Born and raised in Miami, just hours away from Orlando, we generally visit the attractions in Orlando several times a year. We are avid Disney fans and took both of our kids to Disney when they were just months old! Disney in general, but especially Magic Kingdom is geared towards kids and even if they weren’t old enough to remember, our babies always enjoyed the magic of Disney!
Universal Studios though, we have always felt was geared towards bigger kids and adults so despite visiting Orlando several times a year, we never took the kids and hadn’t been ourselves for about 12 years. Most of the rides have a height requirement and it wasn’t until Natalia and Peter were tall enough to start riding most of the rides at Disney that we even started to entertain the idea of visiting Universal.
Natalia had her national dance competition scheduled in Daytona Beach over 4th of July weekend and Peter is really into Jurassic Park and dinosaurs lately so we decided to make a stop in Orlando on the way up to Daytona and visit Universal with them- especially so Peter could visit the real Jurassic World! They are 5 and 7 years old and just over 48 inches so the big question was- were they old enough to enjoy it or did we come too soon? Let’s find out!
Day 1- Volcano Bay
Usually when we come to Orlando we leave at the crack of dawn and go straight into a park! While I wouldn’t say we are morning people, waking up early for something fun doesn’t bother us and it let’s us take advantage of the day without incurring the cost of an extra night of lodging. We chose to drive straight into Volcano Bay- Universal’s water park. Natalia and Peter had actually never been to a water park like this.
It took us a few minutes to get situated since we decided to rent a locker to leave our belongings but once we got that done, we had a blast! We started with the Honu ika Moana turtle. There is the green slide- turtle and the blue slide- whale. Unfortunately the kids were not tall enough for the blue whale so we were unable to try it. We then got in the virtual line for the Krakatau Aqua Coaster. I loved the virtual lines! This is done via a watch called the Tapu Tapu where you check in to the virtual line and receive an alert when it’s time to come back.
This allowed us to go on a few more slides with no wait and have lunch while we waited to ride. We had lunch at one of the many quick service restaurants. I’ll be honest, it wasn’t great and was extremely expensive for what it was. I went with the fruit chicken salad expecting to see a bit of greens on my plate and was surprised it was mostly fruit. At any rate- I don’t expect much from the food at these parks. They also have a 1 drink per ID policy. I believe Disney allows two drinks per ID which makes things easier for parents. I grabbed a table with the kids while Peter got the food and I actually had to go after to grab my beer because they wouldn’t allow Peter to take it. After lunch we decided to ride the lazy river to allow lunch to settle. Unfortunately about 10 minutes before we were called back to ride the aqua coaster (Tapu Tapu let us know how much time we left!), there was thunder in the area and we had to get out of the water. If you have ever traveled to central Florida in the summer you know that it rains every afternoon. I was mentally prepared for this. We had a drink while we waited it out. As soon as the rain stopped we ventured back out and took the kids to the ‘kiddie pool’ playground where they were able to run around and ride slides. We were then alerted that it was time to ride the Krakatu Aqua Coaster. This is such a cool ride! It’s got all the fun of a water slide but then it has parts where the water pushes up the raft so it feels like a roller coaster! We then decided to try the Fearless River. I’d never seen anything like this. It’s comparable to a lazy river but faster and everyone wears life vests. We all enjoyed it! We also went swimming in the big pool that has big waves when the volcano erupts. Natalia and Peter loved it! Peter then wanted to ride the Ko’okiri Body Plunge. The kids would not be tall enough for this- I was not interested in riding though so that worked out! Peter said it was amazing and it involved standing on a door at the top of the slide that is pulled out from under you- no thanks! haha
I would say that the kids had a blast and I definitely recommend Volcano Bay for their age group! Yes there will be things they cannot ride but there is plenty that they can ride!
Tips for Volcano Bay
- I recommend getting a locker and possibly leaving your shoes in it. The floor isn’t too hot especially since most of it is wet and that way you aren’t leaving your shoes off to the side when you go on rides.
- If you want to snap photos of your day, make sure to purchase a waterproof case/ bag in advance. I ended up buying one there and it was extremely overpriced.
After Volcano Bay we had dinner reservations at Big Fire in City Walk. I am going to save the restaurant reviews for the end of this post since based on conversations I’ve had, most are interested in hearing how the experience with kids was. Nonetheless, I will definitely share some things worth reading regarding dining.
Day 2- Islands of Adventure
ISLANDS OF ADVENTURE! For us- this was the BIG test! We are big fans of getting to the park early, especially if we are able to get in early thanks to hotel perks. We stayed at Universal Aventura- I don’t recommend and as with restaurant reviews- I’ll write my thoughts at the end but for now I’ll keep the focus on our experience in the parks with the kids. While we didn’t love the hotel, since it was ‘on property’ we did have the perk of being able to come into the parks an hour before official opening. We didn’t arrive at 8AM on the dot which was the earliest we could arrive but we came in before 9AM.
The whole reason we decided to visit Universal was because Peter Jr. Is really into dinosaurs and Jurassic Park so we went straight to Jurassic Park! Well, Jurassic Park is also where Universal’s newest ride is- VelociCoaster! Natalia and Peter aren’t tall enough for this one and even if they were, Peter and I both agree we wouldn’t make them ride this one unless they really wanted to, not at their age anyway. We couldn’t help it though…. Amazing roller coaster, 70 mph, 90 minute wait…. We needed to do this. Although Disney is geared towards kids, Epcot kind of isn’t. I am sure one day I will share our Disney strategy and how we have always enjoyed drinking around the world even with kids- but in a nutshell- they are used to needing to be patient when we want to enjoy things. We felt bad that first thing on the list was making a long line for a ride they couldn’t ride and a ride that they weren’t even sure they wanted their parents to ride since you get an up close and personal look at the coaster while waiting, but we didn’t want to risk the line getting any longer as the day went on. Fortunately, 90 minutes was more like 60. We had initially considered doing single rider but the single rider line was full to capacity and we were told at one point it was even longer than the normal line! Fortunately, Universal offers ‘family rooms’ on lines with height requirements where we were able to do rider swaps.
Velocicoaster was AMAZING!!!!!! I visited Islands of Adventure in 1999 when it first opened and ever since- The Incredible Hulk Coaster was my favorite ride EVER. Nothing ever topped it for me. Until July 1, 2021 when I rode the Velocicoaster. I don’t want to get into details because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone BUT if you like roller coasters- you NEED to ride this thing. That’s all. I rode before Peter and all I said to him was- it topped the Hulk! Not saying anything else! We actually didn’t get on the Hulk this trip and I was OK with that because we got on Velocicoaster.
In case we all forgot though- we came here with kids and especially for Peter to see the dinosaurs so now that we got the major thrill ride out of our system- it was time to do things the kids could do. We decided to go straight to the Jurassic Park River Adventure. For those who haven’t been on the ride, it’s a river adventure through Jurassic Park where the intention is to see the docile dinosaurs but you take a wrong turn and end up in a raptor containment center. You eventually meet T-Rex and need to take the big fall similar to Disney’s Splash Mountain to escape him. I’m not a fan of Splash Mountain at Disney but for some reason I like the Jurassic Park ride. The fall doesn’t seem as big to me. Peter researched though and apparently it’s close to double the size of Splash Mountain. At any rate- Natalia doesn’t like splash mountain either. Peter Jr. loves it. If you’ve been on both rides it will come as no surprise that Peter loved the river adventure, despite coming face to face with T-Rex right before the big fall and this was Natalia’s least favorite ride overall. Peter had his moments when he was scared, especially where we enter the raptor container center by error but overall he loved it and it was his favorite ride EVER- until Spider Man of course!
From here we made a line that was possibly longer than the Velocicoaster line for Pteranodon Flyers.They need to work on the logistics of this because the only reason the line takes a long time is because they need to physically strap and unstrap everyone who rides this. We had that guilt from going straight to our non-kid friendly ride upon park arrival so we made this line for the kids. The ride was fun and I recommend sucking it up and making the line if you are there with smaller children since they will enjoy it.
From here we decided to try Harry Potter and the forbidden journey. The kids were just tall enough to ride. I am not very familiar with Harry Potter books or movies so I’m not sure what location the ride is supposed to be on but you make the line through a dark spooky castle. This made the kids skeptical of the ride. Peter and I rode it when it first opened in 2010 so over a decade later we didn’t remember it so well. We didn’t recall it being very scary. We got the kids on the ride and unfortunately, it had a technical difficulty and stopped before we really took off. Peter Jr. started to cry and an employee took him off the ride saying they do not force kids to ride things they don’t want to ride. Natalia then also said she wasn’t riding either and I decided to go on my own. It was a little scarier than I remember but still such a cool ride and remember- I’m not a Harry Potter fan! In the meantime the kids were taken to the family room Universal has for the rides with height requirements and one of the employees spoke to them and managed to convince Natalia to ride. Peter Jr. still wouldn’t cave so I stayed with him. Natalia came back saying it was a little scary but she liked it and was happy she gave it a chance! The employee who convinced Natalia to ride Harry Potter also gave us 4 fast passes so we could all ride something as a family which was a very nice touch!
At this point we were hungry and we decided to eat at Thunder Falls Café back in Jurassic park. While over priced, the chicken wings, salad and corn we ordered wasn’t terrible for theme park food. They did not have many kid friendly options which surprised us. I assume all the quick service restaurants would have chicken fingers, macaroni and cheese and that kind of thing but they didn’t. We were able to get the pork pernil for the kids with fries. Fortunately our kids aren’t terribly picky eaters but if you have a picky eater I would confirm the restaurant you choose has options for the kids.
From here we rode Spider Man which was Peter’s favorite! It’s one of the original rides at Islands of Adventure but I think it’s so well done It had and to this day still does not seem outdated! It had been raining on and off and it was finally sunny so we decided to ride Popeye. This ride is a super run river adventure but be prepared to get wet! The kids loved it!
We had seen that Jurassic Park had a raptor encounter. In the morning we were trying to check other items off our list so we didn’t go in when we initially saw it at a 10 minute wait. Later it was closed due to rain or full to capacity so we decided to go back and do it since we figured Peter Jr. would love it. I HIGHLY recommend this experience if you visit with kids! When we returned it said full to capacity but we saw a line and decided to just wait it out. Within 15 minutes were able to go in and meet ‘Blue’ the Raptor. Peter researched on his phone why sometimes it says ‘full to capacity’ and apparently it has to do with the fact that ‘Blue’ is someone in a costume. It’s a highly interactive experience and you get wonderful photos and video! Peter Jr. was a little scared at first. You can tell that the person in the costume is observing their audience so Blue didn’t mess with us, especially Peter, as much as she did with other visitors. Peter Jr. felt very brave after taking his photo with Blue and could not wait to tell his friends about the experience! In fact, it was the first thing he wanted to show all the dance brothers upon arrival in Daytona. He legit believes he met a REAL raptor! Disney is the theme park that is known for ‘the magic’ but I can definitely say- the MAGIC is there at Universal! This was definitely a highlight of our day!
We then decided to head over to Seuss Landing which is the area of the park that is actually geared towards smaller children. We spent less time here that I would have expected. We rode a ‘people mover’ type ride and the carousel. We got totally rained on but we were also already wet from Popeye. We then decided before leaving to use our fast passes at Skull Isalnd Reign of Kong. We had gone in circles about this because we didn’t know if it would be scary for the kids. We researched a bit and read that the line may be the scariest part because it’s dark and has some indigenous natives speaking gibberish where the only word you can decipher is KONG. Creepy. Anyway we had fast passes and figured we wouldn’t be in line too long so we went for it. Unfortunately, when it was our turn to get on the ride, there were technical difficulties and they had us get on the bus, get off, get on, get off again. Meanwhile the technicians kept trying to fix it. One of the doors on the bus wasn’t working properly. The kids, especially Peter started to get upset and restless. After about 30 minutes with a front row seat to what was happening and watching the engineers try to get the doors to close, we finally got on the ride. It was good! I think I would have enjoyed more had we not had the extra wait. Natalia loved it but Peter was scared. We aren’t sure why since we found it similar to Spider Man. Our kids cant seem to agree on which rides they like or don’t like.
At this point we were wet, tired, and thirsty and other than riding the Hulk coaster which we couldn’t take the kids on, there wasn’t really anything else we wanted to do so it was time to leave. When we hit these theme parks we like to wind down with a nicer dinner. I have a big issue with the theme park food and what it costs for what it is so we try to eat at the parks as little as possible. Unfortunately, it was 8ish PM and without a reservation anywhere at City Walk, we couldn’t find anywhere to eat. We ended up settling for the rooftop bar at our hotel which was OK. All in all- it was a good day!
Tips for Islands of Adventure
- It’s summer in Florida, buy ponchos beforehand. I find in Central Florida it rains almost every afternoon. The ponchos in the parks are expensive so I recommend buying some before.
- If you plan to ride Popeye, plan on getting wet! This ride could probably be in a water park. We took the kids in bathing suits to the parks and I wore a bathing suit under my clothes. Peter had a fishing shirt and shorts. I wore denim shorts and in retrospect I wish I’d bought fishing shorts.
- If raptor encounter says full to capacity- just wait it out. From what we saw it will say this throughout the day. This experience is totally worth the wait with kids!
Day 3 Universal Studios
On our third and last day we decided to hit Universal Studios before heading to Daytona for the dance competition. Upon arrival we realized there is a sign that shows the height requirements for all the rides. Islands of Adventure also had this but we didn’t realize it the previous day. Later walking by we saw it and snapped photos so I will share these as well. Reminder- my kids are just a bit above 48 inches.
When we arrived at the park we ran into Shrek and Donkey. I am not sure if this is a scheduled appearance or how you can make sure to catch it but I definitely recommend it with kids! Donkey talks to you and he is hilarious! He asked the kids their names, made jokes, and announced to the whole park that Peter Jr. farted when it was time for us to take photos so we got some amazing candid shots with very natural smiles. Later we also got a photo with Bumblebee the transformer. I actually told Peter as far as characters in costume go, Universal has more interactive character interactions than Disney.
Neither Peter or I had been to Universal Studios in a very long time. In fact, we realized the only ride that is still there which we have both been on was ET! We decided to ride this first. Peter Jr. was a little scared at first but ended up loving the ride. When we have a chance we want to watch this classic movie with the kids. ET was one of my favorite movies as a kid!
After this we rode the Simpsons ride. This is where the classic Back to the Future ride used to be. The Simpson’s ride is funny and was cute for the kids since it’s cartoons. There is nothing really scary about it. I remember not liking the Back to the Future Ride when I was a kid but both of my kids enjoyed the Simpsons ride! The Simpsons is actually the only thing they have watched since we got home so they are definitely fans!
We then decided to ride the Fast and the Furious ride. This ride is exactly like Reign of Kong over at Islands of Adventure. We had a little PTSD when we first saw the buses we’d rode on the day before and the infamous door that wouldn’t close. The only difference is in Kong you wear 3D glasses and in Fast and the Furious you don’t. The ride wasn’t bad but Peter and I thought there was more they could have done with Fast and the Furious. On the ride you are taking a Party Bus to an after party for a race and you get caught in a major action scene. We felt they should have done something where you are racing in a car in a roller coaster maybe or re-done the back to the future ride as a fast and the furious ride so you could ride in a car. Peter Jr. was a little scared on this one especially since there are parts that blow smoke into the bus. Natalia liked it!
When we first arrived at the park around 9AM it was relatively empty and there were little wait times. I definitely recommend coming early if possible to this park to knock some rides out with little wait. I would say around 11AM it starts to fill up.
Natalia is a big doughnut fan! At the Simpsons land they sell a huge pink doughnut which she had to have! We decided to have this to hold us over and then have late lunch at City Walk to avoid the mediocre overpriced quick service theme park food. They also sell ‘Duff’s Beer’ in Simpson’s land. I wasn’t expecting much out of either the doughnut or beer since it was quite gimmicky but they were actually both pretty good and I definitely recommend trying them if you are there!
At this point the park was filling up so we made a pretty long line for the Transformers ride. This one is EXACTLY like Spider Man at Islands of Adventure. While I feel Universal beats Disney as far as thrill rides go, I also think they could have possibly been more creative with some of these rides since they essentially have two exact rides in each park.
From here we went on Men in Black which is one of those rides where you need to shoot aliens with a laser gun. Im personally not a fan of this type of ride, probably because I’m not good at it, but my family loves these so I take one for the team! At this point really the only ride we hadn’t been on was the Minions ride. Even at the beginning of the day it had a long line. We initially hoped to come back and find a shorter wait but it didn’t improve throughout the day. We were able to get a reservation at the Mexican restaurant in City Walk- Antojitos and still had to drive to Daytona so we decided not to risk making the long line and missing our reservation.
I think the character interactions were definitely a highlight here for the kids and we also really enjoyed the Simpson’s doughnut and we parents liked the Duff’s beer.
The answer to the BIG question- were my 5 and 7 year old enough for Universal Orlando? The answer is YES! ABSOLUTELY! You need to be mentally prepared that they may not be able to ride everything but there is plenty for them to do and enjoy. Many of the rides are a little scarier than the ones at Disney so I do think your kids would need to be a little more on the braver side but otherwise, we will be back! Both kids are saying they like Universal more than Disney which we are surprised to hear! We thought they would stay loyal to the mouse! We think this response may possibly be related to the fact that we were just at universal and it’s fresher on their minds. Overall Islands of Adventure is their favorite park! I think to do a true test of which resort they prefer we’d have to visit both in the same trip. They also have not been to Disney’s Blizzard Beach so we cannot compare to Volcano Bay. Natalia’s favorite ride was PopEye with Reign of Kong coming in second- both at Islands of Adventure. Peter’s favorite was Transformers at Universal with Spider Man over at Islands coming in second.
As promised- I wanted to share about the restaurants we ate it in City Walk. City Walk does not have nearly as much variety as Disney Springs so you definitely need reservations if you want to eat there. The first night we ate at Big Fire which is American fare. We had the fondue cheese appetizer which was delicious! We then had steak which was very good. Peter and I can be picky about steak because he makes amazing steaks at home! Peter actually said it was one of the best steaks he’s had because it had a smokey flavor to it which he really enjoyed. For dessert we ordered the smores which was very cool for the kids because it came with a little fire so they could roast their marshmallows.
On the last day we were lucky enough to get a reservation at Antojitos the Mexican Restaurant. We were going at an awkward time and got a 4:30 reservation. The restaurant actually opened at 4PM and when we walked over it already had a huge line of people waiting to go in. I cannot stress enough that you need reservations at City Walk! We immediately connected with our waiter Jhamil. Peter realized he is Dominican and since we are Cuban (Peter is half Cuban half Mexican). We later learned he attends pre law at Florida International University, our Alma Mater and plans to go to law school there which is where Peter went to law school! The margaritas were very good and you could tell they were freshly made- none of that pre-made stuff! The tableside gauc is amazing and also very fresh! They offered mole which you usually can only find at very legit Mexican restaurants. I’m not a fan but Peter loves it. I had the tacos which were delicious. Great service and great food! We definitely gave it a thumbs up!
We had wanted to stay at one of the higher end hotels on property, especially since these include a fast pass for all the rides but unfortunately there was no availability. We had to settle for Universal Aventura resort. We chose it because it is on Universal’s property and offers perks such as early entrance to the parks and transportation to the parks. I am trying to keep things positive on here but I do not recommend this hotel. They are severely understaffed so if you have any questions or need anything, good luck getting someone on the phone to help. You’ll need to go downstairs and make a 15-20 minute line. They also are not offering housekeeping. They did not warn us of this so you can imagine our surprise when we got to the hotel wet after getting rained on at Islands of Adventure and hungry and couldn’t shower because the room hadn’t been picked up and therefore there were no fresh towels. I called to request housekeeping but couldn’t get someone on the line so I had to go downstairs and wait in the line. To add to my annoyance, when I explain to the staff member why I was there, they looked at me baffled that I was expecting housekeeping because…. COVID! Mind you, Universal Orlando resort is almost completely normal. We would say about 5% of the people there are wearing masks and they aren’t enforcing social distancing. On that note, I will mention if you are uncomfortable being around crowds with no masks, I do not recommend coming to Universal Orlando. Needless to say, not offering housekeeping was not about a staff member coming into our room and infecting it with the virus as much as it was about cutting costs and I would have appreciated more honesty. I’ve stayed at other hotels post COVID that offer housekeeping but I guess this is a thing because our hotel in Daytona didn’t offer it either. In the future I will be calling hotels in advance to ask about this. The only other thing we did like about the hotel was the technology in the rooms. They have iPads that control everything from the lights, the to TV, to the temperature.
Finally, I had wanted to comment on whether or not purchasing express passes is worth it. Universal gives you the option to purchase a fast pass for ALL the rides. We had wanted to do this for Islands of Adventure but the passes were about $200 a person so it was going to cost us about $800. We don’t feel it would have been worth it, especially at that price. It seems the prices do fluctuate based on how busy the parks are though so at a different time of the year they may be more reasonably priced but within a week of 4th of July- not so much! The parks really aren’t that big and there is sufficient time to make it on most of the rides without these passes.
There you have my experience and tips regarding Universal Orlando with little ones! We look forward to coming back soon!
Thanks for visiting!