Universal Studios in Florida is split into two different theme parks, Islands of Adventure (I wrote about this here), and Universal Studios. This post shares mine and my friend Helen’s experience at the latter of these – spoiler alert, which you can probably tell from the superlatives in the title, it was amazing…!
When you arrive at Kings Cross station (unnervingly realistic for us Brits), you come out next to the hidden entrance of Diagon Alley. It’s surprisingly hard to spot, but once we slipped in through the wall, we were literally open-mouthed. The attention to detail here is incredible. A number of well-known shops from the books are here, from Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes to the Leaky Cauldron.
We mooched around taking photos and generally being in awe, and then had an ice-cream at Florean Fortescue’s ice-cream parlour. Pretty tasty though the flavours we had escape me. Helen thinks salted caramel was involved…
One of the highlight’s of Diagon Alley is the huge dragon perched on top of Gringott’s bank which occasionally belches fire. If you visit, watch that you also don’t miss the hidden Knockturn Alley, with the dark arts shop Borgin and Burkes.
To get a feel for Diagon Alley, and the intricate detail that went into it, you can watch a fun documentary (!) here.
My Rating: 5/5
Helen’s view: 6/5 (This was the absolute highlight for me. I think I could have spent a whole day here and not see everything. Don’t miss a photo op outside 12 Grimmauld Place, the home of Sirius Black, complete with Kreacher the house elf peeking through the curtains).
I was nervous of this ride on day one, and we decided Helen would go on it alone and test it out. One top tip if you’re going to the park are the (somewhat secretive) single rider lines. If you’re on your own, you can go in these lines, which cut out much of the queuing. The park uses single riders to make sure that all the cars are full on each ride if there’s an uneven number in a party. It tends to be quick, the only downside being that you miss the ‘build up’ of being in the queue which on some rides is very well done. Helen was in and out of the ride on day one, and told me I should definitely try it as it wasn’t *too* scary.
We went on it together on day two, which Helen was happy to do to get the queue experience. We had some bad luck in that, as we had the ride cars in our sights, there was some issue, and they had to shut the ride. We sat in near darkness for a while, not moving, until eventually they evacuated us all out of the ride through the fire doors. However, they even have a plan for that as we were given special tickets to come back at any time and skip the queue.
I was glad we bothered, because again, this ride was stunning. It was a bit more scary than the other Harry Potter rides, perhaps, as there’s at least one drop which is a bit steep and stomach dropping, but more because of the awesome CGI than the actual drop.
You get into a vault car, and you’re in the middle of a film, with all the different actors from the film around you, a physical reality and a visual experience which is really immersive. Again, great fun, and I would have gone on again if we’d had time.
My Rating: 5/5
Helen’s view: 5/5 (I think this might have been better than HPFJ, but I’ve already used up my 6/5!)
We didn’t do much at Universal Studios on day one. We decided we’d just try one ride in addition to the Harry Potter area, and then head home. Men in Black was the chosen ride, mainly because we saw from the Universal Studios App (did I say there’s an app?! Definitely download this, as it has queuing times, a map, and all kinds of helpful information) that the queues were short.
So we had low expectations. And guess what? They were exceeded again! Men in Black is a bit different in that the interactive element is that you have to shoot at ‘bad’ aliens as you are taken through the ride. The ride is fast, and there are lots of fun spins of your car as the aliens hit back. We shot as many aliens as we could, but we really had no clue what we were doing, but it did keep us very engaged! We went on this a second time on day two…
My Rating: 3/5
Helen’s view: 3/5 (Felt in the same league as Spiderman and Transformers – see below. Also, on this ride you are apparently in competition with the car next to you and there is a trick to winning…I think this was just holding down the trigger button for the whole ride and also shooting their car, which would cause them to spin).
Another slick immersive ride, with yet more stunning visuals. It’s most like the Spiderman ride in that your car moves around (spinning, and going at a fast pace), so you really feel like you’re in a car chase, which special effects like wind and heat contribute to. On both these 3D rides you get the sense that the characters actually jump onto your car in a very visceral way.
Even the queuing area is decorated like a military base, and you’re given your ‘mission’ while queuing which helps with the build up. If you’ve seen the Transformers films, you’ll know how good the special effects are, and they haven’t stinted with this ride, creating its own storyline.
My Rating: 4/5
Helen’s view: 4/5
Apart from the Harry Potter rides, this was probably my favourite. Like all the immersive 3D rides it was slick and engaging, and has such a great sense of fun. Like all the rides, it adds to it if you’ve seen the film, but I think even without that, it’s hilarious. The set up in this one is that you’re going into Minion training, and you get sent into the lab, where everything goes wrong. More clever technology, as you sit in a car which moves and makes it feel like you’re on a coaster even though you’re not.
My Rating: 5/5
Helen’s view: 3/5 (This is definitely light hearted fun, great for small and big kids, like us! Rather than individual cars like the other rides, you sit in a theatre style room, and you don’t actually travel anywhere, it’s not a roller coaster like Spiderman, Transformers or Men in Black, but your seats do move around, and with the CGI you feel like you are on the move, it is very effective.)
This was a fun activity, but it might have been impacted in my memory by the fact we had to queue for quite a long time outside in the height of the heat of the day (it was in the early 30s while we were there, with very few clouds in the sky), even with the express pass. Again, it’s a nice set up because you know all the characters, but this time it’s a ‘4D’ experience (you have to wear the 3D glasses), which is where you sit in the same seat and it doesn’t move out of position (although it does move horizontally and vertically in time with the picture on the screen so you do feel like things are happening). The storyline is funny and again has all the characters you know involved.
My Rating: 3/5
Helen’s view: 2/5 (This felt more like a 3D cinema with vibrating seats, than a ‘ride’. Still impressive though!)
This was another unexpected pleasure for me. I enjoy the Simpsons (of course), but wasn’t as excited about this ride as some of the others. But this ride is probably one of the best at capturing the spirit of the show itself. It’s hilarious, very fast-paced, and very immersive. In this one, you sit in a motion-simulator car with a handful of other people, and you’re placed in front of an IMAX screen – where you go on a crazy ride through Springfield. The ride (show?!) features loads of characters from the series, and is also very funny. I also enjoyed the theming of the queuing and the pre-show (a grossly inappropriate-in-a-good-way Itchy and Scratchy safety video for example). Huge fun.
My Rating: 5/5
Helen’s view: 3/5 (Genuinely surprised how good this was given its age. I like that this ride did put us in individual ‘carts’ even if we didn’t travel anywhere like on a roller coaster)
Of all the rides that we visited, this was the only one where I wished I hadn’t bothered. I tried it while Helen was on a couple of the more scary coasters, and she managed two of those while I spent 15 minutes on this one. It’s billed as a ride where you get to experience what it’s like to ‘chase a twister’ or be a storm chaser. But it’s one of the older rides in the park, and compared to the amazeballs of some of the four and five star rides I’ve written about above, it was just a bit…lame. The decor is tired, and apart from some pretend rain and pretend lightning in a studio which you stand in, watching, there’s not much going on.
My Rating: 1/5
As I said, some of the rides were a bit scary for me (Ellen) so Helen went on them alone. Here’s her view!
Of all the rides I went on, I remember this one the least. This must mean it was middle the road, and probably matched with my expectations. I remember it being a fairly short spinney roller coaster in the dark, no CGI, so fairly unremarkable, there are other better rides in the park(s).
Helen’s view: 3/5
I remember this one because it had such great reviews and it very much did not live up to expectation. From the sounds of it (no pun intended), it should have been great. Bucket seats with in head rest music while you go round a pretty twisty turny upside down roller coaster. But I feared for my life and wellbeing the whole way round. It’s very dated, with only a lap restraint to stop you from falling out upside down. You also get mild whiplash as the bucket seat mean your head and neck flop around, a lot. Also the music selection is very limited (5/6 songs) and very dated (I listened to Limp Bizkit – Rollin’ from 1999!).
Helen’s view: 2/5
Eating and Drinking in the Park and Hotel
At the hotel, it was mainly American themed diner food. They had a good selection for breakfast (I love American breakfasts), and a reasonable selection for dinner, but not as much healthy (or indeed, vegetarian) food as we would have liked. We tried ordering a pizza in one evening, but it was a bit of a hassle and we ended up eating room service pizza instead. The vegetarian selection was ok.
Both days we headed home from the park, exhausted, about 4pm, so we didn’t take the opportunity to go to ‘Citywalk’ for dinner, where we would have had more choice.
We ate a number of times in both parks during the day. We had Churros, pizza, Butterbeer, ice-cream, and various other less-then-healthy and generally nondescript fast food. As you’d expect, the food’s over-priced, but I tend to expect (and accept) that as part of the experience.
Our hotel had several pools, but we didn’t really make the most of those. I welcomed the opportunity to just relax on the bed when we got back and chill, as it was quite a demanding couple of days – a lot of people, a lot of planning, and a desire to ‘make the most’ of our experience meant we did as much as we could within the time we had. And we took a very early flight out (which meant a 4am start), as I was going to a conference in Fort Lauderdale (the reason we’d come to Florida) the next day.
But despite all the running around, I had huge amounts of fun at Universal – it massively exceeded my expectations. Universal set a very high standard for theme parks (it basically blows every British one I’ve ever been to out of the water). I would most definitely go back (in a while) and I would also be up for staying in one of the resorts again, as that was a lot more fun than I was expecting too.
(For part 1 of this post, on Islands of Adventure, go here!)