When we head down to Florida, we usually go straight to Disney. The parks are immersive, and there’s so much to do we’ve found we have to budget our vacation time carefully. This year, for a change, our trip centered around spending time at Universal Studios Orlando. It had been eight years since we were last at the park and since Universal offers a different kind of ride experience than Disney, it was on the long-term to-do list.
Before I get too deep into discussing the main Universal park, I want to throw out a disclaimer. If you purchase tickets to a Universal Studios park anywhere in the world, a percentage of your ticket goes to J. K. Rowling. This was something we learned last summer, months after booking the trip, and probably would have made different choice had we known… but Universal does not do refunds and the money was already gone. I’m planning a whole post to discuss this conflict of interest in a month or so, but I wanted to say upfront – if you are boycotting Rowling, you cannot go to any Universal Studios theme park without inadvertently supporting her.
If you went to Universal Studios in 2013 or earlier, you’ll find the park is a very different place than it used to be. I have memories in 2013 as well as in 1997, and very few of the rides currently in the park are the ones that were there a decade or two ago. Depending on your interests and perspective, this could be a good or bad thing. At the risk of sounding like a dinosaur, I’m going to admit that as a whole, I liked the old park better. Here’s why.
Universal Studios was built on a series of adventure attractions. With the tamest being ET and the more exciting being things like Jaws or Twister, Universal Studios was an adventure. It contained all the franchises I grew up with, many still known by younger generations. Between the animatronics, immersive experiences, and excellent staff, Universal Studios was a cool place to be – even as a kid!
Most of my favorite rides from this part of the park are gone. Jaws, Twister, Kongfrontation, and Earthquake are all long gone. Various shows and other less impressionable rides have faded away as well. Finally, the first “virtual” ride, Back to the Future: The Ride has been replaced with The Simpsons: The Ride. The general experience is the same, but the theming has changed since that whole section of the park has turned into Springfield. I’ll concede that with it’s endless run, The Simpsons is a memorable franchise… but there’s a special place my heart for Back to the Future and I miss that ride.
Speaking of virtual rides… Universal Studios leans more and more towards these kinds of experiences over animatronics, something I find deeply disappointing. For me… if I wanted to watch a TV screen, I’d stay home, you know? Also 3D makes me dizzy and a bit queasy, so these rides are a disappointment for me. If you also get motion sickness, I’d suggest avoiding Universal Studios (the main park) or only doing a half day, as there are only a handful of experiences that do not require 3D glasses.
Among the 3D rides, we have:
- The Simpsons: The Ride
- Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem!
- Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
- Transformers: The Ride 3D
- Shrek 4D (which will be closing permanently on January 10th)
- Fast & Furious: Supercharged
- Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts
If you’re like me and prefer dark rides or even thrill rides over 3D ones, Universal Studios offers the following:
- Revenge of the Mummy
- Men In Black: Alien Attack
- E.T. Adventure
- Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl
- Hogwarts Express (requires a park hopper ticket… and it’s pretty generous to call this a “ride”)
- Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket
There’s also a kids area and a handful of shows. Considering the lean towards 3D rides, it’s really the shows that make Universal Studios interesting for me. That, and seasonal events. We went this time during Halloween Horror Nights (post coming soon!) but we’ve also been at the park during Mardi Gras and that was a blast.
We’ve always been pretty terrible about making time for shows at theme parks, but at Universal Studios, we made a couple exceptions. Because of Halloween Horror Nights, the park closed at 5pm, so we had to make the most of our time. We weren’t able to catch The Bourne Stuntacular, but there are good reviews. We’ve seen the Animal Actors show in the past. That’s one I highly recommend for all ages… it’s just fun!
Since our Universal Studios trip was all about Halloween this year, we made sure to catch the Horror Makeup Show. Its one neither of us had seen previously, and it was excellently done. There was a little horror-grossness, but mostly, it was good fun. It’s an easily repeatable show as the content changes from time to time to promote a recent monster film. While we were there, the show was still promoting 2017’s The Mummy.
While the Wikipedia page tells me there are a lot of staple jokes in this show, quite a lot of the dialogue is improvised, which is a lot of fun. At one point, one of the performers slipped up and said “tampax” instead of “latex” which I assume was a mistake because both performers had to quickly cover up giggling. Improv in live shows is the best.
Not only did I appreciate the audience interactions and the format of the show, but I appreciated the performers versatility. At one point, one of the performers chose an audience member to blame (as one does) for a curtain moving. The selected young woman spoke Spanish, and immediately the performers switched to Spanish to address them… and continued to do so throughout the show. The translations between English and Spanish were worked in flawlessly and it was so impressive, but also important that the performers were able to be inclusive in that way.
I’d definitely go see that show again! In general, Universal Studios’ shows are very repeatable.
Listen… I’m going to do a whole piece on food at Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and City Walk so I don’t want to dig in too deeply just yet. I couldn’t write a whole piece on Universal Studios Florida without mentioning the food, so here it is: every quick service eatery is crowded and messy. Cleanliness was limited and we found more dirty unoccupied tables than clean ones.
The food lines were chaotic and disorganized. We had the Quick Service Dining Plan (which is no longer offered, a perk of having purchased our package back in early 2020) and more than once we were double-charged, or charged for a meal instead of a snack. In short? Quick service dining in Universal Studios is kind of a mess. Oh! And it’s all greasy theme park food.
We didn’t eat table service in Universal Studios, so if you really want to eat in the park… that may be the way to go.
There were moments of fun packed into Universal Studios, but if you’re not there during one celebration or another, it’s a little underwhelming. While we were fortunate enough to have an Express Pass with our hotel stay, the lines are all really long without it.
The park itself was fairly clean during the day, excepting the quick service dining locations. The theming in this park is mediocre – as rides have changed over the years and certain zones have been slashed, it has lost its cohesiveness. Every ounce of theming in the main park had gone to building the London section of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. If you wanted to spend time over there, it’s not enjoyable because it’s so packed that it’s challenging to walk.
We had fun, but Universal Studios still isn’t a park I can see myself visiting frequently. Every decade-ish works for me, hoping that they change up some of the things I don’t like and put in some stuff I do!