By Kim ShiffmanUpdated May 08, 2019
Photo: Courtesy of Disney
If you’re planning a family trip to Orlando, you’ve already started your Disney research, obviously. Who visits Orlando without bringing their kids to one of the most magical places on earth? But Disney World isn’t the only family-friendly attraction in town, and there's actually some pretty stiff competition. Here are some fun things to do in Orlando with kids.
There are four main parks at Walt Disney World, and while you should try to visit all of them during your Orlando stay, Hollywood Studios is a can't miss thanks to its newest attraction, Toy Story Land. Just wandering through Toy Story Land is an experience; everything is oversized, and guests are meant to feel like tiny toys playing in Andy’s backyard. The area, which opened in 2018, boasts three rides: Slinky Dog Dash, a smooth steel roller coaster (on which, it must be noted, you can get a sneak peak of the new Star Wars land, which opens August 29, 2019); Alien Swirling Saucers, where you’ll be gently spun around in toy rockets; and Toy Story Mania, where riders don 3-D glasses and climb into a spinning vehicle to compete in a video game inspired by classic carnival shooting games.
Toy Story Land isn’t the only newer offering at Disney. Pandora – The World of Avatar opened in Disney's Animal Kingdom in 2017, and its Avatar Flight of Passage ride is regarded by many as the best ride across all four parks. I don't know if it was designed with kids in mind, but my five-year-old loved it (so did I, obvs). Secure a FastPass+ for Flight of Passage, if you can—the lineups can be long for this popular ride.
If you’ve been to a Legoland Discovery Centre, like the one just outside Toronto, put that image out of your mind—that’s not even remotely what you’re getting at Legoland Florida Resort, which is in fact a huge outdoor amusement park, featuring Lego-themed rides, attractions and character meet-and-greets created with younger children in mind (teens might be a bit bored unless they’re die-hard Lego fans). Legoland is less than a decade old, but it isn’t resting on its laurels. In 2018, it launched Lego Ninjago World, a training ground for future ninjas. In Lego Ninjago The Ride, you’ll sport 3-D glasses, then wave your arms around karate chop-style to destroy skeletons, ghosts and other bad guys. I’m holding on to the idea that it was designed with short arms in mind, because my kindergartener got the highest score in our family somehow (and of course asked to ride again and again).
One thing to note about Legoland it’s actually located in Winter Haven, about an hour’s drive from the other major Orlando-area parks. Some families choose to book a room at the Legoland Hotel, which is walking-distance from the park and offers free daily breakfast.
Animal lovers shouldn't leave Orlando with spending some time at SeaWorld. Although you'll notice some pretty impressive-looking roller coasters on your way in, your day with small kids will likely revolve more around animal shows and interactive experiences, where you’ll learn about (and be amazed by) orcas, sea lions, penguins, otters and dolphins.
The park’s newest attraction, which opens March 27, 2019, is Sesame Street at SeaWorld Orlando. Kids (and, real talk, nostalgic adults) will enjoy wandering through the iconic Sesame Street neighbourhood, including Abby Cadabby’s garden, Big Bird’s nest, Mr. Hooper’s store and the famous 123 stoop. Six rides, dry and wet play areas, and character meet-and-greets are all part of the fun, as well as a daily Sesame Street parade.
Universal Orlando was the biggest surprise of my family’s Orlando trip. We knew our tween would enjoy the massive theme park, but we weren't sure how much there'd be for our five-year-old. As it turns out, there was tons. At Islands of Adventure, one of Universal's three main parks (the others are Universal Studios and Volcano Bay, a water park), our little guy went nuts for the Dr. Seuss area, Seuss Landing, and the whole family enjoyed lunch at Circus McGurkus Cafe Stoo-pendous. Marvel Super Hero Island and Jurassic Park were also hits, and both featured rides my kids could handle.
Universal Orlando is also where you and your kids can live out your Harry Potter dreams. At Islands of Adventure, explore Hogsmeade, where you'll find two Potter-themed rides, The Three Broomsticks restaurant, and Ollivanders, the famous wand shop. (Prepare for your kids to beg for an interactive wand, which will set you back US$52.) Then, head to Hogsmeade station for short trip on the Hogwarts Express, which is both a ride and a legit method of transportation if you're looking to head to Universal Studios. You'll disembark at King's Cross Station, where you can wander through Diagon Alley, check out the Knight Bus and The Leaky Cauldron, and ride Escape from Gringotts, which is awesome, but probably too scary for the littlest kids—they might prefer the Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone area and the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride.
When you’re in a new city, consider what the locals do for fun with their kids. The Orlando Science Center is reminiscent of the Ontario Science Centre, and is a great place to spend a few hours out of the Florida heat and humidity. Families with small children shouldn’t skip KidsTown, a miniature city geared to the preschool set, and NatureWorks on the first floor, an interactive area that introduces kids to the diverse ecosystems of Central Florida, including live shows featuring alligators and turtles. Don’t miss the three-level play structure, which may not have taught my kids much about science, but definitely gave them a chance to climb their sillies out. Note: With just a Subway restaurant and a small snack bar, meal and snack offerings are limited.
Plan on spending a few hours at the Crayola Experience, which features more than 25 hands-on attractions. Learn how crayons are made in a live show, name and wrap your own crayon, stomp around on an interactive floor and create a melted wax painting. Big kids will love the large indoor playground, while smaller ones should head to Toddler Town for a climbing structure made with small kids mind. It can get pretty crowded at Crayola Experience so consider arriving right at opening.
If nobody in your family is afraid of heights, take a 25-minute spin on the ICON Orlando (formerly known as the Orlando Eye), which is the tallest observation wheel on North America’s east coast. The air-conditioned capsules are fully enclosed so they're super safe, even for crawlers, and offer some pretty spectacular views of Orlando. Don’t worry about experiencing motion sickness, even if you're prone to it, because the ICON moves very slowly, almost imperceptibly. Tip: Bring binoculars.
Orlando offers countless options for accommodations—more than 125,000 total hotel rooms, in fact, approaching Las Vegas' total—which means choosing can be overwhelming. My family’s wish list looked like this: Tons of space for the four of us to spread out; a large, heated outdoor pool; an affordable and tasty on-site restaurant; and a convenient location. Floridays Resort Orlando ticked all these boxes.
Floridays' rooms are all two- and three-bedroom suites that feature full kitchens (we saved a ton making our own breakfast each morning) and even a washer and dryer, which for me, took the stress out of making packing decisions. Its casual restaurant, which also provides room service, is inexpensive and tastier than expected, and they bent over backwards to accommodate my gluten-free kid. When it comes to accommodations, other than the "who sleeps where" debate, kids mostly only care about the pool. Floridays' is big, heated, and has a fun water feature in the shallow zone. Not to mention a separate hot tub. Ahhhhh.
After its theme parks, Orlando is known for its shopping options. Looking for discounts? After a day at the theme park, dinner and a swim, spend a couple of hours shopping at Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets. Open until 11 pm nightly, on any given evening, you’ll find families wandering through its 160+ stores—everything from Gap Kids and Carter's to Coach and Prada, and everything in between. Grab an ice cream at Ben & Jerry's and call it a day.
Some of the writer's costs were covered by Visit Orlando.