Greetings fellow travelers (or would-be travelers), it is I, a Universal Theme Parks newb! Since I had been to Walt Disney World a few times, it was finally time to cross the interstate over to Universal Orlando. Despite a very detailed guide put together by a close friend who has been frequenting Universal Orlando for years (including a rating of the rides for scaredy cats, of which I am one), there were still plenty of things that surprised me. Seasoned visitors may be well aware of everything I discovered below, but for those considering or already planning a trip to Universal, hopefully a couple of these notes will help you on your journey. (Of note: We did not visit Volcano Bay because it was surprisingly chilly over the weekend we were there.)
Universal Orlando has three parks: Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios Florida, and Volcano Bay. They all offer different experiences, although Volcano Bay is essentially a water park. It’s important to note that the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (which was, by far, the most impressive part of the trip) spans two: Islands of Adventure (IOA) and Universal Studios Florida (USF). Though this is explained many places, there were plenty of people who were upset to learn they could not ride the Hogwarts Express between the two sides of Wizarding World because they only had a single-park pass. Don’t be those people!
It’s really impossible to choose, if you had to, which of the Wizarding Worlds you would want to prioritize with a single park pass. Hogsmeade (located in IOA) has three thrill rides and Hogwarts castle, but the restaurant and shop area is much smaller. Diagon Alley (located in USF) is more immersive in terms of the shops, restaurants, and experience, but it only has one thrill ride. And, without a two-park pass you will miss out on the Hogwarts Express, an actual train with video story elements on screens inside the cars along the way that are different depending on which direction you go.
Also, go ahead and buy your wand first so you have time to hit all of the interactive spots. While you’re heading around Diagon Alley, be sure you don’t miss the turn off to Knockturn Alley—there’s a lot more to explore there, including a secondary pathway leading around the Borgin and Burkes store (which you should definitely go in) that has even more interactive wand fun (there are also spotlights very high up in this dark area that help you read your wand map). Also, while you’re outside Diagon Alley at USF you’ll want to use the prop pay phone to call the Ministry of Magic, and keep a close eye on what’s happening at 12 Grimmauld Place….
I was really blown away by the level of detail at Wizarding World, especially in Diagon Alley, but those details were also on display in Universal’s other park areas. There are uncanny elements of Los Angeles and New York spanning city blocks of replica store fronts at USF that really feel like you are on a working set, not to mention some truly epic jungle and mountainous backdrops at IOA (the set for the Kong ride, in particular, made my jaw drop). Though some of the areas could use some sprucing up and a fresh coat of paint (looking at you, Seuss World—including the Sneetches that had fallen over in the lake display—and the hodgepodge randomness of Toon Lagoon), the experience is still charming. The Marvel Heroes Island area, for example, is an homage to the brand’s ‘90s comics, which fans of that era will be delighted by.
While the city skylines or massive Grecian sets adorned with waterfalls make you feel like you’re in a fantasy world, I have to reiterate that all of its pales in comparison to the Wizarding World. My face hurt from smiling while we were there among the snow-capped peaks of Hogsmeade or the twisty cobblestones of Diagon Alley. It’s truly a special place, and far more interactive than I was expecting it to be (not only because of the areas where you can use your wand to cast spells with actual effects, but in that you can enter into many of the themed stores from the books or just window-shop the sets. Plus, there’s a fire-breathing dragon atop Gringotts that is just awesome). Of note, the parks (especially WW) look completely different in the day versus night, so it’s worth retracing your steps at your favorite stops.
When I went to Disney two years ago, I couldn’t stop talking about the Avatar Flight of Passage ride where you get on a winged mountain banshee and fly across Pandora. It was breathtaking. My Universal friend scoffed, “Pfft, Universal is full of 3D rides!” And wow, it truly is. I had mixed feelings about them; they were fun, but they really rattle you around to simulate actually being tossed to and fro as part of the each ride’s story. Plus, they can kinda scramble your brain after you do a few in row.
It’s worth noting that for about half those rides, you need to stow any bags or backpacks, hats, etc, in a free storage locker beforehand. Your ticket will automatically open an available locker, but hold onto it, because that’s how you get your stuff back after the ride. Even for rides with long lines, we never had to pay for storage or had to wait in line to stow or pickup our stuff (but you should empty out the locker after each ride to make sure you don’t incur fees). The lockers are pretty small, so if you’ve bought a lot of merch and would rather not carry it around with you, there is complimentary parcel storage via almost any vendor, where you can pick your stuff up near the park exits before you leave (though keep in mind, we were told there is a 3-hour minimum, so shop early and then pick it up later).
My favorite 3D rides at USF and IOA were Skull Island—Reign of Kong (short and not too jolting; you’re barely strapped in), Escape from Gringotts (3D + traditional coaster, and more intense than you might expect), and Transformers: The Ride 3-D (it actually had a story!). The Amazing Adventure of Spider-Man is another 3D ride that is very similar to Transformers, but we did it last so it didn’t stand out as much compared to the others. The Fast & Furious 3D ride is fully ridiculous and has no real story, but our human hosts in the staging areas were hilarious.
On the non-3D front—and for a much more chill time—an animatronic ride like E.T. (nostalgic!), the High in The Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride (super relaxing), and the Hogwarts Express (sit down and enjoy a story) are all great. For thrill seekers, Revenge of the Mummy and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure both combine animatronics and traditional coasters (they don’t go upside down, but they do go backwards for a short period of time), while The Incredible Hulk Coaster and Rip Ride Rockit are both big, looping rides that I was way too scared to go anywhere near (I barely made it through The Mummy and Hagrid’s; Hagrid’s was super smooth but SUPER fast), while Men in Black: Alien Attack (which allows you to shoot at aliens and incorporates animatronics), and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (which tilts you all around) really shook my brain up, though I enjoyed both!
My Disney experience should have prepared me for both parades and ad hoc street performances, but given Universal’s more coaster-driven experience I somehow wasn’t expecting it (even though Paste covered it right before I left!). While we were there, though, we got to see an extensive Mardi Gras parade with fantastic costumes, floats, and music. The performers were fun and interacted with the crowd, and I left with about 100 strands of beads. We also learned that you can apply each day to ride on the floats and tossing out beads, so that’s definitely something to consider if you want to actually participate in the show.
The only live show we caught as we wandered around was Beat Builders, in the New York section of USF, and they were great (and a little saucy—Disney would never!) Universal’s whole vibe is generally much punchier than Disney, and for the most part there were more couples, teens, and older adults than I typically see at Disney. Also, while there were some live performances in the Wizarding World (including the Frog Choir), there weren’t as many as I might expect given how otherwise immersive the experience is.
One place Universal definitely trumps Disney is in the variety of its vegetarian and pescatarian options. I can in no way speak definitively to all of the restaurants in the park and at the City Walk (a massive outdoor mall area before you enter the parks) or the other hotels, but everywhere we ate I was able to find at least one tasty entree that wasn’t just a salad, fruit plate, or plain noodles.
The most impressive option was breakfast at the Leaky Cauldron at the Wizarding World, which actually offered a scrumptious vegetarian quiche. Further, the hosts and servers at every establishment were very intentional about asking if certain toppings, condiments, and sides were in alignment with any food restrictions we might have. For those who require gluten free or vegan options, I would check online for the menus (or other guides that dive more specifically into that), because those are harder to come by. But in addition to options that weren’t total junk food, the prices at some of the restaurants were also not outrageously expensive. Some were, of course, but catching a few meals inside the park or at City Walk (especially the themed restaurants) wasn’t as frustrating in terms of lines and food options or as bank-breaking as I was expecting.
Here are some things I came to learn about Universal hotels (at least, the Surfside Inn at the Endless Summer Resort where we stayed): Unlike Disney, they do not have a complementary shuttle to take you to and from the airport. You can book one, but it’s the same cost per person as a ride share. The ride share gave us flexibility for our flight coming in early (or late), and it’s not a very long trip to the parks (maybe half an hour tops). Still, it was another cost on a trip where all of that adds up quickly.
Universal does, however, have constant free bus service to its 3 parks from the hotels, which was great. They run every 10 minutes, but we never waited more than 5 to leave the parks or the hotel, and also never had trouble finding a seat. Surfside Inn is not on the water taxi route, nor is it very feasible (or advisable, really) to walk, even though you can see the park from the hotel.
Early Hours were one of the more confusing aspects of our ticketing, because it wasn’t clear which park was open or—more crucially—which rides were available without doing some digging. While Disney rotates Magic Hours every other day, Universal only had USF available for early entry in the entire month of February (!) And once we were in the park, only 3 rides were available: Minions, The Mummy, and Gringotts. 99% of the people there for early hours at USF went straight to Diagon Alley and the Gringotts ride, which meant the line was really long (and virtually everyone had an Express Pass, so confoundingly, they initially put everyone in the regular line and after about 20 mins decided to open up the Express Lane). The line for Gringotts was never that long throughout the rest of the day as it was during Early Hours, so frankly, the Early Hours system didn’t seem very worth it to us (and we didn’t use it again).
We were fortunate enough, as press, to be given unlimited Express Passes as part of our ticket package (being in media does occasionally pay!) Because we were attempting to pack as much in to a weekend trip as possible, we did use the Express Pass lanes on most rides (which means you are only in line, typically, 5-10 minutes). However, there are a few times when it’s worth it to not use the Express lanes, because it cuts off a lot of the story / setup for the rides. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and Escape from Gringotts are two where the line is nearly the best part (the Hagrid ride, as of posting, does not have an Express lane, though there is a Single Riders line that moves faster; typical wait times hover around 90-120 minutes). Revenge of the Mummy also has an atmospheric line worth seeing (and the lines aren’t typically long). If you are nervous about thrill rides or are visiting the park with young kids, consider going through the Harry Potter lines and then opting out of the ride once you get to the final line.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV