Visiting Orlando, Florida, for the first time is undoubtedly exciting, but can also be a little bit daunting. From Universal Studios to Walt Disney World there’s so just much to fit in, but fear not: this go-to guide will cover where to stay, what to do, and how to prepare to make the most out of your time in and around the parks.
Decision number one: hotel vs. villa. Villas will give you a little more privacy, flexibility, and usually the luxury of your own pool. Most of them are located in Kissimmee, meaning you’ll need to rent a car to reach the theme parks. While villas might initially be more affordable than hotels, parking at the theme parks costs around 20 US Dollars per day. In addition to petrol, insurance, and, of course, the cost of renting a car in the first place, this option is far from cheap!
Many visitors decide to stay at a hotel in the Walt Disney World complex during their first stay, but this is a bit of a trap. While you’ll be close to the Disney parks, receive special offers on dining, and be allowed into the Disney parks earlier than the general public on certain days, I’m still unconvinced that it’s worth the extra money. What’s more, the hotels’ food is often underwhelming, with very few restaurants offering healthy options. Staying in one of these hotels also limits your freedom to move about, as taxi drivers and local tour organizers charge a fortune to get to the other theme parks.
Instead, I’d recommend staying around Lake Buena Vista or International Drive. Both of these areas have fantastic shops and restaurants for any free time you might have. Hotels in these areas often offer free, or cheap, transport to all theme parks, meaning you don’t need to hire a car. There is also an affordable trolley bus service that runs up and down International Drive, which will allow you to explore the area easily and cheaply during your down time.
When to Visit
The best time to visit Orlando’s theme parks is a much-debated topic, and it really depends on what you want to get out of your trip. I love the parks around the Easter holiday: it’s not too hot, there’s low rainfall, and relatively few visitors. In Disney terms, however, that still means around 40,000 visitors to each park every day. Summer months are the busiest; however, that’s also when the parks tend to open new attractions, so you could be the first to try out one of the newest rides! Halloween and Christmas are extremely busy, and, in my opinion, not worth the hassle of fighting through crowds, or enduring hour-long wait times for attractions. If you want to see the theme parks’ fun Christmas decorations, however, you could visit around the end of November, or beginning of December, when tinsel, baubles, and trees start appearing.
Walt Disney World
Orlando’s main attraction is Walt Disney World, which is home to four theme parks, two waterparks, and a great shopping complex, Disney Springs. While my personal favorite park is Magic Kingdom (how could you not love that magical castle?), I’d strongly recommend getting at least a seven-day, if not 14-day, ticket to enjoy all of the parks. You might also want to consider the Park Hopper upgrade, which allows you to visit multiple parks on one day. Once you’re inside the Walt Disney World complex, you can use all Disney transportation (buses, monorails, and boats) for free, even if you’re not staying at a Disney hotel, making it easy and affordable to get around.
Walt Disney World also offers a FastPass+ service, which you can use to reserve front-of-line access to three attractions per day. You can make your reservations up to thirty days before your visit using the Disney World app. I’d suggest trying to make your FastPass+ reservations in the morning, as, once you’ve used your three passes, you can reserve more, subject to availability. You can also use the app to reserve any dining experiences, such as character breakfasts or dinners. While these can be expensive, they’re unforgettable, and particularly popular among little ones.
I know you probably want to relax on vacation, but, sadly, you’re going to have to get to the Disney parks early if you want to make the most of your day. I’d suggest arriving at least thirty minutes before the gates open (you can find opening times on that handy app I was talking about) to get on as many rides as possible before the parks fill up. Be sure to check each park’s schedule before you visit: each one hosts entertaining parades, character meetings, performances, and firework shows every day that shouldn’t be missed!
More Theme Parks
Many people don’t know that Orlando has many more theme parks to offer than those in the Walt Disney World complex. The Universal Studios area now hosts two exciting theme parks — featuring attractions from films such as Jurassic Park, Transformers, and Harry Potter — as well as its very own waterpark, Volcano Bay, which opened in 2017. The complex is also home to Universal City Walk, Universal’s own shopping and dining district. Before arriving, be sure to purchase Express Passes, for both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. While these aren’t cheap, they will allow you one-time front-of-line access to each attraction on the day of your visit. Meanwhile, Volcano Bay has its own reservation system, whereby you receive a wristband upon arrival, which allows you to wait in a virtual queue. This means that — unlike in Disney’s waterparks — you won’t need to stand out and burn in Florida’s intense heat while waiting for your favorite slides.
Orlando is also home to one of America’s SeaWorld theme parks, as well as the SeaWorld-owned waterpark, Aquatica. In addition to exciting thrill rides, SeaWorld offers important information about marine biology, conservation, and education. It also offers a QuickQueue service, which works in the same way as Universal’s Express Pass. If you stay at SeaWorld partner hotel — many of which are conveniently located on the bustling International Drive — you’ll receive access to this service for free! Many of these hotels also offer early entry to Aquatica, which was voted Orlando’s best waterpark in 2018, during peak season, allowing you to make the most of the city’s tallest waterslides.