Universal, Disney, Six Flags… growing up I visited ALL the theme parks. I was the kid who re-rode the Ninja (a relatively intense Six Flags St. Louis coaster) as many times as I could.
As an adult, I still enjoy an annual dose of theme park but am now far less concerned with the number of rides I can rack up in one visit. These days I’m more intrigued by the overall atmosphere and experience. So, being a diehard Harry Potter fan AND a long-time theme park goer, Universal Studios was on our to-do list when our U.S. road trip took us to Florida earlier this month.
Below are our top ten rides and attractions from our 2-day park-to-park Universal adventure.
The Best Rides and Attractions
1. Jurassic Park River Adventure
Park: Islands of Adventure
Attraction Type: Water Ride
Let’s cut right to the chase: this is my number one! I love water rides, and this one is spectacularly fun. I’ve ridden it many times before at Universal Studios Hollywood, and it never gets old. It’s even better in Florida, though, since the climate is much warmer and you’ll actually feel BETTER walking around semi-wet in the park afterward.
The ride follows a similar storyline to the movie. On a boat that seats about 20, you ride into Jurassic Park, with the same epic soundtrack booming around you. You pass by dinosaurs — some of which spit water at you — until you enter the dangerous raptor enclosure, where the creatures have begun to escape! The ride’s conclusion is, of course, the best part and involves just barely escaping a t-rex and an awesome downhill splash. Despite their drenched faces, there was not one single person on that boat who wasn’t chuckling with a big toothy grin afterwards. I watched several boats after our ride, and I’m telling you: EVERYONE has a good time on this ride. It’s impossible not to! More about the Jurassic Park ride on the Universal website.
2. Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
Park: Universal Studios Florida (Diagon Alley)
Attraction Type: 3D Coaster-Style Ride
When we arrived on day one at Universal, we immediately headed toward Diagon Alley and were pleasantly surprised to find a meager 10 minute wait for the Escape from Gringotts! We stuffed our belongings into a free locker and quickly made our way through the queue. The Gringotts entrance, though not nearly as grandiose as what is shown in the movie, is impressively realistic. The elevator ride “down” (I don’t think we actually moved downward) is impressive as well and really adds to the overall experience — without making you feel sick!
When it’s time to ride, you board your cart and begin your journey through the vaults. This ride is mostly roller-coaster but it does have some video motion simulation tied in. If motion simulators usually make you want to vomit (like me), this one really isn’t bad. The simulations are brief enough that I didn’t feel sick at all! And they’re much MUCH less jerky and terrible than that other Harry Potter ride, which I’ll get to later in this post… Hands down the best Harry Potter ride (and also Ian’s favorite ride overall), you definitely don’t want to miss the Escape from Gringotts! More about the Escape from Gringotts ride on the Universal website.
3. Revenge of the Mummy
Park: Universal Studios Florida
Attraction Type: Roller Coaster Ride
This ride is legitimately scary, so skip it if you (or your kids) scare easily.
But it is also incredibly AWESOME. Some of Universal’s best work. (I suppose that’s the reason this ride’s been around for awhile.) This is a high-speed indoor roller-coaster ride, with a scary mummy theme. It’s on par with the scariness of the movie, so if you can handle that and you like roller coasters, you’ll enjoy this ride.
One final thing to note: the line for this ride is extremely dark. It definitely adds to the whole spooky experience, but if the line is short, walking quickly through the queue with unadjusted eyes can be challenging. More about the Revenge of the Mummy ride on the Universal website.
Park: Universal Studios Florida (Diagon Alley) and Islands of Adventure (Hogsmeade)
Attraction Type: Food & Drink
It tastes like liquid butterscotch. That’s the first thing it reminded me of when I took a sip. You can order cold (the “real” thing), frozen, or hot butterbeer, and you can get it in a souvenir mug for a few extra bucks. (I’m so over cheap souvenir crap, so we stuck with the standard plastic cup.) And since it was a hot day, we opted for the frozen butterbeer, which is similar in consistency to an ICEE with an added rich frothy butterscotch layer on top. We ordered just one at a time to share, and I’m glad we did. It was way too much sugar to finish on my own.
5. Dragon Challenge
Park: Islands of Adventure (Hogsmeade)
Attraction Type: Roller Coaster Ride
This is an outdoor rollercoaster, where you’re seated in rows of four (each in an individual seat), with your feet dangling.
It’s themed like the fourth book (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), as if you’ve been chosen as a champion to compete in the Triwizard Tournament. So for the line, you enter a poorly-lit queue: the gathering area for the selected champions. At the line’s end, you have the option of choosing either the red or the blue coaster, and you can also choose whether to wait slightly longer to sit up front. The coaster itself is fast, with frequent spirals and a considerable amount of time spent upside down, but it’s short-lived enough to hold onto your lunch. I didn’t feel sick until I was off the ride, re-entering the extremely dark and disorienting indoor corridor with poor air flow. It’s a fun coaster, definitely worthy of a ride if you ever find yourself in Hogsmeade. More about the Dragon Challenge ride on the Universal website.
Note to Universal: This ride needs music!!! It’s a simple addition that instantly makes any attraction better, if you ask me!
6. Ollivanders ‘Wand Picks You’ Experience
Park: Universal Studios Florida (Diagon Alley)
Attraction Type: Brief Interactive Show
I read about the existence of this mini-show beforehand, and I’m glad I did, because otherwise we’d have never found it. Plus, since it’s unadvertised in the park (even inside the Ollivanders store), you can count on the line being short. Just ask an employee where to get in line!
It was raining the day we visited, and there was no visible line, so we were invited right in. We walked amongst shelves and shelves of wands and into a room where the wandkeeper selects someone from the audience (obviously the kids take priority here), asks if it’s their first year at Hogwart’s and if they still need a wand. (VIDEO ABOVE!) The small crowd stands to watch as the wandkeeper takes the ‘student’ through a scene very similar to Harry’s wand purchasing experience in the first book/movie. If you’re a Harry Potter fanatic, this experience is an absolute MUST. Even if you’re not the one who gets picked, it’s really fun to watch! More about the Ollivanders shop on the Universal website.
7. The Line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Park: Islands of Adventure (Hogsmeade)
Attraction Type: Video Simulation Coaster Ride
I may not be a fan of the ride itself (more on that below), but the line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is worth seeing. If I were to go back and do it again, I’d walk through the line and then bail out on the ride part. In line, you’re walking through Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and plenty of magic awaits. In my opinion, the hall of talking paintings that you walk through in the queue for this ride was the absolute BEST part of the entire Wizarding World of Harry Potter (both parks included). The talking paintings were perfectly realistic and played a huge part in the whole magical feel of the park. Whoever designed those deserves a big fat bonus, if you ask me. (And no, I’m not related to, nor do I have any actual idea who designed them.)
So even if you don’t like rides, just go for the line! There were plenty of folks doing just that on the day we visited. More about the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride on the Universal website.
8. Diagon Alley
Park: Universal Studios Florida
Attraction Type: Themed Park Section
As far as entire themed park sections go, Diagon Alley is in my opinion the most complete, best executed park section at Universal. And there are three main reasons I think so: First, the most iconic wizard businesses from the Harry Potter books can all be found there — get a full list of attractions, eateries and shops in Diagon Alley on the Universal website — the best of which are:
- Ollivanders, where you can (and should) have your wand choose you (see #6 above)! Just make sure you get an interactive wand (because once you’re shelling out $40 for a wand, what’s $8 more?) And it’s important to know that of the two Wizarding parks to be found at Universal, Diagon Alley is the best for your interactive wand experience. Watch a video of Ginny, Fred and George testing out the interactive wand experience below!
- Gringotts, the wizarding bank, where you can ride attraction #2 on this list
- Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, complete with the miniature Umbridge cycling overhead
Second, Knockturn Alley is like a miniature park within a park, and it’s right here in Diagon Alley. Walk through to find interactive wand opportunities and Borgin and Burkes dark wizardry shop! And third, the overall Harry Potter atmosphere is better here than in Hogsmeade. Perhaps it’s the higher than average proportion of “wizards” you’ll find here (look around and you’re guaranteed to see someone doing magic on something), or maybe it’s the fire-breathing dragon that erupts every fifteen minutes, or it could be the difficulty you’ll experience just locating this section of the park (because putting a label on Diagon Alley would just ruin the authenticity)! Whatever it is, the atmosphere in Diagon Alley really raises the bar for what I’ll expect in the future from the Universal theme parks. More about Diagon Alley on the Universal website.
9. Animal Actors on Location
Park: Universal Studios Florida
Attraction Type: Show
As I’m sure you all know by now, I’m a sucker for cute animals. So this show was a nice motionless addition to our day. Lots of dogs, a couple cats, a pig, an otter, exotic birds, and what looked like a silky white skunk all made an appearance during this show. I didn’t put this attraction high on my list, because there ARE more exciting things to experience in the park, but I think it’s nice to know that there are options for people who don’t come to Universal for the rides.
It also makes for a nice break after getting your stomach all mixed up from riding one of those awful motion-simulation rides. More about the Animal Actors show on the Universal website.
10. Hogwarts Express
Park: Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure (Hogsmeade) *multi-park pass required
Attraction Type: Interpark Transit with Video Simulation
I enjoyed the Hogwarts Express more for the overall atmosphere than the ride experience on the train.
When you board, you sit on padded benches in train cabins of eight people, and as the train moves, you can “watch out the window” (this is a video) to see what’s going on outside. (Feeling sick? Sit near the door. The video simulation is less upsetting from that vantage point.) You’ll also see the shadows and hear the conversations of fellow passengers — Harry, Ron and Hermione — as they walk past your cabin on the train. And don’t worry: the dementor part is short-lived and isn’t too scary!
We rode the train at least six times, first picking up the train just outside of Diagon Alley at King’s Cross Station in the Universal Studios park. Taking the train in this direction was better than the other way around, mostly since you can get a much better photo with the front of the train before your ride, though you will find another great photo opportunity with the Hogwarts Express right near the train station in Hogsmeade, where a replica train is on display just for this purpose. At King’s Cross you can also witness the riders in front of you ‘disappearing’ onto Platform 9 3/4. More about the Hogwarts Express on the Universal website.
Want to know our least favorites from our 2-day Universal visit? That’s next!
The Worst Rides and Attractions
I have just one thing to say to the theme park gods of Universal: You have GOT to stop with the simulated motion crap! With open minds, we tried as many as we could bear, and each one nearly ruined our entire Universal experience. If I get a vote in the future of Universal, it’s for more REAL rides where REAL (and much more exciting) motion is involved, and not this cop-out simulation bull. Who’s with me?
So while the good seemingly outweighs the bad at Universal — there are only FOUR things listed below — the only reason this list isn’t longer is that after riding these few, we couldn’t stomach any more motion simulations!
But you can’t say we didn’t try… Here’s what we didn’t like on our 2-day Universal visit:
Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem
You can be a minion, too! Translation: They’ll sock you and rock you and jerk you around just like the ungraceful creatures in the movie. I thoroughly enjoyed Despicable Me (the movie), but this ride was the perfect recipe for a migraine.
For this ride, you put on 3D glasses and sit in bench-style theater seating with a lap bar to strap you in (there’s no escaping!). You’re in for what’s supposed to be a lot of bouncing around — you’re a squishy little thing, after all — but it feels much more like jolting and jerking than a pleasant bouncing feeling. I left with a pounding headache (the beginnings of one of my infamous migraines) and mild queasiness, which took me a good 45 minutes to recover from.
The Simpsons Ride
I’ve watched my share of The Simpsons, and though Universal California had their own Simpsons Ride years ago when I had a season pass, I never got around to riding it. I rode this because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. And it completely did NOT meet the hype.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
I hate to say it — I really wanted to LOVE everything about the Wizarding World — but this sucked. Big time. This was Ian’s least favorite ride. It was a close second for me, right after those minions.
Be that as it may, I STILL recommend you get in line for this ride… because the line itself is AWESOME. If there’s one thing Universal pulled off flawlessly in the Wizarding World, it was the hall of talking paintings that you walk through in line. And Hermione makes it snow, which is pretty cool, too.
Straight Outta Food Truck
We had the unfortunate luck of walking past these annoying rappers at least six times on our 2-day Universal visit. If they actually served food, I may have been more forgiving. But they were just there to put on a show, and it just really wasn’t very amusing.
But on the plus side, if you’re brave enough to squeeze past their act, you can take a cool picture with Jaws!
A few short notes on some other rides…
I would have loved to ride Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls log-flume ride (pictured below), but we were too hot and exhausted to wait the estimated 45 minutes in line. Had we actually decided to ride it, it may well have ended up in my top 10 list (did I mention I love water rides?)
Same goes for the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster, though the reason we didn’t ride that one was because the weather wasn’t in our favor. The ride was closed due to threatening storms just about five minutes before our turn to ride. Something for next time!
The slow-paced, flying bicycle E.T. Adventure is still a classic Universal ride in my opinion, though I do think it could be revived with some updates to make it more exciting.
And the Twister ride… well, that one’s pretty silly, and it’s hardly a simulation of a real tornado, but the flying cow gets me every time. That said, when it’s time to add something new, I certainly won’t be sad to see it go.
Deciding which park(s) to visit
After considerable debate over which Universal park to visit, what day(s) to go, and whether or not to purchase any express passes, we settled on purchasing simple 2-day park-to-park passes online and decided we’d upgrade to express passes (skip the lines) in the park if lines were long on the days we went. Here are some reasons we made those choices:
- We purchased tickets online because you save money doing so. You can print your own tickets at a self-serve kiosk when you get to the park.
- We purchased park-to-park passes because we wanted to see BOTH Wizarding Worlds on our visit (Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are in separate parks), and 2-day park-to-park passes are cheaper than purchasing 1-day single park passes for two days. Plus, the park-to-park pass lets you ride the Hogwarts Express!
- We purchased 2-day passes because we decided an extra $50 was reasonable for an entire extra day. If all you care about is Harry Potter, then a 1-day park-to-park pass should allow you to do everything in the Wizarding Worlds, but paying just $50 more allowed us more time to relax and gave us plenty of time to check out the other attractions, too.
Though we had the option of upgrading to express tickets in the park, we decided not to. First off, being October, it wasn’t crazy busy to begin with. And then it rained on our first day, which was AWESOME (lines were short and the temperature was bearable). On the second day lines were longer, but there was still only one ride we would have used it on if we upgraded (Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls). Lucky for us, most of the crowds were in line for the motion simulator rides we hate!
Plan ahead! Don’t forget to pack:
Universal offers free lockers during rides that require you to use them. And some rides have lockers available, but they aren’t free since they aren’t required. So if you want to ride that Jurassic Park ride but don’t want to soak your camera, you’ll need some water protection. It’ll also help when it rains! (And it rains every day in Florida!)
- emergency poncho or your favorite rain jacket
- dry bag — Protect your camera if your daypack won’t cut it.
- reusable water bottle — Stay hydrated!
- daypack — Carry everything in something lightweight and water resistant.
All in all, we had a really fun (though exhausting) 2-day visit to Universal’s theme parks in Florida. Will you be visiting any of the Universal parks soon? Please leave us your questions and comments below!
About the Author
- In March 2014, Diana called it quits on her traditional American working life and set out to explore the world with her partner in crime (and love of her life) Ian Norman. They now live a sustainable life of full time travel, working for themselves and seeking adventure at the same time. Here on North to South, Diana documents their journey in achieving and maintaining this "road less traveled" way of life.