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Universal Orlando With Kids
Since the opening of Islands of Adventure's coasters and CityWalk's nightclubs, Universal Orlando has positioned itself as an edgier, more adult alternative to the Mouse. Even Disney die-hards will admit that Universal Orlando sports more attractions aimed at older teens and young adults than WDW currently does. But the commonly heard rejoinder is that there's “nothing” for little kids to do at Universal's parks.
That stereotype has seeds of truth. While the Magic Kingdom can claim over a dozen rides with no height restrictions, USF and IOA combined have only 7 rides that accommodate kids under 34”. And as popular as Universal characters like the Minions and Spongebob are with the single-digit set, it's tough to compete with the multi-billion dollar marketing machine behind Anna and Elsa. But numbers alone don't tell the tale, because a vacation at UOR can actually be a better experience for the youngest visitors (and therefore the family members around them) than the equivalent WDW escape.
For starters, while Universal lacks many moving attractions for tots, it makes for it with the best themed playgrounds in town, and a lineup of live shows sure to delight youngsters (assuming they have a tolerance for loud noises and purple dinosaurs). Second, without FastPass+ reservations and 180-day ADRs, a stay at Universal Orlando requires much less pre-planning, which means less damage to your day when the inevitable toddler tantrum derails your carefully laid touring plans. Universal's parks are more compact than Magic Kingdom and Epcot, which means little legs won't tire as quickly. Also, on any given day the crowds are likely to be lighter at UOR, which is welcome news for anyone shoving a stroller through the streets. Finally, it's far easier to travel from Universal's on-site hotels to its parks and back, a key benefit when heading back to your room for that essential midday nap.
Ideally, your kids should be at least 42” tall in order to experience the bulk of the parks' dark rides and simulators, or 54” to brave the biggest roller coasters. Many readers report that their kids were 8 before they really appreciated Universal's attractions. But traveling to Universal Orlando with a toddler, or even infant, can be equally rewarding, as long as you know what you're getting into and prepare thoroughly. The biggest danger is in dealing with a child that's barely under the minimum for something they'll “just die” without riding, so read up on height requirements in advance to avoid disappointment on the day.
Infants and Toddlers at the Theme Parks
Although Universal Orlando’s color and festivity excite all children and specific attractions delight toddlers and preschoolers, and there's no admission fee for those under 3 years old, Universal's entertainment is generally oriented to older children and adults. Children should be a fairly mature 8 years old to appreciate Universal Studios Florida, and a bit older to tackle the thrill rides in Islands of Adventure. Note that Universal considers all kids age 3 to 9 as “children” for pricing purposes, regardless of height or ability to experience rides.
Both Universal theme parks have centralized Family Services facilities for infant and toddler care adjacent to the first aid stations. Everything necessary for changing diapers, preparing formulas, and warming bottles and food is available. Supplies are for sale, and rockers and special chairs for nursing mothers are provided. In Universal Studios Florida, Family Services are located in the Front Lot near Lost and Found, and on Canal Street behind Louie’s Italian Restaurant, on the border between New York and San Francisco. In Islands of Adventure, Family Services is in Port of Entry near Guest Services, and in the Lost Continent near the Sindbad show; look for the red cross behind the coin vendor. Dads are welcome at the centers and can use most services. In addition, most men’s restrooms in the resort have changing tables.
Strollers at Universal Orlando
Strollers are available for rent inside both parks to the left of the front gates as you enter. A single stroller is $15 (tax included) per day, and a double stroller is $25. “Kiddie Cars” have plastic steering wheels attached so your child can pretend they are driving; they come in single and double sizes, and cost and extra $3 more than the price of a standard stroller. A $50 deposit (cash or credit card) is required, which will be fully refunded when you return your stroller. If you leave the park and return, or switch parks during the day, you can get a fresh stroller for free by showing your receipt.
Strollers are a must for infants and toddlers, but we’ve seen many sharp parents rent strollers for somewhat older children—the stroller spares parents from having to carry kids when they sag, and it provides a convenient place to tote water and snacks.
Rental strollers are too large for all infants and many toddlers. If you plan to rent a stroller for your infant or toddler, bring pillows, cushions, or rolled towels to buttress him or her in. Bringing your own stroller is permitted. Your stroller is unlikely to be stolen, but mark it with your name.
Although it's amazingly easy to lose a child (or two) in the theme parks, it usually isn’t a serious problem: Universal employees are schooled in handling the situation. If you lose a child in the resort, report it to the nearest Universal employee, and then check at Guest Services. Paging isn’t used, but in an emergency, an “all-points bulletin” can be issued throughout the park(s) via internal communications.
Universal, Kids, and Scary Stuff
Although there’s plenty for younger children to enjoy at the Universal parks, most major attractions can potentially make kids under age 8 wig out. To be frank, they freak out a fairly large percentage of adults as well. On average, Universal's rides move more aggressively, and feature more intense (some would say assaultive) audio/visual effects, than their Disney counterparts. There are attractions with menacing mummies, exploding exploding insects, and man-eating dinosaurs – not to mention demonic soul-sucking Dementors and fire-breathing dragons. And while Walt Disney World rides always end on a happy note, Universal is equally as apt to send you out with a final scare or snarky parting shot, which is less likely to soothe shaken nerves. Universal also sets surprisingly strict minimum height requirements for some kid-centric rides, ruling out attractions like Cat in the Hat and Seuss Trolley for the infants who might enjoy them most.
You can reliably predict that a visit to Universal Orlando will, at one time or another, send a young child into system overload. Be sensitive, alert, and prepared for almost anything, even behavior that is out of character for your child. Most children take Universal's macabre trappings in stride, and others are easily comforted by an arm around the shoulder or a squeeze of the hand. Parents who know that their children tend to become upset should take it slow and easy, sampling milder adventures like E.T, gauging reactions, and discussing with the children how they felt about what they saw. If your child has difficulty coping with the cartoon creatures in Spider-Man and MEN IN BLACK, you should think twice before exposing him or her to the photo-realistic Lord Voldemort in Escape from Gringotts.
A Word About Height Requirements at Universal Orlando
All attractions at Universal Orlando require children to be at least 48” tall to ride without a “supervising companion,” a/k/a older family member or guardian. Most moving attractions at Universal Orlando require children to meet additional minimum height requirements. If you have children too short to ride, instead of skipping the ride or splitting up, consider using the child swap (see below). For more information, see these pages:
Please note that height requirements only relate to the physical needs of the rides’ safety restrain, and are not measure of whether an attraction is intellectually or psychologically for a given child, as this Illinois parent discovered too late:
It is very important to stress that height requirements are NOT a good indicator for whether a child is "ready" for a ride. My almost-4 year old is a big Harry Potter and Transformers fan and met the height requirements for Transformers and Escape From Gringotts, so we let him go on. He went through the entire ride without tears or screaming, but immediately upon the ride stopping in the bay, he turned to me and said "I am NOT going on that ride again!" In retrospect, it was waaay to intense for a child of that age, whether he met the height requirement or not.
Most Universal Orlando attractions have minimum height requirements. Some couples with children too small or too young forgo these attractions, while others take turns riding. Missing some of Universal's best rides is an unnecessary sacrifice, and waiting in line twice for the same ride is a tremendous waste of time.
Instead, take advantage of “Child Swap,” also known as “Baby Swap,” “Rider Swap,” or “Switching Off”. To child swap, there must be at least two adults. Adults and children wait in line together. When you reach a team member at the entrance of an attraction, say you want to child swap. The employee will allow everyone, including young children, to enter the attraction. When you reach the loading area, one adult rides while the other waits in a special child swap holding area with the kids. Then the riding adult disembarks and takes charge of the children while the other adult rides. A third member of the party, either an adult or an older child, can ride twice, once with each switching-off adult, so that the switching-off adults don’t have to ride alone.
Child swap at Universal is similar to Disney’s version, but superior in several respects. Instead of one adult waiting at the exit with the children and returning after through the FastPass+ queue, at Universal the entire family goes through the whole line together before being split into riding and non-riding groups near the loading platform. The non-riding parent and child(ren) wait in a designated room, usually with some sort of entertainment (for example, Forbidden Journey at IOA shows the first 20 minutes of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on a loop) a place to sit down, and sometimes restrooms with changing tables. And nearly every attraction at Universal offers child swap, which can even be used if you don't have children; it works equally well for skittish or infirm adults who don't like thrill rides, or for designated baggage handlers in families that hate to use lockers.
Attractions where switching off is practiced are oriented to more mature guests. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage for a child just to move through the queue holding Dad's hand. In the boarding area, many children suddenly fear abandonment when one parent leaves to ride. Prepare your children for switching off, or you might have an emotional crisis on your hands. A mom from Edison, New Jersey, writes:
Once my son came to understand that the switch-off would not leave him abandoned, he did not seem to mind. I would recommend to your readers that they practice the switch-off on some dry runs at home, so that their child is not concerned that he will be left behind. At the very least, the procedure could be explained in advance so that the little ones know what to expect.
An Ada, Michigan, mother discovered that the child swap procedure varies among attractions. She says:
Parents need to tell the very first attendant they come to that they would like to switch off. Each attraction has a different procedure for this. Tell every other attendant too because they forget quickly.
As at any theme park, the best tip we can give is to ask the greeter in front of the attraction what you’re supposed to do.
Families visiting Walt Disney World once were content to meet a Disney character occasionally. They now pursue them relentlessly, armed with autograph books and cameras. Because some characters are only rarely seen, character watching has become character collecting, and to cash in on character collecting, Disney sells autograph books throughout the World. Universal Orlando also has a stable of walk-around characters to call their own, and will sell you a notebook to store your signatures in as well, but the interest in oversized cartoon vermin isn't anywhere near as intense; you'll occasionally see a Minion getting mobbed, or a couple dozen families queued to meet Spongebob, but never anything like the hour-plus waits that Disney’s princesses can draw at the Magic Kingdom.
There are two kinds of characters: “animated,” or those whose costumes include face-covering headpieces (including animal characters and human-like cartoon characters such as the Simpsons), and “celebrities” or “face characters,” those for whom no mask or headpiece is necessary. These include Marilyn Monroe, Doc Brown, and the Knight Bus and Hogwarts Express conductors, among others.
Only face characters speak. Because team members couldn't possibly imitate the animated characters’ distinctive cinema voices, Universal has determined that it’s more effective to keep such characters silent. Lack of speech notwithstanding, headpiece characters are warm and responsive, and they communicate effectively with gestures. Tell children in advance that these characters don’t talk. An exciting exception are character encounters like the Shrek meet and greet with Donkey, and the Transformers photo-op, where hidden actors or pre-recorded audio clips are employed to allow interaction between costumed characters and guests.
Universal Character Greeting Locations
Some Universal Orlando characters are confined to specific location, and visit with guests on a schedule that is printed on the park map. Characters that appear in the Superstar Parade also make daily “Character Party Zone” appearances in Hollywood, which include a mini-show and meet and greet. Other characters appear at random times in a few regular areas. Most mornings you'll find a rotating collection of characters near the entrance of the park. Not every character will appear every day; the busier the season, the more likely lesser-known characters will come out.
Here is a guide to the places you're likely to find famous friends in Universal's parks:
Universal Studios FloridaCelebrities (Face Characters)
- Doc Brown from Back to the Future: Hollywood: at the Delorean outside Fast Food Boulevard
- The Men in Black: Hollywood; World Expo outside MIB
- Marilyn Monroe: Hollywood, New York near Macy’s
- Knight Bus Conductor & Talking Head: London Waterfront outside Diagon Alley
- Barney the Dinosaur, B.J., & Baby Bop: KidZone at A Day in the Park with Barney
- Curious George & The Man in the Yellow Hat: Hollywood; KidZone E.B. from Hop Hollywood
- Despicable Me Minions: Hollywood; exit of Despicable Me ride
- Gru, Agnes, Edith, Margo, and Vector from Despicable Me: Hollywood Dora the Explorer & Diego Hollywood
- Hello Kitty: Hollywood outside her store
- Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, & Megatron from Transformers: 8th Ave between Shrek 4-D exit & Mel's Drive-In
- Scooby Doo, Shaggy, and the Mystery Van: Hollywood; KidZone
- Shrek, Donkey, & Princess Fiona: 8th Ave across from Shrek 4-D exit
- Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa Simpson: Hollywood; Springfield outside Kwik-E-Mart
- Sideshow Bob and Krusty the Clown: Springfield outside Kwik-E-Mart
- SpongeBob SquarePants, Squidward, & Patrick: Hollywood; Kidzone inside Spongebob StorePants
- Woody Woodpecker: Front Lot
Islands of AdventureCelebrities (Face Characters)
- Betty Boop: Toon Lagoon outside Betty Boop store
- Captain America: Marvel Super Hero Island outside Captain America Diner
- Dinosaur Keeper: Jurassic Park
- The Grinch (live-action version): Seuss Landing inside All The Books You Can Read store (seasonal only)
- Hogwarts Express Conductor: Hogsmeade across from Honeydukes
- Popeye & Olive Oyl: Toon Lagoon outside Comic Strip Cafe
- Rogue & Storm: Marvel Super Hero Island outside Marvel Alterniverse store
- Spider-Man: Marvel Super Hero Island; inside Marvel Alterniverse store
- Wolverine & Cyclops: Marvel Super Hero Island outside Marvel Alterniverse store
- Beetle Bailey: Toon Lagoon outside Comic Strip Cafe
- Cat in the Hat, Thing 1 & Thing 2: Seuss Landing at Oh! The Stories You'll Hear
- Green Goblin, Doctor Doom: Marvel Super Hero Island outside Doctor Doom's Fearfall
- The Lorax & Sam I Am: Seuss Landing at Oh! The Stories You'll Hear
- The Grinch (cartoon version): Seuss Landing at Oh! The Stories You'll Hear
- Woody Woodpecker: Port of Entry
Character dining is incredibly popular, and profitable, over at Walt Disney World, which regularly books up its most sought-after princess repasts six months in advance. Universal Orlando also offers character meals at both its theme parks and hotels, but unlike Cinderella's Royal Table, you have a reasonable shot of supping with Dora and SpongeBob on short notice.
Universal's Superstar Character Breakfast is held in USF on select mornings year-round, and features Nickelodeon favorites along with the Minions. During the holiday season, the Grinch hosts a breakfast at IOA. Character meals are also scheduled at the Premier and Preferred on-site hotels on a regular basis. For further details, see our Dining page.
Babysitting at Universal Orlando
Universal Orlando Resort Child-Care Centers
Child care isn’t available inside the theme parks, but the three luxury Loews hotels all offer on-site kids clubs that operate in the evenings, to allow Mom & Dad a night out alone at CityWalk. Only on-site hotel guests may use the service, but they can register their kids at another hotel's club in case the seasonal operation schedule has one closed. Camp Portofino at Portofino Bay, Camp Lil'Rock at Hard Rock Hotel, and The Mariner's Club at Royal Pacific all feature storybooks, arts & crafts, computer games, and a movie room. There is one counselor for every 8 to 10 kids; participants must be toilet trained and between ages 4-14. Sitting costs $15 per hour, per child, and an additional $15 per meal if they stay through dinnertime. The clubs operate from 5:00 pm to 11:30 pm, Sunday through Thursday and from 5:00 pm to midnight on Fridays and Saturdays; hours vary seasonally and are subject to change. Call 407-503-1200 for information and reservations.
In-Room Babysitting at Universal Orlando Resort
There are a couple companies provide in-room sitting in Universal Orlando and surrounding areas, but Kid’s Nite Out (kidsniteout.com, 1-800-696-8105) is the resort's preferred provider, and who the concierge will call if you ask for a babysitter; they also staff the hotels' child-care centers. Kid’s Nite Out also serves hotels in the greater Orlando area, including downtown. They provide sitters older than age 18 who are insured, bonded, screened, reference-checked, police-checked, and trained in CPR; bilingual sitters are also available. In addition to caring for your kids in your room, the sitters will, if you direct (and pay), take your children to the theme parks or other venues. Kid's Nite Out cares for children as young as 6 weeks old, and can care for kids special needs as well; rates start at $18 per hour for one child, up to $26 per hour for four children.
Last updated by Seth Kubersky on January 10, 2017