We had just visited the mother of all amusement parks, Disney World, and hated it.
So when we traveled to Los Angeles in January, shortly after our Florida experience, we deliberately skipped the "most-memorable California experience," Disneyland. Instead of meeting Mickey and his entourage, we put our princess-happy daughter’s love on the line and chose to visit Universal Studios Hollywood – the entertainment capital of Los Angeles – instead.
Some background: DD is 4.5 years and “princess–struck.” She is also “pink-rainbow-sparkles-struck," so Disney was a no-brainer to keep the kid happy when we had planned our Florida trip. It's true that she was fine, sitting in the stroller we had rented for her, running and jumping around.
But for us, it was torture standing in long lines for close to 45-50 minutes only to get a picture with Tinkerbell or to go on a five-minute ride. DH and I were completely drained by the end of our three-day trip. And now that we have Universal for comparison, it wins hands down.
You might think (as we did) that Universal cannot live up to all the fun and excitement that Disney could offer, and you would be wrong, especially if you have young children. Universal Studios is not only a continuation of the stories from the movies and sitcoms – making you feel a part of the cast – but it also includes a tour of the live and functioning sets.
Here are five reasons we decided to be Universal faithfuls and dump Disney. (One note: The comparison with Disneyland is from the experience of travelers who’ve been there, and from our similar and arguably more painful experience at Disney World, Florida.)
1. Better height restrictions
Disney: Many rides, particularly the fun ones, have a height limit of 44 inches. DH and I are both over 44 inches, but we couldn’t both go on the rides, because one of us had to be with DD. So if I went on the ride first while DH waited with the princess or visited some other princess, he’d have to wait in line again for his turn on the ride. That’s close to around an hour and a half of waiting in line for a cumulative 10-minute ride. (Disney World does offer a "Rider's Switch" program that helps caregivers swap on select attractions, similar to Universal's "Child Switch"option, but the procedure and rules on the number of persons that can swap seem to be different for different attractions.)
Universal: You can get on most rides if you are 40 inches or more. DD made the cut. (The few inches cost us a lot at Disney). On the only ride that she was not allowed (Revenge of the Mummy), there was a "child switch" option available. The concept is that a caregiver (ages 14 and over) can stay with the child while an accompanying rider goes on the attraction. On returning from the ride, the caregiver and the rider can switch places without having to wait in the line again for the ride. This is huge for parents with small kids. It saved us a lot of time and we didn’t have to miss the rides.
2. More "coverable" rides
Disneyland’s rides do outnumber the rides at Universal. But that’s not necessarily a good thing. Because Disney does not have a child switch option, you need to prioritize all the kid-friendly rides and ride those. And even so, you may not be able to cover the whole park in a day. With small children, Universal is much more “coverable.” You feel that you’ve seen it all, or most of it, by the end of your trip. From the mostly harmless hand shake with Dora to the Revenge of Mummy you can cover almost all rides. Check out ticketing options below.
3. Better options for wait times
Disney: If you are staying at a Disneyland resort, you can enter the park ahead of all other guests on “Early Magic Hour” days and all guests can utilize the FASTPASS system to skip most of the lines.
But here’s the catch: Not all rides have a FASTPASS and you can’t get a FASTPASS for all the rides that do have the option at the same time. For example, if you’ve taken the pass for a particular ride, you will have to wait for two hours or so before you are "eligible" to get a FASTPASS for another ride.
Universal: We've already talked about the benefits of the child switch option, which can help with wait times. In addition, there are options to buy the VIP Experience or the Front of Line Pass (FOL). They are expensive, but FOL can be worth it if you’re on a time crunch and want to see as much as you can at the Studios. More details here.
4. Character appearance without the royalty
Disney: The most popular characters have long wait lines. But once you’re in, you do get special treatment for the two minutes you are with them (eg, if visiting a princess, you are addressed as "Your Majesty"). That’s a worthwhile experience.
But after visiting just one princess, DD didn’t care for meeting any more. She’d much rather sit on a ride than wait for a picture taken. Apparently, she was done with the paparazzi.
Universal: At Universal, characters visit the park in their designated places at regular intervals and you can click pictures with them. From Dora the Explorer or SpongeBob to the Transformers, there’s someone for everyone. Some may joke with you and poke you, but you’re a normal person at Universal, not royalty. In our case, that worked fine. And what can you expect from the Minions or Simpsons?
5. Closer to vomit: higher thrill factor
If there were a thrill-o-meter, it would tilt heavily toward Universal. Granted Disney’s Hollywood Studios also has some extraterrestrial rides, but the fun and the stomach-churning effect at Universal was truly superior. I personally loved the Simpsons Ride, as did DD. And DH loved The Transformers and Revenge of the Mummy. The Minion ride is expected to open in the spring of this year. “Bee-do! Bee- do!” your way there.
If there were awesome rides in Disney, we may have missed it, unable to decide who got to go first and who would stay back.
If you go ...
Passes: Even if you plan to visit only for a day, get the annual pass for $84. At the same price as the general ticket, you get multiple entries into the park (except blackout days) and a discount for up to six people visiting with you. You also get discounts on merchandise with your pass.
One-day pass for kids age 3-9 is $76. The annual pass remains $84.
Get the Front of Line Pass only if you are pressed for time. ($139 until April 11, $169 from April 12-27)
Check the Universal website for special offers.
Hours: Check the park hours in advance. It varies through the week.
Strollers: In contrast to Disney, where I would strongly recommend renting out a stroller for kids ages 6 and below, you can make do without one in Universal as the park isn’t that huge.
Food: Pack as much food as you can, if you want to avoid the expensive eateries. CityWalk, just outside Universal has many options and price ranges.
Stay: We stayed with a relative. But there are many hotels that offer discounts or free park entries. The list is here. But do the math. It may be cheaper to stay a little away and rent a car.
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