Here’s a fun secret: For many years, Universal Orlando resort used to be an ad-world client of mine, which means I’ve been there more times than I can count. Not bad to get to ride the Hulk Coaster and suck down a Red Stripe at Bob Marley’s bar in between meetings. (In that order, necessarily.) That said, I’ve never been there as a parent, unless you count toting a baby around in a Bjorn. And boy that’s a different experience.
I was never sure whether you could do a Universal vacation in Orlando with kids too young to care about upside down coasters; Universal is generally positioned as the resort you go to when you’ve outgrown Disney.
So this weekend, in time for the start of the Holidays at Universal celebration, the Universal folks brought us back down and we discovered that indeed, you don’t have to wait until the kids are 10.
And ZOMG Harry Potter!
If your family has got a mix of younger kids and older kids who eyeroll at princesses, or if you just want an alternative to Disney, Universal can be a truly awesome vacation. Here’s the real scoop on Universal Orlando, plus a few tips and tricks I uncovered this past weekend if you’re planning an escape to warmer climes.
Universal Orlando has two theme parks right next to each other, connected by Universal Citywalk. Get a 2 day-2 park pass and you can pretty much fit everything in with small kids. Especially if you’re cutting all the lines with your room keys (see below). Be sure to buy tickets online and save yourself $10 a ticket, because admission isn’t cheap, as you’d imagine.
There really is plenty to fill your days with if you’ve got young children. Mine are 3.5 and 5, and never really felt left out of anything (besides my youngest, who was disappointed she couldn’t make it on the Simpsons ride). 42″ seems to be the magic number for your kids to go on nearly everything but the major thrill rides, but 36″ tall kids will be just fine too. Even for the kid coasters–which are a little intense, I must say. In a good way.
Let’s just say for weeks we were telling our girls to eat their vegetables so they could go on all the rides. Heh.
Parents of young kids and babies will be happy that there are very convenient child swap areas at every ride, so we could trade off with my younger daughter a few places. In fact, the staff couldn’t be more accommodating to families; unlike some local theme parks (ahem, Six Flags) you never feel like you’re doing them a favor by being there.
Islands of Adventure has some incredible thrill rides–swap your kids and make sure to hit The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman on your own if your kids are young and easily scared– but plenty for younger children too. Seuss Lagoon (above) is a whimsical, wonderful area with rides and discovery areas that had my 3.5 year-old enchanted for hours. Be prepared to return there. Often.
The Jurassic Park area has a super play area for younger children, and even a flying ride that adults can’t go on without an accompanying kid. And then, there are always the fun wet rides in Toon Lagoon, provided it’s not freezing out.
Yes, Orlando can get cold in December.
At Universal Studios Florida next door, there’s a whole Nickelodeon area (Spongebob photo op!) that young kids will love, along with a fun Shrek 4-D attraction, and that infamous Simpsons ride which alone is worth the price of admission. Matt Groening and crew must have had a blast with it. There’s also a Fievel’s play area with water slides in warm weather, and a ball pit and mini bounce castle. If you can handle Barney the Dinosaur, he’s got a show here too. I couldn’t, but you might be able to.
The ET ride is also super for young kids (if you warn them about some of the loud noises in the beginning), especially when ET says your name at the end. And my 5 year-old said that the Men In Black Alien Attack ride was a favorite, since it feels like part ride, part video game.
However for young kids, it’s clear that theme park trips aren’t so much about the rides, and UOR has plenty of live shows, attractions, and character meet-and-greets (Dora, Scooby Doo, Woody Woodpecker, Barney, and Diego, at top with my daughter) which is generally the highlight for younger kids anyway. Lines for that stuff aren’t nearly as long as Disney, and in fact there’s plenty of elbow room all around at Universal. Thank goodness.
The midway areas are pretty fun too, and the fact that it’s run by Universal and not actual carnies who want to take your money is a plus. There are even some games which guarantee every child who plays a prize. Leave room in your bag for 87 stuffed monkeys. Ahem.
I’d totally recommend a visit to the Blue Man Group show one night which really is superb, but unfortunately the first show
starts at 6. That’s probably too late for most young kids, especially after a long day at theme parks.
Insider’s Tip: If you want a proper lunch, as opposed to a turkey leg out of a cart, be sure to get a table at Mythos, located in the Lost Continent near Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure. It’s rated the best theme park restaurant in the world every year, and frankly, I’d eat there if it weren’t at a park. In Universal Studios, Lombardi’s is the best restaurant.
Insider’s Tip #2: Because kids like stuff that you don’t have to wait on line for, don’t pass up a chance for them to marvel at a topiary or sit on a Vespa for a photo. Sometimes that’s what they remember best.
Keep in mind that Universal is a little irreverent; maybe PG to Disney’s G rating, so expect their holiday celebration to be more fun than sappy, as with the rest of the park. Yes, Shrek makes fart jokes. As well he should.
Now through January 1, the two parks come alive with their big holiday event. Grinchmas at Islands of Adventure takes over the adorable Seuss Landing area, complete with the Whos decorating the place, photo ops galore, and the Grinch himself signing autographs–who happens to be very talented, if a little freaky looking for small kids. Get that guy an agent.
There’s also a free show that runs a few times a day that’s captivating for children, if not exactly Broadway-bound. (Warning: You’ll have Where is My Christmas in your head for weeks. Grrr.) Every seat’s a good one in this big soundstage so don’t panic if it looks like you’re 195th on line. Which you probably will be.
Next door at Universal Studios Florida, a mini version of the Macy’s holiday parade kicks off every night at 5:30, featuring some of the balloons and floats from the actual Macy’s parade. It’s definitely improved over the years and no longer feels like it’s all about the rejected, retired balloons of the original parade. Let’s just say my kids pretty much thought it was the greatest thing they had seen in their lives. Especially after Bart Simpson waved to them from a float and a giant candy cane on stilts gave them a high five. There’s a small holiday market too which might be better in concept than in execution–do I really want to carry around a handblown glass ornament all day at a theme park? Probably not. If you pop by, make it your last stop before leaving.
While not quite Disney’s Princess Breakfast, there is a Holiday Character Breakfast with the Grinch, the Cat in the Hat, and other Seussland denizens. It’s $11.95 for kids under 9, which is actually less than the hotel breakfast buffet. All things being equal, I’d say my kids would rather hang with the Cat in the Hat than Joel in the Waiter’s Apron.
Insider’s Tip: The seats across from the giant Christmas tree are the best ones for the parade. Show up by 5 or so, settle in on the curb, and enjoy
NEW YEAR’S EVE WITH BRET MICHAELS.
Need I say more, Rock of Love fans? Details here. Leave the kids with a sitter.
THE WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER
I have been absolutely dying to come to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter since I learned about it 3 years ago, and with good reason. This area is simply amazing. Amazingly crowded, but also amazing. Expect to run into folks dressed in black capes and Griffindor scarves, as if on a pilgrimage. The cult of Harry Potter is pretty spectacular in action, actually, and I have always admired how this property has gotten a whole new generation into reading again.
The architecture in WWHP is stunning, shops like Owl Post and Dervish & Banges are remarkably realistic, and you can’t miss the
chance to try the Butterbeer. Booze-free. There is also a short show at Ollivanders which lets one kid in the audience have a wand chosen for them; we didn’t make it in but one woman on line told us it was fantastic if you’re a fan, and another suggested it wasn’t worth an hour wait. Figure out your level of fandom and go from there.
As for the flagship ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, this is easily the best theme park ride anywhere in the world, ever.
It’s part ride, part simulator and let’s just say you feel what it’s like to play Quiddich. If your kids are too young (or you get nauseous
easily–ask my sigOth about that) you can just do a walk through of Hogwarts Castle and catch all the fabulous Holograms and talking portraits, and skip the ride itself.
The one complaint about this area of the park is that it is beyond crowded. Even by 10:30 in the morning. The ride lines aren’t bad (besides the Forbidden Journey which we saw as high as 90 minutes) so take advantage of the early opening times available to you if you’re staying on property.
Insider’s Tip: You can’t bring any bags or cameras on the Forbidden Journey ride, so avoid a good 20-30 minutes on line by checking your bags at the lockers in another part of the park (Jurassic Park is close) instead of waiting for the ones there.
I’m a big fan of Loews properties in general and they operate the three very well-run hotels at Universal Orlando, all of which connect to the parks and Citywalk with free water taxis.
If you stay at one of these, your room key gives you Express Line access to all the rides (besides Forbidden Journey, another Harry Potter Ride, and the new Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster at USF) plus an hour early entry to Harry Potter, which makes it totally worth it. Plus they all take super good care of your kids, with gifts on check-in and a nice kids club that makes sense for families on longer visits.
The Portofino Bay Hotel is the highest end, with an Italian theme that doesn’t feel theme-y unless you count Vespas on the grounds, and gracious staff who wish you buona notte before bed. The architecture is just beautiful, around They’ve also got the insanely fabulous Dr Seuss Kids suites which start in the $500/night range–are you reading, Hollywood parents? But if you’ve got a big brood and a healthy budget to match, your kids will never want to go home.
(And don’t worry–your adjoining room doesn’t look like that. Just the kids’ side.)
There are some nice restaurant choices here including Bice at the high end, and the mid-priced Mama Della’s for dinner, with
singers serenading your table (not in an annoying way), incredibly kind wait staff and ridiculously good focaccia bread. And the two pools at Portofino are killer, should you be lucky enough to have pool weather on your trip.
Plus? A bocce court!
The Hard Rock Hotel is also a great stay with modern rooms and rock music piped everywhere. The energy can get a little trying after a week (I used to stay there for 7 or 10 days at a stretch for business) but for a few nights it’s great fun; plus there’s a swanky bar, a good family restaurant called Kitchen, plus the Palm Restaurant if you need a break from fast food.
The Royal Pacific Resort is beautifully done and most affordable, but the rooms are rather small. Still, with any luck you won’t spend much time in yours.
Insider’s Tip: The babysitting service through the hotels is run by an excellent company. I wouldn’t hesitate to grab one one night and splurge on a grownup date night on a vacation. Especially with world-class restaurants like Emeril’s on Citywalk, and Emeril’s Tschop Chop in the Royal Pacific.
Insider’s Tip #2: If you can’t wait for the boat, there’s a group of bicycle rickshaw drivers who will shuttle you to the park or back to the hotel for gratuity alone. The kids will love it.
Insider’s Tip #3: A box of cereal is $4 in the Portofino Bay Hotel restaurant, and $1.60 in the take-out place next door. Just saying.
UNIVERSAL ORLANDO DEALS AND BARGAINS
Make sure you check UniversalOrlando.com for deals and packages. Because you’ll want all the deals you can get.
I would definitely recommend staying at the hotels on property–if nothing else than for the free Express Passes. Otherwise, I would strongly suggest spending the bucks for the Express Passes if you can, which literally save you a whole extra day (and night) at
the parks. Besides, it’s no fun waiting on line for 60 minutes then realizing your kid has to go potty when you’re almost at the front.
Right now there is a Holiday Getaway Package which includes a 4-night stay at an offsite hotel, 3 days worth of park tickets, transportation to the parks, and a few more perks starting at $299. That’s a great deal. If you upgrade to an onsite
hotel, it starts at $659/adult but you do get the free Express Passes for 3 days.
Food is going to cost you, of course, but I’d say skip the Universal Meal Deal. I cannot for the life of me figure out how it makes sense. It’s $13.95 all day for kids and $19.95 for adults which gets you one meal and dessert (no drinks) each pass through the line at the fast food joints around the parks. Unless you plan on eating 5 burgers a day, go a la carte.
I really was surprised to learn you can have two very full theme park days, even with younger kids at Universal Orlando. While it’s not a budget trip, you can do it more frugally if you’re savvy, and in the end, you’ll have a memorable, amazing adventure. The rides are state-of-the-art, the hotels will not disappoint, and heck, you can even have a beer in the park while you wait for the kids to finish romping around a play area.
We’re already planning to come back again–next time when we’re all tall enough for the “Simsims.” Besides, I can’t wait to get my kids on that Harry Potter ride. Did I say ZOMG?
Any questions? Happy to answer them in comments. Also, thanks to Universal Orlando for covering some of our travel expenses, for the Butterbeer, and for the Grinch plush dolls that my kids may never put down.