Visiting Universal Studios Orlando With 4 Kids

Mrs. C. has wanted to go to Universal Studios since they opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We had actually originally planned to take a trip down there last summer, however we had a major life event and gained custody of our two young nephews.  This year we took our trip to Orlando with our 4 kids ages 13, 7, 4, and 3.  We picked up my mom on the way down and she joined us for the fun.  It was a HUGE help having one more adult.  a 3 : 4 ratio is MUCH better than a 2 : 4 ratio.

 Getting Into Universal Studios With 4 Kids

Once we found the directions to get to the actual park we didn’t have any problems getting there.  The parking attendants try to upsell you to buy premium parking, but I really don’t see any advantage to it, besides, $20 is enough for parking.  They have lot attendants directing everyone where to park.  You want to file out relatively quickly before they bring in a car behind you in order to remove anything from the trunk you have.  The parking lots are denoted by character and then the spaces are numbered by floor, then row, then column.  We took a picture as a helpful reminder, but it wasn’t needed.  I had somewhat feared that it would be like when the Simpsons visited Itchy and Scratchy Land and were in lot “Scratchy”….along with 10,000 other cars.  We then follow the herd to the security check in.  There are moving sidewalks full of people standing still.  As with most airports I avoid the moving sidewalks.

We brought our double stroller and loaded up the two little kids in it. We also loaded our water bottles, hats, and my backpack, which included our tickets, snacks, medication, diapers, and a few other misc. items.  On Day one Mrs. C brought her purse with and it ended up in my backpack which added to the weight considerably.  On subsequent days we just took her wallet.

The Security checkpoint is fairly serious.  They have you unzip every pocket of every bag and they look through it, you also go through a metal detector.  A bit of advice: There are about 20 security checkpoints, and the ones closest to the parking garages form an extremely long line.  Walking an extra 100 feet can make a big difference in how long you wait for security.  On the other side of the checkpoint you have them peddling credit cards for fast passes, which forms a roadblock. Our vacation started the day after the attack at the Pulse night club in Orlando, so it is very possible they did a bit more thorough searches than normal.

Overall from parking to inside Universal Studios or Island of Adventure it took around 30 – 45 minutes, including our delays at the ticket counter.  Because we printed our tickets from home, they would not properly scan, which caused the attendants to enter a ridiculously long code to get us in.

 

 Interactive Play Areas To Check Out While Visiting Universal Studios:

I honestly thought the rides would be the coolest thing at Universal, turns out I was wrong.  I loved the interactive play areas that are scattered throughout the park, as did the kids. All in all they are fun and really well designed.  The greatest aspects of the play areas are that they are mostly shaded and are not highly populated.  Even on a busy hot June day the play areas weren’t overly busy and its great for the kids (and parents) to take a break, get out of the sun and have some free range play time.

Fievel’s Playland: Fievel’s playland is a fun park that has both climbing toys and water toys, with the capstone of it being a large waterslide.  Typically the wait time on this slide is under 5 minutes.  The bigger kids went on this slide again and again.  The two little kids weren’t big fans of it.  There is a fairly abrupt stop at the bottom, which I think scared them.

IMG_2732Curious George Goes To Town:  This exhibit is composed of 2 separate parts: A small town with two levels FULL of water toys, where the kids can turn valves and levers to make water spray in different ways, and a 2 story foam ball arena.  We spent a bit of time in the water area and the kids got SOAKED.  I personally loved the ball arena.  It is two level and there are guns at fixed locations on the top and the bottom to shoot at each other.  There are giant vacuums that the kids can use to suck up the balls off the floor that can either go straight to a gun, or divert into a bag that the kids can take with them to use on the guns upstairs.  This entire area is shaded. and very comfortable.  The height of the guns is best suited for kids roughly 42″ or taller, for the little kids I had to help them use the guns, but they still had a ton of fun.

Jurassic Park: The Jurassic Park area is several levels,  maybe 4 or 5 of mazes of rope walks.  At first my little kids were scared of it, but it didn’t take too long for even the youngest who just turned 3 to scamper all of the place in there.  The only complaint I have about this area is the black mats that transition from one area to the next get REALLY hot.  Our kids were in shorts and the little ones tend to sit down and scoot to test things out,  resulting in a very uncomfortable experience.  There is an area in this section where kids can shoot water out of cannons on those below, and the people below can shoot back with water guns disguised as dinosaurs.

If I Ran The ZooDr. Seuss’s If I Ran The Zoo: This is another water play area.  Once again, there is some shade in this area and it’s nice to get a bit wet to cool off.  There are several creative water toys and sprayers in the area.  My favorite was creature catcher, where a kid pulls a lever in a fixed truck, and it drops water around another kid like a cage.

Barney’s Indoor Playland: We actually didn’t make it in to Barney’s Playland.  We didn’t even know it existed until the third day we were there.  The Play area is completely indoors and is geared towards smaller kids.  On the third day when we were getting pictures with Barney his photographer/handler told us about the play area.

Me Ship The Olive: This is a multiple story boat themed play area that sits right outside of Bluto’s River Barge.  We had two kids who were too short to go on it, so we took turns sitting the ride out and playing with the little kids here.  One of my favorite features of this is the water guns that are mounted overlooking the raft ride, where you can shoot the riders with your water guns (and they are defenseless).

Character Meets:

IMG_2690We met at least a dozen characters during our time there, and only had to wait in line to meet 3 of them.  We waited about 10 minutes for Captain America, 10 minutes for Scooby and Shaggy, and maybe 5 minutes for Spongebob and Patrick.  With no wait at all we were able to meet the Lorax, Barney and friends, Woody Woodpecker, Sam I am, and Curious George.  On Day 3 we actually arrived when the park opened and I took 3 of the 4 kids towards Woody Woodpecker’s kidzone while Mrs. C. took the one kid who wanted to go on the Despicable Me ride on it.  Since this part of the park is VERY sparsely populated when the park opens, as most people head strait to the Wizarding World or to thrill rides to beat the lines,  we were able to meet all of these characters fairly quickly.

Rides:

Since this trip was geared towards the kids, and most of them are relatively short, we did not go on any of the super cool roller coasters at Universal Studios.  We live about 3 hours from Six Flags Great America and 3 and half hours from Cedar Point, so when the kids are bigger we will head in those directions for roller coasters. This vacation was geared more towards the smaller rides, the characters, and the unique worlds Universal has built.

Universal has some amazing rides, but they have some rides I wish I had researched before we went there.  The worst one was the Simpsons Ride.  My 4 year old (soon to be 5) was begging to go on this ride, so we went.  He had made it through the Spiderman ride, which is a similar deal earlier, so I figured the Simpsons would be no problem.  Well, the Simpsons ride is a 4D ride experience where you are on an insane roller coaster that is falling apart and sideshow Bob is trying to kill you.  He lost touch and was screaming the whole time.  It took me probably a half hour to get him to calm down after it was over. If you are going to take small children on this one, show them a youtube video of the ride at home first.

For me, the two best rides I went on were the Jurassic Park River Adventure and the Woody Woodpecker roller coaster. My 7 year old and I ran through and rode the Woody Woodpecker coaster twice while there was virtually no one in line. Mrs. C. kept checking her Universal App throughout the day which showed the wait times for various rides.  The Jurassic park ride was typically around an hour, but on our last day it dropped the 5 minutes during the evening. Mrs. C. took the two big kids on it, then I rode it afterwards.  If I had been there by myself I would have ridden it a few more times.  I went through the maze that normally corrals the line and walked right onto the boat, our boat was only half full and there was NO ONE in line.

Rides For The Really Little Kids:

One Fish Two FishUniversal has several rides that have a height requirement of 36″ where it is not necessary in my opinion.  Specifically, the Cat in the hat ride, the Train in the sky, and Flight of The Hippogryph. Anyways, our littlest is 34″ tall, so he missed out on these rides.  We did find other stuff for him to do while the other kids went on them, but there is no reason for this.  The rides he could go on for the most part had short wait times.

 

  • Kang And Kodos Twirl And Hurl
  • The E.T. Ride
  • The Seuss Carosell
  • One Fish Two Fish

 

Food Options While Visiting Universal Studios:

IMG_2595The food inside of Universal is, as you would expect, ridiculously over priced, and not that good.  The best deal we found was a large pizza at Circus McGurkus for $30. We all ate off of this pizza, plus $3 for a side of fries.

Snacks: We packed an array of snacks in my bag to eat throughout the day. I packed granola bars, fruit and grain bars, and fruit snacks.  We had a snack before lunch, a late lunch, and then a snack in the evening.

Dinner: We ate Dinner outside of the park.  One night we went to McDonalds, the next to Golden Corral for a buffet, and the last night we cooked in the hotel. One of my regrets for this trip was not planning in going to the McDonalds on Universal Drive. We passed it everyday and it is the largest playplace I have ever seen. I also read that they have an expanded Menu there as well as an arcade.

freestylePop (I guess it’s called Soda in Florida): We purchased 2 of the refillable Coke Freestyle cups while visiting Universal Studios Orlando.  I had one and Mrs. C. had one.  We typically shared Mrs. C’s with the kids. To discourage massive sharing they have a 10 minute limit between refills.   I drink a lot of pop, and the break even point with park prices is around 3 soft drinks the first day and 2 soft drinks on subsequent days.  Water and Ice are thankfully free at the Coke Freestyle machines and we frequently filled up the kids water bottles.

We ran into a couple problems with the Coke Freestyle Machines.  First of all, they broke down fairly frequently, resulting in long lines.

On Day 2, my mom went to re-charge the cups for the second day (we had only got them for one day when we got there) and she ended up going on a goose chase and having to wait in three lines to get it activated.  Do yourself a huge favor and if you go for the freestyle cups, buy them for your whole stay when you pick them up.

Rest Areas At Universal Studios:

ShadeThroughout the park there are several areas to stop and rest at.  Even at the insanely crowded Wizarding World of Harry Potter I was able to find a corner to the far left of the bank that we could sit down in.  Right outside of Hogsmead is The Lost Continent, which has a really nice seating area that is shaded.  In Seuss Island there are several tables outside but in the shade by the If I Ran The Zoo play area, and outside of Barney’s play area there is a large covered area with tables to sit at.Kids need breaks to rest their legs, to get out of the sun, to have snacks, and to re-apply sunscreen. Always be mindful and make mental notes of where the following things are:

  • Empty tables
  • Shade
  • Restrooms
  • Coke Freestyle machines

I did my best to schedule proactive restroom breaks and when we would come to one I would make all the kids try.  This greatly reduced bathroom emergencies.  There was one time I ran a kid probably a quarter mile, if not longer to where I knew there was a restroom. In doing so I bypassed one I was not aware of that was literally 100 feet away from me when I started. One of the nice things about Universal is every single Men’s room I went into there was a changing table. This makes life a lot easier when travelling with a little one.  They also have high powered air dryers in the bathrooms.  After playing on water toys I would take the kids shirts, ring them out as best I could then run them under the dryer for a minute.  They wouldn’t get completely dry, but it kept the boys from being soaked all day.

It is not uncommon to see 10 people waiting in line at the Coke Freestyle machines.  I keep an eye out for short or non-existent lines so that I can fill up with the least impact on time.

Wizarding World and The Hogwarts Express:

IMG_2593The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter is incredibly crowded, there is little shade, and it is mostly standing in line to pay for extremely overpriced things.  I’m not a Harry Potter fan so this wasn’t a big draw for me, but Mrs. C. and the older two boys loved it.  I will say that it is amazing the level of detail they put into the structures, and I’m sure in September when the park is less busy it isn’t so bad, but I simply couldn’t deal with the crowds there myself. Mrs. C. took the two bigger kids on the Escape From Gringotts ride, while I took the little kids back to the Kang and Kodus ride and The Woody Woodpecker kid zone.

In order to ride the Hogwarts Express you need park to park passes, which cost $50 per ticket, regardless of how many days you are at the park.  Essentially we paid $300 to ride a train 1 mile twice.  You wait in a long line to ride the train, I think we were right at 45 minutes each time.  They have an elevator for wheelchair and stroller accessibility and the ticket agents do a great job of helping people get on and off the train.  It’s cool to go on, but as a means of transportation between the two parks it’s actually quicker to walk around Citywalk than it is to ride the Hogwarts Express.

stickI do admire Universal’s marketing chops, which are very close to Disney’s in their ability to eek out a profit.  Universal sells sticks for $42.  People wait in line for a half hour to buy said sticks.  They call them wands, but they are sticks. I should start selling sticks. They come in a nice box, but are sticks none the less.

 

 

 Cost Breakdown of Visiting Universal Studios With 4 Kids:

Okay this is a bit rough because I did not keep exact records, but here’s a VERY close approximation to our costs:

  • 3 Day Park To Park Ticket For 7: $1,682
  • 4 Nights at 3BR Suite: $746
  • Gasoline MI To FL Round Trip: $250
  • Food Stops Avg $500
  • Freestyle Cups: $48
  • Souvenirs: $90 ($15 for 3 stuffed animals and $42 for a stick from Harry Potter World)

Total: $3,316

A few thoughts on this:

The actual cost to us was quite a bit cheaper than this total.  My mom paid for her own ticket, half the hotel room and probably paid for half the meals and maybe 3 gas fill ups.  This reduces our cost by around $900 give or take a bit, bringing our cost down to roughly $2,400.

My sister also very generously donated a large gift to our trip to help make it happen.  This was extremely helpful to us, and became even more helpful after our van broke down a few weeks before our trip.

On the ticket cost: They charge an extra $10 per day for Adults Vs. Children, but they draw that line at 11 years old, which is crazy to me.  The added cost for a fourth day is only $10 per ticket.  We had some time constraints so four days was not something we could make happen.  Besides the time constraints, theme parks for little dudes (our youngest are 3 and 4) are very exhausting.  It is good to know that for an extra $220 ($150 hotel and $70 tickets) we could have an extra day. My estimated guess on a Universal Studios vacation for a family of four would be about $2,500.

We also saved a couple hundred bucks by staying at my parents house in Kentucky on the way down and on the way back, instead of staying at a hotel for those 2 nights.

Best Parts Of Visiting Universal Studios:

1. My Mom came along: This was such an amazing help. It is incredibly hard to keep track of 4 kids, especially with the ages ours are. When you add it the crowds, the excitement, the bathroom breaks, adding on sunscreen, getting kids ready in the morning and navigating to and from Orlando,  having an extra adult (especially an extra adult with 36 man years of raising children) is such a big help.

2.  The Universal App:  This thing saved us a lot of time and helped us with planning on the fly.  Knowing the wait times for different rides let us avoid line waiting to the best of our abilities and decide when and where to take breaks.

3. No Allergy Issues or Bug Issues: I’ve been told before that Florida is very buggy. I guess Orlando in June is not though. I can’t even remember seeing a bug, let alone feeling like I needed bug spray.  I was also pleasantly surprised that my allergies didn’t act up at all, I didn’t even need medication.  In Michigan this time of year I’m sneezing all day without Claritin.

4. The Design of the different worlds: Seuss Island looks straight out of a Dr. Seuss book down the the last detail.  Most of the other areas are the same way.

5. The water rides: All the water rides we went on were a lot of fun and its great that they have a water slide for little kids at Fievel’s playground.

Worst Parts Of Visiting Universal Studios:

Heat: Yes, I’m the guy who thought going to Florida in June would be a great idea.  The problem is we can’t go when the kids are in school, which is a common problem. I’m just glad we went the first week they were out of school instead of waiting until July or August. We are not acclimated to the heat at all. Going from 60s to 90s in direct sun ALL day is a big change.  Sunscreen and proper hydration is a MUST. I saw quite a few people at the park who had serious burns, don’t be that guy. Also I knew to bring hats to keep the sun off our heads, but in Michigan the color of your hat doesn’t matter.  My hat is black and absorbed heat from the sun very readily.  Light colored breathable hats are probably the best option.

Crowds: Well, it’s a theme park in the summer so, it’s to be expected.  I don’t like crowds, especially slow moving crowds that are in my way.  Having a double stroller makes it more difficult. For the most part the human traffic wasn’t horrible outside of the Wizarding World.

Tickets: The tickets that wouldn’t scan over the course of 3 days easily cost us over an hour of time. If you buy online (which saves $20 per ticket) I highly recommend choosing to pick up your tickets at the park.

Ride Height Requirements: Ride height requirements of 36″ on rides that most other places would have no height requirement.

Food: Most of the food places don’t have good options for large family meals.  Whether you are paying $10 for an individual meal for each person, or grab a full pizza at Circus Mcgurkis.  I think we did well with packing snacks and eating a late dinner offsite.  I think next time I would pack some slightly larger snacks as well.

Medical Issue: Okay, I know this is unpleasant to talk about, but I wanted to give a warning to others.  Between the heat, the humidity, the walking, and getting wet, then dry, then wet etc. I ran into a chaffing issue by day 3.  I had noticed a slight irritation in the morning, and I did nothing for it.  By the evening every step I took I was in a decent amount of pain.  Don’t do this to yourself, at the first sign of this issue, get some OTC medication.

If I could do it all over again there are a few things I would do differently.  

1. I would buy 4 day tickets instead of 3 day tickets.  For an extra $10 per person and $150 in the hotel we could have had one more day.  I think our third day at the park was our best day and I think the fourth could have been even better.  I also cut a half day out of the Universal trip on our ill-fated Grisswaldian adventure to see the Space X Rocket Launch in Titusville Florida. We ended up stopping on the side of the road and watching it, but we were about 10 minutes short of Space View Park.  Next time we go to Florida, I will add an hour for navigating Orlando traffic to get to the Space Coast.

2. I would add a “rest day” into the mix for another $150 at the hotel.  This would give us two days at the park, have one day to spend mostly at the hotel relaxing, playing in the pool and watching movies, then 2 more days at the park.  The parks can be exhausting, and between the amount of activity and the extra sun, having a day off would be nice.

3. Wait until the shortest kid is 37″ tall.  36″ is the height requirement for many rides, and our youngest was excluded from them over 2″ of height.  If we waited 1 more year to go I think he would have had a lot more fun.  We have such a huge age range in kids (13 – 3) that we wanted to do it while the oldest would still have a lot of fun too.

Conclusion

All in all we had a great trip to Universal Studios.  This was our first major family vacation somewhere. The next few years our family vacations will be toned down quite a bit. It looks like we will go to Kentucky next year and visit a few of the attractions there, and then in the following couple years go to Michigan Adventure,  take a couple trips to museums in Chicago, and then go to six flags, perhaps buying season passes in a few years.  In either 2020 or 2021 we are planning on taking a long family vacation to Orlando that will focus on Disney World and may also include a return trip to Universal as well as some other Florida attractions.

Have you ever taken a family vacation to Orlando?  What lessons did you learn along the way?

 

John C. started Action Economics in 2013 as a way to gain more knowledge on personal financial planning and to share that knowledge with others. Action Economics focuses on paying off the house, reducing taxes, and building wealth. Check out the Action Economics archives section for all past posts.

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