Welcome to the danger zone. If you’ve reached this page, you are likely looking for the most effective way to spend a single day at the parks with a solid Universal Orlando itinerary. Have no fear. Even though this may seem like a daunting task, you’ve come to the right place. I’m here to quell your unease and walk you through the best-case-scenario Universal Orlando 1 day itinerary.
In the below guide, I will walk you through the steps to take to maximize your enjoyment when your time at Universal Orlando is limited to a single day. Along the way, I will cover where to stay if you aren’t local and want to get an early start. I will also explain why I made the selections I did to maximize your enjoyment.
This is a free Universal Orlando 1 day itinerary. No strings attached, no payments to make, nothing of the sort. At the end of this breakdown, there’s an easy one-page PDF I have developed that you can reference at any point during your travels either printed or on your phone.
The ultimate goal of this Universal Orlando 1 day itinerary is to maximize fun while minimizing time in line, frustration, confusion, and the need to constantly be checking times, planning, and more.
Stay The Night Before and After
This probably isn’t what you want to hear. However, if you’re looking for the absolute most effective way to spend one full day at Universal Orlando, you’re going to be going from park open to park close. In these situations, I am looking at dates when the parks are open from 9:00 AM to around 10:00 PM.
It’s possible to do 13 hours in the park without exhausting yourself or your loved ones. However, to do so, you’re not going to want to be spending time driving to and from the park or airport on the day of. Get rest beforehand, and get ready to rock and roll. I’ve done this quite a few times, and this is something I can guarantee will make a world of difference in your overall experience.
As far as where to stay, the most effective option is going to always be a hotel. And sure, there are plenty of very close off-site properties available. In fact, if you’re having to stay off-property, the hotel we would recommend the most is the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at the Entrance to Universal Orlando. I cover that property and four others in my guide to the best off-property hotels.
But, there is a multitude of relevant benefits to on-property resorts at Universal that make your one-day Universal Orlando itinerary that much more efficient. For that reason, for a one-day all-out blast, I am going to highly recommend staying at the Portofino Bay Hotel.
Our Recommended Home Base: Loews Portofino Bay Hotel
Surrounded by the lively surroundings of Orlando’s Universal Resort, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel provides guests with a grand and graceful experience. The hotel is designed to resemble the luxurious town of its namesake, Portofino, Italy, featuring elegant Italian-style villas, manicured courtyards, and gardens.
While the Portofino Bay Hotel is a bit further distance-wise than the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, I selected this property as the most effective simply due to the combination of ease of access and luxury, as well as the ease at which you can check-in. When you’ve only got one full day to experience as much of Universal Orlando as you can, time is of the essence and convenience is crucial.
Why stay on-site vs off-site?
If it was just down to property versus property I would recommend the DoubleTree all day every day. However, there are some unique benefits that make staying at on-site Universal hotels compared to their off-site equivalents. The three main ones of note are the included Universal Express unlimited passes, the early entry benefit, and ease of access to the park.
- With on-site “Premier” properties (Portofino Bay, Hard Rock, and Royal Pacific), hotel guests receive free Universal Express Unlimited passes for both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. This is ideal for truly experiencing all the park has to offer, especially if your time in the park is limited.
- Hotel guests have the added benefit of early admission (find out more about it and what rides are included here). With early admission, you can enter either Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure an hour before the park officially opens.
- General proximity to the park in terms of transportation makes on-site properties such as Portofino Bay ideal. While the DoubleTree is technically closer walking-wise than Portofino Bay, the walk to the park from Portofino Bay is leisurely and nice, and alternatively using the water taxi will save you energy, and is ideal after a very long single day in the parks.
Make sure to buy one-day Park-to-Park tickets for the full day you will be at Universal Orlando. This itinerary will take you to both parks, so the park-to-park is needed to fully experience all that Universal Orlando has to offer at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
Getting to Universal Orlando
For the sake of my most effective Universal Orlando 1 day itinerary, I am going to go on the assumption that you are flying into the area, and landing at the Orlando International Airport.
Note: Make your life and guesswork easier before you even take off by determining which restaurant you’d like to eat dinner at in CityWalk and making a reservation well ahead of time. Here’s the list. I highly recommend Antojitos (menu here).
Since you will be staying close to the park itself, and won’t have time to do anything outside of the Universal Orlando property, there is no need to worry about renting a car. Instead, grab a Lyft (here’s $10 in free credit) straight to Portofino Bay, under the assumption that its mid-afternoon.
Keep in mind that the airport is very busy (the seventh-busiest in the United States), and it’s quite a long walk from the gates to the rideshare area, so budget your time accordingly. This is one of many reasons why my most effective Universal Orlando 1 day itinerary isn’t a redeye to the park and hit-the-ground-running kind of affair.
The ride from the airport to the front doors of Portofino Bay is 17 miles and can take anywhere from 20 to 30 minutes or more, depending on traffic levels when you enter your Lyft. When you get to the hotel, odds are high that you should be able to check right in. Grab your keys and ensure your admission and Express Passes are set for the following day’s adventures. Then, check out the amazing sights of the hotel courtyard area as you head toward your room.
Enjoying Your Evening at CityWalk
Put your things down, unpack, and get ready to stretch your legs. Unless it’s miserable outside, opt for the walking path to CityWalk instead of the water taxi. Going on the assumption that it’s still somewhat bright outside, the walk from Portofino Bay to CityWalk is quite nice. You’ll be rushing during your Universal Orlando 1 day adventure, so take the time to soak in the walk.
Walking from Portofino Bay to CityWalk
Stroll through a peaceful pathway connecting the Harbor Piazza to the CityWalk entrance right by Universal Studios Florida. This one-way, purpose-built walkway stretches over three-fourths of a mile. Its route is easy to follow, and picturesquely landscaped. Also, it never crosses any public roads, making your journey entirely secure, safe, and enjoyable.
It is truly a beautiful walk, and Polka Dots and Pixie Dust has a great photo gallery of what you’ll see on the walk. That photo gallery, and a lot of information about the walk, are available here.
What to do, eat, and drink at CityWalk
There is plenty to do at CityWalk. So much that it can seem intimidating. If it’s your first visit, you may be taken aback by the crowds and the colors, lights, and sounds that emanate from CityWalk. This is a solid “central hub” for Universal Orlando, as the entrances to both Universal Studios (which you will pass right by on your walk) and Islands of Adventures are right there.
As I mentioned in my note above, I highly recommend eating at Antojitos. It’s got a great vibe. However, if Mexican food isn’t your top choice, or you have a sensitive stomach, there are plenty of other options available. Check out my full guide to CityWalk for more.
if you’re a fan of frozen drinks, the Fat Tuesday that is close by is a great place to sit and people-watch. It’s relatively quiet, and the most recent time my wife and I visited, it was a Friday evening and the place was empty.
Eat, drink, and be merry. But don’t go too hard, you’ve got a full day ahead of you and it starts early.
Returning to Portofino Bay from CityWalk
Follow the signs to the dock to take the Universal water taxi back to the hotel. Make sure to take the one that goes to Portofino Bay by way of the Hard Rock!
Make your travel from the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort, and Loews Sapphire Falls Resort easier with the convenient water taxi service. The boat runs for 30 minutes before Early Park Admission until 2:30 a.m. (unless there’s inclement weather) year-round. Enjoy a leisurely cruise while you save some extra steps and some energy.
Once you return to Portofino Bay, sit and enjoy the cool night air at the Harbor Piazza before returning to your room and getting a solid night’s sleep.
The Universal Orlando 1 Day Itinerary
Good morning! Now it’s “go time”. Remember, the goal of this itinerary is to visit as much as you possibly can without worrying about timing, constantly staring at lists and maps, or stressing about specific attractions. Don’t stress, just enjoy yourself. Grab a small backpack if you have a second and some cheap disposable ponchos. You will be extremely uncomfortable for a good chunk of the day otherwise. Read on to find out why.
Plan to leave your hotel room around 7:15 am. If you have to have coffee in the morning, make it in the room, or I recommend using the mobile app to order some Starbucks from the hotel itself and drink it on the way.
You’ll likely notice once you leave your hotel room in the morning that there is already a line for the water taxi. Fear not, you and your fellow visitors aren’t taking the water taxi to get to where you are going. You are going to walk, just like you did the evening before.
Yes, it’s about a mile or so to the entrance to Islands of Adventure (which is where your day will start), but walking keeps you from the delays associated with waiting in lines. And nobody wants to stand in line that early anyways.
8:00 am: Start the Day at Islands of Adventure
We are going to start the day at Islands of Adventure, and go under the assumption that the park opens for Early Admission at precisely 8:00 am. There are a few reasons I would highly recommend Islands of Adventure as a starting point compared to Universal Studios with a one-day park-to-park itinerary with Universal Express Unlimited and early entry:
- You can hit two of the most popular rides first thing at Hogwarts/Hogsmeade, including Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, which is currently not included in Universal Express. The other ride in question is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
- In my personal experience, Hogwarts/Hogsmeade packs up badly toward the afternoon in comparison to Diagon Alley at Universal Studios.
- On hot days, it is important to know that Islands of Adventure has far more outdoors-focused rides than Universal Studios. Getting Islands of Adventure done in the morning and early afternoon will avoid the hottest parts of the day.
- Taking the Hogwarts Express from Islands of Adventure to Universal Studios is far less busy than from Platform 9 3/4 to Islands of Adventure. Many children want to live the Harry Potter experience of getting onboard on the Platform at King’s Cross. But we are going for effectiveness in this itinerary, so we get almost the same experience, but with less waiting.
Early Morning Rush into Hogsmeade
Typically, with Early Entry into Islands of Adventure, most people are headed to one of two places: Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure or the Jurassic Park VelociCoaster. Hagrid’s can tend to have some of the longest wait times of any roller coaster in the country. Seriously, check out the difference between Hagrid’s and VelociCoaster below, data thanks to Queue-times.com:
Essentially, choosing to rush to Hagrid’s over the VelociCoaster as soon as the rope drops at 8:00 am will save you almost 45 minutes of raw waiting time on average. My wife and I did exactly this, but on a Saturday, and ended up waiting close to an hour overall. If you’re in the “middle of the pack” for rope drop and not killing yourself trying to waste time getting there too early, expect to wait close to the same amount of time.
But this ride is most definitely worth it. Heck, it’s the second most expensive roller coaster ever built and is every bit of the $300 million it cost to build. The queue line is quite immersive, almost as much as Rise of the Resistance at Hollywood Studios. On busy days, the line snakes around the empty Poseidon’s Fury stage area before entering the Harry Potter-esque theme.
So, spend the first hour here, and assume it is going to take an hour even on the slowest of days, and even with early entry.
Avoid VelociCoaster Early On, Move Clockwise
After you’re done with Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, go ahead and use your Express Pass to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. It’s a solid attraction, a dark ride that has incredible 3D effects without needing 3D glasses. I was pleasantly surprised by how nice it was. In fact, I consider this the third-best ride at Universal Orlando on my best rides list. With the Express Pass, don’t expect to wait more than ten minutes.
Once this is done, it’s time to book it out of Hogsmeade before the waves of non-early-admission park-goers come pouring in. Even if it seems tempting, avoid Flight of the Hippogriff. There’s a reason there is rarely a wait. The ride is less than a minute, throws you around a bit, and is somewhat cramped for adults.
A lot of itineraries would suggest you immediately head counter-clockwise into the Jurassic Park area and ride VelociCoaster. I recommend doing the opposite, as there will be a good subset of people with early entry doing the same, along with a solid number of standard entrance arrivals. Additionally, if you do VelociCoaster right after, you’ve burned through the top three rides at Universal Orlando in less than two hours.
Instead, do the opposite. Go clockwise and pass through the Lost Continent. Enjoy the sights but don’t stop. This area has no rides, the shows won’t be open yet, and it’s incredibly dated. Keep going into Seuss Landing. This area is neat. The Cat in the Hat is a surprisingly underrated ride. Use the Express Pass and give it a go. Imagine It’s A Small World but better. A good way to chill for a few minutes before continuing through the park.
Push Forward into Marvel Super Hero Island
Continue through Seuss Landing into the Port of Entry. Hungry? Grab some Cinnabon, Starbucks, or Croissant Moon Bakery. You’ll burn the calories off today anyways. Then continue on to Marvel Super Hero Island. Here, rapid-fire the following three rides in any order of your choosing, using Express Passes for all three:
- The Incredible Hulk Coaster
- The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
- Doctor Doom’s Fearfall
If it’s 10:30 am by the time you get off the Incredible Hulk Coaster, skip Doctor Doom’s Fearfall. The enjoyment compared to the time it takes to get through the line, onto the ride, secured in, slowly ratcheted up, and then dropped down is very much not worth it. There’s a reason I rate it the fourth-worst ride at Universal Orlando.
At this point, it’s 10:30 or so in the morning, and you’ve already done five to six rides. Things should be going strong, and hopefully, you and your loved ones are having a great time. Get those ponchos ready, because things are about to get wet.
Enjoy Some Water Rides at Toon Lagoon
As you continue clockwise around the park, you’ll find yourself in Toon Lagoon. Here, you are going to enjoy the two rides available in this part of Islands of Adventure: Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges and Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls.
If you want my opinion, do Popeye first and then Dudley Do-Right. You are more likely to get soaked on Popeye and can dry off a bit in line at Dudley Do-Right (although you will get wet on that one as well. Wear ponchos. I repeat, wear ponchos. These are the only two rides you will need them on, but you will be miserable if you go without them. I know this from personal experience.
Both these rides are pretty awesome from my own experiences. Popeye is surprisingly intense for a circular raft ride, and Dudley Do-Right is a longer-than-expected flume ride with a few solid maneuvers. These are a couple of the most underrated rides in the park.
Once you finish these two rides up, store the ponchos but don’t throw them away, then spend the $5 on a People Dryer. It’s well worth the cost to rapidly speed up the drying time after potentially still getting soaked on these two rides.
You’re probably hungry at this point. Stop at Blondie’s and grab a Dagwood sandwich, eat it outside, and continue on into the last parts of the park. At this point, it is likely closing in on noon, and you’re eight rides in. Let’s rock and roll!
Wrapping Up Islands of Adventure
Continuing on your clockwise rotation of the park, use your Express Passes to check out Skull Island: Reign of Kong, and use your ponchos and Express Passes for the Jurassic Park River Adventure with its incredible drop. Once this ride is over, throw out the ponchos. There are no water rides at Universal Studios.
If you get super wet, grab another session on the People Dryer outside the ride. However tempting it may seem, skip Pteranodon Flyers. This is for multiple reasons:
- Your Express Pass won’t work for this ride, and the lines are notoriously long.
- Pteranodon Flyer’s cars are two people at a time, so the lines take forever to move.
- The ride is painfully short, and not worth the time spent in line whatsoever.
There are likely some things in this Universal Orlando 1 day itinerary that are controversial. This is not one of those things. Very few people leave that ride thinking they got their time’s worth out of it.
Instead, get in line at the Jurassic World VelociCoaster. At this point in the day, expect to wait about 45 minutes or so. It’s worth the wait. Theme Park Insider ranks it the best roller coaster in the world. It’s a short ride, only about 75 seconds, but those seconds are considered roller coaster perfection.
Overall, this coaster is a great way to end Islands of Adventure. At this point in your day, it’s likely about 2:00 pm, you’ve done 11 great rides, and it’s time to say goodbye to Islands of Adventure and head over to Universal Studios. Unfortunately, you’re all the way on the far side of the park. Have no fear, there’s a shortcut and an additional ride that connects the parks together.
Entering Universal Studios via the Hogwarts Express
Head back over to Hogsmeade and cross through to the Hogwarts Express entrance. Avoid the butterbeer here, as the lines are longer at Islands of Adventure than at Universal Studios, and the butterbeer at the kiosks at Islands of Adventure is notoriously warm.
Use your Express Pass to take the Hogwarts Express from Islands of Adventure into Diagon Alley at Universal Studios. It’s a neat overall experience and beats walking well over a mile to get from VelociCoaster to the entrance to Universal Studios. Plus, the Hogwarts Express will dump you out right where all the action is! At this point, grab a butterbeer and head for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts.
Pull out the Express Pass again to skip another notoriously long line, but take those few minutes to enjoy the queue. The ride itself is multiple parts and is incredibly immersive. Overall it’s a great time. It’s also the only ride in Diagon Alley, so feel free to wander about for a few. Don’t miss Knockturn Alley, which is always in the dark. It’s a super neat and tucked-away little easter egg.
Places to Go, Places to Avoid
Once you’re done at Diagon Alley, head clockwise, just to Men in Black Alien Attack. It’s a neat ride and a true classic. Use the Express Pass and enjoy the likely five-minute wait. Sometimes, you can simply walk on, depending on the day of the week. We have experienced both.
Once you are done with this, stop. Unless you are a huge Simpsons fan, avoid continuing into Springfield, and avoid The Simpsons Ride. 80% of the queue line is awful and crowded, they handle Express Passes horribly, the ride itself is about 10 degrees too hot, and the ride is one of the worst I’ve ever experienced for motion sickness. It is in no way worth it.
Turn back around at World Expo, walk past Diagon Alley, and counterclockwise into the San Francisco area. Enjoy exploring for a few minutes, and if the line with the Express Pass for Fast & Furious – Supercharged is less than 10 minutes, give it a go. It’s not the best ride in the world and is definitely somewhat cringe, but it’s worth checking out.
Universal Studios Rapid Fire
After Fast and Furious, go right at the fork into the New York section of the park. This is a convoluted area, and the process of how you’re going to traverse these next rides is going to be confusing. Before giving you the list, here is what the “path” looks like on that specific section of the map:
Use Express Passes for every single one of these rides. Here is the order to do them:
- Revenge of the Mummy
- Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
- TRANSFORMERS: The Ride-3D
- Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
- Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
All five of these are great rides, and none should be skipped or missed. Personally, Revenge of the Mummy is one of my all-time favorite rides and is my favorite ride at Universal Studios. The queue line is beautiful, the ride itself isn’t super short, has great effects, and plenty of surprises.
Finishing Your Day at Universal Studios
It’s probably close to 6:00 pm at this point, maybe a little bit later. After Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, take the straight shot down the street to Mel’s Drive-In for dinner. It’s a neat place to stop, and the food isn’t too bad for in-park eating at Universal. Then, head into Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone and finish your day with E.T. Adventure.
At this point, you’ve done 21 rides, and hit all the best parts of both parks. The sun is probably starting to set, and you’re likely getting pretty tired. You did great. If this was my itinerary and I had a little bit of energy left, I’d scurry back over and do Revenge of the Mummy again. After that, you’re good to go and have successfully completed the Effective Universal Orlando 1 Day Itinerary.
A Last Bite and Back to the Hotel
Still hungry? Pop into the NBC Sports Grill & Brew right near the exit to Universal Studios. If you’re just wanting something sweet, I also recommend Voodoo Doughnut, and not just because I’m writing this itinerary from my home in Portland, Oregon. Then if you feel so inclined, pop into the Universal Studios Store to grab a few souvenirs from your wonderful experience.
Then, head right to the water taxi and back to Portofino Bay. Enjoy the leisurely float back to the hotel, and then collapse into your bed. You did great.
Universal Orlando 1 Day Itinerary Resources and Additional Information
The PDF maps from the Universal website are huge files for one-pagers. I went ahead and compressed them to a fraction of their file size. Here are the relevant maps for the locations you will visit through the course of this itinerary, updated for mid-February 2023:
You may be wondering: what about Volcano Bay? There is one rule for Effective Vacations Universal Orlando: we don’t discuss Volcano Bay. We don’t go to Volcano Bay.
The Coveted One-Pager PDF Plan