Universal Orlando is a must-visit for “Harry Potter” fans. // © 2017 Universal Orlando Resort
Feature image (above): Legoland Florida has mellow roller coasters for young kids. // © 2017 Legoland Florida
It’s no secret that there are “theme park people” and “non theme park people,” but even among theme park people, there can be important differences that will determine which park is right for which client.
Since theme park vacations are often family vacations, children’s ages should be the first factor a travel agent takes into account when planning these trips. When my kids were small, I remember how excited they were to ride certain attractions, and how devastating it was when they weren’t tall enough. While that sort of thing is often unavoidable, agents can help minimize any disappointment by recommending parks that offer attractions for families with young children.
Meredith Wallace, a travel agent at Minnie Memories Travel in Bedford, N.Y., always asks clients the ages of their children, as well as how long they plan to travel. She says these questions often determine where the family should go; for example, if they have small children and are visiting for only a day or two, she finds Universal Orlando Resort is the best option. One reason is Universal’s Seuss Landing area, where families get an immersive experience that’s not overwhelming for young children.
Thierry Coup, senior vice president of the creative studio at Universal Creative, says that’s exactly what the park intended.
“Walking into Seuss Landing makes guests feel like they’ve actually stepped into the pages of a Dr. Seuss book,” he said.
On the other hand, if clients want a weeklong experience with something new every day, Wallace thinks there’s only one place that fits the bill: Walt Disney World Resort. The park offers clients a vast array of experiences, making it great for a longer family vacation.
“The magic of Disney is timeless fun for all ages, but preschoolers are at a special age where their imaginations soar,” said Cal Almaguer, vice president of domestic travel industry sales for Disney Destinations, LLC. “With attractions, shows and experiences across four Disney theme parks, Walt Disney World is the place to make their little dreams come true.”
When it comes to the most kid-friendly theme park, Legoland Florida Resort may be the perfect choice — after all, it’s literally built for kids.
“And we really mean kids — not moms, dads, grandparents or even teenagers,” said David Brady, senior public relations manager for Legoland Florida.
The resort is designed for ages 2 to 12, so Brady encourages agents to make sure clients understand what it offers and what it doesn’t. Legoland may not be the place for a high-impact roller coaster ride, Brady says, “but this is a great place for a child to have his or her very first roller coaster ride.”
There are certainly people who would rather have a root canal than go on a roller coaster, but there are just as many people who love the thrill of them. It would make little sense to book a vacation at a park with many big coasters for clients who have no intention of riding them, so find out beforehand whether thrill rides are a “yea” or “nay” to determine which park to recommend.
One of the questions travel advisor Wallace asks her clients is how they feel about simulators and big roller coasters.
“If they love them, then Universal Orlando is their park,” she said.
Travel agent Sue Pisaturo of Small World Vacations in Washington Township, N.J., agrees that the adventurous rides at Universal Orlando make it unique.
“Rides such as Skull Island: Reign of Kong, The Incredible Hulk Coaster and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man are particularly popular with teenagers and young adults,” Pisaturo said.
While Walt Disney World’s parks may not have as many high-speed rides as Universal Orlando, Disney Destinations’ Almaguer points out that there are still thrilling attractions at all four theme parks — including Space Mountain at Magic Kingdom, Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Tower of Terror and Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Disney parks have always been known for storytelling, and there’s no better place to be immersed in the familiar stories of favorite Disney characters. Likewise, Universal parks have taken franchises such as “The Simpsons,” “Minions” and, soon, Nintendo, and created immersive lands where guests feel like they have stepped right into the story. In recent years, however, both Disney and Universal have taken immersive storytelling to a whole new level.
“For more than 50 years, Universal Studios Hollywood has been giving guests behind-the-scenes access to Hollywood’s most illustrious industry,” said Audrey Eig, vice president of communications for Universal Studios Hollywood. “With innovative technology and imagination, the family-friendly park caters to guests seeking an immersive entertainment experience by bringing to life attractions from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.”
Since The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure in 2010, millions of “Harry Potter” fans have traveled to the park to walk in the footsteps of their favorite witches and wizards. The addition of Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Express at Universal Orlando — and the opening of Hogsmead at Universal Studios Hollywood — have made Universal theme parks a must for any Potter fan.
“The adventures of Harry Potter are among the most popular stories of our time,” Universal’s Coup said. “We put our guests in the middle of a Harry Potter adventure, making them feel as if they’re actually in the books or movies with Harry and his friends.”
With the introduction of several “Star Wars”-themed overlays at Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World, and the anticipation of new “Star Wars” lands in both destinations for 2019, fans of the franchise have packed up their light sabers and headed to the parks at warp speed.
So, while both franchises are loved by people of all ages, Harry and Hermione fans are better suited to Universal theme parks, while fans of Luke and Leia should be pointed in Disney’s direction.
Time or budget restrictions — or both — can also help agents determine which theme park is the best choice for their individual clients.
Marianne Thompson of Avanti Travel in Redding, Calif., says that budget often dictates whether West Coast clients head to Disneyland or Disney World, since a vacation to the Florida resort requires a flight. In addition, she notes that having enough time to experience all the parks in Florida can play a factor in whether her California clients decide to stay in state.
“Disney World must be carefully explained if someone hasn’t been there,” Thompson said. “Clients very often don’t realize the sheer size of the resort, or the fact that there are multiple parks, so enough time must be available.”
While travelers can spend a week at Disneyland and find plenty to do, the fact that the resort has two theme parks — compared to four at Walt Disney World — and that everything is within walking distance means it can also be a great option for clients who don’t have time for a weeklong theme park vacation.
“Disneyland provides clients with thrills, fun and unique Disney magic,” Almaguer said. “With two theme parks, three hotels and the Downtown Disney shopping, dining and entertainment district, Disneyland is a world-class, multiday family vacation destination.”
Similarly, the size and layout of Universal Studios Hollywood, plus its combination of kid-friendly attractions and blockbuster rides, makes it a great choice for clients who don’t want to spend their entire Southern California vacation at a theme park but still want a fun-filled family experience during their trip.
Theme park vacations are nearly always fast-paced and definitely require covering a lot of ground. But there are some parks that may be better suited for groups with young children in strollers or for people who have limited mobility.
For clients looking for a Universal vacation, the parks in Orlando may be easier to navigate because the two parks are close together, and on-site hotels are easily accessed from either park via a water taxi or bus. On the other hand, Universal Studios Hollywood is built with attractions on multiple levels, and navigating the escalators may be a challenge — though there are several convenient elevators, and shuttles are available to the two on-site hotels.
The two parks at Disneyland are directly across from each another, making it easier for guests with wheelchairs and strollers to go back and forth between them. In addition, cast members are always available to assist guests requiring additional help or to provide alternate access to most attractions.
Pisaturo says that Walt Disney World is great at accommodating guests with limitations and those with strollers. She says she always recommends Magic Strollers for convenient, clean and safe stroller delivery and pickup at any Disney resort hotel. She also recommends that clients who plan to focus on the Magic Kingdom choose a hotel on the monorail route — Contemporary, Polynesian or Grand Floridian — and that those who want to focus on Epcot and Hollywood Studios take advantage of the convenient boats and walkways from Disney’s Boardwalk, Disney’s Beach Club and Disney’s Yacht Club.
All these factors can be considered when determining which theme park is the best fit for clients. But whether families choose Disney or Universal, Florida or California, they are sure to experience the memories, the magic and the thrills that theme park vacations provide.