By Katie Moosbrugger (with help from TMoM reader Amie Blanks)

By now you know we’ve featured several posts about visiting Disney World (we have an entire category dedicated to Disney HERE), but before now we haven’t covered other parks in Orlando. Quite simply, no other park in Orlando is as big and overwhelming as Disney World, but after a recent trip to Universal Studios, I discovered several tips and suggestions I thought I’d share if you’re considering this destination for a family vacation.

Several months before we left for Florida, I started researching Universal Studios and, to my surprise, discovered there are two completely different theme parks within Universal, and you need a separate ticket for each. I had no idea! So then I started polling friends about which park is better to visit, or if it was necessary to do them both – and again I was surprised to learn very few friends had visited Universal – or if they had – their responses were very different. At that point I decided a blog about Universal Studios might be a good idea.

Which Park Should You Visit?

This was the greatest challenge for our family when planning our trip. Unfortunately we had only one day during our Florida trip to visit a park and we had a limited budget. Like I mention above I spent countless hours researching attractions and prices online and with friends, and when it came down to the day to decide, it was still a hard decision.

Universal Studios is divided into two separate parks: the original Universal Studios Theme Park and the newer park, Islands of Adventure Theme Park. Both have Harry Potter exhibits (which I’ll get to later), roller coasters (a must with our family), experience rides (the non-roller coaster rides but just as exhilarating…like the Peter Pan ride in Magic Kingdom), shows, water rides, kid zones, etc. Plus, the two parks are separated by Hogwarts Express, a park-to-park Harry Potter-themed train ride that you can take from one park to the other with a Park-to-Park admission ticket.

The original Universal Studios park just opened the all-new The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ – Diagon Alley™ this summer. But Islands of Adventure has the original The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade. Both looked fabulous and very different. Everyone in my family (except for me) are huge Harry Potter fans, so this was why choosing one park over the other (or squeezing both into one day) was such a difficult decision for us.

In the end, we chose to do a one-day park admission to Islands of Adventure and we were extremely pleased with our decision. BUT – if time and money were NOT a factor – I would strongly suggest purchasing a Park-to-Park admission ticket that you can use over TWO days. You can easily do each park within one day, but having the option to take the Express train back-and-forth between parks is pretty cool and lets you spend as many – or as few – hours in whichever park you want. I honestly don’t think you need to spend more than two days at Universal.

Tickets and Prices

Purchasing tickets was a cinch, but finding deals was not. The rates for single park admission and park-to-park admission – ranging from one day up to four days – is found online HERE. (A snapshot of the current rates is to the left).

Plus, you have the option to purchase ExpressSM Passes per person (starting at $35) if you want to skip the lines. (NOTE: We did not get these passes and the wait time for rides ranged only from 5 minutes to one hour. Most of the time we waited just 15 minutes. We visited Universal on a Saturday in the middle of summer. Not sure if this was a fluke or if it means mid-summer is a good time to go!). However, if it fits your budget, you can’t go wrong with having these passes, especially if you plan to do one park in one day.

Unfortunately I could not find any discounts for any Universal tickets – at least those I could trust. If you Google “discounted tickets at Universal Studios Orlando” you’ll discover a couple of sites promoting cheaper deals but I was leery to try them. I’ve heard LivingSocial and Groupon might have deals, but they didn’t when I looked. We purchased our printable tickets online directly from the Universal Studios web site, and by doing so in advance, you’re also able to avoid the long lines at the ticket counter (and money if you purchase multi-day tickets!). Definitely do this! If you arrive at the park and realize you forgot to purchase your tickets in advance, have no fear. You can literally stand outside the gate, call in your ticket order, and immediately get a code to use at the electronic will call kiosk!

Universal Studios also offers deals for families purchasing multi-day tickets, as well as for those who live in Florida (multi-day tickets only). So if you have a relative or friend in FL who is willing to purchase your tickets, consider asking! I also learned that American Express and AAA offers deals and discounts to members on meals and other amenities for your trip. If you’re a card-carrying member of either or both, it’s worth looking into!

I also found a TON of tips on this site for saving money at Universal. Make time to review these tips – and confirm they are still current – even BEFORE you purchase your admission ticket.

Once Inside

As mentioned, we only visited Islands of Adventure. I’m not going to go into detail about all the fabulous attractions and rides inside this park, but I will share a few tips and suggestions should you also pick this park for your visit. And since I have no insider knowledge of the original Universal Studios park, I reached out to loyal TMoM reader Amie Blanks (who visited Universal one week after me) to share her lessons learned from her trip!

Of course, you’ll want to read – and re-read – Universal Orlando’s web site to get all the details on rides and height requirements before you go. I’d also suggest visiting this site again for more local scoop, as well as this blog written by a mom. Both were great resources for us in planning our trip.

Islands of Adventure Theme Park
Besides the torture of deciding between the two park’s Harry Potter exhibits, we were also torn on which park would better suit our kids (ages 7 and 10). It was truly a toss-up. In addition to the original Harry Potter attractions and village, IOA features Seuss Landing (obviously something both of my kids could identify with) as well as Jurassic Park and Marvel Super Hero Island. IOA also seemed to have more roller coasters.

On the other hand, Universal Studios Theme Park features Diagon Alley, E.T, Transformers, Despicable Me, Men in Black and Shrek (all characters my kids know well). But it also features The Simpsons, Terminator, Beetle Juice, Curious George, Woody Woodpecker, I Love Lucy – and other characters my kids know nothing about.

My seven-year-old (at 50”) was able to ride most of the rides at IOA but there were a few he could not, thus resulting in some tears. Due to the price of admission and the fact that there are not a ton of rides for the little ones, I would strongly suggest waiting until your youngest child is at least 50” (ideally 54”) before booking a trip to IOA or Universal.

Fortunately, both parks also offer convenient child swap “holding” areas for parents to stay with children who are not tall enough to ride. We took advantage of this a few times. Just make sure to tell the ride attendant (at the ride entrance) to direct you to the holding area, and be sure each parent knows where to meet up after the ride.

Both parks also offer free lockers for certain rides, and you will be required to need to use them! They’re easy to use and it was a nice touch to have them available when you need them. The parks also offer extended use lockers but you need to pay for them.

Not To Miss Attractions at IOA:
1) Two of my most favorite rides EVER (compared to any ride at Disney or other major amusement park) were both inside IOA: The Incredible Hulk Coaster (pictured above) and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. If you’re a thrill seeker, you will not be disappointed!
2) Make sure you grab a mug of Harry’s Butter Beer at some point at either park. It’s more than magical!

Universal Studios Theme Park
Below is a fantastic list of pointers and must-sees that Amie pulled together from her trip this summer. These pertain mainly to the original Universal Studios park, and are great recent insider tips!

~ Harry Potter Diagon Alley: For a fun scavenger hunt experience appropriate for all ages, buy a wand and see what magic you can perform. Unfortunately wands from years past won’t work.

~ Go see “Disaster”. You just might find yourself in the movies.

~ Get to the park early, before the gates open. When the park opens, head straight to Despicable Me Minion Mayhem.  Everyone else will be going to Harry Potter. This will be the shortest line for DM all day. HP is always a long wait.

~ Upgrade to Park-to-Park Admission so that you can ride the Hogwarts Express. It is a nice, air conditioned train ride that little ones love.

~ Have a little one that isn’t quite big enough for the thrill rides but loves roller coasters? Revenge of the Mummy is an indoor roller coaster for those 48″+.

~ Hungry? Head over to the Simpsons area. Across from Duff’s is Fast Food Blvd. There is a variety of food to make the pickiest of eaters happy.

~ Up for some friendly family competition? See who scores the highest as you fight off aliens at Men in Black.

~ Animal Actors on Location is an entertaining show for all ages. Plus it’s a nice place to sit and relax.

~ Want to cool off? Visit the splash zone at Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone.

~ Take a ride through Krustyland and Springfield on the The Simpson’s Ride. Whether you are a fan of The Simpson’s or not, you will find yourself entertained.

~ Just before the park closes, gather around the edge of the lake for the fireworks and 100 Years of Universal show over the water. There are multiple screens throughout the water.

~ While at Diagon Alley, check out Knockturn Alley. Warning, it may be scary for younger children.

Have you been to one or both parks at Universal Studios Orlando? If so, please add your tips and tricks for visiting these parks as a comment below!