It had only been a year since I was last at Universal Studios Orlando for the opening of Diagon Alley, but this time was an entirely different type of experience: 1) We were covering both parks in one day and 2) we had my seven-year-old cousin McKayla in tow.
What also made this time different was SVV was with me, and while high-speed roller coasters we love, neither one of us is so keen on a lot of simulators—and Universal is full of them. So we had to be strategic in our planning to hit up all the things we wanted to do while being mindful of the peak times of day when everything was going to be super crowded and also keeping in mind we had a seven year old with us who wouldn’t be able to go on certain attractions (though she’s tall for her age, so for most things, she could).
The best thing about the Universal parks is that if you have the park hopper, you can walk back and forth between the two as they’re directly connected—or take the Hogwarts Express. At Disney? It’s not so easy. You spend a lot of time driving or sitting on a bus or monorail.
Truth be told, for adults going to Orlando, I would rank the duo of Universal parks over Disney World; there are just so many more fun things to do at Universal Orlando and Islands of Adventures.
Shop My Park Style
Here’s how they stack up:
This new 4-D attraction is definitely one of Universal’s most innovative yet (and that’s saying a lot as Universal does some pretty bad ass things!). You’ll follow those crazy Hogwarts kids through the vaults of the goblin bank via coaster/simulator—and watch out for Bellatrix and Voldemort as you go.
Runner-Up: Revenge of the Mummy
I have always loved this ride. It’s dark, it’s air-conditioned, it’s a bit scary, it’s unexpectedly exciting. It’s one of the few rides I trend to ride multiples times on any visit to the parks.
Best Thrill: Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
Y’all. This ride is so fun, I can’t even. You choose your own soundtrack and then you’re propelled into the sky, with lots of dips and turns. It seems longer than most coasters these days, which I doubly appreciated. Definitely not for the faint of heart (or those with neck or back problems).
Fun for the Whole Family: The Simpsons Ride
Everything from the safety video to the ads running in the often long line for this 3-D simulator are absolutely hilarious. I was never even a huge Simpsons fan but I absolutely love this virtual trip through Springfield. (Note: If you’re prone to motion sickness, definitely pop a Bonine before this ride!)
Skip It: Twister
We probably had to wait for this one longer than the rest, and it was not worth it at all. Maybe it was super cool back in the 90’s when it debuted, but the special effects are so outdated and—sorry, Bill Paxton—the whole experience is more than a little lame. Save your time for the other awesome rides in this park and don’t wast an hour here.
Don’t Miss: Hogwarts Express
You can take the train from one part of Wizarding World of Harry Potter—not, you can only ride if you have a park hopper—each way with different scenery, but if you leave from King’s Cross on the London side (i.e. in Universal Studios) to take it to Hogsmeade (i.e. Islands of Adventure), you’ll get to pass through Platform 9 3/4 just like Harry, Hermione and the whole gang did.
Kids Will Love It: Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
I love me some Minions as much as the next person, and even though I did the Minion Experience last year, I took McKayla on it and we giggled our way through the simulator together.
Ride at Your Own Risk: Transformers
We actually didn’t ride this one this time around, mainly because SVV’s neck can’t take too many simulators and this one is particularly jerky. If you have a bad back, neck, get regular headaches or are prone to motion sickness like me, I suggest taking a pass on Transformers.
Spend Hours Here: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley
From sticky toffee ice cream at Florean Florescue’s Ice Cream Parlour to Dark Magic in Horizont Alley, diehard HP enthusiasts will want the better part of day just to explore this new section of the park.
Admittedly, we didn’t try a lot of different food on this visit; however, I’m a sucker for a theme and I happen to love the British pub fare at Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley and can’t get enough of Homer Simpson’s favorites over in Springfield.
Oldies but Goodies: E.T. Adventure
Sadly, ET was shut down while we were there, but for fans of classic films, this is always going to be a must.
Islands of Adventure
SVV describes this roller coaster—one of our favorites of all time, it should be noted—as so fast and fun, “your face melts off.”
Best Fangirl Experience: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
If you’ve ever wanted to ride a broomstick just like Harry, here’s your chance. Warning: This ride will throw you all over the place (and you’ll laugh through every second of it, too).
Skip It: Poseidon’s Fury
We didn’t do this one this time; however, we watched the show with my family in the past and it’s definitely one of those experiences I could have done without. More Harry, less Poseidon, please!
Fun for the Whole Family: Jurassic Park River Adventure
Due to the rain, we missed out on Jurassic Park this go, but I’ve always enjoyed it on past park visits—particularly the 85-foot plunge at the end.
Both of these rides—the first a flume-style ride, while the other is in a large circular raft—can leave you sopping wet, but they can also be a great way to escape the summer heat, albeit temporarily.
Spend Hours Here: Hogsmeade
If I, being a non-child-wielding thirtysomething, were to have to pick just one park for the day, I think I’d actually go with the original Universal park, especially in light of Diagon Alley opening. However, the original Hogsmeade still holds so much magic for me, and I could easily spend hours here, checking out every intricate detail and drinking my weight in butterbeer. The rides are worth the wait, though if the line at Ollivanders is super long, I’d suggest skipping it—it’s a fun thing to do if you can get in and out; otherwise, I say move on (or try your luck at the wand shop in Diagon Alley instead).
Biggest Thrill: Dragon Challenge
This upside-down, topsy-turvy roller coaster in Wizarding World should be your first ride first thing in the day. Best to kick things off with one of the best rides at the parks, I always say! (Not to mention, you’ll avoid long waits; we did this one twice in a row and walked right on both times.)
Best Bite: Three Broomsticks
Turkey legs and shepherd’s pie? Yes, please. And butterbeer, all the butterbeer. There’s also the CityWalk is at the entrance of the two parks, so you can eat at any of the restaurants, from Vivo Italian Kitchen to Antojitos, even if you don’t go in the parks period.
For the Little Ones: Suessland
Every time I’m walking through this multicolored dream world en route to Harry Potter, I feel the need to stop for a photo or three. It’s just so dang magical—even for big kids like me.
What It Costs
- $147 for a one-day park-to-park adult pass or $102 for a one-park pass
- $36 for lunch for two
- $17 for general parking or $22 for preferred parking
- $60 for two-park / $50 for one-park Express Pass (note: this is on top of admission)
As far as parks go, we spent more at Universal than the others on food and drinks. And unlike the Disney parks, the only way to get fast tracked to the front of the line is to buy an Express Pass. And while SVV and I did receive comped Express Passes, my cousin said he actually thinks you get more bang for your buck doing the one-day park hopper with Express pass rather than paying to come two days in a row, as we definitely just walked onto most rides and rode several twice. (Note: The Express Pass does not work for several of the Harry Potter attractions.)
I also like that most of the Universal rides have free lockers at the entrance, so we didn’t spend any money storing our things each time we went on a coaster.
Where to Stay
This year we stayed at my parents’ condo out in Lake Buena Vista, a place I would not recommend to anyone; however, last year I holed up in the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, the budget-friendly, retro-themed mega hotel (rooms start at $139). With 1,800 rooms and a number of different wings, the nod to the golden era of the ‘50s and ‘60s was totally up my alley with its brightly colored corridors and uber fun kitsch.
Plus, I missed the convenience of being right at the park entrance this time, because multiple pools, a 10-lane Galaxy Bowl, shop, cafe and game room aside, Cabana Bay guests also enjoy free shuttle service to the park gates—as well as early admission to Wizarding World before it opens to the masses.
Next time I’m back not taking advantage of a free place to stay via a timeshare my parents purchased 30 years ago, you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be camped out poolside at Cabana Beach Resort.