Allen is a parent with two kids. He knows stuff. Lots of stuff. Parenting is hard.
Based on my own experiences, if I had to pick between Disney World and Universal Orlando, I would choose Universal Orlando. I believe that Universal has built upon the precedent set by Disney and improved the theme park experience in every way. Where Disney feels outdated, Universal is new and better, from the rides to the park's layout to the food.
Universal Orlando is a great family experience, but if you're traveling there with younger kids, there are places to go that are better than others and rides that are more appropriate for children. My kids were three years old and five years old when we visited, and my review is based on that trip.
Note: we visited just before the opening of Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express, so those are not included in this review. However, we did visit Harry Potter World in the Islands of Adventure extensively.
Things to Consider When Visiting Universal Orlando
- Helpful apps: Download the wait time app.
- Time of year: It can get pretty hot in Florida.
- Season pass: Are you going to go more than once in a year?
- Stay on site (if you can): Convenience is king.
- Free shuttle: At least stay at a hotel with a free shuttle
- Buy tickets online: Free coupon book
- Check the height restrictions: Don't let your kids get bummed out.
- Consider the express pass: No pesky lines.
- Use the single rider line: A great way to avoid waiting.
- One-park pass or two-park pass?
Universal Orlando: A Tale of Two Parks
Having just visited Disney World the day before, the differences between the two theme parks was immediate upon entering. Universal Orlando is just a better design all around, though it does reflect changing tastes, specifically in that it's more commercial.
We did drive to Disney World instead of taking a shuttle and that experience wasn't pleasant. At Universal, we took the hotel shuttle, which was nice. It dropped us off right at the front entrance, which isn't the entrance per se, but the people mover that takes everyone from the parking lot/shuttle drop-off to the Universal Citywalk part of the park, which then leads to the entrance to the two Orlando parks: Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios.
Universal Orlando's commercialism is reflected in Universal Citywalk in that there are food and drink establishments there that most patrons have frequented, like Starbucks. While sometimes such partnerships can detract from the overall experience, it gives Universal a more modern feel. It also provides customers with some degree of confidence that Universal has good dining options, which it does.
Universal Citywalk then splits customers apart, sending them off in different directions depending on which park they want to visit. To me, this made the park feel noticeably less crowded. Knowing that all those people coming over from the parking lot wouldn't necessarily be bumping into me inside the park gave me a confidence boost that I might not be waiting forever in lines.
Harry Potter World: Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure
We made our way to Harry Potter World first. Hogsmeade, which includes a replica of the town along with Hogwarts, is located at the farthest end of the park from the entrance in Islands of Adventure. If you think of Islands of Adventure as a clock with the entrance at 6 o'clock, then Harry Potter World is at 12 o'clock.
Anyway, since my five-year-old thinks he's Harry Potter and that he'll actually be attending Hogwarts, that's where we went first, as if disabusing him of this notion weren't already hard enough.
If you're in any way a fan of J.K. Rowling's wonderful novels, then Harry Potter World is equally wonderful. You can enjoy the experience without going on a single ride, though the rides are quite a lot of fun, particularly Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. However, this is a ride for adults and is most easily accessible by taking the family on the Hogwarts tour and then going on the ride as a single rider, that way mom and dad can both go as there's a waiting area for just such a practice.
The only ride appropriate for kids is Flight of the Hippogriff, which is a small rollercoaster, though even it was a bit intense for my two kids. There's also the experience of Ollivanders, where you enter and an actor pretending to be Mr. Ollivander selects one child to receive a wand (not for free, apparently). It's a lot of fun.
Another thing that's great about Harry Potter World is the food. The Three Broomsticks was actually a good restaurant. And nothing beats a cold glass of Butterbeer, perhaps one of the best drinks on earth.
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Seuss Landing in Islands of Adventure
The Dr. Seuss part of Universal Orlando, called Seuss Landing, is one of the first things you're likely to see when entering Islands of Adventure as it's just to the right past the entrance. It's also probably the main feature of Islands of Adventure that appeals specifically to younger children. My children could ride every ride there with one exception: my three-year-old was not tall enough to ride the train that goes around a track over the area. It had a 40-inch height requirement. I'm not exactly sure why, as it wasn't that fast and didn't have any hills.
The Cat in the Hat ride is probably the best one for the whole family. It's inside and kind of similar to rides at Disney like The Little Mermaid. There's also a carousel and the One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish ride, which is a turning ride where you sit in a fish and you can control whether it goes up or down and if it avoids getting wet or not.
Really, the best thing about Seuss Landing is the architecture and layout of the area. It's very colorful and evokes the spirit and joy of the books almost perfectly.
Jurassic Park in Islands of Adventure
Neither of my kids has seen "Jurassic Park" but both of them like dinosaurs, so there's some appeal to the Jurassic Park area despite the potential pitfall of scared children. That being said, we spent only a little time there. There are two rides in the area: the Pterandon Flyers and the Jurassic Park River Adventure.
The former is actually more appropriate for small children, yet we didn't go on it. We ended up on the latter as it had the shorter line. Only my five-year-old was tall enough. He enjoyed the ride mostly because I think he had no idea what he was getting into. It gets a bit intense toward the end as you'll see in the video and it has a big drop at the very end.
It's a raft ride through a dinosaur habitat that starts out calm and fun and goes awry toward the end. My five-year-old enjoyed it even though it was a little scary. He even went on it a second time, though he seemed more frightened the second time through.
Rides with the Biggest Wait Times for Kids
- Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringots
- Minion Mayhem
- Popeye and Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges
- The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man
We spent considerably less time in Universal Studios than we did in Islands of Adventure because of Harry Potter World. However, what time we did spend in Universal Studios we really enjoyed and during the trip, my three-year-old became somewhat obsessed with the minions from "Despicable Me" and the Minion Mayhem ride is in Universal Studios (though we didn't brave the lines for it).
The Simpsons in Universal Studios
The Simpsons area in Universal Studios has a feeling similar to Seuss Landing in Islands of Adventure in that it's kind of an immersive experience, meant to make you feel like you're in that world. As a matter of fact, a lot of the areas in Universal try to do that and most are successful.
Neither of our kids watches The Simpsons yet, so they weren't that engaged. However, my oldest did go on The Simpsons Ride with me, which is a 3-D motion simulator that is quite intense. Even though he said he enjoyed it, I probably wouldn't take him again.
One of the things that Universal does throughout the park is make the line experience really fun, and that's the case with The Simpsons Ride. Before you even get on the ride, you get to experience quite a bit of Simpsons fun. A more kid-friendly ride in this area was Kang and Kodo's Twirl and Hurl, which isn't nearly as hurl-inducing as the title might suggest.
Shrek 4-D in Universal Studios
Both my children are familiar with Shrek, and they had a great time watching the Shrek 4-D experience. The Shrek 4-D experience is similar to other 4-D theater experiences where you watch a movie and stuff happens in the theater, like fog or rain. I think Shrek sneezes during the film and suddenly the audience is all wet - that sort of thing. The Shrek 4-D experience also adds the element of the theater seats moving. So when somebody is riding a horse in the movie, the seats move up and down.
Both kids enjoyed seeing the film and enjoyed even more meeting the characters, who were hanging out right near the theater. I'll also just add that we did go on the E.T. ride as well, even though neither of my kids has seen E.T. While it seems dated, it was fun.
Questions & Answers
Question: How many days do you think my family with both a six and eight-year-old need at Universal Orlando Florida?
Answer: You're asking how many days to spend at Universal Orlando Florida and you have a 6 and an 8-year-old? Well, it really depends on your budget and how much they love Harry Potter. I would think 3 days is the minimum. If you really want to relax and have the budget for it, I'd stay a week at an on-site hotel so you get express passes and can take your time. Check out the club room options. We go with our kids and stay in a club room, so breakfast and dinner are included in the room price. With four people staying in one room, it ends up saving a lot of money.