It’s so easy when planning a vacation with kids to succumb to information overload.
When planning a trip with young kids to Universal Studios it can be tricky determining what’s best for them compared to older kids – so, I set out to make the Ultimate One-Stop Guide to Everything You Need to Know to Visit Universal Studios with a 6 Year Old.
(Of course, if you have a 4 year old or a 7 year old, a lot of this will apply.)
Universal Studios Plan with Kids
Full disclosure: this post is LONG. I packed it full of everything you need to know – from the food situation, to which rides are best for kids, tickets and an overview of all on-property hotels. If you just want brief tips, scroll to the end for the TL;DR edition. (Too long; didn’t read.)
I think it’s hard to discuss Universal Studios without drawing comparisons to the other Orlando theme park but they are truly apples and oranges. Universal Studios is edgier and it has more attractions specifically for teens and adults than Disney does, though there is plenty for younger kids to do.
I could do a line by line comparison of Universal vs Disney, but I don’t think that would do either park justice. For example, I loved how quick the lines were for characters at Universal Studios and the character interactions that happened naturally by having them out walking around – but, on the flip side, I found it harder to coordinate finding and meeting characters without asking staff members.
By far the biggest difference I found between the two parks was actually what I discovered before we set foot on property. While there is this giant planning culture around Walt Disney World vacations, with Universal Studios there doesn’t seem to be that same amount of information available so I felt super unprepared heading to the parks.
Planning for Universal Studios
In general, the overzealous planning isn’t needed for Universal Studios:
- You don’t need to book Fast Passes – if you want to get on rides a bit faster, you can pay for Express Passes (which are free for guests of specific on property resorts).
- Some of the best restaurants at Universal Studios do not take reservations so you can make and adjust plans on the go
- Transportation isn’t complicated and everything is walkable if you want to skip transportation altogether
In this post, I’m going to give you an overview of Everything You Need to Know About Universal Studios with Kids – starting with the on-property resorts, then the parks and best rides and attractions for young kids, what to bring, what type of tickets to buy, and finally, we’re going to dig into the food situation.
I will do separate posts with even more Universal Studios foodie knowledge and Harry Potter goodies.
Where to Stay with Kids at Universal Studios
I had a hard time deciding which Universal Studios resort to stay at – I mean, how can you make a definite decision with these descriptions:
- Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort “Enjoy vibrant, retro style with rooms and suites brilliantly designed for fun and affordability. Relax with a splash, surrounded by amazing iconic architecture inspired by classic Florida beach resorts of the 1950s and 60s. Every day comes with fun for all ages with two massive pools, a winding lazy river, a bowling alley and more.” Starting at $112/night.
- Loews Sapphire Falls Resort “Step into paradise in the heart of the tropics. Blue waterfalls cascade over lush grounds and in the distance, calming sounds of steel drums call you to take in the scenic views, ease into island time and let go. Amid the ruins, passageways and pools you’ll find numerous Caribbean-themed dining options. This refreshing resort offers an island escape for an unforgettable adventure.” Starting at $152/night.
- Loews Royal Pacific Resort “Experience a luxurious South Seas escape that perfectly combines tropical splendor and exceptional amenities. A sparkling lagoon-style pool surrounded by a white sand beach and swaying palms invites you to escape. Delectably innovative food and drinks delight every palate. Savor the culinary creations of a celebrity chef. Celebrate with a classic luau. Unwind with a one-of-a-kind dining adventure featuring locally brewed beers.” Starting at $208/night.
- Hard Rock Hotel “The coolest hotel on the planet. Live like a rock star and savor the perks of rock and roll royalty with impeccable accommodations, laid-back luxurious style and show-stopping service. The sweeping California mission-style design—inspired by classic rock music—welcomes you in to escape into a sensational world of palm-lined swimming pools featuring underwater music, acclaimed restaurants, incredible rock memorabilia and amped-up recreation featuring live music—including some famous names.” Starting at $244/night.
- Loews Portofino Bay Hotel “Celebrate la dolce vita—the sweet life. Enjoy the beauty, charm and romance of a luxurious escape inspired by the famed seaside village of Portofino, Italy. Lush, perfectly appointed rooms and suites welcome you home each day. Tasty outdoor cafes and a serene harbor invite you to explore the colorful piazza. Three amazing pools offer different ways to relax—from family fun to quiet contemplation. An opulent spa promises blissful renewal. Stylish lounges let you unwind. Incredible restaurants let you savor a deliciously delightful culinary tour of Italy throughout your stay.” Starting at $256/night.
My friend Stephanie recommended Cabana Bay and it was really fun – and it’s the most affordable of the resorts. We also spent some time on the first day walking around to the other resorts and I think next time we’ll splurge and stay at the Royal Pacific – I grew up in China so the decor and ambience was really perfect for me. (Not to mention, they greet you with leis, it’s home to Emeril’s amazing Tchoup Tchoup restaurant and the express passes are free if you stay here.)
We stayed at Cabana Bay for 3 nights – 2 days at the Parks and one low-key day where we visited the other resorts, toured Universal CityWalk and hung out in a cabana by the pool. Next time I would plan for 4-5 days for the parks and at least 2 rest days.
You can pool hop if you are staying at any of the Loews resorts but we didn’t get a chance to try this. (The one time we walked over to the Royal Pacific it started storming so the pool closed so maybe check a weather report first.) I think this is a great way to spend a non-park day.
If you’re at all new to travelling with kids – or even just theme park vacations with kids – the biggest piece of advice I can give you for a smooth trip is to plan more down time than you think you’ll need. Plan pool days, plan longer lunches, plan for regular rest intervals and early nights back in the hotel room ordering pizza or room service (or using a kitchenette).
What to do at Universal Studios with Small Kids
I won’t be able to do justice to all there is to do at Universal Studios in this post – but I will try to give a decent overview.
You can keep track of ride times at Universal’s parks using the Universal Studios resort app.
Universal Studios is comprised of 3 Parks – the main park (“Universal Studios Florida”), Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay. Here’s a breakdown of the rides and attractions by park – the rides in blue are great for kids aged 4-7 that are tall enough to ride (measure your child before heading to the park to be safe and not build up expectations):
|Universal Studios||Islands of Adventure||Volcano Bay|
|A Day in the Park with Barney||Hogwarts Express||Ko’okiri Body Plunge|
|Curious George Goes to Town||Doctor Doom’s Fearfall||Honu|
|Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem||Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls||Krakatau Aqua Coaster|
|E.T. Adventure||Flight of the Hippogriff||Runamukka Reef|
|Fear Factor Live||Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey||Krakatau Aqua Coaster|
|Fievel’s Playland||Jurassic Park River Adventure||Kala and Ta Nui Serpentine Body Slides|
|Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts||Oh! The Stories You’ll Hear!||Maku|
|Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit||One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish||Kopiko Wai Winding River|
|Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl||Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges|
|Men in Black: Alien Attack||Poseidon’s Fury|
|Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon||Pteranodon Flyers|
|Revenge of the Mummy||Skull Island: Reign of Kong|
|Shrek 4-D||Storm Force Accelatron|
|The Blues Brothers Show||The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man|
|The Simpsons Ride||The Cat In The Hat|
|Transformers: The Ride-3D||The Eighth Voyage of Sindbad Stunt Show|
|Universal Orlando’s Horror Make-Up Show||The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride|
|Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster||The Incredible Hulk Coaster|
Pro tip: if you child suffers from anxiety or is sometimes scared of new things, check out Youtube videos of the rides where possible.
Universal Studios is home to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, a giant Curious George water zone, (pay to play) Simpson’s Games, several mini-cities with individual attractions (ie., walk the streets of NYC and then check out Jimmy Fallon’s Race Through New York ride), Fievel’s Playground and Barney’s Backyard.
There are several characters and performances throughout the day – we met Hello Kitty, Beetlejuice and the Minions, and saw a great Secret Life of Pets parade with break dancers.
But my daughter’s favorite part was Diagon Alley – home to the Leaky Cauldron restaurant, Olivander’s Wand Shop, Escape from Gringott’s, Florean Florescue’s Ice Cream Shoppe, and several perfectly themed shops (the Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes looks just like it did in Harry Potter & the Half Blood Prince).
Escape from Gringott’s was the best roller coast I have ever been on but it’s definitely not for this age range unless they are a true thrill seeker. (My daughter was nervous enough when the dragon above the bank would breathe fire.)
We purchased the interactive wand from Olivander’s which doubled as a great souvenir and low-key activity to keep busy at the park. (Or it would have doubled as a great souvenir if we hadn’t lost it at the hotel on the last day!) If you have more than one child, I would consider purchasing one for everyone to share. The tricks are mostly pretty subtle but considering the wand is good for as long as Harry Potter is at Universal (and repairs are free) I think it’s a safe bet.
The Hogwartz Espress train connects Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. You need a park-to-park ticket to board.
Islands of Adventure
Islands of Adventure is where you find Harry Potter’s Hogsmeade, home to the Three Broomsticks restaurant, Flight of the Hippogriff, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a second Olivander’s and several other shops, including an Owl Post where you can really send mail to your friends back home.
The Frog Choir at Hogsmeade was amazing and I’ve had several friends say that Flight of the Hippogriff was their (slightly older) child’s favorite ride. (We aren’t quite there yet.)
Islands of Adventure is also home to Seuss Landing, Toon Lagoon, Marvel Super Heroes, Camp Jurassic and Jurassic Park Discovery Center.
We spent most of our time here at Seuss Landing and Hogsmeade but the other kid-friendly areas look amazing. One day was definitely not enough to do justice to this park, especially with kids. (And I wasn’t even trying to do any adult attractions.)
We did not purchase tickets for Volcano Bay for this trip but friends of ours went and the pictures were amazing. Ella probably wouldn’t want to do any of the slides or raft rides, but even she was intrigued by the gorgeous underwater caves that were part of the giant lazy river.
If your crew is also not ready for the big water slides, I would skip this and just enjoy the Lazy River at Cabana Bay instead. Wait until they are old enough and it will be more worth the cost of the tickets.
An interesting thing about many of the roller coasters is that you cannot bring any purses or back packs on the ride with you – you need to check them in a (small) complementary locker.
(Parties travelling with two adults can use “bag swap” but for single parent families like ours, your only option would be to skip the ride if your bag can’t fit in the lockers.)
Also, I found many of the areas to be difficult to navigate with a stroller – and stores (especially the Harry Potter ones) were nearly impossible. We ended up parking it for most of the first day and left it behind at the hotel for the second day. My daughter was able to do 5-6 hours at the parks without complaining since it’s pretty compact and there are plenty of opportunities to sit. You cannot take strollers into ride lines unless you have a wheelchair sticker.
Grab our free printable checklist for what to bring to Universal Studios with Young Kids here.
Tickets and Add-ons
The ticketing system can get pretty confusing – what you need to know is that you can book a package if staying on site but if you’re not, you still want to purchase tickets online in advance for the best prices.
Express Pass Unlimited will save you lots of time in line – even on the kids’ rides. (And do the Unlimited because we all know kids like to ride the same rides over and over.) The VIP Experience sounds awesome but I wouldn’t do it with young kids on a first trip – save it for later.
If not booking a package, pay for access to Volcano Bay separately as you probably won’t go or make good use of it on park days. (Stick to the hotel pool.)
I personally loved the flexibility of the 2-park tickets which allow you to access both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure in the same day. You cannot ride the Hogwartz Express without a 2-park ticket.
The dining plan confused me on the site so we skipped it but it actually includes 1 quick-service meal with beverage, a second beverage and a snack per day. For about $22, it’s a great deal if you’re going to eat at these participating restaurants because it’s basically the cost of most meals plus a beverage – I would add it on to the adult tickets and skip it for the kids because they can only order from the kids’ menu and the adult portions are big enough to share.
Universal Studios Food for Kids
We had so much fun exploring all of the food options at Universal! There are 129 restaurants and snack carts around the property (including the resorts) with so many fun themes, different cuisine options and dining styles.
For $10 you can buy popcorn buckets with unlimited refills and about $13 you can buy a plastic soda cup good for Coco-Cola Freestyle refills all day. (And thank goodness it’s Coke, not Pepsi!) Now, some of the signs I saw indicated that the refills were only for the day of purchase but all of my friends that I’ve spoken to have said that they are good for the length of stay. If your kids love popcorn, I think the bucket is a good deal (and a great souvenir).
One thing that I will encourage you to do is to bring re-usable water bottles into the park with you. I was unprepared for this and a couple kiosks told me they were out of water cups and that I would have to go get one from another location – so I ended up buying the $4.50 park bottled water.
We mostly stuck to snacks in the parks and ate our meals at CityWalk restaurants so next time we’ll have to make time to try out some of the in-park restaurants. Mythos was voted the Best Theme Park Restaurant in America – so it’s definitely on my list.
Check out our list of Must-Eat Universal Studios Snacks here.
I sometimes have a hard time getting my daughter to eat lunch in the Orlando heat – so keep your plans flexible if your children haven’t travelled in that kind of climate. Especially since you’re going to be pushing fluids at every chance, they may not feel as hungry – or that hunger might creep up on them.
We did have delicious cheeseburgers, fries and shakes at Mel’s Drive In (à la American Graffiti) where we had a slightly inappropriate interaction with Beetlejuice (whose make-up was flawless, by the way).
On CityWalk, we ate at Cowfish – an amazing “Sushi Burger Bar” where I ate some of the best sushi in my life (and I grew up in Asia) – and also at the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium which was a bit more hit or miss when it came to the main courses but serves up some jaw-dropping milkshakes and perfectly concocted desserts.
I also think that Bubba Gump Shrimp would be a great choice for kids and there are several familiar fast food options, too.
I’ll post full reviews of these – and Emeril’s Tchoup Tchoup – soon!
The TL;DR Edition
So, to summarize:
- Try to plan 4-5 park days and 2 rest days – ideally in addition to your arrival and departure days
- Loews resorts get you free Express Passes – Cabana Bay doesn’t at the time I stayed but hopefully that will change
- Get the park-to-park tickets for at least one day so you can ride the Hogwartz Express between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure
- Buy tickets ahead of time to save money – and try to book as a package if staying on property
- You can stay on property for as little as $112/night at an amazing clean, themed hotel – there is no need to stay off-property to save some money
- Bring inflatable tubes or rafts if staying at Cabana Bay – or plan to purchase them as a souvenir
- Plan more down time than you need
- Consider renting a cabana for a low-key pool day
- Universal Studios has rides, play areas, characters and performances – there is no need to pressure kids into rides if they are not ready
- Pack light and avoid strollers if you can – but bring the water bottles!
- Stay hydrated trying out all of the fun concoctions throughout the parks
- No need to make dining reservations at most restaurants – and many can still be booked same-day.
- You can keep track of ride times at Universal’s parks using the Universal Studios resort app.
- The dining plan only applies in-park – you cannot use it in the hotels
- If you child suffers from anxiety or is sometimes scared of new things, check out Youtube videos of the rides where possible
- Measure kids in advance to determine which rides they will be able to enjoy
We had an amazing time at Universal Studios and I can’t wait to go back with Ella! I hope our tips help you plan and make the most out of your trip – and please let me know if you think I left something out, or if you disagree with something I shared here.
Have you been to Universal Studios? What tips do you have for different age groups?
For more amazing tips from some of my blogger friends, check out:
- 9+ Insider Tips for Your Trip to Universal Studios from Ari over at Love, Peace & Tiny Feet
- The Lazy Mom’s Guide to Dominating Universal Studios from Erin at Travel with Bender
- The Boy’s Complete Guide to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter from Stephanie at Spaceships and Laserbeams
- One Day Itinerary for Visiting Harry Potter at Universal Studios from Tiffany at Peanut Blossom
- Visiting Universal Studios with Young Kids – it’s a Walk in the Park! from Trisha at MomDot (her son is the same age as my daughter but he’s a bit braver – and she also has a preteen daughter so if you have mixed ages or a braver 6 year old, she’s a great resource)