When Universal Studios began developing their first Orlando park, it was originally envisioned along the lines of their Hollywood studio tour, with the majority of the guest experiences occurring during an extensive tram tour of the limited-access backlot, along with a handful of rides and shows in the front of the park. When Disney aped that exact game-plan for WDW's Hollywood Studios park (which opened in 1989 as the Disney/MGM Studios), Universal did a dramatic 180 with their designs, breaking out the tram tour's iconic encounters – King Kong, Earthquake, Jaws – into their own headliner attractions, each of which easily exceeded their Disney contemporaries in technology and thrill (if not reliability) upon Universal Studios Florida's (USF) 1990 debut.
Despite that difference, during their first decade the competing parks were roughly equivalent in many guests' minds. Both parks offered movie- and television-themed rides and shows, while other attractions provided an educational, behind-the-scenes introduction to the cinematic arts. And both had working film- and television-production facilities.
Since the turn of the millennium, the two parks have gone in different directions. Whereas Disney’s Hollywood Studios essentially abandoned its production facilities long ago, at Universal there is test-marketing of television pilots to guests, along with a limited actual filming, some of which visitors can attend. More importantly, Universal has updated, upgraded, or entirely replaced nearly every attraction that opened in the 1990s, replacing Kong with the Mummy, Back to the Future with The Simpsons, and Jaws with Harry Potter's Diagon Alley. With each renovation came groundbreaking advancements in ride hardware and special effects. In contrast, only one truly innovative attraction has opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in the past decade: 2008’s Toy Story Midway Mania! While work is now underway to revitalize DHS, at the moment it only offers five real rides, versus USF's ten major moving attractions.
Universal Studios Florida's constant evolution is thrilling, but it can be disconcerting. If the last time you visited Universal was in the early 2000s, you literally won't recognize the majority of the park. USF celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2015, but there is precious little early history left intact within the park itself for long-time visitors who loved opening-day attractions like Alfred Hitchcock, Hanna-Barbera, and Ghostbusters. Even so, there's no signs that Comcast is slowing down in their extreme makeover of USF: look for the KidZone and San Francisco areas to receive major makeovers in the coming years.
How Much Time to Allocate
It takes 10 to 12 hours to tour Universal Studios, including a break for lunch. Your early morning hours will be spent on rides; most of Universal's stage shows don't usually start running until an hour or two after the park opens, and play to partially-filled theaters until early afternoon.
USF is laid out in a P-configuration, with the rounded part of the P sticking out disproportionately from the stem. Beyond the main entrance plaza (known as the Front Lot), a wide boulevard stretches past several shows and rides to the park’s New York area. Branching off this pedestrian thoroughfare to the right are four streets that access other areas of the park and intersect a promenade circling a large oval man-made lake, where the majority of the shows and attractions are located. The area of USF open to visitors is a bit smaller than Epcot.
Beginning at the park entrance and going clockwise, the first area you'll encounter is Production Central, which includes the Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, Rip Ride Rockit, Transformers The Ride-3D, and Shrek 4-D attractions. At the top of the P is the New York area, including Twister and Revenge of the Mummy. Next is San Francisco, with Beetlejuice's Graveyard Revue and Disaster!; The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley, with Hogwarts Express - King's Cross Station and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ; World Expo, with MEN IN BLACK Alien Attack and The Simpsons Ride; and Woody Woodpecker's KidZone, containing E.T Adventure, two stage shows, a small roller coaster and several play areas. The last themed area, back near the front of the park, is Hollywood, featuring Universal Orlando's Horror Make Up Show, Terminator 2: 3-D, and Lucy-A Tribute.
In most of USF, the line where one themed area begins and another ends is blurry, since much of the architecture consists of boring box-like soundstages barely concealed behind false fronts. No matter; guests orient themselves by the major rides, sets, and landmarks and refer, for instance, to “the waterfront,” “over by E.T.,” or “by Mel’s Diner.” In diametric contrast, the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter -Diagon Alley (and, to a much lesser extent, the Springfield U.S.A. area around The Simpsons Ride) is an immersive themed area whose scope and scale exceed those of any current Walt Disney World land.
Where to Find Strollers, Wheelchairs, Lockers, Etc.
Almost all guest services are found in the Front Lot, just inside the main entrance. Services and amenities include stroller and wheelchair rentails to the left as you enter; and lockers, lost and found, and first aid to the right. You'll also find the Studio Audience Center, where you can sign up to be an audience member at any live television productions that may be recording that day. Past series taped at USF have included game shows, talk shows, cooking shows, Telemundo's La Voz Kids, and TNA's IMPACT Wresting. Call 407-363-8400 and select option 5 to find out what's scheduled during your visit.
- See more wheelchair information on our special needs page.
- See more locker information on our lockers page.
- See more stroller information on our kids page.
Universal Studios Florida "Secret Entrance"
There is actually a "secret" secondary entrance to USF tucked under the Rip Ride Rockit track, between Despicable Me and the Universal Studios Store. It doesn't open until late morning (usually around 10:30 a.m.), but it can save you a few minutes entering on a busy afternoon; follow the signs from CityWalk for the Blue Man Group theater to find it. It also makes an excellent egress when you want exit towards Islands of Adventure.
Child Swap at Universal is similar to Disney's version. The entire family tells the attendant as they enter queue that they wish to switch off and goes through the whole line together before being split into riding and nonriding groups near the loading platform. The nonriding parent and child(ren) wait in a designated room, usually with some sort of entertainment (for example, Forbidden Journey at IOA shows the first 20 minutes of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone on a loop), a place to sit down, and sometimes restrooms with changing tables. At any theme park, the best tip we can give is to ask the greeter in front of the attraction what you're supposed to do.
Live Entertainment At Universal Studios Florida
In addition to the shows profiled, USF offers two major daily outdoor entertainments, along a wide range of smaller street performances.
Costumed comic book and cartoon characters (Shrek and Donkey, SpongeBob SquarePants, Transformers) pose with guests at organized meet-and-greets that are marked on the park maps. Others, like Woody Woodpecker, along with look-alikes of movie stars, both living and deceased, roam the Hollywood and Front Lot areas for photo ops. See our Universal with Kids page for more character information.
The Studio Brass Band performs familiar TV and movie theme songs in a funky, high energy style. You'll see them in the morning as you enter, set up on the corner near Lucy – A Tribute. Show times are listed in the map, and usually end by early afternoon. The band may take 5 during slow seasons.
During peak seasons, you may find breakdancers demonstrating their skills in Hollywood or New York, a corps of trashcan-beating drummers near KidZone, or a troupe of gymnasts in a random spot; it's impossible to say what kind of acts Universal will pull out when the parks get packed.
Last updated by Seth Kubersky on January 28, 2015