Universal Orlando Resort
The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle | Universal Orlando Resort
The Magic of Christmas at Hogwarts Castle | Universal Orlando Resort
Travel

The Ultimate Guide to Universal Studios Florida

There's a lot more to Universal Orlando than wizards and wands. Yes, Potter stans should 100% visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter -- it’s so fantastic, we have an entire guide just for it

Still, I can tell you as someone who’s been visiting Universal Studios Florida (the official name for the park) since long before Harry Potter was even a thing, there’s a whole non-wizarding world of fun in the rest of the park, too. 

Fans of all things spooky (and Stranger Things) especially won’t want to miss the 30th anniversary of Halloween Horror Nights in 2020 -- but there’s plenty to do in the park year-round. Like seeing if you can get the highest score possible (999,999) in Men in Black Alien Attack.

Here’s our guide to the best rides, places to eat, money-saving tips, and things to keep in mind on your visit to Universal Studios Florida.

MORE:The biggest mistakes people make when visiting Disney

Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration
Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration | Universal Orlando Resort

But first, what’s the difference between Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure?

Islands of Adventure is a separate theme park within Universal Orlando, which is comprised of three theme parks (Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay) as well as Universal’s City Walk. Each park requires a separate ticket and entrance fee (ticket prices range from $119 to $139 for a 1-day, 1 park ticket, depending on the time of year, but there are always deals to be had if you buy tickets for more than one day or more than one park at a time). If you only have the time and money to visit one, you’ll have to choose wisely, my friend.

The difference is in the names: Universal Studios features classic rides and attractions themed around movies and films, whereas Islands of Adventure is more about fantasy and thrill rides. Both parks have some Harry Potter magic (the Hogwarts Express transports you in between the parks), but Universal Studios is more about shooting aliens, hanging out with the Simpsons, and getting lost in New York with Jimmy Fallon.

Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit | Universal Orlando Resort

The best rides at Universal Studios Florida

One thing Universal’s got going for it over that other Orlando theme park is that there are some pretty legit, thrilling rides for adrenaline junkies. Of course, there’s plenty of kid-friendly stuff too, plus some old classics -- yep, the E.T. ride is alive and well. Here are some of our favorites:

Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit: This is definitely the most hardcore coaster at Universal. It reaches 65 mph and can be quite shaky and scary (especially if you sit in the back seats). It also has a terrifying 90-degree angle climb that leaves you thinking something along the lines of “My god, why did I do this to myself.”

A fun music feature lets you select your own personal background jam for the ride. Just make sure you’re quick about it, because once the coaster gets going, your music options disappear. Just click your favorite genre and pick the best available song, or else you may end up music-less and more terrified than ever.

Men in Black Alien Attack: Real talk, this is the most underrated ride in all of Universal. It’s easy to overlook, nestled somewhere between The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Springfield: Home of the Simpsons. But it’s surprisingly amazing with some cool stand-out features. 

It’s a competitive ride -- there's really nothing else like this ride-and-shoot combo. Plus, there are a few secret tricks to get a higher score than your buds. You’ll score more points if you shoot the aliens that are “hiding,” like in windows or behind trees. And you can earn an extra 100,000 point bonus -- at the end, once you see the big monster, listen carefully to the speakers in your seat and press the red button before anyone else in your car. No bonus points, unfortunately, for knowing all the words to the Will Smith song.

Revenge of the Mummy: This indoor roller coaster is definitely not for the faint of heart, since it features a sudden plunge into total darkness that is downright terrifying. As you run away from evil Imhotep, your car will run into swarms insects, warrior mummies, and fire (yes, real fire!) Make sure you carefully listen to the video at the end, because you might hear Brendan Fraser say “Ooh, that feels good.” (And once you hear it, you can’t unhear it). 

The Simpsons Ride: Maybe avoid this one if you just ate lunch. There’s a lot of twists and turns with an indoor simulator that features Homer and the gang from Springfield. It’s a super fun ride for fans, a less-fun ride for folks with weak stomachs.

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts: It’s not a visit to Universal Studios without a visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, amirite? This is another indoor/simulated roller coaster combo but it won’t disappoint. Here, you’ll join Harry, Ron, and Hermione as they attempt to navigate the bank’s tight security and escape from their nemesis’ grasp. 

Plus, waiting in line for the ride is almost as exciting as the ride itself; honestly, this is one of the most intricate waiting areas I’ve ever seen. Once you venture outside after the ride is over, make sure to look up and wait (about 10 minutes) until you see the dragon roar and spit out fire. 

Always ride the outdoor rides first 

Among the many things non-Floridians don’t realize about the Sunshine State is there ain’t a whole lot of sunshine around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. In the summer months, Orlando’s tropical weather often results in a regularly scheduled afternoon downpour.

If your heart’s set on outdoor rides like Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit or Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl, then make sure you hit ‘em earlier in the day. The rides will shut down if there is lightning within five miles, so you may be impacted even if there isn’t any rain directly above you. 

Not all rides are acceptable for little kids

Several rides in the park won’t allow children under 40 inches (about 3-feet) to ride. Luckily, Universal’s “rider swap” (or “baby swap”) program provides a nifty workaround for families. Basically, Adult #1 waits with the too-short kid (aw) in a designated area, while Adult #2 & Co. ride the ride. Then, Adult #1 can swap in once the other members of their group are done -- without having to wait in line again. Here’s the list of rides that currently offer rider swap

Loews Sapphire Falls Resort
Loews Sapphire Falls Resort | UNIVERSAL ORLANDO RESORT

Tips & Tricks for Visiting Universal Studios

The best times to visit are during school hours

While summer might seem like an obvious time to go, I would strongly recommend avoiding the June-August months. Crowds are at their worst, and it’s Florida’s hottest, muggiest, steamiest time of year.

Instead, go right after school starts (September and October), when you’ll catch some amazing Halloween Horror Nights decorations and attractions; or in April (avoid Easter) and early May before school ends. It varies, but single-park ticket prices are often cheaper on weekdays than weekends.

Splurge on the Universal Express Pass
I recommend shelling out some extra bucks for the Universal Express Pass ($69.99 if you want express access just once per ride, $89.99 if you want unlimited express access). It allows you to access a special early line for almost any ride (except for Fievel's Playland) that lets you bypass a huge chunk of the regular line, thus save you a lot of time even during the off season. Honestly, a few times I’ve simply walked onto the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit or Men in Black Alien Attack rides, just because I had the lucky combo of the express pass and the right time of year.

Bring your own reusable water bottle 
This is probably the best way to save money at Universal Orlando. The last time I went, my partner and I brought one bottle between ourselves and had no trouble finding water fountains to fill it up. We saved something like $50 on bottle water just by doing this. It’s Florida, it’s hot, you’ll get thirsty. And consider the planet, people!

Stay at one of Universal’s hotels for easy access and special offers
It’s certainly not the cheapest option, but it’s definitely the most convenient. Staying on the property in one of the Universal hotels (such as my personal favorite, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, where you can dip in the pool on particularly hot days) can save you a ton of time. With the hot Florida sun and near-constant walking, it’s especially satisfying to get to the park early, leave around lunchtime for a break and a catnap, and then come back in the early afternoon to stay ‘till closing. This helps you avoid a lot of the big lines that tend to form around mid-day and maybe even save yourself some time (and money) by eating outside of the park. 

Many hotels have special offers, such as early access to the park before everyone else, and direct access to Universal CityWalk via boat or bus. Of course, there are also other (usually more affordable) options nearby, like the Holiday Inn & Suites Across From Universal and the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at the Entrance to Universal Orlando. Just be prepared to spend time in the early morning traffic getting to the park.

If you’re driving in, prepare to pay for parking
Traffic to enter the park is especially hectic in the later morning hours (around 10 am until lunchtime). And parking isn’t cheap: $26 for regular parking and $36 for prime parking. There’s also valet, which costs $26 for two hours before 6 pm, and a pick-up/drop-off location if you’d prefer to just Uber there from your hotel. 

Moe's Tavern At Universal Studios
Moe's Tavern at Universal Studios | Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr

Where to Eat & Drink at Universal Studios

Best for lunch: Moe’s Tavern
Located in Springfield USA
For the best lunch with the most options (read: if you’re with picky eaters or if you yourself are a picky eater), head straight for Fast Food Blvd. in Springfield. They’ll be playing some classic scenes from The Simpsons at Moe’s Tavern; but there’s also a Krusty Burger, and Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck.

Runner up: If Springfield isn’t to your liking, head to the New York section of the park. Finnegan’s is a traditional Irish-American joint offering classic dishes like shepherd’s pie, bangers and mash, and Guinness beef stew. The recently-opened Today Cafe plays The Today Show on big screens with studio lighting. Here you’ll find typical American fare like breakfast sandwiches, and New York-inspired dishes like The Big Apple Cheese Platter and Chinatown Chicken Platter.

Best place to drink during the inevitable afternoon rainstorm: Eternelle’s Elixir of Refreshment
Located in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
You’ll find Eternelle’s inside of the Carkitt Market. These tasty non-alcoholic (sorry) elixirs transform when combined with water. It’s hard to choose (I always get the Babbling Beverage) but the best part might just be the incredible views of Diagon Alley -- a great people-watching spot for sure.

Runner up: You can’t mention good drinks in Universal Studios without mentioning the classic Duff Brewery. It’s got an open-air bar with lots of seating -- which may not be the best place if you’re looking for a break from the afternoon rain. There are beautiful waterfront tables with umbrellas where you can sip on your Duff favorites (and to be clear, these beers are NOT non-alcoholic).

Best for a sweet treat: Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour
Located in Diagon Alley, the Wizarding World of HP
Do not, I repeat: Do NOT even think about going anywhere else for dessert at Universal. Located inside Diagon Alley across from the Gringott’s ride, this ice cream parlor serves a wide variety of flavors of ice cream, including butterbeer and sticky toffee pudding, plus a damn good soft serve (ask for two flavors because why not).

Don’t forget about all the great restaurants at Universal CityWalk
There are some fantastic restaurants in Orlando outside of Universal, such as Santiago’s Bodega and vegan-friendly The Sanctum Cafe, but you don’t necessarily have to venture far for delicious fare. If you’re already staying on Universal property, you don’t have to venture far for great grub. Favorites include VIVO Italian Kitchen, the newly-opened Bigfire, and The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar. Head to Cowfish if you’re an especially big fan of surf ’n turf, and you might just be pleasantly surprised by the weird and exciting fusion concoctions they’ve created. 

Come back at night for chocolate and Blue Man Group
If you’re even considering trying to eat semi-healthy while visiting Universal, then fuggedaboutit. At least that’s what you’ll be doing the minute you lay your eyes on the magical restaurant called The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen at Universal CityWalk. This full-service lunch and dinner restaurant is, as the name might suggest, best known for their chocolate. Their milkshake menu is enough to bring out the kid in you but it’s the eight different varieties of Sundaes that you will really go ga-ga over. If you want some added entertainment, too, be sure to check out Orlando’s standing Blue Man Group show -- which is, thankfully, just a hop, skip, and a walk away on Universal CityWalk as well.

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Irina Gonzalez is an editor and freelance writer based in Florida. Follow her on Instagram at @msirinagonzalez.