Six tips for exploring Universal Orlando 

click to enlarge Diagon Alley

Universal Orlando

Diagon Alley

Once an also-ran to Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando now has the hottest attractions in town, thanks to Harry Potter. A visit to Universal requires less advance planning than a Disney vacation, but a little preparation will help you master Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure like a wizard.

1. INVEST IN AN ANNUAL PASS

Universal's one-day prices are just as outrageous as Disney's, especially if you add the park-to-park option that's required to ride the Hogwarts Express train. But Universal's multi-day tickets are much cheaper, with the entry-level Florida resident annual pass costing barely $40 more than a one-day park-hopper. Upgraded annual passes include generous discounts on food, merchandise and hotel rooms, which becomes handy if you ...

2. CONSIDER STAYING THE NIGHT ON-SITE

Universal's Loews-operated on-site hotels are some of the nicest in town, and one night in any of them includes early admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – a huge perk. The three deluxe properties also toss in unlimited Express Passes for the rides, which could cost a family of four more than the room itself if purchased a la carte.

3. PASS ON PREFERRED PARKING

There's no easy way to get around paying for parking in Universal's ginormous garages, so don't pony up extra for a "preferred" spot; you're only guaranteeing that you won't need to take an escalator, but your space may be further from the central hub than a cheaper one on another level. Emeril's and other CityWalk restaurants validate for two hours of free valet parking at lunch, and Hard Rock Hotel's Palm and Royal Pacific's Tchoup Chop validate for dinner.

4. VISIT POTTER AFTER LUNCH

Most guests will sprint straight for Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley at opening, overwhelming the attractions there until late morning, when attendance in those areas tends to dissipate. If you are at Universal on a peak day, you may need a timed return ticket to enter the Potter areas (if so, pray or flee). Otherwise, do the other popular attractions at opening – Despicable Me, Rip Ride Rockit, Transformers and Mummy at Universal Studios; Hulk, Spider-Man, Doctor Doom and the water rides at Islands of Adventure – and explore the Wizarding Worlds in the afternoon and evening, when they look especially beautiful.

5. SAVE ROOM (AND MONEY) FOR SIGNATURE SNACKS

Universal's per-guest spending is sky-high, thanks to signature snacks and sweets that you can't get anywhere else, like Butterbeer (best frozen or hot, though the cold and ice cream varieties aren't bad), giant Lard Lad donuts and Duff Beer (available in regular, light or dry). The Potter restaurants' British pub grub is pretty good, but for a better sit-down meal, you'll want to escape to CityWalk, where Antojitos Authentic Mexican, Vivo Italian Kitchen and the Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar are solid options.

6. SAVOR THE SIGHTS

Some guests rush from ride to ride, then dismiss Universal's theming as inferior to Disney's. Take time to relax in some of the parks' quieter pockets, like New York's alleyways, Central Park, and the London and Springfield waterfronts in Universal Studios; and the Port of Entry, Sweethaven and Seuss shorelines, and Jurassic Park Discovery Center in Islands of Adventure. Of course, Potter fans will want to spend hours soaking up the Wizarding World's details, especially in Diagon's spooky Knockturn Alley. Spring for a $47 interactive wand if you want to activate interactive effects, or just creep on kids using them.

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