What to do with Kids in Orlando
Right around Easter, my husband found out that his company was going to send him to Orlando for a week. Taking the kids to Orlando has always been on our to-do list, but not a super high priority. We were able to put together a nice trip in a short amount of time and it was exciting. Every time I told someone “We’re going to Orlando in a few weeks…” it was followed by “Oh, to Disney!” NO. We are not really Disney people and it was never our plan to go to any of the Disney parks. We felt that there was enough to do without Disney. And, since Kevin has special needs, sometimes he requires assistance when traveling. I thought it would be a perfect time to do some special needs travel reviews of various venues in Orlando.
You can have an absolutely fantastic, fun, exciting and memory-filled vacation in Orlando without going to Disney. My kids never ask for that park and I don’t at all regret not going.
Getting to Orlando
Our travel was relatively uneventful. The Orlando airport is terrible and all service is slow. I guess millions of people are going to fly in and out of Orlando no matter what the service is like. So they don’t try too hard. The layout is awkward, the staff aren’t that friendly and many counters are understaffed. We waited over 90 minutes to get our Hertz rental car. The line was mobbed, as were all the car rental counters and each one had 1-2 reps. Our plane landed at 3:30 and it was well after 5:00 until we got in the car. Keep in mind, the kids had been awake since 4 am, and Dan and I were up most of the night. The chairs in the waiting area were filthy and torn. A 90-minute wait in line was NOT what we needed. Have you ever tried to entertain a tired, hungry kid with autism in the airport for 90 minutes? Good times. The one bright spot is that they have family restrooms.
Where to stay in Orlando
Unfortunately, I’ve had to update this to let you know that the Nickelodeon Resort in Orlando no longer exists. Such a bummer! We chose it because they had kitchenettes. And mostly because it had a pool, waterpark and a ton of other kids’ activities. My then 6-year-old, had been asking to go to the “Ninja Turtle Hotel” for about two years. He first saw it on TV, then we saw an ad on Facebook, then he made a video and entered a contest, hoping to win a trip. I still recommend that you pick a down day or two during your stay, depending on how long you are staying. My kids can’t just go, go, go for days on end without crashing. So I loved having a day or two at the hotel where we didn’t have to go anywhere but still felt like we were doing something unique.
But this would be my first recommendation of what to do with kids in Orlando. Find a good hotel/resort with activities. There are lots to choose from!
Here are some other tips for family travel in Orlando, especially with special needs:
- Definitely consider what season you are going. Weather can be unbearable (heat and humidity) and crowds can be terrible. This is an expensive vacation no matter how you slice it, so you want to minimize disasters and maximize the possibility of having a good time.
- Get a suite that has a kitchenette that will help you save money on things like bottled water, juice for kids, snacks and light breakfasts. There are plenty of local grocery stores.
- This is an expensive trip. When budgeting, know that there are elaborate and amazing gift shops EVERYWHERE. So set limits for your kids and stick to them. Set limits for yourself too, I saw tons of stuff I wanted to buy.
- Meals are more expensive. Where ever we went, prices were higher and there is like a 10-15% tax on everything.
- They have almost every chain restaurant available, so your child’s preferences can likely be accommodated and it is very easy to find a predictable meal if that is what you need. I love trying new things, but some nights the kids are too tired to be adventurous.
- Bring sunscreen and lots of it. I use spray Coppertone SPF 50 that I got at Ollie’s for $0.99–but I saw it in gift shops for $12 and up!
- There are plenty of stroller rental places, including special needs strollers. We rented a large mobility stroller for $128 for the week and it was worth every penny.
- You can go a week without a rental car if you want to save money that way. But, you will then have to stick to the shuttle and bus schedules, so keep that in mind. Sometimes with Kevin, we need to leave in a hurry and a rental car offers that flexibility.
- Use what perks you can, as far as pre-boarding due to disabilities, discounts and other offerings for families with special needs.
- I was really pleased with the number of family restrooms around Orlando. I hope that the rest of the country catches on!
Recommendation Number 2-
Kennedy Space Center! This was definitely the highlight of our trip. You can click on the image below to get a full review of our day there.
Recommendation 3 of what to do in Orlando with Kids-
Universal Orlando Resort was so much better and so much more than I thought it was going to be. I can’t believe we almost didn’t visit! The entire resort is made up of several different locations or facilities, including two theme parks, their CityWalk and a few hotels. We visited both parks and the CityWalk. We went there on Monday and ate at Emeril’s for dinner. You do not have to pay to enter CityWalk and I thought it was better than Disney’s Downtown Disney, though they are similar. We went there for dinner twice-once to Emeril’s and once to a sushi place called Cowfish.
I’m the only one in my family who is a Harry Potter fan. I’ve read all the books and seen the movies. My kids are still a bit young though now Brian really has his interest piqued. Universal is another regret in that I wish we had spent more time there–one day is not enough. So I did not get to see Hogsmeade, only Diagon Alley. Diagon Alley is amazing! It is exactly as you picture it as you are reading and from the movies. I can’t believe how well done it is. The attention to detail is just fascinating and you really feel like you are there. It’s almost like you forget that Diagon Alley is a fictional place.
While in Diagon Alley, we purchased a magic wand for Brian at Ollivander’s, which is also amazing. Meredith from Universal Orlando was gracious enough to give us a tour of the park and take us on Escape from Gringott’s. Brian later said it was scary, but the four of us really enjoyed the ride. I can’t say enough good things about the Harry Potter stuff at Universal!
Special Needs Tips for visiting Universal Orlando
I can’t say enough good things about how they go above and beyond to accommodate special needs there. Pretty much anything you need–just tell them and more likely than not, it can be arranged. There were family restrooms, elevators, wide walkways, special entrances, special foods, you name it.
When you arrive, you go to Customer Relations and ask for a GAP pass or Guest Assistance Pass. This lets them know that someone in your party needs special assistance. I really hope that it doesn’t get abused and then taken away like some other parks.
They also have a special child swap area for some of the rides. You wait in line and when it is your turn, one parent can ride the ride and the other parent waits in a special room with the child who cannot ride that particular ride. When it’s over, it is the other parent’s turn and they don’t have to go to the end of the line. While waiting, you watch movies. It’s a fantastic idea. They really go the extra mile to personalize your experience and help you and your family have the best experience possible.
Other venues in Orlando are really struggling with how to accommodate those with special needs. I’ve spoken with many families about this issue, and for the most part, I find that parents do not mind having to show proof of some sort. Sure, not everything is black and white, and you’d have to make exceptions sometimes, but there has to be a way to accommodate our kids without it being abused. I think that the Universal Guest Assistance Pass accomplishes this.
If you do not have someone in your family with a disability, you can purchase an Express Pass which reduces your waiting time. Since we were there in May, it wasn’t too bad overall as far as crowds.
The other highlight of the day was Seuss Landing. Kevin is a huge Dr. Seuss fan and we loved it there. The rides were fun without being too babyish and many ages will enjoy it. We ate at the McGurkus Circus there and the food was decent. While at Universal, we saw Seuss Landing, then over to Diagon Alley. After that we did the Minions Mayhem ride, Transformers, walked in Springfield and that was it.
If you are a Simpsons fan, I recommend it. Moe’s is done very well and you can sit right there at the bar and have a beer with Barney. Actually, the whole park is done really well and it’s fun to be immersed in the TV shows and movies that we have loved for so long.
My one complaint is the lack of an evening or twilight pass. My husband had to go to his work thing, then he met us for dinner. There were 2 hours left of Universal and all he wanted to do was see the Simpsons stuff and if there was time, Diagon Alley. The woman at the window said it would be full price–they do not offer a twilight ticket. It would be nice if you wanted to enter and walk around after an early dinner at CityWalk.
Recommendation Number 4- Sea World
On Friday we had planned to go to Sea World. I was very impressed with Sea World overall–the landscaping and overall atmosphere are beautiful. It’s fun without being too crazy or too hectic. The longest wait sign for a ride that we saw was 60 minutes. I was surprised that it is much nicer than I expected it to be.
We got to Sea World around 9 and had a fabulous experience from the beginning. No lines to mention, we parked close and the great people at Sea World were able to print my Sesame Place season pass so that I could use it for discounts. We had disability access to the 10:00 dolphin show and had prime seating.
Sea World was fantastic. We mostly saw shows and exhibits. Kevin gets to ride rides often at Sesame Place so we skipped most of the rides. Seeing the other stuff is new to us so we made that a priority. We had a lovely lunch overlooking their pond/lake. The food was good. It was crowded with school field trips, but not much you can do about that. I wish I lived close enough to Sea World that it was a field trip option for my kids!
Sea World Orlando-Special Needs Visiting Tips
- They have plenty of family restrooms although overall it did not feel like there were as many restrooms as other parks.
- Lines can be long, see about getting a pass if you think you will need one.
- It is well shaded throughout the park and plenty of quiet spots to retreat and regroup.
- Plenty of food options, but always check if you have specific concerns.
- They do not have straws or lids for cups, I was told it is for the animals’ safety. However, my son cannot drink from a cup so this was a challenge for us.
- Plenty of accessible parking and accessibility to exhibits, shows, and rides.
The roller coaster there looked amazingly thrilling, but no way would I go on it. We had saved Atlantis and Antarctica for the end of the day and then it just didn’t happen. The folks at Sea World were great and it was the best experience it could have been. I highly recommend a visit to Sea World as part of your Orlando vacation. I’m very anxious to go back!
Recommendation Number 5- Legoland!
I have one regret about our visit to Legoland. And that is, we went on a day that it is only open 10-5 and that is not enough time! Hmph. It’s a great little park. It’s clean and new and it says that it is for ages 2-12 and that is about right. It was low-key and quiet enough of a day, that we could have done a much longer day and my kids would have been fine. It is about a 45-minute drive from Orlando, so that adds on to the day too.
We arrived just about at opening. There were quite a few school groups also entering at that time, but what can you do? The weather was warm but not too warm and not too sunny. Legoland is a mix of Lego exhibits to see, rides to ride and then there are classes and activities to do with Legos, of course. We went on a few rides and liked the roller coaster. The Lego exhibits are amazing. And we signed Brian up for one of the STEM Lego classes where he was doing some wiring with his Lego creation.
All in all, we really enjoyed our day!
There are several Lego stores. I had pretty much told Brian before we went that “you are not getting anything that I can just go home and order from Amazon.” After all, we were flying and can only fit so much in our luggage. Plus, I wanted to encourage them to get unique things that they could only find there. But, be prepared for this if you go. We really enjoyed the mini figurine store where you can build your own mini figures by picking out heads, torsos, etc. You can also bring your minis from home and trade them.
The apple fries available at the beginning of the park are quite yummy and an unusual treat. The Pirate show is not to be missed. Brian said it was his favorite thing about the day. You have to sign up for some of the classes and activities, so look into that first. We didn’t do that until the end of the day and then we only had 1 option. Still, he enjoyed it. The car/auto section of the park seemed to be the most crowded and popular. There is also a gardens section if you need a quiet place to regroup or push a sleeping child in a stroller.
Special Needs Tips for visiting Legoland
- Very accessible as far as ramps and wheelchairs and family restrooms.
- Not too much variety of food available-the one disappointment of the day. But, they do let you bring in a small cooler so you can pack specific foods if you need them.
- Plenty of places to sit and relax and get some quiet time if you need it.
- Not too noisy, but that might change if it is really crowded. The show does have some explosions, but if that kind of noise doesn’t bother your child, definitely go see the pirate show.
Overall I was really impressed by Legoland and we all enjoyed it more than we thought we would.
Of course, you can shop around and find deals, but on average, the typical family of 4 will spend $1000 a day on hotel, theme park tickets, meals, and souvenirs. Yes, really. Again, going back to my first bullet point, consider the season because in peak season you could spend most of your days waiting in lines. And that is not fun!
This trip was sponsored in part by Nickelodeon Resorts, Sea World Orlando, Legoland Florida and Universal Orlando Resorts. It was originally published in 2015 but has been updated. All opinions are my own.