Until a few years ago, I assumed that Universal Orlando was something akin to a Six Flags amusement park, fun to go to but not worth traveling all the way to Florida. But then I learned that Universal has themed attractions that compete with and even are better than Walt Disney World’s. Plus my children, now aged 9 and 13, really wanted to go to Universal. So we spent the last week of summer at the Universal Orlando Resort!
Since every school in the country outside of New England has already had their first day of school, the week before Labor Day weekend is a good time to go to Universal. The crowd levels were minimal and we were pretty much walking onto every ride! With COVID still more of a threat now than I expected when making reservations, the absence of crowds was reassuring. I’m happy to note that almost all of the people who were there wore masks when indoors, and a good number of people wore them outdoors as well.
Today, I’m going to write up my thoughts on the areas, attractions, shows, and dining we enjoyed at Universal Studios Florida, the first park to open back in 1990. Tomorrow I will write about Islands of Adventures and other areas of the resort.
The entry area to Universal Studios Florida is basically designed to look like actual film studio buildings and is actually the least appealing area of the park, especially since there is little shade.
- Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem – While not a huge fan of the Despicable Me franchise, I have to admit the yellow, goggle-eyed Minions are irresistible. In this simulator attraction, guests sit in an auditorium setting with their seats synched to the action in the animated film. The plot has us as volunteers to be converted to Minions by the supervillain Gru, with his adopted daughters Margo, Edith, and Agnes taking over the training. Hijinks ensue! There are two preshows before getting into the ride, and it’s both funny and fun. Surprisingly, this is the one attraction of this type that doesn’t require 3-D glasses, but I didn’t miss them at all. ***1/2
- Shrek 4-D – This is another simulator attraction where theater-style seats are synched with the film action and the audience is periodically sprayed with water and air for “4-D” effects. Before the movie is an overly-long preshow in a standing room only area where fairy tale characters talk about how they are being tortured by the ghost of Lord Farquaad. The film itself involves Shrek and Donkey saving Princess Fiona from the ghost of Lord Farquaad. It was a funny movie, but not something I’d want to do more than once. ***
- Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit – As a “plus-size” person, I was concerned about Universal’s reputation for rides where fat people can’t fit. I tried the test seat Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and found that I should sit in one of the modified seats. However, when boarding the team member said that they were going to try me out on the regular seat and then squished me beneath the restraints so I could barely breathe. One of the features of Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit is being able to chose the song that will play during the ride, but with the kerfuffle about boarding I never had a chance to chose. I can’t tell you what the dance pop song was that played for me, but it was suited to the ride. The roller coaster has some great drops and inversions and is actually longer than it appears from outside. I didn’t get to ride a second time, but if I ever do, I will demand the larger seats. ***1/2
- Transformers: The Ride 3-D – I don’t know much about The Transformers other than they are “robots in disguise” advertised throughout my youth. I never saw any of the many Transformers movies. So the plot of this ride was pretty incomprehensible. Basically the riders are caught in a big game of keep away with something called the All Spark that the good guy Autobots are trying to protect from the bad guy Decepticons (it didn’t help that I couldn’t distinguish the Autobots from Decepticons). Transformers: The Ride 3-D follows the same design as The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Islands of Adventure, with motion platform-mounted vehicles moving among projected scenes, but it has none of the storytelling or hear of its predecessor. **
- TODAY Cafe – We stopped in to get a quick drink and a snack and escape the sun. It’s a bright and airy cafe with lots of TVs showing NBC news to remind you that bad things are happening in the world while you enjoy your vacation. ***
The New York area is basically a Hollywood studio backlot but it’s probably the second best themed area of the park. It’s basically an amalgam of brownstone houses, restaurants, bars, and recognizable miniatures of New York City landmarks.
- Revenge of the Mummy – Based on the 1999 movie, this attraction is a clever mix of a dark ride and an indoor roller coaster. One of the downsides of no crowds is that you miss out on the story setup in the long queues. But the basic premise I got of this ride is that the cast of The Mummy are filming a sequel in a NYC museum of antiquities and the film crew are frightened of a mummy’s curse. Somehow we end up in actual archaeological excavation in Egypt before boarding the ride. The ride itself has a good mix of projects, audio-animatronics and practical effects as Imhotep threatens to steal our souls. On the roller coaster portion there are spooky projections reminiscent of old-time Pretzel Rides you might find at a Coney Island type of amusement park which is a nice touch. Also, there’s a fun fake out. ****
- Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon – My kids really wanted to go on this ride despite the fact that they’ve never watched late night talk shows. For that matter, I haven’t really watched The Tonight Show since Johnny Carson was the host. It was nice to see an exhibit for Carson and other hosts in the lobby. The ride is supposed to be a simulated go-cart race so I thought we’d sit in a go-cart type of ride vehicle, but we actually sat in auditorium-style seating modelled after the studio at Rockefeller Center. Despite not really knowing Fallon’s characters, this ended up being a fun and clever ride with lots of nice New York City moments. ***1/2
- Louie’s Italian Restaurant – my son really liked the pizza here, so we ended up eating here twice. In my opinion, it was better than typical theme park pizza but didn’t live up to real New York pizza, despite the themed ambience. ***
- Beat Builders – The kids don’t like shows so we didn’t get to see much, but during an aforementioned stop for pizza, I slipped outside Louie’s to watch Beat Builders. These are four men dressed as construction workers who perform percussion on instruments made of hand tools. It was fun, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see them. ***
The San Francisco area is small and not as quite a recognizable simulacrum of the city as the New York area. Songs like “If You’re Going to San Francisco” and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” appropriately play on a loop, as well as more bizarrely the song “If I Had a Million Dollars” by Toronto’s Barenaked Ladies. A shark hangs on a pierside as a tribute to the former Jaws ride that was located where Diagon Alley is now. As a Jaws fan, I kind of wish the ride were still extant, although from videos I know it was kind of cheezy.
- Fast & Furious: Supercharged – Speaking of cheezy, San Francisco is home to a ride that brings fans of the Fast & Furious car racing movies into the exciting world of riding a party bus. I didn’t go on board myself but my wife and daughter gave it a “meh.” **
- San Francisco Pastry Company – We stopped here for some nice breakfast sandwiches, pastries, and cold brew coffee one morning after early entry. Simple but solid. ***
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley
The best themed area in either of the two parks recreates the wizarding world secret part of London from the Harry Potter books and movies. There are a lot of shops, dining, and bars here for fans to spend their money, but it also is just a great place to explore and find little details. The shadowy Knockturn Alley is there for those interested in the Dark Arts, and the dragon on top of Gringotts Bank breathes fire about every ten minutes.
- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts – This is one of the rides that I was not able to go on due to my girth, although my impression is that it’s similar to Revenge of the Mummy. I enjoyed the detailed queue area of the Gringotts lobby leading to the mine tunnels, and the rest of my family gave the ride high marks. *****
- Ollivanders Wand Shop – The wand chooses the wizard and my daughter was chosen to participate in short choosing ceremony where an actor portraying Ollivander helped her find the right wand. It was a fun and cute moment. The wand (which we purchased) can be used to cast magical spells throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade.
- Hogwarts Express: King’s Cross – A full-scale replica of the Hogswarts Express train departs from platform 9-3/4 from this recreation of King’s Cross station in London which has some nice details of the real world railway terminal. ***
- Knight Bus – Outside on the London street front is a full-scale replica of the purple triple-decker bus for wizarding travel. Guests can talk with the conductor, although when we stopped by we chatted with a shrunken head who told deliciously corny puns. ***
If you walk from the New York area that recreates part of Manhattan, you have to pass through San Francisco and London to get to Queens, home of this recreation of the New York State Pavilion and observation tours from the 1964 World’s Fair.
- Men in Black: Alien Attack – Stepping into the pavilion, a host promises a 3-hour educational presentation on the possibility of extraterrestrial life called “The Universe & You – Are We Alone?” This is all a front, of course, for the Men in Black who actually want us as new recruits for fighting an alien invasion. The ride involves shooting at aliens with lasers and is more fun and clever than the similar Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin at Walt Disney World. On one of our rides, I managed to get a 100,000 point bonus although I’m not sure how. ***
The Simpsons, along with The Muppets, were one of the shows that defined the comedic sensibilities of those of us who came of age in the 90s. I was a big fan at the time, although I haven’t really watched the show in the past 20 years. We didn’t spend much time in the area themed to a Krusty the Clown carnival with shops and food stands tied into various characters. It kind of felt like a bad fit with The Simpsons spoofing theme park conventions long after the show has ceased to be a transgressive commentary on society.
- The Simpsons Ride – The ride is a simulator where we join the Simpsons on a new ride at Krustyland where things, of course, go horribly wrong. I’ve never suffered motion sickness on a simulator ride before, but this made me a bit queasy, maybe because it was very warm inside. Anyhow, the ride has some fun gags, but it doesn’t seem suited to multiple rides. The ride used to be themed to Back to the Future with the ride vehicles designed to look like Delorean time machines. Although I never got to rid it, I think a Back to the Future ride would be more timeless and fun than The Simpsons. ***
Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone
The park’s children’s area has a kiddie coaster themed to Woody Woodpecker and a play area themed to An American Tale, so there wasn’t much of interest there to our family. I really wanted to see the Animal Actors on Location! show, but I was vetoed.
- E.T. Adventure – This is the only surviving attraction from the opening of Universal Studios Florida in 1990, and as such relies on old school audioanimatronics instead of projections. The ride vehicle is modeled after children’s bicycles and the first part of the ride recreates the part of the movie where government agents chase E.T. and the kids until E.T. uses his magic to make the bikes fly. The second part of the ride zooms us to E.T.’s home on the Green Planet and is extremely surreal. I ended laughing hysterically at the weirdness. My kids never saw the movie, but really nothing it it would prepare them for that second part. Apparently a feature where E.T. says goodbye to riders by name was discontinued because of COVID, alas. As weird as it is, I’m glad that one old-school ride survives at USF. ***1/2
The Hollywood area is small and indistinguishable from Production Central, so I’m not even really sure when we’re in it.
- Mel’s Drive-In – The 50’s style diner provided a filling and refreshing lunch on our first day. There were jukeboxes at every table but they didn’t need quarters to play. Appropriately, as we dined on August 31, we heard “See You in September” by The Happenings.