While Universal Studios Florida is designed to resemble a Hollywood film studio and backlot, Islands of Adventure is a more typical theme park design. It has several themed areas – or “islands” – arranged around a central lagoon. Overall I found Islands of Adventure to be more aesthetically pleasing and better landscaped of the two parks. It also has more roller coasters and all the water rides, compared with USF which is home to mostly dark rides.
Port of Entry
We didn’t do much in Port of Entry other than pass through, but the area has a number of shops, dining establishments, and bars with an old Mediterranean/Middle Eastern theme. It’s an attractive area even if we didn’t spend time there.
Marvel Super Hero Island
Marvel is owned by Disney but they continue to honor a licensing agreement with Universal for a Marvel-land. At least until the Disney lawyers figure a way out of the agreement. Since Marvel Comics have lots of reboots and multiverses, I think it’s actually appropriate to have attractions themed to comics and animated tv shows at Universal while Disney Parks have attractions themed to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
- Storm Force Accelatron – This is a teacup-style ride themed to the X-Men with sound and light effects. Spinny rides make me puke so I enjoyed sitting on the sideline and watching my family on the ride. ***
- The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man – When Islands of Adventure opened in 1999, this was a key attraction based on state-of-the-art technology. 22 years later it still impresses. The basic gist is that guests have been recruited as reporters for The Daily Bugle, and ride in a special vehicle called the Scoop to keep tabs on Spider-Man and the team of villains who have taken the Statue of Liberty hostage. The dark ride takes the Scoop into various 3-D projected scenes with motion and lighting effects. My Marvel-loving daughter insisted we ride 4 times in a row and I saw something new each time (including spotting all 4 of Stan Lee’s cameo appearances). *****
- Captain America Diner – We had a filling and restful lunch here at your basic diner. ***
- Comic Book Shop – The shop has a large selection of Marvel comic issues and compendiums (but sadly no Unbeatable Squirrel Girl). Oddly, they also had autographed photos and models of actors from Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Toon Lagoon is themed around old comic strips and some cartoons, seemingly whatever Universal could get a good licensing deal on. I don’t know if any kids still read the “funny pages” these days but I doubt they’re reading Gasoline Alley, Broom Hilda, or Cathy. Most of the land is shops and dining establishments themed around old comic strips, but the Lagoon is also home to two of the park’s water rides.
- Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls – I absolutely loved Rocky and Bullwinkle when I was young even though it was already an old show by that time. Luckily, a log flume ride with corny puns is something that’s easy to follow regardless of your knowledge of the source material. The audioanimatronics and design do look a little bit cheap, but then again so did Rocky and Bullwinkle. The massive final drop makes it all worth it.
- Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges – This raft ride is themed to Popeye the Sailor comics which means that my grandparents could feel nostalgic on the ride were they still alive. The ride is wetter and wilder than the similar Kali River Rapids at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, but lacks a big drop. ****
- Me Ship, the Olive – This is a play structure with ladders and slides adjacent to the Bilge-Rat Barges. We went on board to use the water cannons to squirt at people in the rafts. It was fun. ***
This area is marked on the map as its own island but it blends in pretty seamlessly with Jurassic Park. Anyhow, it has just one attraction.
- Skull Island: Reign of Kong – I love King Kong, and think I would have loved Universal Studios Florida’s old KONGfrontation ride with the Roosevelt Island Tram. Skull Island is wisely not themed to any particular Kong movie although the look is more like the Peter Jackson 2005 remake than the 1933 original. The ride takes us on large buses to explore Skull Island. Things go wrong, of course, and we end up chased by the island’s large creatures ultimately swinging on a vine between a carnivorous dinosaur and Kong himself. There’s an awesome Kong audioanimatronic at the end. The buses are driven by 5 different virtual guides who provide unique narration although the plot of the ride experience is the same.
“You did it. You crazy son of a bitch, you did it!” Life imitates art as we get to step into a real-life Jurassic Park theme park.
- Jurassic Park River Adventure – In the movie, guests ride past the dinosaurs in jeeps. Here we’ve been upgrade to sailing past dinos on a boat. But the educational experience is interrupted when Something Goes Wrong and we’re redirected into the raptor pen. The plotting is obvious but the details are really well done with some good scares along the way. The ride finishes with an 85-foot drop and a big splash. ****
- VelociCoaster – I’m a big coaster fan and haven’t found myself actually feeling scared of a roller coaster since I was a child. But the VelociCoaster took my breath away. There were supposed to be velociraptors chasing us but I didn’t even see them until the second ride. I was too busy wondering if the ride’s lap restraint would hold me in for the inversion that seems to keep us upside down a few seconds too long. The VelociCoaster has earned a prime spot on my Favorite Roller Coasters of All Time list. *****
- Raptor Encounter – This is a fun character encounter where you get to have your photo taken with Blue the Velociraptor. The hilarious banter of the host who tells guests how to interact (and not interact) with the deadly dino makes the attraction. ***
- Pizza Predattoria – Under a sign of two raptors fighting over a piece of pizza is a food stand where my daughter and I got a cheese pizza to share and ICEEs. It was good. ***
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade
The wizarding village of Hogsmeade is meticulously recreated (complete with snow on the roofs that doesn’t melt in the Florida sunshine). We entered Hogsmeade via the Hogswarts Express from Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida (only available to guests with a Park-to-Park ticket) an through Jurassic Park. Like Diagon Alley, there are a number of opportunities for anyone with a special wand to cast spells.
- Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – This is the other ride that I didn’t fit on (I’m not sure what the Harry Potter rides have against fat people). My daughter loved and wide and son enjoyed it as well. ****
- Flight of the Hippogriff – This is a kiddie coaster that my wife and daughter rode on. My wife seemed to enjoy it more. **1/2
- Hogwarts Express: Hogsmeade – The ride from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley has a different story and effects than it does in the other direction, but otherwise it’s a nice place to rest your feet in a cool, dark cabin while traveling from park-to-park. ***
- Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure – This coaster is designed to look like a chain of motorbikes with sidecars that Hagrid and Arthur Weasley have designed to take students to a magical creatures class. Things Go Wrong of course and the bikes end up carrying us to the Forbidden Forest past dangerous creatures and various flukes. I think I ended up riding this 8 times in total and it never got old. Like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Walt Disney World it is a tamer roller coaster but the terrific theming and the seven different launches make another addition to my Favorite Roller Coasters of All Time. *****
- Frog Choir – A quintet of Hogwarts students with two giant frogs sing tunes with more a pop beat than in the movies. It was a nice diversion while waiting for the fam to return from Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. ***
- Three Broomsticks – This large dining establishment has lots of cozy nooks and a filling selection of English pub foods. ****
- Hog’s Head – An annex of Three Broomsticks serves beer and mixed drinks as well as the non-alcoholic Butterbeer. It is a cool and restful spot, although the line at the bar moved slowly.
The Lost Continent
This island is the rump of a larger area once themed to myths and legends that got taken over by Hogsmeade and when we were there it had only one operating attraction, which is more of a slight diversion.
- The Mystic Fountain – If talk to this fountain, it talks back. His name is Bob. He liked my floral shirt which reminded him of Magnum, P.I. My wife was absolutely delighted to chat with the fountain for a few minutes. My son was embarrassed and went off somewhere to hide. ***
This children’s island is cleverly and colorfully designed after the artwork of Theodore Geisel. Unfortunately for a kid’s area, it seemed to have the least shade of anywhere in IOA and got very hot. They need to plant some more truffula trees, stat!
- The Cat in the Hat – This traditional dark ride takes guests past audioanimatronics and projections that retell The Cat in the Hat. It feels uninspired that it basically is just a book report rather than something that builds on the story we know. It’s reminiscent of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh at Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom which has the same problem. **1/2
- The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride – Universal’s answer to Disney’s Peoplemover is a trolley ride that goes over the rooftops of Seuss Landing with great views of the entire park. A narrator reads a Seuss story while we ride past various clever scenes in the different buildings. THIS is how to do a Seuss ride properly. There are two different tracks but ended up on the same trolley both times we rode so I can’t tell you which is better. ****
- One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish – A spinner ride surrounded by water jets. I thought this would give us a chance to cool off in the scorching sun of Seuss Landing, but for some reason only one water jet actually functioned while the ride was operating. Very disappointing. *
- Oh, The Stories You’ll Hear – A simple show we caught while resting featured a storyteller reading from a book while The Grinch and Sam-I-Am danced around. We were definitely too old to be the target audience but it was still very cute. ***
Beyond the Parks
Universal Orlando takes the “exit through the gift shop” ethos to a new level with CityWalk. In order to enter or leave USF or IOA, you have to walk through this shopping center with many restaurants, bars, and entertainment venues.
- The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen – On our arrival day we had dinner at this restaurant with a steampunk chocolate factory theme. It’s unique and well done and the food was good too! We finished up with some incredible milkshakes! ****
- Cinnabon – This wasn’t our first choice on our last day, but there aren’t many breakfast options at CityWalk. The size of the egg & cheese sandwich was disappointing. **
- Voodoo Doughnut – A better breakfast option is a half-a-dozen or more fancy doughnuts. ****
- Hollywood Drive-In Golf – We played a round on the Sci-Fi Movie course cleverly themed with aliens “Invaders from Planet Putt-Putt”. ***1/2
- Universal CineMark – On our last day we had time before our flight departed so we saw Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It is a movie multiplex, nothing less, nothing more. ***
- Universal Legacy Store – This shop includes a number of props that were once used in attractions in the park, including from former attractions, so it was fun to look at even if you don’t buy anything. ***1/2
- Universal Studios Store – This is more of your run-of-the-mill souvenir store. **
Cabana Bay Beach Resort
We stayed at this Prime Value resort which seemed to offer quite a lot for a good price. It is themed to vacation hotels and motels from the 1950s and 1960s and full of delightful mid-century modern details.
- Game-O-Rama Arcade – The kids played in the arcade and seemed to have good time but were disappointed that several games were not functioning. **
- Lazy River Courtyard Pool – The smaller pool was open all week and was a nice place to relax in the night after a day at the parks. It also has a great view of the volcano at Volcano Bay water park (which we didn’t visit). There’s a lazy river but you have to buy a flotation ring to use and we never had enough time to spend there to justify a purchase. ***1/2
- The Hideaway Bar & Grill – Where parents go to hide away from their kids. We had a nice snack there while the kids played in the arcade. ***
- Bayliner Diner – This is a large food court with a terrific variety of food choices including some impressive vegetarian options. The downside is that it is a bit pricey for the quality of foods. ***1/2
- Swizzle Lounge – My wife & I stopped in to this bar in the lobby a couple of times for creative cocktails and beers. It was almost like we got to go on a date! The bartenders were very friendly and chatty. *****
- Cabana Courtyard Pool – The large pool was open only on the weekend so we only got to use it on our last day. It has a slide but none of his tried it. It was a nice place to soak. ***
- Atomic Tonic & Grill – The bar by the Cabana Courtyard Pool had a too long wait on the day I went there, but the grill offered a delicious falafel so things balanced out. ***