This trip report starts in a different place than our usual Disney Trip Reports. That’s because this trip began at Universal Studios Orlando. Well, it started in an airport and then on a plane and then in an airport and then in a rental car and then in Universal Studios Orlando. We left Seattle midday so we didn’t get into Orlando until after midnight. We checked into Cabana Bay Beach Resort without any problem. Melissa and I were both excited so we walked around the resort for a while before heading back and falling asleep.
Not wanting to start the trip completely exhausted, we both slept in for a while before waking up and heading towards the park. Universal Orlando’s transportation was really impressive throughout our stay. There was always a bus waiting for us at the resort. I guess having a smaller footprint than Disney World pays off in that aspect. Another aspect I liked on the technical side is the security Universal. Even though you had to go through security just to get into the City Walk portion of Universal Studios, the bags are scanned like at the airport and that really expedited the whole process.
Once inside the property our first stop was brunch because food is always the top priority. We ate at Toothsome Chocolate Emporium. We both loved the restaurant. Read our review here.
After stuffing ourselves, we headed to Islands of Adventure to begin the park day. We didn’t have many plans at Universal. Our two priorities were:
- Spend the majority of our time in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter sections.
- Ride that weird E.T. attraction.
Exciting stuff! I can proudly exclaim to all of you that we accomplished both of our priorities! But, I’m getting ahead of myself…
After a brisk walk through Islands of Adventure we ended up in Hogsmeade. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey had a fairly short wait so we jumped in line. The attraction’s queue is probably the best line I’ve ever been in.
I guess this is the time to divulge that I’m not a big Harry Potter fans. I like the books but don’t love to read. The movies are far from my favorites although the later ones are decent, in my opinion. With all that said, I love the Wizarding World of Harry Potter lands. I could care less about all the tie-ins but the environments are incredible, and that brings us back to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
The level of detail in the queue is astounding. Not to mention that you are walking through a beautiful castle. Even if Hogwarts means nothing to you, the beauty of the building plus the intricate details are enough to wow any moderate theme park fan.
That’s without even getting into the actual ride, which is a modern marvel. Moving guests through screens and sets effortlessly, the attraction is a perfect blend of modern and historic theme park attractions. The story is great as well, taking us on a whirlwind tour of Harry Potter-esque adventures. All of this combined with a thrilling ride system make for one of the best attractions in the world. While this wasn’t my first time on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, it is the first time since I really started analyzing attractions (and since I started this blog). I don’t think I really appreciated how great this attraction is the first time I went on it.
I’m nearly 600 words in and still have a day and a half to cover. Let’s speed this up.
Snowman plus castle is a great combo. For those Harry Potter fans, do you know if the owl is made of snow or is a real owl? Is he/she referred to a SnOwl in the books? Stop rolling your eyes and let me know in the comments.
We went on Flight of the Hippogriff, which is a little kid coaster in Hogsmeade. It’s a dumb addition that makes the place look worse. Hagrid’s cottage in the queue is a nice little detail but this is definitely a mark in the negative for a park that is already heavy on coasters and screens.
We walked around Hogsmeade for a bit and enjoyed every shop and viewpoint. Aside from the aforementioned roller coaster (down to one now that Dragon Challenge is closed) this land is impeccable.
We walked around Islands of Adventure a little while, mostly through the Jurassic Park section. We ended up getting one of the refillable mugs that Universal offers for the day. I think we paid around $15 for the cup and you could refill it at a Coke Freestyle Machine or with an Icee throughout the day. This was a really good deal, especially if you’re willing to share. The cup easily ended paying for itself.
Neither of us wanted to wait in line for the river adventure before deciding to jump over to Universal Studios via the Hogwarts Express, which is another great attraction. No, it’s not on par with other top-tier attractions. The Hogwarts Express does accomplish what no attraction has before (this isn’t true) in being extremely entertaining and themed while being an effective mode of transportation. With that being said, I don’t like Hogwarts Express as much as everyone else it seems.
We made it over to Universal Studios and decided to save Diagon Alley for the evening. We went over to the Simpsons area and rode the attraction there. Both the ride and the land work surprisingly well. Universal nails the goofy and satire that fill Springfield.
I know next to nothing about The Simpsons but this Jebediah Springfield statue alone makes Universal Studios Orlando a success.
Our next stop was the Terminator 2 attraction, which is still a blast after all these years. I was disappointed to hear that they are closing this but I understand why. The franchise is kind of outside the pop culture realm now and the attraction is showing its age. With that said, it is loads of 80’s style fun. I’m glad I went to see this when I did as a few days later is when they announced that the attraction would close.
After narrowly surviving a near apocalypse, we came out to a downpour. It was raining in a way that only Florida knows how to rain. Most people were hiding under cover. Here’s one of the best tips I can give you for a Disney World/Universal Orlando trip. Pack a poncho and don’t be afraid to get your shoes wet. If you don’t mind walking around in a rainstorm then you’ll get on to attractions in no time at all. As Peter Parker’s uncle famously said, “With great rainstorms come much shorter lines.”
We went on Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon which was predictably terrible but somewhat fun. Then came The Mummy, which is a surprising and fun roller coaster/dark ride. It also uses fire and fire is fun. Then came the Transformers attraction, which is dumb like the movies but is also much better than the movies at the same time. While not a classic, the attraction was good enough.
Next came what you all are here to read about…
E.T. Adventure is three things… 1. Weird. 2. Desperately in need of an update. 3. Awesome. For those that haven’t had the pleasure, E.T. Adventure starts off on Earth as you are transporting E.T. on a bike. The cops and NASA(?) are chasing you. Eventually you leave this planet and make it to the Green Planet. This is all like the movie but going from the darkness on Earth to the colors on the Green Planet is shocking. Plus, there are so many other visual things going on in the Green Planet. It’s weird, sort of looks bad and is still kind of amazing. The whole attraction is like Peter Pan’s Flight but a little longer, looks much worse, and maybe you did some drugs. E.T. Adventure didn’t disappoint. Moving on…
We moved on to Diagon Alley for the evening, starting with dinner at the Leaky Cauldron. I’ll probably do a dining review of the restaurant but both Melissa and I enjoyed the meal and would recommend it.
After dinner we rode Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. While the comparison to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is inevitable, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is a very good attraction. The queue is beautiful once inside of Gringotts. While the details of Hogwarts Castle can’t be surpassed, Gringotts is stunning with the chandeliers and giant pillars. The audio-animatronic goblins are impressive and add to the whole experience.
The actual attraction is a little more of a mixed bag. While the ride system is impressive, the attractions story is a little more muddled and this relies heavily on screens. I wish this was more a mix of real sets then screens or simulators. With that said, it is still a blast and a really good attraction. Without thinking much about it, I would guess that Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is in Orlando’s top-ten attractions once you factor in the whole experience. Overall, this is probably my third favorite attraction at Universal Orlando.
While Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is superior to Escape from Gringotts, I do prefer Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade. There are several reasons. Diagon Alley is far more enclosed than the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter. There are no sight line problems and it legitimately feels like you stepped into another world. I don’t get that with Hogsmeade. Diagon Alley has a dragon that breathes fire. More than anything, I just prefer the looks of Diagon Alley and I think it has a more inviting and inclusive atmosphere than Hogsmeade. That’s not to say Hogsmeade isn’t incredible, it is. Diagon Alley is one of the best theme park lands I’ve ever visited. Here’s some photos.
The rest of the evening was spent walking through shops, taking photos and just soaking in the atmosphere. I think we spent nearly four hours in Diagon Alley that night and it went by in a flash. If you haven’t seen this in person I couldn’t recommend it enough. The park closed and we slowly made our way to the exit.
We went to bed not long after getting back to the hotel and woke up for the extra hour offered to resort guests in Islands of Adventure. We started in Hogsmeade again riding Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. It is great.
Next came Skull Island: Reign of Kong, Universal’s newest attraction inside the theme parks (yes, there’s Volcano Bay. It’s a water park.) Reign of Kong was a fun attraction that was fun but left something to be desired. There were some cool sets, especially the giant King Kong AA figure at the end. A few of the screen scenes work as well but not all of them. All in all, this was a good attraction but not great. I would put it as Island of Adventure’s third best attraction, considering that I’m not much of a roller coaster guy.
We walked around the areas of Islands of Adventure that we hadn’t been through yet. It still wasn’t 9 AM so we decided not to get soaked on Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls. Say that 5 times fast.
The cartoon area in Islands of Adventure looks pretty cool but is not inviting at all. I think the area is one of those places where they executed the design really well but the actual idea isn’t a great one.
In more positive news, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man is an incredible attraction. Traveling through New York City as a member of the press, our ride vehicle gets caught up in a battle between Spider-Man and Doc Ock. Like Forbidden Journey, this is a wonderful mix of sets and screens. The attraction is a blast. The story is clear and the ride is thrilling. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man is Universal’s second best ride, in my opinion. I love the attraction and wish it was surrounded by a more engaging Super Hero Island.
Instead, Islands of Adventure showcases a generic roller coaster (even if it is a fun ride and green) as well as comic book looking facades and a drop ride. This area could be so much better and that is largely my frustration with Islands of Adventure. Outside of Hogsmeade, each area has a fault. Both the Jurassic Park and Kong areas look cool but could use slightly better attractions. Super Hero Island has a great attraction but the rest of the area looks bad. Mysterious Island looks great but has no stand-out attraction.
While the park has clear faults, it has taken drastic steps forward. A decade ago, Islands of Adventure was an afterthought and now it is well worth your time. While it has a way to go, so does nearly every park in Orlando. Islands of Adventure is a couple of major tweaks away from being a top-tier theme park.
We went back to the hotel to pack up and check out before returning for a few hours to Universal Studios. Melissa rode Rip Ride Rock-It while I sat on the ground, scared of that behemoth. While I get tired of the roller coasters here, there’s no denying that the attractions here are thrill based than Disney’s. Still, Universal could definitely use some more dark rides or attractions featuring strong stories and sets.
While Islands of Adventure has my 2 favorite Universal Orlando attractions, I still prefer the studios park slightly more. I think the entire slate of attractions there is stronger instead of top-heavy like Islands of Adventure. I also think the transitions between lands work slightly better in Universal Studios than the other park.
I still prefer much of what Disney does to Universal. Overall the studio theme and whatever broad theme Islands of Adventure is going for don’t appeal me like Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Animal Kingdom do. Admittedly, I think both Universal Parks are far superior to Hollywood Studios at this point in time.
Universal does boast a fun slate of attractions though. If they came up with ways to better transition from land to land and made the parks more cohesive I would be an even bigger fan. For now, they are just two parks that I enjoy but won’t go out of my way to see every time I’m in Orlando. The Harry Potter attractions are some of the best in the world, as is Spider-Man. After that I think both parks are a mixed bag.
I know some would definitely disagree with that assessment. I put value in theme and cohesion where others put value in overall attraction lineup. I think both are fair and it is just a matter of opinion. If you are looking solely at attraction lineup, neither Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios would finish lower than 4th out of Universal’s and Disney’s 6 Orlando parks.
I guess this all comes down to whether Universal is worth a chunk of your Disney vacation. If you have never been to Universal but have been to Walt Disney World than it absolutely is. Seeing the Harry Potter lands is a game changer and something you won’t soon forget if you are a fan of theme parks. After that, what you should do is up to your preferences. If you like roller coasters then I would advise spending two days there. If not, then one day is sufficient. If you have more questions about adding Universal on to your Disney World trip, drop them in the comments and I’ll try to add what I can.
We spent the early afternoon back in Diagon Alley. Most of our trip was overcast skies which was great aside for the somewhat lame photos.
I had this Peachtree Fizzing Tea and was impressed. This tasted similar to a jet tea but with carbonation. It’s hard to explain but I enjoyed it.
The ice cream in Diagon Alley is delicious, as well. There is just so much to explore here, I could spend almost an entire day in this land and be happy.
The interactive aspect in the Wizarding World is a highlight, as well. Shortly before these two were practicing making it rain (not dollar bills unfortunately) this employee was helping an older couple and that was fun to watch. Both areas are top-notch people watching spots.
Finally, we hopped aboard the Hogwarts Express and went to say goodbye to Hogsmeade. The rides are different aboard the train depending on which way you go. I prefer the Universal Studios to Islands of Adventure route, for what it’s worth.
We bid farewell to Universal Studios and headed out for an evening, stopping by the grocery store before heading to Hollywood Studios. That’s where we’ll pick up with our next installment. I’m very happy that we spent a day and a half in Universal Studios. We both enjoyed our time at those parks, as well as Cabana Bay.
If there’s any questions or thoughts about our trip report (or just anything in general) please leave them below in the comments. Thank you for reading Wandering in Disney, if you enjoy what you’re reading please subscribe to the blog and like our social media pages. You can do both of those things on the right side of this page. Have a great day!