How to Pick the Right Orlando Theme Park for Your Family Vacation

July 27, 2015, 10:32 AM · Kids love going to theme parks. Theme parks love having your kids. (And your money. They really like that too.) It’s a match made in Heaven.

Until it isn’t. Nothing will bring a family vacation to screeching halt faster than Wally World being closed for repairs. Also, if your kids are bored. That’s bad too.

Wait. Kids bored at a theme park? Is that even possible? It can be if you pick the wrong park.

Maybe there’s not much your little Minions can ride in the park due to those two ugly words invented by typically mean tall people: Height Restrictions. Just kidding, not all tall people invent things. Or maybe you’re in a park and your cool teens or preteens feel there’s nothing worth taking their attention away from their beloved smartphone or tablet. If you asked, they’d tell you the park wasn’t cool and possibly neither are you, except that they can’t actually hear you over their Beats Headphones.

With the average ticket price at the major theme parks running more than $100 a head per day, it’s kind of important to go to the right one. Your kids will thank you. And so will your financial advisor. This article will help get you matched up with some good selections based on three specific criteria: your kids’ age, height, and ride quotient.

Ride quotient (or RQ) is an extremely scientific concept — like Avogadro’s number or a flux capacitor — which I researched for a good five minutes or so before I gave up and just created the terminology for this article. There are two opposite ends of the RQ spectrum:

1. Crash Test Dummy: Like the past tenants of Test Track 1.0, your kid wants to ride everything, including minor hurricanes (welcome to Florida!), and will cry if he/she is not tall enough. Some kids might even be more daring than their parents, and if that were the case with me and my 8-year old son (which it’s totally not), I would tell my son, “Sorry, bud, that ride is closed for refurbishment.” You’re welcome.

2. Big Chicken: Your kid will not ride the Disney buses and is fairly concerned that the Carousel of Progress might spin too fast.

See? Much easier than math. That said, your kids can flip-flop faster than Jimmy Buffett from one side to the other or fall somewhere in between.

For example, on our last trip to Universal, my daughter, who might as well be Grade A Certified Chicken, actually willingly rode Jurassic Park River Adventure. So want happened? Of course she freaking loved it and wanted to ride it again!

Jurassic Park on-ride photo

Although from the look on my son’s face (who is usually the Crash Test Dummy) this first family ride on JP has either left him terrified or possibly constipated. Or both.

I’m going to deal primarily with the big two in Florida, aka the theme park capital of the world. Why? Because Florida has the best theme parks. Also oranges. Sorry, California. Together, Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando cover six separate gates. So let’s explore which one(s) may be best for you and your kids…


Walt Disney World is huge. Four separate gates = four choices. Even within the House of Mouse, no two theme parks are the same. So without further delay, in order of appearance:

The Magic Kingdom

Soon to be re-named the Frozen Kingdom. Just kidding, that’s actually going to be Epcot. So synonymous with WDW that when most people say “they’re going to Disney World,” this is what they actually mean.

AGE: 0-12. Yes, I know, everyone of all ages loves the Magic Kingdom. I read the brochure. In reality, when kids hit the tween/preteen/teen barrier a lot of things change.

Speaking from experience, my wife and I got the unexpected gut-punch on our last Disney trip when our soon-to-be 12 year old daughter said she was “kinda bored” with Disney as it was “kinda baby-ish.”

Well we did what any other self-respecting Disney-loving parents would do. We immediately disowned her and gave her adequate bus fare home. Just kidding, we would never do that. Uber is a much more convenient option than public transportation.

Seriously though, my wife and I, who have each been to Disney more than 100 times and have never before had a child become a tween, were stunned at this news. However, after asking around we have found many of our friends have experienced something similar.

HEIGHT: You know this place is good for the little ones because out of the 30+ attractions, rides, and shows, a mere seven have Height Restrictions. This is really good news for parents of young kids. Especially my wife, who can barely see over Dopey’s hat.

Barnstormer – 35”
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad – 40”
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train – 38”
Space Mountain – 44”
Splash Mountain – 40”
Tomorrowland Speedway - 32”
Stitch’s Great Escape – 40”

For the most part, these are all great rides. But the only thing more fun than riding Stitch’s Great Escape is pretty much anything else, including having a tooth pulled and waiting in line for the woman’s restroom (only if you are a woman.)

RQ (RIDE QUOTIENT): This park is geared toward Chickens, with very few Crash Test Dummy Rides. In fact, the only ones I would label for CTD would be Space Mountain and Splash Mountain. And possibly Big Thunder and the Mine Train.


It’s been debated often enough that I won’t rehash it here, but ladies and gentlemen…. Epcot has changed. (But I will say I miss Horizons.)

AGE: 8 and up. I feel that Epcot skews toward an older crowd. Other than the characters and princesses shoe-horned into the park (and maybe Figment) there’s not a lot here to appeal to the real little ones. At least until the Country Previously Known as Norway re-opens its new ride and the country of Arendelle joins the World Showcase. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

Plus no matter when you visit Epcot lately, there always seems to be some sort of Festival being hosted here that is geared toward the celebration of Food and Flowers and Gardens. And by celebration I mean obnoxiously drunk adults walking around the world with large quantities of beer and wine.

For a more kid-friendly beverage selection, the kiddies love the Club Cool exhibit and the Coca-Cola samples from around the world.

HEIGHT: There aren’t a lot of rides here to begin with and unfortunately the two best ones (I’m not looking at you, Mission: Space) have height restrictions.

Mission: SPACE – 44”
Soarin’ – 40”
Test Track 2.0 – 40”

RQ (RIDE QUOTIENT): Other than obvious CTD Mission: Spew, Epcot is a veritable Chicken coop as well. The only other CTD would be Test Track 2.0, which gets fast but not particularly furious (rim shot!), and Soarin’ is a calmer ride than the Florida Turnpike.

Disney's Hollywood Studios

Hey! Isn’t this park closed? No? Oh. Just most of it.

When you see that sign on I-4 that says “Hollywood Studios - Left,” yeah, they’re not kidding.

In all seriousness, unless you buy a multi-day park hopper, I would skip DHS until they figure out exactly what this park is going to become. And they add some important new features, like you know, some actual rides.

AGE: 4 – 18. DHS is currently a mixed bag. In my opinion it appeals to a little older crowd now due to the big thrill rides, but there is still something for the smaller ones with Playhouse Disney, the Muppets, Voyage of the Little Mermaid, and of course that little ride known as Toy Story Midway Mania. With the exception of Toy Story, any of those other rides could be closed down while you’re on the way to the park.

HEIGHT: I count like eight rides/experiences still here total, and three have height restrictions:

Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster – 48”
Star Tours – 40”
Tower of Terror – 40”

RQ (RIDE QUOTIENT): The only two rides here I feel would appeal to your CTD are Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster and Tower of the Terror.

Disney's Animal Kingdom

According to Disney, Animal Kingdom is “nahtazu.” (Remember those ads? LOL) But it has animals in exhibits for your viewing pleasure. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck and wears a sailor suit and hat without pants… It might be duck.

And I feel there’s nothing wrong with the zoo element, as it appeals to all ages.

AGE: 2 – 12. I think Animal Kingdom appeals to a younger audience, with the teen set really only having one big thrill ride here – Everest. Unless they love animals.

HEIGHT: Not a lot of restrictions here either, but again that’s because there aren’t a ton of rides either, at least until Avatar opens up to add a couple more.

Dinosaur – 40”
Expedition Everest – 44”
Kali River Rapids – 38”
Primeval Whirl – 48”

RQ (RIDE QUOTIENT): The only ride here I feel would appeal to your CTD is Everest. Although Dinosaur has gotten fairly rough in my opinion, and jounces you around pretty good, almost to the point of being nauseating.


Overall, I feel that both of the Universal theme parks appeals to older kids and teens (with the obvious exception of the Despicable Me: Minions Mayhem Ride though that does have a height restriction), particularly those that are reading any book that starts with Harry Potter and the….

Universal Studios Florida

AGE: 8 – 18. My kids are turning 9 and 12 and they LOOOVE Universal now. In my daughter’s (12) case, she enjoys it much more than Disney and can’t get enough of the Wizarding World. My son (9) still loves both Disney and Universal.

HEIGHT: Definitely more rides with restrictions than Disney. Luckily, there is no height requirement for Butterbeer!

E.T. Adventure - 34"
Woody Woodpecker's Nuthouse Coaster - 36"
Transformers: The Ride-3D - 40"
The Simpsons Ride - 40"
Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem - 40"
Men in Black: Alien Attack - 42"
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts - 42"
Revenge of the Mummy - 48"
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit - 51"

RQ (RIDE QUOTIENT): There are a lot of CTD rides. In fact I’d say that everything on the above list would qualify except Men in Black and ET. And if you have a Muggle Chicken, Gringotts is by far the calmer of the two Harry Potter Rides.

Universal's Islands of Adventure

AGE: 8 – 18.

HEIGHT: By far the most height restrictions of tall he parks we are looking at, with a total of 12! IOA is also the only park with 3 requirements in the 50”+ range.

Flight of the Hippogriff - 36"
The Cat in the Hat - 36"
Pteranodon Flyers -36"
The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man - 40"
Seuss Trolley Train Ride - 40"
Jurassic Park River Adventure - 42"
Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges - 42"
Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls - 44"
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey - 48"
Doctor Doom's Fearfall - 52"
Dragon Challenge - 54"
The Incredible Hulk Coaster - 54"

One cool thing about Universal that we just discovered - at least at the Dragon Challenge - is that despite both our kids barely missing out on the height restriction, they were given these neat scrolls that the cast member then put their names on. So when they are tall enough, they can return and use them like Universal Express on the ride.

Return ride scrolls

RQ (RIDE QUOTIENT): Pretty much all of them are CTD! Exceptions would be Cat in the Hat which has had its spinning elements neutered to the point I wonder why there’s still a restriction at all, The Trolley Train Ride (which is just high up), and Popeye.

On a side note, on our most recent trip I rode Popeye twice (thanks kids!) and I can honestly tell you that I would have been less wet if I had opted to jump into our resort pool fully clothed, during a rainstorm. If you value your valuables, spend the money and put them in a nearby locker.

IN CLOSING: Of course, no matter what anyone says, your family can have a heck of a lot of fun at any theme park, but tailoring your trip to your situation will always improve your odds! And may the odds be ever in your favor…

Replies (11)

July 27, 2015 at 11:27 AM

My six-year-old is totally a crash test dummy. She did Test Track and Soarin, all the MK mountains, Everest and Dinosaur, and Star Tours. The thing that scared her the most was the Great Movie Ride of all things. I have a feeling my younger daughter may be in a different category.

July 27, 2015 at 11:57 AM

Mr. Danner writes: "And by celebration I mean obnoxiously drunk adults walking around the world with large quantities of beer and wine."

I Respond: Yeah ... That was a bit much.

July 27, 2015 at 12:23 PM

Great article! However, I have to disagree with you on the oranges.

July 27, 2015 at 12:34 PM

Your writing truly is a joy to read, Paul! (I especially cracked up when you mentioned disowning your daughter) But this raises the question... should I be concerned that I'm 17 ( and a boy) and yet prefer Disney over Universal? Don't get me wrong, Universal will always have a special place in my heart, but I just love Disney so much more. Maybe I'm just one in a million?

July 27, 2015 at 1:07 PM

Haha, "Hollywood Studios- Left" - that sir put a smile on my face.

Fun post to read!

July 27, 2015 at 1:46 PM

Great article, Paul! Loved the DHS comment!

July 27, 2015 at 6:31 PM

I don't know about Florida, but Caifornia has some pretty great theme parks and oranges.

July 27, 2015 at 9:18 PM

And if you want to get around Disney by UBER (cheaper than cabs) Download the app, and add promo code MIGUELT10 for 1st free ride up to $20.

July 28, 2015 at 6:36 AM

Nice article. I would say that if your family has never been to an Orlando theme park, and you want to do it big on the first trip, and you have teens, go to Disney first and Universal second. My kids do love both, and Magic Kingdom is easily my favorite, but there is no denying Harry Potter, the unlimited Express Pass, and the faster rides. I will also say that if you must go during high volume times and can afford the more expensive Universal hotels, you will get more bang for your buck at Universal due to crowds. I also think people should not forget California. It is a lot cooler in the summer and can be slightly better managed with the crowds (although I bet West Coast Hogsmeade will be brutal).

July 28, 2015 at 8:18 AM

Great article and a fun read.
We found the same thing as we moved from WDW to Universal for our vacations. As the kids got a little older, like 8, they began preffering Universal. The fact that WDW quit investing in new attractions the last 10-12 years just sped up our decision to move to Universal. When we walked around Epcot and our3 kids only wanted to ride Mission Space, the wife and I realized we just spent $500 to buy nachos and shop.
The wife and I love the calm atmosphere created by staying on property at Uni and having unlimited fast passes all day, sorry, not interested in 3 appointments per day with a Magic Handcuff.
Every time we hit Universal there are at least 2 new rides and one under development. Uni isn't using "3 years to build a kiddie coaster" type speed either. Riding a nice boat through a mile long canal to the front of the parks really beats the WDW buses too.

July 29, 2015 at 9:48 PM

The anti Disney rants are getting old. Sure Universal has become a great theme park operator,. While Disney may not be opening a new E ticket every year, they are still the world leader, with Universal being a very close second. Universal wasn't first rate 10 years ago, and they are still inconsistent in theming and quality. But they have truly upped their game. Prefer them to Disney, great. But don't keep going on and on. Vote with your dollars, and talk about why you like a park, and not keep bashing bashing the other ones.

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