At the beginning of every New Year, Universal Orlando wraps up its Christmas celebrations, then less than a month later, swiftly swings into its musical Mardi Gras bacchanalia. But squeezed in between the two — both thematically and chronologically — sits Universal Studios Florida’s annual Rock the Universe event, a weekend-long festival of contemporary Christian concerts.
Recently, Universal invited us to attend Rock the Universe 2020, and while our correspondent didn’t enter as a devotee of the genre, he left with an appreciation for what this one-of-a-kind gathering offers for its target audience.
Rock the Universe took place on Friday, Jan. 24 and Saturday, Jan. 25 at Universal Studios Florida. Like Halloween Horror Nights, Rock the Universe is a “hard ticket” after-hours event that is not included in regular park admission or annual passes. However, unlike Horror Nights, the park is not cleared of daytime guests before the event, and attendees are allowed into the park up to 2 hours before the regular closing time.
For those who are fans of Christian rock music, Universal Orlando’s Rock The Universe is currently the only game in town, since Walt Disney World discontinued its similar Night of Joy concerts several years ago. If you’re considering attending a future Rock the Universe event, follow along with our recent experience and find out if the event is right for you:
Rock the Universe 2020 ran from 4 p.m. until 1 a.m. on both nights, with musical performances scheduled to start between 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. We attended on Friday night, and took advantage of the late afternoon entry to enjoy relatively light attendance throughout the parks. However, when we returned to the resort on Saturday, it seemed that guests were having a more significant impact on crowds.
Rock the Universe 2020 Concerts
Naturally, the heart and soul of Rock the Universe are the concerts by big-name contemporary Christian musical acts. For 2020, Universal assembled a lineup of performers that included popular acts like Switchfoot, TobyMac, and Chris Tomlin.
The headliners perform on the Music Plaza stage, drawing a large percentage of the event’s attendees to their hour-plus-long sets. The audiences for these shows rival those at Mardi Gras concerts in size and enthusiasm (if not inebriation), so be sure to show up early if you want a close-up view of your favorite band.
A second stage is located at the end of Hollywood Boulevard near Mel’s Diner. While it doesn’t boast the supersized projection screens or screaming roller coaster riders overhead that Music Plaza offers, the Hollywood stage provides a more intimate experience, since many guests can get within a dozen yards of the performers. Just be aware that Universal uses fenced pathways to maintain crowd flow through this area, so be sure you’re standing on the correct side of the barriers.
A third entertainment option is the Fanzone stage on Delancey Street in the park’s New York section. This location hosted up-and-coming acts like Leanna Crawford and Caitie Hurst during the early part of the night, with DJ Promote overseeing an energetic block party as the evening wore on.
In addition to the aforementioned outdoor stage, Coca-Cola also sponsors an indoor Fanzone experience inside the nearby Soundstage 33 building, located backstage behind the Jimmy Fallon attraction.
The Fanzone primarily features autograph sessions, where attendees can meet and greet all of the headlining artists on a first-come/first-served basis.
The back half of the Fanzone venue vends merchandise for the musicians appearing at Rock the Universe.
Rock the Universe 2020 Attractions
While the music is the biggest draw at Rock the Universe, Universal’s famous attractions are also a big part of the event. All of Universal Studios Florida’s major rides were operating during Rock the Universe, and most had relatively short posted wait times on Friday. However, lines looked longer on Saturday.
Notably, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley was open during Rock the Universe, including Ollivanders wand shop and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. In the early years after Diagon Alley first opened, the area was not included in Rock the Universe, presumably due to religious concern regarding “witchcraft.” However, when we visited the land was not only open, but very well attended.
The other most popular attraction during Rock the Universe was Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, which soars above the headliner concerts on Music Plaza stage. Many years ago, Universal added additional Christian songs to Rockit’s “secret” tracklist under code numbers 770-799. While the hidden track menu is still accessible, they no longer advertise it during the event.
Youth Leader Lounges
Although any individual can purchase admission to the event, a large percentage of attendees are part of church youth groups or similar pastoral organizations. Those crowds of teens are escorted to the park by chaperones, who in turn receive red-carpet treatment from Universal. In addition to unlimited Express access to participating rides, there are two exclusive Youth Leader Lounges available during the event.
The first lounge is located at Horror Make Up Show’s Pantages Theater, and provides private viewing for concerts on the Hollywood stage.
The other Youth Leader Lounge is at Lombard’s Seafood Grille, and features free snacks and a scenic view of the park’s lagoon.
Similar to the lounges offered during the springtime graduation night events, these Youth Leader Lounges afford a welcome adult oasis inside a park that is teeming with teens.
Rock the Universe is clearly the premier theme park festival for fans of Christian music, but it’s also an enjoyable evening for the uninitiated. Although attendance appeared to increase on Saturday, the short attraction queues on Friday made the event appealing even for annual passholders, who could purchase discounted tickets for as low as $28.
Although Rock the Universe has earned a reputation over the years for the rowdy behavior of some teenage attendees, we didn’t personally observe any objectionable behavior. If anything, the event seems to have evolved into a family-friendly doppelganger of Mardi Gras, minus the alcohol and parade, plus a few more Jesus-themed T-shirts.
For more information, visit RockTheUniverse.com, and watch this video from a previous year of the event below: