Overview / Getting There
Universal Orlando is part of the “theme park mecca” that is in Orlando, Florida on the South Eastern Coast of the USA.
Orlando has the reputation as one of the busiest and best holiday destinations in the world … and for good reason!
There are regular daily direct and indirect flights to Orlando from Dublin, whilst Belfast has a handful of direct seasonal flights (can be very expensive though).
The Universal Resort in Orlando is located near where Florida’s Turnpike meets Highway 4 and is split into two inter-linked parks – Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure (soon to be three if you include the eagerly awaited Volcano bay Waterpark – opening in May 2017).
Obviously there are other attractions/parks in the Orlando area (e.g. Walt Disney World, Seaworld, Legoland, etc) which all have their own specific draws and highlights, but this #NInja’s opinion it is hard to beat the many attractions that are available within Universal’s parks and the excitement that builds as you approach the turnstiles.
Buying Universal Orlando theme park tickets before you leave the UK & Ireland is highly recommended.
Apart from the obvious reason of you not having to worry about queuing, paying for and picking up tickets when you arrive at the park, it is better value (and at times a LOT cheaper) to have these booked, paid for and delivered to your home prior to departure.
Park ticket purchases are perhaps the biggest minefield that you have to plot a path through when deciding upon an Orlando holiday.
These tickets will form the majority of your holiday time and at first glance appear very expensive and off-putting – however upon analysis, they work out (on a cost per day breakdown) to be excellent value.
The best site I can recommend for all Orlando based attraction tickets is Attraction Tickets Direct (link below) – the UK & Ireland’s number 1 attraction ticket website.
ATD offer several ticketing options but the best value one for Universal Resort is the 3 Park Explorer Ticket. This gives you 14 consecutive days unlimited park to park access in the Universal Resort for a cost of £232 (adults) or £223 (children 3-9) including entry to the brand new waterpark Volcano Bay opening May 2017.
ATD also offer a “price promise” where they will not be beaten on price, offering to match any cheaper same ticket offering from another website.
This is the original park of the Universal Studios Resort with a mixed bag of attractions bringing so much pop culture to life over its 107+ acres of Orlando Real Estate..
I would say that it comes a (very) close second to Islands of Adventure in terms of raw thrill rides but fear not, it makes up for this in the form of the atmosphere it presents and the scene that it sets as you walk around the park.
This park is bustling with SOO many things to see and do, and plenty of places to get that awesome holiday photo, from the iconic Universal Globe to a nostalgic pic with one of Holywood’s greatest fictional predators – Jaws!
There are loads of things that I could have listed here, but these are the absolute must-do attractions that I would recommend in Universal Studios:
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
This is as unique as a traditional roller coaster gets, with its many twists and turns and its compelling vertical rise initial ascent. This coaster is hard to miss as it weaves its way through the park (and even through the sets) and is a definite must for thrill seekers and coaster fans alike. Once in your seat, you have the unique opportunity to select your own personal music track that is played to you as you rocket up/down/left/right (my personal track of choice was “Gimme all your Lovin” by ZZ top!). Brace yourself for the beginning as you are taken up to quite a height by the near vertical rise (something I liken to what the seating position must be like in a rocket!). Don’t worry yet though because this rise is at a nice slow pace, the real thrill begins when you drop over the other side into a free fall before looping and twisting on your way round the track at speed.
Revenge of the Mummy
If you are working your way round the park and have heard of Revenge of the Mummy, you might not instantly see where this roller coaster is. That is because it is an indoors coaster in the dark! Queuing for this coaster is an experience in itself. Be prepared for fire, twists and turns and some other unique features that make this attraction one of my favourite rides at Universal.
TRANSFORMERS: The Ride-3D
This is an excellent 3D simulator ride that will blow your mind. The wait time can be long but it is definitely worth it, especially since the indoor queuing area has a lot of Transformers-style visuals to keep you occupied – and like many of the attractions in the Universal Resort, it’s air conditioned too. Lots of action awaits as you are transported into the world of Transformers where the Autobots battle the Deceptacons in a city backdrop. Be prepared for a bumpy ride and some unexpected twists.
The Simpsons Ride
Located in the amazing Springfield area is the Simpsons Ride. This is a 3D simulator ride which, whether you are a fan of the cartoon or not, impresses due to its quite frankly hilarious, fun and unexpected nature. Those of you who are a fan if twists/turns and falls should definitely try this out as it has it all. If you want afterwards, you can even pop in to Moe’s Tavern for a Flaming Moe or a Duff beer!
Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
Another of the 3D simulator rides located in the park. This is great for kids and adults alike. Be prepared to take a voyage through the weird and wonderful world of Despicable Me in which you are initially given a briefing from none other than Gru and the minions themselves, before taking your seat in the auditorium. Be careful though, those minions are crazy. The kids will love the playfulness and fun involved with this 3D simulator, especially when they exit the ride and get to see themselves dance on a large screen with those crazy minions!!
Woody Woodpeckers Kids Zone
This is a great area for kids, located just beyond Springfield. There is a huge wet play area for kids to cool down in the hot summer sun. The kids can just go and play with the many hoses, pull chains and water fountains that are available for them. Don’t get too close though as they can squirt you with water cannons – and even worse, every few minutes the water buckets tip and drop gallons upon gallons of water over the area.
Also included in this area is Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster which is a simple kids roller coaster that will be great fun for those young ones who are less keen on the thrills of some of the larger attractions.
A full park map, including a full list of attractions can be viewed HERE
Islands of Adventure
Opened in 1999, this is the second (and “slightly” better in my opinion!) of the two current parks in the Universal Orlando Resort.
Prepared to be amazed with the variation of great thrill rides, from the absolute monster that is the menacing presence of the Incredible Hulk Coaster, to the quite frankly terrifying and amazing Skull Island: Reign of Kong – this park is the typical theme park style where you venture from world to world, but based on movie and pop culture phenomenon – like walking from Marvel Super Hero Island to Toon Lagoon and Jurassic Park.
Like Universal Studios Florida, there are many great attractions in this bustling park. It’s very hard to limit them to a smaller list but these are the absolute must-do attractions within IoA:
The Incredible Hulk Coaster
Easily one of the top three rollercoasters in Orlando! This monster of a coaster dominates the Islands of Adventure park and can pretty much be seen from everywhere within it. You will hear it before you see it and it will be teeming with thrill seekers from very early in the day. Be prepared for an incredible journey through a series of twists and turns and quite a number of loops – NOT for the faint hearted however!
Doctor Doom’s Fearfall
Located within Marvel SuperHero Island is Doctor Doom’s Fearfall which is famed for its vertical takeoff and continuous rise/fall configuration. This ride is great for those who like to leave their stomachs behind them as they move swiftly from one height on our great earth to another. The ride is over just as quick as it begins but it is a great one for people wanting to conquer their fears – or take a ride that leaves you feeling a bit queasy.
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
One of the most famous attractions in this park for many years. The wait line transports you through scenes from the Daily Bugle while a Spiderman cartoon plays on repeat from the TV screens situated around this indoor area. Another one of the park’s 3D simulator rides which is a great thrill as you help Spiderman battle his many enemies. This is one for all the family to experience together, as you can expect some magnificent city backdrops, visuals that will take your breath away and attacks from the villains along the way.
Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls
Want to get wet? Want to have an amazing time going so? Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls is one of the best log flume rides out there. The main attraction of this ride is the large flowing freefall that sees you slide at speed down a steep incline before splashing into lots of water at the bottom – something you will want to do again and again (if you don’t mind getting wet/soaked).
Skull Island: Reign of Kong
Islands of Adventure’s newest ride sees you board an old style safari bus on the search for one of Skull Islands largest predators – King Kong. This ride is a combination of moving bus and 3D simulation and is my personal favourite of its type. No expense has been spared on the environment as you queue for this ride with many different areas ranging from daylight safari to dark dungeon (note that some of the younger kids may find this a little disconcerting). The ride is excellent, taking you through a search for Kong where you end up seeing the great Ape battle with some other large animals on the way. As usual, be prepared for some surprises – and don’t forget to look both ways!
Jurassic Park River Adventure
As log flume rides go this is up there with one of the best. A great “safari” type experience as you meander through the serene landscapes of the Jurassic period and take in the delights of the dinosaurs that inhabit them. But, be prepared for what awaits, because all is not as it seems as you drift off the “safe” path to be confronted by Raptors and the famous T-Rex. Getting wet is a certainty, as is a fantastic freefall towards the end.
A vibrant colourful world that has plenty for the kids to do, with its many play areas and also wet regions for a bit of a splash in the sun. There are some kids rides too, like the Cat in the Hat Ride which takes you through the weird world of Dr Seuss, and High in the Sky Seuss Trolly which is a slow moving roller coaster that transports you through this area of the park at an advantageous height (some good views of the rest of the park).
A full park map, including a full list of attractions can be viewed HERE
Wizarding World of Harry Potter – within both US and IoA
The #NInja HAD to do a complete separate section on the Harry Potter areas of Universal Orlando. There are 2 areas within the Resort – one in IoA, and one in US – and they are comfortably the best areas of both parks.
Unfortunately that also means they are the busiest, so your time needs to be carefully planned for when you visit! If you are a Harry Potter fan, this is basically your Graceland!
Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure)
Within Islands of Adventure is Hogsmeade – distinguishable by the replica of Hogwarts Castle that dominates the sky line as you approach. As you approach, you will notice that the rooftops in this area are covered in snow, which can be quite weird to contemplate as you sweat in the Florida sunshine. But worry not, it is only fake – you will still be sweltered if the sun is out – something that can be countered by sampling the local brew, Butter Beer (no alcohol included) – it is definitely worth a try.
Hogsmeade is also accessible via the Hogwarts Express Train from Diagon Alley in Universal Studios
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
I can’t stress enough how great this ride is for Harry Potter fans. The whole experience from queuing to riding is amazing. The attention to detail on the wait line is amazing as you dander through various parts of Hogwarts itself – complete with animated paintings and even interaction with Harry, Ron and Hermione themselves. The ride is a 3D simulator that just captivates from the moment you start until the end. Take a trip into the world of Harry Potter and you will want to do it again and again. Phenomenal.
This is a reworking of the older Duelling Dragons floorless rollercoaster ride that has been part of islands of Adventure since before The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. There are two rollercoasters available to ride here – the red one and the blue one. I will leave it to you to choose which one you prefer best but definitely do them both – they are brilliant! #NInja tip – if you can’t get the very front row, sit at the back, you get a greater whip off the turns.
Flight of the Hippogrif
Located in Universal Studios near the entrance to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This is a short kid’s roller coaster that sees you twist and weave at a moderate pace around the home of the Hippogrif. It provides some great views of Hogsmeade.
Hogwarts Express to Diagon Alley
A train journey that links Islands of Adventure to Universal Studios. If you have purchased a two park ticket this is the best way to get between the parks. You board the Hogwarts Express at Hogsmeade for a quick hop over to Kinds Cross (for Diagon Alley). However, being a theme park it is not just a simple train journey – expect some entertaining “Harry Potter” style surprises along the way as you travel from the countryside back to London.
Diagon Alley (Universal Studios)
If you think Hogsmeade was impressive, wait until you see Diagon Alley. This is a relatively recent update (2014) to the Universal Studios park. You enter Diagon Alley at Kings Cross Station and you will be amazed by what is on front of you. You will initially see what looks like an exact replica of Diagon Alley from the Harry Potter films, with Gringotts Bank straight ahead – an amazing sight. My advice would be to take a walk through the streets, soaking up the atmosphere and entering as many stores as you can. #NInja tip – every 15mins or so, the dragon on top of Gringotts Bank breathes fire. It is over in seconds so make sure you are ready with your camera when the grumbling noises begin.
Diagon Alley is also accessible via the Hogwarts Express from Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
What an experience this is. When you enter Gringotts Bank you’ll think you have just stepped in to the film itself. There you will find the workers counting money at their desks as you line up to take the ride – they even interact with you if you get too close. It is a great area to keep you occupied as you wait for this coaster/3D simulator hybrid that is just amazing. Some nice surprises on this ride – a must for Potter fans.
Ollivanders Wand shop
This is the place to go to see how a wand chooses its wizard. You may get selected for the pairing ceremony or get the chance to see someone else get paired with a wand. If you get chosen for the pairing ceremony, you can purchase the unique wand for approx $50 (this will be interactive and work at the various Wand Stations about the park). Alternatively, you can select one of the many Harry Potter character replicas, custom wands or interactive wands that are on sale (prices vary).
Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade
A train journey that links Universal Studios to Islands of Adventure. If you have purchased a two park ticket this is the best way to get between the parks. You board the Hogwarts express at Kings Cross station London for a quick hop over to Hogsmeade. Like the journey the other way, expect some “Harry Potter” style surprises. Don’t miss the chance to run through the wall at platform 9 and three quarters though – you won’t believe it so have your camera ready!
Something that is available in both Hogsmeade and in Diagon Alley, but in my opinion is better in Diagon Alley – which is the most likely place that people will buy their wands (if they are true to the films). The concept is that a user buys an interactive wand (most likely from Ollivanders Wand Shop) and when the wands are waved at certain points in Diagon Alley (which are marked by symbols at various locations) some magic happens – make sure you try it!!
CityWalk – Food & Drink
CityWalk is the entertainment section in between / before you enter into either of the main parks. It is jam packed full of restaurants, nightlife options, exclusive shops, an enormous cinema and even 2 x superb Mini Golf courses!
When it comes to eating and “getting your grub on” there are many options, ranging from park eateries to restaurants in and around CityWalk. You can get anything you want from burgers and fries to Asian rice dishes. There is literally loads to choose from, with some of my favourites listed below. Prices vary but you should expect to pay from around $10-$15 for meals within the park eateries, with average prices rising if you choose to eat at the places listed within CityWalk.
Note that the prices are categorised as follows: $ = budget, $$ = mid-range, $$$ = higher-range, $$$$ = expensive
Cafe La Bamba – American – $$$
Finnegans Bar & Grill – Irish – $$
Leaky Cauldron – British – $
Lombard’s Seafood Grille – Seafood – $$
Mel’s Drive in – American – $
Captain America Diner – American – $
Thunder Falls Terrace – Various – $$
Confisco Grille – American – $
Mythos* – Various – $$$
Three Broomsticks – British – $
Antojitos – Mexican – $$
Emeril’s Orlando – American – $$$$
Hard Rock Cafe – American – $$$
Bubba Gump Shrimp Co – American, Seafood – $$$
MargaritaVille – American – $$$
(*Number one theme park restaurant in the world – 2003 to 2008 (Theme Park Insider)
#NInja Tips & Tricks
Get to the parks early (open at 9am) since it really starts to pick up at around 10:30. It can take time to get to the entrance of the parks – anywhere from 20 to 35 minutes from the car park.
The car park is open early, so I would advise arriving at about 8:00 to 8:30. Note – general parking costs $20 per car.
The park entrances (turnstiles) are a decent walk from the security area so don’t be fooled that you are in because you have just got through security. Don’t use strollers on the moving walkways – it’s not allowed. And all bags must be checked before entering so get them ready to save time.
Express pass – allows you to skip the wait times for certain rides an unlimited number of times. Dependent on which pass you go for, it can cost between roughly $50 and $90. My advice is to get to the park early and prioritise the big attractions – that way you can avail of shorter wait times without the cost. However, Express Pass is a must for those who don’t have the opportunity to get to the parks early.
Single rider – if you don’t mind riding the attractions by yourself, enter the single rider line and you will definitely not have to wait as long as the regular line. This line can sometimes be even faster than the Express pass line
A good POA (“Plan of Attack”) for parks is very important. Have a look at maps before you leave and work it out!
If you are there early, make sure you go round the park Anti-clockwise (its human nature to go clockwise and you will see yourself that at least 2 thirds of people naturally go that way!).
Best times to go (quietest, lowest crowds) are first thing in morning, and late in the evening.
App-tastic. Download those park apps onto your mobile phones! Good for planning purposes to check those waiting times when you are not near an info board.
Know your park opening times inside out, they can change at times based on events and seasonal trends
Have a handful of quarters ready for the bridge at Dudley Do-Rights Ripsaw Falls in IoA. Soaking people when they think they have escaped getting wet is randomly self-satisfying
When you are at parks, I’d suggest you bring a small light bagpack . Easier to stick all your stuff (for example, your money, car keys, tickets, camera, phones, sunglasses case) than keeping in your pockets.
Most rides have locker storage for you to put it in whilst you enjoy the ride.
Also, it is a good idea to bring water in and maybe a small towel or change of t-shirt for the days you want to tackle the water rides – there are a couple you will get drenched in. And certainly don’t wear trainers on the days you will be on water ride!
*all prices correct at time of posting April 2017