Everything you should know before planning a theme-park based vacation in Orlando
Just to recap for anyone picking up our story, we are planning a family holiday this spring to the wonderful state of Florida, U.S.A. Flying across the Atlantic from the Middle East with 3 under 6 and meeting the grandparents from Australia in Orlando, we will be tackling the Goliath of family entertainment; the Orlando theme parks.
You can pick up on our previous Florida Challenge Episodes here
What exactly is there to do in Orlando?
The crowning glory, of course, has to go to Walt Disney World (WDW) with its four separate theme parks, two water parks and Downtown district set over 40 square miles!
There is also an extremely fine line up of supporting cast in the theme park world, including Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure with its connecting CityWalk entertainment precinct, Sea World, Legoland, Discovery Cove, Aquatica, Gatorland – the list goes on!
There are of course some non-theme park related activities too which we will cover in a future instalment.
So why are the theme parks a challenge?
A lot of visitors do not comprehend before their first visit the vast size of the theme parks, the vast crowds that come with this and the distances between attractions. Orlando is huge with a plethora of entertainment options to tackle.
Whenever I think about family holiday planning, the immortal words of my first tour leader on a Contiki bus in 1999 ring through my head;
“It’s not a holiday, it’s a tour”
Poor teenage me was somewhat crestfallen to hear this; instead of enjoying a month-long holiday around Europe that I had spent my entire life savings on, I was about to be placed into forced labour that I had paid the privilege for! But she was absolutely right.
Trekking around Europe for a month with a bunch of randy 18 to 35-year-olds requires a lot of scheduling, rules and participation by the group to make it work.
That said it doesn’t mean it wasn’t an utterly enjoyable, memorable experience and I had the time of my life as well as making life-long friends. On ‘tour’ we still got loads of free time to explore, eat, drink and absorb the culture – albeit on quite a tighter timescale than I would have liked and with far too much alcohol!
I consider family travel in exactly the same way (except the copious alcohol). You do have a finite timetable to schedule everything in, you do need to make some compromises on the itinerary to fit in every body’s needs and yeah sometimes some hard work is needed. Yes we are on a holiday and we will get to enjoy ourselves too, but this is the Contiki tour for the over 35’s with kids!!
We need a plan. Fast.
Why do you need a theme park plan?
The two things I consistently preach in how to enjoy family travel is to be prepared and set expectations.
The part that can make family travel stressful is when meltdowns occur – normally caused by tiredness, hunger or boredom; Your mission as the parent in charge here is to preempt when this is going to occur and have an evasive course of action ready.
Unlike other places, you may visit where it’s perfectly acceptable to turn up with your kids. a stroller and a loose plan to see where your destination takes you, just forget it with Orlando.
You must have a plan!!
How to Plan for the Orlando Theme Parks
Here are a few things you should do as a bare minimum in your planning before you even think of setting foot in a theme park;
Choose the right time of year to go. You may well be restricted by school holiday dates, but if you have some flexibility, try and visit at the quieter times of year. The chart on the right shows expected crowds throughout the year – it will make a huge difference to the subsequent amount of planning you will need to do; the busier it is the harder you must plan.
- Pick your days right. Not only can you select the best time of year to visit, many clever clogs have also devised the best days of the week to visit each of the parks too so you can again avoid the bulk of the crowds and minimize queue times which is the key. Check out our Disney & Orlando Pinterest page for more planning guides.
- Work out your ticketing beforehand. Depending on how long you are planning to stay in Orlando, there is a multitude of different ticket combinations to choose from. Many offer you the option to purchase a number of days eg Disney 4 day pass but you might have say a two-week window in which to use those days. Try and choose the option that gives you the most amount of flexibility so if your plans do need to be changed (weather related for example) you don’t forfeit a ticket.
- Take it easy! Don’t try and squeeze in too much – especially with small children they will get very tired and stop enjoying it if you push things too hard, you really need to pace yourself. If your schedule will allow try and book rest days in between theme park days, otherwise don’t try and fit in every theme park in Orlando, you will be exhausted.
- Book early. If you want to take advantage of special events like character dinners, these need to be booked waaaaay in advance! Set expectations with little ones that this is the case to avoid looks of disappointment when you get there. If you are planning for a special event think 180 days+ in advance.
- Understand how the Fastpass system works, which rides it applies to and which rides fill up the quickest. It can remove some of the flexibility from your day but you’d much rather this than miss out on favourite rides or be standing in queues for hours.
- Set yourself a spending budget – and allow more than you’d think! Even after flights, hotels and theme park tickets, there are plenty more daily costs to be mindful of, including car parking, meals, souvenirs, photos.
What else can you do before you go?
- Get fit; Seriously, there is a hell of a lot of walking, pram pushing and child carrying ahead of you. It’s a really good idea to walk in the shoes that you plan on wearing before you get there so they are worn in and comfortable.
- Do lots of research. Prior to our first experience we purchased Brit Guide Orlando and walked around with it like a bible, it was brilliant. These days more things are moving to apps so make sure at the very least you have the My Disney Experience app downloaded. There are loads of other paid for apps in the WDW category too.
- Bring the right gear with you. Plan exactly what to take in your day bag and how you will carry it, where will it go if you’re all on a ride for example? I like to pack two bags, one can be left with the stroller and one taken everywhere with your valuables.
- Arrange your transportation. Even big kids get tired and weary legs; your kids might be past the stroller stage for day-to-day life but a theme park is a different story! I would say a stroller is still a must for kids until at least 5, and bring a sling with you for little tykes after you have parked your stroller there can be a long way to go until you are reunited. Check all your gear is labelled and decide if you are bringing your own or hiring.
- Be prepared for queues; even with Fastpasses and going off-peak, you will still spend a substantial amount of your day queuing. The great news is this is America, so queuing etiquette is always followed but you still need to pack a bucket load of patience, work out a Fastpass strategy, use Rider Switch, bring snacks and busy bags for queue entertainment.
- Set kids expectations. The whole experience really can be quite overwhelming, especially for the under 3 crowd. Our Miss 2 was utterly terrified of the dressed up characters and a bit overwhelmed by the loud parades, in reality a little too young for a lot of the experiences so careful planning of the right sorts of experiences was needed. Don’t think just because it’s their favourite character they will be pleased to meet a 7-foot high furry creature.
- Set your own expectations too. You might have a wonderful hour-by-hour planner set out in your excel spreadsheet before you go but build some flexibility in still and don’t be disappointed if particular rides are shut, junior turns out to be terrified of your favourite rides or the line for Mickey’s signature was just too long.
If this is your first WDW trip I can strongly recommend a visit to WDW Prep School. The author Shannon Albert has put together an amazing collection of Disney tips and reviews that are utterly practical and perfect for the uninitiated. Even having some experience I am still referring back to her in some of my preparations for this trip.
You can also check out this useful guide of ways to prepare yourself for Orlando from Mellissa at Diary of a Jewellery Lover.
So all this being said, with less than two weeks before we fly out I better start nutting out our plan to overcome this challenge. Its one of the more difficult ones as you want to be prepared for many eventualities, with reducing queue times the key, but with three very young children, jet lag, in-laws and a bucket load of other things we want to do while we’re in Florida we are going to be pressed for time to actually see much of the theme parks at all.
So there must be some Disney veterans out there; What would be your number one tip to give to a newbie preparing their first Orlando adventure?
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