Tips for Thrill-Seeking Adults at Universal, Florida
Updated: Dec 17, 2019
Orlando is known for fun. Next to Walt Disney World, this complex is my favorite place in the world. Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are the main theme parks. There is a water park (Volcano Bay) and an entertainment complex, CityWalk. They boast about having 52 things to do, so there's plenty to keep you busy. I'm a huge Harry Potter fan, so the Wizarding World is awe-inspiring to me down to every last detail. Since there is so much to write about, I’ve separated my advice for the Wizarding World into another blog.
WHEN TO VISIT:
Our tour guide said the slowest times at the parks were September and mid-January – so if you are flexible, book during those times. September is still hot, but January 11th is their coldest day with an average high of 70.8 °F (21.6 °C) and low of 48.8 °F (9.3 °C). There’s less rain during that time, as well.
HOW TO BEGIN:
The first hack is to download the Official Universal Orlando Resort mobile app. It's free, and you can do everything from there - purchase park tickets, see wait times on rides, order food, view park maps, and more. If you purchase the park tickets from the app, you'll get a handy barcode to scan at the turnstile. Another fun thing it does is notify you if the top attractions get a low wait time, so wear your running shoes!
WHERE TO STAY:
Another hack is to stay at a Universal resort. You will get a free hour in the park and a free unlimited express pass for each person (albeit things change, so double check before you book). You also get transportation to the parks, complimentary package delivery from the shops, and there are random character appearances.
Loews Portofino Bay Hotel: I choose to stay here. It is themed as a seaside village of Portofino, Italy. Outdoor shops and cafes overlook the harbor. It has a nice club lounge, which is more like a cafe. The rooms are nice, but I would give them a 3.8/5. The room service is mediocre, but fine if you're desperate. I would book a room with club level here. The boat ride is nice to the park, and it leaves from their harbor. We were lucky to get a pedicab to the park, which took about 5 minutes. They don’t charge, but you have to tip them or you’re Scrooge. We tipped $20, but I think $10 would be fair. It was hot and my husband isn’t small, so the guy worked hard for us. They are posted by the water taxis and at the exit of the park. They are really nice people.
Hard Rock Hotel: is charming, albeit they pipe men's cologne into their foyer. The club level is like a corporate break room, though. I wouldn't spend money and book the club - skip it. There is a cool store in the lobby of this hotel with Hard Rock gear and more. Like above, the rooms are just meh. I don't have a problem with them, but not in love with staying there, either. You're there for the parks, so who cares. You can walk to the park from this hotel. It's a long walk but do-able.
I haven't stayed at the other properties, but given their ratings, I'd say they are probably in line or a notch below from the two above.
Surfside Inn and Suites: this property is brand new, opening 6/29/19, but already has a 3-star rating, which I'm curious about since it hasn't opened as of today. With the cheaper hotels, you won't get the free express passes. What you might get is a free hour before opening at Wizarding World. If you stay at a cheaper hotel and purchase the express pass, it might work out the same (or even better) if you splurge for the better hotel.
Loews Sapphire Falls and Cabana Bay: like Surfside, these hotels do not include the Express passes, but do include early park admission.
EXPRESS PASSES AND TICKETS
The bonus with staying at the top two Universal properties is that you automatically get free unlimited express passes to skip the regular lines of most attractions for everyone staying in the room. This doesn't work at their newest attractions, but it does for most. The express passes are optional, and you also need to purchase theme park admission. There are two types of passes:
One-time line skip per ride pass. This is exactly what it says – you can only skip the line per ride one time. If you aren’t a serial rider, this option will be for you, as it’s cheaper. The express pass for one use per ride starts at $69.99.
Unlimited pass. Get this one if it is in your budget - especially if you plan to do both parks in one day. If there is a ride you really like, the unlimited pass gives you the option to skip the line repeatedly. The unlimited express starts at $89.99. Park admission is $170 for a 2-park, 1-day ticket. You will get discounts on the park ticket per day the longer you are going. I do both parks in a day, so I schedule one day for Universal Studios each time I visit Orlando (the other days are for Disney World). I don't visit Volcano Bay - after watching the South Park episode on water parks, I'm done with water parks.
Surge pricing: during the busier times, the price of the express pass will rise. For example, I am here in Orlando (June 24) visiting friends, and I've persuaded my hubby to give me a day at Universal. The unlimited express passes for the day has jumped up to $169.99 (and the one-skip pass is $139.99). That’s an insane increase. But, since we are staying at Loew's Portofino, we'll get two unlimited passes for free. This makes the price of the hotel worth it! The price of the rooms fluctuate by season, but as of today, the rooms start at $489.00 for two adults. I changed the cart to four adults in the room, and it rose to $559.00 - so they recoup some of the money for the free express pass by doing that.
Like Disney World, Universal also has a VIP experience. They have two types of tours -one with a private guide which will run you about 4K for five people (and a charge for each additional person) and the other you are put with a group of 10-12, and it costs $199 in addition to the 2-park admission. I have done the group VIP Experience. You start with a free buffet breakfast at Cafe La Bamba in the park. You are seated with your designated group, which is ~ 10 others. You have a tour guide who brings you to the attractions and you 100% skip the lines. As you walk up to the ride, you go straight on the ride in the next queue. This is different than the Disney VIP tour, as you essentially are given fast passes to everything there, so you still wait about 10 minutes for each ride. Once the tour is over at about 4 PM, your VIP card becomes an Unlimited Fast Pass for the rest of the day.
You start with the giant red rollercoaster (Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit). This will wake you up, I promise.
Your tour guide will take you to the best rides at the main park, including Wizarding World, and then you ride the Hogwarts Express to the Islands of Adventure. In the early afternoon, they will take you to a film school they have on the property. I found it interesting, but that part of the tour seemed long, and we just wanted to get back to the rides. I wished they didn't include the back-lot part of the tour, or just made it a separate one. They feed you lunch at Café La Bamba again via a buffet. We didn't like the food at the cafe. Also, I was sat by a cretin (your group sits at the same table as breakfast) that was flinging food on me and spitting it out of her mouth while she talked. Ugh. So, I didn't eat much.
Do I recommend the VIP experience? Yes, at least once. It’s not much more than the fast passes, and you have no waiting at all. But more importantly, they get you on the rides that are new and have impossible wait times. I'm doing it in July when I come back so we can ride the new Hagrid's Adventure ride. When they have a new ride, you will wait in line for ~ 2+ hours or so, which I refuse to do. I checked, and the VIP tour will cover the new ride, so I'm very excited.
They serve alcohol at the park, and in the sit-down restaurants, most will have full bars. If you are in the Simpson’s section, there’s only Duff beer. I've tried the Simpson's Duff beer (the light option), and it was decent.
For dining, it's best to have a reservation, but you'll need to do that in advance. If you don't have a reservation, you should wait until mid to late afternoon to eat lunch, so have a good breakfast. This is when the queues for the lines are longest and the restaurant wait times are shortest. Within the park, use the mobile dining app and order your food in advance! This saves you so much time.
Outside of the parks is Hard Rock Cafe. They have burgers, salads, and other traditional American selections. On Google, they have a 4.5/5 review. I've eaten there and wasn't disappointed.
You can walk a bit and get to Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. Albeit, last time we were there, the service was a 1/5 for us. I won't go back, but also realize that everyone has a bad night or a terrible employee.
Cowfish is also outside of the parks. It is a sushi/burger restaurant. The sushi was mediocre, and someone at our table had a huge hair in the meat of her burger. Sigh. This place has good ratings, so it must have been an unlucky experience.
The best in-park dining experiences are as follows:
The Three Broomsticks. This place is located in the Islands of Adventure Park. If you have someone that doesn't like the smell of fish, skip this place. However, if you are down with the aroma of seafood, this is an excellent choice for the Harry Potter experience. It is themed like the restaurant in the movie, and you have an amazing view of the Wizarding World. Get the frozen butterbeer - you won't be sorry.
Mythos. This is in the Islands of Adventure and is a cave-themed award-winning spot. This restaurant is located in Jurassic Park and invokes a prehistoric atmosphere. The food is great, and you'll need reservations for this - but you can use the app for that.
Finnegan’s Bar and Grill. In the mood for some Irish food and spirit? This is the place for you. There is the normal Irish food, but they are known for the corned beef and cabbage. This place is located in the main park - Universal Studios.
Louie's Italian Restaurant. Even though this place only has a 3.5/5 rating, this is our favorite spot to go. I don’t like wasting time with food. This is in the main park, and no reservations are needed. The pizza and salad are good, not great. You are in a theme park, so you can’t expect greatness. Use the mobile app and walk right up to get your food. There are soda machines and when we were there last time, I had to wait about eight minutes for my turn. It was annoying. There is also a gelato counter if you want dessert.
Toothsome Chocolate Emporium - if you are in the mood for a good dessert, exit the park to find this charming place. Their desserts are great, and the AC will cool you down for a spell!
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS PARK – WHAT TO DO
Time to talk about the reason why you are at the park. You will start at Universal Studios, and I advise you to take advantage of your free hour there an hour before opening. The park is less crowded, and you should rush to the back of the park and visit Diagon Alley so you can enjoy it without the crazy crowd. Don’t bother trying to ride Gringotts during this hour, as everyone standing around you is doing that, as well. More on Wizarding World here.
Universal Studios park has eight themed areas situated around a lagoon. Lots of filming goes on here, as they do have studios here. They do film things inside the park (but not usually when it’s open). The areas clockwise from the entrance are: Production Central, New York City, San Francisco, London/Diagon Alley, World Expo, Springfield, Woody Woodpecker's Kidzone and Hollywood.
The next hack is to opt for the single rider lines. If you don’t have the express pass or for a new ride, this is the way to go. You might not get to ride together, but you’ll save time in the day, which is the point. You are forfeiting a ride photo together, but not all rides, such as Gringott’s Bank, have photo opps.
Production Central Rides worth mentioning:
All ride names are linked with a POV video so you can experience the ride virtually. Here are the rides at Universal Orlando - what I refer to as the main park.
Despicable Me - Minion Mayhem - a 4D ride. For this one, you’ll sit in a big auditorium on a moving stage with many, many other people. It’s like being in a movie theater. You wear goggles, and the stage vibrates, jerks and moves slightly. You are seat belted. I’m not a huge fan of the ride, and get slightly nauseated, but scare rating is a 2/10.
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. I like this ride - not love, but like it a lot. It’s the huge red one that catches your eye when you pass the park. You get to select a song to jam to during the ride, which is cool - I was advised by our tour guide to play Kick Start my Heart by Motley Cru because it is synced with the big drop and he was right - it was cool! This coaster is scary, and a bit rough. Scare level 9/10.
New York City rides:
Revenge of the Mummy. This is in the running for my favorite ride. A bit dated, given The Mummy movies came out a while back, but this ride is phenomenal. It is an indoor roller coaster and has a story. You are in the Mummy tombs whatever they are called. A mummy wearing a baseball cap warns you at the start to get out. However, you are strapped in a coaster, so you have no choice but to forge ahead. You first go through a cool looking room where you are met with a surprise (don't want to spoil it), and then, the fun begins. It is a high-speed coaster that has two abrupt stops in it - so beware if you have neck issues. This is a blast - I think it's one of the top rides, for sure. You get a photo made on this ride right before the big drop. Scare rating 7.5/10.
Transformers - a 4D ride. You’ll sit in a cart with other people, and it will whisk you through an indoor 3D story about the traditional good guys versus bad guys. Spoiler alert - the good guys win. This is slightly jerky, and you’ll be wearing 3D glasses during the ride. The ride is getting a bit dated, and I believe if they re-did this, they could do better, but overall, it’s a fun experience. This might be a bit frightening and jerky for kids under 7 or so, but I give it a scare rating of 4/10. Also, there is a huge transformer guy outside the ride for photo opps.
Race Through New York - Jimmy Fallon. I’m meh on this. It’s a 3D ‘ride.’ You are on a stage with a hundred others, and the theater moves together. I’m not a huge fan of those type of rides (like the minions). You can schedule this ride on the app, as of now. The waiting queue is the lobby of NBC before the tonight show. There’s entertainment with live performers, and you’re given a card with a color on it. When your light glows, you get to ride. It’s a neat way to queue a line, but the ride just is meh to me. Scare level 2/10.
Fast and Furious. Skip it. Even our tour guide said it sucks. It’s a new one and a big fail. My husband had to see for himself, and we rode this. He agrees, it sucks. He should listen to me. You sit in a big, shaking fake bus in a room with smoke and screens around you.
Harry Potter - Gringotts. Potentially my favorite ride. If you wait in the long line you’ll get to enter Gringotts Bank, which is spectacular. The goblins bank tellers are exactly like the movie and follow you with their little goblin eyes as you walk by. It’s amazing. This is a roller coaster ride with a free fall drop at the start. However, it’s not terrifying - it’s a mild coaster, in my opinion. There are 3D elements to this ride with a story of Voldemort and Bellatrix Lestrange after Harry, Hermione, and Ron - and, of course, you! Scare rating 4.5/10.
Men in Black: Alien Attack. A shooting ride. It’s a bit dated already (opened in 2000), but it’s amusing. There’s one part in the middle where you spin. Scare rating 1.5/10.
Simpson’s Ride. I don’t like it much. It’s like the Minions, which is a bit newer. I don’t ride this when I go. Scare rating is a 2/10.
ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE – WHAT TO DO
Islands of Adventure is arranged into seven islands. In clockwise order from the entrance: Port of Entry, Marvel Superhero Island, Toon Lagoon, Skull Island, Jurassic Park, The Wizarding World, The Lost Continent, and Seuss Landing.
Port of Entry:
Get Starbucks and check out the Christmas store. I love that place.
Marvel Superhero Island:
Amazing Adventures of Spider Man - 4D motion ride in the dark. You sit with 2-3 others in a cart and it takes you through an indoor 3D adventure where Spidey has to save the city. It’s one of my favorites. A bit jerky, so maybe don’t take young ones on this. Scare level is 5/10.
The Incredible Hulk Coaster - a sit down, launched coaster that launches you to 40 mph in two seconds, reaching a top speed of 67 mph. There are seven inversions. This coaster was refurbished in 2016, but I rode it before and after and can’t tell any difference. It will jerk you around a bit, but it is really fun. Scare level 9/10.
Dr. Doom’s Fearfall - one of the only rides I skip due to fear. It’s just too high, and I don’t care for free falls. But it goes up fast instead of down like you are shot from a cannon.
Skull Island: Reign of Kong - I’d skip this, but if you are a huge King Kong fan, go for it. The queue is neat, as you are inside of a sculpture of King Kong and then inside a semi-creepy temple. You get into a big vehicle with a fake - and I mean…very fake looking driver. There’s like 70 other people in this thing with you. You go through an indoor 4D experience that just didn’t hit the mark for me. The only thing cool about this to me is the very end when you pass by an animatronic Kong. He’s fantastic looking and very realistic. Scare level 3/10 for me - but if you have kids, they may not like it much.
Jurassic Park: The Ride - this is a water ride based on the film. You float by dinosaurs and then a voice comes in that warns you not to enter. Raptors are out to get you, and then you escape. It’s pretty fun as the T-Rex bends down to eat you, and you endure an 85-foot, 51 degree drop. Scare rating 6.8/10 for the end drop and scary dinosaur at the end.
Hogwarts Castle is in The Islands of Adventure. This is where the Forbidden Journey ride is located. This ride is unique. You sit in a bucket seat with three other people. It takes you through the castle on a 4D, motion adventure. If you get motion sickness, maybe skip this one. If you wait in the long line, you get to tour the castle. It is amazing and makes the wait worth it. But for your second time around, use the Express pass or single rider line. Scare rating is 6.5/10.
Flight of the Hippogriff - this is a moderate to kiddy rollercoaster that takes you by Hagrid’s place. The coaster is slightly jerky, but it’s fun, even for adults. It’s quick. My five-year-old granddaughter rode this 37 times in a row. She’s a brave child, so I give this a scare rating of 4.5/10.
Hogsmeade. I had tears stream down my face the first time I walked in here, as I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. I have seen others in the tour group do the same. That’s how awesome this place is. Many of the shops from the books are here. More on the Wizarding World here.
Both of the parks have a package pick-up at the front gate. You don’t need to carry your souvenirs all day. Also, you can have them shipped to your home, which is convenient. I purchased some things at Diagon Alley that you can’t get elsewhere in the park (in Borgin and Burkes). They shipped it to my home free, and it took a week (5 business days).
There is a main store at Universal Studios at the entrance, and another in the CityWalk. These will carry most items you can find in the park, but definitely not all – so if you see something, don’t pass it up, as it might not be elsewhere.