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    Universal Studios Florida Overview

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Universal Orlando Resort's main campus is located on roughly 735 acres inside the city of Orlando, about 8 miles northeast of Walt Disney World (which actually lies within the Disney-controlled municipalities of Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake). The resort consists of two theme parks—Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure—along with the Volcano Bay water park; seven (soon to be eight) Loews-operated Universal hotels; and the CityWalk dining, nightlife, and shopping complex.

Universal Studios Florida (USF) opened in June 1990. It debuted a year after the similarly themed Disney–MGM Studios (now known as Disney’s Hollywood Studios) but made almost four times the area of its facility accessible to visitors. USF’s original attractions focused on characters and situations from familiar Universal films, from Jaws and King Kong to Earthquake and E.T. Unfortunately, while the opening-day rides incorporated state-of-the-art technology and lived up to their billing in terms of creativity and uniqueness, several lacked the capacity or reliability to handle the number of guests who frequent major Florida tourist destinations.

With only one theme park, Universal played second fiddle to Disney’s juggernaut for almost a decade. Things began to change when Universal opened Islands of Adventure (IOA) in 1999. Adding a second park, along with the CityWalk nightlife complex and three on-site resort hotels, made Universal a legitimate two-day destination and provided Universal with enough critical mass to begin serious competition with Disney for tourists’ time and money.

IOA opened to good reviews and sizable crowds, and it did steady business for the first few years. Ongoing competition with Disney, however, and a lack of money to invest in new rides eventually caught up with IOA. Attendance dropped from a high of 6.3 million visitors in 2004 to a low of 4.6 million in 2009, less than half that of Animal Kingdom, Disney’s least-visited park in Orlando that year.

In the middle of this slide, Universal management made one bold bet: securing the rights in 2007 to build a Harry Potter–themed area within IOA. Harry, it was thought, was possibly the only fictional character extant capable of trumping Mickey Mouse, and Universal went all out to create a setting and attractions designed to be the envy of the themed-entertainment industry.

The first phase of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, as the new land was called, opened at IOA in 2010 and was an immediate hit. Its headliner attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, broke new ground in its ride system and immersive storytelling. Families raced to ride the attraction, and IOA’s attendance grew 28% in 2010 and another 28% in 2011.

Harry Potter single-handedly upended the power structure in Florida’s theme parks. Emboldened by its success, Universal’s new owner, Comcast—which acquired a majority stake in the NBCUniversal conglomerate in 2011 and purchased full ownership from General Electric in 2013—embarked on an unprecedented wave of expansions, rapidly adding new attractions and extensions, including The Wizarding World of Harry Potter–Diagon Alley at USF and additional on-site hotels.

While Disney responded to the Potter phenomenon by slowly building Avatar and Star Wars attractions, Universal struck another blow in the summer of 2017 with the opening of Volcano Bay, its first highly themed on-site water park. Volcano Bay aims to revolutionize the water park experience through cutting-edge slides and advanced Virtual Line technology. Like USF and IOA, Volcano Bay is a state-of-the-art park vying with Disney parks, whose attractions are decades older on average. Despite Walt Disney World deploying a wave of upgrades ahead of the resort’s 50th anniversary in 2021, Universal’s ever-accelerating expansion appeared undaunted, with a massive second campus currently under construction a few miles to the south.

The gamble seemed to be paying off for Universal. Comcast’s theme parks had reported consistently climbing annual revenues, and the Themed Entertainment Association estimated a 109.7% increase in combined attendance at USF and IOA between 2009 and 2019. That was, until the resort’s COVID-caused closures resulted in Universal parks’ revenue plummeting 94% in the second quarter of 2020, and dropping 81% in the third. However, Universal Orlando moved more aggressively than its competitors to bring visitors back, returning to 2019 attendance levels by the second quarter of 2021.

Disney and Universal officially downplay their fierce competition, pointing out that any new theme park or attraction makes Central Florida a more marketable destination. Behind closed doors, however, the two companies share a Pepsi-versus-Coke rivalry that keeps both working hard to gain a competitive edge. The good news is that all this translates into better and better attractions for you to enjoy.

How Much Time to Allocate

We recommend devoting a minimum of a full day to each Universal Orlando theme park, especially if this is your first visit. Three days is ideal, particularly with a Park-to-Park Pass, as it will allow you to fully explore each park and revisit your favorite attractions. Add an extra day to your trip if you plan on going to Volcano Bay water park, which you’ll want to visit both during early morning and after sunset. An on-site stay of four or more days will allow you to sample the parks in smaller bites while taking full advantage of the resort’s other amenities.

Some Universal Orlando attractions don’t open until 10 a.m. or later, while most of the theater attractions don’t schedule performances until 11 a.m. or after. This means that early in the day, all park guests are concentrated among the limited number of attractions in operation.

As a postscript, you won’t have to worry about any of this if you use our Universal Orlando touring plans. We’ll keep you one jump ahead of the crowd and make sure that any given attraction is running by the time you get there.

Getting Oriented at Universal Studios Florida

USF is laid out in a P configuration, with the rounded part of the P sticking out disproportionately from the stem. Beyond the main entrance plaza (known as the Front Lot), a wide boulevard stretches past several shows and rides to the park’s New York area. Branching off this pedestrian thoroughfare to the right are four streets that access other areas of the park and intersect a promenade circling a large, oval man-made lake, where the majority of the shows and attractions are located. The area of USF open to visitors is a bit smaller than Epcot.

Beginning at the park entrance and going clockwise, the first area you’ll encounter is Production Central, which includes Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, and Transformers The Ride-3D. At the top of the P is the New York area, including Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon and Revenge of the Mummy. Next is San Francisco, the home of Fast & Furious: Supercharged; The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley with Hogwarts Express - King's Cross Station and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts; World Expo with MEN IN BLACK Alien Attack; Springfield: Home of the Simpsons, featuring, of course, The Simpsons Ride; and Woody Woodpecker's KidZone, containing E.T Adventure, an animal show, and several play areas. The last themed area, back near the front of the park, is Hollywood, featuring Universal Orlando's Horror Make Up Show and Bourne Stuntacular.

In most of USF, the line where one themed area begins and another ends is blurry because much of the architecture consists of boring boxlike soundstages barely concealed behind false fronts. No matter; guests orient themselves by the major rides, sets, and landmarks and refer, for instance, to “the waterfront,” “over by E.T.,” or “by Mel’s Drive-In.” In diametric contrast, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter—Diagon Alley (and, to a much lesser extent, the Springfield area around The Simpsons Ride) is an immersive themed area whose scope and scale point to the place-making potential of upcoming Universal lands.

Almost all guest services are found in the Front Lot, just inside the main entrance. Services and amenities include stroller and wheelchair rentals to the left as you enter; lockers, Lost and Found, and First Aid are to the right. You’ll also find the Studio Audience Center, where you can sign up to be an audience member at any live TV productions that may be recording that day. Past series taped at USF have included game shows, talk shows, cooking shows, Telemundo’s La Voz Kids, and AEW’s DARK wrestling. Call ☎ 407-224-6000 to find out what’s scheduled during your visit.

Universal Studios Florida "Secret Entrance"

A “secret” secondary entrance to USF is tucked under the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit track, between Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and the Universal Studios Store. Unfortunately, this entrance has been unavailable since the Blue Man Group vacated the adjacent theater. On peak days, this gate may reopen to provide direct pedestrian access to Seuss Landing in IOA for guests with park-to-park admission, which can be a huge time-saver over taking the Hogwarts Express. During Halloween Horror Nights, this gate may open exclusively for on-site hotel guests.

Where to Find Strollers, Wheelchairs, Lockers, Etc.

Almost all guest services are found in the Front Lot, just inside the main entrance. Services and amenities include stroller and wheelchair rentals to the left as you enter; and lockers, lost and found, and first aid to the right. You'll also find the Studio Audience Center, where you can sign up to be an audience member at any live television productions that may be recording that day. Past series taped at USF have included game shows, talk shows, cooking shows, Telemundo's La Voz Kids, and TNA's IMPACT Wresting. Call 407-363-8400 and select option 5 to find out what's scheduled during your visit.

Live Entertainment At Universal Studios Florida

In addition to the shows profiled, USF offers two major daily outdoor entertainments, along a wide range of smaller street performances.

Costumed comic book and cartoon characters (Shrek and Donkey, SpongeBob SquarePants, Transformers) pose for guests at organized meet and greets marked on the park maps. Others, like Scooby-Doo, along with look-alikes of movie stars (both living and deceased), roam the Hollywood and Front Lot areas for photo ops. DreamWorks Destination, a dance party and photo opportunity with characters from Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Trolls, and other DreamWorks films, has taken over the former Barney theater in KidZone; characters inside rotate about every 20 minutes, and you can find additional meet and greets outside the building.

In New York and San Francisco, several small-scale shows entertain the crowds. The Blues Brothers Show is a 12-minute rhythm and blues concert. Held on the corner of the New York area, across from the lagoon, The Blues Brothers Show features Jake and Elwood performing a few of the hit songs from the classic 1980 movie musical, including “Soul Man” and “Shake a Tail Feather.” The brothers are joined onstage by Jazz the saxophone player and Mabel the waitress, who belts an Aretha Franklin cover to start the show.

Marilyn and the Diamond Bellas perform a 4-minute song-and-dance routine (anachronistically lip-synched to the Moulin Rouge cover of her signature song) in front of the Horror Make-Up Show’s facade, followed by a photo op; during the holiday season, “Santa Baby” joins the set list. The Beat Builders are a quartet of beefy guys who hang out on the scaffolding outside Louie’s Italian Restaurant and turn their construction equipment into percussion instruments, in the tradition of Stomp. During peak periods, you may hear the City Tones a cappella singing group harmonizing to Motown hits or holiday classics in New York; it’s impossible to say what kind of act Universal will pull out when the parks get packed.