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:
MVP: Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
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.
Best Bite: Leaky Cauldron or Moe’s Tavern
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
MVP: The Incredible Hulk Coaster
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.
Get Wet: Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls and Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges
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.
Look at the girl giving McKayla the stink eye in the back of the first photo..
I’d be giving her the stink eye, too! 😉
It was sunny and she was squinting…stop making trouble and focus on the great content….thanks to the author for the great tips!
Really glad you did this review. I matches our experience when we visited in November ’14. We, too, could have spend a whole day between the HP parks. And, we thought the Dragon Challenge was even more intense than the Hulk ride.
You didn’t mention the HP wands. I think this was one of them more interesting additions (if you’re an HP fan). They’ve been pretty secretive about the tech, but I believe they are using a modified Xbox Kinect sensor for the enabled wands. It’s an ingenious use for IRL interactive exhibits and provides a extra bit of engagement for those two parks.
You did so much in one day. Did you arrive pretty close to the opening time and leave at closing?
Yeah! LOVE those wands. I wrote about them last year:
And then totally forgot to pack mine this year! #WIZARDFAIL
We arrived pretty close to opening but it started POURING around 4pm—the kind of rain that goes all night—so we waited it out at the bar but everything was closed and we wound up leaving around 8pm.
It rained when we were there too, though we did have three days. And as for the original article your linked above…that trip looked great, and I am particularly envious of your photo with Warwick Davis. 🙂
Well, you’ll be even more jealous to know I peed next to Bellatrix Lestrange then 😉
Do your parents have a RCI or Wyndham timeshare, if so check out last call.
It’s RCI actually, but we don’t wind up using it most years. I’ll definitely look into Last Call. Thanks for the tip!
It’s already been a year since you were at Harry Potter for the new opening? Holy cow, I remember when you posted those pics (on facebook) of your adventure and I was happily following along.
I was at Universal when they just started construction on the Harry Potter park, and then again when it first opened. But I haven’t been since and I reallly want to go back soon, esp after hearing about the new addition. While I love many of the rides at Islands of Adventure side (esp Hulk…eek that was scary fast) I think I prefer the other park with the simulatons/movie sets etc. I reallllllly love the Spiderman ride and the Mummy one, too. Those are def my favourite stops while there, even though they aren’t the hardcore rides.
Love all your pics, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve just encouraged a bunch of first-timers to finally go 😀
Can you believe it? And I, too, remember being there with my family in 2009 when it was just a construction zone and a “coming soon” sign with the Harry logo emblazoned on it!
And YES to Hulk and the Mummy! I do like Spiderman, but again, I take those jerky ones in small doses 😉
I’ve always enjoyed traveling and having experience with different cultures and different people. But it’s also a wonderful thing to be able to benefit and enable research, not only in our country but around the world.
Wow..amazing photos you share with us..thanks a lot..i love that place..one day i will go there.
My wife and I are celebrating our 15 year anniversary. We went to universal and IOA for our honeymoon. We are coming to Orlando the first week of May. Spending one day at Epcot, and we want to spend one day at either universal or island of adventures. Which do you recommend? I am sure much has changed a tech theme park since we have been there in 2001.
Also, do you have a recommendation for a hotel we can spend 3 nights at? We don’t want a value resort, but not the hard rock expensive one either. Can you help?
I really love Cabana Bay or any of the Loews properties. I haven’t been to the Portofino Bay yet, but it’s on my list. And I’m excited for the Sapphire Bay Resort to open this year (but I don’t think it’s until after your visit).
I would pick Islands of Adventure. Universal is fun for Diagon Alley, but I feel like Islands of Adventure has a lot more adult fun (only downside is that you can’t ride the Hogwarts Express unless you have a park-to-park pass). Have a great trip!
Thanks for the suggestions. We are considering Cabana Bay because of your blog post. Portofino Bay is a bit out of our price range. It does look nice though. We are still debating on doing both Universal Parks or just one. We thought if we did one day, then we could have a day to travel around Orlando and see what we could find. If we did that, do you have must see things we should do or see?
Cabana Bay’s price point is definitely right, and as someone who loves retro/vintage, I found the whole theme really fun.
Downtown Orlando is pretty cute, though admittedly I’ve only eaten at a couple restaurants and couldn’t tell you what else to do per se, though I would highly recommend an afternoon in Winter Park: https://www.camelsandchocolate.com/2015/07/disney-orlando-winter-park/
Well…we are HERE! We have a one-day, one-park pass for TOMORROW!! We have a 12yr old, an 8yr old, and a 1yr old. My 12 yr old is a Harry Potter fan, and it’s his bday, so this is a pit stop on the way home…so…which park??? I keep going back and forth!!!
Lucky you! I’d say it depends on what your kids like. They might be more in the Universal age range what with Transformers, the Rock ‘n Roller Coaster, the Mummy, the Minions and Diagon Alley. If it were summer, I’d probably say Islands as Hulk and Kong will both be open then but right now, there might be more appeal for their ages at Universal.
Hello Kristin, my family is coming to Universal for the first time! My wife and I are excited for the kids. But as other’s have questioned. Which theme park would you recommend for a 7 year old(soon to be 8) girl and a 4 year old boy? They both don’t know much about Harry Potter so…And we’re only doing one day one park.
Seems like Seussland and Toon Town in Islands of Adventure might be better suited for them! And the Harry Potter village there is still really fun to wander even if they haven’t read the books or seen the movies (they can do the wand-choosing ceremony, for example, or go on Flight of the Hippogriff!).
Ok, thank you!(It’s a SURPRISE they don’t know we’re taking them there!)
LUCKY kids! Have a blast!
Hi. We’re coming the last week of April with 2 13 year olds and one 12 year old. We were looking at the 2 or 3 day universal park hopper with express passes. Are the express passes worth it? Is there enough to do for 2 or 3 days. We were thinking 3 shorter days instead of one long day.
April is shoulder season in Florida so you won’t be dealing with quite the crowds we were in June. I also think that if you’re doing 2 or 3 days in the parks, you’ll get to see plenty and don’t really need the Express pass. The only reason we did it as my niece only had one day to see both parks, and that can be hard to do. But with multiple days, you should be fine without the Express =)
Hello Kristen, great article. My family is visiting Universal for the first time for 1 day only late July after our cruise and I can’t make up my mind between both parks. My daughters are 15&8 yrs old and don’t follow Harry Potter. As well, is it worth the express pass for a full day at park? TIA.
Hi Denny! My gut would be to go with Islands of Adventure. The 15-year-old (assuming she likes coasters) will love the Hulk, there are several water rides, there’s the brand new Kong experience, and the little one will like Seussland. Both will enjoy the Marvel world, as well as the original Harry Potter theme land even if they aren’t fans. =)
It’s hard to tell about the express pass, as it really depends upon the crowds (we usually go in June, which is the busiest time of the year, in my opinion). If you’re planning to stay from open-ish to closing time (or close), I think you’ll be fine without the express passes. We only did it as we were cramming both parks into one day, and it definitely helped there.
We have a day and a half with a park to park tickets. We are big HP fans, but I am not sure how to split the two days. We have all of Saturday and Sunday until 4. Universal closes at 5 on both days and IOA is open until 8 both days. Recommendations?
Hey Lanie! I was actually just at the park again when your message came in =)
Do you have kids going with you? Since you have a park-to-park, I might suggest going into Islands the second it opens on a Saturday, heading straight back to Hogsmeade, riding the ride then taking the Hogwarts Express to Universal before it gets too crazy. Then, you can spend some time in Diagon Alley, then do a few of the rides over there. The Mummy is my absolute favorite, and the Rip Ride Rocket is great, too. I generally tend to avoid the simulators, so am not a fan of Transformers or the Simpsons Ride but I LOVE going into Springfield anyway for a Flaming Moe at Moe’s and a donut the size of my head =) Minions is really fun, too, if you’re a fan of the movies.
By late afternoon, you can head back over to Islands (or save it for Sunday) and do the Hulk and a few of the other rides, getting dinner at Three Broomsticks or on City Walk. Even though it’s not a Harry Potter-themed restaurant, you absolutely HAVE to eat at Toothsome on City Walk. It just opened and feels like it could be a part of Harry Potter!
Hello Kristin, I am taking my daughters 16 and 13. both love Harry Potter movies and I am wondering if you can tell me what park you would recommend? We are going in Feb and staying for only one day (Saturday) Thanks!
Hi Craig! I think either one of them you pick is going to be a winner; typically Islands of Adventure is more geared toward 12+ years old. That said, I guess it depends on their interests—for example, if they like Transformers or The Simpson, they might enjoy those attractions in Universal. Then again, if they are comic book fans, the Marvel universe is in Islands.
In terms of Harry Potter specifically, you can’t go wrong with Hogsmeade (Islands) OR Diagon Alley (Universal). Bear in mind that you can only take the Hogwarts Express if you buy the one-day park-to-park pass, which is also an option given your budget as then you can tackle both parts at once!
I’m not a huge fan of simulators as they give me motion sickness, so I will tell you my personal favorite attractions at both parks: Wizarding World/Diagon Alley (both parks), the Hulk (Islands), The Mummy (Universal), Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster (Universal), Men in Black (Universal), Dueling Dragons (Islands). Each park has one Harry Potter simulator, but again, I steer clear of those! A few years ago, I probably would have said Islands but with the addition of Diagon Alley, I actually think Universal is my favorite now because I also LOVE the Mummy and the Rip Ride Rockit.
Sorry that’s not overly helpful. One thing you absolutely have to take them to do is eat at The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen on CityWalk! =)
Hi! I am planning a trip to orlando next week and we have a large family 6 children ages 4 (w.special needs) 6, 8, 10, 17 and 20. No HP fans. Coaster lovers. Movie lovers. We are contemplating doing a 1 day 1 park (islands) or a 4 day base. What would you suggest?
Hmm, that’s tricky. Marvel lovers will definitely want to do Islands because the comic book area of the park is awesome, but Universal has more of the traditional “movie experience” as it’s very Hollywood and has that cinematic “downtown.” It’s very split because for coasters, you’ll love the Hulk, Spider-Man, Dueling Dragons and Jurassic Park on the Islands side, but then Universal has Rip Ride Rockit, the Mummy (my favorite of all), Transformers and Escape from Gringotts. Tough call!
Hi Kristin! We are planning on visiting at the end of June with teens from our youth group and we have only one day. We’ve never been to either park so do you recommend doing the park to park pass to get the most bang for our buck? We want to be able to see as much as possible.
Amazing photos! It would be nice to go again in fun park after a week. Noted!
Hi, amazing post. I need help i dont know which park i need to chose, including will go with my parents and my sister, she is 26 yrs old and im 18 yrs old we dont have any preferences but we want really really cool and extreme rollercoasters and also choices of games with my parents which park do u recommend to us? I will go 8 to 13 of august ir will llave u my email bc i need help plss firstname.lastname@example.org
I would say you’d have the most fun at Islands of Adventure, as it has the Hulk, the Spider-Man attraction and all the Harry Potter rides (Dragon Challenge is my favorite and it shuts down soon so go ride it before that happens next month!). Have fun!!
Hey Kristin. I came across your post and you seem to know your stuff, and my internet searches are confusing me even more. A friend and I will be in Orlando 2nd week of January. We are not harry potter fans but we do love roller coasters. I am confused on which park is the actual harry potter world. Would you recommend Universal Studios or Island of Adventure for more roller coasters and less harry potter. Also would you recommend US OR IOS over Magic Kingdom? Have you been to the Land of Avatar in Animal Kingdom? Thanks in advance for your information!
Hey Adam, hope I got this to you in time! Wizarding World of Harry Potter is in both parks: Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure, then Diagon Alley in Universal Studios. To take the Hogwarts Express between both parks, you have to have the park-to-park pass.
I’d say there are equal number of coasters in each: I LOVE the Hulk (favorite coaster ever) in Islands, but Rip Ride Rockit and the Mummy in Universal are also awesome. I would look at the ride lineup and count up how many you want to do in each park and decide that way. Or you could get a one-day park hopper and do them both, which on a weekday in January is feasible. If you like simulators, I’d say go for Universal: then you can do the Gringotts ride in Diagon Alley, the Simpson Ride and Transformers, in addition to the Rocket and the Mummy.
I haven’t done Avatar yet, but am dying to go!
We are looking at spending just one day and are wondering if you think it is more beneficial to buy a park to park and try to do both or buy the express pass and just do one park? We plan on staying a full open to close day but can’t decide between the 2. We haven’t been there in 12 years, Jaws was still there!
Hey Staci! It kind of depends on what you want to do. For example, if you’re big Harry Potter fans, you can only do the Hogwarts Express with the park-to-park pass. And also, when are you going? If during the week in the off-season, I think you’d be fine doing the two-park pass and not the Express. Universal lines usually aren’t anything like Disney’s (which can be three hours!).
Thanks, Kristin. We will be there midweek the first week in March. Good to hear that the lines are not as long as Disney’s as that’s what I was expecting. Which is the reason I thought to do the express pass. But sounds like we may try the park to park and hopefully make most of it in one day.
Hi! I have been studying this thread to help make my decision but I am still so confused! Me and my boyfriend (we are 22) are going to Orlando for 1 day and want to do either parks. For our age what do you recommend? We love rollercosters/simulators and I love Harry Potter. Thanks for this amazing post it’s been so helpful! We are going feb 12! Do you think it will be crowded?
I would *probably* say Universal Studios over Islands of Adventures. While Islands has my favorite ride (the Hulk!), Universal has Rip Ride Rockit and the Mummy, both two awesome coasters, plus so many simulators: the Simpsons, Minions, Jimmy Fallon, Transformers and Gringotts in Diagon Alley. Hope you have fun!!!
Hello! Your site is wonderful for explaining the different parts of the two parks. This will be our first family trip to Universal. We have a son, 17 who does NOT ride coasters and daughter, 14 who of course loves to ride them. I would like to know what you think the best park would be to keep him interested while waiting for us while we are in lines with her 🙂 May be thinking park to park pass? We will be going the week before Thanksgiving. Thank~you!
Hi Kelly! Does he like simulators? If so, Universal would be a good one, as it has the Simpsons, Men in Black, Minions, Jimmy Fallon and Transformers—all of which are simulator rides and no coasters. And then she could do Rip, Ride, Rockit and the Mummy!
If no simulators, then I might recommend park-to-park as then he can take the Hogwarts Express and go back and forth between the two, enjoying the non-ride parts of both parks.