Universal Studios Florida Report: Crowds, Characters & Carnaval

It’s time for a winter off-season visit to Universal Studios Florida. In this park report, we’ll check out the crowds, wait times, characters, other entertainment, and offer a preview of the 2021 Mardi Gras International Flavors of Carnaval at USF.

As with Walt Disney World, crowds are down considerably at both Universal Orlando theme parks in the last month-plus. This shouldn’t be a huge shock, as the same seasonal visitor trends more or less apply to both Disney and Universal with only limited exceptions.

Normally, one such exception is that Walt Disney World has leveraged group bookings and events (like dance and cheer competitions, not things like Festival of the Arts) to boost crowds during what’s otherwise Florida’s off-season for tourism. By and large, that’s a non-factor this year as most of those have been scaled back. Instead, it’s Universal that would seem to be seeing the bigger boost of late…

Unlike Walt Disney World, which has not sold new Annual Passes since last March, Universal Orlando has continued selling APs. Moreover, Universal is offering 3 free months on any Annual Pass through March 31, 2021. It’s impossible for us to say definitively that this has resulted in more Floridians buying Universal Orlando APs, but it’s a safe assumption.

Among other things, there are tons of new residents as the Orlando area is filled with “Zoom Towns.” Those people can’t buy Walt Disney World APs, but they can purchase ones to Universal. There’s also just the normal churn of Annual Passes among locals, many of whom now only have the option to buy APs at Universal.

Given all of that, and the fact that the audience for Central Florida theme parks right now is disproportionately local, it makes sense that Universal Orlando would see comparatively elevated attendance right now. In our experience, non-holiday weekdays are still pretty low, but weekends remain a totally different story.

Throughout the park, wait times were low or nonexistent during our Friday visit.

Typically, crowds are slightly elevated on Fridays as compared to other weekdays, but still not even remotely on par with Saturday or Sunday. The moral of the story for tourists is to avoid weekends. If you’re visiting both Universal and Walt Disney World, definitely do Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom or Magic Kingdom on Saturday and Sunday.

One thing we’ve noticed on occasion at Universal Orlando is Express Pass lines backed up, giving the perception of lengthy waits. However, this log-jam typically dissipates once past the queue entrance.

Even for the standby line, Men in Black: Alien Attack had a very short wait. Well worth it for the best shooter ride in Orlando!

The longest wait we encountered was Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, which had a 45 minute posted time.

That’s beyond our indoor risk tolerance (and also just our regular tolerance for waiting in lines) so we didn’t check whether that was accurate. Generally, we’ve found Universal times to be inflated just like Walt Disney World’s. Current circumstances make predicting waits less predictable, so both park operators seem to err on the side of overestimating.

We ended up waiting less than 10 minutes to visit our homies on the Green Planet.

Pretty wild that Walt Disney World makes you jump through all these hoops for joining the virtual queue of its incredible intergalactic adventure, and Universal lets you just mosey on up to this. Always sad when true art isn’t fully appreciated by the general public during its time.

In previous park reports, we gushed over the entertainment presence at Universal Studios Florida.

Even after the holiday season it, thankfully, remains the case that Universal is doing an exceptional job on the entertainment front.

Throughout our visit, we couldn’t walk more than about 100 feet without stumbling upon an entertainment act of some sort–musicians, stage shows, characters, or atmospheric performers.

In the comments to past Universal park reports, readers have disputed the “quality” of this entertainment. That’s fair to a degree, but I’d push back on most of it. For example, there’s nothing beyond nostalgia and familiarity that makes the JAMMitors superior to whatever these dudes above are called.

On the character front, SpongeBob is ridiculously popular with today’s youth.

Just because I don’t know his sidekick’s name is Patrick (and not “StarGary” like I was going to guess) without Googling it doesn’t make it irrelevant. My pop culture knowledge is basically that of a dude from the past–an Encino Man, if you will–when Brendan Fraser was the world’s #1 actor.

Of course, I know who this is. Some Like It Hot is one of the greatest movies of all time.

Honestly, I’d love to see Universal try to be a little less relevant by focusing more on timeless classics. Alfred Hitchcock: The Art of Making Movies would arguably be more relevant today than Shrek 4-D.

I haven’t watched a new episode of the Simpsons (on purpose) in like a decade, but they’re one property Universal has leveraged in recent years that seems simultaneously relevant and timeless.

(Also, I believe Disney fans are now legally obligated to become Simpsons fans following the acquisition, a la Marvel and Lucasfilm. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.)

I’m honestly not sure whether the Bourne franchise and Scooby Doo are relevant or timeless. Both of these properties fall into a grey area for me.

It’s worth noting here that the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine, Bart Simpson, and Marilyn Monroe all appeared more or less simultaneously in the same general vicinity. Despite few guests in Hollywood, the area felt alive and full of energy thanks to the entertainment.

In the London Embankment area outside of Diagon Alley, there’s the three-storied Knight Bus.

The act here is a shrunken head chatting with the bus conductor.

Inside Diagon Alley, there’s the Tales of Beedle the Bard. This is a longer-form stage show with puppets and props.

Not being a fan of Harry Potter, I have zero frame of reference for either act. Yet, as with virtually any entertainment in any theme park, these things stand on their own and are fun to watch.

The salient point is that Universal’s entertainment adds a lot to the parks right now. Aside from the cavalcades, this is something that is largely missing from Walt Disney World; the difference in atmosphere and energy levels is palpable.

It’s easy to sit at home and dismiss Universal’s entertainment as “uninteresting” or “irrelevant” to you while looking at a static, 2D photo. It’s another entirely to be there in person and experience it. This is especially true when crowds are low, and the parks can feel a bit lifeless without performers.

Moving along, Mardi Gras 2021: International Flavors of Carnaval started over the weekend and runs until March 28, 2021.

This features a food festival with cuisine and entertainment inspired by international Carnaval celebrations, plus entertainment and photo ops. There’s no parade this year, but floats are on display. There’s also street entertainment, music, beads, and more throughout Universal Studios Florida.

We visited the day before Mardi Gras officially kicked off. The food booths were not yet open, nor was any of that entertainment running.

However, all of the photo ops and merchandise were out.

Additionally, the Tribute Store was offering previews to Annual Passholders, so we had the chance to check that out.

We’re going to withhold full commentary until we have a chance to experience the full event, but here’s a sneak peek at what we saw:

As with the Halloween and Christmas Tribute Stores before it, the Mardi Gras Tribute Store is really cool. The jazz parlor, nautical cemetery, and pirate-themed rooms are all well-themed and moody–Universal could totally do a Mardi Gras Horror Nights in the spring. The merchandise is also a lot of fun, although as the owner of a light-furred cat and person who lives in Florida, I once again question why are so many of the shirts black?!

We plan on heading back to fully experience Mardi Gras 2021: International Flavors of Carnaval very soon–hopefully this week before the holiday crowds show up in full force. We’ll report back with a more thorough guide, float photos, food reviews, etc. once we do. Suffice to say, the next couple of months will remain a great time to visit Universal Studios Florida…just probably not next weekend or during Mardi Gras week itself.

Need trip planning tips and comprehensive advice for your visit to Central Florida? Make sure to read our Universal Orlando Planning Guide for everything about Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida. Also check out our Walt Disney World Vacation Planning Guide for everything about those parks, resorts, restaurants, and so much more. For regular updates, news & rumors, a heads up when discounts are released, and much more, sign up for our FREE email newsletter!


If you’ve visited Universal and/or Walt Disney World recently, any thoughts on crowds and wait times at each? Have you been to Universal Studios Florida for Mardi Gras 2021? Agree that Universal Orlando is doing an excellent job with atmosphere and entertainment, or do you still maintain that the characters are not as relevant as Disney’s? Any other highlights at Universal for you? Thoughts on anything else covered here? Do you have any questions about the current modified Universal experience? 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!

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