A First-Timer’s Guide to Universal Orlando Resort

We had the pleasure of spending a few days at Universal Orlando Resort – at the parks and at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort. This is a sponsored post and all thoughts are my own!

#ad Here's our first-timer's guide Universal Orlando Resort, for enjoying both the parks and hotels! Get ready for a new family tradition #ReadyForUniversal

As you know from my post last week, we LOVE Universal Orlando Resort.

Just to refresh you, it was our SEVENTH time going to Universal Orlando Resort but our first time staying at one of the on-site hotels. I think it was truly a memorable trip, and now two weeks later, we can’t stop sharing our favorite memories from the trip. I think one thing that’s particularly fun is how well we know the parks. We feel like it’s a familiar place – a home away from home – but that doesn’t make it any less exciting. Every year has a new store or ride to discover. Every year has new shows, character experiences, foods, and perfect timing events. And yet, there are the favorites we do every year as well. It’s a mixed bag of awesome, I’d say.

That’s why we thought it would be fun to share our wisdom with first-timers!

#ad Here's our first-timer's guide Universal Orlando Resort, for enjoying both the parks and hotels! Get ready for a new family tradition #ReadyForUniversal

A First-Timer’s Guide to Universal Orlando Resort:

First of all, welcome! You’re so lucky to be going to Universal Orlando Resort. The first time I went as a teen was super exciting. Back then they had the JAWS ride, the old Men in Black ride, and the old King Kong ride. They also had Twister and Earthquake rides. I’ve loved watching the parks grow. My aunt worked for Universal Orlando Resort for many years so my first two times at the parks were more behind-the-scenes. I have to say that it only gets better every year. Or day!

Cabana Bay Beach Resort

Make the most of waiting time.

That’s right – it CAN be done. On-site hotel guests get exclusive benefits, some of which we enjoyed! For example, at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, we had Early Park Admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (and Universal’s Volcano Bay) an hour before the parks opened! We used the time to look for magic wands! If you stay at a Premier hotel, it includes FREE Universal Express Unlimited tickets. That means skipping the regular lines at popular rides and attractions at Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure! So awesome!

And, this means getting the most of your time even during busy times. As you know, we only travel to Orlando during less crowded times of year, but that isn’t possible for all. If you don’t stay at one of the on-site hotels offering Universal Express, you can purchase Universal Express or Universal Express Unlimited passes (on top of your regular admission tickets). Another perk we enjoyed is Single Rider lines. Many of Universal Orlando Resort’s top rides offer this feature at Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. It’s an option for adults and big kids who like rides the others don’t. Like Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts!

#ad Here's our first-timer's guide Universal Orlando Resort, for enjoying both the parks and hotels! Get ready for a new family tradition #ReadyForUniversal

Park-to-Park Tickets:

You might not know this if you haven’t visited Universal Orlando Resort, but we think it’s super important to get park-to-park tickets. Why? It’s how you ride the Hogwarts Express! The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is actually in two parks – Hogsmeade is in Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and Diagon Alley is in Universal Studios Florida. You can certainly walk between the two parks, but there’s something about that Hogwarts Express ride! And it’s a different experience in either direction. If you do have a single-park ticket – have no fear. You can upgrade to a park-to-park ticket at ticket windows near the Hogwarts Express stations. You may buy tickets in advance here. Choose the number of people, parks and type of tickets here and enjoy the atmosphere of this unique place!

Seeing all the attractions in both parks is so worth it!

#ad Here's our first-timer's guide Universal Orlando Resort, for enjoying both the parks and hotels! Get ready for a new family tradition #ReadyForUniversal

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions:

There are SO many, but I’ll tell you our favorites! We eat lunch at Three Broomsticks on the early side – around 11:30am. It’s before the lunch crowd has set in, so it’s a great way to refuel. You can get Butterbeer there, with lunch, and also at Hog’s Head Pub, at the Butterbeer and Pumpkin Juice and Gillywater cart in Hogsmeade, or at several locations at Diagon Alley. Another fun thing is to head STRAIGHT to Ollivander’s Wand Shop in Diagon Alley. They take guests in – 25 at a time – and one (usually child) guest is chosen for a wand ceremony! Also check the schedule for when you go to see the beautiful light show on the Hogwarts Castle at night! Gorgeous!

Hogwarts Castle light show

For those unsure about the rides:

There are rides at Universal Orlando Resort that have walking “tours” that stretch on before you get to the rides. And they are often big attractions all by themselves. You can walk through and enjoy Hogwarts Castle before the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. Simply tell the attendants that you’re only doing a walk-through and they’ll escort you out right before the ride boards. This happens with Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts as well, and you get to enjoy an elevator ride too! I’ve heard you can have a behind-the-scenes look at the Men in Black ride as well, but I’ve never tried this. This is from Gringotts but NOT from on the ride:

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts

Some comfort and planning tips:

You can explore the Universal Dining Plan, which allows you to pay for meals and snacks in advance of your visit. This could possibly save you money. Also, you can use lockers (free of charge) for rides and attractions in which you can’t take on a big backpack. What else? You need TIME in the morning before the crowds, so plan to eat breakfast on the road or in your hotel. We usually get yogurts to store in our room fridge to have that morning. In terms of what you can bring to the parks, you can bring bottled water, snacks, food for medical purposes, breastmilk and baby formula, and smaller insulated bags. Make sure to check if you’re unsure.

#ad Here's our first-timer's guide Universal Orlando Resort, for enjoying both the parks and hotels! Get ready for a new family tradition #ReadyForUniversal

Traveling with young children?

You have some options! You can rent a stroller in both parks immediately after you pass through into the entrances. There are also Family Services areas (centrally located) that provide diaper change and bottle warming help. There are also rocking chairs! And you can take advantage of Rider Swap which means that the whole family can line up for rides together. At the loading area, one parents goes on the ride, and the other waits with young children in the waiting area. After the ride, the adults can swap! Usually they show movies in these waiting areas!

rent a stroller

Download the app!

The Universal Orlando Resort app is free. It provides wait times, attractions lists, park maps, dining info, hotel info, and show times! It’s perfect for your first time guide to Universal Orlando Resort.

#ad Here's our first-timer's guide Universal Orlando Resort, for enjoying both the parks and hotels! Get ready for a new family tradition #ReadyForUniversal

Tips, tricks, secrets, and hacks!

  • Bring or buy a lanyard with a clear card-holder because the park passes are paper tickets and you have to show them quite a bit to go from park to park. Also you need to show them every time if you have Universal Express passes.

  • You can have an entire day (and night) right in CityWalk without needing park admission. There are so many stores and restaurants right there, as well as a movie theater and other attractions.

  • If you want more Harry Potter experiences, beyond the Hogwarts Express, the food, the drinks, the Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle, Ollivander’s Wand Shop, and the rides, there is more! The Frog Choir show can’t be missed (right in Hogsmeade) and there is also a puppet show of Tales of Beedle the Bard in Diagon Alley.

  • When you’re boarding the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade at King’s Cross Station, make sure to have a loved one go through platform 9 3/4 while you wait back and watch! Or you go first and have them film you. It’s magical!

  • You can also chat with Stan Shunpike outside the Knight Bus (and Dre Head).

  • And the dragon atop Gringotts breathes fire every 15-20 minutes or so. You can usually hear the warning gurgling and whip out your camera in time.


  • If you purchased an interactive wand in the parks, you can practice spells in the parks! Ask for assistance when needed, but look for the little symbols on the ground. They’ll tell you how to do the spells. You also can’t miss Knockturn Alley – which is totally spooky. There are interactive spells points there too!

And lastly, Universal Orlando Resort is comprised of three parks – Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and Universal’s Volcano Bay. There’s also an entertainment complex – Universal CityWalk – that is bigger every year! And, there are now SEVEN on-site hotels at Universal Orlando Resort: Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suites, Universal’s Aventura Hotel, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, and Hard Rock Hotel. All beautiful!

So, did you enjoy this guide to Universal Orlando Resort?

Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort

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  1. OK, this article is seriously such a great resource for all that go to Universal for the first time. And I will definitely refer back to it if and when we do go to Universal for our first time, as well. Thanks for sharing your awesome experience here with us 🙂

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