single Rider
If only half of your group wants to ride the Incredible Hulk or you don’t need to sit with your family on the Mummy ride (Mommy Frog tends to scream on this one), then consider the Single Rider line. Single rider is available for select attractions across Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Single riders are used to fill open seats on attractions when available and is usually faster than even Express Pass. You can stay together in line, but you just won't ride together. Do note that the single rider line passes most queue elements. We recommend experiencing the full queue experience on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts at least once if you can.
10. Pack Snacks and Drinks
Hunger can derail any plan. It can also strike during a 90-minute wait time. We aways pack some small snacks, energy bars and bottles of water in our backpacks before heading into the parks. Universal will let guests carry in small snacks and drinks, but no glass or alcohol. These quick bites can sooth a cranky stomach (child or adult) really quickly.
11. Eat Breakfast Before You Arrive
The Frog Family fuels up before hitting the parks on a crowded day. We either eat in the hotel room — pastries, trail mix, fruit, yogurt — or grab something in the car and dine as we head to the park. Occasionally we do a full-on buffet, but only if we still have plenty of time to hit the park ahead of opening. It takes extra effort to get everyone up in the morning, but we save time in the park by riding instead of dining.
12. Dine Before or After Regular Mealtimes
Save your line time for the fun stuff by eating during off-peak hours. Restaurants inside the parks get busy around traditional dining times—11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. for dinner. Consider having those big meals outside of busy times. Most restaurants begin serving lunch at 11 a.m. and dinner at 4 p.m. Plan your dining times around any shows or parades you want to see and keep your hunger satisfied with popcorn, coffee, green tea or those snacks you packed. Lines at restaurants during peak times can get even crazier with the Universal Orlando holiday crowds.
13. Set a Souvenir Budget
Wand. Tie. Socks. Wizard robes. Stuffed owl. It’s easy to get carried away with souvenirs. We give Tad and Lily a souvenir allowance to spend as they wish. My wife and I also surprise them with souvenirs we purchase in advance at a much lower price. Souvenir budgets go for the adults too (my vice is ceramic mugs).
14. Go Shopping Toward the End of Your Day
It is really easy to get caught up in the amazing details within the shops at Digaon Alley or Hogsmeade. You can quickly wander in “just for a peek” only to find yourself still shop gazing two hours later, and next thing you know, the Universal Orlando holiday crowds are at their peak. We save our souvenir shopping until the very end of the day. Day Shopping = Bag Carrying (unless you're staying on-site). Lots of Universal rides will require you to store your belongings in a locker before boarding. What if your bag won’t fit? Make shopping the last part of your day and avoid those headaches.
15. See a Bathroom, Use a Bathroom
We make it a point of asking Tad or Lily if they need to use a restroom wherever we see one. We also tend to make a stop before getting in a 45+ minute long line. We have ... first-hand knowledge ... of what happens when we ignore this tip. Like the restaurant lines, restroom lines grow with the Universal Orlando holiday crowds. (Hop tip: The line for the restroom right next to The Tonight Shop can get very long. In that case, head to the restroom right next to Mel's Drive-In which is fairly hidden and therefore doesn't see the same long waits.)
16. Take a Break from the Parks
If you or your little ones are completely frazzled by the afternoon, take a break from the parks completely. Universal CityWalk provides plenty of diversions that aren't quite as packed as the parks. Shopping, dining, places to grab a quick bite, movies and even a mini-golf course will let you take a break from the action.
If you're staying on-site at any of the Universal hotels, then heading back to the room for a nap or tablet time is also a good option.
17. Have a Few Wizarding Tricks
We have two tips specific for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter:
A) Know Your Butterbeer Locations: Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade each have multiple places to get your Butterbeer fix. If the Hogsmeade cart line is long, the line for Hog's Head may have no wait. Same over in Diagon Alley. Try the Fountain of Fair Fortune if the line at The Hopping Pot is too long.
B) Ollivanders: The lines for this interactive show can be long during the day, and they grow even more with the Universal Orlando holiday crowds. It's one of the slowest-moving lines, and the tadpoles can get restless. We recommend seeing this within the first hour of your time, or at the end of your day. We also recommend trying the location in Diagon Alley versus Hogsmeade, as the one in Universal Studios has two showrooms as opposed to one, making the line move quicker.
18. Be Flexible
While I love when a great plan comes together, I know when it’s OK to alter that plan and change course. Take occasional “temperature” checks of everyone’s energy levels and attitudes. If you have to cut something short or take a break, don’t sweat it. It can be expected when navigating the Universal Orlando holiday crowds. After all, it’s about quality, not quantity.
19. Pack Your Patience
There are times during your visit when it will feel like everyone in the world decided to visit Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure during this holiday season. Knowing to expect Universal Orlando holiday crowds can help you manage expectations. As we like to say, "keep calm and frog on." Take a moment to appreciate that you get to spend time with your loved ones at two incredible theme parks.
If you've made it through this list, you're going to be so much hoppier and better at managing the Universal Orlando holiday crowds than many of your other fellow park-goers. Have a tip for navigating the parks during the busy holiday season? Spread some joy and share it in the comments below!
Related: Complete Guide to Disney World Holiday Crowds