Back in December of 1999, I was visiting a dear friend of mine in Los Angeles. An employee in the movie division of The Walt Disney Company, he was thoughtfully taking my wife and I to Disneyland, using his employee benefit of free admission. There, we met another friend, a Santa Monica attorney, and proceeded to spend the day at the Happiest Place on Earth. Oddly, this day would take me down a path that would eventually lead to my becoming an unlikely fan of Universal Studios.
My two companions wouldn’t stop talking about a new book series that they loved. The third book had come out a couple of months ago, only a few months after the American release of the second book. My understanding was that these were children’s books, so even though I love to read, I’d pay them no attention until my two (successful adult) friends swore to me that the novels possessed true genius. When I returned home from Los Angeles, I promptly made one of my first purchases on Amazon.com, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone." The rest is muggle history.
I’m now a Harry Potter superfan, a grown man who once spent $70 on a “magic” wand at one of the parks (Sirius Black’s wand, if you’re wondering). And because of my fandom, I’ve done something that many DVC fans consider blasphemous. I’ve spent a couple of days at Universal Orlando Resort during a Walt Disney World vacation. If you’ve ever toyed with the notion of leaving the Most Magical Place on Earth to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, here’s a guide on how to approach your vacation getaway within a vacation getaway.
The Big Decision
The first choice you’ll have to make is how much time you want to spend at Universal Studios. The difficulty with this decision is that each day you’re there is a day you’re not at Walt Disney World. So, the opportunity cost is outrageously high.
The question that many Disney Vacation Club owners wonder is whether you can do everything at Universal Studios in a day. The answer I like to give to this question is that it’s the equivalent of trying to pack in Epcot and Magic Kingdom visits in one day. Universal Studios does offer one advantage in that the entry to both of its gates, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, is at the same location. They’re joined by Universal CityWalk Orlando, the equivalent of Disney Springs, at this intersection. So, everything you’d want to do is easily accessible without the need for additional transportation, something Walt Disney World can’t claim.
Still, a single day at Universal Studios won’t be enough to enjoy everything at both parks. If you could allot two days, one for each gate, you could enjoy most of the major attractions, although you’ll still miss some stuff unless you follow a suggestion below. Since one day might be all you can afford, let’s discuss how to plan a single park day at Universal.
The Universal Day
I’ll presume that you’re staying at a DVC resort rather than switching to one of Universal’s properties. Your only concern in this scenario is transportation. By far the best option at this point is one of the ride-sharing services, Uber and Lyft. The number of people in your party will determine the price to some extent, but I can say from experience that two to three people will pay a total of roughly $20 one way. You’ll want to double your expected cost to allow for the return trip, of course. Budget $50 for transportation unless you’re traveling with a larger party and thereby needing a larger ride-sharing vehicle. A few sites offer fare estimate calculators, and the good news about ride-sharing is that you save on the cost of parking. The other thing to keep in mind is the possibility of surge pricing, which can increase your transportation cost some.
Otherwise, your main concern is arriving at Universal Studios in time for rope drop. It works just the same as Walt Disney World’s parks, so you should know the basics by now. Rush to the ride that you think will have the longest line throughout the day. Check that off your list, and you’re ahead of the game a half-hour into your day at the park.
In terms of tickets when you only have a single day, my advice is to get a one-day, two-park admission ticket. Then, you should pull up a list of Universal Studios attractions to figure out which ones you consider priorities. The Harry Potter sections of the two gates are the highest priority for most people, although my fellow Springfield fanatics will also emphasize a visit to the world of The Simpsons.
Picking Your Must-Dos at Universal Studios Florida
While your list might vary some, here are the attractions at each park that I’d rank the highest in terms of popular opinion and ride quality. At Universal Studios Florida, Production Central has two incredible virtual reality simulators at the front of the park. Those are Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and Transformers: The Ride. They also have a roller coaster for adrenaline junkies, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, and a knockoff of Mickey’s PhilharMagic called Shrek 4-D. I’m actually not a huge fan of the roller coaster and, like most people, got tired of Shrek many years ago. That’s why I’d only recommend the VR attractions, a running theme at Universal Studios.
The park also has several classic attractions that haven’t changed if you’ve visited before. Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride is a remarkably good indoor roller coaster, and Men in Black: Alien Attack is the deluxe version of Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. I deem both of them among the finest rides at Universal Studios.
Another classic attraction, E.T. Adventure, is a Disney-esque themed ride that perfectly captures the spirit of the movie. I’d call it a maybe depending on how well you’re managing your time. And Terminator 2: 3-D: Battle Across Time is three movies behind at this point. It’s still a fun show. On a one-day plan, it’s something you simply don’t have time to enjoy, though. It’s a hard pass.
Of course, you’re really visiting Universal Studios for the Potter and Simpsons connections. The Simpsons Ride is a wonderful introduction to the world of Springfield, and Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl has some hysterical quips. As for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley section, it’s the gold standard in modern theming, at least until Pandora – The World of Avatar debuts in two months. It really only has one ride, though. That’s Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringrotts, which will likely have the longest line of anything at either park. Still, you’ll hate yourself if you don’t ride it.
All Aboard the Hogwarts Express!
My belief is that you can ride about 15 attractions between the two parks in a single day. That number goes down when you choose to wait in the longest lines, but we’ll use it as a guideline. One of them that you will ride is an attraction I haven’t mentioned. Hogwarts Express will transport you from Universal Studios Florida to Islands of Adventure once you’re ready to leave for the day.
The must of riding the Hogwarts Express leaves you with 14 other choices. You can decide your favorites from the list above, understanding that the more popular rides come with longer lines. Planning to ride more of them potentially lowers your list down from 14.
The good news is that Hogwarts Express is a triumph of ride engineering and actually something I’d place in the top six overall at Universal Studios. So, you’re not getting cheated when you ride it. To the contrary, it’s different each way. If you can find the time, take the Hogwarts Express twice. It’s that good, and you won’t regret it.
Starting at the Back of Islands of Adventure
Since you’re entering at Hogsmeade Village, the Harry Potter-themed land at the back of the park, we’ll start there. The best attraction is unquestionably Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and you’ll be pleased to learn that its wait-times have decreased dramatically in recent years. You can and should fit this one into your schedule no matter what.
The other two Harry Potter attractions are re-themed versions of existing Islands of Adventure rides. Dragon Challenge is fun, but you’ll struggle to find a connection to Harry Potter beyond the names of the two tracks (which do offer different ride experiences, by the way). Flight of the Hippogriff has all the staying power of Milli Vanilli and barely lasts a minute. You’ll only want to ride it if there’s no line…and you’re desperate.
After you exit Hogsmeade, you can walk right through The Lost Continent. The best thing there is – and I’m serious – a restaurant named Mythos. When you’re hungry, you should keep it in mind. Let’s be honest, though. You’re going to spend most of your day drinking Flaming Moes and Butterbeer. Pro tip: the doughnuts in Springfield are better than You Only Move Twice. You’re going to want one. But Springfield was so last park. In Islands of Adventure, Mythos is the only place you should eat if you’re not dining at one of the Harry Potter restaurants.
The Kiddie Sections of the Park
Your participation at Seuss Landing depends on whether you’re traveling with kids. Yes, Dr. Seuss is for children of all ages, but anybody over 10 will struggle to enjoy One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. There’s also a dark ride for Cat in the Hat that you’re likely to enjoy more than I do since I’m not a fan at all. Well, I love the book, just not the attraction. Frankly, I think Seuss Landing is a disappointment as a themed land.
Toon Lagoon is actually the children’s section of the park that I would recommend more. Two of its water rides are extremely well-themed. You don’t have to love Popeye or Dudley Do-Right to enjoy them, either. Both Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges and Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls are entertaining enough that I recommend them, although you may not want to get wet if you’re spending a full day at the parks.
My “Great Ride” Sense Is Tingling
Marvel Super Hero Island contains a lot of entertainment options. The two memorable rides are the recently updated The Incredible Hulk and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. Even if you haven’t ridden the Spidey ride, I’m sure you’re aware of its reputation. Amusement Today hands out the Golden Ticket Awards each year. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man won Best Dark Ride for most of the 2000s. I’m not joking. It was category champion from 2000-2010. After the Harry Potter stuff, it’s THE signature attraction at Universal Studios. You’ll want to ride it.
As for The Incredible Hulk, we missed its debut by about a week last time, so I can only advise based on its reputation, which is that it’s mostly the same ride as prior to the reboot. I think you should take a chance on it, but feel free to scratch it off your list if you’re already feeling maxed out.
The other big thing at Marvel Super Hero Island is character meet and greets. Universal offers these just like Disney, only they’re lacking the quality intellectual properties. For weird legal reasons, Universal can and does have Disney-owned characters wandering around the park. Whether you want to make time to hang out with them is a personal choice. Overall, Universal’s character meet and greets are sorely lacking, but they’ve improved a great deal in recent years. Most importantly, the Harry Potter stuff is all great.
An old favorite and the newest attraction at Universal Studios round out the list of potential attractions you should enjoy on a single day visit. Jurassic Park River Adventure is an exceptional water ride that really sells the premise of Jurassic Park the movie. It starts calmly; then, the situation changes in thrilling fashion. I recommend this one, although the caveat about not getting wet still applies.
As for Skull Island: Reign of Kong, it’s an EXTREMELY adult ride, which means you should not target it when traveling with children. Other than that, it’s a high priority as one of the largest projects in Universal Studios history. It’s another attraction that you’ll feel cheated if you miss it.
You See the Problem, Right?
Take a look at your list of priority rides. Is it longer than you expected? I’m not surprised. Universal Resort Orlando is soaring in popularity over the past few years. While Wizarding World of Harry Potter was the impetus for this growth, other factors play a part, too. You’ll have more that you want to do here than you can manage in a single day. A better approach exists. You may not like it though.
Look, one of the great parts of DVC ownership is that you always have a free place to stay when you visit Orlando, Florida. What I’m about to suggest negates that advantage. Something you should strongly consider is spending two or three days at Universal Studios. AND you should stay onsite. Before you start shouting, “Burn the heretic!” please hear me out.
Universal Studios spent many years as the inferior sibling of Walt Disney World. Over time, they found the best ways to mimic their more successful and popular counterparts. One of the ideas they co-opted was building deluxe resorts. Universal studied the occupancy rates at Disney and understood that amenities like extra park hours matter to travelers. They added Early Park Admission as a bonus to guests staying onsite. Their version is nowhere near as robust as Disney’s, though. You can see the list of open attractions here. It’s basically Despicable Me: Minions Mayhem plus the Harry Potter stuff.
I Must Be in the Front Row!
While this amenity (understandably) might not excite you, their answer to FastPass will. The Universal Express Unlimited pass (UEU) is the deluxe version of FastPass in that you walk to the front of the line. The only people you won’t pass are others who own a UEU, most of whom are guests staying onsite at Universal’s deluxe resorts. You can also buy this pass for $84.99 per day per person.
Visitors attending Universal for only one day can use the UEU to tip the scale back in your favor. You can ride LOTS more attractions when you don’t have to wait in line. Most (but not all) Universal attractions have special UEU lines. Since the cost of the pass is per person, however, a group of three or more might as well just split a room and stay the night. The price is about the same. The deluxe resorts generally cost about $350 per night.
Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, and Hard Rock Hotel are the three properties that offer UEU as an amenity. They also offer free transportation to the parks, although Hard Rock Hotel is only walking distance away. Ergo, that’s the one I recommend to DVC members who do choose to spend a night (or more) at Universal.
By staying at any of the resorts, you’ll enjoy the equivalent of Disney’s monorail properties. You’ll have convenient access to all parts of Universal Resort Orlando, especially when you stay at Hard Rock Hotel. More importantly, you’ll have the wonderful UEU pass that will give you virtually instant access to all parts of both parks.
But It’s Still Not Disney
No matter how you choose to manage your time at Universal, understand that it won’t be quite the same. Too many of the attractions at these two parks are virtual reality simulations, causing a sense of sameness. While some Universal offerings are Disney-esque in quality, especially the nighttime show, Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular: 100 Years of Movie Memories, you’ll still notice disappointing shortcomings.
Universal’s customer service falls far short of Disney’s. You’ll also not enjoy the same themed land consistency in that Universal doesn’t maintain the illusion throughout their parks. You can get past this stuff. Where you’ll really miss Disney, however, is when you’re eating. Other than the delicacies mentioned above, the food at Universal simply isn’t up to snuff.
While eating at Harry Potter locales is fun, the cuisine feels more like mediocre Quick Service despite the fact that it’s priced like Table Service. As for the hamburger fare, let’s just say that Universal took the theme of Krusty Burger a bit too seriously. Most of the food there makes me wonder if it’s FDA-approved.
Thankfully, Universal CityWalk is a step up. As long as you don’t mind leaving the park to eat, you’ll have plenty of good options. While it’s still not upscale fare, established chain restaurants like Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Margaritaville, and Hard Rock Café will keep you from going hungry. You’ll really miss the theming and flavors of places like Be Our Guest, ‘Ohana, and, well, anything at the World Showcase. Universal Resort Orlando has improved dramatically in recent years, but Mythos is the only unique restaurant on property that has decent cuisine. That’s a frustration.
One final note: Disney Vacation Club members who are addicted to Magic Bands will have to alter their behavior. At Universal, guests need to carry their wallet, purse, and/or cellphone to pay for stuff. And that’s annoying. What is this, Universal, 2013?
Disney Vacation Club member David Mumpower first visited Walt Disney World when he was six years old. The little brat promptly threw a tantrum because he couldn't find a comfortable shirt to wear around the park. Fortunately Disney shirts got a lot less itchy over the years. David currently writes for a number of websites including "Theme Park Tourist", "Box Office Prophets" and "How Well Do You Know." He's also the author of the Disney Demystified book series, which you can buy here.
A few random tips:
- if you book one night in a Deluxe hotel, you get 2 whole days of Universal Express Passes for the whole party
- the most popular attractions have single rider lines, if you can, use them, they can save hours in line over the day. Exception: Forbidden Journey and Escape from Gringott have preshows and theming in the queues that are unparallel, they are really worth experiencing if you can
- the express pass cannot be used on the Harry Potter rides or the Minions attraction. While HP rides can be experienced using single rider lines, Miniom Mayem has a long queue all day long. And rope dropping won't help it because with onsite guests the line will already at 30+ minutes by the time gates open to everyone. Another point in favor of staying on site
- I have used my DVC points to stay onsite at Universal: I have rented them and used the money to pay cash for a room!
- the new water park, Volcano Bay, is going to open in a few weeks. Looking at the previews it's going to rock, Universal now say they have 3 theme parks, it may be worth doing 3 days if that turns true!
Universal is themed just not to the extent that Disney does. Although the Harry Potter stuff was excellent. I just wish R.K. Rowling hadn't been so insistent on that the shops would be small. There was just too many people for the size of the shops.
Universal does have a better priced annual passes, but the daily charges are similar to Disney's. They get you with charging for front of the line access.
That said - the Harry Potter areas are amazing, and the Seuss land at IoA is picture-perfect. I wouldn't mind going back at some point.