Universal Studios Florida had barely opened before planning began on “Project X”, the second theme park “gate” that would provide Universal with enough critical mass to actually compete with Disney. Originally envisioned as “Cartoon World,” with areas devoted to DC Comics superheroes and Looney Tunes characters, the concept evolved into Islands of Adventure (IOA), a fully themed fantasy park inspired by family-friendly literature. From its very inception, IOA was designed to directly compete with Disney's Magic Kingdom parks. (How direct a competitor is it? See below for a comparison.) The park has more kid-friendly rides and cartoon characters (like Fantasyland), thrill rides in a sci-fi city (like Tomorrowland), and a jungle river with robot creatures (like Adventureland). Its layout – a central entry corridor leading to a ring of connected lands – even mimics the classic Disneyland model, with one major exception: instead of a hub and castle in the center, Universal built a large lagoon, whose estuaries separate the park's thematically diverse “islands” (actually peninsulas).

IOA and the Magic Kingdom at a Glance
Islands of Adventure Magic Kingdom
Seven "Islands" (includes Port of Entry) Six "lands" (includes Main Street)
Two adult roller-coaster attractions Two adult roller-coaster attractions
A dumbo-type ride Dumbo the Flying Elephant
One log flume ride One log flume ride
Toon Lagoon character area Storybook Circus character area

Unofficial Tip

Roller coasters at Islands of Adventure are the real deal—not for the faint of heart or for little ones.

Universal’s Islands of Adventure debuted in 1999 as a state-of-the-art park competing with a Disney park decades older, but it didn't initially do gang-buster business, thanks partly to a botched marketing campaign, and Universal's failure to add any major attractions during IOA's first decade. That all changed in 2010, which marked IOA’s coming-out party. In one of the greatest seismic shifts in theme park history, Universal opened the first Harry Potter-themed area within the park. Harry P. is possibly the only fictional character extant capable of trumping Mickey Mouse, and Universal went all-out, under J. K. Rowling’s watchful and exacting eye, to create a setting and attractions designed to be the envy of the industry.

Beware of the Wet and Wild

Although we’ve described Universal’s Islands of Adventure as a direct competitor to the Magic Kingdom, know this: Whereas most Magic Kingdom attractions are designed to be enjoyed by guests of any age, attractions at Islands of Adventure are created largely for an under-40 population. The roller coasters at Universal are serious with a capital S, making Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain look about as frightening as Dumbo. In fact, seven of the top nine attractions at IOA are thrill rides; of these, three will not only scare the crap out of you but will also drench you with water.

For families, there are three interactive playgrounds as well as six rides that young children will enjoy. Of the thrill rides, only the two in Toon Lagoon (described later) are marginally appropriate for little kids, and even on these rides your child needs to be fairly hardy.

Getting Oriented at Islands of Adventure

Islands of Adventure is arranged much like Epcot’s World Showcase, arranged in a large circle surrounding a lagoon, but it evinces the same sort of thematic continuity present in the Magic Kingdom. Each “land,” or “island” in this case, is self-contained and visually consistent in its theme.

You first encounter Port of Entry, a melange of Middle Eastern and Asian architecture where you’ll find Guest Services, lockers, stroller and wheelchair rentals, ATM banking, lost and found, and shopping. From the Port of Entry, moving clockwise around the lagoon, you can access Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter–Hogsmeade Village, The Lost Continent, and Seuss Landing. There is no in-park transportation to move you between lands.

As you enter Islands of Adventure, lockers and rentals are to your left, and first aid and guest services are to your right. Before bolting through Port of Entry to your first adventure – or at least on your way out before leaving – take a few moments to appreciate the Disney-quality details that Universal lavished on this area, from the fountain made of giant leaves, to the sounds of gamblers from an upstairs casino, to the jail that's been broken and the fire station that burned down. Also listen for the original background music, which is synchronized throughout the park and changes as you move from island to island.

Last updated by Seth Kubersky on January 12, 2015