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My Mammoth DisneyWorld and Universal Studios Review

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Last week, I was on vacation. It was one of those vacations where I felt like I needed a vacation after the vacation. My wife and I took our 2 and 3 year old to DisneyWorld and Universal Studios.

As I type that last sentence, I realize that it sounds like the least frugal, poor-planned financial decision I've made in years. When the kids are older they won't remember the trip. It seems like a lot of money to not make lasting memories.

As usually, the devil is in the details. Our reasons for traveling were a little unique. Here's a few reasons why:

  • We have friends from California going. It is closer for us to fly from Rhode Island to Florida to see them.
  • We had a timeshare week that was expiring so we had to use it or lose it. Usually they can be sold, but since it was banked so long ago, the rules prevented us from selling it.
  • My wife's military benefit gives us close to half-price tickets to Disney and the 2-year old didn't need a ticket.

That's not to say that it was cheap. We still had to fly there. It was the first time that we've had to pay for 4 tickets. And while we had the place to stay mostly covered, it was around $300 of fees to bank the timeshare and use it. Finally, even with the military discount, the combined 6-days at DisneyWorld and Universal Studios adds up.

We found a few things to save money during the vacation that I'd like to share. None of them are revolutionary, but together they added up to real savings.

Staying in the timeshare helped save us money vs. staying in a typical hotel. We had a very functional mini-kitchen. We were able to make a hot breakfast and keep milk cold without having to make numerous trips to an ice machine. The first day we spent about $50 at the grocery store which covered us for many meals during the week.

DisneyWorld is relatively unique where they allow you to bring in outside food and drink. We brought two Vacuum flasks with us. One was filled with Diet Coke (for the adults) and the other with milk (for the kids). We brought some snacks and lunches as well. They weren't hearty lunches, just sandwiches, but they were enough to keep us full until early afternoon when we could eat a late lunch and beat the crowds... at least some of the time.

Sometimes we ate lunch with our friends from California. It may sound odd to only do it sometimes, but their kids were older and their schedule was very different than ours.

Universal Studios only allows for light snacks, so we weren't able to bring our food there.

Because we stayed in the timeshare, we needed to rent a car. Now I know that we could have earned some extra miles on Southwest by going through their portal. I found that out after it was too late. We brought our own car seats, which my wife reports was a big savings (I didn't rent the car.) We spent $30 on Swap.com for two car seat bags, but we saw people using a trash bag and even nothing at all. Perhaps we could have saved some money if reviewed the airport's or airline's policies. Live and learn, I guess.

We also parked far away from the airport and used a shuttle. The Providence airport (PVD), which is not in Providence, has a deal with a coupon that allows you to pay $50 per week for parking. I don't think I've ever paid so little for parking at an airport.

We bought Disney gift cards from our local grocery store as we get a 6% cash back at grocery stores with our Amex card. Between parking at the parks for 4 days, food, and other things, we probably spent around $500. That's $30 back in our pocket. Every little bit helps, right?

Those were the main things that we used to save money.

A Brief Review of DisneyWorld and Universal Studios parks

I'd also like to share a little about the trip... just in case you haven't been. (I'm also writing it for selfish reasons as I sometimes use this blog as a journal. I want to refer to this the next time we go to Orlando.)

Keep in mind that our trip was a little odd. I don't think I saw anyone with two kids with their oldest one being 3. While the theme parks have something for everyone, there's a significant number of things that we simply couldn't do. It wouldn't be fair for me to criticize them for that, but am going to biased to the ones that were better-suited for our odd circumstance.

Magic Kingdom

This is what everyone goes for, right? Unfortunately, there was very little magical about the start of our trip.

In order to get into the park we had to take a tram from the parking lot, to a ferry, to a bottle neck of security. It was more than 3 hours to go from our hotel which was 4 miles away to be inside the park. Our friends who were staying on the property got a break and "only" had about a 2.5 hour wait. This doesn't appear to be typical as locals with annual passes said they've never seen it like this.

I have to question the wisdom of ferrying people over a lake. Seems like they could build a bridge or something so that everyone isn't stuck standing and waiting for a boat. We could have taken the monorail instead. That may have been a better plan, but we weren't sure if we could bring our stroller on it or if we'd have to stop and fold it up as we did on the tram. When you have it loaded up with food, jackets, diaper bags it can take a couple of minutes and we don't want to hold everyone up. It seemed easier to just stroll onto the ferry.

After we got in, it was so crowded that it really wasn't fun. It was more stressful than anything else until around 3PM when the crowded started to disperse. Prior to that, it was a 45 minute wait to get an ice cream around Main Street. After 3PM we actually were able to go on a number of rides, many more than I thought we'd be able to. So it all worked out in the end, but the start of the day had me thinking that it was like paying money to be stuck in a phone booth with 2 other people.

Fortunately FastPass+ is the best thing ever to happen to DisneyWorld. You essentially book an appointment with a ride, so you don't have to wait in long lines. You've got a range of time to go on the ride, so it's not like your whole day is rigidly scheduled. The only downside is that after the three you are allowed to schedule to start, you have to wait in kiosk line to schedule more. There's a lot of kiosks and essentially you are swapping one line for another. The kiosk line doesn't move very fast as families crowd around it and debate the pros and cons of various rides that are presented. You are essentially trading one line for another.

They have a FastPass+ smartphone app that you can use to view your appointments, but you can't make new ones like you can at a kiosk. Seems kind of silly, but maybe that's done on purpose. If everyone could easily book FastPass+ on their phones, it would probably cease to be fast.

There were a lot of rides that the kids could do which is nice, but Disney doesn't have the characters that my kids like. They prefer PBS Kids and Nick Jr. characters such Deigo (and Baby Jaguar), Curious George, Blaze, and Paw Patrol. My kids do like Lightning McQueen and Mater from the Cars franchise, but we couldn't find one attraction in any Disney park that featured it. I think they have something in Disneyland, but I guess that 10 years isn't enough time to get them to the east coast.

Epcot Center

This was our favorite of the Disney properties. Instead of the 3 hours it took to get into the Magic Kingdom, it might have been about 6 minutes. That's the walking time from where we parked to the security, which took less than 30 seconds. What a difference when you start the day on the right foot.

We appreciated the rides and attractions at Epcot more than the Magic Kingdom. You learn something from many of their rides. (I now know what neem looks like. I also like to say "neem." Neem.) The animals were perfect a perfect attraction for our kids. The 3-D Pixar shorts were really well-done.

We then went to "World" part of Epcot and did something that we couldn't do at the Magic Kingdom... enjoy some adult beverages. One website I found claimed there was only one place where you can have a beer at the Magic Kingdom... and I think it's a sit-down restaurant after 8PM. At Epcot, you can get beverages from around the world, so that's kind of nice. You can also eat food from each of the countries.

If you can't go to Europe or travel the real world, Epcot's "World" gives you a little flavor of many countries... certainly something I recommend for everyone.

Between the two sides of Epcot we had a full-day and hit just about everything that Epcot has to offer.

Hollywood Studios

This was our least favorite park. It's not that it's bad, but that it simply isn't a good fit for us.

Most of the rides aren't good fits for a 2 and 3 year old. The park feels like it is 60% Star Wars. I'm not much of a Star Wars fan and the kids are too young to get into either.

There's a Mickey Mouse Clubhouse attraction, which is a favorite of our 2-year old. That was an entertaining show 20 minutes. However, even that pushed other Disney Junior shows that my kids aren't into like Sofia the First and Doc McStuffins.

There's also a Pixarland, but it consisted of one Toy Story ride. I'm reading that they are expanding it to include more Toy Story stuff, but it doesn't seem like there's anything else from Pixar which is disappointing. I had high hopes that there would be something with Cars, but no luck.

Animal Kingdom

The Animal Kingdom is a cross between a zoo and a theme park. It's perfect for our kids.

They had a lot of fun going on jungle cruises and safaris. For two kids who are huge fans of Go Diego Go! this is probably as good as it gets.

While I personally get a little bored at zoos, this "super zoo" kept my attention. It's also easy to enjoy something when you see the smiles on the faces of your children.

Universal Studios

We greatly preferred Universal Studios to Disney. This may be because the brands are ones my kids are familiar with, but also they have things that seemed to better geared for the younger crowd. Getting in was like Epcot. You drive and park and there's no need for a tram that requires folding up a stroller. In fact having the stroller got us through the line faster as we were directed to the wheelchair line at security.

I knew the day was really getting off on the right foot when I turned my head to find a store selling Serenity shirts.

After walking out of the store, we immediately found Diego and Baby Jaguar were on a parade float going down the street. (Dora was there too, but who cares about her?) I've never seen my wife run so fast. I don't think I've ever seen my children happier. (The only thing that could have compared would be to have the Octonauts or Blaze the Monster Truck.)

My kids love Curious George, so seeing him does so much more for them than the Disney characters. The area of the park with Fievel's World is kind of a big playground with things to climb and jump in. It's kind of an expensive McDonalds' Playplace, but it works kids age 2 and 3. The 3-year old was just tall enough for the smallest roller-coaster (Woody Woodpecker) which he loved. It had no line so we went twice.

We didn't have time to take in any Barney stuff or the E.T. ride because there was so much other stuff to do. There was an animal show that had famous trained animals. We were relieved to find out that the dog that played Marley in Marley and Me is still alive and everyone got to pet him.

My wife loves Harry Potter and that's the big attraction here. She said that the Escape from Gringot's Bank was the best ride ever (I stayed with the kids while they napped.)

My wife declared CowFish to be the best restaurant she's ever eaten at. That's pretty lofty praise. I think she appreciated that it had something for her (sushi) and something for me (burgers), so we don't have to compromise where we go.

Universal's Islands of Adventure

This is the other side of the Universal, so getting in is the same as above. They do a wonderful job of crowd management.

There wasn't as much for the kids, but Dr. Seuss land certainly had enough. One playground area was fun for the kids for hours. We also had a lot of fun Jurassic Park in a discovery attraction that has you exploring caves and tunnels and such. It was perfect for the kids.

Other than that, my wife got to do more Harry Potter stuff. I thought I'd like the Marvel area more than I did. I think I'm just a casual fan and not a super fan like I would be Firefly/Serenity.

The park closed at 6PM the day we went. That's the earliest of any park we went to, but it was just as well as we were kind of finished. It was the last stop of the trip and frankly 12 hours a day at a theme park with kids as young as ours had us exhausted.

We finished off the day by meeting our friends for dinner at Vivo Italian Kitchen on the Universal CityWalk. It was probably one of the best Italian restaurants I've been to, but I'm not an expert in them.

What we'd do differently next time

If you happen to be military, you can hack together a relatively cheap Disney vacation. There's an on-property hotel called Shades of Green that's exclusively for military. I know that I wrote above that the timeshare saved us money, but we also had to rent a car. Staying on the property will save us that money and give us more time at the park. We may not be able to get to the grocery store to bring our own food. If you've stayed in Disney itself, please let me know what you do to save money on food.

We'll also look to use credit card rewards to build up frequent flier miles to cut down the costs of flying. With the kids, the cost of flying has doubled and this is the only way I can see to mitigate that.

Posted on April 14, 2016.

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4 Responses to “My Mammoth DisneyWorld and Universal Studios Review”

  1. Joey says:

    Our family are Disney vets, some observations for you:

    You can take strollers on the monorail.

    You can book fastpasses ahead of time online if you buy your tickets ahead of time, and never spend time in lines.

    Lightning McQueen and Mater are in Hollywood Studios – might be closed right now for the renovation however. Not as much going on at Hollywood right now, but within 2-3 years will be the best park with dedicated star wars, muppets and pixar areas.

    Staying on property is worth it. Magical express takes you to and from your hotel for free. Transportation between hotels and parks is free, and generally quick.

    Lots more I could share – but I find that most people that have negative things to say about Disney are a) uninformed and/or b) unprepared. The average family spends far more and gets far less out of their disney vacations. And most people overlook things like staying on property because it is “expensive”, but sometimes things are worth the cost. I have stayed offsite as well, it can also be a good experience – but again it is all in the details and planning. Hope your next trip goes better!

    • Lazy Man says:

      Thanks for the tips.

      It seems like we could do weeks of research to maximize our Disney vacation. I love to research, but when it comes to vacation, I just want things to be easy.

      We booked our fastpasses ahead of time, but the limit is three, and that’s not likely to take you through a 12-hour day. After the initial 3, I guess it is 1 per wait at the kiosk.

      It did seem like some part of Pixarland was under renovation. I read that they are doing a lot more Toy Story stuff there which would be good. I was more impressed with the Pixar places in Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland and Epcot.

      I’d probably fall into the unprepared, but I’m often far too busy to prepare. That’s another reason to have this as our dry run.

      We would have stayed on the property, but it was free to stay off given our use-or-lose situation.

  2. ROBYN A. WEINBAUM says:

    as a kissimmee resident and annual passholder to disney and universal for 20 years, there are so many things i could have told you. i took our kids to disney when they were 3 and an infant. they are now 26 and 23. when my now 15 year old ws born, we took my 11, 8 and 5 DAY old to epcot. spent a few hours walking around, enjoying the people watching and fresh air. yes, i spent the day at epcot 5 days postpartum.
    moot point now.
    there are websites that specialize in these things.
    the kids would have loved the barney show and the barney playground. similar to a children’s museum, perfect for the under 6 set. the water areas at both universal parks are great for kids.
    disney has lots of hidden playgrounds for toddlers.
    BEST TIP: park at a disney hotel. have breakfast or coffee there. then take the HOTEL MONORAIL TO THE MAGIC KINGDOM. PARKING IS FREE AND YOU DON’T HAVE TO FOLD YOUR STROLLER.
    yes hollywood studios has gotten sad. too much ‘rehabbing’ used to be my kids favorites because of the live shows and the shrunk the kids playland. now? feh.
    did you get to dig in the boneyard at animal kingdom?
    my advice to anyone coming here with little kids: chill. enjoy. don’t turn into one of those parents who are yelling because they miss something.

  3. That was super fun. I liked everything about it, actually…. maybe it’s because we covered a lot of ground (yeah with the older kids). But overall, it was better than I expected going in. :-) Till the next one!

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