It was the trip of a lifetime. We decided to bring our 8, 6 and 4-year-old to visit the theme parks in Orlando to celebrate my big birthday. Our sights were set on Universal for this trip - it had been recommended by friends of ours as a more 'all family' experience than any of the others and we felt like having an injection of pure fun alongside the children.
Before we knew it, we were in the airport with our double buggy ready to rock everything Universal studios, the Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay (the water park) had to offer. Nine hours later, we emerged into the humid Florida air and took an Uber to our hotel, the Cabana Bay Beach Resort. We had decided to stay on site at Universal for the ease of travel and because we were only there for a short time (a week).
We loved the hotel's retro vibes and the fact that it had a bowling alley and sandy beach area for the kids to play in by the pool. In fact, after a hectic day in the parks, returning to our little oasis for a late evening swim was just bliss. We mostly ate in the parks or in our hotel but there are some amazing restaurants nearby including KeKe's breakfast cafe (very authentic silver dollar pancakes) and The Boathouse restaurant.
Staying beside the parks has the advantage of the free shuttle buses to the theme parks as well as early access (an hour) to the rides which was handy as we made a bee-line for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter which is a must for little ones.
We picked up some interactive wands ($46) and hit Diagon Alley to practice our magic. The set design is really breathtaking and the children adored 'doing magic' which included making the water come on in the fountains, levitating a feather plume and making a broom spin. The fire breathing dragon at the helm of the street is a little scary for little ones so be warned. We had prepared our children in advance for any frights like this.
What to bring
1. Broken-in runners (you will walk more than you have ever walked before)
2. Raincoats (expensive to buy on site and you need them for some of the water rides)
3. Pram (bring your own and don’t rely on the onsite pram rentals as you need one at the airport and for the long walk to get to the parks)
4. Get a water taxi one of the days (they are free and if you are staying at any of the Universal hotels, you can just cross to a hotel that has one and enjoy the ride) We crossed from Cabana Bay Hotel to the Lowes Sapphire Falls Hotel and it was a great way to make our way to the City Walk where all the action starts. (It takes 20 minutes).
5. Uber is half the price of a taxi and you can choose XL to fit all the family. We also didn’t have to worry about parking.
6. Lower your coffee expectations. We were lucky to have a Starbucks in our hotel to get us going in the mornings – otherwise, you are reliant on simple American cups of joe.
7. The kids are going to want EVERYTHING (you exit most of the rides into a themed shop) Agree beforehand pocket money or that you can get something on the last day or you will be driven NUTS. Ours got their wands on the first day and they played with them the entire time.
8. There are freshwater fountains dotted around all the parks so just bring a bottle to refill.
9. Watch YouTube videos of the rides before you set off so that smaller children have an idea of what to expect. The Jimmy Fallon Ride Through New York ride has a flash of a shark during the ride so my daughter knew to close her eyes for that part and she was fine and ended up loving it.
10. Have a rough plan of the rides you want to do for the day but be flexible and take pit-stops where ever you can.
Rides suitable for younger children
Universal has something for everyone. The Barney show and Curious George Ball factory in Universal Studios is ideal for the under 8's. Our children begged to go back here the second day. Fievel's playground is also perfect for this age group. Don't forget to visit the Simpson's Springfield for a giant doughnut.
Minions Mayhem is a motion simulator ride that our four-year-old loved too. Height requirements are 40 inches which she just about made. You can also ask for the stationary seating if you think your child might suffer motion sickness.
We were delighted to see how many parades and musical episodes we managed to catch as we wandered around the parks. From the cast of The Secret Life of Pets to Scooby Doo and Hello Kitty, there were plenty of photo opportunities for our very excited children.
I'd highly recommend catching the live shows. We loved the Animal Magic show which showcased some of the very impressive talents from some of the animals your children will recognise from the movies (Santa Paws). Our son got picked to let a bird land on his head and it is something he will never forget. We also enjoyed the Fear Factor Live show which involved a man getting scorpions placed on his head voluntarily which greatly added to our howls of disgust and delight.
Next, we ventured to Islands of Adventure, the second Universal theme park. Here you can marvel at the Incredible Hulk rollercoaster - which is not for the fainthearted. Watching the loops and hearing the squeals added to the thrill of the day as we navigated through Cartoon World (The Amazing Spiderman ride is here and our brave six-year-old loved it). Seuss Landing is children heaven.
You can see the pages of the well-loved Cat in the Hat book come right to life. Our brood must have gone on the Caro-Seuss-el about 5 times in a row. Do the High in the Sky Seuss Trolley ride too - it is a slow-moving train journey around the top of Seuss Landing that little ones of all ages will enjoy. Camp Jurassic is also ideal for younger theme park lovers where they can climb to their heart's content and learn more about their dino friends at the interactive discovery centre.
Top Tip: Get a multi-park ticket so you can go from Universal Studios to the Islands of Adventure via the amazing Hogwarts express - this is one not to miss.
We were lucky enough to have the Fast Pass tickets which is the difference between queueing for two hours or two minutes. Our third day we spent in the third Universal Park - Volcano Bay. It is described as a water park but it is unlike any water park you have ever seen. On entering you get a smart bracelet which allows you to spend the day cash-free.
You just tap the bracelet on the rides to 'hold' your place in the line. We didn't have to use this function because it was a quiet day in the bay. We never had to queue which was a revelation. The whole area is based around Hawaii but it is the volcano at the centre that really drops jaws.
It is surrounded by a white sandy beach effect and the wave pool is brilliant fun for all the family. What we loved about it was the fact that US coastguard life jackets were mandatory for the children and with 10 lifeguards in view at any given time, you can have a little more peace of mind knowing that you have extra surveillance for little swimmers.
If you look closely you can see the transparent water slide that goes down the middle of the volcano. It is a trap door chute type that drops the brave thrill-seeker straight down the middle. Daddy braved this one to my dismay and the children's delight. He LOVED it.
All in all, our few days spent in Universal far exceeded our expectations. We returned to the Cabana Bay Hotel each evening (10 minutes on the shuttle bus and within walking distance to Volcano Bay) and chilled by the heated pool for the evening (it is open late for this very reason).
Orlando is a trip of a lifetime for us and the memories we made here are just so special. Don't wait to take the trip until they are older - our little ones got so much out of watching us having fun - a truly amazing family adventure.