13 Can’t Miss Rides & Attractions at Universal Studios Orlando
A trip to Orlando’s Universal Studios typically goes hand in hand with a Walt Disney World vacation. While both parks are completely different, they are alike in that they both offer world-class themed rides, entertaining shows, and top notch attractions. Both parks are completely worthy of a separate vacation.
However, if you do plan on squeezing both theme parks into a single vacation, be sure to purchase a multi day pass to Universal, which is home to 2 fantastic parks of its’ own. It will be nearly impossible to get on all the rides and see all the shows in a single visit (especially if you visit during the busy summer season). If budget or time limits you to 1 day, be sure to check out the attractions and rides listed below and purchase a fast pass which jumps you to the front of the line!
Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios are both well-maintained, staffed by friendly smiling faces, and feature a beautiful design and layout. Both parks offer one-of-a-kind experience for movie buffs. Park-to-park tickets are needed to access both parks on the same day. Luckily, the new Harry Potter inspired Hogwarts Express provides an easy, enjoyable ride to and from each park.
Below are 13 of the best rides and attractions found within Orlando’s Universal theme parks. Take a look at the winners and be sure to incorporate at least a few into your trip plans!
1. Diagon Alley (Universal Studios)
Diagon Alley, part of the extravagant, Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a must-see for Harry Potter fans: the only place in the world where you will feel as if you are in the Harry Potter films. The films are brought to life in a magical way with all your favorite shops, treats, and characters from the franchise making appearances. Even if you are not a “Potterhead,” you have to admit that they did an excellent job designing this park. The excitement of Harry Potter fanatics is in the air and you cannot help but join in!
The highlight here is the “invisible to muggles” London shopping district, featuring a handful of shops recognizable from the movies. Other attractions at Diagon Alley include the Hogwarts Express (transportation between parks) and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (a fun themed 3D/roller coaster ride).
Platform 9 3/4 – the perfect photo opp while waiting for the Hogwarts express!
As you walk around the Diagon Alley shops, you will be transformed into the world of Harry Potter. You will forget you are at Universal as you pick out your own wand at Ollivander’s, sip a refreshing Butterbeer, and purchase a Chocolate Frog for your ride on the Hogwarts Express.
A few of the more memorable shops found at Diagon Alley
Ollivander’s Wand Shop – Pick out your own wand! A must for any true Harry Potter fan!
Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes – Here you will find a selection of great joke gifts including Sneakoscopes and Extendable Ears.
Magical Menagerie – All your favorite animals featured in the films, from owls to hippogriffs, can be found here.
Madam Malik’s Robes for All Occasions – Here’s your chance to get your own wizard robe. Also available: Mrs. Weasley’s adorable Christmas sweaters.
Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment – Here you can find all different sorts of magical wizard products such as crystal balls and hourglasses.
Quality Quidditch Supplies – Pick up all your Quidditch supplies and stock up on apparel from your favorite team.
Borgin and Burkes – Head down dark, creepy Knockturn Alley to stock up on your Death Eaters novelty items like skulls and other dark gifts. This creepy alley appears just as it does in the movie with an overall sinister feel and cool special effects including a dark, stormy sky.
Watch out for the dragon on top of Gringotts which blows hot air on you as you pass by.
In addition, be sure to stop for a Butterbeer and traditional British meal at The Leaky Cauldron. Butterbeer basically tastes like a creamy butterscotch flavored milkshake – it’s a real treat on a hot, humid Florida afternoon!
At Diagon Alley, you are able to board the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure. This is a fun & festive way to travel between parks while keeping the Harry Potter atmosphere going.
The cobblestone streets, friendly decked out staff, and general enthusiasm of the crowds adds to the excitement! The combination of great movie themed rides, gifts, special effects, and treats makes Diagon Alley the number one Universal stop for any Harry Potter fans out there!
2. The Incredible Hulk Coaster (Islands of Adventure)
The best roller-coaster in Orlando is definitely The Incredible Hulk Coaster. One of the coolest aspects of this ride is the intense take off. This exhilarating ride includes a speed increase from 0 to 40mph in just 2 seconds! The Hulk zooms on to a heart pounding speed of 67mph as you travel through 7 inversions and 2 underground tunnels filled with mist.
You will be tempted to re-ride this great coaster again and again after your first exciting time around. This is the perhaps the smoothest roller coaster around! This ride is so fast that you barely have time to anticipate the scary corkscrews, loops, and drops. It’s over before you know it and then you are back in line ready to experience it all over again!
3. Jurassic Park River Adventure (Islands of Adventure)
Jurassic Park may be one of Universal’s older rides (opened back in 1999), however, that doesn’t mean it lacks at all in the excitement department! Movie fans will absolutely love this themed water raft ride. As you make your way around Jurassic Park, you will be transported to Isla Nublar where you will be surrounded by realistic dinosaurs. The big thrill comes with the unexpected 75 foot drop at the end.
This is a fun family ride with big thrills and plenty of water to cool you off for a while during the summer! I love the movies and I love this ride just as much!
4. E.T. Adventure (Universal Studios)
E.T., which opened way back in 1990, is one of Universal’s first rides (the park opened in 1989). Don’t listen to the naysayers who consider E.T. to be an outdated ride. With all the new dizzying motion simulators rides, E.T. stands out as one of the classics. Take advantage of the shorter wait time as many tourists skip right pass it in favor of newer attractions. Don’t miss your opportunity to take a bike riding adventure on one of Universal’s most iconic rides.
Take a break from the heat and relax as you glide past forests, the night sky, and even a planet filled with adorable E.Ts. A really fantastic ride with fun animatronics and an attractive set design. I love the portion where you bike across the starry sky – it really feels as if you are riding a bike across the moon! Oh, and the gift shop here is fantastic! So many adorable stuffed E.T.’s!
5. Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge Rat Barges (Islands of Adventure)
Islands of Adventure’s best water park ride is sure to leave you absolutely soaked, which works out perfectly with the hot, humid Orlando weather. This is the ride to go on after several hours walking around in the sun and sweating in hot, overcrowded lines! This refreshing circular raft ride offers more than enough opportunities for getting wet. Everyone in your party will get totally soaked on this one!
You will twist, turn, and experience small drops as if you are on a whitewater rafting adventure (although a tad less intense, of course). A must for anyone who doesn’t mind walking around the park wet for the next few hours. The best aspect of this ride is that your whole group can enjoy it together!
6. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (Islands of Adventure)
At Hogsmeade, you will find the first addition to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, still as popular as ever. Since The Forbidden Journey opened in 2010, tourists have raved about this creative, intense ride. This unique simulator ride takes you through several areas of Hogwarts, including: Dumbledore’s Office, Defense Against the Dark Arts, and the Room of Requirement. The ride is fast paced and intense. Fortunately, it will not make you overly dizzy with a headache like most of the other motion simulators.
The combination of a large IMAX screen, animatronics, special effects, and robotic arms on the seats results in a fantastic, entertaining thrill ride that is sure to please all fans. As you are twisted and turned in every direction possible, you will feel as if you traveling to each of the classrooms and actually following Harry on the broomstick. Here’s your chance to get as close as possible to the feeling of riding a broomstick. How cool is that?!
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey takes you right into the action of all your favorite movies. What’s more you will enjoy guest appearances from most of the main characters you have loved throughout the years, as well as those who gave you nightmares (love the spider and dragon effects!). This is a ride you need to venture on at least twice to take it all in. The ride is so fast you barely have a chance to absorb what is going on, however, that’s part of the fun!
The best part of the ride is the queue through Hogwarts Castle. At other rides in the park, you stand in long lines frustrated from the heat, crowds, and bored out of your mind. At the Forbidden Journey, the queue is as good as the ride itself! In fact, it is probably the best waiting line of all time.
You will pass many rooms from the movie including: Dumbledore’s Office, the Gryffindor Common Room, and the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom. Special effects including appearances by Dumbledore, Hermione, Ron, Harry, and the sorting hat, falling snow, and talking portraits, make you feel as if you are truly walking inside Hogwarts.
7. Dudley Do Right’s Ripsaw Falls (Islands of Adventure)
Don’t let Ripsaw Falls location in Toon Lagoon area of Islands of Adventure fool you into thinking this is just a kiddie ride. Quite contrary, this exciting water raft ride is entertaining for the whole family. So much so that I usually ride it at least twice! You will make your way along several turns and a few small drops before arriving at the final 75 foot tall double drop. A bit scary for a water ride, but so much fun!
This is a refreshing, exciting ride with a colorful, youthful theme based on the Dudley Do Right’s cartoons of the late 60’s. I make it a point to make room for this ride on every single Universal trip!
8. Men in Black: Alien Attack (Universal Studios)
While I am not a huge fan of the MIB movies, Alien Attack is one of Universal’s best rides. It’s one of the few which I make a point to go on at least twice! Your whole party will have a blast competing with each other to see who can zap the most aliens! This ride feels like a blast to the past, back to the good old days of arcades! Great special effects and tons of spinning add to the excitement!
9. Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure)
While Universal Studios is home to the newest section of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Diagon Alley), Islands of Adventure is home to Hogsmeade, the original Harry Potter attraction. Hogsmeade includes 3 great rides (Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, and Flight of the Hippogriff). In between all your rides and shopping, stop at the Three Broomsticks for a British meal served with a Butterbeer.
Honeydukes – Get ready for a floor-to-ceiling collection of treats, including Chocolate Frogs and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans.
Ollivanders – Take part in the wand ceremony or purchase a replica from the movie. Every single character from Harry Potter to Cedric Diggory is available!
Dervish + Banges – A great place to shop for themed merchandised based on your favorite house (mugs, clothing, wands, brooms, they have everything!)
Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods – After your ride on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, you will be brought into this large shop filled with everything Harry Potter, with souvenirs ranging from a sorting hat snowglobe, to a Marauders Map. Lots of Hogwarts themed souvenirs such as t-shirts, mugs, picture frames, keychains, etc. This is the perfect place to stock up for early Christmas gifts for Harry Potter fans.
Be sure to check out the Hogwart Houses Quidditch chess set up front by the register. I really love this – a really neat piece if you feel like shelling out $300! Also you can also purchase photos of yourself from the ride!
The Owl Post – Send out a letter or postcard with an official Hogsmeade stamp.
Every detail from the snow-capped mountains to the design of the shops and pubs is just perfect. As you meander the snowy village, you can browse in festive shop windows (complete with special effects and movie props) and purchase ButterBeer in a souvenir glass. A magical experience for Harry Potter fans – it’s even better than you imagined!
10. Hagrid’s Magic Creatures Motorbike Adventure (Islands of Adventure)
Universal seems to add a new Harry Potter feature every year – not a bad thing for all the Harry Potter fanatics out there! The newest addition to Islands of Adventure theme park is Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. As expected, the wait for this hot ride can be very lengthy (at times, several hours!). This is one to get to right at park opening!
Although it is not as themed and extravagant as the Forbidden Journey & Gringotts, this is one fun rollercoaster. Featuring twists, turns, & drops, this is one of the more exciting rides at either of the Universal parks.
11. Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
Hollywood Rip Ride RockIt is one of the most exciting rides at Universal. Each rider gets to pick a song amongst a selection of choices in several different music genres that only you can hear in your seat. The extremely fast coaster travels 65mph and goes up over 17 stories. The scariest aspect of the ride is that you sit straight up to get to the top. Not only is Rip Ride RockIt the tallest coaster in Orlando, it also is the first roller coaster in the world to use a non-inverting loop!
A crazy fast ride with many twists and turns and fantastic music to go along with the experience. Rip Rock It is a must-do for any lover of thrill rides!
12. Hogwarts Express (Universal Studios & Islands of Adventure)
The Hogwarts Express is a convenient means of transportation between Universal parks. It’s nice because you no longer have to walk the far distance between the 2 parks. And thus, you can save precious time – every little bit counts! Harry Potter fans will appreciate the festive ride between parks, which includes appearances by movie characters and fun special effects. The views of the British countryside from the train’s digital windows are peaceful and realistic, making you believe you are really traveling to London.
Grab a chocolate frog at Honeydukes and board at either of the 2 stations: Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure or King’s Cross station at Universal Studios. Be sure to take advantage of the fantastic photo opportunities: take your picture by the Hogwarts Express, the Knight Bus, and Platform 9 3/4. Also be on the lookout for a clever mirror trick at King’s Cross which makes it appear as if you are disappearing through a wall to the platform!
13. Revenge of the Mummy (Universal Studios)
The Mummy is a fun, special effects loaded roller-coaster based on the popular movie franchise which begun in the late 90’s. After visiting Universal many times, I finally watched the movies. I have to admit, they were fantastic! As you travel through the dark, you will encounter some scary surprises courtesy of awesome special effects (beetles, mummies, and fireballs). This is a a great ride for everyone in the family as there are no inversions.
It’s less intense than the roller-coasters at Islands of Adventure, however, with the added bonus of extreme attention to detail, awesome special effects, and the uniqueness and excitement of traveling through the dark. In addition, there is a great Mummy themed gift shop to browse for gifts for yourself or anyone you know who likes the movies. Guests can also purchase a picture of themselves on the ride!
A few more great rides/attractions!
Horror Makeup Show (Universal) – I passed this show about 10 times on various visits before finally checking it out. This is hands down the best show in Universal! Talented makeup artists will show you some tricks as to how they make horror special effects look so realistic. The live demonstrations with audience members is a blast! It’s funny and creative – really the best show! Great gift shop too with all sorts of fun horror movie memorabilia!
Blues Brothers Show (Universal) – So much fun, and even more fun for fans of the classic movie! Get ready for some soulful music on the streets of NYC. This one is definitely worth making time for – the whole crowd gets into it and the music is great!
Skull Island: Reign of Kong (Islands) – Great special effects! The most intense of the motion simulator rides!
The Simpsons – Motion simulator ride which is fun the first time around! Yes, it loses a bit of its’ luster the second time as the thrills become predictable. This one jams you around a lot so avoid at all costs if you are prone to motion sickness!
Race through NY with Jimmy Fallon – New ride which takes you on a motion simulator experience through tourist sites in NY. Much smoother than most of the other simulator rides. Plus, the queue through the studio is pretty cool!
Tips for a great day at the parks
*Get on at least one Harry Potter ride in the morning. The Harry Potter rides typically have the longest wait times. Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure has the longest wait time. It’s best to try to get on this ride first!
*Stay at a Universal property. Certain on-site Universal hotels come with free early admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Hard Rock Hotel, Cabana Bay, and Royal Pacific for example). This will enable you to explore Diagon Alley before the big crowds arrive!
*Water rides are pretty empty in the early morning hours. Lines will fill up quickly during the hot portion of the afternoon. On the other hand, nothing will cool you down more than getting soaked on Ripsaw Falls or Bilge Rat Barges! The choice is up to you!
*If visiting both parks in the same day, split up the day evenly between both parks. Don’t switch back and forth between both parks as this will easily eat up too much time, especially with the wait for the Hogwarts Express. Visiting Islands of Adventure first then Universal Studios is a great idea as you will have time to dry off from the water rides. Also, you can visit the Diagon Alley shops in the evening when the crowds begin to die down.
*Those with motion sickness, avoid the following rides: Despicable Me (the worst!), Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, The Simpsons Ride, Race to New York with Jimmy Fallon, and Spiderman (the worst!).
*Rides to skip if you are short on time: Dr. Doom’s Fearfall, Spiderman, Despicable Me, Transformers 3D. There are many better rides to explore.
*Plan your vacation during September, the least busy time at the park. You will get on more rides, although the weather will still be hot and rainy.
*If you have extra time, make room for some great shows The Blues Brother, the Horror Makeup Show, and Fear Factor Live. These awesome shows will give you a temporary break from long lines!
*Purchase the Express Pass if you have only one day at the park. You will never have time to get on every ride and see every attraction without it. Certain hotels offer free passes with your stay (Hard Rock Hotel, Royal Pacific).
*Don’t eat right before going on motion simulator rides like The Simpsons and Spiderman.
*Ride alone to skip the lines. Those willing to ride alone can jump ahead to the single riders lane. This is an easy way to bypass the lines if you are willing to split up your party.
*On-site hotels offer free package delivery to your room. This means you do not have to carry your shop purchases around with you all day!
*Bring your own lunch so you do not have to waste time waiting in restaurants (most require long waits especially in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter). If you would rather not fuss with bringing food into the park, I highly recommend grabbing a slice of pizza at Louie’s Italian located in the NYC section of Universal Studios. A bit pricey at 10 bucks a slice, although the slices are enormous and pretty delicious!
*Try to visit at least one of the most popular rides early in the morning to minimize the wait. Rip Rock It, the Harry Potter rides, Despicable Me, and The Simpsons typically have the longest wait times.
*Take advantage of the shorter early morning and late evening wait times. Get to the park as early as possible and stay until closing. You can get on many rides during these less crowded periods.
General tips for a stress-free day!
*Bring with a backpack with snacks and water. You will save yourself some valuable time. Most rides have free lockers available, so there is no need to worry about where you will put it during rides!
*Wear a Camelbak water backpack. This is helpful when visiting on really hot days as you do not need to constantly stop for water at stands. Note: free ice water is available at all stands.
*Make a reservation for lunch at Mythos, located inside Islands of Adventure, and frequently rated the best theme park restaurant. The unique cave setting, great food, and cool views of the park make it a meal you won’t forget!
*Stay at an on-site hotel for the convenience. It’s much more expensive, however, the benefits outweigh the extra costs: early admission to Harry Potter, free and quick transportation to the parks, the ability to have your shop purchases sent to the hotel, extra amenities, pools, on-site restaurants, etc. all make it worthwhile. Cabana Bay is an excellent budget friendly choice with many great amenities including a great pool with a lazy river!
*Save CityWalk restaurants until nighttime. Don’t waste your day at the park walking all the way over to CityWalk as this could easily eat up hours of your precious time. Plan for a meal later at night and stick to a convenient theme park restaurant/counter service stand during the day. Or better yet, bring your own lunch and splurge on dinner later.
*Check for special ticket deals on Universal’s website. Also, buy tickets in advance for cheaper rates. Keep in mind – the more days you buy, the better the value.
*Don’t plan your vacation around busy holiday weeks.
*Avoid mid summer visits. It’s just way too hot and humid to enjoy the day. Even the spring season is pretty unbearable!
*Wear gym shoes! You will be doing miles and miles of walking. I brought with a pedometer during my recent visit and clocked in 12-15 miles each day!
*Wear workout clothes or any other type of apparel that dries easily. Although the water rides are great during the hot afternoon hours, it can get really cold walking around the air conditioned shops later if your clothes are still damp! Note: there are air dryers throughout the park, although they are not free.
*Contact lens wearer: bring with your glasses in your backpack. You never know if your eyes will start to bother you later in the day, or possibly get lost on one of the water rides.
*Save some time and eat breakfast at your hotel or bring with a quick snack like a granola bar, trail mix, raisins, fruit, or a muffin to eat on the way.
What are some of your favorite rides and attractions at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure? Which rides would you skip?