Plan your day at Universal Studios Florida
Written by Robert Niles
No park since Disneyland suffered more logistical nightmares on its opening day than Universal Studios Florida. But from that inauspicious beginning, Universal Studios Florida has recovered and grown to become of the nation's most popular theme parks, trailing only its younger sibling, Islands of Adventure, among the most-attended non-Disney parks in the country.
Universal Studios Florida has been undergoing an even more spectacular transformation during the past two years, as the park has added a new Transformers attraction, a Springfield-themed land around its Simpsons Ride, and in 2014 will debut a new Harry Potter land themed to Diagon Alley.
What to do before you go
Please read our post on planning a day Universal's Islands of Adventure for advice on buying tickets, booking accommodations and transportation to the Universal Orlando Resort.
We can't emphasize enough the value of staying at one of Universal's three on-site hotels — if you can afford the prices, which start at $225 a night. Staying on-site at Universal allows up to five people in your room an unlimited front-of-line pass for all the attractions at Universal Studios Florida on the days you visit the park, from the day you check in to the day you check out. Having that access completely changes the experience of visiting the park, allowing you to come and go as you please, without having to give thought to crowds and wait-time management. That allows you to get more value, with less hassle, from a day here than you could get from a typical day at almost any other theme park resort in the world.
Whether you're staying on-site or not, you can get access to a reserved viewing area for the park's nighttime show, Universal's Cinematic Spectacular, by booking a dining package at the popular Lombard's Seafood Grille. The package includes a dessert buffet while you watch the show. Call 407-224-7554 at least 24 hours in advance of your visit to book.
You also can book access to a reserved viewing area for the park's daytime parade with a character breakfast reservation at the park's Cafe La Bamba. Call the same number above to book those reservations.
When you get to Universal Studios Florida
With 2013's hottest new attraction just opened at Universal Studios Florida — Transformers: The Ride 3D — an early start is essential to avoid long mid-day waits, if you're not staying on-site and haven't bought a Universal Express line-skipping pass. Remember that you'll be parking in Universal Orlando's massive parking garages and walking through the resort's CityWalk dining and entertainment district before arriving at Universal Studios Florida's front gate. So plan to arrive at least an hour before park opening on the day of your visit to give you time to park, walk and get in position to be among the first to get to Transformers when it opens in the morning.
From there, Theme Park Insider readers' top choices for "must see" attractions at Universal Studios Florida include:
You can take those rides in that order, but keep in mind that Mummy and Men in Black also offer single-rider lines, as does Transformers. If you're willing to split your party, single rider lines can allow everyone to get through the queue much faster than they would by sticking together when wait times get longer later in the day. You won't ride sitting together, but often you'll end up in the same or adjacent cars anyway. If you arrive at park opening and start with Despicable Me, then go to The Simpsons Ride, and then hit those three single-rider attractions (starting with Men in Black, since you'll be right there), you often can bag the park's top five attractions before lunch, even without a Universal Express Pass.
Check your show guide (pick one up as you pass through the entrance turnstiles) for showtimes for the Universal Horror Make-up Show, as well as for the mid-afternoon Superstar Character Parade and Universal's Cinematic Spectacular in the evening. Then work you way around the park and pick up any additional attractions that catch your eye. Check our Universal Studios Florida ratings and reviews for additional details.
Where to eat
If you're not booked into Lombard's and you're looking for a quick counter-service meal, our readers' top choice is the new Fast Food Boulevard in Springfield, next to The Simpsons Ride. This is where you can order and enjoy iconic selections from The Simpsons TV show, including a Krusty Burger and a Flaming Moe. Duff Beer (yes, with actual alcohol) also is available.
Special events at Universal Studios Florida
Universal Studios Florida is home to the world's most-attended theme park Halloween event — Halloween Horror Nights. Running selected evenings from September through October, Halloween Horror Nights is a wildly popular separately-ticketed event that takes place after the park closes for the day. That means visitors should expect earlier-than-normal closures for Universal Studios Florida in those months — something to keep in mind if you're planning to visit then.
In addition to Halloween Horror Nights, USF offers several other special events that are included with park admission, usually during the "off season" months of the school year. Those include a Mardi Gras celebration with a concert series that lasts long after Fat Tuesday, as well as a holiday parade with the balloons from New York's Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.
What's next at Universal Studios Florida
All this park-visit strategy goes out the window when The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley opens in Summer 2014. Expect the park to be slammed with Harry Potter fans from around the world for the rest of that year, as was sister park Islands of Adventure when the original Wizarding World opened there in 2010.
Next week: SeaWorld Orlando
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