I admit, as a Disney loyalist, when the thought of going to Universal Orlando came up in my household two years ago, I tried to quash it. My son was reading all the Harry Potter books, and the thought of attending Hogwarts or having a butterbeer was foremost in his mind. After putting it off and procrastinating for most of the last two years, we finally agreed that we would go check out that other park in Orlando. As of a couple of weeks ago, I have now strayed off Disney property in central Florida.
So what was Universal like? Was Harry Potter really everything I had heard about? Do they have real rides there, or is it just a facade to lure in the tourists and all the good stuff is at Disney? Keep reading and I’ll let you know.
The Layout: Universal is definitely easier to navigate than the 43 square miles of Walt Disney World. There is one central parking garage, with moving sidewalks and escalators to connect you to the entire Universal complex. Bag check takes place before the last moving sidewalk, which enters into CityWalk, the dining and shopping complex. CityWalk is a third-party version of what Pleasure Island used to be, which is a collection of restaurants, nightclubs and shops. Instead of themed Disney shops, CityWalk features Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, for example.
Once you get through CityWalk, you can go left to Islands of Adventure or right to Universal Studios. It makes visiting the parks very easy, provided you can afford the $15 parking fee. The good news is that the parking fee is only paid once per day, so you can come and go as needed. We found visiting the parks to be an easy proposition, because we could arrive early with no problems and get to the park we needed to without trouble.
The Attractions: Universal contains some world class attractions, easily on the level with Disney’s best. I know it’s hard to admit for us Disney nerds, but the Universal team can craft experiences that are on par with anything Disney’s ever created. Attractions like the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Jurassic Park River Adventure, or Men In Black: Alien Attack are just as good as the best E Ticket attractions at Walt Disney World.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is spectacular. The visual effects are amazing, the theme is great, the queue itself is an attraction, and the technology is entirely unique. The same goes for Spider-Man. Some of the other attractions are not quite as unique, but they still utilize it in interesting ways.
Where Universal falls short is in some of the lower end attractions, as in there aren’t any. Everything in the Universal Studios and Islands of Adventures park is mostly designed to be a top of the line attraction. Things like the Mad Tea Party or Peter Pan’s Flight are mostly missing from these parks. The closest things to “smaller” rides are located in the “kiddie” section of each park, such as the Cat in the Hat ride on Seuss Island in Islands of Adventure or the Woody Woodpecker coaster in the cartoon section of Universal Studios.
The Shows: Universal has a slim variety of shows in their parks. The Eighth Voyage of Sindbad stunt show in Islands of Adventure is really the only show available there, while the Studios park has a few musical revues, such as the Blues Brothers and Beetlejuice shows. The musical shows were quite good, although both have outdoor seating and can get a little uncomfortable in the Florida heat. Plus, they reference characters that neither of my kids knew very well. The stunt show was just not good.
The two headliners in entertainment were the new Universal Superstar Parade and Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular at the Studios park. The parade we saw and were quite underwhelmed. It features Spongebob, the Despicable Me characters, Dora the Explorer, and the characters from Hop. If that sounds like a mish mash of characters, that’s exactly how it plays to the audience. We were not able to see the Cinematic Spectacular show, which features movie scenes and water features on the central lagoon at the Studios. That we’ll have to check out in a future trip.
The Food: While Disney has some of the more memorable food items in theme park lore on their menus (Dole Whip, anyone?), Universal can compete when it comes to the counter service eateries we tried. Having pizza in Universal did not mean holding your nose, as it was quite passable. Disney’s pizza is rather inedible, at least in my experiences. The burgers at Universal were just as good as those at Disney, including the toppings bar that was included at most locations.
Our best meal, though, was at the Three Broomsticks in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where we were able to have salad, shepherd’s pie, pastries, and more with the themed food like butterbeer or pumpkin juice inside a themed restaurant. It was quite the experience and the best meal we ate at Universal. Plus, if you don’t care for the theme park food, the parks themselves are right next to CityWalk, where you can get a wide array of food.
The Theme: This is where Universal makes some major strides over other theme parks. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is completely immersive. You feel as though you’ve stepped into the film, because everything from the signage to the angles of the buildings puts you right in the world of the Harry Potter films. The same goes for Jurassic Park in Islands of Adventure, or the Seuss Landing section.
Where it falls apart is when you visit some of the Studios attractions. Everything is built around the theme of being a working studio, so almost all the attractions are presented in generic show buildings that are themed to being movie sets. There are some attempts to dress them up, such as the Library set outside Revenge of the Mummy, but many are presented simply as movie sets. Regardless, once inside, the queues are completely stunning, paying homage to the movies or ideas the rides represent. If you are used to Disney’s queues, you will notice the attention to detail.
Touring: If you’re a reader of this site, you know the importance of a touring plan, and that’s definitely true at the Universal parks. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World contains touring plans for Universal, and we followed them. Let me tell you that was a huge success. At Islands of Adventure, we rode every ride in the park we wanted to, had lunch and two snacks, and were out the door at 3 p.m. We managed to come back later that night and ride four of our favorites again!
At Universal Studios, we entered the park at opening at 9 a.m. and were able to ride all the rides we were interested in seeing, as well as see a couple of shows by the time we left, again at 3 p.m. This wasn’t a slow weekend, either. While the rain we experienced kept some people away, the lines for major attractions got up to 60 minutes in the Studios and 120 minutes in Islands of Adventure. The touring plans worked like a charm.
Family Touring: Here was our biggest problem at Universal. Our five-year-old daughter is easily scared to say the least. While she’s been to Disney many times and enjoys 90% of the attractions there, Universal was a pretty terrifying experience. Almost every attraction at the two parks, even “calmer” rides like Shrek 4D or The Simpsons Ride had some sort of monster or creature attacking you during the ride. This made it very difficult to convince her to go on some of the bigger attractions. While we ended up getting her on the rides, she lived in fear of more scares to come. She ultimately had a good time, but it was hard on all of us waiting for the next scare.
Where Universal excels is in the child swap area. On rides where child swap is available, which is all the big ones, your child can wait with you in the line, and then at the end, a separate room is set aside for child swap. Older kids and parents go on the ride, while the younger kid waits with the other parent in the room. When the ride is finished, the older kid and parent comes back to the room, and the other parent can ride without having to wait in line again. This was a fantastic system. It meant my son got four rides on Forbidden Journey!
Overall, I would say Universal is a worthy addition to an Orlando trip, but the added expense of tickets, parking, and other items versus staying at Walt Disney World could easily keep travelers in the Disney bubble. For me, Universal is worth a separate trip, since I don’t live that far away and can drive. If you’re making a side trip from an already planned Disney trip, it’s worth the admission, provided you can afford it.
What about you? Any of you been and what did you think? Or do you have any further questions about Universal?