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Being native Floridians, vacations in the Kubiak household typically involved a theme park and Universal Orlando Resort was always a favorite. From visiting during the holidays in 1992 at Universal Studios Florida, to the first time I walked awestruck under those iconic Jurassic Park gates back in 1998, Universal helped shape my sense of adventure and see the way storytelling could transport you to fantastic new worlds. It has a way of bringing out the child in all of us, so I couldn’t wait to bring my own kids to the parks.
WHERE TO STAY
Since we have a mess of kids (mess being “a lot” in Southern-speak), we decided to check into one of the two-bedroom suites available at Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn & Suites. The kids immediately tested the durability of the bed springs in the main room while my wife and I got set up in the other room. The rooms are bright, clean, and have that “I’m on vacation” vibe. Be sure to check out the awesome pool and the Oasis Beach Bar for some adult libations (you know, parent fuel).
For the second part of our vacation, we moved over to Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort and stayed in a family suite.The retro theming and value make this a must-stay resort. For me as a casual fan of bowling, Galaxy Bowl at the resort was a welcome diversion at the end of the day — and the full bar and food service was the cherry on top. Cabana Bay also has a great gym, but I wasn’t going to ruin my incredibly bland dad bod on that when there are churros calling my name.
Why change resorts midweek during a vacation? All of the resorts have different vibes and amenities and part of the adventure is getting to experience it all.
WHAT TO DO
I’m a little jealous of the Universal my kids get to explore. Back in my day (yep, I said it), we parked right up at the gates. Now, they’ve got everything — three theme parks, shopping and dining at Universal CityWalk, and hotels. It’s got everything we need.
Day #1: Universal Studios Florida
After a quick shuttle ride from our hotel, our first day took us to the original Florida park. We wanted to let the kids explore for themselves, so they each grabbed a map and became the leaders of our expedition. But first, coffee and avocado toast at the TODAY Cafe, because theme-parking requires a good bit of fuel.
For attractions, the younger kiddos loved the Woody Nuthouse Coaster, Animal Actors On Location!, and E.T. Adventure (well, the entire family enjoyed E.T.). As we left E.T., the Trolls were dancing just outside the exit. My daughter, a huge fan of the characters, proceeded to bust a move right there on the pavement. For her, the small surprises throughout the day were her favorite.
For lunch, we tried Finnegan’s Bar & Grill. To start, you’ve got to go with Finnegan’s Potato and Onion Webb. It’s fried, it’s salty, and it is oh so tasty. I went for the classic reuben, while the boys, both with food allergies, went for the kids fish. Everyone left full and happy.
For the afternoon, it was all high-thrills with my older son, which meant the ups and downs of coasters like Revenge of the Mummy and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit to heroic adventures with TRANSFORMERS: The Ride – 3D, MEN IN BLACK Alien Attack, and the Fast and Furious family on Fast & Furious – Supercharged.
One of the best parts about visiting Universal Studios Florida in the spring is being able to enjoy the sights, sounds, and flavors of Mardi Gras. While the kids competed over who could collect the most beads from the parade floats, I personally enjoyed sampling all of the delicious and world-cuisine-inspired foods. Don’t worry, we walked around enough that I burned everything off, mostly.
After the spectacle and high-energy fun from the Mardi Gras parade, we went over to the NBC Sports Grill & Brew to grab dinner. A cold beer after a long day in the parks was a welcome treat. We’re a big BBQ family, so I went for the brisket while the boys tackled a rack of ribs together. Leaving behind a pile of picked-clean bones, it was clear that they like them.
Day #2: Wizarding Wonders
Last year, my 10-year-old just woke up one day and decided to read all of the Harry Potter books. Within three weeks, he had finished all seven books (and discovered that he’s a Hufflepuff). We knew what this day would mean for him, so we quickly grabbed breakfast at our hotel from Pier 8 Market, Baja Burrito in one hand and a coffee from Starbucks in the other, we were off to Universal Studios Florida.
Fun tip: If you stay at a Universal resort hotel, you get Early Park Admission. This perk gets you into the parks, including The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, one hour early before regular daytime guests.
When we approached The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, his eyes just lit up. For him, it was like visiting a world he knew everything about, but had never been. We decided to have a The Wizarding World of Harry Potter day – and it does take a full day if you’re looking to get the full experience. Here are some of the highlights:
● Start in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley
● Wand Ceremony at Ollivanders
● Casting spells around the wizarding world with our new interactive wands
● Shopping for school supplies at the stores around Diagon Alley
● Lunch at the Leaky Cauldron (fish and chips, always a winner in my book)
● Riding Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure (one of the most amazing rides I’ve ever been on)
● Snack break at Honeydukes (Don’t let your kid hand you a jelly bean and just go ahead and eat it. You’ll regret it.)
● Watching the Frog Choir in Hogsmeade
● Riding Flight of the Hippogriff
● Dinner at Three Broomsticks (The Great Feast was perfect for all of us!)
I got to witness Tyler’s wizarding dreams come true with his Hufflepuff robes donned and his wand at the ready. It’s one thing to go to a theme park, but to live the adventure just like Harry Potter is truly something special.
Day #3 Universal’s Islands of Adventure
Our next day was all about adventure, but you can’t adventure much on an empty stomach so we stopped off first at Croissant Moon Bakery for a quick bite — made even better because the croissant sandwich could be held in one hand as I power-walked to our first attraction.
My 10-year-old is about the bravest kid I know when it comes to rides, so he was ready to ride The Incredible Hulk Coaster. My stomach? Not so much. I needed something a little more relaxing, so it was off to Seuss Landing. My daughter is a huge fan of this whimsical land and she could have stayed here all day. There are four great attractions in the area, plus some amazing tater-tot creations from Green Eggs and Ham Cafe (buffalo chicken tots are amazing!).
Yes, we just had a snack of tots, but time to get our carnivore on.
Lunch? More ribs for the boys, and they found some of their new favorites at Thunder Falls Terrace in Jurassic Park. Between the boys and myself, the middle of the table started to look like a dinosaur fossil dig. Going for a more healthy option, my wife enjoyed the mojo chicken rice bowl. We were able to easily mobile order our food and drinks through the Universal Orlando Resort App while we relaxed at a table. Air Conditioning never felt so good.
Speaking of cooling off, we wanted to knock out all of the water rides in a row so we could just waddle around and dry off all at the same time — and you will get completely soaked on the water rides. Dripping from attraction to attraction, we rode Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges, Dudley Do-Right Ripsaw Falls, and Jurassic Park River Adventure one after the other.
Going back to where we started at Port of Entry (the front of the park), we visited Confisco Grille for dinner. After being seated, Chef Jayson came to the table to let us know what food his team could make for the boys in regards to their food allergies. We always appreciate the time the chefs at Universal take to explain their safety procedures. Peace of mind on vacation is a huge relief for us. Of course, the boys are not the most adventurous and just had burgers. I recommend the Chilled Noodle Tuna Bowl, which had these bold flavors but was nice and light after a long day in the heat. My wife went for Boneless Short Rib, which, for the small bite she let me try, was fantastic. After a day of adventuring, it was time to crash to get ready before the splash.
Day #4: Volcano Bay
Our family is a family of water-park fanatics, so Universal’s Volcano Bay, being a water theme park, was a must visit on our list. The massive volcano loomed over Cabana Bay, beckoning us to approach. We grabbed a quick bite at the Bayliner Diner – the boys had allergy-safe bacon and eggs (meat is a running theme with these boys), and I had the bacon-egg-and-cheese croissant. Being next door to Cabana Bay, we could easily walk to Volcano Bay – which was a huge bonus for us.
The park felt like a tropical oasis just waiting to be explored. It was like no other water park we’ve been to. Our first stop was to get our feet wet — literally — so we went to Waturi Beach to splash around under the shadow of Krakatau (the volcano).
We decided to rent a cabana for the day so we’d have a central point to return to. The cabana had an amazing view. This was also our spot for lunch as we could order from the cabana. We, of course, had to try the ribs — but we also tried appetizers like wings and conch fritters (food you would never expect to find at a water park).
With an energy boost from lunch, we set out to do some slides. Being a family of five, we all had different slides we wanted to do first. Rather than having to split up, we could use our TapuTapus to reserve a spot virtually in line for one slide while we hit up another slide first. Then, when our time was ready for the other slide, we headed straight there and didn’t have to wait! All it takes is a simple tap.
One of our favorite attractions of the day was the Krakatau Aqua Coaster; not because this unique water coaster had us bounding up and down around the volcano, but it crammed all of our family together into one laughing, screaming group. These are the moments we’ll never forget.
A day on and in the water had left all of us worn out, so we headed back to Cabana Bay and ordered in a pizza from Delizioso Pizza (the Margherita pizza is highly recommended). We didn’t want to take another step, so having in-room delivery was a lifesaver for us. A couple of laughs about the day and a few slices later, sleep never came so easily.
Day #5: Relax
And on the fifth day, they rested because you’ve got to break after twisting, turning, falling, and screaming for four days. Our last day was for taking it easy. We had a more leisurely breakfast at Bayliner Diner and then decided to be lazy by hitting the lazy river in the morning. The kids could have spent all day there, but we wanted to try both pools and if you love resort pools, Cabana Bay is the place to be.
We got dressed and decided to go to Galaxy Bowl for bowling and lunch. The lanes have a full menu, so I went for the steak sandwich and my wife went for the turkey bacon wrap. At least the food was better than my bowling as I barely broke 100. My kids still remind me of that fact.
For the afternoon, CityWalk was our destination of choice. With the hotel being relatively close, we could easily walk from Cabana Bay to CityWalk. It was nice to take our time and relax and do a little shopping and snacking. We spent a bit of time at the Universal Studios Store to find souvenirs we had previously missed at the parks, grabbed a doughnut for my daughter at Voodoo Doughnut (who knew she’d like a bacon maple doughnut), grabbed milkshakes from The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen, and took several photos by the famous globe.
We had dinner at The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar so we could get the boys to eat something other than ribs! Working with the chef, the boys were able to have bento boxes. My wife and I love trying new fusion rolls, so we split the Tropical Storm and Boss rolls. So good.
After dinner, we went to Hollywood Drive-In Golf for two games of mini-golf. The kids love the monster and sci-fi themed course. I mean, I also enjoyed the designs but I was too busy trying to win. My wife, of course, beat me.
Look, a long theme park vacation can be daunting and not seem like a vacation for the parents, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The more time you take on a Universal vacation, the more time you have to relax and not rush to see everything. Take a moment to stop and smell the churros.
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