- Living in Orlando, my family has experienced both Disney World and Universal.
- Disney may have more hype, but Universal offers a less stressful experience for parents.
- I love the play areas and the general vibe at Universal, plus there’s still some magic to it.
When we moved to Orlando with our toddler, money was tight. Our saving grace was our annual pass to Universal Orlando Resort.
For Florida residents, passes range from $16 to $31 per month with the flex-pay option. With the cheapest options, self-parking costs $27 per visit. There is also an initial deposit of $173 to $340 depending on your pass.
Disney World annual passes for Florida residents start at $19 per month and go up to $69 per month. Initial deposit for all passes is $205.
In both parks, children under 3 years old are free. But for us, the cheaper pass (which still has a number of benefits) at Universal was more worth it.
Obviously, if you want the specific Disney experience, this is where you go. But Universal is where I take my kids and any visiting family if we want to have a more relaxed, unhurried day together.
I find the parking and entry experience at Universal much smoother with children
I find the Disney parks exhausting. You have to plan so far in advance that it doesn’t always match a toddler’s internal clock.
You park, unpack, walk to the shuttle, fold the stroller again, unload, unpack, wait in security lines, wait in queues and/or entry lines, and you’re finally in the park. Unless you’re going to Magic Kingdom, you also have to choose between the ferry, monorail, or emergency buses before getting inside.
The universal input, however, is quite cold.
You park (inside), ride the moving sidewalks to security, drop your stuff on the conveyor belt, and then you’re over the bridge and into CityWalk, the shopping, dining, and entertainment district.
I always suggest taking a photo of your parking space so there is no confusion at the end of your day.
Universal offers a free kid-friendly experience before you even enter the parks
Most people rush to the paddling pool at the end of CityWalk without even timing its existence.
But a simple water feature for some is a toddler’s paradise. I like to sit by and admire people coming and going while keeping an eye on my child all the time.
Epcot has a flashing splash zone and you’ll miss it near Canada in the World Showcase. And in Magic Kingdom, there’s Casey Jr. Splash ‘N’ Soak Station, an extravagant splash pool in Fantasyland.
But Casey Jr.’s sight lines can be awful. Parents are constantly going back and forth to find their children, and I passed other carers a number of times there as we tried to keep track of our little ones in the chaos.
Additionally, both Disney World options require you to have a park ticket. Universal’s CityWalk is free, just pay for parking.
After entering the theme park, there is so much to soak up at the entrance port
Everyone wants to rush to the rides, but don’t miss the underrated Port of Entry area just inside Universal’s Islands of Adventure park.
Although not as famous as Disney’s Main Street USA, the clever port of entry signs, unique music, and decor throughout make it an experience youngsters can enjoy.
The Port of Entry and Main Street have gift shops and food, but at Universal there are also animal statues and carts for your kids to ride. I had to snatch my child out of this space so that we could enter the park.
Also, I find most of what Universal sells near the entrance to be more convenient than Main Street. Lots of sun hats, sunscreen, and fans spraying water.
It’s also a fantastic place to stock up on snacks and cold drinks before a great long day out.
There are great rides and entertainment options for kids at Seuss Landing
Turn right after the Port of Entry to find the fantastic Seuss Landing area.
Some highlights are Caro-Seuss-el and One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, which have no height requirement. Children under 48 inches just need an accompanying adult.
The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride is also fun, but it has a height requirement of 36 inches.
There’s even a bookstore nearby if your kids don’t like rides.
One of the easiest attractions to miss is the “Oh! The Stories You’ll Hear” live show. It’s a musical mash-up of popular Dr. Seuss stories like “The Lorax” and “The Cat in the Hat.”
Disney World has a lot of great shows, but my kids love getting close to the fuzzy friends at Seuss Landing. The stage is smaller and they will often perform outside the charming bookstore.
If it’s not crowded, the characters will spend some quality time with the kids in the crowd. There’s no rush to move on like I often feel with Disney characters.
Travel to Jurassic times and let off steam in the playground
After Seuss Landing, go through Hogsmeade for now and through the iconic Jurassic Park gates to get to Camp Jurassic.
Most guests overlook the real joy of these interlocking rope bridges, viewpoints, and swirling slides, but my toddler finds the imaginative play area exciting.
I also think it’s more spacious and adventurous than any play area we’ve tried in the Disney parks – unless you’re counting on the Shanghai Disneyland Pirate Ship, which unfortunately isn’t quite as easy of access.
Then head back to Hogsmeade for an easy lunch
After expending some extra energy in the playground, I like to retrace our steps to Hogsmeade’s entrance into the wizarding world of Harry Potter for lunch.
You can sit in the nice and cool Three Broomsticks for a family meal platter ($80 for a family of four to six) that satisfies the picky eaters in my family. Individual plates range from $12 to $20.
Sometimes there is a line, but it usually moves pretty quickly. Often the staff will even help you find an empty table and offer to carry something if it’s hard to juggle a stroller and a tray.
One of the biggest stressors for me when going to Disney is planning where and how to eat. The quick service locations can sometimes be so crowded that by the time I wrangled my kids and made multiple trips to haul everything, another family took our places.
When we’re done with Hogsmeade, it’s time for the Hogwarts Express, the beautiful train ride that takes you down Diagon Alley.
Many families don’t realize they need to buy a ticket to both Universal theme parks (Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure) to ride the train, but it’s worth it. The Hogwarts Express is simply one of the best experiences in the parks.
End the day with more exploration and a carnival
Disney World definitely has more attractions for younger kids, and Universal Studios might look like it just has thrill rides.
But we like to stroll through the themed areas to watch street performers before casually catching parades of characters – without needing to queue first.
It’s fun to watch the roller coaster go by and play in the mouth of the great white shark from “Jaws”.
That’s when I also enjoy a pastry, beer, or burger from one of the surrounding restaurants ($8-$12) while my toddler sleeps next to me.
If we stay longer, I’d end with a nighttime stroll through the carnival in “The Simpsons” Springfield area until we reach the newly reopened Fievel’s Playland, a cute playground with a waterslide.
I prefer chill days at Universal with my young
We had a lot of good times at Disney World. But when you have one or more young children, it is difficult to follow a strict itinerary or to anticipate what they will want to eat and at what time.
I find it best to stay flexible and take our time to enjoy every land inside the Universal Orlando Resort.
It’s less stressful for me and the kids have fun creating meaningful memories.