Universal Appeal: Universal Orlando For Pre-Schoolers
By Traci L. Suppa
My nine-year old had reached his breaking point. “Mo-om, Disney is for babies,” he whined, in an ironically babyish tone. It was time to plan a family vacation, also taking into consideration our two-year-old, who has yet to embrace her inner princess. My first impression of Universal Orlando was that our children weren’t old enough to enjoy it. Further research yielded promise. As it turned out, there was quite a lot in the way of attractions that could keep us all happy.
The Universal Orlando Resort is comprised of two theme parks, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, as well the City Walk entertainment complex and three hotels. Both theme parks do offer rides and attractions suited to children of all age groups, with entire sections designed for pre-schoolers, like Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone in Universal Studios and Seuss Landing in Islands of Adventure.
Universal Studios Florida
Tyke Terrain – Save the best part of this park for last, because once your children reach Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone, they won’t easily leave. There are two rides, Woody Woodpecker’s Nuthouse Coaster and E.T. Adventure, which both our children enjoyed despite their seven-year age difference. There are two shows which each run five times per day: Animal Actors on Location! and A Day in the Park with Barney. The Barney show is really geared for pre-schoolers, but we appreciated the chance to sit for 20 minutes.
Finally, there are two play areas perfect for letting them run around. Fievel’s Playground offers a “mouse-eye-view” at oversized objects you can climb under, through and over. Our daughter’s favorite spot in the entire park was the interactive Curious George Goes to Town playground. This is a water play area, it made sense to make this our last stop. She focused in on the splash pad with several sprays rising up at varying times, heights and speeds. The older kids were hovered under the two giant water pails, which would spill over every few minutes, sending hundreds of gallons of water rushing down.
There are attractions in other sections of the park which bear mention as good bets for younger kids. The two most notable are front and center as you enter the park in the Production Central area: Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast and the Shrek 4-D movie. Both experiences are relatively tame, especially since they offer stationery seating if you want to cut down considerably on sensory overload. The new Simpsons Ride in the World Expo will get full-on belly laughs from any kid who idolizes Bart Simpson as much as my son does.
Outside Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone, most rides have height restrictions beginning at 40”. Our two-year old was too short, so we took advantage of the Child Swap program. One parent stayed with her, the other rode with our older child. When they returned, the parent who stayed back could ride without waiting in line.
Character zones are located throughout the park, giving kids the chance to meet and take photos with SpongeBob SquarePants, Shrek and Donkey, the characters from Madagascar, Curious George, and Woody Woodpecker.
Finding Fries – While there are some unique dining choices in this park, like Mel’s Drive-In and the International Food and Film Festival, we stuck with sure things for our kids: Louie’s Italian Restaurant and the Kid Zone Pizza Company.
Buy Me That – The shops within Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone, like the Barney Store and E.T.’s Toy Closet, not only offer character merchandise you won’t find elsewhere, they also stock baby care items like wipes.
Islands of Adventure
Tyke Terrain – There is so much for young kids to enjoy at Islands of Adventure that it’s worth spending at least two days to fit everything in. Our strategy was to travel counter-clockwise through the five distinct areas of the park, ending in Seuss Landing, because we knew we would spend a lot of time there. The first stop was Marvel Super Hero Island, a tribute to comic books. While my husband got the nerve to ride the Incredible Hulk Coaster, I took the kids on the adjacent Storm Force Accelatron, which is a sit and spin ride similar to Disney’s Tea Cups ride. One of the park’s best attractions is The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, a motion simulator with 3-D effects.
Toon Lagoon offers respite in the form of Me Ship, The Olive, an interactive playground with three levels of slides and make-believe ship props to play with. We spent a full 20 minutes there, and got some fun photos. Our son was tall enough to ride the Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges wet ride, which he disembarked completely soaked and smiling.
Every attraction in Jurassic Park was entertaining, the highlight being the Jurassic Park River Adventure. It’s a wet ride with a height requirement of 42”, so I took my daughter to the Splash Zone to watch the riders take the last plunge. We ended up as wet as the rest of the family! Camp Jurassic is a “prehistoric” playground, with a multi-level tree house with net walls, tunnels and slides. Pteranodon Flyers is the ultimate kid-friendly ride; anyone over 56” has to be accompanied by a child! We spent a full hour in the Jurassic Park Discovery Center, a cool indoor space offering a few quiet corners to park strollers carrying napping children. The exhibits offered an educational, hands-on change of pace. My son was especially intrigued with the high-tech machines, one of which offered an x-ray view of dinosaur eggs.
Within The Lost Continent, the highlight for us was the Mystic Fountain. It appears to be a round pool with a stone pillar in the center decorated with a statue’s face. When the face starts talking to you, things get interesting. After a humorous exchange with our son, the fountain sprayed her water full blast, giving him his third soaking of the day.
I knew from planning this trip that I was going to love Seuss Landing, having been raised on the works of Dr. Seuss. I was afraid my kids wouldn’t appreciate it without that background. Ultimately the vibrant, comical atmosphere thrilled us all. Every single ride was a winner, and out toddler could experience them all. She’s partial to carousels, and the Caro-Seuss-el gave her a choice of smiling Seussian creatures to sit upon. The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride is an elevated, yet tame, journey through the island. Two other rides are surefire pleasers; The Cat in the Hat, and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. With boundless energy, both kids were still willing to explore If I Ran The Zoo, a playground with a water play area.
Finding Fries – For a little entertainment with your meal, try the Circus McGurkus Café Stoo-pendous in Seuss Landing, which is designed as a huge circus tent, complete with characters circling overhead. Thunder Falls Terrace in Jurassic Park offered some healthy options, like rotisserie chicken, salads, and fruit cups. We found applesauce cups and PB&J on the menus throughout the park.
Buy Me That – The urge was strong to overspend in the shops at Seuss Landing, especially at Cats, Hats & Things, which offered clothing, souvenirs, collectibles and playthings all featuring favorite Seuss characters. I especially liked the Grinch Christmas products, and the shocking blue Thing 1 and Thing 2 wigs with accompanying red jerseys. A separate shop, All the Books U Can Read, carries all the Seuss classics. The Spider-Man Shop in Marvel Super Hero Island features fun toys and photo opportunities with “Spidey” several times daily. Young dinosaur fans have a great selection in the Dinostore in Jurassic Park.
NOTE: Universal’s newest addition to this theme park will be open in 2010. Plans for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter include rides, attractions, shops and restaurants, all set in the village of Hogsmeade, the mysterious Forbidden Forest, and Hogwarts castle.
TIP: Parents with impatient children (doubtless, the majority) should consider purchasing the Universal Express Plus pass. On nearly every ride, pass holders can go on a shorter line, and often can get on the ride immediately. You can use the pass on each ride only once. The time saved from waiting in lines, especially on hot days, is worth the price.
CityWalk is the entertainment, dining and shopping complex that sits between the entrances of the two parks. You walk through it to get to the park entrances from the parking garage. There are more delectable dining choices than we had days in our trip, and I would have liked to try Latin Quarter, Pastamoré, and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. The world’s largest Hard Rock Cafe is also located here. I wanted my kids to try Jamaican cuisine, so we chose Bob Marley – A Tribute to Freedom. There is a typical kids’ menu, so their culinary boundaries were only pushed as far as the yucca fries served with their mac and cheese. I was more than content with my curried chicken.
City Walk also has a food court. Whopper Bar, a Burger King eatery, has just opened, and it’s the only one of its kind in the world. You can order from a menu of gourmet burgers, or choose from 22 toppings, each 50¢ extra. I had a hard time limiting myself to just guacamole, cheddar and fried onions.
Where To Stay
There are three hotels within the resort; the Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, and Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Staying at these entitles you to some advantages, the best of which is the free Universal Studio Express pass that can be used repeatedly at each ride. As a guest you also get transportation to both parks and City Walk via water taxi and shuttle bus, priority restaurant seating, and the ability to charge everything to your room.
More budget-friendly lodging can be found throughout Orlando, including the DoubleTree Hotel (www.doubletreeorlando.com) just across the street from the main entrance. Lake Buena Vista hotels are a 10-15 minute drive away.
For more information on ride height restrictions, stroller rental rates, and ideas on what to pack for small kids, visit www.universalorlando.com, or call 407-363-8000.
Traci L. Suppa juggles writing, traveling, parenting, and volunteer work, but only because she sleeps very little. Her work has appeared in TravelSmart, Westchester Family magazine, Hudson Valley Parent, NJ Parent Paper, NewParent.com, Travelforkids.com, TravelSavvyMom.com and others.
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