Last week, we talked about all the holiday events and Christmas activities going on at Universal Orlando theme parks as well as their resort hotels. There’s no shortage of things to see and do during the holiday season.
But how do you plan what to do, what to skip, where to eat and where sleep given your time constraints and budget? Here are the things we learned from our first Christmas trip to Universal Orlando Resort.
1. How Many Days Do You Really Need?
Because there’s so much to do for school age kids at Universal Orlando and on top of that holiday activities at the parks, I’d highly recommend at least two full days during the months of November, December and January.
We had 4 day park passes, thanks to a Costco travel deal I came across (buy 2 day Park-to-Park tickets, get 2 extra days for free) and leisurely made our way through the parks each day.
It is possible to do both parks in one day but keep in mind you’d be leaving out large sections of each of the parks since wait times for rides are longer the closer you get to Christmas week. Generally, the closer you get to a school break, the more families you’ll find at the parks.
Depending on when you travel during the holiday season, you might also able to spend a day at Volcano Bay (Universal Orlando’s water park). When we visited last December it was still warm enough to hit the water slides and rides however because we were following our theme park visit with a cruise, we opted to save the water play for that portion of the vacation. We did spend a few hours in the resort pool but opted to spend the majority of our days at the two parks – Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.
2. What to Pack for Universal Orlando During Winter Months
For us in Canada, winter months are typically when the thicker jackets and heavy sweaters come out, but in Orlando the temps range from slightly cool in the morning and evenings and then very warm by lunch time and afternoon.
We recommend packing clothes that can layer easily. Think t-shirts, light hoodies or sweatshirts, shorts/capris and jeans or jogging pants. You most likely won’t need mitts or scarves (we’ve never had to wear them in December) or winter jackets unless you’re traveling in January. Fleece zip up sweaters as jackets worked well for us last December and we wore them only in the evening (we were in t-shirts and shorts during the day).
Make sure you have a lightweight, waterproof backpack as well as water shoes or flip flops. If you’re headed to Volcano Bay or any of the water rides like Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls, Jurassic Park River Adventure or Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges you WILL get wet. Sometimes soaked! Pack an extra top, pants and of shoe or socks if you don’t want to spend the rest of your day walking around in soggy shoes and clothes.
3. Why Staying On-Site Reduces Driving & Wait Times
Staying on site has many benefits – the complimentary transportation to the parks to avoid the headaches of parking being the biggest perk – especially during the holiday season. Every theme park in the Orlando area will be going all out to celebrate the holidays so traffic on roads leading to the various parks (Universal Orlando, Disney World, SeaWorld, Gatorland etc) will be busier than other times of the year.
Universal Studios parking is currently $26 and is located in the parking garage. Expect to walk about 10 to 15 minutes to get to the main entrance of the two parks from here. Prime parking is available for $36 and these spots allow you to park closer to the parks’ entrances.
Currently there are 7 on-site resort hotels (an 8th resort is scheduled to open in May 2020) that span over 4 category levels (budget levels).
Last year while we were planning our trip, we decided we wanted to stay at a hotel that included Unlimited Universal Express Passes tickets (more about this decision below) so we ended up booking a package deal at Portofino Bay.
Any on-site hotel would be beneficial during the holiday season as they all offer early admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Universal’s Volcano Bay – one hour before non-Universal resort guests.
4. Where to Meet Santa
Unfortunately Santa has a very busy schedule during the weeks leading up to the big day so he doesn’t have any meet and greets at either of the parks. You can catch a glimpse of him at the end of Universal’s Holiday Parade featuring Macy’s.
But you’ll be happy to know that he will be visiting various Universal Orlando resorts throughout the season. See more about Santa Meet & Greets below!
5. Special Holiday Events at Universal Orlando Resort Hotels
Last year was our very first time staying on-site at a Universal resort hotel (full review of Portofino Bay Hotel coming soon!) and we loved it. There were holiday lights and garlands everywhere and a beautifully decorated tree in the piazza.
Each on-site resort has their own unique holiday celebrations including these two lighting ceremonies:
- Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony – November 29
- Hanukkah Candle Lighting Ceremony – December 22 to December 30
Here are the other kid-friendly Christmas / Holiday events at each of the resorts.
Portofino Bay – Holiday Events
- Thanksgiving Day Character Buffet at Trattoria del Porto
- Complimentary Holiday Cookies and Beverages
- Santa and Mrs. Clause Meet & Greet
- Holiday Carolers
- Kids’ Holiday Crafts & Activities
- Christmas Day Character Buffet at Trattoria del Porto
- New Year’s Eve Party on the Piazza
Hard Rock Hotel – Holiday Events
- Thanksgiving Day Breakfast Buffet in Avalon Ballroom
- The Kitchen Thanksgiving Day Character Buffet
- The Kitchen Christmas Eve and Day Dinner
- The Kitchen Christmas Day Character Brunch
- The Kitchen New Year’s Eve Dinner
- New Year’s Eve Lobby Party
Royal Pacific Resort – Holiday Events
- Thanksgiving Day Breakfast Buffet in Jake’s American Bar
- Thanksgiving Day Character Buffet in Islands Dining Room
- Wantilan Holiday and New Year’s Eve Luau
- Ornament and Stocking decorating
- Holiday Storytelling
- Christmas Day Breakfast Buffet in Jake’s American Bar
- Christmas Day Character Buffet in Islands Dining Room
- New Year’s Eve Character Buffet in Islands Dining Room
- New Year’s Eve Dessert Buffet
Sapphire Falls Resort – Holiday Events
- Thanksgiving Day Breakfast & Dinner Buffet
- Ornament Decorating
- Amatista Cookhouse Christmas Day Buffet
- Amatista Cookhouse New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day Buffet
Cabana Bay Beach Resort – Holiday Events
- Thanksgiving Day Meal Special at Bayliner Diner
- Thanksgiving Day Turkey Bowling
- Visits from Santa’s Elves
- Holiday Arts & Crafts
- Christmas Day Meal Special at Bayliner Diner
- New Year’s Eve Party Spectacular at Bayliner Diner
Aventura Hotel – Holiday Events
- Urban Pantry Thanksgiving Day Meal
- Urban Pantry Christmas Day Meal
Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suites – Holiday Events
- Thanksgiving Day Meal at Beach Break Cafe
- Santa Meet & Greet
- Christmas Day Meal at Beach Break Cafe
- New Year’s Eve Meal at Beach Break Cafe
6. Save with Multi-Day Vacation Packages
The Universal Orlando Resort offers packages throughout the year and families can take advantage of various promotions during the months of November, December and January. You have a good-sized window, with celebrations running from November 16, 2019 through January 5, 2020. You might even consider postponing the holiday until January for more savings.
Last year we booked under a Buy Two Get Two promo at Costco (buy two day park tickets, get two day park tickets free) and saved a lot of money that way. Originally, we were looking at buying one day tickets and staying at an on-site hotel for two our three nights and it ended up costing almost double than the package deal we booked under. Make sure you price out all the different options!
7. Buying Park Tickets in Advance Will Save You Money
If you’re not booking a vacation package but still interested in purchasing multi-day park tickets, you can save up to $20 when you purchase in advance instead of waiting to buy them in person at the park entrance. Also, lineups at the gates during the holiday season tend to be longer so to avoid that we recommend purchasing online beforehand.
8. Why the Park-to-Park Ticket Option is the Best During the Holiday Season
Multi-day tickets are the best value but you technically can visit both Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure in one day. You may not get to see everything and go on every ride but it is possible to visit key areas of each park if you plan in advance.
If the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a MUST DO for your family (it was for us), I highly recommend purchasing Park-to-Park tickets.
Just a reminder that the WWOHP is spread out between the two parks – Hogsmeade is at Islands of Adventure and Diagon Alley is at Universal Studios Florida. You won’t may not need Park-to-Park for your entire trip but at least one day is needed if you want to ride the Hogwarts Express both ways between the two parks.
9. Universal Express Pass is Worth It
If you’re staying at Universal’s Premier category hotels – Portofino Bay Hotel, Lowes Royal Pacific Resort or Hard Rock Hotel – you’ll get to enjoy the Universal Express Pass.
This gets you to the front of the line for almost all rides and shows, including all of the Harry Potter rides. It will come in handy when the the parks get more crowded the closer you get to Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Last year in early December, our wait time for most rides and shows were less than 10 minutes.
The longest we had to wait was 25 minutes and that was for the Hogwarts Express. Non-Unlimited Express Pass holders had to wait over an hour to ride the train.
If you’re only spending one day at the parks, one hour is a very long time to wait. There was no way our kids would have been able to last that long in line to board the train – even with all the fun props to see and characters to interact with.
Universal Express Passes are available for purchase at the gates or online. You can also wait until you get into the parks to check wait times for the rides and then purchase before your trip or at various locations throughout the parks.
10. A Dining Plan Might Be Worth It
When it comes to dining plan options at Universal Orlando, you’ll have to consider where you’ll be spending most of your time and how much food your family eats.
There are several dining plan options at Universal Orlando. The cheapest one is $23.99/adult and $15.99/child (ages 3 to 9) per day. This includes 1 snack, 1 non-alcoholic beverage and 1 Quick Service Meal per day at any of the three parks and participating restaurants at CityWalk.
When we visit Orlando theme parks we normally eat lunch at the parks. Breakfast is normally the biggest meal of the day for us so lunch the pre-paid dining plan generally tends to be too much food for us (especially the kids). Also because we bring our own water and snacks to the parks (granola bars, cookies, chips etc.) we don’t tend to eat a lot while touring the parks.
Last year we also stayed on Club Level where we had drinks, snacks and breakfast and light dinners it didn’t make sense financially to opt-in for the dining plan.
If we weren’t on Club Level (and our kids were bigger eaters), we most likely would have opted for the Quick Service Dining Plan as most meals at the parks will set you back at least $15 before drinks and snacks.
Just an FYI, Butterbeer is considered a snack and it costs $7.99 out of pocket! So you’d be ahead if you had lunch ($15), soft drink ($2.99), and Butterbeer ($7.99) – $25.98 total vs $23.99 from the dining plan. 🙂
Whether you decide to go for the dining plan or pay out of pocket, make sure you save room for the special holiday snacks, treats and meals. They are only available during this time of the year.
11. Make Reservations for Table Service Dining
Make it easier for everyone with reservations if you’re visiting Universal Orlando during the holiday season. Popular sit-down restaurants like Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville at CityWalk, Mythos at Islands of Adventure and Finnegan’s Bar and Grill at Universal Studios Florida tend to have long wait times if you don’t have reservations.
We inquired what the wait times were like at dinner time (6:30 / 7:00 PM) and all three restaurants said 45 to 60 minute wait. If you know there’s a place you want to visit for lunch or dinner, I highly recommend making reservations in advance.
Mama Della’s Ristorante at Portofino Bay was booked almost every night during our stay last year. The one day they were accepting walk-ins the wait was 1.5 hours long!
12. Download the Official Universal App Before You Get to the Parks
This allows you to see wait times, show times, locate family restrooms, plan your route using the interactive maps and create a personal To Do / Must Do list. You can even order food and drinks at select restaurants through the app and lunch or dinner will be made when you’re ready to eat. Learn more about the Official Universal Orlando App here.
13. Work Around Your Kids’ Schedules
Theme parks in general can be sensory overload for all family members. When our kids were younger we tried to schedule in breaks at the parks (either at a child center or playground type area, or even head back to our hotel for an afternoon nap). Now that they’re older we can spend 4 or 5 hours straight at a park going on rides and shows before we all require a break.
Determine how much the youngest travelers in your group can handle and work around that. If they require a stroller (I would definitely recommend it for kids 6 years or younger) then you can bring one from home, rent one from a baby equipment company or rent one at the Universal parks just for the day.
Universal Orlando is good in that CityWalk is near by both theme parks so you can head over there to window shop, sit on a bench and people watch or ride the boats to and from nearby resort hotels.
As an added bonus for ALL Universal Orlando resort hotel guests, you can pool hop from resort to resort! Yes you read that right! You can spend the morning at the parks and then head to the resort of your choice using the complimentary bus or boat transportation and spend a few hours relaxing poolside. All you need to do is show your hotel key card to the pool staff once you enter the pool area.
14. Make Time for Quiet Time Without Leaving the Parks
Speaking of CityWalk we highly recommend taking a break there. There’s a larger variety of food options there – the parks do tend to have the same things or different versions of the same type of foods- pizza, burgers, chicken fingers, and fries.
CityWalk is located walking distance to both theme parks and is open to the public (no ticket needed!) and we had most of our meals in that area. Our favorite places to grab a snack or lunch (and spend some time out of the heat) were:
- Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar
- Toothsome Chocolate Emporium
- Voodoo Donuts
Looking for some quiet / less busy areas within the parks? Here’s where we spent our time away from the crowds and lines:
Universal Studios Florida:
- A Day in the Park with Barney – there are a few benches outside to sit and relax
- Curious George Goes to Town – this tends to be where families with toddlers and preschoolers hang out but it is rarely busy
- E.T. Adventure – the area outside the ride is pretty quiet most of the day
- New York Street – between The Transformers and The Mummy rides. It’s basically a set of New York homes and shops – you can’t go into the stores/shops but you can sit on the stairs and spend a few quiet moments there. This street does get busy though during the Blues Brothers show
Islands of Adventure:
- Jurassic Park Discovery Center – this is the area just below the Jurassic Park restaurant. It’s a quiet place most visitors skip
- Camp Jurassic – this is a play area with several climbing structures and rope bridges. Take a right as you enter Camp Jurassic and you’ll see a splash pad area and a row of dinosaur head water guns – this area is normally quieter than the play area with the climbing structures
- Mythos Restaurant – head to the back of the restaurant for some quiet time
- Me Ship, The Olive – there’s a play area behind this ride in Toon Lagoon and it tends to be very quiet here most of the day
15. Make Sure Your Bag Will Fit in the Lockers
Bags are not allowed on some of the rides (most of the roller coasters will require you checking your bags and belonging before boarding) and lockers can be found outside rides for bag storage.
There is a “no loose items” policy at both Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and The Incredible Hulk Coaster and guests will be required to walk through metal detectors to check for phones and loose coins. These items are required to be stored inside a locker – no ifs, ands or buts!
The lockers come in two different sizes and accommodate most bags but make sure the one you’re taking into the parks will fit. Otherwise you’ll have to take turns going on rides like Men In Black with the kids.
We recommend going with a small crossbody or fanny pack for your essentials – keys, wallet, ID – and a daypack or backpack with extra clothes/shoes and snacks. The small crossbody or fanny pack will be allowed on most non-coaster rides and the only thing you’ll need to store is your backpack.
There are three types of lockers at Universal parks: complimentary ride lockers, pre-paid lockers and all-day lockers.
Free standard size lockers (small purses and bags, Harry Potter wands and phones will fit in these) are available at select rides and allows you to store your bags while you wait in line and for the duration of the ride (plus an additional block of time, just in case).
Large lockers that can fit big backpacks and multiple purses/bags) are also available at select rides for $2 for the wait time plus the duration of the ride.
16. Child Swap and Single Rider Lines Will Save You A Lot of Time
The Child Swap program allows parents to take turns experiencing rides that their kids are too small or hesitant to go on. One parent stays with the kids in a family room while the other parent (or rest of the group) goes on the ride.
Once the riders return, the waiting parent then gets to go on the ride without having to wait at the end of the line. Read more about the Child Swap program here.
If one parent wants to go on a ride and the other doesn’t then the Single Rider Line will significantly cut down your wait time. I’m not a fan of roller coasters (I’m afraid of heights) but my husband loves them so I’ll stay with the kids and he’ll go to the Single Rider line. Wait times are usually less than 5 minutes! Compared to the regular line which in early December was 20 to 30 minutes for most of the coasters.
17. What You Need to Know About Riding Hogwarts Express
If riding the Hogwarts Express is a must do for your family, this train ride is only accessible with the Park-to-Park ticket. The Hogwarts Express links Universal Studios Florida to Islands of Adventure and HP fans WILL want to experience the ride both ways (Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade and then Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley).
We don’t want to spoil the surprise and say why you need to do this… we’ll just leave it as it is worth the wait to experience the train ride in both directions.
18. Use Universal Orlando’s FREE WiFi
Save money by using the free park-wide WiFi. Just connect to the XFinityWifi network and follow the instructions to access free WiFi.
We were able to share photos and videos from the Holiday Parade with family at home this way. There are a few spots in each park where the connection dropped but for the most part we were using the free WiFi.
19. Now’s the Time to Buy Special Holiday Merchandise
Planning on doing some holiday shopping while at the parks? You can pick up stockings, tree ornaments, holiday attire (ugly sweaters included!) in almost every gift shop. This holiday merchandise isn’t available year round so if you see something you like, buy it!
If you’re shopping for a Harry Potter fan, you’ll find holiday ornaments and Hogwarts house themed gifts all around the Wizarding World.
And if you want to make your HP gifts even more special, head to an Owl Post location (there’s one in Hogsmeade and one in Diagon Alley) to have your gifts hand-wrapped in your choice of wrapping paper. They’ll handle the shipping – anywhere in the continental U.S. – for you too! This wrapping and mail service costs $20 to $25 depending on the type of gift wrap you choose.
We hope these tips were helpful. Do you have other questions about how to plan a family vacation to Universal Orlando during the holiday season? Let us know and we’ll try to find the answer!