We visited Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure theme parks years ago, but never did we make a weekend of it. We can’t wait to go back. Our kids are 8 and 10, so perhaps that’s part of it. There just seemed to be a lot to do with school-age kids. I also appreciated the absence of cute characters on my bedroom wall at night. It was like the grown-up family vacation, only the kids aren’t grown up yet. Here’s a rundown of my reasons for wanting to book another visit to Universal Orlando stat:
If you stay at a Universal Loews hotel, you can skip the ride lines
Stay at the the Hard Rock Hotel, the Portofino, or the Royal Pacific, where we checked into, and score a Universal Express Unlimited card that lets you skip the ride lines for free. At check-in, each of us was sent over to a special kiosk near the concierge where we had our pictures taken for our own Universal Express Unlimited card. It made the kids feel special to have their own “free ride card.” If you’ve ever stood in line for 45 minutes in 95-degree heat for a 45-second ride, you can truly appreciate this. Just flash the card at rides in both parks and scoot your brood over to the front.
You can swap your cranky kid for a sweet one.
OK, maybe that’s not entirely true, though I’m sure there are moms who’ve wished that at one time or another. If your kids are too young, scared or yes, cranky, to ride something you really want to try, there are “child swap” opportunities available. Basically that means you hand your child to a responsible family with the same dilemma, they sit in a designated spot near the ride’s boarding station for the duration of your ride, then you do the same for them. Everyone wins! Of course, you can also do this with members of your own family, if that makes you more comfortable.
Join a VIP tour like we did and you won’t have this problem. My youngest was too freaked out to ride the Flight of the Hippogriff coaster and the Jurassic Park River Adventure, so he hung out with our tour guide while the rest of us screamed our heads off. Good times! The VIP tour guide also gives you lots of behind-the-scenes access by bringing you into rides through back doors. It’s very Sherlock Holmes. It was raining on the day we went, but I hear they also share lots of fun facts on those tours, too.
Most rides are designed to appeal to a wide range of ages
If you’re old enough to walk, there is something at one of these theme parks that will not just delight, which is nice, but shock and awe you. The rides at Universal are dynamic thrill rides–the reason most of visit theme parks to begin with, right?
There’s not a lot of cutesy stuff, but rather good, old-fashioned, strap-on-your-seatbelt fun. If you dig mega coasters, this is the only Florida theme park with several wild ones to add to your bucket list. If you crave excitement without having to climb 15 stories, the new Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride is perfect. Spiderman and Transformers are the most banging, and by that I mean you will be tossed around a bit, but it is so worth it. The engineers did a fantastic job bringing the movies and shows to life, rather than just taking you for a walk through a scenic movie set. Things blow up and you actually feel the fire, bad guys hose you and you get wet, stuff happens.
When we took a poll on the drive home of everybody’s favorite ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey was the unanimous winner. The replica of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is so real, it feels like you’re on the actual movie set. As you make your way through, you come face to face with iconic spots like Dumbledore’s office, where a screen behind the desk makes it seem like he’s right there talking to you. The ride itself has you flying through the air behind Harry, sometimes taking you nearly upside down, stopping short of actually doing so in an effort, I presume, to make it more friendly to kids under 10. The whole thing was, well, magical, which is a lot coming from a Florida family who’s been to theme parks many times over.
Hotels that wow
It was our first time staying at the Loews Royal Pacific hotel, and it is definitely at the top of our list of recommendations (we even half-joked it might be a great wedding venue when our blended family finally ties the knot). I loved the tropical decor in lieu of movie characters, and to my surprise, so did the kids. “I feel like we are in another country,” said Sam, our 10-year-old. There’s bamboo and thatched roofs everywhere…very South Pacific without having you feel like you’re actually starring in South Pacific.
We arrived on Friday night with just enough daylight left for a sunset swim. We ordered chopped salad, chimichurri steak wrap and burgers for the kids poolside. Everything was fresh and tasty, especially the oven-warm giant cookies we ordered for dessert. The kids had a blast swimming and taking part in free pool games like the cannonball and rubber duck contests (our youngest won the latter and scored a free smoothie). The towel hut provides you with free balls and paddles for ping pong and beach volleyball (yep, there’s a small man-made beach right between the lagoon and pool). At 7 p.m., everyone snuggled on a chaise lounge to watch The Croods. The double-sided screen made it easy for everyone to watch, regardless of where we were sitting or swimming.
On Sunday morning, we did it over again, minus the meal, before heading home. The adults–I mean, the kids–couldn’t get enough!
You know how it goes, everybody says their restaurant is kid-friendly. That is, until your kid starts hiding under the table in an impromptu game of hide and seek. The two Loews restaurants we ate at each blew me away with their ability to accommodate the madness.
Each morning, we had the breakfast buffet at the Royal Pacific Islands Dining Room. In a special room designated for kids only, there was a huge day bed with a thatched roof surrounded by toys and a kid-size table in front of a flat-screen. On one side, a buffet was set up to accommodate kids. The counters were significantly lower than the adult version, so kids can serve themselves in their own room with their own peeps while you and the hubby eat in the main dining room within eyesight. Brilliant, right? Unfortunately, it’s only open for dinner, so while our kids chilled out on the daybeds each morning, they didn’t get to actually eat there.
On Saturday evening we ate at Mama Della’s in the Portofino hotel. I was worried the kids wouldn’t mind their manners. This is the kind of place where gentlemen sing opera for you while you dive into family-style dishes like chicken Parmesan, salmon or lasagna served on actual tablecloths and nice-looking china.
I held my breath…but I didn’t have to because the folks who run the place know what they’re doing. When my 8-year-old, Javier, joined the opera singers in dramatic fashion with exaggerated singing and wild arm gestures, everyone just laughed and rolled with it. My son loved it, which means we loved it, too. We had a delicious meal in a restaurant that actually serves wine and no one scolded us when our kids kept dropping their napkins. Paradise!
You can double up your vacation
A new partnership between Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and Universal Orlando Resort provides great deals on combo plans that will have you spending a few days on roller coasters and a few more on lounge chairs by the pool deck. The special packages provide lots of flexibility with travel dates, so you can take advantage of Universal’s proximity to several ports of call. One mom I spoke to said it was the most wallet-friendly way to give her kids a theme park and cruise vacation at the same time.
Cabana Bay Beach Resort is coming March ’14
While there, I stole a peek at the hotel that it set to debut here next spring, Cabana Bay Beach Resort. It’s a whole new hotel experience than any in Orlando right now. A nod to the popular vintage-modern motif that has taken over the country, the style of the hotel is like a cross between Mad Men and Gidget. Bright colors, sleek lines, and oh, yes, a bowling alley on site. Family suites with kitchens will start at $179, and bathrooms are supposed to be big enough to accommodate four people getting ready at the same time. I’ve bumped into my kids and boyfriend more times than I can count, so I already feel a deep appreciation for this detail. Can’t wait to see the resort when it’s finished!
Have you been to Universal Orlando? What was your favorite part? Send me tips for my next visit @apconnery!