Universal Orlando with Small Kids: how to make sure everyone has a blast
We’ve been really fortunate to get to partner with the Universal Orlando Resort this year. With so many fun trips to Orlando, it’s given us loads of insight into how to visit Universal Orlando with small kids and have an amazing time doing it. We’ve got tips for having the most fun as a family as well as a few expectations you can set for yourself around what your kids may or may not be up for. It’s all about fun and being together, so make the most of it!
What you'll find...
- Universal Orlando with Small Kids: “how to” enjoy to the max
- Universal Orlando Hotel recommendations for families
- Character Dining fun at Universal Orlando with kids
- Best fun in Universal Studios with Small Kids
- How to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with small kids
- Top Universal Islands of Adventure Activities with Small Kids
- Doing Universal’s Volcano Bay with Small Kids
Universal Orlando with Small Kids: “how to” enjoy to the max
I’ll be the first to say that upon my first visit to the Universal Orlando Resort I didn’t think it would be a great place for our kids. You know, we have a 3 and a 6 year old and they’re all about nature and get spooked easily, so after going around the parks with adults I could see just how much fun big kids and adults could have, but not our small kids. I was wrong. Here’s how to ensure your whole family has a blast all around the Universal Orlando Resort.
Universal Orlando Hotel recommendations for families
Having stayed at four of the hotels at the Universal Orlando Resort, both with and without the kids, I can confidently say that the hotels are each very different but are great for any family of any age. Below are our preferences having done Universal Orlando with small kids already and we loved our experiences.
Staying at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort
I love this hotel. Love love love it. Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort is the coolest hotel transported right out of space-race 1960s Florida. Visually, it’s stunning and nails every vintage element down to the bars of Zest soap in the guest rooms. There are two enormous pools on the property, one with a water slide and kid zone and the other with a lazy river and lounge space galore. And there’s a bowling alley, because what would the 1960s have been (or our grandparents’ free time) without bowling.
The rooms are great with plenty of space for families. We’ve had two different room types and both were ideal. The two queen room overlooking Volcano Bay was ideal for getting the kids inspired each day to move a little faster, but the family suites with separate living room area and kitchenette were perfect for extra space and having separation from the sleeping area.
Tip: for the fastest access to Volcano Bay, request to be in the Bayside Tower
Dining at Cabana Bay is pretty easy. The Bayliner Diner is a huge dining room with several types of food, both on-demand and grab-and-go, perfect for families with a variety of tastes. Our favorite dining though was at Galaxy Bowl (the bowling alley), both because of the great food (and allergen-free options) and the atmosphere. Universal Orlando with small kids is a breeze when you can feed and entertain the littles at the same time.
Getting to the Universal Orlando Resort Parks from Cabana Bay
Access to Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure is easy from Cabana Bay with several options:
- Walk along the pathways to Universal City Walk – 25 minutes
- Cross the street to Sapphire Falls to take the water taxi to Universal City Walk – 20 minutes
- Take the provided shuttle bus to Universal City Walk – 15 minutes
Loews Sapphire Falls Resort
Sapphire Falls is a beautiful hotel themed after a Caribbean island house. It’s very bright, simple and beachy. The rooms are spacious and very quiet which makes for great nap time if you’re visiting Universal Orlando with small kids; that’s a big help! The pools are large with a fun island theme, including a water slide and poolside dining. And super special bonus, the gym at Sapphire Falls is large and centrally located making it easy for parents to switch off watching the kids and to sneak in a workout. Book a room at Sapphire Falls here!
Dining at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is easy with several options depending on your needs:
- The New Dutch Trading Co. for coffee and grab-and-go meals/snacks
- Strong Water for rum and Caribbean cuisine
- Amatista Cookhouse for an awesome breakfast spread and really delicious seafood (and more) for dinner
- Poolside, The Drhum Club Kantine is great for grabbing lunch during downtime outside of the parks
Getting to the Universal Orlando Resort parks is very quick and easy from Loews Sapphire Falls Resort: catch the water taxi directly to Universal City Walk (about 10 minutes).
Character Dining fun at Universal Orlando with kids
Something we’ll appreciate and cherish as long as we can is how our kids love characters and meeting their favorites in person. If you have the time and the budget, plan on doing a character dining experience. Universal Orlando with small kids gets even better when they come face to face with characters they love.
On certain days (check with the front desk for availability) at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort there is a lovely yet despicable breakfast served… WITH MINIONS! The Despicable Me Character Breakfast was really fun. There were, of course, Minions and Gru and the little girls and pancakes and breakfast treats… The boys loved it, albeit they were a bit cautious about the Minions at first.
Another fun character dining at Universal Orlando was the Marvel Character Dinner in Universal Islands of Adventure. While they haven’t been fully immersed in X-Men culture just yet, they thought meeting superheros was totally the coolest thing ever… And then Captain America showed up, and he was cool… like, the coolest. AND THEN SPIDERMAN!!! Spidey was absolutely awesome and the kids were in complete superhero heaven.
While the actual food at the Marvel Character Dinner wasn’t amazing (it was also served on plastic plates with plastic cutlery), the one on one time each of the characters spent with each family was incredible. They didn’t just waltz by and do a quick picture. Every character came by, got down to the kids’ level, talked about the tough life of superheros, shared some special skills and taught them how to pose. They hung out, we all chatted; it was perfect.
Having done character dining in other places, including at Universal, I can confidently say that the Marvel Character Dinner was the best experience in character interaction we’ve ever had anywhere. Such a special time!
Tip: character dining can be expensive for a family, so if it’s not in the budget spend some time in Marvel’s Superhero Island during mid-day when the X-Men, Captain America and Spiderman are out and about for pics.
Best fun in Universal Studios with Small Kids
Head up, this IS NOT a guide to roller coasters and thrills in the parks, but the best fun you can have in Universal Orlando with small kids. Big kids can handle more thrills and excitement, suspense and surprise, most little kids (ours included) don’t like that, so this is our guide to ensure they, and in turn you, have the best time possible.
NOTE: we’ll only say this once, TAKE ADVANTAGE OF CHILD SWAP WHEN IT’S AVAILABLE FOR AN ATTRACTION. Whether due to height or bravery there will be several attractions small kids can’t or won’t do, but you can still enjoy them by leveraging the Child Swap areas and policies.
Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone (and more!)
Located between Hollywood Boulevard and Springfield (The Simpsons), there’s a land meant for small kids and it’s awesome. If you don’t know to look for it, you’ll totally walk past this awesome spot and miss out on a memorable time with your little ones. From themed play areas full of slides to small scale attractions like the Woody Woodpecker Nuthouse Coaster, small kids could hang out here all day and be completely blissful.
But go beyond the cartoon fun and you arrive at Curious George Goes to Town. Wow! This is the best spot in all of Universal Studios Florida with small kids. A cartoon town straight out of the Curious George stories, this attraction/area is a water park meant for wild and crazy kids. There are activities all through the Town from water cannons to huge buckets dumping water all around. There are fun areas to explore and a few soaking surprises to watch out for. It’s just the best!
Note: if you enter the attraction area of Curious George Goes to Town YOU WILL GET WET. Kids must keep their clothes and shoes on, so be prepared for drippy children. Seriously, soaked.
Little Moments, Big Fun for Families in Universal Studios
For me as an adult, I just love to wander through the different city scenes that make up Universal Studios. It’s just like being on a movie set (and they’re sometimes used for them too). The kids also enjoyed this. The best part of the city scenes though are the great characters that are wandering around. Our favorites were, of course, Scooby Doo and Marilyn Monroe, but there are many more. Watch for Beetlejuice, Betty Boop, Lucille Ball, Doc Brown, the Simpsons, the Mystery Machine (w/ the gang) and more.
Note: while a highlight for me was getting to meet Bumble Bee and Optimus Prime of the Transformers, our small kids were genuinely freaked out by them. Just a heads up: you may be surprised by what startles little kids.
Other fun we had as we wandered, since the boys weren’t into riding attractions, was sharing the Big Pink Donut available in Springfield. This might not sound that great, but OMG, it’s the best doughnut ever and one is big enough for a family to share. Small kids see special treats with different eyes than parents sometimes, and if you’re going to choose one special sugary treat to share, go for the Big Pink Donut.
How to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with small kids
Without a doubt the most popular areas of either Universal Studios Florida or Universal Islands of Adventure are the Wizarding World of Harry Potter sections. Each park has a very different experience for guests and really, they’re so magical!
The Diagon Alley Experience with kids
As you enter London you can feel the excitement build. You’ve got Kings Cross Station, the Knight Bus, a characteristic red telephone booth… and then the secret entrance to Diagon Alley. Amazing! …but here’s what happened with our small kids and here’s how to experience Diagon Alley in the most peaceful and pleasant way.
Our first experience: we entered Diagon Alley through the brick wall, wands at the ready, and immediately the fire breathing dragon came to life directly in front of us. Elliott (3 years old) freaked out and has never been more terrified in his life. We then left.
How to enjoy Diagon Alley with Small Kids
If you have little ones that are easily spooked, we recommend entering Diagon Alley through the wood framed entrance to the right of the brick entrance. This will bring you to a side-street within Diagon Alley and it’s beautiful and fun and not scary in the slightest. There are plenty of spots to cast spells and check out shops right in this spot, and there are fewer people. Also, you can’t see the dragon, which is what we needed.
Tip: because the whole of Diagon Alley is awesome and there are lots of spells to cast and things to see, explore the area and learn to listen for the dragon warming up her fire. The growl is unmistakable and when it starts you’ve got a minute or so to move to a sheltered area out of view.
For our oldest son, Oliver (6 years old), he LOVED everything about Diagon Alley and was quite good at casting spells. At 6 years old he was still too scared to ride Escape from Gringotts (which is super cool!) but enjoyed the performances on the stage, the spell casting, and window shopping in Fred and George’s shop. Oh, and he was very proud to tell everyone that he’s a Hufflepuff.
Tip: Knockturn Alley is just off Diagon Alley and there are some fun spells to cast within the dark spaces. Again, be aware as you enter with small kids that it’s dark and there are noises, but if they can get past the dark, it’s an incredible space to hang out.
To keep exploring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter head to Kings Cross Station with the kids. Riding the Hogwarts Express is fun and even though it’s got some surprises, small kids can handle it pretty well.
Tip: have the kids ask how to get to Platform 9 ¾. The station workers have no clue what or where that is… and they have never heard of the Hogwarts Express. This show element makes getting to the train and walking through the wall even more special (and darn funny to watch their faces).
Kids in Hogsmeade and Hogwarts
If you’re not well versed in all things Harry Potter, Hogsmeade is the little village near Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. It’s adorable and walking through is really cool. This portion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is great with small kids because it’s not all surprises all the time, but just fun around every corner.
There are quite a few spells to cast and some great spots for relaxing. Dining at the Three Broomsticks is an easy lunch option with both air conditioned dining space inside and patio seating out back. Perfect for grabbing a Butterbeer and a few minutes of downtime.
Tip: if your kids aren’t used to drinking soda pop don’t get the soda version of Butterbeer, get the frozen one. The regular soda style is really sweet and quite fizzy and will go to waste if they don’t dig it.
Also fun in Hogsmeade is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey inside Hogwarts Castle and the Flight of the Hippogriff. The Hippogriff is a small roller coaster that doesn’t seem daunting, but it’s a bit rough, so just know that as you hop on it with small kids.
Tip: if you want to share the really neat, really magical queue experience of walking through Hogwarts but not actually ride the ride, it’s totally worth it. The talking portraits are incredible and it might even snow…
Top Universal Islands of Adventure Activities with Small Kids
I wish we could say that the kids are going to love riding Kong, but no. Not likely for young kids even if they’re tall enough to ride. But don’t worry! Universal Islands of Adventure is loaded with activities and spaces perfect for a family trip with small kids. Check out this great guide to Islands of Adventure from our friends at Global Munchins for more big kid ideas.
Enjoying Seuss Landing with the Fam
I’m pretty sure reading Dr. Seuss books is an activity every family enjoys at some stage of life, so whether you can recite the Cat in the Hat or only just remember something about rotten eggs and rancid ham, you’ll have a great time and so will the kids! With several attractions designed to make Universal Orlando with small kids extra fun, Seuss Landing is a sure-fire way to make the youngest of your crew happy.
The High In the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride! that goes above Seuss Landing and through the Circus McGurkus Cafe is fun and funny and gives some great views of the whole Islands of Adventure park. If I Ran the Zoo is a great maze full of fun (and some water features) that will get the kids burning off energy. Watching the Seuss Landing team whip up the biggest, craziest cotton candy poofs entertained our kids for nearly a half hour. So many great ways to relax and have fun as a family.
Note: the Cat in the Hat attraction is intense. While the story is great and the attraction is very well laid out, for small kids (and me) it can be sensory overload like they may not have experienced before. Both our boys buried their heads in their hands and couldn’t watch. Not scary, but A TON going on.
Burning off Energy at Camp Jurassic
We love dinosaurs in our family so spending time in Jurassic Park was a must. The Jurassic Park River Adventure is one of my favorite attractions of all time, ever since I first rode it at Universal Studios Hollywood when I was a kid, but between height requirements and the fear factor it wasn’t an option for us. Never fear though, Camp Jurassic is across the path!
Camp Jurassic is a series of rope bridges, ladders, slides, water cannons, fountains, dinosaur bones and caves. It’s a little kid’s dream playground. With the Pteranodon Flyers circling Camp Jurassic, you feel immersed in a dinosaur experience but without the thrill of a T-Rex ready to eat you. BRAVE KID IDEA: see if any brave kids want to go meet a velociraptor up close and personal… cuz that’s an option for the bravest of kids.
Tip: if you’re looking to get out of the sun for a while, Camp Jurassic is fully shaded and great for cooling off without getting soaked on a water ride.
Toon Lagoon for Downtime
I always loved reading the comics in the newspaper growing up and walking through Toon Lagoon totally took me back to those moments. With crazy stores, fun fountains, and tasty treats Toon Lagoon is perfect for that late afternoon time when you just need to chill.
Universal Orlando is great about spots like Toon Lagoon mixing big thrills for big kids with play space for young ones. Popeye’s Boat – Me Ship, The Olive – was a great find here. Almost like a rubber bounce house, Popeye’s Boat is safe for running around and climbing and playing, equipped with slides, water cannons for shooting the river ride below, and great views. Us Dads always love when we find these quiet, nearly undiscovered areas. Our family takes full advantage of spaces like this to make our travels easier.
Tip: also in Toon Lagoon is Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls flume ride. OMG. Never before have I gotten so soaked on an attraction. USE THE CHILD SWAP at Ripsaw to make sure that adults and big kids can cool off on this completely awesome ride.
Doing Universal’s Volcano Bay with Small Kids
I’ll just say it now, Universal’s Volcano Bay is the ultimate water park. We love water slides and the kids don’t. We love relaxing in the sun and the kids don’t. Volcano Bay is the perfect blend of all these things.
The kid zone play areas of Runamukka Reef and Tot Tiki Reef are more fun than you can imagine. With very small slides that a three year old can do over and over on his own to bigger slides that have more thrill than the kids might expect, it’s easy to hang out here all day. The area is kind of a maze of fountains and water cannons and slides, so we recommend accompanying the kids through the whole thing, but use your best judgement.
Tip: if your kids are staying in one particular part of the kid zone, take advantage of the lounge chairs that sit at the water’s edge. Relax, get some sun. Chill.
Our other favorite part of Volcano Bay that was perfect with small kids was the Kopiko Wai Winding River. A slow flowing river of fountains and waterfalls, it was great to do as a family over and over. Universal Orlando Resort is great about providing plenty of life jackets for small kids at all of the pools and Volcano Bay is no exception. We got the kids secured in life jackets before getting in the lazy river and it made it stress free. Our big guy (6 yo) loved having the freedom of floating the river separate of us (but always in view) and Elliott (3 yo) just loved holding hands and splashing as we went.
Note: there is a second river in Volcano Bay that’s NOT lazy, called TeAwa the Fearless River. That river has a height requirement and even the adults must wear life jackets. It’s a raging river with rapids and waves. Truly, not a lazy river at all and not for small kids.
To make sure the adults have just as much fun as the kids, rotate who’s watching over them in the kid zone while one of you goes off to do the drop slides or some of the larger tube rides. We loved doing the Krakatau Aquacoaster and the Ohyah and Ohno slides, but there are so many, you could spend all day and not do the same slide twice.
Planning for a Day in the Waterpark
There are a few approaches you can take to a family day at Volcano Bay (or any water park). We like to show up in our swimsuits with sunblock already on so that we can get into the water immediately. We have our standard supplies we bring and set a time limit for our day in the sun and water. Here’s our packing list for a water park day with small kids:
Towels – can be rented at Volcano Bay if needed
Waterproof Sunblock – most gentle with minimum safe SPF for weather conditions
Water – bring your own reusable water bottles so you’re not generating trash
Snacks – arriving with your own snacks is a great way to stay on budget
Hats – keeping the kids heads out of the sun helps them last longer for playing
Sunglasses – bring some you don’t mind getting water spots on
Water shoes – aqua-socks are great when you spend all day running around on concrete, sand and rubber
Universal’s Volcano Bay has plenty of lockers to rent if you like or you can leave your backpack someplace you feel is safe while you and your family do slides and such. We are more trusting than some so we felt comfortable leaving all of our stuff at our lounge chairs.
Volcano Bay really is one of the most fun things to do in Universal Orlando with small kids. It’s worth getting the 3-Park ticket or even just planning time there. We loved it so much!
Wow! That was a lot of information but really, now you know how to plan out your time and what to expect when doing Universal Orlando with small kids. There is tons of fun to be had and Universal has put a lot of thought into many different ways to ensure that both adults and little kids can have equally good times.
Want to pin this for when you’re planning and booking your own Universal Orlando Resort Vacation? Go for it!!!
Rob Taylor is the founder of 2TravelDads, the original LGBT Family Travel blog. Focusing on ecotourism and education, 2TravelDads inspires LGBT families (and traditional families also) to go beyond their usual getaways and use travel to learn about and be part of a bigger world. “Traveling the globe and giving the kids a broad worldview.”