Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Orlando – The Walt Disney World Veteran’s Perspective

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The lure of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter got us to go.

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.

Storm Force was one of the few B or C ticket attractions.

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 entrance to Jurassic Park at Islands of Adventure is perfect

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.

Getting there early helped us avoid the crowds.

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.

Snow capped English buildings or sunny Florida? Wizarding World of Harry Potter makes you wonder.

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?

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41 thoughts on “Universal Orlando – The Walt Disney World Veteran’s Perspective

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  • I agree if you have a 5 year old Disney might be the best option. If you are an adult or old enough not to be scared by rides I would prefer Universal’s parks to anything, ANYTHING, Disney has to offer. It had been 10 years since I had been to the Disney parks and we went back and I was shocked how bad they were. Epcot? Hollywood? Disney World? Yes pirates is good for memory lane but is horribly dated. Yo ho? I am going back to Orlando in June and we are bringing my nephew and we are skipping all of the Disney parks except a water park and maybe Animal Kingdom. I don’t understand why Disney isn’t investing in their parks. Universal will make them.

  • I’m a big Harry Potter fan and visited Universal for the first time when that park opened. While I liked the park, I was less that impressed with the customer service of Universal as compared to Disney. I really feel like Disney employees go out of their way to make you feel special when visited their parks. Universal, not so much. Disney is also better at offering indoor attractions to stave off heat exhaustion. Cause let me tell you waiting 2.5 hours in the sun to go through Ollivander’s about did my in!

  • the reason the Harry Potter area is so good is because they hired Disney Imagineers to work with them…

  • I understand the need for the Touring Plans at WDW.

    What confuses me is whether we need to do a plan when we’re staying on property to get the unlimited pass.


    • the benefit of staying on site is amazing my favorite is royal pacific. 1 night stay give you unlimited front of the line access for two days. If you’re going in the summer I recommend go to the park early morning , return to the hotel for some fun in the pool (also you can pool hop we love hard rock hotel pool with live band music) and then go back at night to the park.

  • As a local who has season passes to both Universal and Disney, I don’t think that many of the assessments of Universal have been fair. Some are criticizing Universal for its lack of theming, I also find Hollywood Studios to have that same issue.

    Universal’s rides are outstanding! Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is easily one of the best rides out there, followed closely by Spiderman and you get them both in one park! Look at ay ranking of park rides/attractions and these two are always near the top. The Mummy is also an extraordinary ride!

    It is true that there isn’t as much to do here for the preschoolers as there is at MK but then there isn’t a whole lot of rides for them outside MK at Disney, if you think about it. My 5 year old daughter loves Universal! She is 46″ and really enjoys it.

    I say give Universal a try! Stop comparing it to Disney because it isn’t Disney! In some ways its better and in others not so much.

    • Also to add to my post, I have found the workers at US to be incredibly nice and accomodating!

  • I do enjoy Universal and IoA and have made several visits there. As someone planning the first visit there with children, I’m a bit nervous about the rider swap system there. I’d much rather wait outside in the shade or AC with a toddler and a baby in a stroller than have to keep them entertained in the line.

    • Universal child swaps have comfortable rooms with air conditioning and they show cartoons that correspond to the ride being missed. The child is not missing entertainment and everyone gets a comfortable rest. And the resting adult gets to ride immediately after. Universal is better than Disney here. Our three year old enjoyed Spiderman without the 3d glasses so it wasn’t so intense. But with him, Terminators was way scary. I should have taken him to Woody Woodpecker area instead. It is excellent.

  • My other half and I are huge Disney fans, but living in California usually hit Anaheim. I’ve long been curious about Islands of Adventure so on our last visit to Florida to see family we snuck away for a day to go. I was unsure what to expect, but have to say I was very pleasantly surprised.

    The pros:
    *Fantastic Theming–Wizarding World is the standout, but it is hardly alone. Overall the entire park is very well themed, in particular Port of Entry, Lost Continent, Jurassic Park, Dr. Seuss, and Wizarding World sections. I will agree with a previous poster that the “cutouts” approach to Marvel Super Hero Island and Toon Lagoon were a little less appealing to me, but still well done.
    *Attractions–Yes Forbidden Journey (Harry Potter) and Spider-Man are great, but so are many others. The Popeye and Bluto raft ride is better than any Disney raft ride, the Cat in the Hat dark ride is great (it spins!), and I think the Poseidon and Sinbad shows are really fun (and I would argue the Sinbad stunt show is cheesy, but far, far, far more entertaining then the Indiana Jones stunt show).
    * Souveniers–OK, the overall park souveniers are no better than Disney, but the Harry Potter ones are incredible. Interesting, unique items.
    * Food–Depending on the location or item, it’s either comparable or better than Disney (the Butter Beer *is* delicious).

    *Upkeep–upkeep is a shade lower than Disney–a lot of the Dr. Seuss land really needed repainting given the bright colors which fade in the Florida sun.

    I would argue that Islands of Adventure is *easily* at the overall same level of quality as the Disney parks. I haven’t been to the Universal Studios Orlando park yet, but from what I have seen I’d say it’s about equivalent to Hollywood Studios (which I find to be the least interesting of all Disney parks). It is definitely worth a visit.

  • For me and my fiance going to Islands of Adventure was a no brainer. We got there early and did everything in the park at least once by early dinner. This park is not to be missed for people without children. We did not go to the studios.

    Wizarding World was fantastic and produced lots of giddy moments.

    We also took to heart the “Islands of Drowning” advice and showed up expecting to get wet. The water rides are great and it’s a shame if you miss them because of your attire.

    The Unofficial Guides podcast has walkthroughs of IoA and US: http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/unofficial-guides-disney-dish/id452620851

    Funnily enough the guys get turned around and a little lost in places where I also got stuck.

  • Wife and I went to Universal/IOA in 2002. We were not impressed. I’m a big guy and I found that I could not ride half of the rides at IOA. At that time dueling dragons required a chest measurement of 55 inches or less to ride. I know I am over weight, but even if I was at my ideal weight my chest would never be less than 55 in. We also found the atmosphere to be very unappealing. In general, we found the employees to be less friendly or at least very indifferent to your presence. One thing that really left a bad taste in my mouth was the morning we went to IOA. We were there at rope drop and were headed straight to Spider-Man. We entered the queue in an orderly fashion with the majority of the guests. As we approached the ride loading area several teenagers came bounding over the queue bars and proceeded to cut in front of us and the 30 other people behind us. We complained to the ride attendant as they loaded them into the ride vehicle right in front of us. Ride attendant’s response was, and I quote, “Why do you care? You are on next.” We were stunned. We complained to to customer service and they gave us the same “I don’t care” attitude. If they don’t care about people cutting the line then why have a queue to begin with. Off my soap box. We may go back sometime but it probably won’t be soon.

  • Last trip we did 5 nights at Disney and 3 at Universal. I did enjoy the layout of Universal and being able to walk to the parks or take the boat. We had breakfast with the Grinch (it was Christmas time) and the character interaction was fantastic- but could be scary for small children and the food was just ok. I loved the theming in HP and Seuss land.

    The rides were all enjoyable, but even with unlimited fastpass we still waited in more lines (for lockers) than we ever do at Disney. The Rip Ride Rocket coaster broke again and again and again- a posted wait of 10 minutes turned into an hour. I also can’t see 3D and it seemed all the rides at Universal now have 3D, so I lost a lot of the experience. The shows were absolutely awful- like we walked out of the ones we could.

    The worst parts by far was the service and the attention to detail. The employees were rude at both the parks and the Royal Pacific hotel. In the parks, there were many items ‘unfinished’- for example you had to walk past a dumpster to get into the special Christmas Grinch show- A DUMPSTER!

    Universal is a good theme park, but Disney is magical.

    • “Universal is a good theme park, but Disney is magical”

      That pretty much sums it all up 🙂

  • I love thrill rides, and I’d say that Universal has a clear advantage in this area. Add Universal Express and, if what you want is thrill rides all day, Universal is the best option.

    Still, everything else is done better at WDW. And while I prefer the rides at Universal, I’d still choose Disney if I could visit only one of the resorts.

    Loved the blog post. You should do one about Sea World.

  • We went to Universal, primarily to check out the Harry Potter world, in December of last year. While we (myself, husband, child 6 yrs old, grandparents), had a good time, I have to say that we would, and have continued to, visit Disney over Universal. Once was enough. Harry Potter was awesome, and the themeing was great. However, overall, I thought the park was scruffy, the food places were overall dirty and ill-maintained, and the park employees were surly and also appeared in need of a good maintenance period (or better hygiene!). Disney was just a better experience overall. The employees were way more on the ball, and the park and eateries seem to be much better maintained.

  • We are Disney regulars who went to Universal the first time this year. We were waiting for our youngest to be tall enough for most of the rides and even at 8 some of the attractions were just too intense for her. She is a kid who rides Tower of Terror over and over again but she had to leave the line at Twister because she was scared. Overall we enjoyed our visit but I can’t see us going every year the way we do to Disney.

    I have to agree with all the reviews of the Three Broomsticks. We got the family platter and it was one of the best meals we had! The biggest disapointment was Mythos. Our food was just sub par and it was overpriced for the quality. We don’t mind shelling out money for a well prepared meal and accept that theme park prices are going to be higher but this was not worth the price or the wait. The steak was dry and overcooked, everything was oversalted, and the pad thai was over spiced.

    I have to give Universal high marks for their water rides! The Dudley Do Right Ripsaw Falls was a barrel of laughs and the Popeye ride was one of the best I had ever been on of it’s kind. I tend to like to stay dry but they were worth getting soaked for!

    An overlooked attraction is Posidens Fury at Islands of Adventure. Yes some of the acting is a bit cheesy and you do feel like you are standing in an 80’s adventure cartoon but that was what I loved about it. There were enough special effect surprises to keep my mouth open in each room.

    We will be back in a few years but I’m really looking forward to our next Disney vacation!

  • We are also Disney geeks who have never ventured off property…until this year. Also to satisfy my daughters obsession with Harry Potter. So in a little over 3 weeks from now, at the end of our Disney stay (almost, we always hit MK our last night) we are visiting that other park. I’m looking a little forward to it and also feel a little guilty at the same time.

  • We just got back from a week-long “No Disney Trip”: Orlando FlexTickets, visiting Sea World, Aquatica, IOA, and USO. We had also planned Wet N Wild, but TS Debbie got in the way.

    My kids are 11 and 13, and willing to ride just about anything. For our family, the “not Disney parks” are a much better fit for what we are looking for these days. That said, I thought I would “miss” WDW, and found much to my surprise that I didn’t. In contrast to what some others have said, I thought the level of detail in most of the Islands at IOA was exceptionally well done, and while the 2D look of Marvel Super Hero didn’t really work for me, all of the others really did. Likewise, much of USF could easily go toe to toe with sections of DS. Yes, some of the attractions (especially Cat and Rip Saw) were not what they could be, but many others are as good or better than anything Disney has done. From my perspective, Forbidden Journey and Spiderman might well be the two best attractions in Orlando, period.

    I also thought the compact layout of the parking garage, City Walk, the two parks, and the hotels had a lot of advantages. It was reminiscent of DLR, but without all the “regular Anaheim” visual intrusions that DLR is subject to. The lineup of restaurants, shops, and clubs had a lot of life to them. We had a night at Royal Pacific, and while we didn’t stay the night there (we were staying at a 2BR condo at HGVC Sea World) we did spend some time around the pool and used their parking lot. The level of service met or exceeded what we’ve seen at VWL, OKW, and BWV on prior stays. For example, there is full food/beverage service chair-side at the pool.

    Sea World was also great—the new Turtle Trek is really cute, and very well done—and Manta is another favorite of ours.

    It is possible that part of this is that we’ve been to WDW so many times that familiarity has bred contempt—and a big part of it is that my kids have in some ways outgrown WDW and are looking for more thrills. But, I can easily see going back to Universal and Sea World before WDW for a family vacation.

  • While I am not a huge Universal fan, I have to admit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is so detailed, and so immersive, that it is more “Disney” than WDW is! (heresy, I know) I credit that to JK Rowling retaining control of the implementation of the look of the park, much like the control she retained when they turned her books into movies. I hope that WWOHP is quickly followed by Universal creating a Privet Drive, a Grimmauld Place, and a Knockturn Alley!

    • I really liked the candy and cakes at WWoHP. Might go back just for cauldron cakes. I also enjoyed the girls bathroom and was wondering if the boys bathroom had anything…interesting going on in there too. (sorry spoilers).

      One thing my sister and I noticed about the rest of IoA was that it seemed a bit run down and faded. Some of it was closed.

      It seemed to expensive, will probably only go back if they expand Harry Potter.

      • Yes, A certain person by the first-name of Myrtle can be heard in the men’s room as well 🙂

  • Huge Disney nerd here. Universal just flat out has better rides, but the theme park itself isn’t nearly as good. The ambiance of WDW just makes you want to stay in the park or explore everything around the park. At Universal, we just felt like we were shuffling from ride to ride without really caring about the park itself. Harry Potter is amazing, of course. My wife and I find that we can do Harry Potter and hit all the rides we want to at each park in one day easily. Som we just buy the multipark one day pass and it’s enough for us. The other ten days are Disney days.

  • i’m going to have to respectfully disagree on how much there is for young kids to do. i visited this past january with a 5 year old, and after 2 solid hours i literally had to PRY him out of the ball factory (behind the curious george play areas, both wet and dry, which he also loved.) the multiple play grounds (seuss in particular, but also camp jurassic, the popeye ship and fievel) were all fantastic. when we finally made it back “home” and were in HS in the honey i shrunk the kids, he said, this is OK but when are we going back to universal?

    as far as b-list rides, we couldn’t get him off ET (my 69-yr-old mother particularly enjoyed that) and we probably rode cat in the hat 4 times.

    now, every disney trip we go on, he asks when we’re going back to universal, since that’s his favorite. FWIW. 🙂

  • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter really blew my entire family away – fans and non fans alike. Anything I had heard about the WWoHP paled in comparison to the real thing. I also was finally able to relate to people who pay $40 for breakfast in Cinderella’s Castle. My sisters and I were determined to eat in the Three Broomsticks, and while our rotisserie chicken salad meals were only $9, had they been $29 we still would have wanted to eat there.

    One of the things we really disliked about the park was the Universal Express. We weren’t staying onsite since we were just day guests, and since we were traveling over Easter weekend we felt like we HAD to buy the passes in order to avoid standing in lines all day on our one and only trip to IOA. The passes were $50 apiece in addition to the $90 admission, and we felt like this was A LOT to shell out, and one of the reasons we’re not all that interested in returning. It just left a bad taste in my mouth. I can’t really explain it any better than that, but I didn’t like it. I couldn’t help feeling bad for the people in the 90 minute line for Hulk even though I had paid for my front of the line access. It just felt weird. Also, two friends who came with us bought their express passes the week we were going and had to pay $80 (almost as much as their admission ticket) because the price goes up as the date approaches. Yikes!!

    If I return, I would not buy the express pass and just spend my entire day riding Forbidden Journey over and over, and eating in the 3 Broomsticks. Maybe I’d even head over to Spiderman and ride once via single rider line. Those two/three things were well worth the price of admission.

    Thanks for this blog post – I think it’s a hot topic for a lot of Disney fans!

    • And, if you purchase the Universal Express pass, you only get front of the line access to each ride ONCE. UOR hotel guests get unlimited line skipping privileges.

  • Thanks so much for these comments. I just wanted to add a comment about mobility accessibility for people with disabilities. Our child (who uses a wheelchair in theme parks) is a huge Harry Potter fan, so we have trekked over to WWoHP twice now. We found that much of WWoHP was very difficult to access. With two adults and one child, we could make it work, but it was a struggle. It was well worth the exhausting effort, though.

    Also, the experience made us appreciate Disney’s world-class accessibility all the more.

    One more thought — is there any chance you could do a similar feature on Sea World? Would love to see that!

  • We’ve been to Universal Orlando three times now, most recently in mid-June. I definitely recommend staying at an onsite hotel to take advantage of early entry to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the unlimited Express Pass. For us, Universal is a 2 day trip. What’s nice is that you can spend ONE night of this trip at a Universal hotel and get TWO days worth of ‘resort guest’ benefits, so this helps with cost: you can spend your first night at the park and then the second night (the day you leave) at a hotel just outside the gates.

    Universal is a fun place, but there just isn’t *enough* there to keep us occupied. We find we’re ‘done’ long before we would be at a Disney park, just as you experienced. So if anything it’s a nice ‘relaxing’ park, because you can go back to your hotel for a swim mid-afternoon and really relax.

    You did not mention the Mythos restaurant at Islands of Adventure. It has been voted ‘Best Theme Park Restaurant’ for many years and is very nicely themed to look as if you are ‘under the sea’. The food is good too, and the rice krispie sushi on the kids’ menu is the perfect dessert! Yes, you can order it even if your kids aren’t young enough to use the kids’ menu. At $1.99, it’s a steal! You need to make advance reservations though, which you can do using Opentable.com .

    You said the shows at Universal Studios weren’t good, and I agree the ones you saw are ho-hum. But you didn’t mention the Terminator 2 experience (which is actually a show, not a ride) or the Horror Effects Show (which is a comedy routine, despite the name). Both of these are well worth seeing and are two of our favorites. Also, it’s noot listed as a ‘show’, but in the Jurassic Park area (in the building that is a replica of the main building from the film) you can see a dinosaur egg ‘hatch’ and even name it! This little show takes place a couple of times a day and my kids love it!

    Universal’s perks for resort guests beat the pants off of Disney, and their Child Swap is much better. I also prefer the Opentable site for making advance dining reservations, and the ease of hopping between the two parks. However Universal needs more rides to really lure people over (other than the Harry Potter fans) and to be fair they’re working on it. I believe the ‘Jaws area’ attraction being built is Diagon Alley, to create a second Harry Potter area at the other park.

    You’re also right that Universal is not as good for younger kids, but there ar things there. The big difference is that the things that would be interesting for younger children (Woody Woodpecker play area, Jurassic Park playground, Dr. Seuss area) are generally not as interesting for adults. This is unlike Disney, where the entire family can enjoy all kinds of rides.

    I do want to mention that while you list ‘Cat In The Hat’ as a ‘B ride’, it is a spectacular dark ride. Disney should pay attention to that one. A few more of those and Universal would have it’s own ‘Fantasyland’ going!

  • My adult daughter and I visited Universal Studios as part of a trip to WDW to run in the Disney Princess Half Marathon this past February. As she is a huge Harry Potter fan, a trip to Universal was necessary. Our last trip to Universal Florida was 15 years ago, when she was quite young, an uber ride weenie, and Islands of Adventure did not exist. We split up then, and my husband took the older children to ride everything while I tried to find things she could tolerate. In spite of that difficulty, we had a somewhat enjoyable day, but were never tempted to return until the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” opened. Your point about finances is well-taken. For a variety of reasons, we could not afford to visit both sides of Universal Florida this trip although we wanted to.

    We hit Islands of Adventure as soon as it opened, and loved the theming of Harry Potter World, however, we did have some observations we would like to share. We visited as many of the attractions in the rest of Islands of Adventure as we could. We are not afraid of crowds or lines, being annual visitors to WDW. However, we found Universal to consistently underestimate (by almost half!) wait times in queues. When a queue would stall (happened to us at several attractions), there was no additional information made available. We also thought the queue theming was minimal, except in Wizarding World. And, as you observed, little for ride weenies to do if the wild rides did not suit. Additional observations are that Universal overwhelmingly underestimated the crowds that would flock to Wizarding World, and the result is that waits for everything are long (bordering on excessive for some attractions, such as the wand shop), and cast members rush you through the queue in an effort to speed up the wait. This was particularly noticeable at Hogwarts. We chose not to ride at the end of the queue (did I mention my ride-weenie daughter?), but our efforts to enjoy the queue and take photos along the way were met with urges to “move along” (we were not allowed to take even a quick snap!), or to be scolded for holding things up (“you want to get to the ride don’t you?”). Ride weenies not wanted. We also noticed, while we were in the long queue to enter Hogwarts, that little effort was made to disguise the ride building tacked on to the back of Hogwarts. The illusion was not carried through as well as we had hoped on the exterior.

    We concur with your review of the Three Broomsticks, easily the highlight of our day. It was a fun experience, delicious, and the wait was not excessive given the crowds outside. Beyond that, we thought that while the Universal engineers have some great ideas, the execution does not include the Disney attention to detail or emphasis on the customer experience. It’s like they took notes, but didn’t take the lessons to heart. We went expecting an immersive experience. While some children might overlook what we noticed, we felt that the illusion was not as well done as it might have been.

    We may return, but it won’t be anytime soon. Multiple theme parks in one trip are not do-able for us, and we saw nothing to convince us to change our preference.

    • “Beyond that, we thought that while the Universal engineers have some great ideas, the execution does not include the Disney attention to detail or emphasis on the customer experience.”

      My family said almost this exact thing…especially in reference to the weird flume ride in the Toon Lagoon area and the Cat in the Hat dark ride…they both seemed almost sloppy in comparison to their Disney counterparts…but potential was definitely there.

      • Sloppy? Considering how run down splash mountain has been getting lately…

    • There is a separate “castle tour” path through Hogwarts that follows the other queues. Just ask the cast member at the entrance. You won’t be rushed.

  • I visited both Universal parks for the first time last year. While IMO they were both worth visiting once, I don’t know that I would go again because of problems I have with motion sickness. At WDW, there are only two or three rides per park that I can’t handle; at Universal, it’s easily half of the rides in each park. And since a big chunk of the other half are kiddie rides, that doesn’t leave me with much to do but wait in gift shops while the rest of my party has fun. I’d rather do an extra day or two at WDW.

  • My husband and I are huge Harry Potter fans and we drug my brother and father to IOA last year. My dad who had never even seen a Harry Potter movie was so enthralled with FJ. I think that is a testament to how well the ride is done. Its definitely my favorite theme park ride ever. And I’m a huge Disney nerd!

    We stayed at Pop and had a driver pick us up there and take us to Universal. It was $100 total for 4 people round trip. Slightly more expensive than the Mears shuttle, but totally worth not having to make other stops at Disney hotels. Transportation was my biggest fear, but it all worked out great!

  • Thank you so much for this post. We’re planning a trip to Orlando with two preschoolers and my parents. I had been debating whether to leave the kids with my parents for a day while my husband and I went to Universal on our own. Looking at the website I didn’t see much for them there, but it can be hard to tell. You’ve made it much easier to decide! We’ll go on our own this time and wait until they’re older for Universal.

    • We took our then 5 and 2 year old with us and we won’t be back there for easily another 3 years. It was a waste. There were maybe 3-4 rides my 2 year old could ride on and I did not feel it was worth the $250 to sit in child swap with him. The 5 year old could do maybe half. It was not a family friendly park until at least 48 adventurous inches “old”.

  • We, too, are die-hard Disney fans, but we also love Harry Potter so we made our first US trip last fall. We agree that the big-ticket rides were great and we loved our meals/snacks inside WWoHP. However, other than Beetlejuice and the Blues Brothers we thought the shows were AWFUL! We tried to use the touring plan one day, but waited over an hour for FJ because it wasn’t running so that set us way behind. Even so, when we went back later in the day and told them about our morning wait we were allowed to skip nearly all the line and enter the ride with only a 10 minute wait which helped make our day much more enjoyable (since the wait was up to about 110 minutes at that point)!

  • I was also a Universal doubter, until last year when my daughter finally became tall enough to enjoy its attractions. We took a quick trip down to Universal last summer and truly enjoyed the parks. Staying onsite gave us the added benefits of unlimited express pass (which meant that we got to ride the Mummy 16 times over two days) and early entry to the Harry Potter section (rode Forbidden Journey 9 times over 2 days!). Well worth the price of the room, especially because we’re not local and would have had to stay somewhere!

    I will go you one better and say that, Disney lover that I am, Universal just does some things better. Express Pass, for one (although I absolutely recognize that Disney is WAY too large of a resort to do the exact same thing), and from what I saw of it, Child Swap. All of the waiting rooms I saw had seats, and many of them had TVs, creating a momentary break for all parties involved.

    I will also agree that overall Universal and IOA are just about wasted on a family with younger children. There’s just too little for the littles to do. Fun once the kids get tall enough–and if they like thrills!

  • Glad you hear you enjoyed UOR Ryan.

    I too was a Universal doubter for most of the 90s, and after my first trip in 2001, wasn’t too impressed with the resort as a whole. Now I feel with their additions to each of the parks it’s an easy rival to WDW. While MK has the Fantasyland expansion, what else is coming up? Nothing really. Universal has whatever is coming to the old Soundstage 44, Jaws area, and the various expansion areas of Islands.

    I do completely agree with your assessment of a lack of lower end attractions, but I’d also add to your list a lack of major, no heigh requirement, non-story based E Tickets. Things like Pirates, HM, Spaceship Earth, Great Movie Ride. Adding one of those to each park would really round out the experience.


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