The Universal Orlando Resort in Orlando, Florida includes two theme parks (Universal
Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure), three hotels, and a dining and shopping area known as Universal City Walk. As you probably already know, the resort is themed after the entertainment industry, specifically movies and television. In planning our vacation, I learned that while it's easy to find tips about Walt Disney World amusement parks, it's much harder to find reviews and tips about Universal Studios Florida and the adjacent Islands of Adventure. This article presents helpful tips and comments based on a visit on two Sundays in late-May 2012, with a strong focus on the theme-park rides.
- When to Go. As with all theme parks, the main tip for avoiding the long lines is to visit during the off-season, like when school is in session. If that is not possible, get to the parks prior to opening so that you can get on your favorite rides as soon as possible.
- Crowd Calendar. Using a crowd calendar can also help if you are thinking about when to visit the amusement parks. When we were planning our visit, the calendar at the Undercover Tourist site (www.undercovertourist.com) was the only crowd calendar we could find. The calendar listed special events that would make the parks extra busy, so we stayed away on those days. We planned our touring dates around visits to the nearby Walt Disney World, so it helped that Undercover Tourist also gave crowd calendar recommendations for the Disney Parks.
- Tickets. You can buy tickets directly from the Universal Orlando Resort's website. However, we found it best to compare prices at different ticket sites. For us, the best discount ticket prices for Universal Studios and Universal's Islands of Adventure at undercovertourist.com. Order your theme park tickets at least several weeks in advance, and enjoy free shipping, too.
- Park-to-Park Option. Universal Studios Florida and the Islands of Adventure are within walking distance to each other, so the Park-to-Park option is highly recommended, even if you are visiting on multiple days.
- Parking. You'll park in a multi-level parking structure, which is near to the park entrances (you will not need to take a tram like at the Walt Disney World parks). The shaded parking will help to keep your car cool. We packed a cooler with lunch and drinks to save money and enjoy a bit of downtime. We returned to the car for a peaceful lunch.
- Express Plus Pass. Another optional add-on to the base ticket is Universal's Express Plus Pass (not necessary during our visit). This allows park guests to use a separate (shorter) line for the popular attractions. Only a limited number of passes are available each day and the price varies according to the demand on a given day. You can expect that during times of peak attendance that the Express Plus Pass will be sold out or unavailable.
Universal's Express Plus Pass is not needed if you stay at one of Universal's resort hotels (the Hard Rock Hotel, the Portofino Bay Hotel, or the Royal Pacific Resort) or if you have an annual pass.
- What to Wear. Orlando is hot during the summer months, and many of the tips for dealing with the heat at Walt Disney Word (see my tips in this article) similarly apply. To stay cool and comfortable, opt for moisture-wicking clothing -- especially shorts, shirts, and socks.
- Shelter from the Rain. Afternoon thunderstorms are typical, so duck into one of the many shows within the parks. To stay dry at Universal Studios Orlando, we saw Disaster!: A Major Motion Picture Ride (I wouldn't take young children in this one), Twister ... Ride It Out (also not for young kids), and Shrek 4-D (a dark movie, but great for kids who are familiar with the Shrek films).
- Movies. You can also beat the heat (or the rain) by seeing a movie at the theaters at Universal's City Walk, which you'll pass on the way from the parking structure to the park entrances. There is a separate admission fee to see the show.
Comments about Our Favorite Rides
Here are four not-to-be-missed attractions Universal Studios Orlando and Universal's Islands of Adventure. [You'll note that shows are glaringly absent from this article. This is because I traveled with family members who preferred riding and walking around to watching shows.]
Universal Studios Orlando
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. Not sure if it was the music, but I found this to be a very smooth roller coaster, much more so than the Incredible Hulk coaster. Choose a music genre (classic rock, country, rap and hip hop, pop and disco, etc.) and artist/song on the touch screen of the restraint that crosses your body to hold you in your seat. Because you have your own speakers, you'll rock out to your own song choice during the duration of the roller coaster ride. If you don’t make a selection, the music will be selected for you. The roller coaster tracks span a good portion of the park (3,800 feet), and the first thing you do is go up a vertical track (167 feet, which is 13-16 stories tall, depending on how you do the math). Fun!
Watch it here:
Universal's Island of Adventure
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is an imaginative dark ride through various scenes from Harry Potter books and movies. If you get sick on motion simulator rides, you will get sick on this one. But, if you are a Harry Potter aficionado, it might be worth taking the motion sickness meds and toughing it out. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is a "robocoaster" (Wikipedia) where seats, held by a robotic arm, pivot above a track. You'll wear a shoulder harness but won't go upside down. Expect long lines even if you see it first thing in the morning, and note that you cannot use the Express Pass for this ride.
The Dragon Challenge is located in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter area of the amusement park. The attraction comprises two separate but intertwined coasters tracks. The blue one has more loops; the red one is longer and a bit faster. You choose which one to ride when you near the loading platforms. Your feet will dangle, so you'll need to place loose footwear behind or under you. These coasters go upside down. The ride loads quickly so the wait is minimal -- perhaps 15 minutes at most when we were there.
The Amazing Adventure of Spiderman is located in the Marvel Super Hero Island area. I was not sure what to expect with this ride but was very pleasantly surprised. This one was well worth the wait. The posted wait time was 40 minutes but we got in just 30. The car holds 16 people -- 4 rows of 4, if I remember correctly, with a 3-D movie. You travel around a track and you feel like you are going through a comic strip set in New York City. Effects were spectacular, making this my favorite ride. The ride also uses water and fire to great effect.
Lockers in the Universal Studio Theme Parks
When you visit either Universal Studios Orlando or Universal's Islands of Adventure, travel as lightly as possible. Or, leave your things with a non-rider. Otherwise, you'll have to place your bag in a locker on most rides.
Lockers in the theme parks use an electronic system that scans your fingerprint for both assigning you a locker and having you retrieve your things. Lockers are free for the duration of the ride, including whatever wait time you are expected to experience. You can opt to pay for a longer time period if you want.
There are sometimes bottlenecks in the locker areas with people trying to place items in a locker and people retrieving their items after a ride. The fingerprint scanning system itself is simple, but during peak times, you may have to wait a few minutes to get to the scanner near your lockers. There is one scanner for a group of about 20-30 lockers.
By contrast, at the Walt Disney World Resort, the rougher rides allow you to place your bag on the floor in front of you. Lockers are not needed.
With its two theme parks (Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure), the Universal Orlando Resort offers a lot of things to see and do. If you like to ride, there are thrilling rides that you'll want to go on again and again, remembering them long after you've left the park.