Orlando – A Family Holiday

We may be travel agents who sell lots of Florida holidays, but we still had to make the same decisions as our regular clients over what to do and what not to do when planning our summer holiday to Orlando this year.

The fact is, if you are going to Orlando for two weeks, you simply can’t do everything, and you need to decide what to prioritise.

The first thing to think about is which theme parks you want to visit. There are three main groups of parks for which you can buy 7 or 14 day passes from the UK, and these definitely save you money, even if you are not planning on spending all your time in the parks. Here is a summary of which parks come under which tickets, although you can of course purchase tickets for individual parks should you wish to do so.

Disney World (4 theme parks and 2 waterparks)
  • Magic Kingdom
  • Epcot
  • Hollywood Studios
  • Animal Kingdom
  • Blizzard Beach (waterpark)
  • Typhoon Lagoon (waterpark)
Universal (2 theme parks and 1 waterpark)
  • Universal Studios
  • Islands Of Adventure
  • Volcano Bay (waterpark)
  • Seaworld Orlando
  • Busch Gardens Tampa
  • Aquatica (waterpark)
  • Discovery Cove (This is the one where you can swim with dolphins)

If you wanted to do a single day at each of these on a 14 night holiday then you could, but there would be almost no downtime, you would almost definitely be suffering from theme park overload, and you would have to have a substantial budget to do it all. So this is where decisions have to be made.

We decided to go with the Disney / Universal combination this year, hitting the parks hard in the first week staying onsite at resort hotels, followed by a slightly more chilled out second week when we would stay in an apartment off resort and experience some of the other entertainment in and around the Orlando area.

So, arriving from London four hours later than scheduled we headed straight for the Disney Magical Express airport transfer service which is free if you are staying at a Disney resort hotel. Just a short while later we were checking in to Disney’s Port Orleans French Quarter. We were given our Magic Bands which are worn on your wrist and act as key entry to your room, park tickets, fastpass entry, and Dining credits. A great Disney innovation which we loved.

We booked our holiday at the time when Disney had their ‘free Disney dining’ offer, and I would strongly advise you to look out for this as it will save you a small fortune. The offer runs regularly usually for bookings made between April and November each year for the following year – excluding Easter, including summer holidays.

After a good nights sleep it was time to hit the Disney parks. One of the advantages of staying onsite is that all your transport is free and so easy. Just turn up at your hotel bus stop and jump on the next shuttle bus to the park you wish to visit, or you can take a boat to some venues, or the monorail. It means you do not need a car whilst staying onsite. Resort guests also get early access to the theme parks which we found really useful. We had normally ticked off a number of rides with hardly any queue time before the gates opened to non-hotel guests.

We found the Disney fastpass system worked very well. As hotel guests we were able to select our fastpass choices 60 days prior to check-in for the entire length of our stay (it’s 30 days in advance if you’re staying off-site) so we had all our park days planned out well in advance. You can book fastpasses for three rides then on the day, when you have used all three, you can then book more, one at a time.

We loved the Disney dining plan too which gave us snack credits which we used generally for breakfast, a quick service meal and a waiter service meal each day. OK, so the food overall wasn’t great, but you’re not going to Disney for the gourmet food so you just have to live with it. Personally I would love to have seen more vegetables, and the kids would have loved to have seen more fries rather than tortilla chips which seem to be served with lots of things (burger and plain tortilla chips isn’t quite the same). We booked our waiter service restaurants six months in advance, and it’s worth noting that some of the venues offer a waiter meal plus preferential seating for a parade. We therefore had a prime position staked out for us on Main Street for Magic Kingdom’s Festival Of Fantasy Parade, and we also had reserved seating at Animal Kingdom for the very impressive Rivers Of Light Show. Personally, my favourite Disney restaurant was Tiffins at Animal Kingdom and although this one requires two food credits, it wasn’t a problem as we arrived too late to make use of our meal credit on our first night, so put it towards the meal at Tiffins. If you are on a Disney dining plan, don’t forget, you will still need to pay service charges (suggested at 20%) which you may need to plan for as this can add quite a chunk to the overall cost.

People with slightly older kids often skip Disney parks and opt for Universal instead, but having visited Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and Animal Kingdom, one thing I can definitely confirm is that Disney is not just focused on young kids. There are far more actual rollercoaster rides here than there are at the Universal parks which feature more simulator type rides than actual coasters. Having been dragged on to Space Mountain, Rock N Rollercoaster, Expedition Everest, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Big Thunder Mountain, I can definitely say that I have experienced the best of them.

There are also plenty of simulator rides that really were impressive, for example Misson Space, Soarin’ and my favourite Avatar Flight Of Passage which stood out as really being ‘different’. There are great water rides too including Splash Mountain and Kali River Rapids, and we even loved the less extreme rides particularly Toy Story Mania, a 4D shooting game which we managed to get straight on to twice in a row as our fastpass didn’t seem to register on our first go.

All in all, we managed to get on almost everything we would have wanted to and more and we never queued for very long. Which reminds me, I should mention the Disney app which shows waiting times and means you can go from attraction to attraction with the shortest wait times. Combined with our fastpasses this worked really well for us. The only thing we didn’t go on that we would like to have done, was Test Track at Epcot. At Epcot they have prioritised some of their premium rides so you can only select one of either Test Track, Soarin’ or Frozen Ever After. We chose Soarin’ and thought it was a great ride, but in retrospect we should have done Test Track as a fastpass and queued for Soarin’ as the queue time was 40 minutes for Soarin’ as opposed to 70 minutes for Test Track. You live and learn!

One final mention on the Disney parks is Memory Maker. Disney Photographers are positioned throughout the parks and will take pictures of you which you can then download for unlimited use. Simply have your photo taken, scan your Magic Band, and your photo is sent to your Disney app. This applies to ride photos too. Memory Maker is included free with the Disney Ultimate Ticket and as a result, we now have some lovely family shots which look professional (and magical in some cases).

Disney’s Memory Maker

Disney also has two waterparks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. Both are included in the 14 day ticket. We opted to visit Typhoon Lagoon which has a fantastic wave pool which fires out a massive single wave every few minutes, which then creates smaller waves to follow. The kids seemed to love the wave pool more than the slides as you didn’t have to queue.

As well as the theme parks, the Disney transport system also takes you to Disney Springs, their shopping, eating and entertainment venue. We had a meal at a Mexican restaurant here on our Disney dining plan (one of the better meals we had), and it’s great place to have a wander round and do some souvenir shopping.
And so, after five nights at our Disney hotel, we moved on to Universal, staying at Loews Royal Pacific. There are currently six Universal resort hotels to choose from (with another new one coming 2019), all offering early entry to one of the parks, but only the ‘Premier’ ones include free Express passes to get you straight on to the rides. These are Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Portofino Bay, and Loews Royal Pacific. I can’t stress enough how important a fastpass is at Universal if you are visiting in peak season. If you are staying offsite, then I would advise factoring in the cost of the Express pass into your budget, or otherwise stay at one of the premier hotels for a couple of nights just to get the Express pass included. Normal queue times at Universal were long but with the Express passes we only had to wait for a few minutes in the majority of cases.

Royal Pacific is just a 10 minute walk from Universal Studios and Universal Islands Of Adventure, but we opted to take the complimentary boat service most of the time as it was a rather pleasant way to start the day. The boat drops you off at City Walk which is the equivalent of Disney’s Disney Springs area, with shops, restaurants and entertainment. A very short walk over the bridge from here brings you to the two parks. They are linked inside via the Hogwarts Express although you will of course need a pass for both parks should you wish to travel between the two. We loved both the Universal Parks and I can’t say we preferred one over the other. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was amazing but particularly crowded, we loved the look and feel of Springfield: Home of the Simpsons, and New York felt very much like New York! Marvel Super Hero Island was also an impressive looking area of the Islands Of Adventure park, made all the better by regular appearances of super heroes roaring up the street on quad bikes. A I mentioned before, your Express pass lets you jump the queue for almost everything and I wouldn’t go to Universal without one. My favourite ride at Universal was Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, although there were lots of great rides making it hard to choose. Many of the rides are simulator based and make very clever use of moving cars and big screens. There are also a number of water rides, and here’s a word or warning; if you go on Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges be prepared to get absolutely soaked. Our daughter was sensible enough to take her shoes off and put them under the waterproof cover but the rest of us walked around with squelching feet for the rest of the day.

Unlike Disney there was no pre-bookable meal plan, so we ate breakfast in the hotel at their quick-stop breakfast area (cereal, pancakes, toast, yoghurt etc), and had lunch and/or dinner at City Walk or the hotel. I would particularly recommend the Toothsome Chocolate Factory which you can’t miss if you are in City Walk, as we found the food to be good quality there, although as is usually the case in the USA, there was far too much of it.

A bonus of staying so close to the parks is that it was easy to break our day up with early park entry, then a return to the hotel in the afternoon for a swim and a rest, then back to the park late afternoon or early evening.

We also spent a day at Universal’s waterpark, Volcano Bay. You can get a free shuttle from the hotel or if you’re staying offsite, it’s a case of parking the car and getting the shuttle bus from the car park to the park entrance.

Volcano Bay operates a ‘TapuTapu’ system where you get given a wrist band on entry which allows you to tap into different rides where you are given a return time and therefore avoid the queues. We found that although this sounds great in theory, it meant that if you had a long return time (80 minutes for one of the slides) then you can’t go on other TapuTapu rides in the meantime as the system only allows you in one virtual queue at a time. There are other things to do whilst you’re waiting, for example the wave pool, the fearless river and the winding river, but it would have been nice to be able to access more of the slides with less of a wait time whilst waiting for the big one.

Then onto our second week, another change of hotel, and this time away from the parks and onto International Drive. We stayed in a two bedroom apartment at the Sheraton Vistana Villages Resort situated between Universal and Disney, and close to Seaworld. The resort is comprised of spacious one and two bedroom apartments situated around lakes and, offers free parking, 3 big pools to choose from, an on-site shop, a restaurant and bar area, pool table, table tennis, outdoor movie nights, bbqs, and more. The grounds are beautifully kept, and although I felt the room was a little dated in terms of furniture and décor, it was all spotlessly clean, well equipped and had plenty of room for the four of us.

Having done all the theme parks that we had planned to do in our first eight days, our second week was always going to be more relaxing than the first. We spent plenty of time at the pool, but that’s not to say we didn’t fit in any more days out.

We drove out to the Kennedy Space Centre which we all loved. I had heard it was good, but I came home with a new-found interest in space that I didn’t have before. There is lots to see and do there and I really would recommend you spend a full day there.

Then we drove back in that direction for a day at Cocoa beach. It only takes just over an hour to drive there, and we booked the kids in for surf lessons with Ron Jons Surf School. Unfortunately our youngest (age 11) although a good swimmer just found it too hard to get the board back out into the water after catching a wave and gave up after 10 minutes, exhausted. I have to say I would have been the same had I even attempted it in the first place, but our son (aged 13) was a natural and seemed able to stand on the surf board from his first attempt. After almost two hours he too was absolutely shattered, but delighted with his achievement and new found surf skills.

One of my favourite outings was to Boggy Creek Airboats where we booked a private tour which included a captain and boat just for us. We saw a few small alligators, lots of bird life, amazing apple snails and their bright pink eggs, and despite the noise from the engine (you wear ear defenders) and the high speeds we reached, I found it the most relaxing activity of our holiday.

We also shopped at Premium Outlets just a very short drive from the Sheraton, went to the cinema at Pointe Orlando (amazing seats), went bowling at Disney Springs (a big improvement on our local bowling alley at home), as well as returning to Magic Kingdom one evening to watch the Happily Ever After fireworks and the Once Upon A Time projection show where the castle is brought to life with projections from Disney stories. A couple of nights we caught the I-Drive trolley from right outside the Sheraton up to I-Drive 360 where we ate dinner and didn’t have to worry about driving home.

So all in all, I would say Orlando is the ultimate holiday destination, particularly if you have kids in tow. Do your research prior to visiting, seek advice from your trusted travel experts, plan well, and you will have the most amazing time, just as we have done.

The Travel Trove Top Tips
    1. • Book early especially for school holidays – you’ll get better flight prices
    1. • Stay on resort for maximum convenience, early park entry, and lots more benefits
    1. • Plan what parks you want to visit in advance and remember you can’t do everything in one two week trip.
    1. • You can book your Disney dining 180 days in advance, and although this means you will have to plan your Disney days months before your visit, booking early means you will get the best choice of restaurants and dining times. Some restaurants such as Be Our Guest at Magic Kingdom get booked up very quickly.
    1. • If you stay in a Disney resort hotel then you can book your fastpasses for the duration of your stay, 60 days before the date of travel (30 days for non-resort guests). Book as soon as you can to get the best choice of rides and times. You can choose three fastpasses per day to pre-book, and when you’ve used them, you can then book more, one at a time, using the Disney app. It is therefore best to book your first three in the morning so you can book more for the afternoon when you are at the park.
    1. • Use the park apps. They are excellent particularly the Disney one on which you can book dining and fastpasses, keep a check on your Disney dining credits, see wait times for the shuttle buses, look at current queue times for rides, and locate your position on the park maps.
    1. • Factor in tips to the cost of your meals, even if you are on resort dining plans, tipping is extra.
    1. • Allow yourself some down time. Visiting the theme parks in the heat of the summer can be exhausting and you need to allow for some rest time.
    1. • If you are visiting in the summer, you are likely to encounter some big storms. Take an umbrella, pack a waterproof jacket or buy a poncho.
    1. • Use the expertise of a travel agent to help with your plans instead of trying to muddle through it all yourself. There is lots to think about with an Orlando holiday, and it can be confusing, so give us a call at The Travel Trove as we would be delighted to help with your plans.