Universal Orlando: Which of its Three Theme Parks Should You Visit?

Universal Orlando Resort
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I'll admit it: I'm a total Universal Orlando fangirl. Some people are enamored with Disney, but for me it's all about Universal.

I've visited Universal's Orlando parks multiple times in the past couple of years, and despite it always being bustling and (usually) hot, I always find myself loving it. Whether it's casting spells in Harry Potter world, watching the Grinch's antics at Seuss Landing, or splashing around in the wave pool at the new Volcano Bay, there's a lot of fun to be had year-round at Universal.

Diagon Alley at night

Incredible Hulk coaster photo by Alex in Wanderland

But I understand that planning a trip to a place like Universal can be a little daunting. The Orlando resort now has three separate parks – Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay – and if you've never been before you may have no clue which one(s) are going to be right for you.

So here's where I come in! After spending quite a bit of time in each of Universal Orlando's parks, here's my breakdown of what to see, do, and eat in each park.

Universal Studios

Universal Studios is the backbone of Universal Orlando Resort. This theme park was the first of the three to open in 1990, and is themed around movies and television. From Universal's official website: “Go beyond the screen, behind the scenes and jump into the action of your favorite films at the world’s premier movie and TV based theme park.”

Universal Studios Orlando

Sections of the park

Universal Studios is only roughly divided up into sections that correspond with different movie-making locations around the world, but there are a couple of distinctly themed sections, too. Namely the Simpsons “Springfield” section of the park and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley, which is perhaps the most intricately-themed part of Universal Studios.

Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida

RELATED: 10 Things to Do at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando

The best rides

This is of course only based on my personal preference, but my favorite rides here include:

Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit – A thrilling roller coaster where you can choose a song to listen to for the duration of the ride. I'm spoiled when it comes to roller coasters (having grown up near Cedar Point in Ohio), but this one definitely gets your adrenaline going with the first hill, which you ascend while lying flat on your back in the car.

Rip Ride Rockit photo by Alex in Wanderland

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts – This incredible ride mixes a roller coaster with 3-D technology and is seriously fun whether you're a Harry Potter fan or not. The line for the ride winds its way through Gringotts Bank in Diagon Alley, and then you go on an “underground” adventure that includes Harry and his friends, Voldemort, and a fire-breathing dragon.

Revenge of the Mummy – Man, I hope this ride never goes away! It's mostly an indoor roller coaster, but a delightfully creepy and kitschy one that includes all of the best parts of (the original!) Mummy movie.

Men in Black Alien Attack – In this interactive ride you scoot around in a pod-like car, laser gun in hand. Your mission is to zap as many aliens throughout the streets of New York as possible. Prepare to laugh a lot on this one!

Hogwarts Express – Found at Kings Cross Station, this working train will transport you from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade, which is found at Islands of Adventure. It's a fun way to move between parks (but note that you WILL need a park-to-park ticket in order to ride).

Hogwarts Express at Universal Orlando

The Hogwarts Express

There are also a lot of 3-D and motion simulator rides at Universal Studios. I sadly can't ride many of these because they make me feel sick, but a few that people seem to love include:

  • The new Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon ride (the first to implement a virtual line)
  • E.T. Adventure (where you get to ride a bike like in the movie!)
  • Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
  • The Simpsons Ride
  • TRANSFORMERS: The Ride-3D
Jimmy Fallon ride at Universal

Outside the new Jimmy Fallon ride

Shows to see

Not into rides? There are a few entertaining shows/performances to take in at Universal Studios, too. Like:

  • Animal Actors On Location
  • Fear Factor Live (where, yes, audience members get to participate!)
  • The Blues Brothers Show
  • Universal Orlando's Horror Make-Up Show
  • The Tales of Beedle the Bard in Diagon Alley

You can also check out Universal's Cinematic Spectacular, a nighttime light and water show celebrating famous movie moments, and Universal's Superstar Parade, which includes fun floats and favorite characters like SpongeBob SquarePants and the Minions.

Macy's Holiday Parade at Universal Studios Orlando

Around the holidays, the parade becomes the Macy's Holiday Parade.

Where/what to eat and drink

There are lots of dining options within Universal Studios, from a seafood grill to an Italian restaurant to a 50s-style diner. But the “musts” really revolve around the two main themed sections of the park:

Diagon Alley – In this section of the park, you can grab a British pub-style meal at the Leaky Cauldron, get ice cream at Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour, and grab a butterbeer (or Green Fishy Ale, which is my favorite) at The Hopping Pot.

Fishy Green Ale in Diagon Alley

Green Fishy Ale – YUM

Springfield – In the Simpsons section of the park, grab an adult drink at the Duff Brewery beer garden or Flaming Moe's, food to-go at Krusty Burger, and a massive, face-sized pastry at Lard Lad Donuts.

You can also book a character breakfast at Universal Studios for those who want some personal time with SpongeBob or the Minions.

Cool photo ops

A couple of my favorite spots to snap a selfie include:

  • In front of the Knight Bus outside the entrance to Diagon Alley.
  • In Diagon Alley with your interactive wand/when the dragon is breathing fire.
  • With a giant great white shark, near where the old Jaws ride used to be.
  • With a giant donut in the Simpsons section.
  • Outside the entrance with the spinning Universal globe.

Amanda and Jaws

Islands of Adventure

Opened in 1999 as the second park at Universal Orlando, Islands of Adventure focuses on just that: adventure!

Sections of the park

Islands of Adventure features seven themed “islands,” which include Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, The Lost Continent, and Seuss Landing.

Toon Lagoon at Islands of Adventure

Each island is highly themed – much more so than the different parts of Universal Studios. Hogsmeade (the Wizarding World park) is probably the most popular, but every island is definitely worth wandering through.

Hogsmeade at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando

The streets of Hogsmeade!

The best rides

Again, this is just based on my personal opinion, but my favorite Islands of Adventure rides include:

Dragon Challenge – Choose either the Chinese Fireball or Hungarian Horntail coaster in Hogsmeade and be prepared for a fast and twisty ride.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey – The wait for this ride is almost as fun as the ride itself, since the line has you winding through the rooms of Hogwarts Castle. The ride itself makes you feel like you're following Harry around the Quidditch pitch on a broomstick. (Note: This is a motion simulator ride and yes, does usually make me feel sick – but it's so awesome that I still ride it.)

The Incredible Hulk Coaster – This one is a must for thrill-seekers. You can't miss the big green coaster looming over the rest of the islands, and a complete revamp of the track makes for a much smoother ride these days.

Incredible Hulk Coaster photo by Alex in Wanderland

Skull Island: Reign of Kong – This is the newest ride at Islands of Adventure (just opened in 2016), and it's a 3-D adventure that's not a motion simulator. You get into a huge safari-like vehicle, and drive through the jungles of Skull Island. Your chances of meeting a giant ape are high.

Water rides – Islands of Adventure is where you want to go if you're looking to get wet at a theme park. Here you'll find Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls, Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges, and Jurassic Park River Adventure (which is definitely the best one).

Shows to see

A couple shows to see include:

  • The Eighth Voyage of Sindbad (a stunt show)
  • Poseidon’s Fury
  • Oh! The Stories You'll Hear! in Seuss Landing
  • And performances by the Frog Choir near Hogwarts Castle
Hogwarts Castle at Universal Orlando

Hogwarts Castle

Where/what to eat and drink

You'll find plenty of food options here, too, but my personal recommendations include:

Mythos Restaurant – Located in The Lost Continent, this full-service restaurant is consistently voted as one of the best theme park restaurants in the world. It features a mix of Mediterranean, Asian, and American fare, and is definitely worth a stop for lunch or dinner.

Hogsmeade – In Hogsmeade, grab a British pub-style meal at the Three Broomsticks, an adult beverage at the Hog's Head, and pick up some Harry Potter-themed candy at Honeydukes.

Honeydukes

Inside Honeydukes

You can also check out the Green Eggs and Ham Cafe (where, yes, you can get a Green Eggs and Ham sandwich), or grab a giant turkey leg at any of the eateries in Jurassic Park.

Cool photo ops

A new photo opportunity that was added after “Jurassic World” came out is the Raptor Encounter in the Jurassic Park island, where you can snap selfies with a velociraptor.

Raptor Encounter

Raptor Encounter (we weren't all ready for this photo, but you get the idea!)

I also of course always get a photo in front of Hogwarts Castle, and Seuss Landing is super colorful and great for pictures, too.

Volcano Bay

Universal Orlando's newest theme park is Volcano Bay, a water theme park that is replacing Wet ‘n Wild. It just opened in May 2017, and is pushing the boundaries of what a water park can be. Volcano Bay features a 200-foot-tall waterfall, a huge wave pool, more than a dozen water rides and slides, and a new wearable that aims to eliminate standing in line for rides.

Volcano Bay at Universal Orlando

I was invited to experience the opening of Volcano Bay and, as someone who loathes putting on a bathing suit, I actually had a TON of fun.

Puihi slide at Volcano Bay

Volcano Bay has its very own Polynesian-inspired backstory, and the theme is present in every single corner of the park, from the names of the slides to the food you'll find in the restaurants.

Sections of the park

There aren't designated sections of Volcano Bay – it's one big park with a Polynesian theme. There is an area dedicated to kids, though (Tot Tiki Reef), so the whole family can enjoy the park.

Water slides at Volcano Bay

The best rides

Volcano Bay currently has 18 different rides and slides. Some of the most popular include:

Krakatau Aqua Coaster – I mean, it's a water roller coaster – how can it not be fun??

Ko'okiri Body Plunge – This trapdoor-like slide is located at the very top of the volcano, and drops riders 125 feet at a 70-degree angle.

Ohyah & Ohno Drop Slide – These body slides include either a 4-foot or 6-foot plunge into a pool at the end.

Slides at Volcano Bay

Ohyah and Ohno

Honu ika Moana – There are two slides to choose from here. My pick? Go on the blue Honu slide with 3 or 4 friends. Your tube goes up two massive walls and truly is thrilling.

TeAwa The Fearless River – Forget the lazy river. Grab a tube and ride this fast-flowing river instead.

Fearless River at Volcano Bay

The Fearless River

Shows to see

There's no live entertainment at Volcano Bay, but my favorite thing to do was hang out at The Reef, a small pool right next to the main wave pool/beach. Here the clear slide from the Ko'okiri Body Plunge runs right through the pool, meaning you can get an excellent view of the brave souls trying this slide.

See a video that includes this here.

Where/what to eat and drink

Going along with Volcano Bay's theme, you'll find plenty of island-inspired food and drink on offer. Check out:

Kohola Reef Restaurant & Social Club – Try the mango BBQ pulled pork sandwiches or coconut crusted fried chicken.

The Feasting Frog – Grab a poke bowl or taco sampler to enjoy on the patio.

Tropical drink at Volcano Bay

Grab some tropical cocktails at either the Dancing Dragons Boat Bar or the Kunuku Boat Bar.

Whakawaiwai Eats – Try the Island BBQ chicken pizza, a pretzel dog with pineapple salsa, or jerk shrimp mac and cheese.

Waturi Fusion ice cream at Volcano Bay

And try the Waturi Fusion ice cream!

Cool photo ops

Look for the large kiosks where you can use your TapuTapu wearable to snap selfies. And be sure to get up close to the large tiki heads because they talk!

Volcano Bay at Universal Orlando

My top Universal Orlando tips

So which park is right for you? Which park should you visit?

The truth is that they're all different and all very much worth visiting! I can't pick a “best” or favorite (though I do prefer Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade when it comes to the Harry Potter worlds), and chances are you're going to want to visit them all!

I would recommend at least 3 or 4 days to fully enjoy Universal Orlando, with at least one full day dedicated to Volcano Bay.

Volcano Bay at Universal Orlando

Volcano Bay before the crowds descend.

Here are some other tips for making the most out of your Universal Orlando experience:

1. Get the right tickets

They ARE offering multi-day 3-park passes (meaning you can hop between all the parks as much as you want), which is probably your best bet value-wise. I would personally dedicate one full day to Volcano Bay and then hop between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure as much as you want (i.e. you can take the Hogwarts Express between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade as much as you want!).

You also may want to invest in Express Passes if you'll be visiting during a busy time of year. These passes let you skip most of the lines on most rides, meaning you can fit a lot more into your day.

2. Go early; stay late

The late morning and early afternoon are almost always the busiest times at any amusement park. To really make the most out of your time, go to the parks as early as you can, maybe take a break in the afternoon, and then stay until closing.

Diagon Alley at night

Diagon Alley at night is extra magical

3. Stay on-site

Want to get into the parks even earlier? Stay at one of Universal's on-site hotels, which allow guests to enter all three parks one hour before the posted opening times.

And which hotel should you stay at?

Cabana Bay Beach Resort is usually my go-to hotel at Universal Orlando. I love the colorful retro theme, the pools and lazy river, and the Starbucks in the lobby. AND, as an added bonus, Cabana Bay guests can walk right into Volcano Bay since the new water theme park is connected to the back of the hotel.

Check out Cabana Bay reviews on TripAdvisor | Book your stay at Cabana Bay here!

Room at Cabana Bay

Room at Cabana Bay

I also really like Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, which is a very pretty hotel that offers water taxis to CityWalk and free shuttles to all the parks.

Book your stay at Sapphire Falls here!

Room at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort

Room at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort

Pool at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort

Pool at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort

The other on-site hotels at Universal Orlando are:

Any of these make great bases for visiting both Universal parks. If you can't make up your mind, compare prices of hotels near Universal here.

Water taxi at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort

Water taxis like this will take you to CityWalk for free.

4. Spend time at CityWalk

CityWalk is the area kind of in between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. It's where Universal's main parking deck is, and also where all the shuttles will drop you off if you get transported from your hotel.

Universal CityWalk

CityWalk is also an entertainment hub in and of itself.

There are tons of restaurants (my favorites include Cowfish, Antojito's, and Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen), a movie theater, a mini golf course, shops, and theaters where groups like The Blue Man Group perform. CityWalk is open much later that the theme parks, meaning this is a great place to hang out and grab drinks with friends after dark.

Cheeseburgushi at Cowfish at Universal CityWalk

Cheeseburgushi at Cowfish

READ NEXT: A Couples' Long Weekend Getaway to Orlando

So what do you think? Which Universal Orlando park would YOU most want to visit?

 

Which park at Universal Orlando is best?

 

*Note: Thanks to Universal Orlando Resort for inviting me to the opening of Volcano Bay, and for providing support during previous visits to Universal. As always, all opinions and tips are 100% my own.

 

30 Comments

  • Cheryl says:

    Wow – it all looks wonderful. And so much larger than the Universal Studios in Los Angeles. I think I’d pick the multi day pass and go to all of the parks. Its on the wrong side of the country. I’ve been to the California one many times. The highlight of course was December 3, 1988. Try not to get too excited but – – – I saw Scott Baio! Yes! Just my lucky day I showed up and they were looking for audiences for several shows and I got into Charles in Charge.
    Cheryl recently posted..The Annoying Spam Comments you won’t See

  • Kendal says:

    My best friend and I are DYING to go to Universal. This will be super helpful once we finally make it. Thank you!!

  • Dominique says:

    I didn’t know there were so many parks there! This is a really helpful post for a person who has never been there! Volcano Bay looks pretty awesome. I went to a water park in Dubai, and I loved it. I would really like to visit one again.
    Dominique recently posted..Utrecht – Rietveld Schröder House

  • Ashley says:

    We just went in October and I’m bummed that I missed Volcano Bay! We ended up spending most of our time in the Harry Potter sections of the parks, and skipped a lot of the rides in the other sections. Kind of regretting that now!

  • The Wizarding World of Harry Potter owns a piece of my heart…though I was a tad bit sad when they got rid of part of the Lost Continent in order to transform it into Harry Potter stuff. Maybe more than a tad bit sad lol — I freaking loved the Lost Continent haha! <3 <3 <3
    Jillian Michelle recently posted..College of Wizardry Review – Here’s What it’s Like to Attend the Real Life Hogwarts at Czocha Castle in Poland

    • Amanda says:

      I love the Harry Potter parks so much! That’s usually where I spend most of my time when I’m there, too. (I mean, you can probably tell since the majority of my photos in this post are from there! Haha.)

  • Lili says:

    I loved the raptor encounter photo op! I was in Orlando for a quick business trip, but decided to attempt Disney in 1 day and Universal in 1 day. My Universal Day was right before I had to leave for the airport, and the Raptor Encounter the last thing before I had to head out. The Raptor almost went on break 1 person before me, but they kindly let me take a quick photo! Cue inner geeky fangirl! Plus LOVE the Harry Potter side of things!

  • Arti says:

    These sound like so much fun, it’s hard to choose only one. I am totally sold on the roller coaster rides!
    Arti recently posted..Soulie Saturday #8: Is Death an End… or a New Beginning?

  • Ijana Loss says:

    I always say I’m not a theme park person, but then someone writes an awesome blog post about Universal or Disney or something and then I’m like wait, I actually would like to go there! You’ve convinced me Amanda! I’ve been to Universal Studios Hollywood and never figured I would try and visit Orlando, but this post really makes it look fantastic and I imagine a trip will be in my future 😀 Maybe not soon, but one day!

  • ‘Love all the photography Amanda.

    I do like entertainment parks but it would be the Wizarding World for me. All day and everyday. It’s just such a shame that we don’t have a Harry Potter Park or something, in Europe. Why don’t we have one? Waaaah!
    Victoria @The British Berliner recently posted..Have you ever been to Sweden? Hej!

  • meshack says:

    My wife and children and I can’t wait to go to Universal,especially the volcano bay and Ohyah & Ohno Drop Slide . This will be helpful once we finally make it. Thank you so much for your information

  • WOW – Such a comprehensive guide but I made it to the end! I am planning on going here in a month and I think you just answered every single question I had! I am not sure if I will have time for Volcano Bay but you might have convinced me …It does look truly epic!
    Jordan Adkins recently posted..How To See Chichen Itza Alone – Without The Tour Groups or Crowds!

  • Natalie says:

    It occurs to me that my life won’t be complete without visiting the Harry Potter parts of the parks. I haven’t been to Universal in about 15 years (how can it possibly be that long?!) I did ride th Men In Black ride and I loved it!!

    I think in 1-2 years, we will have to go to Universal for a family vacation (my kids are a little young yet for the stuff that I’m interested in – all things Harry Potter). You’ve convinced me to stay on-site!!!

    • Amanda says:

      If you’re a Harry Potter fan then no, your life won’t be complete until you go! 😉

      And yes, staying on-site is most definitely worth it!

  • I say visit them all! Then again, I’ve been a huge UOR fan girl since childhood, so… =)
    Kristin @ Camels & Chocolate recently posted..June 2017 Highlights: The Highs + Lows

    • Amanda says:

      I think my first visit to Universal was in high school; I think we only did Disney when I was a kid. Either way, though, I’ve only really become a fangirl in the past few years – I love it now, though!

  • Zak R. says:

    Just returned from Universal Studios Orlando vacation, we stayed at Universal’s Cabana Beach Bay Resort hotel which was great. It’s a 50’s themed hotel, that has large pools, a diner style food options and a lazy river. We went to all 3 of the theme parks including Volcano Bay. As guests of the Cabana Bay Hotel we were allowed the enter all of the theme parks one hour before they opened to the public which was a huge bonus as we did not have to dealt with long lines to get on the big rides such as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Skull Island: Reign of Kong, the Hulk and the Krakatau aqua coaster at Volcano Bay.

    The hotel offers free shuttle bus service that we spacious, cool and run on time. I posted videos of our entire trip my Youtube channel. Check it out! Especially if you have never been to either Cabana Bay Resort or the theme parks. Will also be posting videos with tips
    and food reviews. We cant wait to go back next year!

  • Marie says:

    Hi Amanda!

    At Disney when the park closes at the posted time, you still have an hour to make your way out and the shops remain open during that hour, do you know if this is how it is at Universal as well?

    • Amanda says:

      It *seems* to be that way from my experience. They close the rides down and stuff, but they certainly aren’t kicking you out right at closing time.

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