Fewer things are more terrifying to a parent than planning a big trip with their kids–and there’s none bigger than the dreaded Orlando theme parks trip. Perhaps you’re like me, and you remember your parents taking you on a fun-filled adventure to Universal Studios or Disneyworld. Maybe you wondered why your mom and dad always had veins popping out of their foreheads the entire time.
As an adult, I wanted to give my kids an experience that would have them bragging to their friends about for years. I also didn’t want to go insane on the trip. These are some of the issues I faced both during the planning phase and at the park itself. Believe me, it was definitely a learning experience.
Know Your (Age) Limits
The most important thing to take into consideration are the ages of your children. My three kids varied in age from 6 to 11, so I knew right away it was going to be tough finding a location that would keep them all entertained. That makes choosing parks difficult, as Disney tends to focus more on younger children while Universal Studios fits an older demographic.
I decided since the majority of the family was interested in the Harry Potter attractions we would stay four days at Universal Studios. I planned a day at the Magic Kingdom at Disneyworld for my youngest specifically, giving everyone an option for their own brand of fun.
Where to Rest Your Head
Staying at a hotel on site was probably the best decision I made; we had free access to every park via shuttle (something that both Orlando theme parks offer). Universal also includes early access to certain areas, discounted dining plans, and express passes for all of the rides if you stay in one of their hotels.
If we were running late in the morning or needed to end our day early to relax by the hotel pool, it was a relief knowing that travel wasn’t something we had to worry about. Not only that, but anything you buy in the park can be sent directly to your hotel’s front desk, reducing the load you are carrying throughout the day.
Take the Express
I mentioned that Universal offers express passes, a free perk to patrons staying at the park; this modifies your ticket and lets you skip the lengthy standard lines. Instead, you take a leisurely stroll past the poor, ignorant souls down the express lane, reaching your rides 20 minutes sooner.
Disney offers something similar called Fast Pass, a ridiculously complex system that lets you reserve times on up to three attractions per day. After those three reservations are used you can go back into the system to get more. Use them–one day at Disney was hectic, and planning our rides helped the entire adventure run much more smoothly.
Decorate Your Neck
Seriously, invest in a lanyard for everyone in your family. Universal’s tickets are literally thin cardstock. Disney does a little better by making them more like gift cards, but they still can be easily lost. Having them around your neck means they can be quickly scanned for park entry and for Fast/Express lines.
In addition, Disney offers pin trading with staff, and the neckband makes a great place to store them. While you’re at it, stick one of those Bluetooth locator tabs on your kid’s lanyard. If one of them wanders off, you’ll have an easier time tracking them down!
Stuff Your Face
Finding places to eat caused the biggest headache for all of us in Orlando. I elected to get the meal plans, thinking that I wouldn’t have to worry about where we would eat. In the end, the restrictions made choosing meal locations a bit of a hassle. I’m not sure how Disney does it, but Universal offers Quick-Meal and Full-Service plans. The Quick-Meal is essentially one fast food meal, one snack (like an ice cream or specialty drink) and one fountain soda. The Full-Service adds an additional snack and one sit-down meal at a participating restaurant.
That last bit is the kicker; the restaurants at City Walk just outside of Universal’s two main parks don’t all take the dining plan, and none of the hotel restaurants do either. Unless you carefully plan each day’s food allotments and only eat in the main parks, you should expect to spend some extra cash on inflated food prices. We ended up with a slew of extra meals and snacks even after spending money on food, a situation that I could have avoided with a little more attention to detail.
Taking a Stroll
I was on the fence about needing a stroller–since each of my kids had outgrown them at home, I figured there would be no need for one at either of the Orlando theme parks. In the end, I forced everyone to hoof it, but I can understand parents wanting to give their kids a break, or even have something that helped to carry their stuff.
My youngest was getting tired more quickly than the other two kids, but we would all grab a snack and sit for a few, letting us all take a breather. That left the transportation of our stuff; emergency band-aids, water bottles, a place to stash our magic wands (yes, that was an issue)–If being the family pack mule isn’t your idea of fun, then you might get some use out of a stroller. Just be prepared for tired tykes to beg you for a ride.
In the end, going to both Orlando theme parks was the most rewarding trip I’ve taken with my family. My fiance and I both spent a lot of time focused on the kids, and that’s really the point of a family vacation anyway. We knew going into it we would be creating memories that our children would have for a lifetime, making of the planning and stress worth it. Take advantage of my successes and failures to make some great family memories of your own!
Have any Orlando theme park survival tips of your own? Comment down below!
Joshua is an educator, woodworker, artist, and writer. He lives with his wife and children in Connecticut.