First Timers and we only have a day and a half! HELP

We are first timers to Universal. I’m a huge Harry Potter nut and have wanted to go since they opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but it hasn’t been in the cards. We are making a quick family trip this winter (My husband is currently waiting on a liver/kidney transplant so we need to take advantage of all times to get away we can!) Specifically we will be in Orlando the late afternoon of December 21st and then all day December 22nd.
We need advice on which rides to try to hit, which to skip, etc to make the most of our time.
We are a family of 6 - a 7 year old, 16 year old, 19 & 21 year old and us 40 year old parents.
We want to maximize Harry Potter for me, but I really want to make sure everyone gets a great experience (especially the little one who may not want to do the bigger rides).
I am open to all advice.
Do we need express passes.
Park hoppers are mandatory to ride one ride correct?
Is it best to just do one day and do everything (Sunday with park hopper and express) or try to do a few hours Saturday? We wouldn’t be able to hit the park Saturday until about 4pm.
We are trying to maximize our experience without breaking the bank.
Meal plan? Yes or no?
Inexpensive food options otherwise?
All tips and tricks welcome!
We are staying off site at the Holiday Inn Express and Suites (only place in the budget we could get a room that held us all as I didn’t want any kiddos in a different room).
Thanks everyone!

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Congrats on finally getting to visit UOR!

Absolutely yes. We won’t go without them at any time of year, but especially not over the holidays. You will get to do very little besides wait in lines without them. BUT…the cost to buy for 6 is going to be very high, and it will actually be cheaper to book a room onsite at Portofino, Hard Rock, or Royal Pacific as they include express passes for both days with a 1 night stay. I just checked your dates, and if one of you buys an annual pass (not much more than a ticket), you can book a 7 person suite at Portofino which is a fabulous resort. It has 2 queens in the bedroom and the living room has a pull out couch for only $478 a night (plus tax) and this will include express for both days. There are even 2 bathrooms. This is an absolute steal, we will be there 1/2-6 and are paying $400 a night for the cheapest room at Royal Pacific that is 1/3 the size of this suite. You do not even have to have an annual pass to book it, you may need to get it in Orlando though and show them at the resort. Wow, I am blown away by this pricing for a Saturday night before Christmas. If you buy express even for 1 day, it will cost you a whole lot more. You should run…now…and get this room booked on the website on the annual pass page.
Yes, you need a park hopper to ride the Hogwarts Express.
No meal plan.
For a bit more money ($634.80 plus tax) you can have a 1000 square foot suite at Hard Rock which is the closest to the parks, and it has a king in 1 bedroom and 2 queens in the other, plus a living room with sleeper sofa. 2 bathrooms and can sleep up to 9.


@Wahoohokie I can’t figure out how to book the room for the rate you found!!
I only know how to go through the universal vacation planning and by this route, I’m getting like almost 6K to book for two nights. A little steep for me.

Go to Universal website, then click where it says annual passholders. On the new screen, scroll down to where there are 5 tabs, the middle one says hotels and resorts, click that. The first option that pulls up will say something about September AP rates, click the “book now”. Now put in your dates, number of adults and kids, then hit search. All of the hotels will pop up with the least expensive AP rate to the right. Click on that rate, and all the options at that resort will show up. You book directly from there, no AP needed to book. You do have to pay 1 night deposit. Let me know if you can’t find it and I will take screenshots and send to you.

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We went to Universal (and WDW) as first timers a month ago and the 2 nights we stayed at Royal Pacific Resort to get 3 days of Express Pass for the 4 of us were fully worth it.

We have a 7yo and an 11 yo, and the 7yo isn’t a thrill-seeker and wasn’t tall enough for Hulk. The rides we all loved:
the Hagrid’s coaster
Bilge Rat Barges
the Jurassic Park river ride (11yo found the raptors scary)
the Raptor encounter
Hogwarts Express
Spiderman ride
Transformers ride
Hulk (everyone who was tall enough for it)

My husband and the 11yo didn’t love Forbidden Journey but going through the castle was cool for all of us (even not-Harry-Potter-fan husband). Ollivander’s was amazing but we didn’t use the wands as much as I’d expected. The Hippogriff ride is not worth a long wait but with Express Pass it’s fun.

The kids thought the Seuss rides and ET were too babyish. We all enjoyed the Men In Black ride, the Minions ride, the Simpsons ride and sort of Rip Ride Rockit and Dr Doom Fearfall, but didn’t feel the need to ride them more than once. I really liked the Jimmy Fallon ride but no one else did, and my husband really liked the Mummy ride but the kids hated it. I found Rip Ride Rockit really rough but my 11yo loved it.

I preferred touring in the evening, so if you can do the Saturday evening too I’d go for it – if you do one night at Portofino Bay then you’d have Express Pass for the night you check in and the day you check out, so that would be an argument for going both days too. The Harry Potter areas are more atmospheric in the evening.

We didn’t do meal plan. I would pack in snacks, and if you buy your park tickets/pass using an Amex you get access to the Amex lounge near Shrek which gets you free bottled water, chips, and granola bars. It was open noon-5pm when we were there.

I booked our first 2 nights at Cabana Bay at the Annual Passholder rate and actually had a seasonal annual pass but don’t remember having to show any proof of that at check-in.

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@Wahoohokie thank you!

It was just pointed out to us by a friend that we could actually utilize the Attraction Accessibility Pass with my husband being disabled. Do you have any knowledge on how this works exactly? Again- I am only familiar with Disney and I don’t see a lot of information about this on the Universal Website.

We have exactly the same amount of time as you for our first trip to Universal over Thanksgiving week. Our Universal days will be arrival day (hoping to be in parks by noon or 2 at the latest but who really knows with travel…) and then we have all day the next day. We are doing the on site hotel for the early park admission and express passes. If you search this forum under Universal a lot of others have asked about how to tour with limited time like this and there are lots of useful responses. I’ve also found the TP book about U to be very useful, as well as you tube videos of people walking around Universal and riding rides. Not good if you want to be completely surprised, but these things have really helped me be calm and get to know the parks so we can maneuver around them like we want to. Everyone is saying that U is so much smaller than WDW and easily walkable so I’m hoping this is really true. Our hotel, the Portofino, is further away than others. If all in my party had agreed I would have done the Hard Rock hotel for proximity to the parks. Good luck with your trip!

I don’t know much about it, but do know that at Disney and Universal, the pass is for people who cannot wait in line usually due to autism or other cognitive issues, not mobility related. So it really depends on what your husbands issues are. If he can use a wheelchair or scooter for his disability, that is what they will suggest. But if it is PTSD or other medical conditions, they will give you the pass.

@Wahoohokie he is a liver transplant recipient currently waiting on another liver and a kidney transplant. He has severe anemia due to his immunosuppressive so he will tire after only a few hours at the park so we need to maximize each day with him. He also has some cognitive impairments due to his hepatic encephalopathy which causes headaches and confusion when in very noisy atmospheres.
I’m just not sure how to go about it as there isn’t much info out there that I can find.

He will definitely qualify then. I found an article by Undercover Tourist (where I often buy tickets) and it says it works like it does in WDW, and to go to Guest Relations as you enter the parks to get it. If the wait time for a ride is 30 min or more you will get a return time written on the pass. Only 1 at a time. They do recommend using express pass as well during busy times as the return times can be long so you have a lot of time in between to wait.
I hope he gets another liver and kidney very soon!


Wishing you all a wonderful trip and good health to your husband.

@Wahoohokie thank you. He really cant stand for longer than one hour a day or walk for much more than that either. He also can only sit for so many hours as well (approximately 4 before he needs to go lay down to elevate his legs to alleviate the swelling from his kidney failure) so we really need to be able to maximize our time in the park so he can have an experience as well. On top of the mobility issues, he gets very confused when he gets tired which would make waits much longer than 45 min-an hour too long for our group. I’m hoping they will work with us to allow us to enjoy our family trip.
THanks again for your help.


I hope they work with you too – it sounds like splitting it into two days would help him. I too am wishing you all a wonderful trip and good health to your husband.

Thank you for this thorough list!!! We will definitely use it!

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Wahoohokie, thank you so much for this post. Because of your suggestion/information, I was able to do what you suggested (had never thought of purchasing an annual pass before, nor did I realize its benefits), and am saving ourselves $275 on our upcoming January visit. THANK YOU so much!! And, we’re getting a better view room (at Royal Pacific) than I had booked. We’re going with the seasonal pass, as we truly have no intention of coming back a second time next year, but the seasonal pass was only $28 more than the two-day ticket we were going to get. Again, thank you! You learn so much from these boards/threads. I’m so glad I stopped by on this one!


You are welcome! Glad I could help.


@Wahoohokie So i have been looking more into buying the annual pass and just staying one night in the Portofino to get two days of express passes. I know I can get discounted tickets for the rest of my family buy purchasing them at the gate, however I am nervous this time of year to wait until arriving to purchase tickets for the other 5 members of my family. Is there any other way to get the discounted tickets ahead of time or is the only way to literally wait until the first day of our trip and buy them at the gate? I hate to have to wait in that line too!
THanks for any advise on this.
BTW- hotel room at the Portofino for our whole family is under $400 for one night and would include express unlimited passes for all 6 of us. THis annual pass thing is a no brainer!


So glad you can make this work. The discounts are fantastic!

I have never bought them at the gate, is the discount pretty good? I don’t tend to buy my tickets from Universal, they are cheaper at Undercover Tourist so they have been my go to for Uni and WDW tickets for years. Check them out. When comparing prices to Uni prices, Undercover tickets include the tax already, where as Uni tickets don’t unless you click all the way through to the last screen before you purchase. Sometimes it looks like they are the same price as Uni, until you get to the last screen. Undercover has always saved me money and they are very reliable and trustworthy.

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@Wahoohokie it says the discount is 15% at the gate.
From Universal’s website, it is 1506.95 with tax for the 5 tickets we need.
From Undercover Tourist, it is 1383.75 with tax
I’m assuming the discounted tickets at the gate would be 1202.70 before tax
Not a huge difference but I should probably just buy them from undercover tourist to make sure I don’t have any issues at the gate? Hate to be 16 hours from home and not actually be able to get everyone in.
I wonder if they would apply the discounts when we got there and give us the difference LOL
One could always dream I suppose.

Just for fun… I did some pricing LOL
A vacation package at the Portofino for one night, 2 days at the parks for my family of 6 from the universal vacation planning website is 3375.88

To do what I planned on doing by staying at the “cheap” offsite hotel, but p2p tickets for 2 days, and buy universal unlimited passes for us all for 2 days, it would be $3935.27.

If i buy a season pass for one of us, book the hotel through the pass holder site, buy tickets from Universal Tourist for everyone else, it is 2316.49 for our 1 night two days.

Good lord.
Thank you for the suggestion.
You saved me a thousand dollars.