The Ultimate Family Guide to Universal Orlando Resort
These thrill-heavy parks have plenty to offer kids of all ages.
So you’ve done everything at Walt Disney World — or think your kids have outgrown it — but you’re still looking for some fun in the Florida sun. For a variety of reasons, from a massive Harry Potter attraction to some huge movie tie-ins, Universal Orlando Resort is a natural next step for a family vacation. We spent one incredible day inside the resort earlier this year. Here’s what you need to know before you start planning your trip.
For the Harry Potter Obsessive
Let’s be honest: this is probably why you’re thinking about Universal, and it’s a good instinct. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, craftily split between Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure (which means you need a two-park ticket to see both) is, hands down, the best theme park attraction out there. If you and your kids have any interest at all in the Boy Who Lived, you need to schedule a stop here.
Start in Hogsmeade, located inside Universal Studios. Walking up, you’ll notice Number 12 Grimmauld Place, the Knight Bus, and a single red British telephone booth: your entrance point, of course, into the Ministry of Magic. Alongside King’s Cross station is the nondescript entrance to Diagon Alley.
Stepping around the corner and into Diagon Alley is literally breathtaking (seriously: I enjoyed just standing there watching other people’s awed reactions). Rising around and ahead of you are hallmarks of the books and movies: the Leaky Cauldron on one side, Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes on the other. Just ahead, Gringotts Wizarding Bank looms, a dragon (which periodically breathes fire) perched on the roof.
Bring your gold, since you’ll want to buy everything in sight, from frozen butterbeer to interactive wands from Ollivander’s that set off special features around the park. There’s an interactive attraction with the wandmaker himself that clearly blows little minds; you can also buy the wands ahead of time.
Spend some time wandering around, simply appreciating the intricacies of the illusion (after all, you just walked out of San Francisco). Then get in line for Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, one of the marquee rides here.
You will wait a long time, even with Express Pass, Universal’s answer to the Disney FastPass. The ride is well worth it, and the line experience is pretty fun, too — you essentially get an unguided tour of the goblin bank.
Before you leave Diagon Alley, stop at the Leaky Cauldron for some fish and chips or cottage pie. It’s by far the best fast-casual food in the park, and the environment is fun as well.
Then, walk back out of Diagon Alley and enter King’s Cross, a spitting image of the London landmark (if you’ve only seen it in movies, you’ll also recognize it). Here, you’ll have your ticket checked — remember, you must have a two-park ticket — and wind your way toward the platform.
How do you get to Platform 9 ¾? We won’t ruin it for you, but once you’re through, here comes the Hogwarts Express, in all its smoky glory. Hop on board, scramble into your compartment, and settle in for an eventful ride to Hosgmeade.
Disembarking from the train, you head out of the station and catch your first glimpse of the village — and, on a high spot behind it, Hogwarts. Again, the illusion here gives you goosebumps, and of course, there are plenty of places to spend the gold you brought with you, including the Three Broomsticks, Dervish and Banges, and Honeydukes, for a supply of chocolate frogs and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans.
Hogsmeade is smaller than Diagon Alley, but it’s home to our favorite ride across the parks: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The (long) line for this ride takes you in and around Hogwarts, with talking portraits and all kinds of fantastic details. The ride itself lets you fly on a broomstick next to Harry, and it’s a blast.
Flight of the Hippogriff, a small-scale roller coaster, is just right for those just looking for a little wind in their face.
Both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are worth seeing at night. The newest attraction in Hogsmeade, the Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle, is an ooh-inducing light show projected onto the school, featuring the four houses of Hogwarts.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is engrossing enough that you might think you’d spend all your time there. But then you’d be missing out! Here’s what else you can enjoy.
For the Thrill-Seeker
From the day the original Universal Studios Florida opened, this resort has been known for envelope-pushing rides. That reputation was cemented with Islands of Adventure, and the biggest screams are still in that park.
The Incredible Hulk Coaster, which catapults you out of a tunnel and into a warren of drops, loops, and rolls, remains one of the best roller coasters out there. Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, featuring heart-staggering drops, deserves a place on the adrenaline junkie’s list, too.
The Jurassic Park River Adventure is another highlight; most of the ride is pretty tame and kitschy, but the final drop is both thrilling and soaking (bring a poncho unless it’s really hot, and do take advantage of the lockers to keep your phone from taking a bath). Ditto for Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls, a traditional flume ride filled with silly fun.
Skull Island: Reign of King Kong is a cool mashup of simulated images, animatronics, and a traditional ride. It’s intense and fun, although I personally missed the old Roosevelt Island tram setup of the original Kongfrontation ride.
At Universal Studios, the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit coaster features a 90-degree (that’s right, straight up) ascent and speeds as fast as 65 mph.
Fast and Furious — Supercharged opened earlier this year, and brings the fast-paced racing culture of the movie to a ride. Some older favorites, including Transformers: The Ride 3D, Men in Black: Alien Attack, and Revenge of the Mummy, still pack a punch, too.
But our favorite non-Potter ride in this park was The Simpsons Ride, a hilarious, subversive, and amazingly entertaining trip to Springfield. For my son, who’s never watched the show, it was a great introduction to the long-running cartoon classic, and the ride is intense enough to satisfy a coaster fan.
For Younger Kids
Universal has a fanatical following among adults and teens, but there’s plenty to do for smaller kids. At Universal Studios, the beloved E.T Adventure ride remains a can’t-miss attraction. Tucked back in the same corner are Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster, Fievel’s Playland, a cute playground with a water feature, and Curious George Goes to Town, featuring the iconic monkey.
Need a break from the sun? Barney’s Playground is indoors, and features kid-friendly bathrooms. There’s also a Barney show, if you’re willing to risk having the song rattling around in your head for a few days.
At Islands of Adventure, the highlight for kids (and their parents) is the Dr. Seuss-themed area, with a trippy Cat in the Hat ride, a whimsical carousel, and even a Lorax play area. This is also where you can get Thing 1 and Thing 2 outfits for the whole family.
Kids also like the Marvel area, even if they’re not up for the Hulk coaster. If they’re into superheroes, The Amazing Spider-Man ride is a lot of fun.
Of course, most younger kids will enjoy the Hogwarts Express, and the character meet-and-greets around the park.
Navigating the Resort
Like Disney, Universal wants you to stay at one of the resort’s hotels, and offers guests some significant perks. If your focus for your trip is Universal, it’s not a bad idea to stay on site.
If you drive or are dropped off, it’s a fair walk from the parking area through Universal CityWalk to get to the gates of either park. Be prepared for a lot of walking in general — we did more than 22,000 steps over 11 hours during our marathon day. If you’re going with kids younger than 5, bring a stroller.
If you’re going at a busy time (which is almost the entire year these days in Orlando), splurge for the Express Pass. You’ll still wait, but the times will be much shorter.
If your kids are old enough to be trusted to meet you on the other side of the ride, take advantage of the single riders lines. That can also cut your waits considerably for the most sought-after rides.
The food is generally decent, but the lines can be long. Bring snacks and try to eat at off-peak times if you really have your heart set on something in particular. (Mom and Dad, take note: Universal, which does a heavy business among adults, is the anti-Magic Kingdom when it comes to alcohol. So have a sip if you like.)
CityWalk is just outside the park gates, and features some kid-friendly restaurants for burgers, Mexican, and seafood. Most take reservations, and this can be a nice break from the crowds if it’s a busy day.
How long should you plan to spend here? If you like Harry Potter and you think you’ll spend significant time on the other rides, it’s probably worth at least a two-day ticket. We did both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure in one epic day, but we were really pooped by the end.
Ticket prices depend on the date you plan to go, how many parks you want, and how many days you plan to spend. Once you’ve decided to go, it’s worth looking at a range of dates — there can be a big dollar difference.
For more information, visit the resort’s website.
Lead photograph courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort. All other photographs by Gwyneth K. Shaw.