Today we are going to take a look at the best best non-Disney theme park in the United States. Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure park opened in 1999 as part of a massive expansion of Universal Studios Florida. The debut of a 2nd gate, along with the opening of Universal CityWalk cemented Universal as Disney’s main competitor in the Florida theme park industry.
Just this year, Universal announced the construction of a 3rd gate (sorry Volcano Bay fans, I’m not entertaining the argument that its anything more than a water park), titled Universal’s Epic Universe. Questionable name aside (I know some people really like it but it seems like it will be dated in 10 years to us), this was huge news for the theme park industry, and quite frankly trumps anything Disney has announced so far this year.
Lest anyone think otherwise, we are still team Disney through and through. Walt Disney World as a whole is a superior product in almost every way as far as we are concerned (with the one exception probably being value hotels). That being said, there is still a ton of fun to be had at Universal Orlando. We tend to visit about once a year or so and always have a great time.
When it comes to the Universal Parks, Islands of Adventure is the better of the two and its not all that close. All of our top 3; and 4 of our top 5 rides at the resort are in this park.
We tend to tour the park clockwise, starting with Marvel Super Hero Island, and making the full loop to Seuss Landing.
This starts things off with the Incredible Hulk Coaster. Its an intense way to start the day but I find I do better on big roller coasters earlier in the day rather than later. For certain rides, including all roller coasters, Universal will force you to use free storage lockers to stow your stuff while you ride. You will have to go through metal detectors to make sure you don’t have a cell phone or camera on you.
Doctor Doom’s Fear Fall is next door. We recommend skipping this unless there is no standby wait, or you have Universal Express. We were staying at Loew’s Royal Pacific resort on site for this visit which includes free Express Unlimited. If you aren’t staying at one of the on site deluxe hotels, we highly recommend splurging for at least the standard version of Express, which is good for each ride once (excluding Hagrid’s).
Dr. Doom’s Fear Fall is approximately 4 seconds long and not worth any wait longer than a walk on. It launches you up once, gives you a nice view and then brings you back down.
Luckily, the best ride in the entire resort is just next door. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man was a game changer when it debuted and the technology still holds up to this day. It’s one of the best attractions in the world!
One downside of riding via the express line is that you miss some of the better queue elements on various rides. This is probably most true here and at Forbidden Journey inside Hogwarts.
Still, there are few fun things to see while you wait. Even with Universal Express, you can expect to wait for an attraction on a busy day. Universal guarantees that Express will be no more than half of the posted standby wait, but its usually not any more than 20 minutes.
The next area of the park is Toon Lagoon. The area is home to 2 water rides, as well as a bunch of funny gags straight off the Sunday comics page.
Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges is a river rapids ride which is superior to Disney’s Khali River Rapids in every way.
In addition to its way to short duration, I find it to be about a 50/50 chance as to whether I’ll get sufficiently wet on Khali River Rapids.
That is not an issue here… you will get soaked. No way around it!
If you travel a bit further back towards the area where people are trying to dry off after riding Popeye, you can find some great views of the rest of the park across the water. Popeye’s ship: Me Ship, The Olive is also back there and is a great children’s play area.
The 2nd ride in the land is Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls. This is a log flume ala Splash Mountain, albeit far inferior to our #1 ranked Walt Disney World attraction. I do love the Mt Rushmore parody facade here though!
The attraction itself is fun, but lacking in terms of theming and set design. Part of this is due to a fire in 2011 which damaged a portion of the ride. Still, what theming is there is mostly stationary statues or cardboard cutouts. There is enough humor at least to keep things interesting.
Our next land, is barely a land. Skull Island was created for the building of the King Kong attraction in 2016. The ride itself makes up the entire land, built in a previous backstage area just off to the side of the Jurassic Park land.
We aren’t huge fans of the Kong: Skull Island attraction. When it was announced, we hoped it would be more than just a clone of a small portion of the Studio Tour at Universal Hollywood. Aside from a very short outdoor portion, and the animatronic at the end, its exactly the same as the snippet from the tour out west.
The fight sequences are a neat effect, but they don’t seem sufficient enough to make up an entire ride to us.
The animatronic at the end is very impressive looking, but it doesn’t do much. It mostly just breathes with very little movement.
It will occasionally open its mouth to roar at you if your lucky enough with the timing of when you pass by. This is an attraction we’d skip if we did not have the Express pass.
On a more positive note, another one of our favorites is just up the road. While the Jurassic Park land is a bit lacking on its own, the River Adventure attraction is fantastic! It’s also a not so well kept secret they are currently building a Jurassic World themed roller coaster in the land as well. Hopefully that will help flush out the land a bit which is currently quite large, but without much going on aside from the boat ride.
The ride begins as a peaceful dino tour boat ride. If the entire ride were just 10 minutes of this I would be happy!
I feel like the animatronics don’t photo all that well. They look better / less soul-less in person.
This being Universal, something has to go wrong eventually. As we are enjoying a nice ride towards Hadrosaur Cove, this guy feels the need to pop out of the water and knock us off course into dino-death land.
The finale is one of the best of any ride I’ve been on!
As we move towards the Wizarding World, you can see Hogwarts off in the distance while still in Jurassic Park. It’s a bit odd but most people probably don’t care about stuff like that.
Hogsmeade is home to 2 of the best attractions at the resort, as well as some solid entertainment.
It was also packed on the day we visited!
Here are a few obligatory castle (and the show building behind it) houses Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a top notch ride unlike anything else we’ve ever ridden anywhere else!
The other big new addition to Hogsmede is Hagrid’s Magical Creature Motorbike Adventure. Express is not available for this attraction which just opened in June of this year and is incredibly popular.
The problem is, the ride is barely functional, even now almost 4 months later. It still routinely opens late or closes early, and frequently has considerable downtime during throughout the day. That being said, if all goes smoothly, its one of the most fun roller coasters in the world! We arrived to find a 120 minute wait posted but ended up waiting just over 60. We lucked out that there were no operational interruptions while we waited.
If you have a park hopper ticket, you can also take a ride on Hogwarts express. This is a really cool experience which takes you back an forth between USF and Islands of Adventure. The train features virtual windows to entertain you throughout the ride. You will forced to scan your park hopper ticket before getting on the train so when you arrive at the other park you can just head right in.
The Lost Continent is another land which doesn’t have too much going on at the moment. Poseidon’s Fury is a walk through special effects attraction that is worth doing, although the facade is more impressive than anything you will see inside as far as we are concerned. The land also used to feature a (not good) Sinbad the sailor stunt show but the theater now sits abandoned.
As far as in park dining is concerned, Mythos is your best table service restaurant in either park.
Moving on to our final land, Seuss Landing. The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride is the only attraction we regularly do in this area. It’s the closest thing you will find to a Peoplemover at Universal, and offers some fantastic views over the water. Unfortunately, its rather short.
The rest of the land features a carousel, a spinner themed to One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, and a decent Cat in the Hat dark ride. While we love a good dark ride, this one has a lot of turns where it spins multiple times for no reason and it tends to make up feel a little sick.
Well that will wrap things up for this little full circle tour of Universal’s best theme park. We will be back soon with a look at the O.G. of Universal Orlando.
Until then, thanks for reading and bye for now!