Fodor's Walt Disney World with Kids (2015)
With two full theme parks (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure), a dining and entertainment complex called CityWalk, and four on-site resort hotels, Universal Orlando is no longer content to be the park you visit on the last day of vacation, after the bulk of your time and money have gone to Disney. On the contrary, Universal is poised to be a destination, not an afterthought, aiming to keep guests on-site and entertained for multiday stays.
As you prepare a touring plan for Universal, make sure to choose the right rides and shows for your family. Although Universal offers attractions for every age, it’s best known for its high-thrill rides. In general, the attractions here are far more intense than those at Disney, so it’s important to know that the shows and rides you choose are age appropriate. A mother of one from Missouri agreed: “The first time we went to Universal Studios our daughter was 4, and there wasn’t too much she could ride or enjoy at such a young age. The next time we went back she was 8, and she loved it. Kids have to be a bit older to really get into the Universal Studios style of ride.”
On the other hand, if you have teenagers, you may want to spend more time at Universal than at Disney. Consider this report from a father of three: “My children love roller coasters (the wilder the better) and prefer Universal to Disney. So we do the opposite of most families, staying at Universal and driving over for a day at Disney.”
Universal Orlando is off Interstate 4 at Exits 74B and 75A. Road signs to the complex are well marked. The Universal parks are about a 20-minute drive from Walt Disney World and about a 10-minute drive from SeaWorld. For more information, visit www.universalorlando.com or call 407/363-8000.
Should We Stay On-Site?
Whether you decide to stay at one of Universal Orlando’s four on-site resorts—the Portofino Bay Hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel, the Royal Pacific Resort, and the new mid-priced Cabana Bay Beach Resort—depends on how much you’re willing to spend for certain conveniences and privileges extended only to on-site guests. The on-site luxury resorts are all impressive, with the ultimate in amenities, and price tags to match. Depending on the resort and the season, rates average $220-$350 a night. The new Cabana Bay Beach Resort doesn’t offer as many amenities, but prices are considerably lower: $130-$200 a night for the standard rooms and $180-$260 for family suites.
There are plenty of resorts on International Drive and other roads that flank the park, but Universal draws high-spending visitors by offering lots of perks for on-site guests.
Advantages of Staying On-Site
By far the biggest advantage is that luxury resort guests can use the Express Pass system on an unlimited basis. Just show your resort ID—that is, your room key card—and you’ll be admitted into the Express ticket line on any ride you choose at any time you choose. This virtually eliminates having to wait in line, and it’s a huge, huge perk. Depending upon when you’re traveling, it’s also a $30-$87 per person value—the cost of an Express Pass. (Note that guests of the Cabana Bay Beach Resort do not qualify for this perk.)
At present, resort guests can enter the Wizarding World of Harry Potter a full hour ahead of day guests. Since the Harry Potter section of Islands of Adventure can become insanely crowded, the chance to ride and explore ahead of the bulk of the theme-park guests is an immeasurable advantage. Be sure to check to make sure this perk is still in place when you book your room.
Universal suffers some confusion regarding the names of its parks. The entire complex, consisting of two theme parks (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure), four hotels (Hard Rock, Portofino Bay, Royal Pacific, and Cabana Bay Beach Resort), and the CityWalk nightlife and entertainment district, is called Universal Orlando.
Other Perks of Staying On-Site
Priority seating in restaurants and advance reservations privileges.
Complimentary water-taxi or bus transportation between your resort and the theme parks. (All three of the luxury on-site hotels are linked to the two theme parks and CityWalk by a series of scenic waterways. Cabana Bay guests take the buses.) Not only does the transportation system make it easier for you to return to your room for a midday break, but it also saves you the time, effort, and expense of driving to the theme parks.
Complimentary package delivery of in-park purchases to guest rooms.
Resort IDs that allow you to charge merchandise, food, and tickets to your hotel room.
Complimentary transportation to SeaWorld and Aquatica.
Access to seasonal packages and periodic specials that provide significant perks during the off-season, such as discounts on rooms, “kids eat free” deals, upgrades to suites, or complimentary breakfasts.
The Loews Resorts at Universal Studios: Hard Rock Hotel, Portofino Bay Hotel, and Royal Pacific Resort
If you want to go the luxury route, consider the three hotels located within the Universal Studios complex, which are reviewed in detail in Chapter 2. Although also affiliated with a theme park, they have a far calmer and more removed quality than the Disney properties, while still offering plenty of benefits for families. 407/363-8000 www.universalorlando.com 815 rooms.
For full reviews of these hotels, see Chapter 2, Choosing a Hotel.
Universal offers several ticket options. It’s smart to purchase them online at www.universalorlando.com; prices are $8 to $20 more if you buy them at the gate.
One-Day, One-Park Ticket
Admits holders to either Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure for one day.
Adults and children over 9: $96.
Children ages 3 to 9: $90.
One-Day, Two-Park Ticket
Admits holders to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure for one day.
Adults and children over 9: $136.
Children ages 3 to 9: $130.
Two-Day, Two-Park Ticket
Admits holders to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure for two days.
Adults and children over 9: $175.99.
Children ages 3 to 9: $165.99.
Two-Day, One-Park-Per-Day Ticket
Admits holders to Universal Studios one day and Islands of Adventure the other.
Adults and children over 9: $135.99.
Children ages 3 to 9: $125.99.
Admits holders to Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, Wet ’n Wild, Aquatica, and SeaWorld for 14 consecutive days.
Adults and children over 9: $307.
Children ages 3 to 9: $291.
Money-Saving Tip If you buy your Universal tickets online (www.universalorlando.com), the savings can be significant. Specials vary with the season, but there’s nearly always a reward for buying early. You can also save money with the Universal Meal Deal, especially if you have big eaters in your party. The Meal Deal offers you all the food you’d like from three counter-service restaurants in Universal Studios and three more in Islands of Adventure for a base price of $25 for adults, $13 for kids aged three to nine. If you’re visiting both parks, the one-day price is $30 for adults and $15 for kids. The add-on drink option of unlimited soft drinks for $11 a person can be a bargain for adults, considering the price of theme-park beverages.
You can avoid waiting in lines with the Express Pass (once called the Express PLUS Pass). The price to upgrade a one-day ticket into an Express Pass ranges from $20 to $60, depending on the season, and upgrading a two-day ticket ranges from $26 to $65. While the goal is the same—giving guests ways to reduce the time they spend waiting in line—Universal runs its pass program a bit differently from the Disney FastPass+ system. At Disney the use of FastPass+ is free, but you can only get three a day. At Universal, an Express Pass is unlimited, meaning that you can use it on any ride at any time, but you pay a significant surcharge for the privilege. (Unless, that is, you’re staying on-site. Guests of Universal resorts get Express Pass benefits for free.)
The key thing about the Express Pass is that it’s not accepted at Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the centerpiece ride at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and by far the attraction for which you’re most likely to need it. (Pteranodon Flyers at Islands of Adventure doesn’t qualify for the pass either.) Bottom line on the Express Pass? If you’re staying at a Universal resort and it’s free, then great. Use it. If you’re visiting on a holiday or peak time in the summer and the crowds are huge, consider it. But most of the time it’s simply not worth the extra money.
To make things even more complicated, in addition to Express Pass, Universal also offers Ride Reservation System. Guests must pick up an electronic device that allows them to hold a place in line—virtually. Here’s how it works. If, say, at 11 am the Incredible Hulk has a 45-minute wait, you punch into the device that you’d like to be in line, then show up to board at 11:45. You can only do this for one ride at a time, but the device can be used to make reservations for up to six people.
Of course, it’s not free. You must pay $30 per person for the privilege to reserve every ride in the park once, $40 per person for unlimited reservations. On top of that there’s a $50 deposit for each device, and it can only be used at one park. But the biggest drawback of all is that it can’t be used at Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. Bottom line on the Ride Reservation System? Rarely worth it. If you’re going through this much hassle for $30 per person, you may as well spend a bit more and get the Express Pass. But until Harry Potter is included, it’s hard to make a case for buying either one.
Universal Studios Florida Touring Tips
Universal Studios is all about the movies—and especially about blockbuster thrill movies, which translates into blockbuster thrill rides, which are often more appropriate for teens and preteens than families with younger kids. In other words, strap in and hold on. This ain’t Disney.
Want to sleep in? Visit in the off-season, when crowds are light and lines are short. You can arrive at Universal at 10 am and still comfortably do everything.
The attractions at Universal Studios are built around popular films from the Universal Studios archives, and the park is at this writing undergoing a multistep renovation aimed at keeping things fresh. Oldies like Jaws, King Kong, and Earthquake, which most kids don’t remember at all, have been pulled out to make way for a Harry Potter expansion and more real estate for popular attractions like The Simpsons Ride. Within this park you’ll find tributes to Shrek, Men in Black, The Mummy, and Transformers. The kiddie section is a bit of an afterthought, and even most of the shows are loud and high-tech, clearly aimed at appealing to older kids who aren’t scared of anything—including going deaf.
Tips for Your First Hour at Universal Studios
You’re generally allowed through the main turnstiles and partway down Plaza of the Stars and Rodeo Drive about 20 minutes before the official opening time.
Go down Rodeo Drive as far as you’re allowed.
In terms of rides, repeat after us: Harry Potter First.
After you’ve experienced the new Diagon Alley area, visit Transformers: The Ride-3D.
Families who haven’t had breakfast may have time for a pastry at the Beverly Hills Boulangerie before the ropes drop.
The parking garage is in New Jersey (it seems that way, anyhow), so arrive at least 30 minutes before the main gate opens. Parking costs $16 per car, $22 if you opt for the closer, preferred parking.
If you arrive before the main turnstiles open, you’ll have time to pose for pictures with and get the autographs of some of the Hanna-Barbera and Nickelodeon characters. This is your chance to meet SpongeBob SquarePants.
Strollers are $15 a day for a single, $25 for a double. Wheelchair rental is $12, and Electric Convenience Vehicles (ECVs) are $50; both require a refundable $50 deposit. Lockers are available for $8-$10 a day.
In the off-season, some attractions open at 9, some at 10, and some (mainly the shows) start even later. Adjust your touring plan to take in the rides as they open. Times are all marked on your touring map.
If the kids are up to it, start with The Simpsons, Transformers: The Ride-3D, and Revenge of the Mummy. All of these attractions can draw major lines later in the day.
Planning Your Time
Visit the major attractions—Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, Revenge of the Mummy, Transformers, Men in Black, The Simpsons, Twister, Shrek, E.T. Adventure, Disaster!, and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit—in the morning or in the evening. Take in the theater-style attractions in the afternoon.
If you miss one of the major continuously loading attractions in the morning, hold off on it until two hours before the park closes. Midday waits of up to 60 minutes are common at popular attractions such as Men in Black and Revenge of the Mummy, but the crowds ease off during the dinner hour.
Most of the kiddie attractions—Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster, A Day in the Park with Barney, Curious George Goes to Town, Fievel’s Playland, E.T. Adventure, and Animal Planet Live!—are in the same general area of the park. This means that you can park the strollers once and then walk from attraction to attraction.
The theaters that hold the Universal Horror Make-Up Show and Terminator 2: 3-D are high capacity, so even if the lines look discouraging, odds are you’ll still be seated. Consult your entertainment schedule or check the board.
Headed to The Simpsons, Rip Ride Rockit, Men in Black, or another intense attraction? Universal employees will help families traveling with a baby or toddler do a Baby Swap.
If you plan to see Universal Studios in one day, it’s unlikely you’ll have time for an afternoon break, but numerous theater-style attractions offer plenty of chances to rest up and let small kids nap. A lot of shows open around noon and begin a second performance around 2 pm. Ride in the morning and then catch a midday show, have lunch, and see a second show.
Universal’s Superstar Parade, featuring characters from Nickelodeon, Despicable Me, and other Universal shows and movies, currently runs at 2 pm most days. If your kids are under eight, make time for this interactive parade. Numerous smaller performances happen throughout the day as well, themed to whatever movie is currently hot. Check your map for showtimes.
Height Restrictions in Universal Studios
Just a few rides at Universal have height restrictions. Here are the specifics:
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
Men in Black
Revenge of the Mummy
Rip Ride Rocket
Transformers: The Ride-3D
Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster
In addition, kids under 48 inches tall must ride with an adult companion on Transformers: The Ride-3D.
The Scare Factor at Universal Studios
Some of the shows and tours are family-oriented and fine for everyone, but several of the big-name attractions are too frightening for preschoolers. The motion-simulation rides may induce queasiness, and rides and shows are generally very loud. The volume level at Twister, Transformers, and Terminator can practically jolt the fillings from your teeth.
Universal seems to set its age rules based on how physically wild the motion of a ride is. Except for Revenge of the Mummy and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, none of the rides bounce you around too much. They’re psychologically scary, however, and a few minutes inside Twister may lead to more bad dreams than the wildest of roller coasters. Indeed, Twister, Terminator 2: 3-D, Transformers, Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue, and the Universal Horror Make-Up Show have parental-advisory ratings, indicating that they may be too violent, loud, or intense for younger children.
Because the rides are based on movies, how your child reacted to the movie is a good predictor of how well he or she will handle the ride. If The Mummy movie scared him, it’s a safe bet he’s not going to like the ride any better. Likewise, a movie that was relatively tame in the theater will probably yield a mild ride. Read the ride descriptions and scare-factor ratings to help you decide what’s right for your child.
Tips for Your Last Hour at Universal Studios
Crowds thin at night, so it’s a good time to revisit favorite attractions or drop by anything you missed earlier in the day.
If you want to have dinner at CityWalk, leave Universal about an hour before the official closing time to avoid the rush of exiting guests. For more on CityWalk, Universal’s dining and entertainment district, see Chapter 14.
An evening show called Universal’s Cinematic Spectacular—100 Years of Movie Memories plays at 9 pm on select nights. Famous movie clips, which play against waterfall walls over the Universal Orlando lagoon, are accompanied by fireworks, stirring music, and special effects. It’s nice to see the park getting back to its “classic film” roots, and the presentation is an emotionally satisfying way to end your Universal day.
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS DON’T-MISS LIST
Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit (for kids eight and up)
Men in Black: Alien Attack
Revenge of the Mummy
The Simpsons Ride
Transformers: The Ride-3D
Universal Studios Attractions
Check your entertainment schedule, and, if time permits, stop to watch some of the street entertainers who play around the park throughout the day. The Blues Brothers, featuring Jake and Elroy, play in the New York section and offer one of the liveliest shows in the park.
Animal Planet Live!
This is an appealing show for all age groups, but younger kids will be especially drawn to the animal stars. Kid volunteers from the audience join the fast-paced and funny performance. Showtimes are printed on your map; because of the large size of the theater, this is a great choice for the most crowded times of the afternoon. Scare Factor It’s not scary.
Beetlejuice’s Graveyard Revue
This rock-and-rap show starring Dracula, the Wolfman, Frankenstein’s monster, and his bride is primarily aimed at preteens and teens. Beetlejuice is the host, and he offsets the ghoulishness with plenty of goofy humor. The show plays several times in the afternoon, so getting in isn’t hard; arrive about 15 minutes before showtime for good seats. Scare Factor Younger kids won’t be too frightened of the monsters themselves, but the extremely high volume of the music coupled with pyrotechnics might upset preschoolers. The parental advisory is largely due to some suggestive jokes and the convincing costuming of the characters.
Despicable Me Minion Mayhem
Gru, the world’s most lovable villain, appears to have forgotten that it’s the anniversary of the date he adopted his three daughters. But has he really? Needless to say, the story line is both cute and sweet, with plenty of surprises along the way, and the zippy 3-D show ends with an interactive dance party. It’s a fun way for kids of all ages to work off a little steam and a great way to give them a laugh-based, not-very-scary introduction to the 3-D experience. Be warned that even on slow days this ride can draw despicable lines. Visit early. Scare Factor Aiming more for laughter than screams, Despicable Me will be fine for kids six and over—those who have seen the movie will feel even better about it. Although the ride is somewhat jarring, it is located in a large open room that’s relatively well lit. If you’re still concerned, you can try the stationary seating first, and if the kids love it, go back for the whole enchilada.
The “musion” technology of the preshow, which transforms two-dimensional images into what appear to be three-dimensional images, is quite effective, creating a hologram of actor Christopher Walken interacting with a person on stage. Audience volunteers are pulled into the preshow action, which is a lot of fun. (Kim was recently chosen as the sweet, elderly grandma!) The ride itself puts you in the middle of a San Francisco subway car, where you become victims of an earthquake, complete with fires, broken water mains, and near misses with falling debris. During the ride your experiences are taped—because you’re allegedly extras in a disaster movie—and played back to you in the form of a tongue-in-cheek (fake) movie trailer. Scare Factor Disaster! is dramatic, but most kids aren’t too frightened. The noise level may unnerve toddlers. Be aware that the show has a few adult innuendos that sail right over the heads of younger children but might be inappropriate for preteens.
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit begins with a straight shot into the sky, sailing 17 stories up at speeds of up to 65 mph. The action never stops as you zoom over to the CityWalk lagoon and back, with six near-miss moments and a record-breaking loop.
The technology is pretty nifty, too. You get to choose your own music for the ride: LED boards the queue area display song choices, or you can let the coaster’s digital sound system choose for you. Check the Universal website before you go—with over 100 songs to choose from, it’s hard to find one you want in the few seconds you have to decide. Looking online beforehand means you know what code to punch in before takeoff.
Unfortunately, Universal has been having technical problems with Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit far more frequently than was expected, even considering the complexity of the ride. There’s always a chance it might be off-line when you visit. Scare Factor With a height requirement of 51 inches (and a maximum of 79 inches), Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit is off-limits to many kids and too intense for most kids under eight, even if they’re tall enough to ride. The coaster is really designed for the preteen and teen set.
Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ’n’ Hurl
Not nearly as foreboding as its name sounds, this ride is a good choice for younger kids that aren’t up to The Simpsons Ride. Those pesky aliens Kang and Kodos are back to take over Springfield and are looking for helpful recruits. Families board spaceships and are off on a Dumbo-type attraction with the added bonus of trying to “blast” (really just fly by) some of Springfield’s residents.
In fact, the entire Simpsons section of the park has recently been expanded to embody the town of Springfield. The biggest addition is a new food section featuring famous haunts from the show: Krusty Burger, The Frying Dutchman, Luigi’s Pizza, Lard Lad’s Donuts, and, of course, Homer’s favorite hangout, Moe’s Tavern. Scare Factor It’s not scary.
Lucy, A Tribute
Fans of I Love Lucy should take a few minutes to walk through this exhibit, which houses memorabilia from the famous TV show, including scale models of the Tropicana and the Ricardos’ apartment, clothes and jewelry worn on the show, personal pictures and letters from Lucy and Desi’s home life, and the numerous Emmys that Lucille Ball won through the years. Scare Factor It’s not scary but may prove absolutely uninteresting to most kids.
Money-Saving Tip Try not to let the kids stop to shop in the morning; not only should you keep moving between rides while Universal is relatively uncrowded, but each ride empties out through a shop that sells souvenirs related to that attraction. In other words, the shops encourage the ultimate in impulse buying, but hold off on purchases until late in the day when you’ve seen it all.
Men in Black: Alien Attack
Remember the scene in Men in Black when Will Smith tries out for the force? Think you could do better?
The premise is that guests are rookie agents riding through the streets of New York and armed with laser guns called “alienators.” As in Disney’s Buzz Lightyear ride, you’re supposed to shoot the aliens, but unlike in the Buzz ride, these aliens can strike back, sending your vehicle into an out-of-control spin.
As you shoot at the 120 animatronic aliens, the ride keeps track of your individual score and the collective score of the six people in your vehicle. You’re not only fighting off aliens, but also competing against the team of rookies in the car beside you. Here’s where it gets cute. Depending on how well you and your vehicle-mates shoot, there are alternate endings to the ride. Will you get a hero’s welcome in Times Square or a loser’s send-off?
Because you’re actually in a video game, it makes sense that video-game rules apply—the more you play, the better you get. Can you spell addictive? Come early if you want to ride more than once.
Want to max your Men in Black score? Near the end of the ride (when you face the mega-alien in Times Square), you will hear Zed instructing you to push the red button on your control panel “now!” Whoever hits the button at this crucial point gets a whopping 100,000 bonus points. Take that, space aliens! Scare Factor Most kids take the aliens here in stride—especially if they’ve seen the movies and know what to expect. There’s a fair amount of spinning in the cars, so motion sickness is a possibility, although the spinning is sporadic and not continuous, so few people have reported having a problem. There are lockers outside where you can store purses and packages while you ride. Your child must be 42 inches tall to ride.
Shrek is often on hand for autographs and hugs as you exit Shrek 4-D. Check your entertainment schedule for the times he’s due to appear.
Revenge of the Mummy
Revenge of the Mummy combines a high-speed roller coaster with the latest technology in robotics and pyrotechnic effects—no wonder it’s billed as a “psychological thrill ride.”
As the story begins, you walk through shadowy Egyptian catacombs on a tour of the on-location set of the next Mummy movie. Once you’re in the coaster, the ride’s magnetic-propulsion launch system thrusts you forward, backward, and forward again as you dodge vengeful ghosts, mummies, and other monsters. In the final scene the ceiling above you catches on fire. Yowza! Scare Factor Revenge of the Mummy scares the willies out of preschoolers and some school-age kids as well. Your child must be 48 inches tall to ride.
In the preshow you learn that vile little Lord Farquaad has plans to destroy Shrek from the great beyond. (Note the clever digs at Disney in the preshow area.) As you enter the main theater, you’ll be given 3-D glasses, but what makes this show really special and different from the other 3-D attractions around town is that you’re seated in special chairs that make the experience tactile as well as visual. What does that mean? You’ll not only see and hear the action happening on the screen, you’ll feel and smell some of it, too. (Mercifully, taste is the one sense not engaged in the show.) The adventures of Shrek and Donkey are predictably amusing as they rescue the hapless Fiona. Scare Factor Although Lord Farquaad isn’t exactly the most intimidating movie villain of all time, Shrek 4-D’s special effects are convincing, and the whole show is very loud and dark, which may be too much for preschoolers. Kids age six and older should do fine.
The Simpsons Ride
The basic premise is that you and the Simpson family are inside Krusty the Clown’s vision of an amusement park, and evil Sideshow Bob is, as usual, up to no good. You sit in a vehicle and watch the action on a giant screen—but since the vehicle in question is a motion simulator that pitches, leans, and rolls, and the special effects on the screen are at times overwhelming, this is a wilder experience than it sounds. The show is funny, hitting pretty hard on both Disney and SeaWorld, but also fairly gross; at one point you get put into Maggie’s mouth as if you were a pacifier. Scare Factor The first moments of the ride are by far the most jolting, and it takes a minute or two to get used to the sensations of motion-simulation technology. If you feel yourself getting queasy, look away from the screen, either at something within your car or at the other cars riding alongside you. In terms of the story line, what’s there to say? Any kid who is used to the television series knows what to expect: It’s a little sinister, a little screwy, more than a little tasteless, and pretty darn funny. Your child much be 40 inches tall to ride.
Terminator 2: 3-D
Universal’s most high-tech action show combines 3-D effects, live action, and movie clips. The best special effect is the way the actors seem to emerge from the screen and then run back “into” the movie. The show is fast and dramatic, just like the film series it’s based on, and the ending is explosive. Because of the size of the theater, Terminator 2: 3-D is relatively easy to get into and is best saved for the afternoon. Scare FactorAlthough not as violent as the film series, Terminator 2: 3-D has some startling effects that may be too much for kids under seven. Again, it is extremely loud.
Transformers: The Ride-3D
The preshow, featuring Ironhide, Bumblebee, and, of course, Optimus Prime, explains to guests that the Decepticons have come to Earth looking for the AllSpark. Optimus Prime asks for your help and you are quickly loaded into an Autobot named Evac, who will help you evacuate the AllSpark. On your journey you’ll battle Megatron and take a ride through the aptly named Vortex. This 3-D ride includes hairpin turns as well as an ascent to a second story. As your car is moving along with the 3-D screens, motion sickness is possible, and the battle scenes do get a little rough. All in all, it’s a terribly fun ride and has enough detail woven in that the story line stands up well during repeat visits. Scare Factor Evac allows guests to sit side by side in rows of four, which can calm some nervous riders. Although the ride itself isn’t overly intense, there are fog and water effects, as well as some mean bad guys. Kids eight and older, especially those familiar with the movie, should be fine. The height restriction is 40 inches, and anyone who is under 48 inches must have adult supervision.
Twister … Ride It Out
After a taped intro based on the film, you’re led into the main show area. There, a five-story-high tornado is created right before your eyes. Along with accompanying fires and explosions, it swirls through the building while you watch from one of two platforms. You’ll feel the wind, the rain, and the rumbles; and yes, the flying cow from the movie comes along for the ride. Scare Factor Twister is extremely loud—at 110 decibels, twice the volume of a rock concert. Some families routinely bring earplugs to theme parks, but if you don’t have them, try placing your hands over your kids’ ears. The experience is too frightening for small children, but most kids six and up will be fine.
Universal Horror Make-Up Show
This show opens with a bang—or, more specifically, the startling effect of a man running on stage with a knife protruding from his chest. Everything that follows is fast-paced and funny, but a good deal edgier than anything you’d see at Disney. The actors illustrate special horror effects on stage including “cutting off” the arm of an (adult) audience volunteer, and you’ll also see clips from The Mummy, The Fly, and An American Werewolf in London, which has an astounding man-to-beast transformation scene. Scare Factor Although the movie clips and general gore level are too intense for preschoolers, most kids eight and over can stomach the Universal Horror Make-Up Show. Better than adults, frankly. The show has a parental-advisory rating because of the blood and a couple of risqué jokes. Nervous viewers will do best to sit towards the back.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley
The insane popularity of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure has led to a major expansion at Universal Studios. Universal quickly realized that they had made a major mistake by inserting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter into a small, landlocked section of Islands of Adventure. The insane popularity of the area meant that not only were the rides mobbed—which was to be expected—but that even the shops and eateries were constantly filled to capacity. But Universal has learned from this mistake and expanded the Harry Potter experience into the Universal Studios park. The new section is opening as we go to press.
Here you’ll leave the Muggle streets of London to enter the magical Diagon Alley. The new area contains a major ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts; a major restaurant, The Leaky Cauldron; and an expanded shopping area, which includes a second branch of Ollivander’s Wand Shop, Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, and Borgin & Burkes. The Hogwart’s Express will most conveniently run between King’s Cross’s Platorm 9¾ in Universal Studios and Hogsmeade Station in Islands of Adventure (and will require a park-hopping entry ticket). Universal is expecting a major boost from these dual Harry Potter lands and has raised ticket prices accordingly.
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
Upon entering this new ride you’ll meet with (a holographic screen version of) Bill Weasley, who will help you open your account at Gringotts, the goblin-run wizarding bank. You’ll descend into the cavernous vaults to board your cart that should take you to your vault—but surprise! On the way you’re attacked by Lord Voldemort and his crazed right-hand witch Bellatrix Lestrange. Harry and the gang come to your rescue, but not before you encounter a free fall, trolls, and a dragon. The ride culminates with Harry pulling your cart to the surface. Scare Factor This is primarily a 3-D motion simulator experience (much like Spider-Man and Transformers). Because seating is together, in three rows of four, younger kids, who may not be up to the Forbidden Journey at Islands of Adventure, will want to start with this attraction first. Your child must be 40 inches tall to ride.
Have you always wanted to take the train to Hogwarts? Well here’s your chance! Guests board a giant replica of the bright red steam engine train, which will transport you from Diagon Alley (at Universal Studios) to Hogsmeade (at Islands of Adventure). Along the way you’ll be seeing not dreary theme park parking lots but, instead, simulated scenes of the beautiful English countryside, along with a few surprises! Be aware that riding the Hogwarts Express will take you from one theme park to another and a multi-park ticket is necessary to board. Scare Factor It’s not scary.
Woody Woodpecker’s Kid Zone
All the attractions for very young children are in the same area of Universal. If you have preschoolers, hang an immediate right on Rodeo Drive after you enter the park and follow the signs to E.T. Adventure. This area of the park definitely needs a revamp since most of the young visitors probably have no idea who E.T., Fievel, Woody Woodpecker, Barney, or Curious George are. So the area can seem a little dispirited in terms of theming, but the good news is that it is rarely crowded and does have lots of play areas where kids can blow off steam.
Curious George Goes to Town
Perhaps a better name for this attraction would have been “Curious George Goes to the Car Wash.” This large, interactive play area is a simulated city that includes climbing areas, ball pits, and lots of chances to get very, very wet. There are fountains in the center and water cannons up above; many parents let their kids wear bathing suits under their clothing so they can strip down and really get into the spirit of the place. If you’re up for a maximum splash, a clanging bell over the Fire Department indicates when a big wave of water is under way. The impact is pretty impressive, and this may be the highlight of the park for young kids, but parents of preschoolers and toddlers, beware: The wave hits with enough force to knock small children off their feet.
It’s a great way to cool off in summer, so save it for the warmest part of the afternoon. In chilly weather the water is shut off, and Curious George Goes to Town becomes a dry play area. Scare Factor It’s not scary.
The Barney preshow is a little uncomfortable—a standing venue with parents having to lift kids up to have a prayer of seeing the stage. But once you get inside, the area is much more family-friendly and designed to let little kids romp and dance along with the music.
A Day in the Park with Barney
Designed to appeal to Universal’s youngest guests, A Day in the Park with Barney is actually an enclosed parklike setting with pop-art style, colorful flowers, and trees. Barney appears several times a day in a song-and-dance show, and there’s an interactive indoor play area for toddlers.
“The highlight of my 2-year-old daughter’s day was the Barney show,” a mother of two from Illinois wrote. “The kids sit so close to him and his friends, and the setting is beautiful. I loved watching my little girl sing along during the ‘I Love You’ song at the end.” Scare Factor It’s not scary.
This charming ride begins with a brief preshow featuring Steven Spielberg and E.T. Next you move on to the queue area, which winds through the deep, dark woods—it even smells and sounds like a forest. (As a rule, Universal does a bang-up job of setting the mood in queue areas; E.T. is designed to make you feel small and childlike.)
After handing your “passports” to the attendant, you mount a fleet of bicycles; the lead bike in each group has E.T. in the front basket. You rise up and fly over the forest in a simple but effective simulation of the escape scene in E.T. the movie. After narrowly missing being captured by the police, you manage to return E.T. to his home planet, which is populated by dozens of cuddly aliens.
There’s a real possibility that the admittedly dated E.T. Adventure will soon be closing to make way for a new attraction. Check the website before you leave to make sure E.T. will be open while you are visiting. Scare Factor It’s only midly scary.
Universal can really throw a party. The park is festively decorated for Christmas, and a special parade runs for the weeks around Mardi Gras.
The best holiday celebration of the year is Halloween. Halloween Horror Nights are a time-honored tradition at Universal and very popular with Orlando locals. All the movie bad guys are out in full force, with plenty of special stage shows and “interactive experiences.” Teenagers will love this ultimate spook house, but kids under 7 definitely won’t. If you have kids ages 7 to 11, just make sure to stay close to them. Separate tickets are required for this party and should be purchased in advance. Visit www.universalorlando.com for details.
Fievel’s Playland is cleverly designed and filled with Wild West-style props, including a harmonica slide that plays notes as kids go down it, a giant talking cat named Tiger, canteens to squirt, cowboy hats to bounce in, spiderwebs to climb, and a separate ball pit and slide area for toddlers.
The centerpiece of the playground is a 200-foot water ride in which kids and parents are loaded into two-person rafts and swept through a “sewer.” The ride is zippier than it looks, will get you soaking wet, and is so addictive that most kids clamor to get back on again immediately. Note that the water ride is closed on cold days.
Fievel’s Playland often opens an hour or two after the general park opening. If you ride the big-deal rides and then show up at the playground at the opening time indicated on your map, you’ll be able to try the water ride without much of a wait. Scare Factor It’s not scary.
Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster
The Nuthouse Coaster is faster than you’d guess, and kids must be 36 inches tall to ride. Watch it make a couple of runs before you line up with your four-year-old. Scare Factor It’s a little fast but not really scary.