Following our Arizona trip we spent 8 days in Orlando… I had been to Orlando many times before at different times in my life: as a child, in college with friends, visiting Orlando with a local while skipping amusement parks, alone with my husband and as a family with 2 kids (as babies and now at the magical age of 7 and 10). The last time I was in Orlando was 6.5 years ago and I was amazed to see how much it grew and what a maze it has become… Having rented a defective GPS, we were constantly lost despite being only minutes away from all the parks. So my first advice is to rent a GPS that works and carefully plan where you are going. Even being next door to the parks you will still need to budget a good hour to drive to the parking lot, park, take the trolley to the entrance, and finally walk into the parks.
We had almost 8 full days and visited parks for 6 days which was more than enough in my opinion… Despite the parks being amazing and everything being so organized and family friendly, unless you are spending 10+ days, I would not do more than 6-7 parks max. Park holidays are fun and magical though exhausting… We would wake up around 7-8 am every day, have breakfast at the hotel and still only get to parks around 10.30-11am! We would walk all day, with the exception of a quick rest for lunch, and only return to the hotel around 8.30-9pm…starving…and ready to shower and go to bed. Most dinners ended up being at the hotel (so pick a hotel with nice dining options or a hotel located close to nice dining options). Most days after we had our dinner, had a shower and got ready to bed it was close to midnight. I would strongly recommend to arrive at the parks as close to opening hours as possible (usually 9am for most parks) since the first 2 hours are the best time to get to see what you want without having to stand in line for a very long time. The last two hours before the parks close tend to be the second ‘slowest’ times of the day.
During this trip I downloaded the Undercover Tourist Orlando App and was extremely impressed with it. It gives you very accurate description of the parks, rides, age restrictions, wait time in line, best days and times to visit each park/attraction… It also guides you through the parks which is very handy. During this visit we stayed at the Hilton Bonnet Creek which is a new and modern hotel with great restaurants, amazing surrounding grounds and fabulous pool and lazy river. The service is not great but the location was excellent. It was very busy with very large groups and the breakfast was not my favorite so I would also recommend trying the Waldorf-Astoria which is adjacent to the Hilton Bonnet Creek and surely provides better service and I assume it isn’t as busy.
Here’s how we planned our stay:
Day 1 – Universal’s Islands of Adventure
Islands of Adventure is an amazing park for 6 years old and above. However, Seuss Landing is a great option for the smaller ones. Many rides throughout the park involve water (or at least some good splashing) so it’s not a great option for rainy or very cold days. The Harry Potter area is truly amazing! The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman ride, a 3D movie simulator was one of our favorites. Try to get there as soon as the park opens to avoid the long wait. We purchased the Express Pass this day and despite it was great to skip the long lines, it was quite expensive ($100 per ticket in addition to the admission ticket) and since the day we went was not so busy I didn’t think it was worth it.
Day 2 – Epcot Center
Epcot is also a park more suitable for older kids. Strangely enough it feels somewhat bigger than Disney so be ready for lots of walking. Soaring Around the World was our favorite ride. It’s a simulator where you are strapped into a ‘hang-glider’ and lifted 40 feet into the air. An IMAX projection dome wraps 180°around you as you ‘travel around the world’ via the most amazing scenery. It’s truly spectacular! Make sure you spend enough time exploring The World Showcase where you can ‘visit’ several countries and learn a little bit more about their culture. We made good use of our Fast Pass at Epcot and booked and changed bookings as needed via the App.
Day 3/4 – Magic Kingdom
The Magic Kingdom is the one park everyone has to go at least once. It’s the original amusement park and a hit with all ages…a magical place where ‘dreams come true’. Disney is quite extensive and there are many more rides/attractions than at any other park so to take full advantage of it I would strongly recommend a 2-day visit, specially if this is your first visit.
We split up our visit to the park into its 4 main areas (not that much to see in Liberty Square and Main Street): Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland and Adventureland, by covering the first 2 on Day 3 and the second 2 on Day 4. This way we had enough time to see most attractions and we weren’t running back and forth across the park. I would strongly recommend that you download the Disney app so that you can plan your visit, get help finding attractions and above all that advantage of the Fast Pass booking! Fast Pass is free at Disney parks and allows you to ‘book’ attractions you wish to visit and this way avoid some of the very long wait times. Some of our favorite rides were: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion. These also happen to be very busy attractions so FastPass could save you hours of wait. The first 2 are rollercoasters but ‘beginner’ ones which should suit most riders. I’m not into rollercoasters but love these 2! I’m surely not brave enough for Space Mountain…tried it once as a child and never again. However, if you are after more radical rides, don’t miss out on riding the Space Mountain.
Years ago the Magic Kingdom was filled with characters wandering around and interacting with visitors. You could spot your favorite characters throughout the park all day long. Sadly this is no longer the case…now you must join several lines for an opportunity to meet and greet the different characters and take pictures. Each character or small group of characters have their own ‘picture location’ and it is now considered an ‘attraction’ the old meet and greet. Character meals and activities can also be booked prior to arrival at the park online or by phone. Therefore, if you really must see ‘someone’ make sure you book it via Fast Pass since most of these have very long lines!
Day 5 – Animal Kingdom
We visited the Animal Kingdom on a very rainy day and sadly many attractions and rides were closed…though we surely didn’t get any discount for the fact that only half of the park was open! Therefore, I would not recommend visiting this park if the weather is not great. Animal Kingdom is a huge safari type park with a wide variety of animals and a couple of very nice rides and play areas. It is suitable for the whole family and specially fun for the little ones (3-4 years old and up). We had a lovely dinner at Tiffins Restaurant, probably the nicest restaurant available throughout the Disney parks (with the exception of a few in Epcot Center). Tiffins has a very unique ‘gallery’ inspired safari design, amazing African influenced dishes and great service. It was very comfortable, relaxed and a nice change from the overload of fast food during the previous days. For those in search of an adrenaline rush, don’t miss Expedition Everest (rollercoaster ride)! We really enjoyed the Dinosaur and the Primeval Whirl rides and the kids enjoyed the Boneyard Dig Site (a dinosaur themed playground). Kali River Rapids was unfortunately closed but from previous experience I would recommend it provided you bring a change of clothes or leave this ride to the end of your stay since this raft ride will leave you soaking wet! Kilimanjaro Safari Expedition is a ‘must’ if you want to see a wide range of animals only a few meters away from you. In terms of the shows, Festival of the Lion King is a fantastic interactive ‘Broadway-like’ show with singing, dancing, acrobatics, fire juggling and musical and lighting special effects. Finally, on your way out don’t miss the Tree of Life special lighting spectacle!
Day 6 – Universal Studios
My last time in Universal Studios was probably 20 years ago so a lot has changed! This was my very favorite park. Unfortunately, we were there on a Saturday before a US bank holiday so it was packed and we had to endure some very long lines to top attractions. However, since we were in a big group both kids and adults were well entertained and the wait time went by faster than expected. The Harry Potter town is absolutely amazing and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is unmissable! The Transformers 3-D ride was amazing and so was the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem and Shrek 4-D attractions. I wasn’t brave enough to go on the Revenge of the Mummy and Hollywood Rip Ride Rock It but others from our group went and really enjoyed them if you are looking for thrill rides. There was plenty of attractions for the little ones around the Simpsons, ET, Curious George, and Dr. Seuss areas. In summary, for those who have already visited the main parks once, this was my favorite park! It had amazing attractions for all age groups. Sadly we had no time to see the shows so I would have gladly returned for a second day visit or invested in the Fast Pass tickets.