Following our morning at Islands of Adventure, we took the Hogwarts Express train to Universal Studios Florida for lunch, afternoon touring, and Halloween Horror Lite. In this photo report, we’ll share a look at crowds, actual v. posted wait times, and a quiet early evening in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Before we get going, I want to thank everyone for their feedback on the Islands of Adventure Photo Report. It’s been a couple of busy news days, so I fell behind responding to comments, but I did read them all. There was a ton of useful and greatly-appreciated feedback. It’s nice to see that so many of you also enjoy Universal, which is a pleasant change of pace from the faux rivalry or sense of superiority that Walt Disney World fans often champion.
Most of what you requested is doable, and what I had in mind. Two things are unlikely in the near-term: individual restaurant reviews and Harry Potter tips. The former requires a few meals at each location, so that’ll take time. The latter is entirely outside my wheelhouse. Back when the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened, I attempted to watch the movies to better appreciate the lands. I made it through 2 or 3 before giving up. The first time hearing about USF’s new land, I thought it was called Dragon Alley. The first time riding Hagrid’s, I thought that character was Dumbledore. That’s not an exhaustive list of my Harry Potter confusion. I love the lands, attractions, restaurants, and shops, but I’m not the one to write about WWoHP hidden details, easter eggs, etc.
Moving along to the substance of this Universal Studios Florida photo report, one of the big motivations of this visit was experiencing the haunted houses for Halloween Horror Nights/Day Lite. We were looking forward to Halloween Horror Nights 30, planning to get Frequent Fear Passes again. Not because we’re hardcore fans of the event, but because it’s an anniversary year and the lower tiers of those passes are cheap–the breakeven point is only a couple of visits.
This year, Universal Orlando proceeded with plans for HHN and it seemed like the event might actually happen. Then, things worsened in Florida and it got cancelled along with every other fall and winter special event at Central Florida theme parks. Like the killer in a slasher film, a portion of Halloween Horror Nights then rose from the presumed death for one quick scare, with two houses during the day to regular ticket holders.
Universal deserves a ton of kudos for this–with large numbers of actors and staff, these houses are not cheap to operate. Halloween Horror Nights is usually a hard ticket event and one that is viable largely due to alcohol sales. To offer even a portion of the experience to day guests is a great, guest-friendly move that’ll also hopefully tide fans over until Halloween Horror Nights 30 next year.
The two houses are Universal Monsters: The Bride of Frankenstein Lives and Revenge of the Tooth Fairy. Posted wait times were 15 minutes each, and actual waits were in that neighborhood. (I forgot to time them, sorry.)
I hesitate to “review” these houses because I know HHN has an ardent fanbase that is (to put it charitably) “skeptical” of anyone who hasn’t attended the event multiple nights for at least the last 15 years, has extensive knowledge of the icons, can recite decade-old Bill & Ted’s in-jokes from memory, etc.
By contrast, we are much more casual–downright “basic” by HHN standards. We often favor the popular IP houses over the original ones, and have different barometers of what’s good or bad. Essentially, HHN fandom makes us understand how normal guests must feel when hearing obsessive EPCOT Center fans like us yammer on about Horizons or whatever.
Anyway, I thought Revenge of the Tooth Fairy was excellent–it alone made the whole trek out to Universal “worth it.” I’m a total sucker for folklore, and the backstory here offers an engaging premise that then plays out pretty well throughout the house. Some of the staging (scenes v. wall text placement) is amiss, but all in all, it’s very good and repeatable.
On the other hand, Universal Monsters: The Bride of Frankenstein Lives felt sloppy and the premise fell flat for us after the initial scene or two. Maybe it’s just me, but it became redundant about halfway through.
We also hit up the Halloween Horror Nights Tribute Store, waiting in line about 5 minutes to enter. This is incredibly well done, with a lot of cool visuals to check out and a wide range of merchandise. The limited entry makes it easy to get ‘clean’ photos with the backdrops and displays, which is appreciated.
My only comments on the souvenir selection is that Universal overuses busy designs and dark colors. Same goes for the (excellent) Universal Studios Florida 30th Anniversary items. I love all of those attractions and the old marquee, but as someone who lives in the Sunshine State and owns a light-colored cat, there’s no way I’m buying a black shirt. The latter is a “me problem” but I still don’t get why a theme park in Florida is making so much dark clothing.
We did lunch at Today Show Cafe, mostly out of convenience. It was the location with the most abundant outdoor dining, shortest line, and healthy-ish options.
The plan was to get something light as we were having dinner at Pizza Bruno (highly recommended) afterwards, but I can never resist a ridiculous looking dessert. Zero regrets.
Outside of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley) “feels like” crowd levels at Universal Orlando were surprisingly low.
Granted, Saturday and Sunday are significantly busier–but this was a Friday, which is the third busiest day of the week.
As much as I enjoyed Back to the Future: The Ride, I think Springfield USA is a worthy replacement.
My biggest complaint, if anything, is that Universal doesn’t give sufficient space to two properties (Jurassic Park and the Simpsons) that are the perfect fodder for theme park lands. Both are well done, but leave me wanting more.
Speaking of the Simpsons, I thought it was amusing that Homer appears to be watching the Minions cavalcade.
Lots of characters were out and about in Universal Studios Florida for socially-distanced selfies. SpongeBob and his pink friend were the only ones with a line. (If there’s any IP about which I know less than Harry Potter, it’s SpongeBob.)
Back in my day, Barney & Friends were what all the cool kids watched. (Not really–I’m a few years too old for that.) Dinosaurs > sponges.
Barney may seem outdated, but keep in mind that a live action Barney film is in the works. Recently, we learned from an EW interview that it’ll be a darker film with a “heartbreaking premise.” I hope that means the live dinosaur Barney eats someone. (That’s how live action works here–they’ll have real dinosaurs a la Jurassic Park, right?)
Speaking of the coolest IP, our top priority in Universal Studios Florida was obviously E.T. Adventure.
The posted wait time here was 15 minutes, and our actual wait was around 10 minutes.
The attraction is excellent as ever, but there were definitely some noticeable maintenance issues. E.T. and several of his homies had wonky eyes, arms, or other features.
Not to put too fine of a point on it, but the attraction broke down while we were on it. Given that E.T. Adventure is undeniably (UNDENIABLY!) the flagship attraction at Universal Studios Florida and why most guests book vacation packages, it would behoove Universal to give this the TLC it deserves.
On weekdays, Universal’s Virtual Line system is only in use at Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon.
We didn’t do that because…well, you’ll understand once we publish attraction reviews for every attraction at Universal Orlando.
Outside of the attractions with 15-20 minute posted wait times, we found that numbers were inflated pretty much across the board.
My strong belief is that both Universal and Disney are doing this primarily to discourage people from getting into line, which can make some queues unmanageable. This actually works (up until a point) because the guest-base is disproportionately locals and Annual Passholders, many of whom have done everything multiple times. As such, their “balking point” is lower than that of an average tourist.
For example, almost all of Revenge of the Mummy’s extended outdoor queue was in use and the posted wait time was 45 minutes when we got in line.
The actual wait was 11 minutes. Given the physical space available and distancing requirements, I’m not sure a 45 minute wait is even possible here without more extended queue outside. (Please feel free to correct me if you’ve waited longer since reopening for Revenge of the Mummy with this much outdoor queue in use!)
We also noticed wait times “magically” grow towards the end of the day. While hanging out in a very quiet Diagon Alley during the last hour the park was open, the wait time for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts grew from 60 minutes to 90 minutes to 115 minutes.
There was not a sudden influx of guests jumping into line during that time. We received one-time Express Passes due to the breakdown on E.T. Adventure, so our minimal wait time experience here is not particularly relevant, but I didn’t see a ton of people in the standby queue. The more likely scenario is that wait time was being pumped up to discourage people from doing one last ride. This is something we’ve also seen at Walt Disney World since reopening, albeit not to this extreme.
The final hour of the afternoon/early evening was the perfect time to do Diagon Alley, as its midday crowds had subsided entirely. There was plenty of space to walk, explore the quiet corners, pore over the details, etc.
I may not “get” everything (or almost anything) about this land, but I still appreciate it as an exemplar of themed design. This is on par with the best of what Imagineering has done in the last decade, and is something every theme park fan–regardless of Harry Potter interest–should experience.
After Universal Studios Florida closed, we bounced back over to Islands of Adventure for the last hour of the day. Far and away our biggest mistakes of the day were made there. Rather than jumping into line for something popular at the last minute, we went to a gift shop to buy a 30th Anniversary coffee mug (mistake #1 as the line to checkout was huge).
Our second mistake was leaving right at park closing, along with a huge wave of other guests. Obviously, we know better (but pizza!). We didn’t expect it to be quite this bad, but being a Friday night, a lot of people were arriving to CityWalk and leaving the parks at precisely the same time. Physical distancing and mask compliance weren’t always perfect throughout our day but this was the only point when things got a bit dicey. Even then, we just moved through the crowd quickly–fleeting encounters, outdoors, with masked crowds are not the end of the world. (This one is already long, so we’ll cover health & safety more thoroughly in a future post.)
Speaking of which, we should have another Universal report sooner rather than later. After the overwhelming enthusiasm, my tentative plan was to start doing one Universal post per week, probably on Sundays. Timing-wise, that should work out about perfectly, because Universal Studios Florida just extended its Saturday hours to 10 pm and added their lagoon nighttime spectacular, Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration, back to the schedule for 9:45 pm that night.
It feels serendipitous that Universal would announce this right after so many of you expressed interest in more coverage of these parks due to frustrations with Walt Disney World for, among other things, the cuts to entertainment. Obviously, the executives at Comcast aren’t sitting around reading blog post comments (no offense to you all) plotting their next move. It is interesting how Universal has approached this differently from Disney, and it does feel like there has been a concerted effort to peel away visitors from Disney and foster brand loyalty towards Universal. As always, competition is a great thing that only serves to benefit consumers as both companies step up their game and enhance their theme park offerings…I just hope Disney gets that memo!
Have you visited Universal Studios Florida in the last couple of months? What did you think of HHN Lite? What was your experience with crowds and wait times? If you’ve visited both Disney and Universal post-reopening, which do you think is doing better? 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 holiday season, or are you waiting until 2021 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!