Must-do's at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida

It really is no surprise that Universal Studios Orlando is rated time and time again as one of the world’s best theme parks. With 2 amazing parks, a wonderful themed waterpark (Volcano Bay), a lively entertainment complex (CityWalk), a special section dedicated solely to Harry Potter, fantastic on-site resorts, spectacular seasonal events (Halloween Horror Nights is a must!) and so much more, the Universal Parks really give the Disney parks a run for their money.

Universal globe at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida

The original park, Universal, opened on June 7, 1990, as a fun movie themed theme park where you could “Experience the Movies.” Steven Spielberg, director of endless Universal films, cut the ribbon! It’s crazy to think that since opening 36 rides have been replaced! Although some old favorites like Back to the Future and Kongfrontation are now demolished, there are a lots of great new attractions like The Mummy, several Harry Potter themed rides, and Hollywood Rip Ride Rock It, a super fast, music fueled coaster ride with the world’s 1st non inverted loop.

The classic Back to the Future DeLorean!

Back to the Future Delorean car at Universal Studios in Orlando FL
The old Delorean Car used for the Back to the Future ride (now replaced by The Simpsons ride), which closed in 2007.

A lot has changed since the 90’s, including the closing of the very popular Nickelodeon Studios, where the filming of various 90’s kids favorite game shows like Double Dare, GUTS, and Figure It Out all taped. Guests could tour the studio and even attend live tapings of the game shows and sitcoms.

Who else dreamed of being a contestant on Double Dare, Legends, or GUTS? – ah, the good old days! Sadly nothing like this exists today. 90’s kids would like to see a Nick themed attraction back so much that a Facebook page (“Re-open the Nickelodeon Studios at Universal Studios Orlando”) attracts thousands of members after all this time- talk about the power of nostalgia! Regardless, there are still plenty of fun themed rides, shows, & attractions to explore throughout both properties.

Islands of Adventure is home to great roller coasters, water rides, & the Hogsmeade section of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Once Islands of Adventure opened later on in May 1999, Universal became more of a multi day vacation destination like Disney. With all the excitement and entertainment surrounding you in every direction at 2 massive parks, sometimes there just is not enough time to explore everything in a single trip, thereby making Universal a repeat vacation destination for many.

To make sure you enjoy the best Universal has to offer, I have compiled a list of 19 must-do’s during your trip!

1. Take your pic by the Universal sign

Universal Studios globe in Orlando, Florida

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the various entertainment offerings of Universal that we completely forget to stop for any photos, sadly leaving us with no photo mementos of our trip. The iconic Universal globe is the prime opportunity for a great family/couples vacation photo. Be sure to get your pic early on in the day. Do not wait until night when you are too tired and/or all raggedy from sweating/getting drenched on water rides all day!

2. Spend an entire day exploring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Diagon Alley - The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida

For Harry Potter fans, an entire day exploring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is an absolute must. As there are fantastic rides and attractions at both parks, you really need a full day to soak in all the excitement. With Diagon Alley at Universal, Hogsmeade at Islands, the Hogwarts Express, multiple rides, themed restaurants, butterbeer stands, wand shops, endless photo opps, and more, you can easily fill up a whole day with Harry Potter everything.

Honeydukes at Hogsmeade - the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida
Pick up a sweet treat for the train at Honeydukes!

Trying to cram all the attractions into a few hours simply is not enough time to enjoy all the fun. In fact, the wait for the new Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure ride is often several hours long, which is why I recommend heading here first thing in the morning. Plus, there are so many little hidden gems around both parks that you will be glad that you planned the extra time to take it all in!

Quidditch shop at Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida

3. Dine at Mythos Restaurant

Mythos at Universal Studios Orlando

The majority of the time when visiting theme parks, we just want to get something to eat really quick at some counter stand so we can get back to the rides! While this is mostly true for Universal, there is one exception –  Mythos Restaurant. This enchanting cave themed restaurant has been repeatedly voted as one of the best theme park restaurants in the world.

The setting here really is unique and there are some great views of the theme parks, so you really do not feel like you are completely leaving all the excitement behind. The food is also excellent (I recommend the Pad Thai!). Dining at Mythos will just take up about an hour or so of your time, but trust me it is worth it for the nice ambiance, not to mention much needed cool air conditioned break. So take some time to fuel up, enjoy the ambiance, and give your weary feet a break!

Delicious Pad Thai at Mythos Restaurant in Orlando, FL
The Pad Thai is excellent!

4. Treat yourself to a butterbeer!

Butterbeer station at Hogsmeade - The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando

Harry Potter fans, as well as anyone else craving a tasty cool drink to beat the heat, will want to try out a butterbeer before leaving Universal. If you are a fan of the books, you are most likely well aware that this drink is mentioned countless times throughout, so it must be pretty darn good.

Although the recipe for the creamy drink is a secret, you can find countless recipes online attempting to mimic the popular treat. Here’s a few tasty butterbeer recipes to get started. This drink is alcohol free, and basically tastes like a mixture of cream soda and butterscotch.

5. Ride the Hulk Coaster

Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal Islands of Adventure

The Hulk is the coaster to ride if you are limited on time. Found at Islands of Adventure, this super fast thrill ride takes you on an exhilarating 67mph adventure as you race through 7 inversions in the blink of an eye. The runner up coaster award goes to Hollywood Rip Ride RockIt, a heart pumping coaster accompanied by music, and featuring a near vertical climb.

The high speed, special effects laden journey through the pitch dark via the Mummy coaster is also a blast. For a tamer coaster ride, be sure to check out the motion simulator Simpsons ride – a real unexpected blast the first time around!

6. Spend a night exploring CityWalk

CityWalk at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida

Citywalk is one of Orlando’s top dining, shopping, & entertainment districts. There is just so much to do here, from themed restaurants, to fun karaoke bars, to mini golf and movie theaters. It’s a great place to kick back and relax after a long day at the parks.

As an alternative, simply enjoy Citywalk as a sole activity on a much needed day off from the parks. Must-do’s here include dinner at Hard Rock Cafe, dessert at the Toothsome Chocolate Factory, listening to live karaoke (accompanied by backup singers & a live band) at Rising Star, seeing the latest action flick on a giant IMAX screen, and enjoying a laid-back themed round of mini golf at Hollywood Drive-IN Golf.

Massive dessert at the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium at Citywalk in Orlando, FL
Save some room for one of the massive sundaes at Toothsome!

7. Plan some time to enjoy all the great shows

The Blues Brothers show at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida
The Blues Brothers show – great music & a great vibe!

Oftentimes, we are so busy with the rides (even repeating our favorites several times – Dudley Do Right’s & The Hulk for me!) that we forget about all the amazing shows. Must-see shows at Universal Orlando include Animal Actors on Location, The Blues Brothers Show, the Universal Horror Makeup Show, and Universal Cinematic Spectacular. Shrek 4D is also a blast. Skip Fear Factor Live and Poseidon’s Fury.

Universal Horror Makeup show in Orlando, FL
The Horror Makeup show is educational, creative, and hilarious!

8. Enjoy all the spectacular water rides at Islands – don’t be afraid to get wet!

Jurassic Park ride at Islands of Adventure in Orlando, FL
Jurassic Park – the ultimate water ride!

A lot of people skip out on the water rides because they do not want to walk around dripping wet all day. First of all, I recommend wearing workout apparel which will dry much quicker than jeans. Second, air dryers are available for a few bucks near the water rides if you despise the thought of being wet for hours. Third, it’s just so brutal out during the hot, humid summer months, that it’s worth getting wet to cool down for an hour or 2!

Dudley Do Right's Ripsaw Falls at Universal Studios
Dudley Do Right’s Ripsaw Falls

Dudley Do Right’s Ripsaw Falls at Islands is the ultimate blast. It’s the best water ride and you can easily get on a few times in a row early on in the morning, although it gets totally packed by late afternoon. Lots of little drops, twists, & teases until you reach the final 75 foot double drop. Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge Rat Barges is a fun circular whitewater rafting type ride with lots of twists, turns, and drops – great fun for big parties as it fits up to 8 adults. And don’t forget about the classic Jurassic Park river raft ride which features both fun animatronics and an exhilarating 85 foot drop!

Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges at Universal Studios Orlando

9. Let the wand choose you at Ollivanders

Wand by Gregorvitch at Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, FL

One of the best souvenirs for Harry Potter fans is pretending to be a wizard for the day with your favorite character’s wand – you can even pay a bit more for an interactive wand which can be used to access special features throughout the parks! They carry a wand for any character you can think of, not just the main cast. Boxes and boxes of wands are piled high to the ceiling.

Although you can pick one up at multiple stores around both parks, it’s so much more fun to watch the wand ceremony at Ollivanders where you could possibly be randomly selected amongst the crowd for a personal wand reading. Be aware that only 1 person will get picked for a personal wand experience. However, it’s still a magical experience to be part of the show as a spectator. Just one of those little things that add a little something extra to the whole Universal experience! Wands by Gregorovitch pictured above also offers a sizeable collection of wands.

Dragon at Gringotts - Wizarding World of Harry Potter
A view of Ollivanders and the Gringotts Dragon, which blows fire every 15 minutes.

10. Groove to your favorite song on Hollywood Rip Rock RideIt Coaster

Hollywood Rip Rock Ride it coaster at Universal Studios

Hollywood Rip Rock RideIt, a relatively newish coaster at Universal (opened in late ’09) is one of the most thrilling rides in all of Orlando. Prior to getting in your seat, you will be able to choose amongst dozens of different songs (with everything from country, to rap, to pop selections available) from different genres to accompany you on an intense ride. With speeds up to 67 mph, a scary 167 foot vertical lift, and the world’s first non inverted loop, this is Universal’s most thrilling ride.

The really neat aspect of this ride is that you can purchase a music video as your entire ride is recorded! It’s a heart pounding adventure on one of Orlando’s tallest coasters, although definitely not one for the faint of heart!

11. Treat yourself to a wonderful sit down dinner after a long day at the parks!

Vivo Italian at CityWalk in Orlando, FL

Universal CityWalk is a convenient and fun place to enjoy a fabulous relaxing dinner after being on your feet all day. One of my personal favorites is Vivo Italian.

This modern Italian restaurant has a great ambiance complete with an exposed kitchen and a really unique seating area. The tasty menu includes handmade fresh pasta daily. Not to mention the convenient location right at CityWalk so you do not have to research any restaurants online. Or worse, resort to a common chain. Try the Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo! Bonus – Prices are totally affordable despite the touristy location!

Vivo Italian Kitchen at Universal CityWalk in Orlando, Florida

12. Treat yourself to a day of pampering at the spa

Funny vacation sign at Universal Studios
Funny, but true sign make for the perfect photo opp. Treat yourself to a massage after all that walking!

After all that walking (you will easily rack up at least 10 miles in a few days according to my GPS watch), your feet will really be aching. So will the rest of your body, especially if you are wearing a heavy backpack all day. Treat your achy body and exhausted mind to a day of relaxation at the spa. Orlando is known for having some pretty fancy spas, which is not at all surprising considering it is a top destination for honeymoons and other romantic celebratory occasions.

The beautiful Loews Portofino Bay Hotel’s Mandara Spa is a relaxing place for a recovery day of pampering. Plenty of all day packages available so you can escape the heat for a bit. Highlights include luxe amenities and gorgeous facilities. For a budget friendly alternative, look into an affordable chain like Massage Envy or Elements.

13. Indulge in comfort food paradise at Hard Rock Cafe

Hard Rock Cafe at CityWalk Orlando, Florida

Hard Rock Cafe is one of the best chain restaurants in the country. The food here is actually pretty tasty and you really cannot beat the attractive rock n’ roll atmosphere. A rockin’ soundtrack and unique vintage memorabilia make visiting Hard Rock a fun night out, rather than simply a meal. After a long day at the parks, it’s nice to just indulge in some bad- for-you comfort foods.

You did tons of exercise all day & you are on vacation and you deserve it-why not?! Some of my faves include the potato skins, Santa Fe spring rolls, and flatbreads. Or go for the Jumbo Platter and test out all the best apps! And you must try their delicious cheesy, slightly spicy Twisted Mac and Cheese! On the other hand, if you are trying to keep it healthy, their gigantic veggie filled salads are the best!

Jumbo appetizer platter at the Hard Rock Cafe
The Jumbo Platter – now that’s what I call a treat!

14. Take a ride aboard the Hogwarts Express

The Hogwarts Express at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando

The Hogwarts Express, a perfect replica from the Harry Potter movies, is a convenient means of transportation between both parks. Back in the day, visitors had to waste much precious time walking from one park to the other. Today, you can skip the tiresome walk in favor of this festive train ride. Board at either the Hogwarts Express at either the King’s Cross Diagon Alley station at Universal or Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure.

The ride features a bunch of nice special effects (the dementors are amazing!) and you can even purchase snacks to bring along for the journey (pumpkin juice or chocolate frog anyone?!) Remember you will need to purchase park-to-park tickets to enjoy the train ride (which you should do anyways as both Universal parks are amazing!).

15. Don’t forget about all the oldies!

E.T. the Ride at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida

Even though they are a bit dated, classic rides like E.T., The Mummy, and Men in Black Alien Attack are well worth at least a one time go around. E.T. is one of my favorites and I’ve never waited more than 20 minutes! Be sure to download the handy Wait Times App (it’s free) to save yourself some unnecessary hassle and time.

Men in Black is an awesome spinning arcade style ride where you shoot at targets. Our entire party often chooses this ride as one of our repeat rides. The Mummy is an incredible fast indoor coaster loaded with special effects. The classic non simulator rides are still the best!

Men in Black Alien Attack ride at Universal Studios in Orlando, FL

16. Take advantage of the endless Harry Potter photo opportunities

Knights Bus Harry Potter photo opp at Universal Studios

Numerous picture-perfect Harry Potter photo opportunities await you throughout both parks – The Knight Bus, Platform 9 3/4, Diagon Alley, Weasley’s Wizard Wheezies, the telephone booth at King’s Cross, and the list goes on. So many memorable sights from the film are lurking throughout both Universal and Islands of Adventure.

The early admission is a must if you really want to explore both parks minus the super hefty congestion that builds up later in the day. Be sure to pack your camera and take all sorts of crazy photos that you can reminiscence about years later.

Check out how empty Diagon Alley is during early admission hours! This is a great time for Harry Potter fanatics to go picture crazy!

Dragon at Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida

17. Stay at an on-site hotel

Pool at the Cabana Bay resort in Orlando, Florida

Sure the on-site Universal hotels are a bit pricier, however, you might as well splurge as you are already spending loads of money on theme park tickets and airfare anyways. These hotels come with a number of perks that make them worthy of the up charge including fantastic pools, great restaurants, close proximity to the parks, and early admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This hour early admission alone makes paying a bit extra a worthwhile investment!

Cabana Bay is a fantastic budget friendly hotel. Lots of great amenities -a free shuttle to the parks, an amazing tropical pool and lazy river, an on-site Starbucks, a bowling alley and arcade, and early admission to HP.

Lazy river at Cabana Bay resort at Universal in Orlando, Florida

18. Take your pic with a character

Betty Boop character photo opp at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida

Unlike Disney where character picture waiting lines can be longer than the rides themselves, it’s easy & fast to get a pic at Universal. The wait is usually no more than 10 minutes or so. The Simpsons, Scooby Doo, and Hello Kitty are just a few of the sprightly characters you will see throughout the parks. Check out the full list of Universal characters making appearances daily!

19.  Plan a day away from the parks

Scenic Lake Baldwin in Orlando, Florida

There is much to do and see in Orlando asides from world class theme parks. In fact, it is quite easy to spend an entire week here without stepping foot onto the grounds of either Disney and Universal. Exploring non theme park attractions not only allows you to see another side of Orlando which most tourists miss out on, but also gives you a much needed break from the crowds and commotion. Check out my 17 favorite non-theme park attractions in Orlando.

Tibet Butler nature preserve in Orlando, Florida
Escape the tourist crowds and heat in favor of a relaxing day hiking at Tibet Butler nature preserve!

Also be sure to check out my other Universal articles including 25 Ways to Save Money on your Universal vacation and 18 tips for a smooth Universal trip.