Which Theme Park Is Best for Young Children
If you have children, visiting theme parks is like a rite of passage. Oh sure, it's noisy, crowded, hot, and frequently a total pain, but watching the sheer joy and wonderment on a child's face is ultimately worth the feeling of having a vacuum in your wallet sucking the money out of it.
Recently, my wife and I planned a trip to Orlando with our two children, who are three years old and five years old. We spent one day in Disney's Magic Kingdom, two days in LEGOLAND, and three days in Universal.
3 Theme Parks for Kids
- Disney World's Magic Kingdom
- Universal Orlando
Here's our evaluation of the three parks, their relative positive and negative qualities, and which ones we will visit again and which ones we won't. All three places are pretty expensive, so it's important to know which one is the most enjoyable and the best value.
1. Quick Tips for Disney World
- Understand the fast pass system and use it the second you get in the park.
- Get to the park 30–60 minutes early.
- Plan for three days if you want to explore most of the Magic Kingdom.
- Avoid the food if you can.
- Go in the off-season.
- Stay at a hotel with a free shuttle or on-site.
- Discount tickets are not worth searching for.
- Save money buying a single park pass if you're only going for one to two days.
- Posted wait times are almost always exaggerated by 10 minutes.
Pros and Cons of Disney World
Just to be clear, we went to Disney World for one day, and only visited the Magic Kingdom, which is arguably the main feature of Disney World. However, there's a ton more to Disney World and it would probably take more than a week to go through it all. This evaluation is only for what we were able to see of the Magic Kingdom with our kids. While my wife and kids had never been there before, I'd been there several other times in different capacities. Overall, Disney World was our least favorite experience.
Credit where credit is due, Disney is the inventor of the theme park experience. They provide the blueprint everyone else is following. They are the kings at controlling the "experience." However, their park is getting old and I think they're losing their edge.
If you're traveling with young children, don't waste your money buying a pass that gives you access to all the parks. You simply won't get anywhere near them. The Magic Kingdom is plenty huge on its own and you won't be able to explore the whole thing in a day.
Disney was our least favorite "experience" and it started on the drive. From the freeway to the parking lot took a long time. Then you have to ride a shuttle to the ticket gate. Then you have to take the monorail or boat to the entrance. Then we got on the train to go to the part of the park where we wanted to start ("Fantasyland" in this case). From the time we got off the highway to the time, we stepped off the train took probably 90 minutes. It seemed brutal even if it also seemed efficient.
We rode exactly three rides during our one day. We waited in each line for about 30 minutes.
The most disappointing thing about the whole experience was how crowded it was. We went there the day after Memorial Day—a Tuesday. I figured it should be kind of slow. I wasn't prepared for the crush of people—literally wall-to-wall people wherever we went. The line for the first lunch place where we tried to eat was about an hour long. Having two hungry children and facing an hour-long wait is cause for panic.
The place we ended up eating—a Pinocchio-themed restaurant—was awful. Of all the food we had at all the theme parks, this was the worst. Lunch for the four of us was around $40. Basically, it seemed to me that Disney has lost control of its experience. If they cared about the experience, they wouldn't let so many people in the park. They might make tons of money doing it that way, but ultimately they end up with unhappy customers.
We Rode Three Rides
- It's a Small World
- The Little Mermaid
- The Haunted Mansion
My kids enjoyed them all, but The Haunted Mansion was a bit too much for the three-year-old. He was fine with it ultimately, but I wouldn't take him on it again.
I do admire many things about Disney World. The way they move people around is very impressive. They are the masters of line control. Although you may wait in a line for an hour, it always seems that the line is moving and there's always something to look at. Neither of my children had any problem waiting in lines. They never got bored.
The lack of riding was partly due to us not understanding the Fast Pass system, which is complimentary with most tickets. It means that you can schedule a Fast Pass on three rides during the day, which means that you can skip the mainline, but you have to pick a time to be there. This isn't so easy with two young kids, but I liked the idea of the system—yet another way Disney gets people to go where they want them to go.
I've had great experiences at Disney parks before. This wasn't one of them and I probably wouldn't go back unless it was truly off-season and I knew the crowds wouldn't be so oppressive.
2. Quick Tips for Universal Orlando
- Full exploration of Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida takes three to four days.
- Stay at a hotel with a free shuttle or on-site.
- Consider the express pass if you want to ride the maximum number of rides.
- Target your high-priority rides and get there as early as possible.
- Ride as a single if you can.
- Try the Butterbeer!
- Universal online provides the best ticket value.
- Purchasing tickets online gets a coupon book that has decent value.
- Posted wait times are almost always exaggerated by 10 minutes.
- A three-day pass is only $10 more than a two-day pass.
The Difference Between Disney and Universal
Just in a general way, I think Universal Orlando has studied Disney's model and tried to improve upon everything. If that was their goal, I think their mission has been a success. Universal Orlando was a much better experience than Disney World and we'd happily go back.
One big difference between the two experiences is that we stayed across the street from Universal and took a shuttle to the park. Instead of parking and eating a $16 parking fee per day, we rode a free shuttle and didn't have to walk far to the bag check entrance. From there, it's a short walkway ride to the ticket entrance.
The entrances to the two parks, Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios, are accessed by walking through Universal Citywalk, which is a dining and shopping area with some good restaurants. The two entrances and parks are separate. The time it took to get from the bus to being inside the park was about half of what it was at Disney.
Universal was built after Disney World and the design seems considerably more modern and friendly. Most of the attractions are still pretty relevant. Just to the right, inside the front entrance to Islands of Adventure, is the Dr. Seuss area, which is perfect for young children. There are lots of bright colors and good rides. My five-year-old, who is 44-inches tall, could ride everything. My three-year-old could ride everything except the train. Both kids enjoyed just walking and looking around and frequently got distracted by the various statues in the area.
Harry Potter World
Our main hang-out while at Islands of Adventure was Harry Potter World. Not surprisingly, this is one of the more crowded areas of the park. Both children really enjoyed spending time there. Both kids were able to ride the rollercoaster, Flight of the Hippogriff, though it was a little too much for the three-year-old. Neither was big enough for the Harry Potter ride in Hogwarts, though it was fun walking through the castle, which anyone can do. Doing so, we discovered that I could ride as a single rider with only a short wait and that parents could do a child swap so that each parent could ride. The child swap option was available on most rides.
The best thing about Harry Potter World was eating at The Three Broomsticks and drinking Butterbeer and just generally feeling like you're part of that world. The food was excellent and in line with what we paid everywhere else. Butterbeer might just be my new favorite drink.
Harry Potter World connects to Jurassic Park and there my five-year-old could ride the two main rides. He actually chose the River Adventure, which was the scarier of the two rides, and ended up riding it twice.
Jurassic Park connects to the cartoon part of the park and the superhero stuff. There are two water rides in the cartoon part and the Superhero part has the Hulk coaster. My kids weren't old enough for any of these and weren't much connected to the characters with the exception of Spiderman. I did ride the Hulk coaster and thought it was great.
We spent much less time in the Universal Studios part of Universal, though my three-year-old became obsessed with the minions from Despicable Me, so he had a lot of fun watching a show over there. Universal Studios does have some great stuff and next time we go, we'll spend more time over there. The kids enjoyed the Shrek 4-D experience and got to take their pictures with Shrek, Princess Fiona, and Donkey. Also, the Simpsons area is great, though not really for kids as young as mine. We also rode the E.T. ride with both children and they liked it though neither has seen the movie yet.
3. Quick Tips for Legoland
- Takes a good hour to drive there from Orlando. Plan ahead.
- Only open from 10–5 (10–6 on weekends)
- Consider an annual pass!
- Plan two to three days to explore the whole park.
- The water option is a great break on a hot day.
- Stay nearby to shorten travel time.
- Discount tickets can be had. Lots of buy one adult, get one child ticket free offers out there.
- Save a little money by buying your parking passes online in advance.
LEGOLAND Is Best for Small Children
Of the three theme parks, LEGOLAND is the best designed for three to five-year-olds. The rides are all very good, though the three-year-old couldn't go on all of them. Also, the food is quite good in LEGOLAND and designed for kids. There are many healthy options throughout the park so your kids don't have to eat junk all day.
Honestly, both children loved all aspects of the park. Overall, the park is much more accessible and less crowded, mostly because it's about an hour from Orlando. LEGOLAND is building a hotel on-site, so perhaps then it will become slightly more crowded, though the hotel will offer walk-on access for guests unlike anything at any other theme park.
From the second we entered the park, the kids were fascinated with the various Lego creatures and would stop and touch them and stand by them, and smile. In fact, I couldn't keep the three-year-old from veering off course every few minutes to check out another LEGO build. Duplo Valley is perhaps best for the youngest of children. It has two trains and an inside play area where parents can just let the kids run around in air-conditioned bliss.
There are lots of subtle features that make LEGOLAND very enjoyable. Simple things, like play areas in line where little kids can spend their time while mom and dad wait make things lots easier. All of the rides are designed for kids. Some of them, adults can enjoy too. There's an indoor theater that features some fun 4-D movies and several outdoor areas for performances (Btw, 4-D means that the theater features 3-D movies plus some other physical thing like water coming from the ceiling).
Another wonderful part of LEGOLAND is Miniland, where master builders have recreated cities from around the world. There's no ride, just the wonder of looking at these incredible creations.
And while the other theme parks have water options, LEGOLAND's water park is on-site, off the main area, and easily accessible. It's small, but again, designed for kids with the exception of one big slide. We took a couple of hours to enjoy it before it was closed due to lightning in the area.
Overall, there was plenty to do in LEGOLAND, and the two days we were there weren't quite enough to experience everything the park had to offer.
As an overall experience for three to five-year-olds, LEGOLAND was the winner. Everything in the park held the attention of both of my children. Universal Orlando is also a great place, with stuff for both children and adults.
Many more of the rides and attractions are not appropriate for young children, but there's enough stuff there overall that parents will not have any problem finding places for their kids. As for Disney, it seemed to us as if the park and its "experience" had lost its mojo. As a consequence, we really don't have much enthusiasm for going back.
- LEGOLAND Florida—LEGOLAND
The official site of Legoland is one place you can buy tickets, but unlike other theme parks, discount deals can be found elsewhere.
- Universal Florida
The official site of Universal Orlando. Buy your tickets here and you get a coupon book with some good values.
- Disney World
The official site of Disney World.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Question: What is the best month to go to Universal Studios where it’s less crowded?
Answer: Universal posts a calendar telling customers when their busy period are and when it's slower. My family's approach to going when it's not as busy is to go off-season, but it does mean missing some school. Obviously, weekends are busier than weekdays and holidays are busier than non-holidays. If you can manage a vacation in late September, that is an awesome time to go with great deals on airfare. Similarly, we also go around Thanksgiving and sometimes over Thanksgiving. The few weeks before Thanksgiving are good times to go.
Question: Do you recommend LEGOLAND ?
Answer: I do recommend LEGOland. It's less fun for adults but is very entertaining for kids from about 3 to 8.