Universal Studios was a complete surprise to me the first time we visited. I did not expect to love it so much, its now a favourite. We went to Orlando so we could visit Disney World, a visit to the House of Mouse had been an ambition since going to Disneyland Paris. At the time I thought this would be our one and only trip to Florida so we added on a few days at Universal. Experiencing the Harry Potter attractions was the reason we wanted to see Universal Studios. As it turned out not only were we blown away by all the Potter attractions but we also loved the rest of Universal too. Now we wouldn’t dream of a Florida holiday that didn’t include it.
My Husband, my son age 12 and myself all love the various rides on offer. For big kids there are great thrill rides at Universal. That’s not the whole story though, it also has some really cute areas for little kids too.
We are returning to Orlando this October and I am engrossed in planning our trip. This time we’ve allowed 5 days at Universal Studios, the three days we originally spent there were not long enough. We also need an extra day because Universal are opening their newest theme park this year, a water park, Volcano Bay. It’s not an understatement to say we are excited about experiencing Volcano Bay. We are not water park fans generally. It’s fair to say that we are happy to skip Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon, but Volcano Bay looks to be a game changer for water theme parks. I will let you know if we are converts in October.
For now though. back to planning, and over a family dinner we all discussed our favourite attractions at Universal Studios. I’ve already shared my Son and Husband’s choices so it’s finally my turn. Being last in line meant there was a fair amount of doubling up on attractions in my list. As a result I have allowed myself 6 favourite choices compared to my Son and Husband’s list of three. This is so I can cover some additional attractions but also include my very favourites. I’ve linked the attractions that are a family favourite, in case you want to read the full review, just click on the link.
#6 Favourite: Hogwarts Express
The Harry Potter story is now globally famous and is entrenched into our modern culture. Just for a moment though take yourself back to when we all first discovered Harry Potter. Which were the elements of Harry’s story which really caught our imagination and which transported us into the world of witchcraft and wizardry. First there’s Hogwarts, the incredible school where magic is taught to budding wizards and witches. We also fell in love with the amazing friendship between three oddball young wizards. And then there’s the Hogwarts Express. The evocative steam train which departs from platform 9¾ on a magical journey to Hogwarts. The train is accessible only to students of Hogwarts but haven’t we all wished to be onboard that train, cozy in a carriage eating chocolate frogs. Now there is a way, at Universal even Muggles can experience the journey to and from Hogwarts School.
What makes this attraction so unique and enjoyable is the attention to detail in the pre-ride queuing areas. Both Kings Cross and Hogsmeade stations are realised spectacularly and very convincingly. I travel to and from the real life Kings Cross station quite regularly. The ‘fake’ Kings Cross at Universal Studios is a great copy. It has a very similar feel to the real station.
The Hogwarts Express attraction is impressive for visitors from outside the UK, but it is even more so for us who have actually seen the real station. It’s easy to believe you’re in London. The signage, the brick work, the way it’s cool inside even on the hottest days just like Kings Cross station is. The queues are often long for this ride but every inch of it, as it winds and winds and winds around the station, is convincing. There is even a Pepper’s Ghost effect which creates the illusion that you are walking through the wall onto platform 9¾ just like Harry.
The other really impressive thing about the Hogwarts express is that it takes you from London to Hogsmeade (well not actually, you’re still in Orlando). Like the real Hogwarts Express this is a journey with a different departure and arrival point. The train runs between the two Universal theme parks and you need a park to park ticket in order to ride this attraction. But let’s face it, given the size and proximity of Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure it absolutely pays to have a park to park ticket. It also means that you can experience riding Hogwarts Express both ways.
There are two different experiences on the train, so it’s worth doing a return trip. Passengers board the train and are allocated to a carriage. Any UK visitors will find the accuracy of the interior evokes nostalgia of old British Rail rolling stock. When the train departs, gaze out of the window, you’ll see various Harry Potter scenes fly by the window as you travel. No spoilers here but do keep your eyes peeled to both left and right as action will take place both out of the window and in the corridor that runs alongside your compartment.
This attraction is sedate and unthreatening, it’s calm and just delightful. Hogwarts Express is a nice break from faster paced rides and it’s lovely to sit in the cool carriage and give your feet a rest for a bit. My favourite is to do it the way it is in the books, from Kings Cross alighting at Hogsmeade. There is something really lovely about emerging from Hogsmeade Station into a street covered with snow, even if the Florida temperature is +30º. Enchanting.
#5 Favourite; Transformers: The Ride-3D
I love this ride its amazing! Click here to see why.
#4 Favourite; Despicable Me Minion Mayhem™
Minion Mayhem is a 3D auditorium style ride, though there are ride vehicles which provide movement to enhance the 3D experience. This ride is billed as a family attraction though it does have a minimum height requirement of 102cms. The premise is that Gru has recruited you as one of his Minions. The ride takes all the main characters from the film on a high-speed adventure in Gru’s workshop. It’s great fun and very effective. I get motion sickness on these type of attractions, this one had a mild effect which wouldn’t put me off riding it again.
#3 Favourite; Escape From Gringotts
I share a love of this ride with my son, it’s firmly on both our lists see why here.
#2 Favourite; Diagon Alley
All Harry Potter fans will love Diagon Alley. Universal have delivered an amazing and immersive experience in realising every wizards favourite shopping street. Here, lovingly recreated, is every intricate detail from the films.
Universal worked in close partnership with J.K. Rowling to create Diagon Alley and respected the strict restrictions put in place by her. This area is absolutely true to Diagon Alley. Any elements which would have increased the commercial return for Universal, but which was not true to the books, have been ignored. You won’t find Pepsi or any muggle merchandise on sale here and all the stores are way too small for the amount of people who want to visit them. This can make Diagon Alley feel cramped and result in significant waits to look around the retail areas. But it’s so worth it. Each step along the street reveals more and more details and areas to explore.
You can drink Butterbeer at the Leaky Cauldron, get your individual wand at Ollivander’s, buy joke products at Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes and gaming gear at Quality Quidditch Supplies. It’s all here and all delivered in such an enchanting and convincing way.
There is so much to do at Diagon Alley. If you buy an interactive wand from Ollivander’s you can test your wand skills at special places where performing the correct spell creates a magical event. See a musical show provided by Beauxbatons Students or Madame Warbeck. Or visit Borgin and Burkes in a perpetually twilight Knockturn Alley.
Don’t miss Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour where the ice cream is amazing, there is even soft serve in Butterbeer flavour! I could go on and on waxing lyrical about all the great things to do here. But you really should discover it for yourself. My top tip is always head to Diagon Alley a the park opening. First ride Escape from Gringotts and then enjoy Diagon Alley for a couple of hours before it gets too busy. Then rest and enjoy a Butterbeer before venturing out into the rest of the park. As you leave look up Diagon Alley and back towards Gringotts Bank to see the dragon atop the bank breathing fire!
#1 Favourite; Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
This is absolutely my favourite attraction of all time, find out all about Forbidden Journey here