Last summer we took a family trip to Universal Orlando Resort for the first time ever and had an incredible experience. Then last month, Norman and I went alone and had an equally great, albeit very different experience. As a result, I’ve had a lot of people asking what to do and where to stay with kids vs without.
Before diving into this post, you have to know that Universal Orlando Resort is a great vacation destination whether traveling with kids or without. Both the on-property hotels and the theme parks themselves are wonderful for accommodating and entertaining families. But there is SO MUCH to do and planning a vacation can be overwhelming, so I just wanted to share my personal experiences and preferences in hope that it might help you with your vacation planning.
Planning your Trip
With or without kids: This is probably obvious, but I’ll say it anyway just in case: purchase your park tickets before you leave for your vacation. You’ll save precious time and energy by avoiding ticket lines.
With kids: Secure dining reservations. If your kids are anything like mine, the term “hangry” is probably all too familiar. There are plenty of places to eat all over the resort but don’t underestimate how easy it can be to get caught up in the excitement and forget to plan your next meal. Now you’re looking at the app, trying to decide where to eat, and hoping the wait isn’t too long… all the while the kids are getting hungrier and crankier. Avoid a total meltdown by having at least one dining reservation per day. I recommend lunch because its a great way to take a break and find an escape from the Orlando heat into blissful air conditioning.
With kids: Have an itinerary. When Norman and I visited Universal Orlando, we had no specific plans in mind and had a great time just doing whatever we felt like doing throughout the day. But when we went with the whole family, this was not the case. My advice: decide what you want to do as a family, and have an itinerary. Some people prefer to plan their vacation down to the minute, while some enjoy the spontaneity of “winging it.” I love to be spontaneous, but I’ve found that the bigger the group, that harder it is to navigate a large theme park and make sure everyone gets to do what they want. With an itinerary, you can confidently make sure everyone has a chance to do the things that are most important to them.
Without Kids: UNIVERSAL EXPRESS UNLIMITED PASS!!!! Pardon the all-caps, but that’s how amazing this pass is. The Universal Express Unlimited Pass allows guests to skip ride lines at both parks as many times as your want. We took advantage of this on our recent “adults” trip and I can’t stress enough how clutch it was being able to just hop right on anything we wanted to ride. This pass is of course a great option to have with the family as well, but considering the Express Unlimited Pass starts at about $100 per person, it’s a pretty steep expense for my family of 5. However, there are options that can make this more affordable. When you stay at Universal Orlando Premier Hotels, an Express Unlimited Pass for every person staying in your room is included. Another option is the Universal Express Pass, which can be used to skip the line once per ride, but is a bit more affordable than the unlimited version.
Where to stay
With kids: I feel like I can confidently say that Cabana Bay Beach Resort was the best value for any hotel I’ve ever stayed in and I can’t imagine staying at any other Universal Orlando Resort Hotel if the kids are with me.
Similarly to Disney resorts, Universal has a tier system for their resorts as follows: Value (a nice, affordable place to stay), Prime Value (fancy but on a budget), Preferred (semi fancy), Premier (fancy pants). Cabana Bay falls in the Prime Value category but with the flawless mid-century theming and amenities like a lazy river and bowling alley, we felt like we were in the lap of luxury.
It is slightly less convenient in that it is farther away from City Walk, Universal Studios, and Islands of Adventure, but there is a shuttle stop located at the front of the hotel that takes you right there. And if you’re heading to Volcano Bay water park, its right next door and theres an entrance from the hotel. Our room was perfect for a family and included a kitchenette and separate room (and more importantly separate television) for the kiddos, there is a beach-like area by the pool with games, and did I mention the lazy river??? I can’t recommend it enough.
Without kids: Judge me if you want, but a kid-free trip is the time to #treatyourself. Premier hotel all the way!
We stayed at Lowes Royal Pacific Resort and enjoyed a luxurious suite, multiple bar and restaurant options, and and incredibly relaxing outdoor pool area.
By staying on the concierge level (I told you I was treating myself) we also enjoyed nightly turndown service, and complimentary treats throughout the day including continental breakfast each morning, snacks throughout the day, cocktail hour, and evening desserts. And as I mentioned earlier, premier resorts include an Express Unlimited Pass for each guest so we got that as well. But I think my favorite benefit of staying at this hotel is that City Walk and the Universal theme parks are just a short walk or boat ride away. Lowes Royal Pacific is also where the Despicable Me character breakfast is located, but you don’t have to be a guest at the hotel to book a reservation.
Ok, this post could honestly go on forever with all there is to see and experience at Universal Orlando Resort. So to keep this from becoming a novel, the next few sections will include just a few of my favorite things from the resort.
Universal City Walk
With Kids: My “must-do” suggestion for Universal City Walk with the family is eating at Toothsome Chocolate Emporium.
With character actors, a whimsical steam-punk theme, and a menu full of chocolate (including a delicious chocolate beer that’s exclusive to the restaurant) this place was a definite win for our family. Though I have to admit, when Norman and I came back without the kids we didn’t find it to have quite the same whimsey. But that also might’ve just be our timing as we were there for a 9pm dinner versus a midday lunch the first time we went.
Without Kids: Bar crawl! On a future trip I plan to write out a detailed bar crawl of my favorite bars and drinks throughout the resort, but visiting the various bars/restaurants is a fun way to experience the fun atmosphere of City Walk at night.
Universal Studios Florida
With kids: Ride the Hogwarts Express to get from King’s Cross Station in “London” to Hogwarts/Hogsmeade at Universal Islands of Adventure. We’re all big Harry Potter fans so it was amazing to feel like a bunch of first years off to Hogwarts for the first time! The experience is different depending on whether you ride it from King’s Cross to Hogwarts or the other way around. But this way is my personal favorite. Pro tip- It’s also the best way to get between theme parks without hearing “My legs are tired, carry me.”
Without kids: Springfield! Let’s face it, The Simpsons was *our* show for our generation and my kids just honestly aren’t interested. Meanwhile I’m completely geeking out over the recreation of a show that I spent so many hours of my adolescence watching. I’m not a huge fan of The Simpsons Ride itself (we have it here at Universal Studios Hollywood, and honestly, I miss Back to the Future) but I will never get over hanging out at Moe’s Tavern drinking Duff Beer, or heading into the Kwik-E-Mart for a Buzz Cola. Iconic!
Universal Islands of Adventure
With kids: We all loooved Seuss Landing. Dr Seuss stories are something everyone in my family has grown up on. From my mom to my kids. The first books my kids ever read on their own were Dr. Seuss books and many thereafter have been as well. So it was pretty magical for all of us to be able to step into this world and see these characters come to life before our eyes. We even met the Cat in the Hat and the Lorax. My kids loved it and I felt like a big kid, which if you’re reading this you probably already know is my main goal in life.
Without kids: Honestly, I can’t think of anything specific at Islands of Adventure that would be particularly beneficial to do without kids. That said, this depends on the ages (and heights) of your children. This is a very thrill-ride heavy park and my almost-tall-as-their-momma 7 and 13 year olds are able to ride pretty much everything. But if you are usually traveling with very young children and find yourself alone in this park, definitely take advantage of being able to ride some of the more thrilling attractions like The Hulk.
There’s just so much to experience at Universal Orlando Resort and I still haven’t even seen it all. There are great adventures to be had whether visiting with your whole family, a group of friends, or completely solo. And each time you’ll have a different experience.