Universal operates four theme parks in the U.S. — Universal Studios Hollywood in California and Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and Universal’s Volcano Bay in Florida. While there are certainly many similarities between the east and west coast experiences, there are also several clear-cut differences.
Meredith Wallace of Minnie Memories Travel, a travel advisor specializing in theme parks, says she usually explains the difference with three basic questions: Are roller coasters a must? You want to go to Orlando. Do you want to see active movie sets and maybe a star or two? You need to go to Hollywood. Are you a Harry Potter fan hoping to visit Hogwarts and Diagon Alley? You have to go to Orlando.
Dennis Quinn, vice president of destination sales for Universal Studios Hollywood, describes it this way:
“The biggest difference between Orlando and Hollywood is not necessarily the qualitative difference between the parks; it’s the fact that Orlando is a theme park family destination, whereas Hollywood is about an L.A. experience,” he says.
That L.A. experience is primarily based on the fact that the theme park is literally located in one of the most well-known working movie studios in the world, a unique situation that allows guests to tour the Universal backlot to see where some of their favorite movies and television shows are produced — and maybe even catch a glimpse of a new project in production. For example, I once saw a production crew push a vehicle over the edge of a parking structure — a stunt that (thanks to CGI) would become a sequence where a mobile lab is pushed over a cliff by dinosaurs in “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.”
Another significant difference is the footprints, highlighting the fact that, at 415 acres (including the movie studio), Universal Studios Hollywood is a slice of the much larger 735-acre Universal Orlando Resort pie. Although that size disparity translates into fewer attractions — 15 in Hollywood compared to 31 in Orlando (51 with Volcano Bay) — it also allows park-goers to do everything at the California park in one day; a feat that would be difficult to accomplish in Florida.
All that being said, the smaller California park still offers many of the same franchises and attractions as its Florida counterpart, like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade, Transformers: The Ride 3D, The Simpsons Ride, Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride, and Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, as well as several “Hollywood only” experiences, including Super Silly Fun Land (an outdoor play zone themed to the carnival from “Despicable Me”), DreamWorks Theatre Featuring Kung Fu Panda, The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash, the fan-favorite Waterworld stunt show, and of course, The World-Famous Studio Tour.
Its location on a hilltop in L.A.’s Cahuenga Pass also creates a bit of a real estate challenge for Universal Studios Hollywood, which explains why — except for the indoor Revenge of the Mummy and the small-ish family-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff — there are no big roller coasters. However, in Orlando, thrill-seekers can ride The Incredible Hulk Coaster, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, and the resort’s newest attraction, the brand-new “apex predator of roller coasters,” Jurassic World VelociCoaster.
The hillside location also necessitates the park’s two-level layout, with family-friendly rides and attractions on the upper lot and more adventurous attractions on the lower lot (at the bottom of a series of escalators known as the StarWay). The lower level is also where the highly-anticipated Nintendo-themed land is currently under construction, in an area that was previously part of the studio’s working front lot.
Although Universal parks have been described as less “kid-friendly” than their Disney neighbors — in part because most rides have height requirements — the Hollywood park still lists 10 kid-focused rides and experiences on its website; and the Orlando parks offer 16, including four rides in the Seuss Landing area and the nostalgic E.T. Adventure. Plus, Pteranodon Flyers is so kid-friendly, most adults can’t even ride unless a child accompanies them.
Comparing Hotels in Hollywood and Orlando
A particularly notable difference between the two destinations is that Universal Orlando Resort operates eight onsite hotels (in partnership with Loews), while Universal Studios Hollywood doesn’t have any. However, two Universal Studios Hollywood preferred hotels — the AAA Four Diamond Hilton Los Angeles/Universal City and the Sheraton Universal Hotel — are within walking distance. Additional preferred hotels are located less than 10 miles away, with many offering complimentary shuttle service and other perks.
“One thing about the experience in Orlando, as opposed to Hollywood, is that your day doesn’t end at the parks,” says Russ Dagon, vice president and executive project director for Universal Creative. “In Hollywood, when you finish at the theme park, you move on to a separate experience at your hotel (even if it’s one of the hotels close to the park).”
Universal Orlando’s themed onsite properties not only extend the theme park experience but also offer benefits like early park admission and complimentary transportation to and from the parks. Plus, the three premier hotels — Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, and Loews Royal Pacific Resort — also offer complimentary Universal Express Unlimited ride access, which many say is a must on extra-crowded park days.
Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal Orlando Resort Crossover Attractions
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Orlando has two magical Wizarding World lands — Hogsmeade Village in Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida — connected by the Hogwarts Express train; Hollywood has only Hogsmeade with the iconic Hogwarts castle (and Butterbeer, of course). Harry Potter fans can also ride five Wizarding World attractions in Florida (compared to two in California), including Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts in Diagon Alley and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure in Hogsmeade.
Jurassic Park/Jurassic World Rides
While the nearly eight-story drop is the same on both attractions, Florida still has the original Jurassic Park River Adventure attraction, while Hollywood updated the ride (and surrounding area) in 2019, which is now themed to the Jurassic World sequel franchise. In 2021, a new Indominus Rex animatronic was added for a climactic confrontation with Tyrannosaurus Rex.
The Springfield area is slightly different in Hollywood and Orlando, but both feature The Simpsons Ride — and the good news for everyone is that giant pink Lard Lad donuts are available at both locations. In Orlando, Springfield also offers a second ride: Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl
Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
The exterior facade is more extensive in Hollywood (don’t miss the interactive doorbells), and Super Silly Fun Land, with its kid’s Wet Zone and Silly Swirly Fun Ride, is not available in Orlando.
Revenge of the Mummy – The Ride
The rides are indoor roller coasters at both parks, but the tracks and special effects vary depending on location (check out the cool ceiling of fire in Orlando and prepare to ride backward in Hollywood).
King Kong Attractions
King Kong: 360 3-D is a “drive-thru” attraction during the backlot tram tour in California. But in Florida, Skull Island: Reign of Kong is an immersive stand-alone experience in Universal’s Islands of Adventure.
Fast & Furious – Supercharged
Like King Kong, Fast & Furious – Supercharged is part of the Hollywood tram tour. However, in Orlando, it’s an extended freestanding attraction at Universal Studios Florida. Also, in Hollywood, the action takes place in L.A., but in Orlando, the cityscape is San Francisco.