Our 1-day Universal Studios Florida itinerary offers a step by step plan for an ideal visit, with strategy to minimize time waiting in lines, maximize efficiency, and avoid crowds. In the process, we offer advice for rides, restaurants, shows, snacks, entertainment, and more.
Note that this itinerary has been created following the reopening of Universal Orlando, and takes into account current health safety protocol. This is relevant because it factors in limited capacity and social distancing guidelines on rides and shows, which have caused disparities in pre-closure and post-reopening wait times.
With that said, Universal Studios Florida has not changed nearly as much as Walt Disney World. There are some modifications (like face masks), but pretty much everything is operating–and fairly close to normal. The primary changes that impact strategy are reduced operating hours on weekdays and distancing on attractions. We visit Universal Orlando several times per month, and will continue monitoring wait times and fine-tuning this 1-day Universal Studios Florida itinerary as things continue to evolve…
A couple of things before we get started. First, this Universal Studios Florida itinerary assumes that you do not have Express Pass, which is Universal’s skip-the-line option. If you do have Express Pass Unlimited, that takes away almost all pressure of following an itinerary for rides. Simply use its rough contours for entertainment, atmosphere, dining–and what to skip.
If you have the standard, one-time use Express Pass, we recommend following this itinerary in the morning via standby lines when wait times are minimal or nonexistent, and then revisiting rides in the afternoon and using Express Pass then. By and large, this itinerary offers step by step strategy so you don’t need to purchase Express Pass. Getting Express Pass Unlimited for free via a hotel stay is a totally different story, and highly recommended.
Second, this itinerary also ignores Early Park Admission, which is available on scattered dates for Universal hotel guests and select others. In the case of Universal Studios Florida, this allows access one hour prior before scheduled park opening time to Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem.
We ignore this out of convenience, but also because we’re not particularly big fans of Early Park Admission for Universal Studios Florida. It’s only two attractions, only a handful of dates, and more guests are eligible than the advantage offered–which requires getting up an hour early. Do it if you want, but if you do not have access to Early Park Admission, definitely visit Universal Studios Florida on a day when it is not happening.
With that all out of the way, let’s get to the brass tacks of the itinerary…
Zig When They Zag — Upon entering Universal Studios Florida, the first stop for many guests is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley. If you’re a big Potterhead, you might be tempted to do the same. However, prioritizing Diagon Alley will eat up the majority of your morning, during which time the crush of the crowds will hit and wait times will swell elsewhere. Another popular stop is Despicable Me Minion Mayhem. Skip both for now.
Our preferred approach is one of quantity–knocking out as many shorter duration rides as possible first thing in the morning. This might result in some seemingly perplexing decisions to follow, but the efficient morning will give you more freedom and flexibility in the afternoon and evening.
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit – Instead, we’ll begin with this outdoor roller coaster with a vertical lift and speeds of up to 65 mph where you pick the ride’s soundtrack.
It’s a bit on the short side, which makes the payoff underwhelming when wait times are high. That’s no big deal first thing in the morning when it’s a walk-on. To the contrary, it’s an asset–it means getting to your second ride faster.
Transformers: The Ride 3D – I’m no fan of this film franchise, but the ride is top notch. Loud, fast-paced, mindless action translate to a theme park attraction better than they do a movie. This ride distills the best parts of the multi-hour movie series into a 5-minute ride that’s better than the films.
Weak dialogue, story, and other elements that cripple films—things with which Michael Bay cannot be bothered as his focus is on EXPLOSIONS—are more forgivable in theme park attractions given the nature of the medium. Transformers: The Ride 3D works because it immerses guests in the action, and makes you part of the wild ride.
Revenge of the Mummy – Next up is another attraction that can be knocked out quickly. Unlike the first two stops, Revenge of the Mummy is not just a mindless thrill ride. While it is a fun themed roller coaster with great special effects and mild thrills there’s more to it than exhilaration and impressive technical effects.
Revenge of the Mummy’s central conceit is unabashedly silly. The set-up is established in the queue, and you might have a difficult time picking up on it when the ride is a walk-on. (Hence us pointing it out here.) The pre-show has a mockumentary vibe, and Brendan Fraser’s cup of coffee is the attraction’s tongue-in-cheek MacGuffin. The thrills are fun, but it’s the humorous pre-show and self-aware framework that have made Revenge of the Mummy something of a cult classic attraction among Universal fans.
The Simpsons Ride – Depending upon crowd levels, this might be the last headliner attraction before wait times start to build. It’s also one that can take longer to experience from start to finish.
This “theme park within a theme park” attraction takes you and the Simpsons to Krustyland in a fun motion simulator attraction. It’s fun for everyone, but more so for longtime fans of the Simpsons who will appreciate the many characters, in-jokes, referential humor and gags, and just the general trappings of the Simpsons humor.
Men In Black: Alien Attack – Sorry Walt Disney World, but this is the best shooter ride in Orlando. It’s similar to Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin or Toy Story Mania…but better.
The idea is that you’re the newest Men in Black recruit, on a mission to shoot as many aliens as possible. In the process, you’re guided through a variety of scenes and sets with physical props. While the franchise that inspired it is arguably “dated,” the ride itself is top-notch.
E.T. Adventure – I could go on and on about the greatness of E.T. Adventure. Suffice to say, it’s the best Fantasyland-style dark ride in Orlando. While the exterior and outside queue are straight out of the 1980s, the interior queue and ride portion of E.T. Adventure are still fresh. It features quality figures and vibrant scenes that come alive as you glide past them in your bike. It’s like Peter Pan’s Flight at Magic Kingdom, but with more fluidity and a better movie (that’s right!) as its basis.
E.T. Adventure does introduce zany characters (oddly enough, from E.T. The Book of the Green Planet, which costs $.01 and should be owned by everyone) that are unfamiliar to most but equally as bizarre as ET. This makes it feel a bit campy, but the whole of the experience holds up well and is campy in a fun way, not a dated way. None of this should come as any surprise given that E.T. is national treasure that will be cherished by future generations of Americans for billions of years to come.
The Simpsons’ Fast Food Blvd – There’s something for everyone here in this multi-location food court. None of the cuisine is revolutionary–to the contrary, it’s an exercise in excess that leans into stereotypes about fast food pulled from the Simpsons. But it works.
My view here is go big or go home. I genuinely enjoy the Clogger Burger, and the Chicken and Waffle Sandwich is another winner. You’ll also find a few healthy options, and other iconic dishes and drinks from the Simpsons. Plus details and design that are on point.
Kang and Kodos Twirl ‘n’ Hurl – Eat an entire Clogger Burger then ride this and see if you can withstand the “challenge” presented in the ride’s name.
Joking aside, whether you skip this spinner or not is entirely up to you. What you see is what you get. We rarely do it.
Sensational Streetmosphere – Universal Studios Florida has a lot of entertainment. Dedicated stage shows, musical acts that perform on a schedule, roaming characters, and character meet & greets. We highly recommend consulting the official schedule to see what’s performing (and when) during your visit.
Showtimes change, so it’s impossible to build them into this Universal Studios Florida itinerary. However, we recommend doing most mid-afternoon when ride wait times are at their longest. Our must-do entertainment includes the Blues Brothers Show and Marilyn & the Diamond Bellas. Plus, the following shows–with one big exception…
Skip Shrek 4D – If you learn just one thing from this itinerary, make it this: SKIP SHREK 4D. While there are several attractions this itinerary quietly skips, the only one we make a point of mentioning is Shrek 4-D. This is not just because it’s awful, but also because it has long wait times.
There’s often a tendency to conflate wait times with popularity and quality–that could not be further from the truth here. (It’s a result of limited capacity, long waits being self-fulfilling prophecy, and, sure, some amount of poor taste.) If your comedic sensibilities are trapped in the early-aughts and you still find the novelty of animation with self-aware and semi-satirical “humor” to be funny, have at it. Everyone else should stay far away.
Definitely Do… – Bourne Stuntacular and Universal Orlando’s Horror Make-up Show are not to be missed, and both are near the front of the park in Hollywood. Bourne Stuntacular is live-action stunt show that follows the titular character being pursued by enemy operatives. It’s high octane and technically impressive; even if the franchise isn’t as good as Terminator, it’s still an excellent show.
Universal Orlando’s Horror Make-up Show is timeless, hilarious, startling, and endlessly amusing production. It’s been around since the 1990s, but you’d never know. It’s every bit as fresh and relevant as the day it debuted–truly one of our favorite things at USF.
Virual Queue Time? – Two relatively new attractions at Universal Studios Florida use Virtual Lines: Fast & Furious — Supercharged and Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon. If you plan on doing either or both, schedule your return time earlier in the day.
I don’t care for either. Fast and the Furious is one of my guilty-pleasure movie franchises, but that ride is an abomination that is chaotic and messy–and not in the ways that make those films fun. I don’t find post-SNL Jimmy Fallon to be very funny, and that’s on full display here. The best part of Race through New York is literally the wait area, which is something of a Tonight Show history exhibit. Nevertheless, you might consider doing either or both if time allows, as your enjoyment of these may vary.
Cafe Cake – While you’re at the front of the park, consider a stop at Today Show Cafe, which has a great selection of baked goods and desserts in addition to delicious sandwiches. (On busy days, it’s an excellent low-wait alternative to Fast Food Blvd for lunch.)
I’m a big fan of the cake pictured above. For the sake of “research,” I’ve also tried the seasonal Christmas and Mardi Gras incarnations to ensure they’re as good as the regular version. I’m happy to report that they are, but I’ll keep testing and report back future results.
Despicable Me Minion Mayhem – This is typically one of the longest lines in Universal Studios Florida, which is why many resources recommend doing it first. However, it’s at the very front of the park, meaning it draws a disproportionate number of guests as they enter. Additionally, it has a lengthy duration, meaning it’s impossible to do it quickly from start-to-finish even if you beat the crowds.
Consequently, we recommend doing Despicable Me Minion Mayhem later in the afternoon. Its wait time will undoubtedly be long, but the opportunity cost is much lower. If you visit on a day when Universal Studios Florida is open late, consider moving it after the Diagon Alley section and doing it towards or at the end of the night. As an attraction appealing to kids, wait times do drop once most families have left the park.
Diagon Alley – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
ButterbeerBreather – Take an afternoon break with some Butterbeer upon entering Diagon Alley. We recommend grabbing one immediately, and enjoying it while exploring the area, soaking up Diagon Alley’s sights and sounds.
For those unfamiliar with it, Butterbeer is like a really sweet & creamy version of cream soda, perhaps like root beer if you totally removed the bite and dialed up the creaminess to 11. Regardless of whether that sounds appealing, drinking a Butterbeer is a must–it’s a Universal/Harry Potter rite of passage.
Diagon Delights – Once finished with that, continue exploring Diagon Alley. Check out Ollivanders Wand Shop, which is a hybrid store and show where you can witness a unique interactive experience and see a “wand choose a wizard.” (Harry Potter fans seem to love this; I find it underwhelming.)
We really enjoy both Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees as well as the Tales of Beedle the Bard in Diagon Alley. Outside of Diagon Alley on the London Embankment there’s the three-storied Knight Bus where a shrunken head chats with the bus conductor. That act is fine.
Dinner at Leaky Cauldron – As with its counterpart in Islands of Adventure’s Hogsmeade, this is the best counter service restaurant in Universal Studios Florida. It’s expensive, but the quality is closer to table service restaurants than it is other fast food in USF.
In terms of cuisine, the Leaky Cauldron offers a variety of British comfort food that’s delicious and filling. The atmosphere is the other half of the appeal, with Leaky Cauldron being an exquisitely-themed dining hall full of other-worldly, wizarding decor.
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts – There are two attractions in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in USF: this and Hogwarts Express from King’s Cross Station. Both are must-do attractions, but the latter isn’t doable in a single-day, one-park itinerary since it requires park-hopping (stay tuned for our two park and multiple day itineraries).
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is a great way to end your day of rides at Universal Studios Florida on a high note. From exterior to bank queue to pre-show to the 3D track-based motion ride itself, this is an immersive and incredible experience.
Dessert at Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour – After Escaping from Gringotts, it’s time for ice cream. I’m told it’s British custom to reward oneself with ice cream after a successful bank heist.
Butterbeer ice cream is the greatest departure from the drinks in terms of flavor, as it’s actually more like vanilla ice cream meets Butterbeer in taste. It’s no substitute for the drink, but is still very much worth trying for the sake of comparison.
Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration – On select days, you can end your evening with Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration. If it’s showing, we recommending staking out spots in the Central Park viewing area at least 45 minutes before show time.
Universal describes this as “a colossal celebration of music, water and light that transforms the park and takes you into the movies like never before.” Since this is a Disney-centric blog, we’ll offer the obvious comparison: it’s Universal’s take on World of Color. We highly recommend seeing Cinematic Celebration–it’s the perfect conclusion to your day riding and experiencing the movies!
What would you include in your perfect day in Universal Studios Florida? Any favorite rides, shows, restaurants, or snacks you recommend? Do you agree or disagree with our strategy? If you haven’t visited Universal Orlando, what do you plan on doing? Any other highlights at Universal for you? Thoughts on anything else covered here? Will you be attempting to visit Central Florida this year, or are you waiting until 2022 or beyond? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!