When first embarking on your vacation planning, one of the most important questions to answer – perhaps second only to when should I visit the parks? – is how many days should one spend at Universal Orlando? And it’s easy to see why: this one answer will determine your vacation budget, schedule, and (just perhaps) your overall level of satisfaction.
Yes, it used to be that this question was practically non-existent for Universal planning; the resort only used to offer enough for just one or, maybe, two days, with most visitors making it a side excursion to their Walt Disney World stays. After several years of aggressive expansion, however, there is now more than enough to warrant a multi-day visit, necessitating a stay at one of the six on-site hotels, with many guests now making Universal Orlando the central – if not the sole – focus of their vacations. That’s quite the turnaround – and, therefore, quite the important question to ask.
But its answer is, as you might guess, rather involved and layered, having to factor in several different elements in order to come to the right conclusion for you and your family. Don’t worry, though – we’re going to tackle it step by step, sketching out several different scenarios in order to help whittle the possibilities down to the right one. Then, as an added bonus, we’ll help direct you to the resources you’ll need to make the most of those days at Universal, including touring plans so that you can see and do as much as humanly possible.
The bare minimum: two days
There are those individuals out there who fancy that all of Universal Orlando – the two theme parks, one water park, the dining/shopping/entertainment district, and the six on-site hotels – can all be done in one day, usually by being reductionist and slicing out everything expect for one or, maybe, both of the theme parks. Not only does this omit a lot of what makes Universal such a wonderful place to spend your vacation – imagine going to Walt Disney World and only doing part of Magic Kingdom – it’s also, quite frankly, a logistical nightmare: trying to cram only the highlights of Universal Studios Florida and/or Islands of Adventure does not make for a relaxing or, arguably, enjoyable experience. (If your schedule or budget forces you to make the attempt, however, we’ll help you make the best of it with our ultimate one-day touring plan.)
Spending at least two days still won’t allow you all the time to properly experience everything, both within and without the parks, but it will provide you a surprisingly larger number of opportunities to try to. Devoting one full day to Universal Studios Florida and then another at Islands of Adventure will ensure you get access to a far broader cross-section of their attractions – seriously, some of the best times to be had at either location come from the “minor” or “second string” experiences – and it’ll afford you the opportunity to spend the night at one of the on-property hotels, which can really go a long way to sealing the vacation deal (both in terms of immersion and the practicality of having your hotel room only be a handful of minutes away from the parks, allowing you to change when you get soaked on the water rides or to take a nap during the height of the day’s crowds and temperatures). Finally, spending one night on-property also opens the door to more fully exploring CityWalk, which is home to a robust collection of gastronomical options, both quick- and full-service.
Another variation on the two-day scenario, of course, is to substitute one of the theme parks for Volcano Bay, the still-new water park at Universal Orlando. This actually is a popular option – spending the first half of your second day relaxing at Volcano’s beaches or racing down its water slides is certainly a lot of fun, and it still leaves the whole back half of the day for the dry attractions. Or stretching your water time out to fill the whole of the second day is an easy (and rewarding) option, though it means that you would have to force both of the theme parks back into one day – heading us right back to the scenario that we just tried to avoid.
We absolutely love the water park’s laid-back atmosphere and collection of thrilling aquatic attractions, and we highly recommend that you spend one full day there if at all possible, but we also recognize that most individuals primarily come to the resort for the themed destinations instead of the water one – and, besides, the company has set up its theme parks so that all of the must-do experiences are split up almost evenly between them (with one of the top-notch attractions, the Hogwarts Express, only being accessible by having a park-to-park ticket). We’ll ultimately leave the call up to you and the vacationing needs of your family.
A little more breathing room: three days
It’s only when we give ourselves three full days at Universal Orlando that we really start to see some possibilities open up, and we can more fully absorb – and appreciate – everything that the resort has to offer.
The most immediate option, of course, is to devote one full day each to Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay, in whatever order you see fit. This maintains the ability to experience more of the theme parks, and it also grants one enough leisure to really kick back and enjoy the Waturi lifestyle (the Waturi being the fictitious denizens of Volcano Bay, naturally).
But there are a few more scenarios that are now available to us as well. If taking half-day bites out of Volcano is still your preferred method of tackling that park, you now have more opportunities to do so, bringing your total amount of time spent there to a full day (or more) – or, at least, you now have the flexibility to move that half-day excursion around, should the Floridian weather do its thing and, well, rain on your parade.
If, however, splashing and playing at a water park isn’t your particular cup of tea, then this starts to open up an intriguing scenario: spending a second full day at one or both of the theme parks, allowing one to hit all those stops she missed on the first day and to re-ride all her favorites. Getting park-to-park access here really is ideal, as the third day can allow guests to hop back and forth to their hearts’ desire (and it’s doubly worth it when you discover just how much pressure is removed from your shoulders when you realize that you’ll have a second chance to check out whatever attraction you may end up missing when your schedule doesn’t quite work out the way you thought it was going to the first time ‘round).
It is with a three-day stay that both CityWalk and the hotels really start to open up as well. With two nights now at your disposal, catching an extra dinner at, say, Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen or an extra drink at Pat O’Brien’s, and being able to take advantage of your resort’s pool(s), bars, live musicians, or, even, bowling alley, is now very much possible. While Universal’s entertainment district doesn’t offer enough to fill a whole day by and of itself, it excels at being an additive to your in-park adventures – you may even discover that your vacation just somehow won’t be worth it without spending some time nibbling on Voodoo Doughnut or playing a round (or two) at Hollywood Drive-In Golf.
The ideal way to play: four or five days
Once you hit the four-day threshold, you’ve transformed your vacation from a focused attempt to hit all the must-do experiences to a laid-back, leisure-filled stay at Universal, taking your time to ride all the attractions and allowing yourself the pleasure of exploring almost literally every nook and cranny that is available to you.
With four days available to you, you can take the three-day theme-park option outlined above – one full day at both parks, then a third to hit up everything you missed – and then simply add Volcano Bay onto it. Or, if water still really isn’t your thing, you can use that last day as a breather, to stay at your hotel, swim to your heart’s content, explore all of its various dining options, and maybe even take in a special extra or two.
Let’s pause here for a moment and really dig into what that means. Both the premiere (gold-level) and preferred (silver) hotels offer more than enough in the culinary department, with at least one flagship restaurant (Bice at Portofino Bay Hotel, for example, or The Palm at Hard Rock Hotel) and at least one intriguing bar option (like Jake’s American Bar at Royal Pacific Resort or Strong Water Tavern at Sapphire Falls Resort). But then there’s Portofino Bay’s three(!) pools and bocce ball courts, Cabana Bay Beach Resort’s lazy river and bowling alley, and, newest to the scene, Aventura Hotel’s Bar 17 Bistro, a family-friendly rooftop bar located 17 stories up that serves both libations and small plates. When you stay at one hotel, all of the amenities open up at all of the others, multiplying your options by a surprising degree and revealing a whole new world of adventure for you and your family.
The final Universal nut to crack can probably only realistically be tackled on a four- or, preferably, five-day visit, as well: the special events (not to be confused with the resort’s annual events, such as the perennially popular Halloween Horror Nights or getting-ever-bigger Mardi Gras). It’s only when you have an evening free from touring the parks or chowing down at CityWalk that you’re able to attend Caribbean Carnaval at Sapphire Falls, or Velvet Sessions at Hard Rock (and depending on when you set foot on-property, you may also have the likes of Harbor Nights and Jake’s Beer Festivals available, as well). Any of these can easily serve as the highlight of your Universal sojourn.
BONUS: for completionists only – six-plus days
If you’re a completionist and just have to do everything available to you at Universal Orlando Resort, then a six-day stay will be the tack you will need to take. Devote one full day each to Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay, add on a fourth to re-ride everything you want to try for a second (or third!) time, and then fill up your remaining two days crawling over every square inch of CityWalk and the six on-site properties. You still probably won’t be able to squeeze in every last little experience – especially depending upon the time of year you’re going – but you’ll come the closest you humanly can.
And, hey – maybe you can sneak in a few more quick jaunts to the parks, for one final spin on The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, and Krakatau Aqua Coaster. Either of these possibilities is more than likely the reason why the vast, vast majority of our Universal Community Facebook group members voted seven or more days as their preferred amount of time to devote to Universal, which you can see here.
What about those resources you promised?
Now that you have some idea of how long your epic adventure at Universal Orlando is going to be, it’s time to start making sure it’s as good as it possibly can be.
First, you’ll want to check out our ultimate three-day touring plan, which will really help you get the lay of the theme-park land (if you’re staying for less than three days, you can still use the plan as a good basis). And if you’re heading over to Volcano Bay during your stay, you’ll want to check out our touring plans for there, too.
Are you staying for a short time and you can’t quite make up your mind which theme park deserves more of your touring attention? No problem – we weigh the question of which is better here. And if you just know that The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is your number-one priority, you’ll for sure want to check out our insider’s guide.
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