Theme Park Vacations: The Ultimate in Family Entertainment

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When you envision the ideal family vacay, what pops into your head? Before last week, hitting six theme parks in three days never would have made my list. I was much more of a "I want my kids to experience foreign places and get cultured" type of a traveling mom. But, after hitting Universal Studios Orlando and Universal's Islands of Adventure and Disney's Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom and surviving, I see the benefit of having fun be the theme of a family vacation.

Jyl's family infront of Harry Potter's Hogwarts Castle

Because not all resorts are equal, I am dividing this post into my top takeaways from the Universal Orlando Resort and my fave spots at Disney. These are must see and do lists for travel to both theme parks in Orlando, Florida.

Top 10 Must Visit Attractions at Universal Orlando Resort

  1. Jyl's family infront of The Simpson's Krusty the Clown store front Go to the Wizardry World of Harry Potter, stop by the Three Broomsticks restaurant, and order some frozen butter beer (order regular and frozen if you'd like to taste the difference, but otherwise, I recommend frozen!). Then, sit out on the patio in a shady spot and enjoy the butterscotchy goodness! We did this not once, but twice in one day. Yes! This drink is that good!
  2. When you first enter Hogsmeade, stop for a family photo opp with the conductor at the Hogswart Express.
  3. Get up your nerves and go on the Dragon Challenge. This ride puts the thrill in thrill rides, even for rollercoaster ride lovers like myself.
  4. Check out the amazing simulator rides: Forbidden Journey, Spiderman, and the Simpson's (in Universal Studios). Universal Orlando Resort does an extraordinary job with the simulators and each once has its unique difference from the ride before it. My kids' favorite was The Simpsons.
  5. Go on the smaller rides. The rides in Seuss Landing technically may be for the younger generation, but their creativity and attention to detail is inspiring! They're worth checking out.
  6. Walk down the comic book strip (I'm getting all the names wrong). This is a place with restaurants and rides and looks like it is straight out of the Sunday comics.
  7. Do as I say and not as I do for this next one: Ride the Incredible Hulk roller coaster. I have meant to go on it the last two times I was at Islands of Adventure and didn't.
  8. Be prepared to get wet on Jurassic Park. Also be prepared for the 85-foot drop that comes out of nowhere! This is a perfect ride when you're seeking adventure or when the weather gets unbearably hot. Toon Lagoon is another soaking adventure with not as long of a drop.
  9. Shows aren't as thrilled as the rides, but they can be super fun. The Horror Make Up show at Universal Studios still has my kids laughing. Check it out!
  10. If it's an especially hot day, stop and let your kids play in the water fountains! There is one at the entrance and another near Toon Lagoon. My boys had a blast running through the "sprinklers."

Jyl's boys with butter beer

Top 10 Things to Do at Disney

  1. Jyl's family infront of Disney Orlando castle At Magic Kingdom, be sure to hit these rides: Splash Mountain, Thunder Mountain, Peter Pan, It's a Small World, the Haunted Mansion, DUMBO, Space Mountain, and Buzz Lightyear. If you have smaller kids, spend a little more time in Fantasy Land.
  2. At EPCOT, don't miss Soarin' and the fireworks show. Both are beyond awesome!
  3. At Hollywood Studios, ride the Rockin' Rollercoaster at least twice. 0-60 in 20 seconds! Can anyone say "breathtaking"? It was sooooo worth buying the picture! Be sure to check out Hanes' vintage concert t-shirts on the walls as you wait in line.
  4. At Animal Kingdom, if you're short on time, hit the major attractions: the Safari, Everest, and the Rapids. Warning: You may get SOAKED on the rapids, so plan carefully!
  5. My favorite spot for dining at the Disney resorts was at Animal Kingdom not too far from Everest. I had one of the best Asian chicken salads of my life. Who knew?
  6. We loved staying at the Disney Resort. The Disney Contemporary Hotel was a perfect choice for our family. This hotel had several dining options, a pool with a water slide, and a monorail that went right through the building. Racing the monorail entertained my boys for hours! For us adults? We loved watching the Magic Kingdom fireworks from our balcony. We looked out over Cinderella's castle!
  7. Evening beach parties added to our overall experience. Check out Ft. Wilderness or the Grand Floridian for white sand beaches.
  8. The Hanes' Design-a-Tee store in Downtown Disney was a fun way to get a custom souvenir. Essentially, you chose a design, select a the color of t-shirt, and then choose what you'd like written on the shirt and in what color. We had a ton of fun making these and the kids can't wait to share them with their friends.
  9. Take in the Disney magic! Disney does a great job of making even the ordinary seem extraordinary. @TroyPattee noticed a gal washing windows who would spray the cleaner on in the shape of mouse ears and then wash it off. The kids loved that!
  10. Interact with your favorite characters. Who doesn't love Mexican Donald, German Goofy, or Pirate and Gypsy Mickey and Minnie? These make for fun family photo opps too!

Regardless of which resort you hit, the key is to have fun. Make sure you have your bases covered: sun screen, band aids, enough water for everyone, a bag to carry your belongings, and snacks to tide you over between meals. Plan your transportation, lodging, and vacation in advance using the resorts' online planning tools. If you want to eat at the nicer park restaurants, make sure to book a reservation online before you leave town.

Warning: Tickets are pricey and you may feel the need to push your family to squeeze in every single opportunity to maximize your investment. Don't do it! Play hard, but have fun. An exhausted family ends up crashing at some point. Take it from me that the best way to get the most out of your trip is to plan in advance, choose the major attractions you'd like to see, and stop along the way for lots of photo opps.

What tips and tricks have worked for you while planning or while on theme-park family vacations?

Disclosure: I was provided VIP passes to the Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure from Universal Orlando Resort; travel and expenses to Disney; and VIP passes to Disney from Hanes for my participation in Hanes' Comfort Crew.

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An active part of the Mom It Forward team, Jyl primarily writes about parenting, social good, and all things travel related. In a past life, Jyl was an award-winning copywriter and designer of corporate training programs for Fortune 100 companies. Offline, Jyl is married to @TroyPattee; a mom to two teen boys and a beagle named #Hashtag; loves large amounts of cheese, dancing, and traveling; and lives in the beautiful Rocky Mountains. Topping her bucket list is the goal to visit 50 countries by the time she's 50.


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