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A guide for how to survive Orlando theme parks – Disney World & Universal Studios

I’ll be honest, six years ago I’d never even contemplated an Orlando holiday – it just wasn’t something that interested me. We’d done a couple of trips to Disney Land and Universal Studios in California, and that was enough for me. But then they went and built Harry Potter World! That pretty much changed everything, and suddenly we were booking ourselves two weeks in Florida. Four years later we went again with Chris’s family; and last week we ended up there again for the last four days of our road-trip holiday. There’s something so magical and wonderful about those theme parks that is difficult to describe to someone who’s never been. I don’t know what preconceptions I’d had before; whether I was being a bit snobby about it; but I had not expected it to love it there as much as I do! If you’ve never been before and are going this summer, or planning next year’s holiday, then I hope you’ll find this little guide to Orlando useful. Even if you’re not, I hope you find it interesting! ….

I’ve already listed my trips to the theme parks in Orlando Florida, so I feel I’m equipped to help people out, but I’m by no means an expert – some people go every single year and often more than once. You’ll find these people on a website called The Dibb, and they’re willing to help you out with any questions you may have on the message boards. This place was vital to us when we first went and I highly recommend signing up.

How long? Two weeks. You spend two full days travelling there and back, and with the cost of the flights, you may as well spend two weeks there anyway. Besides which, the theme park tickets are usually buy one week, get one free, or are fourteen days as standard. You need two weeks to do everything properly too.

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Torrential rain at Florida theme park

When to go? The chances are, you’re going with kids and are confined to school holidays. We went on the last two weeks of summer, which is great because most American schools have gone back so it’s much quieter and the queue times are shorter. The down side is it’s likely to rain more. Last week was terrible timing as it felt noticeably busier on Sunday than Saturday, because it was the first week British schools broke up. Queue times were terrible, but we barely had a drop of rain.
The heat was just as bad both ends of the holiday, so if you don’t think you can manage intense flaming heat that you’ve never experienced before, I’d recommend looking at other times of year. Easter would be slightly cooler, but due to Spring Break in America, it is going to be even busier than summer. If we go again, I’d like to try October because it’s cooler; less rain and less crowds. If you go around half term you might get away with the kids missing a week of school.

Hotel or Villa? Well, both times we did a fortnight’s holiday there, we stayed in a villa and loved it. You have more space to get comfortable; your own kitchen to cook and save on meals; your own pool to enjoy in private and it’s great (and economical) for sharing if you’re going with extended family or friends. It’s exhausting being at theme parks every minute of the day, and coming back to a villa feels like you’re still getting the most out of your holiday.
Official Disney or Universal hotels are expensive, but would bring the atmosphere back with you in the evenings. You get advantages like being allowed in the theme parks an extra hour on certain days. Also, if you don’t want to hire a car, they provide free busses to their own theme park (you’d have to get a taxi to the other one.) If you can afford it, I can imagine it would be very exciting to stay in the themed hotels and the swimming pools look fantastic.

Magic Kingdom light show

Magic Kingdom light show

Make the most of the Disney Fast Pass Scheme. Yes it’s complicated, but worth trying to get your head around it. Basically, you get to choose three attractions each day where you can queue for far shorter a time than everyone else. You can book them thirty days ahead or sixty if you stay in a Disney hotel. However Fast Passes do run out. Last year people were setting their alarm clocks at 5am so the minute their Disney tickets activated, they could book a Fast Pass for meeting Elsa from Frozen. That and the Seven Dwarves Mine Train are likely to have run out by the time mere mortals can use their tickets.
Pick your Fast Passes wisely. It’s a good idea to go for rides and attractions that tend to have a long queue time, but aren’t really worth the wait! The Peter Pan ride is a good example of this – it’s lovely and everything, but not worth hanging around an hour. On the other hand, I don’t mind waiting that long for Splash Mountain or Thunder Mountain Railroad because I feel I get my money’s worth on those rides.
Meeting characters is another example. We’ve personally never seen the point in queuing to have your photo taken with a Performing Arts graduate in a hot furry costume. However, if it adds to the magic for your child, then again I’d use maybe just one of your fast passes to get in a quicker queue to do so for a popular character.
Also, if you get the opportunity to use your fast passes early in the day (and you know you’ll be staying later anyway), then do so, because once you’ve used them up, you can use the Disney app or go to kiosks to book more one at a time. If you download the app, you can see which attractions have longer queue times to help you organise it all.

Make a schedule, but be flexible. Check out this Busy Day Guide and plan your fortnight in advance to make the most of everything. I do like a plan, but sometimes the weather gets in the way. Last year we went to Animal Kingdom, but not long after we went in, the heavens opened and all the zoo areas (most of it) closed. We waited under shelter for an hour; gave up and went to a shopping mall instead. It just meant we had to swap a couple of days around.

Break things up a bit. We’ve found it works well when you go into one park in the morning; go back to the villa at about 2-3pm when it gets too hot; have something to eat and a snooze or swim, then go back out again at 5pm to enjoy the slightly cooler temperatures and shorter queue times. Be aware of closing times though if you’re going at the end of the holidays. We once arrived at Universal Studios at 5pm, only to find the park closed at 6! (We did do Forbidden Journey and Flight of the Hippogriff without waiting at all though.)

Hogwarts, Harry Potter World at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure

Hogwarts, Harry Potter World at Universal Studios Islands of Adventure

This system works best with the Disney Parks other than Magic Kingdom. The time it takes going by boat or tram into Magic Kingdom makes it not worthwhile to go in and out. Parking fees are transferrable from one Disney Park to another, so you can go to Animal Kingdom in the morning and Epcot in the evening. Go to each park at least once in the evening to catch the night-time show – Fantasia, fireworks or illuminations.
At Universal, they make you walk miles between your car and the entrance to the parks (past all the shops and restaurants of course) so again, it’s not really worth the effort of leaving and then coming back again.
Plan your two weeks so that you have two days at each of the parks – Disney’s Magic Kingdom; Animal Kingdom; Epcot and Hollywood Studios; and also Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure. So that adds up to twelve. Then have two days off for relaxing at the two Disney Water Parks. Epcot and Animal Kingdom don’t really need two full days, so you can also put in a couple of days where you do a water park in the morning; leave for a McDonalds early afternoon, and then one of those two for the rest of the day. I don’t know how we did it, but the first time we went we also fitted in Sea World and Busch Gardens.

Playing games in the Queue at an Orlando theme park

Playing games in the Queue at an Orlando theme park

Be prepared for queuing. Take bottles of water and cereal bars to keep you going. The wifi is iffy, but if you can get it, use it to browse Facebook or Instagram as it does help pass the time. Download various HeadsUp games on your phone, as that game’s great to play as a family in the queue and will keep your fellow park-goers entertained as well! When the kids were younger I taught them clapping rhyming songs while we queued. Cat’s cradle is a good one as it’s just a piece of string in your pocket. As long as you go ready with some ideas, it will be fine. Staring into space in a hot sweaty tired stupor is always a good option too.

Hiring a car advice. Download a good sat nav onto your phone before you go – even if you need to pay for it, it will be cheaper than the hire company’s charges. Also pack a holder for it. They’ll ask if you want a Sun pass, which automatically pays for tolls and I’d say yes to that – it’s so much easier than digging around for the right change. If you don’t get the Sun Pass, you will definitely need that sat nav to avoid paying a toll one way, and then paying it again when you’ve realised you’ve gone the wrong way.
Unless a sign says you mustn’t, you can turn right on a red light.
Be aware that parking costs $20 a day at both theme parks. Yes, you heard me, $20 a day!!! Have a rant about it; complain about it to your family and swear about it. Then factor it into your budget and forget about it, otherwise you could be getting angry every single morning of your holiday!

What shoes to wear on your feet? The most comfortable that you can find and can afford! Walk at least three miles in them to check before you go. Then chuck a bucket of water over your feet and walk another mile. No blisters? Then you’re onto a winner. Flip flops are not usually up to the task and fall off on fast rides. Trainers are hot and sweaty. The first time we went my husband was all like, “I know by this time in my life which are the most comfortable shoes. Trainers are the best thing for my feet.” Says he with blisters the size of egg cups and almost crying in pain. It took four years for the idea that walking sandals might actually be better, to sink in – thank god. His feet have been absolutely fine during are more recent visits to the Florida theme parks! Trust me, they are not the place to be concerned about being stylish – everyone is in the same boat – very, very hot. Ok, my first pair (below) were a little middle aged looking, but those wore out (so comfortable I wore them a lot) so this time I found a pair in Sports Direct by Karrimor that are more stylish. So, yes, walking sandals all the way. This is the exact pair I wore this holiday (though I found them in white) and was absolutely fine on my feet:

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Disney World Magic Kingdom

Disney World Magic Kingdom

Oh my goodness, I feel like I haven’t covered the half of it, (sun cream; chub-rub; sunglasses; ponchos; bum bags) but this blog post about Orlando theme parks has gone on long enough already! Please type in Orlando or Florida into my search bar (top right) to find all the blog posts I wrote after our first trip to Disney World and Universal Studios, as I went into more detail for each of the parks back then and have a post about water parks. If you’ve got any tips or advice I haven’t covered, please leave yours in the comments, and also ask me anything else you’d like to know if you’re planning your own holiday 🙂

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Writer, pyrographer, renovator, crafter, photographer and maker of bohemian clothing and costumes.

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