When Universal City Studios Inc. began developing its first Orlando property, the park was originally envisioned along the lines of the long-established Hollywood Studio Tour, with most guest experiences occurring in an extensive tram tour of the limited-access back lot, along with a handful of rides and shows in the front of the park. When Disney aped that exact game plan for Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), Universal did a dramatic 180, breaking out the tram tour’s iconic encounters—King Kong, Earthquake, and JAWS—into their own headliner attractions, each of which easily exceeded its Disney contemporaries in technology and thrill (if not reliability) upon the 1990 debut of Universal Studios Florida (USF).

Since the turn of the millennium, the two parks have gone in different directions. Whereas Disney’s Hollywood Studios (DHS) essentially abandoned its production facilities long ago, USF test-markets TV pilots to guests and hosts some actual filming, some of which visitors can attend.

More important, USF has either updated or replaced nearly every attraction that opened in the 1990s, supplanting King Kong with Revenge of the Mummy, Back to the Future: The Ride with The Simpsons Ride, and JAWS with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter–Diagon Alley. Each upgrade and new attraction brought with it groundbreaking advancements in ride hardware and special effects.

In contrast, only one truly innovative attraction has opened at DHS in the past decade: 2008’s Toy Story Mania! While work is under way to revitalize DHS, at the moment the park offers just 5 real rides versus USF’s 10 major moving attractions.

Watching USF’s constant evolution has been thrilling, but it can also be disconcerting—if the last time you visited was in the early 2000s, you won’t recognize the majority of the park. USF celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2015, but precious little early history is left intact in the park for longtime visitors who loved such long-gone opening-day attractions as Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies, The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera, and Ghostbusters Spooktacular.

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.

Getting Oriented at Universal Studios Florida

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 Race Through New York starring Jimmy Fallon (opening 2017) and Revenge of the Mummy. Next is San Francisco, future home of Fast & Furious: Supercharged (opening 2018); 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; Springfield, home of 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, and Terminator 2: 3-D.

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 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.

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.

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 the Hello Kitty store. Show times are listed in the map, and usually end by early afternoon. The band may take 5 during slow seasons.

Universal has introduced some small-scale street shows in the New York and San Francisco sections to distract crowds while the replacements for Twister and Disaster! are under construction. Marilyn Monroe and the Diamond Bellas perform a four-minute song and dance routine (anachronistically lip-synched to the Moulin Rouge cover of her signature song) in front of the Macy’s facade, followed by a photo op. Nearby, the Sing It! show is an a cappella ‘competition’ loosely inspired by the ‘riff-off’ scene in Pitch Perfect, featuring earworm pop tunes performed by powerful vocalists. The Beat Builders are a quartet of beefy guys who hang out on the scaffolding outside of Louie’s Restaurant and turn their construction equipment into percussion instruments, in the tradition of Stomp. Finally, San Francisco’s Flying Fish Market sells no seafood, but the troupe does toss fish-shaped juggling clubs while flipping off trampolines and performing other acrobatic feats. All of these shows have performance times listed in the park map, and none are worth going out of your way for. If you aren’t on a tight touring plan and see one starting as you walk by, stop and watch until you get bored, but don’t be surprised if some have been retired by the time you visit.

During peak seasons, you may find Street Breakz breakdancers demonstrating their skills 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 September 22, 2016