One of the things I love best about traveling is the unknown and the unexpected. However, I’ve learned that when traveling with kids, there are times when the unknown and the unexpected are an unmitigated disaster. Kids get hot. They get tired. They get overwhelmed. Even if they’re super pumped, they can feel worn out or under the weather. But vacation must carry on, especially the considerable investment that is any vacation. Just a few years ago we got a bright idea to bring our 3 year old to a theme park. It was such a disaster that I swore I would NEVER go back again. Now that he is nearly 6, I decided that I would give it another shot and surprise him and Charlotte with a trip to Universal Studios parks to wind out summer vacation. It went SO WELL.
With smart planning and following some key tips, you can help your family get the most out of your Universal trip and live to tell the tale-and even plan a yearly trip.
Arrive Early, Stay Late
Like most things, those who arrive early get the opportunity to enjoy the park before it’s a full capacity. As most kids are naturally early risers, this type of schedule works best to avoid not only the heat but the “I am hungry/Are we there yet’s” that will inevitable show up. To get the most out of your trip, you’ll want to stay until park close, allowing you to take advantage of the cooler hours at the beginning and end of the day (if travelling in summer) and maximum time to explore. Additionally there are some pretty cool adventures that go down when the sun does, so check out the scheduled at the park you are going to for special events, fireworks, parades, meet and greets or shows.
That being said, on’t be afraid to leave the park in the mid-afternoon. Heading back to the hotel for a nap, swim in the pool, or time in a quiet dark room reading or doing quiet activities can do AH-MAZING things for kids. They get a chance to recharge their batteries and cool out, before heading back. The crowds vary at different parts of the day so we sorta played ours by ear. We found that Harry Potter was always packed but Dr. Seuss was typically empty, so when we wanted a break we headed to Dr. Seuss and when we were really rested, we took our patience to Hogwarts.
Due to human nature, when the park opens, people tend to start out at the rides and attractions closest to the entrance. However, if you blast through to the lower lot, you’ll find few visitors. Later in the day, the lower lot will be packed, but you can have a few hours with smaller crowds if you heard to the back.
For those staying at select Universal resorts, you can also have the opportunity to enter the park early, which I strongly recommend you take advantage of.
Managing Your Time
There are lots of ways to manage your time in the park more effectively, which is one of the best ways to minimize stress from super hyped up kiddos. Buying your tickets online in advance is a great way to avoid a looooonnng line at the entrance when every one’s energy is highest. Instead of using all this enthusiasm standing in line, buy in advance. Even if you don’t, you can call Universal while standing in line and order your passes. There are window and kiosks available to print and the park does a good job keeping a variety of ways to enter the park. You will have to go through security prior to getting to the park, which was pretty efficient.
If you don’t purchase your Express Passes in advance (I’ll talk more about these in a second), know that you don’t have to stand in those long lines outside the park entrance. Once you get through the gate, there are Express Pass kiosks just inside the gate.
Express Passes are one of those time savers – they allow each rider one opportunity to skip to the front of the line at each attraction. We had Unlimited Express passes and to be honest, I would NEVER vacation without them again. The parks are not only huge, but the lines are long and during a good portion of the year, quite hot. Having the passes helped eliminate a lot of the tiredness that goes into standing and sweating, plus gave us the ability to see everything we wanted.
I recommend sitting down and deciding in advance which Universal parks you want to visit most. My two favorites are Universal Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. They do have a new park and we haven’t experienced it yet, but its called Volcano Bay. And while Universal CityWalk isn’t a park, its full of a ton of things to do so block out some time to wander there as well. Once you determine where you will visit, it will be easy to plan your vacation. Knowing these where you want to go and how long you want to be there can help you narrow in on the ticket package. Crunch some numbers and play around with things; staying longer can actually lower your ticket cost per day. Personally I find that the Universal Parks are the best ones in Orlando and the express passes make every bit of your vacation time a vacation. Once you do it, you will never NOT do it again.
To add to your options, if you stay in select Universal resorts, ticket packages and Express Passes are included in your hotel price. So, if you’re like me, and always trying to stay in a less expensive hotel, it can often be a better deal to stay at the resort for the ticket packages alone. For more about how the numbers might break down, check out the details from the Orlando Informer here.
Eating at the Park
Those who stay in Universal resorts have the opportunity to purchase one of two Universal Studios dining plans – the Universal Dining Plan and the Universal Dining Plan – Quick Service. You can read a lot more about the amount you may or may not save purchasing either dining plan here, but know that the whether or not the plan is a good fit for you will be on your own families needs. Personally we did not get the meal plan.
That being said, we DID get the unlimited refillable cup. The park does an amazing job setting up refillable stations all around the walkways, so we could typically always find a spot to refill with little to no line. One thing I learned on this trip is that you can also get Icee’s at certain stands that are part of your cup price. Its 100% worth it. It has a little chip on the bottom that reads your cup at the stands and there are unlimited kinds of drinks from water, Power-aid, Lemonade to every kind of soda you can think of.
Beyond that, there are loads of quick service restaurants you can visit that offer a wide variety of options. Universal does allow you to bring water and snacks into the parks, but they discourage coolers and packed lunches. Its worth noting that every thing you bring into the park is checked for security reasons and while there are lockers around the park, the park serves pretty darn delicious food so I don’t waste my time. Do not deprive yourself of experiencing all the awesome themed options in each area.
That being said, feel free to bring a backpack for your water and snacks and don’t hesitate to rent a locker to store stuff you don’t need with you. This can save your back and your snacks! Plus, many (if not most) rides limit what is allowed to be carried on them. Rides like Men In Black require that you lock EVERYTHING up. If your kids are anything like mine, they want to eat all the snacks in the first few hours and then are suddenly dying of hunger again after eating lunch. Just getting a locker to put it all aside can be helpful in spacing the day out.
The park does a pretty good job catering to various food allergies, and staff members are equipped with an ingredient list of all food items served, so ask staff about any concerns or questions you have about food options. The Universal Studios website offers suggestions for those with food allergies, mainly to check out menu options at various restaurants before you visit. I find that Orlando in general is pretty awesome in making sure allergies are tended to. The hotel we stayed out brought out the chef that introduced himself to my daughter regarding her dairy allergy.
Those concerned about being able to accommodate their dietary needs are welcome to bring a lunch, although you’ll need to disclose this to gate staff when you enter.
Kosher meals are available at several locations, but you must reserve these at least 72-hours in advance and quantities are limited. Kosher meals are $29.95 plus tax per meal.
Managing the Day
I think one of the hardest parts about our last theme park visit was that my son was just too small to enjoy or understand the rides but too big to fall asleep and not care. This time the entire adventure was worth it and I do find that 6 was an easy age to keep him going with the right plan. I also have a 12 year old daughter and we were lucky enough to bring her friend as well and both girls had the time of their lives. If you have older kids, the Universal parks cannot be beat. If you hae younger ones, you may be asking yourself what they can do.
I addressed that in my second article, so come over and read: Visiting Universal with Young Kids