Sometimes the fantasy of a theme park vacation and the reality of it are worlds apart, especially when your family is larger than average. Dealing with various ages and interest levels – and struggling with ride height requirements – means that a large family needs a battle plan for managing a day of theme park fun. Otherwise, family-bonding time will quickly turn to family bonkers time.
Here are my tips that have been battle-honed and field-tested across frequent deployments to the Orlando parks.
1. Buddy system
Quickly, without giving it a second thought, let go of the idea that everyone needs to stay together at all times. You’ll quickly annoy each other as well as other people in the park by trying.
Instead, pair off in combinations that work based on age, interest, and desire, and send them merrily on their way. It’s much better than constantly looking around for the stray human.
2. Don’t be “those” parents
Every theme park vacation we’ve experienced has included witnessing at least one episode where an angry, frustrated parent struggles with a screaming, snot-slinging child. The parent is usually shrieking something to the effect of, “You will have fun! Now come on!” If you have to miss an attraction or two because the kids would rather play in the water fountain, so be it.
In the long run, those are the memories that will last a lifetime.
3. Early restaurant booking
Families of two to four don’t know how fortunate they are when it comes to eating. Theme park restaurants are often busy and almost never have seating for large families, unless it’s booked in advance. When possible, do just that. Make sure you know what the penalties are, if any, for a cancellation or no-show. Book a restaurant every day, for the entire party, in the theme park you plan to visit. Make that your meeting place and enjoy each other’s stories of adventure, take photos, trade buddies, and then head out again.
For reservations at Universal Orlando, visit this page in the OI Universal Center.
4. The right lodging
Choose a hotel on, or very near, the theme park property with a shuttle service. Driving and parking can be a costly, time-consuming nightmare. Numerous hotels, such as the Enclave Hotel & Suites near Universal, will run shuttle buses hourly throughout the day, including the hour after the parks close. Why fight the traffic when you can sit back and chat with the family instead?
Both Universal and Disney offer awesome on-site accommodations, but if you’re trying to save some money, it’s only worth it if the hotel offers shuttle service.
5. But I’m so hungry!
Large families have an easier time grabbing fast food, but one thing we’ve figured out the hard way is that kids are rarely as hungry as they would have you believe. Although portions are large and shareable, their objection to sharing meals stems mainly from not wanting to share, period. So don’t ask in the first place. Simply purchase, pass out the food, and leave it at that. If more is required after everything is gone, you can always stop again.
More often, what is needed is a cool drink, a few bites to eat, and a 20-minute break.
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6. Time of year
Choose your vacation time wisely. We were in Orlando one year in July and swore that we would never do it again – it’s dreadfully hot and crowded, and the cranky levels are as high as the temperature. Surprisingly, we found that Christmas was a very pleasant time for a trip. We expected huge crowds, but it wasn’t so bad.
In general, fall, early/late spring, and late summer are excellent times for a theme park trip. To learn more, visit the free 12-month Universal Orlando crowd calendar in the OI Universal Center.
7. Cut the junk
Do you really need that gigantic triple stroller? The answer is yes if you actually have triplets. Otherwise, use the smallest, most lightweight stroller you can find. The thing to remember is you’re not actually going on a real African safari or being transported via rollercoaster into the midst of wizards while you remain a Muggle.
Save yourself – and others – time in the bag-check line by not bringing enough supplies to feed all of Hogwarts for a month. You’ll feel lighter and less cranky without excessive baggage.
8. Okay, but what should I bring?
Besides the family, bring a small camera or a fully-charged phone. It’s okay to pack small snacks and drinks, but you don’t need a month’s worth of food for one day. Eat breakfast in your hotel first, then pack a snack and a drink to keep you satisfied until dinnertime at a park restaurant.
If your party includes very young children, bring a change of clothing or an extra t-shirt. You don’t necessarily need extra clothes for each child, but t-shirts and shorts that work for either gender will do in the event of an accident or spill.
9. Our party includes a baby
Take advantage of the baby care areas. Most theme parks offer very nice rooms – including private nursing rooms – for parents of little ones. Rocking chairs, changing tables, and even cribs are available. Supplies are sold via vending machines in case you need anything, but, in our experience, wipes are available free of charge. Attendants will supply you with a towel or a light blanket, as well, which you can just toss in the laundry bin before leaving.
10. Sanity preservation
Every now and then, an absurd purchase, such as a $20 squirt bottle or a $15 mini flashlight, saves the day. The $20 squirt bottle once entertained our hot, sweaty little ones and improved the mood 100%.
As long as it isn’t a daily expectation, I see no problem with this particular style of sanity preservation.
Have fun – and lots of it. Relax and enjoy your time together while making wonderful memories.
– Michelle Rise
Avid traveler and mother of five, Michelle Rise and her husband of nearly 30 years have been vacationing in Orlando for nearly 3 decades. With extensive personal experience in each of the Orlando theme parks, Michelle prides herself on having the inside scoop. When not off on another family adventure or teaching her kids how to drive, Michelle can be found hiking Rainbow Mountain with the beloved family dog in tow. Follow Michelle on Twitter @Rise7up for all her latest tips and insights.
Have your own tips for how to best enjoy the parks? Let us hear ’em below.
And be sure to check out these other special ways to enjoy your time at Universal Orlando:
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