One thing you need to know about me: I love rollercoasters. Like, really love them. And after two years spent virtually indoors, I started to…miss them? So, when I got the opportunity to travel to Universal Orlando last year, I jumped at the chance. My goal, once I touched down in Orlando? Ride every. single. attraction. Sure, it was ambitious, and yes, it required two separate trips and a slew of strangers to hype me up before the most terrifying rides Universal Orlando has to offer. But now? Now I’m the (self-proclaimed) ultimate Universal Orlando guide.
If you don’t know, Universal Orlando is comprised of three different parks: Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and water park Volcano Bay. And after getting to spend three days exploring all three and another chance to come back and experience Halloween Horror Nights, I’ve basically experience every thing each park has to offer. And tbh, I’m already itching to get back and experience it alllll over again. Maybe it’s the magic of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, or the thrill of meeting a looks-like-it-could-be-real dinosaur or knowing that they have a new park coming in 2025 (which will bring Super Nintendo World to the East Coast).
So yeah, I guess you can say I’m a bit of an expert when it comes to Universal Orlando. Want to get up to speed and learn how to make the most of your next Orlando vacay? Read on, thrill seekers…
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(P.S. The writer received free stays, meals, and experiences in order to write this story.)
- Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort: There are so many different vibes in this hotel based on the different buildings, that it’s honestly super hard to pick a favorite. But you can’t beat the Volcano Bay View rooms, especially if you have plans to head over to that park during your visit. Families of all sizes have plenty of options including affordable suites for larger groups. The hotel also includes a Starbucks, a bowling alley, a lazy river (!!!), and two pools that also have firepits for smores (they sell kits in the hotel) and movie screenings that will make your late-night swim even more theatrical. The rooms and the hotel’s main building are 1960s-retro-themed, so you better believe that the burgers and shakes are a must-have during your lunch break.
- Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suites & Dockside Inn and Suites: While considered the value hotels of the parks, these two brand-new hotels are totally worth checking out especially if you’re trying to save some cash. They each include at least one pool and even have two-bedroom suite options if you’re looking to book a place with more space. Plus, no matter where you stay, you get early park admission (including to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter), special perks like getting any merchandise you purchase in the parks sent to your hotel so you’re not carrying it everywhere for free, and bus service to and from the parks. Basically, you’re not losing out on any of the perks AND you’ll have some more to spend once you enter the parks.
- Universal Studios Florida: As the traditional Universal park, this has something for literally everyone. Designed to resemble a studio lot, there are spots that look like iconic cities like London and New York, while also including a special Simpsons-themed fun zone. Revenge of the Mummy coaster finally reopened after some renovations and was totally worth the long wait to ride! Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit took me a while to work myself up to since it sends riders up 167 feet at a 90-degree angle before plunging you right back down. Ya know, casual! But heads up: the ride will play a random song from a genre of your choice as your personal soundtrack, but if you want to pick your own, just hold down the logo for 10 seconds and put the special song code for the track that you’re looking for. Psst…if you’re looking for a ~very unique~ experience, go with track 902. Other fun rides include Transformers: The Ride in 3D and Men In Black Alien Attack.
- Universal’s Islands of Adventure: If you lean more into the theme part of a theme park, then get ready to be instantly transported to some of your favorite worlds thanks to Islands of Adventure. Seuss Landing is cute if you have any kiddos with you. And if you’re a rollercoaster fanatic, there are so many options including The Incredible Hulk Coaster which launches you at 67 miles per hour just to start which I was able to finally ride with the support of my new friends. But it’s the new Jurrasic World VelociCoaster that will really test your bravery. If you can, ride it once at night and once during the day for very different experiences. Not only is it the smoothest coaster in the entire place, but it’s arguably one of the best coasters of all time. Oh, and don’t squeeze your eyes shut throughout the entire ride or else you’ll miss the dinos. Other fun rides include The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls.
- Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Wizarding World is split between Diagon Alley in Universal Orlando and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. They’re both connected by the Hogwarts Express, so make sure to have a park hopper pass for at least one day so you can experience going back and forth (it’s different each way!). Pick up a wand at Olivander’s so you can recreate some magical spells and also stop by Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour and ask for the Earl Gray and Lavender flavor that is mind-blowingly good. Both the Leaky Cauldron and the Three Broomsticks will serve you a nice glass of hot, cold, or frozen Butterbeer. Oh, and you better make some time to ride Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure in Hogsmeade where you’ll find out if you’re Team Sidecar or Team Motorbike (the right answer) and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts in Diagon Alley before seeing the special light show at the Hogwarts castle which will be the most magical way to end your trip to the Wizarding World.
- Volcano Bay: Whether you’re looking for a day at the beach or still haven’t had enough of the trills, you will be totally relaxed after some time in Volcano Bay. The Krakatau Aqua Coaster will have you screaming, while TeAwa The Fearless River will make you rethink what you already know about lazy rivers. Wanna feel like you’re at a resort? Rent a cabana or private seating for your own personal experience and get ready to zen out. Plus, the TapuTapu watch will hold your space in a virtual line and notify you when to return so you can spend more time in the water and not waiting for your turn. Enjoy a drink at any of the bars and don’t forget to bring back your reusable cup for a special discount! Before you leave, go to Koka Poroka Ice Cream Kona for a Waturi Fusion to help cool you down as you head back to your hotel.
- Halloween Horror Nights: Taking place during select nights during the spookiest season, Universal Studios is transformed into the place of your nightmares with scare zones, haunted houses, and some of the best foods in the park. My throat was scratchy over how much I was screaming, but man is it one of the biggest highlights for the park. Take advantage of the short wait times for the available rides in between haunted houses that include a bug-infested home, a recreation of Laure Strode’s iconic Halloween home, and homages to Blumhouse favorites Freaky and The Black Phone. There are also multiple bars available that have some fun specialty cocktails that will give you some liquid courage if you need it (which you totally will).
- Universal CityWalk: Open until 2 AM, the Universal CityWalk has absolutely anything and everything you can imagine just a short walk between the parks and the parking garage/bus stops to take you back to your hotel. For some drinks, Fat Tuesday and karaoke bar Rising Star are your go-tos. Give yourself time to look through their song list and get ready to belt out some notes. Some locals will stop by and give some performances that will blow your mind and make you wish you can give them a recording contract. Meanwhile, Voodoo Doughnuts is a must, especially for their special orange creamsicle donut that you can only get at CityWalk. Just make sure to order for pickup so you don’t have to wait in a long line!
- Bigfire: If there’s one place to eat outside of the parks, it’s Bigfire. I still think about the Bourbon Cheese Fondue daily and it’s the perfect starter before diving into an iconic burger or steak. And you better save some room for dessert, because the restaurant’s iconic Tableside S’mores are an experience and a fun treat for all. They come with varieties of chocolate and flavored marshmallows so don’t expect your typical s’mores experience and don’t forget to top off the experience with a Smoked Old Fashioned.
- The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen: If you’re a chocoholic, then this is the place of your dreams. That’s right, almost every single item on this menu contains chocolate. Everything from the pasta to the dessert has some sort of choco-delight in it. And they even have a chocolate stout if you want to add something sweet to drink. Even if you don’t choose to dine in, stop by their milkshake counter to order one of the delicious treats to-go. Just try to have a friend with you, because you’ll be surprised by just how massive they are.
Tamara Fuentes is the current Entertainment Editor at Cosmopolitan, where she covers TV, movies, books, celebrities, and more. She can often be found in front of a screen fangirling about something new. Before joining Cosmopolitan, she was the entertainment editor over at Seventeen. She is also a member of the Television Critics Association and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.