DISNEY WORLD - ORLANDO VACATION TIPS & ADVICE

Insider Travel Information For Walt Disney World, Universal Studios & Sea World
"Florida Resident Shares Lessons Learned From Years Of Season Passes"

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CONTENTS BELOW (scroll down to see):
  Insider Tips - Lessons Learned From Visiting Theme Parks
  What Orlando Is & Isn't
  Travel Planning
  Hotels
  Getting Around
  About Each Park
  "Must See" Attractions
  Sample Itinerary - How To See It All In A Limited Amount Of Time
  Discount Theme Park Tickets
  Florida Resident Discounts
  Orlando Advice Links


  As someone raising a family in Florida I’m often asked for my "insider" advice on vacationing at Walt Disney World and the other Orlando theme parks.  Friends and family want straight talk and the "unofficial" scoop.  They want a list of what to see and what to avoid.  Here's a web summary of that advice:

WHY YOU SHOULD READ THIS PAGE
  Every year lots of people spend thousands of dollars (and use their precious vacation time) to vacation at Disney World and Orlando.  They come with high expectations… and sometimes leave disappointed.  Advance knowledge will help visitors have a good time.
  Our family has been visiting Orlando “from up north” for a decade.  In recent years we've relocated to Florida.  We've had annual passes at all the major theme parks.  I've spent so much time/money learning by trial and error, I wanted to pass along the things we've learned.  This is one family's perspective and straight-forward advice.  This is the stuff you won't see in vacation brochures and on official web sites.
  For the record, my family has no connections to the theme park or travel industry.  The opinions expressed here are purely my own, based on our Orlando experiences.


INSIDER TIPS FOR VACATIONING IN ORLANDO
Lessons Learned While Visiting Theme Parks

Logistics are the enemy.  It's amazing how quickly the little things will eat up your vacation day.  The more time you spend waiting for buses, being lost, buying forgotten items or finding information the less time you have enjoying yourself.  Know exactly where you are going and what you're bringing each day. 
  Vacation enjoyment is directly proportionate to time spent on rides and in shows.  Vacation frustration is directly proportionate to time spent handling logistics.

Purchase a set of FRS walkie-talkies.  These allow your group to split up and easily find each other.  The FRS (Family Radio Service) walkie-talkies cost less than $100/pair.  You can find them at places like Wal-Mart, Circuit City and Radio Shack.  Bring extra batteries. 
  Note: Be sure to buy the models with “privacy codes."   Program all of your walkie-talkies with the same code-then only you will only be able to hear each other.  Without the codes, you will hear everyone else (a real problem because everyone in Orlando has these radios.)  The “code” models cost $20-40 more than basic models, but are worth every penny.  Click here for more on FRS walkie-talkies.

If you travel by car, buy one of those 12 volt/120 volt TV/VCR combinations or portable DVD players.  The kids LOVE watching movies.  You can even hook up you video game system if you by a 12 volt-120 volt power inverter (available at any major discount store or radio shack.)  Having your video game system in the hotel room can be a wonderful distraction for the kids.

Have food for meals/snack in your hotel room.  This eliminates the pressure of always having to find somewhere to eat.  There are many easy-to-find Publix and Winn-Dixie grocery stores in the area.

Take a backpack of snacks and water bottles into the parks.  All the parks allow you to bring them in.  An occasional drink and snack can keep children's' spirits high.

If you're tired, your kids are tired.  Monitor that family attitude each hour.  Take a break before any “melt down” has a chance to occur.

Plan an hour or two in the afternoon to return to your room for a little quiet time or a nap.  Leaving and returning to the parks isn't difficult.  Everyone has more fun when they have an opportunity to recharge.

Stay hydrated.  Airplanes, sealed hotel rooms and the relentless Florida sun will can dehydrate you in a couple of hours.  Drink lots of water or juice.  Avoid diuretics like coffee and cola.

Little Known Fact--Disney water parks sometimes allow coolers packed with drinks (no booze or glass.)  This policy varies with security levels (so call ahead.)  Disney also sells a unique bar-coded "unlimited refill" soda fountain drink cup.  This can be a very good deal!

Bring your own stroller.  Renting daily is expensive and a logistics hassle.  If you don't want to bring your big stroller, purchase an inexpensive "umbrella" stroller.

Do not waste time at any of the roadside tourist traps or come-ons.  Coupon offers, discount books, reduced-rate tickets stands, time-share offers, goofy golf, arcades and cheap souvenirs are never a good deal.  These things waste your valuable vacation time!  Remember, it's all about visiting the parks.  You can do “touristy” things closer to home.

Bring a small first aid kit that includes bandages, cold/allergy medicine and Aspirin.  Someone always gets a headache or a cold.  Expect blisters on kids’ feet.  Your sinuses will suffer from air travel, dry hotel air and swimming pools.

Bring hats and sunscreen for the parks/pool.  Bring flip-flops and small pool toys (kids love to play with foam footballs and diving rings at the pool.)

If you're visiting in the summer, bring one of those spray water bottles with a built-in fan.  They work!  These water bottles are cheap to buy at discount stores, but may cost $20 at the parks.

If you travel in winter, bring layered warm clothes--it can get very cold in Central Florida!

Bring rain ponchos or trash bags for everyone.  In summer it rains every day… but only for a short time each day.

Have a good Orlando road map.  Get a map from AAA in your hometown and use the ones provided in book "The Unofficial Guide To Walt Disney World."  Get the AAA tour book for Orlando. 
  On maps, highlight routes to the parks and hotel prior to arriving in Orlando.  In advance you may even want to do Mapquest Driving Directions for each car trip you plan to make.

Start each day with a definite plan.  Make sure everyone knows the vacation schedule and the contingencies.  Realize that your sightseeing will likely go either much faster than you think or much slower.  Make up for lost time by skipping those non-unique “filler” attractions.

Expect to walk 3-5 miles each day on hot/hard pavement.  Comfortable shoes are an absolute must.  Have bandages handy in case of blisters.

You will be tired (and maybe stressed out) at the end of an Orlando vacation.  Know this going in.  You will see and do a lot, but it may leave you feeling that need a "vacation from your vacation."

Learn the rules for each company's fast pass ticket system.  Manage your route so you can get as many fast passes as possible  throughout the day. 
  Double check every time you use a fast pass machine… it's unbelievable how many people forget their park tickets at these machines!
  Offer any unused fast passes to other people on the way out.

A little Orlando goes a long way.  It's not uncommon to have had your fill after a few days.  If you're frustrated with the theme parks, head to a water park, the beach (information below), Kennedy Space Center (90 minutes to the east) or the Florida Keys (5 hours to the south.)

Head to the beach if Orlando is too much.  Florida's great beaches are an easy drive (about 90 minutes away) if you want a change of pace.  Check out Clearwater Beach and St. Petersburg Beach (west of Tampa) or Hutchinson Island (north of West Palm Beach.)
  Little Known Fact--Disney even operates it's own Florida beach resort at Vero Beach (north of West Palm Beach.)

Attitude is everything: At least one or two major problems are going to happen on every single day of your expensive vacation.  Roll with the punches and don't let problems make you mad.  Orlando is filled with bad drivers, confusing roads, hot/humid/rainy weather, cold weather, numb service employees, dumb rules and moneygrubbers everywhere you look.  Expect it and don't let it bother you.

Not Widely Publicized Fact--Orlando Gay Days:  Each year on the first weekend in June Orlando hosts 125,000 gays and lesbians for the Gay Days celebration.  People participating in the event wear red clothing.  Participants are very visible at the theme parks, water parks, resorts, pools and nighttime hot spots.
  Gay Days are not well publicized outside the gay and lesbian community.  As such, some unsuspecting families don't learn of the event until they arrive. Click here for Orlando Gay Days dates, locations and events.

Open alcohol containers at Disney's  Epcot:  Some families may be surprised to see visitors walking around Disney's Epcot with booze.  Disney sells alcohol at this park. 
  In the fall, Epcot features a Wine and Food Festival.  It sells alcohol and ethnic food from small stands on the walkway around the World Showcase.  During our visit during the Wine and Food Festival we saw a considerable amount of conspicuous alcohol consumption and inebriated behavior.

Little Known--Disney Pin Trading:  Most Disney employees wear a sash displaying Disney pins.  The employees are required to trade any pin with visitors.
  To my surprise, my kids really enjoyed pin trading at the Disney parks.  It allowed them to interact with Disney employees and learn to place different value on differing pins.  When it was all over they had a great keepsake.
  A good way to start is at the hometown Disney Store.  Buy a set that includes a sash and several pins.  You can then start trading as soon as you arrive at the parks.  Of course sashes and pins are available at Disney park gifts shops.  Click here for more on Disney pin trading.

Character Autographs:  Young kids enjoy meeting the various costumed characters, especially at Walt Disney World.  Here's a nice way to remember your vacation experience:
  Bring index cards and a Sharpie pen.  Have each character sign an individual card and pose with your child for a picture.
  Once you have the film developed, place the photo and autograph card next to each other in a small photo album.

Character Dining:  Families with younger kids should consider having a meal with the Disney characters.  It's a great way to give them access and interaction with the famous characters.  Disney offers several character dining options.  The meals change from time to time, so you always have to check with Disney to see which meals are currently being offered.  
  We have been to the character lunch at the Crystal Place Restaurant at the Magic Kingdom (it's located on the Main Street near the castle.) This lunch featured most of the standard Disney characters (Pooh, Cinderella, etc.)  The food was served buffet style.  
  We have also been to the Princess Storybook Breakfast in Norway at Epcot.   As the name suggests, the characters are all princesses.  The food was served family style, with one large dish of food placed at teach table for the family to share.  Of the two, I enjoyed the Magic Kingdom character dining better... but I'm not into the princess thing.  However, my daughter LOVED it.  
  It can be very difficult to get reservations.  The best thing to do is call Disney several weeks in advance to get reservations.  Demand always exceeds supply, so getting reservations early is important.
  Beware that character dining can be a little pricey.  However, given how difficult it can be to see characters inside the park, it's definitely worth doing a character meal at least once.  Click here for more information on character dining.


Slow Times Of The Year:  Once there were predictably slow times of the year for Orlando theme parks.  The parks have combating "slow" times by offering large-scale special events.  If you are planning your trip for a "slow" time in the hopes of avoiding long lines, check with the parks.  They may have scheduled events (marathons, concerts, food festivals, golf tournaments, etc.) that will attract large crowds.
  The first two weeks of December are traditionally Orlando's slowest.  The last week of December is typically Orlando's busiest.
  The Memorial Day Monday and the days immediately following also tend to be very light on attendance.
  Park attendance can be gauged somewhat by operating hours.  If the parks close early (say 7pm), generally that means owners anticipate light crowds.  If the parks are open late (11pm or midnight), large crowds can be expected.

Little Known: Baby Swap:  Most theme parks will allow you to do a "baby swap" on rides.  This is a real benefit to adults  traveling with young children.  The entire family can wait in line for a "grown up" ride.  Once you are at the boarding station, you can ask the attendant for a "baby swap."  One adult will remain in the station with the young child while the other adult rides.  When the riding adult returns, he/she waits in the station with the child while the other adult rides.  This saves the family from having to wait in line twice.

WHAT ORLANDO IS, AND ISN'T
  Many people feel that an Orlando vacation is something every family “has” to do at some point.  It's an American obligation.   There's pressure to visit at least once. 
  It's tough to enjoy any vacation you regard as an expensive obligation.  To insure a good time, it helps to know just what you're getting yourself into:

ORLANDO IS:
Orlando is only about theme parks (not the Florida beach, the Keys, air boats, alligators or NASA.)  This city offers an unequaled demonstration of the art amusement park “theme-ing.”  The parks here are more lavish, more detailed, better maintained and more creative than anywhere in the world.  The parks are open all year.  Visitors are captives on vacation.  Crowds are still likely to show up when it rains.  The parks have much better cash flow than those up north.  More cash coming in means more cash being spent on rides, shows, maintenance and landscaping. 

Orlando attractions tend to be about stories, animals and characters (“themes”).  The competition is to determine which park  has the most colorful, creative and fanciful rides.  It's not about having the tallest, fastest and most head-pounding thrill rides (that's left for the folks at Cedar Point, Kings Dominion and Magic Mountain.)

Orlando is Central Florida:  It is land-locked. It is hot in the summer and cold in the winter.  It does not have a beach or afternoon sea breezes.  It can be 20 degrees colder than South Florida in the winter.  Some northerners don't prepare for the chill and find it down right cold in the winter!

Orlando is a tourist city:  Come ready to see every possible tacky tourist trap known to humankind.  Everyone here is from somewhere else.  Locals are used to having a hundred thousand tourists invade each week… trash their town… and leave.

Orlando will “Nickel and Dime” you: Be ready to pay for everything and then some.  Expect lots of taxes, “resort fees” and other add-ons at your hotel.  Expect all manner of add-on charges for your airline ticket and rental car.  Expect tolls on the roads.  Expect to pay for parking.  Expect to pay for some theme park attractions even though you bought a ticket that’s supposedly good on all rides.  It can seem as though everywhere you turn, someone has a hand out.


ORLANDO IS NOT:
Orlando is not relaxing. Crowds, heat, overabundance of attractions and travel logistics will keep you occupied every waking hour.  This is an active (working?) vacation that requires a lot of planning and keeping to schedule.

Orlando is not something you can see in one trip. It is simply not possible to enjoy all of the area’s attractions in a week.  You will leave without having seen it all.  Define what interests you and leave enough time to enjoy it.  Don’t get caught in the trap of trying to see it all.  You may not be able to see it all, but you can see what's important (check out the sample itinerary below.)

Orlando is not user friendly. Competing business interests make it very difficult for visitors to enjoy various parks around the city.  Companies try hard to get you to stay at their hotels, use their transportation and visit their parks exclusively.  They will make it difficult for you to go to the competition.  It's like the Las Vegas casinos that offer you a moving walkway on the way in (but none on the way out)… then once inside you can’t find an exit.


PLANNING
  More so than other vacations, a trip to Orlando must be planned extensively.  It's not uncommon for visitors to plan a week-long trip hour-by-hour!   I know this sounds crazy.   However if you're spending the better part of a thousand dollars a day to bring your family here, planning is the only way to insure you’ll accomplish everything you want.

  Three months ahead of time buy this book: The Unofficial Guide To Walt Disney World (click here to see more.) It contains good information about all the Orlando parks, not just Disney.  No, I don’t have any connections to the author or publisher.  However, I have purchased the book twice in the last 10 years.  It's an unbiased guide.  It gives you all the information you need to create an effective plan for your theme park visits.  It even suggests theme park routes and times that allow you to see the most attractions in the least amount of time. 
  Over the years this book has grown to be quite expansive (so has Orlando!)  It will take you several weeks to read, digest and plan your trip using this book.  It costs about $20 at the local bookstore.  This is a small fraction of the cost of your trip.  Information is power.  This book will give you details not available in any travel brochure or web site.  When I show our copy to traveling friends and family, they always comment on how they wished they had seen it before their trip.
  After reading the book, layout a detailed plan highlighting what you want to do each day.  Write out your plan and keep it with you at all times.  By way of example, I have provided a sample plan below.


HOTELS
  HOTEL OPTION ONE:  You can stay on property at Disney or Universal Studios and rely on their transportation. 

  HOTEL OPTION TWO:  Stay “off property” at one of the many Orlando area hotels (Irlo Bronson Highway for Disney, International Drive for Universal Studios and Sea World.)  Some hotels offer free limited bus service to the major parks (though most of these shuttles don’t run frequently enough.) You may really want a car.
  I have found it best to pay the extra money to stay at a suite hotel.  This allows the kids to have their space and the adults to have theirs.  When battling travel and theme park fatigue, the extra space and flexibility is a Godsend.  Suites also provide a small kitchen.  This allows you to eat meals and snacks in your room.  This cuts down on the planning and frustration of always having to eat out.  Besides, the money you save on food can help make up for the higher cost of the suite. 
  Your trip to Orlando is to see theme parks, not to always be looking for a place to eat.  We have stayed at several suite hotels in Orlando and liked them all.   The kids especially like the Holiday Inn Suites because of pools and special kid-themed rooms.


ORLANDO TIME SHARES
  We have also stayed at Orlando time share properties operated by Marriott and Hilton.  These big hotel companies are now in the time share business.  They will offer a several night stay in exchange for you listening to a two hour sales pitch.  The Marriott and Hilton pitches were not the sleazy, high-pressure pitches made by traditional time share companies.  They were respectable and low key.  The accommodations were very nice.  We accepted these  accommodations prior to making our Orlando trip plans.  We figured the sales pitch would waste half a day and planned accordingly.
  WARNING:  Do not waste precious vacation hours on time share pitches you learn about once your are already vacationing in Orlando.  These pitches can be a huge waste of time.  Accept offers to visit only in advance and only from reputable major companies.  Know exactly how long the time share company wants to pitch you, then hold them to it.  Never accept an invitation from a company you've never heard of.  Never buy a time share based on one visit to any property.  You can sample several and always return to your favorite place to buy.  Check out time share resales as a way to save money. 
  DO NOT BUY A TIME SHARE WITHOUT EXTENSIVE COMPARISON SHOPPING AND REALISTIC FINANCIAL EVALUATION OF OWNERSHIP COSTS/OBLIGATIONS  VERSUS RENTING/HOTELS.
  I'm not "anti-time share."  They can make sense for people in certain life situations.  Time share accommodations can be a lot larger and nicer than hotel rooms.  It's just that after running the numbers, I've never been able to make a time share make sense financially.


GETTING AROUND
  GETTING AROUND BY TOUR OPERATOR-“Easy but locked-in”:  The easiest way to get around Orlando is to sign-up for a vacation package.  This way you rely on the tour operator or the resort to get you around.  This generally means that you will spend all of your time exclusively at Disney or Universal Studios.  You will be at the mercy of buses and tour planners.   This can be attractive for its apparent ease.  However, I know people who have become very angry at slow bus service and undelivered transportation promises.  If you're paying $200 a day for park passes and miss a quarter of a day due to a transportation problem, you're not going to be happy.

  GETTING AROUND BY CAR-“Flexible but responsible”:  Having a car gives you a lot of flexibility to travel when and where you want.  However, you have the responsibility to navigate the bizarre maze of Orlando roads.  It also means every day you are paying to park and forced to take trams to the Park's front gate. 
  Our family prefers having a car because it better allows us to control the itinerary.

  ORLANDO ROADS: You would think that as a tourist town Orlando roads would be simple, well designed, well marked and big enough to handle crowds.  My experience is that Orlando roads are none of these things.
  Many area roads charge a toll.  While annoying, it is better to use the toll roads because the main highway (I-4) is way too small to accommodate demand.  I-4 is bumper-to-bumper during rush hour and can be slow even on weekends.
  I-4 officially is an east-west freeway.  However, I-4 runs north-south through Orlando.
  Warning-Orlando lane markings are unusual.  Several I-4 interchanges have right-hand lanes that suddenly disappear.  The lanes may then reappear a quarter mile later.  It's surprising, frustrating and dangerous.
  Orlando drivers are a toxic mix of tourists, retirees and devil-may-care locals.  Drivers regularly cut you off, change lanes erratically, drive too slow and don’t pay attention.  It's important that you drive defensively!
  Orlando roads change names and are not always clearly marked.  This is especially true where city roadways meet Disney area roads.
  “Markers”:  In an effort to make Orlando more user-friendly, the city has erected several large numbered markers.  They’re placed along the roadways in hotel/restaurant tourist areas.  For instance your hotel might be near “Marker 16.”  I do not find the markers useful in finding destinations.  The markers' greatest benefit appears to be in differentiating the sprawl.  Mile after mile of Shoney’s, McDonalds, tee-shirt shops, motels and ticket stands all start to look alike.  You know you're making progress when the marker numbers are changing.


ABOUT EACH PARK
Here's an overview of each major park and the time necessary to see each one (assuming you move moderately quickly from ride to ride):

Definitions: 
           Half day = 5-6 hours
           .75 day = 8 hours
           Full day = 12 hours

Disney Magic Kingdom: A larger, newer duplicate of Disneyland in California.  This park has traditionally set the highest standards for creativity, landscaping and cleanliness.  Walt Disney’s stated goal was to create a park that both children and adults can enjoy together.  The Magic Kingdom still does this better than any other park.
  Leave 1.5 days:  One day is ample to see the major attractions.  However, returning for part of a second day may better allow you to see some of the smaller-yet-still-enjoyable attractions.
  Click here for a Virtual Tour Of The Magic Kingdom created by the author of this site!

Disney-MGM Studios: An appealing mix of movie-themed rides and shows.  Older kids and adults will enjoy MGM more than little kids.  It does not appear as though a significant amount of movies actually get shot at these studios.
  Leave .5-1.0 day:  If you stick to the plan in The Unofficial Guide To Walt Disney World, it's possible that you will be able to see all of the major attractions in about half a day.  Generally speaking you will feel satisfied with your visit after three-quarters of a day.  If you stay a whole day (opening through closing) you will feel like you have run out of things to see.
  At Christmas time, Disney MGM offers The Osbornes' Christmas Lights.  You may remember the Osbornes were a family that set up so many holiday lights at their house the town shut them down.  The lights are the most incredible anywhere and now appear annually at Disney-MGM.
  Click here for a Virtual Tour Of Disney-MGM Studios created by the author of this site!

Disney Epcot: Disney’s second Florida park is an eclectic mix of non-traditional attractions.  It's half World's Fair and half cultural showcase.  There are few thrill rides.
  School age kids and adults may best appreciate all of the educational and cultural exhibits.  The park may be too advanced for young kids and too unusual for teens. 
  The best theme park food in Orlando is found at Epcot's World Showcase.  Many times the ethnic cuisine is prepared by native chefs!
  Leave .5-1.0 day:  You can easily hit the limited number of major attractions here in half a day.  However, the fun of EPCOT is exploring and poking around.  It is not a thrill ride park.  If you take it easy, there’s no problem spending a wonderful low-key day exploring the abundant “little attractions.”  EPCOT is by far the most unusual and mellow of all the Orlando parks.  It's in a class by itself. As such, it requires a different mindset, timetable and approach.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom: This park is not really a Zoo.  The National Zoo in Washington, DC or the San Diego Zoo are much better traditional zoos.  Rather, Animal Kingdom is a mix of a cage-less zoo (think San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park or Busch Gardens Tampa) and a theme park… all done with the appropriate amount of Disney themeing. 
  Kids of all ages and adults will enjoy this park.  Disney's Animal Kingdom is only open during the day.  We have typically found this to be the most crowded of all the Disney parks due to it's limited operating hours and narrow walkways.
  Leave .5-.75 day:  If you stick to the plan in The Unofficial Guide To Walt Disney World book, it's possible that you will be able to see all of the major attractions in about half a day.  Generally speaking you will feel satisfied with your visit after three-quarters of a day.  If you stay a whole day (opening through closing) you may feel like you have run out of things to see.  Don't forget to take the two walking trails--these are where you see the most animals.

Universal Studios: Orlando’s version of the original California movie theme park.  It's a little more edgy than Disney’s MGM.  Teens and adults will enjoy.
  Leave .5-1 day:  You can hit all the major attractions in half a day.  Three quarters of a day is very satisfying.

Universal Studios Islands Of Adventure:  At the risk of overstating--this park sets a new standard.  Many  consider it a "must see."  Teens and thrill seeking adults will especially enjoy the wild rides and excellent use of the latest entertainment technology.  Young kids will like Seuss Landing.  Islands Of Adventure combines Disney-like quality, high technology and raw theme park thrills.  There is no other park like it.  As you can tell, it's a personal favorite.
  Leave .75-1 day:  This park is loaded with major attractions.  It's tough to do in half a day.  It's possible to see the big stuff in three quarters of a day.  However, leaving a full day is most satisfying.  You might even want to consider a second full day just to come back and do it all over again.  For some reason, rides at this park are more enjoyable to ride several times… while other parks quickly have a “seen it, been there” feel.

Sea World:  This is the “Marineland on steroids” park.  The killer whale, dolphin and water skiing shows are excellent.  This Sea World location (there are four around the country) has added a large steel roller coaster as a traditional amusement park attraction.
  Sea World has fared well since being purchased by Busch (the beer and Busch Gardens folks.)  Busch has raised the bar on showmanship, landscaping, investment and cleanliness.
  Leave .5-1 day:  Sea World is fairly leisurely paced.  Time in the park is largely driven by the shows.  You can see all of the major shows and attractions in about three quarters of a day.  Half a day won’t allow you to hit all the shows.

Water Parks:  People of all ages will find something they like at each Orlando water park.  Disney operates three water nice parks which cater to families.  Water Country USA is not affilated with any theme park.  It's more appealing to teens.
  Leave 1 full day at any water park:  Water parks are a different animal.  You go, explore, and lay around.  It's easy to get several rides on all the major slides in a day.  Leave a full day in the middle of your week for a water park visit.  It will be a welcome change from all the hot and crowded theme park craziness.

Busch Gardens Tampa:  Busch Gardens is a very well maintained park.  It's a cross between a zoo, a garden and a "big ride" park.  Kids love the more traditional amusement park rides.  Adults love the animals, landscaping and general layout of the park.   People who don’t like the “exploration/educational” style of EPCOT might consider substituting the day with a trip to Busch Gardens.
  Leave .75-1 day: Busch Gardens is only about 90 minutes away from Disney.  It's an easy highway drive (though it's suburban location can make it a little difficult to find.)  Busch also owns Sea World in Orlando, so a discounted combination ticket is easy to get.


KEY ATTRACTIONS - THE "MUST SEE" LIST
  Frequently people will ask me what the “must see” rides and show are.  All the parks are loaded with “filler” attractions.  Don’t feel bad if you miss filler.  Concentrate on seeing the major attractions
  Here is a list of the “must see” rides and shows… the ones people will ask you about:

"Must See" Rides (Teens & Adults)
The Amazing Adventures Of Spiderman (Universal Islands Of Adventure):  Creative high-tech multi-media ride is creative, unique and very memorable.  Truly groundbreaking.  The best ride in Orlando.

Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (Disney MGM Studios): Short indoor roller coaster ride made fun with a great storyline and theme-ing.  Disney “Imagineering” at its creative best.

Test Track (Disney-EPCOT): Big ad for General Motors made fun through excellent use of technology and concept.  You might even learn something.

Dinosaur (The Ride) (Disney-Animal Kingdom):  Traditional ride technology, but excellent animated dinosaurs.  Creative, dark and scary with fabulous attention to detail.   Don’t try taking the little ones on this ride.

Dueling Dragons (Universal Islands Of Adventure):  Wonderful dueling suspended steel roller coaster.  Sit in the front… you will never forget when the when the two coaster trains travel head-on (and a loop that just barely saves you from colliding.)  Best design of a traditional steel coaster in Orlando.


"Should See" Rides (Teens & Adults)
Incredible Hulk (Universal Islands Of Adventure):  This is a signature ride that has been somewhat over-hyped.  It's still a great suspended steel coaster ride with an excellent "launch" up the lift hill.

Jurassic Park River Adventure (Universal Islands Of Adventure):  Steven Spielberg-designed boat ride on steroids.  Outstanding mechanical dinosaurs and storyline.  Universal spent major dollars on this one.

Ripsaw Falls Log Ride (Universal Islands Of Adventure):  Long, creative roller coaster/log flume hybrid.  Whimsical and fun.  You will get wet.

Popeye’s Barges Raft Ride (Universal Islands Of Adventure):  Long, traditional whitewater raft ride.  Crazy graphics and story also make this wonderfully whimsical and fun.  After the ride, don't forget to find the nearby tugboat.  There you can shoot the "water canons" that get soak the people on the raft ride.

Kilimanjaro Safaris (Disney-Animal Kingdom):  Another signature ride that is somewhat over-hyped.  The 20-minute tour has a strong setting.  The story and animal views are okay.

Tower Of Terror (Disney-MGM Studios): Short ride.  Great story and presentation.  May be too scary for the little ones who later can't distinguish real elevators from theTower Of Terror.

Splash Mountain (Disney Magic Kingdom): Long, traditional water flume ride.  Good story and outstanding craftsmanship.


"Worth Riding" (Teens & Adults)
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (Disney Magic Kingdom):  Now a veteran ride, it's still excellent for its concept attention to detail.

Space Mountain (Disney Magic Kingdom):  An oldie but a goodie.

Poseidon’s Fury (Universal Islands Of Adventure):  Unique walk-through special effects attraction.

Star Tours (Disney MGM Studios):  Older movie/motion ride that’s still a lot of fun. 
  Movie Buff Note: Look for George Lucas’ cameo at the end.  He’s in the last shot… appearing as the control room operator.

Body Wars (Disney EPCOT):  Star Tours as created by your biology teacher.

Living With The Land (Disney EPCOT):  Interesting boat-ride through the Disney greenhouses.  After the ride, take the walking tour if it is being offered.


"Must Visit" Attractions (Young Kids)
Various Rides In Fantasy Land (Disney Magic Kingdom):  As you know, simply the world’s best attractions for young kids and their parents.   Arrive at park opening time and do everything in Fantasy Land immediately (otherwise the lines can become very long.)  The newer Pooh ride is every bit as good as the traditional favorites.

Various Rides In Seuss Landing (Universal Islands Of Adventure):  Extremely creative adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ stories.  Don’t miss The Cat In The Hat, One-Fish or the carousel.  Parents will enjoy this area at least as much as the kids. 
  Note that much of the architecture has been created out of styrofoam.  Just like Seuss books, there isn't a straight line anywhere.  Even the palm trees are crooked (they were transplanted from the site of a hurricane.)

Pteranodon Flyers (Universal Islands Of Adventure):  Low capacity ride for a young child and a parent with a long wait.  However, flying those big birds around Jurassic Park is memorable!


"Worth Visiting" (Young Kids)
The Flying Unicorn (Universal Islands Of Adventure):  Cute and fun kid-size steel coaster.

Dinosaur Excavation Play Area (Disney Animal Kingdom): Large dinosaur bones buried in pebbles.  Kids love to “dig.”

Honey I Shrunk The Kids Play Area (Disney MGM Studios):  Kids love climbing in this imaginative playground.  Adults will find it crowded with no place to sit down.

Play Area (Sea World):  Sea World offers a great traditional play area with climbing towers and tunnels.

“The Olive” Tugboat Play Area (Universal Islands Of Adventure):  Easy to miss area near the log and raft rides.  Three stories of running, climbing and shooting water at the raft riders.

Character Dining:  Disney offers a variety of sit-down meals with Disney characters.  The characters mover from table to table, giving young kids a better chance to interact with them than at the parks.  A family of four can expect to pay $60-$75 for one of these meals.


ORLANDO’S BEST SHOWS

"Must See" Shows (Everyone)
Fantasmic! (Disney MGM Studios):  Extraordinary use of pyrotechnics, lighting and lasers.  Fun story.  Great showcasing of Disney characters.  “Disney magic” at it's best.  A great way to end the day on an upbeat note.

IllumiNations (Disney EPCOT):  A moderate fireworks display made great with music and a unique video globe made out of a stadium “jumbotron” technology.  Great exhibition of showmanship and timing.  It runs about 15 minutes.  A “feel good” highlight of an Orlando vacation.  Watch out for the exiting crowds when the show is over.


"Should See" Shows (Everyone)
Shamu Show (Sea World):  The signature animal show of all time.   If possible, see both the day show and the “House of Dowse” evening show.  The evening show is very upbeat-Busch showmanship at its best.

The Eighth Voyage Of Sinbad (Universal Islands Of Adventure):   Remarkable special effects.  A personal favorite.

Indiana Jones Stunt Show (Disney MGM Studios):  A veteran stunt/special effects show with an educational component.  Still the best of its type. 
  Movie buff note:  Compare how Disney has modified the German swastika props used in the show versus the movie.

Lion King (Disney Animal Kingdom): Wonderful song, dance and gymnastics show.  Both adults and kids will enjoy.

Cranium Command (Disney Epcot):  Outstanding mixed-media presentation.  Information blended with humor.  Story line: You go inside the mind of a teenager.  Very creative.  Fun for everyone.

Tarzan (Disney Animal Kingdom):  Songs and X-games inspired acrobatics. 

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (Disney MGM Studios):  Exact duplicate setting of the real TV show.  Fun with great audience interaction.

Barney Show (Universal Studios):  Well done stage show featuring the purple dinosaur.  It's long enough to be satisfying for young kids, but not too long for adults.


PLEASANT DISCOVERIES
(Attractions that won’t blow your mind... just simple amusements)


Buzz Lightyear (Disney Magic Kingdom):  Whimsical shooting gallery.  Good mindless fun… just like the Toy Story movies.

The Diamond Horseshoe Saloon Review (Disney Magic Kingdom): Grab lunch in the air conditions while watching a silly wild west review.

Innoventions (Disney EPCOT): Kids love to play with the interactive computer technology.

Coke Ice House (Disney EPCOT)  Short walk through a deep freeze, followed by free samples of Coke products from around the world.  The fun is in tasting some of these strange sodas.

Dancing Fountain (Disney EPCOT):  It's the central fountain in the Future World plaza… but the show is easy to miss.   The fountain will occasionally put on a wonderful display of dancing water, music and light.

Walt Disney's Life Story (Disney MGM Studios): Exhibit and short movie on Walt’s life.  It's as sugarcoated as you would expect, but still magical and inspiring.

World Of Energy (Disney EPCOT):  Moving movie theater & diorama. 

Tom Sawyer Island (Disney Magic Kingdom):  A sentimental favorite.  Kids enjoy playing checkers at the Fort and bouncing on the suspension bridge.  See virtual tour of Tom Sawyer Island.

The Living Seas (Disney Epcot):  Largest aquarium in the world.  

China-The Movie (Disney Epcot):  This is the best of the three "360-degree movies" at Epcot.   The exotic locations and scenery make this an interesting experience.  
  While you're there... the sit-down restaurant in Epcot's China section is said to have some of the best Chinese food anywhere.  Even the "fast food" style Chinese food restaurant is good (my favorite quick eats at Epcot.)


SAMPLE ITINERARY - SEE IT ALL IN A WEEK
Here is one way to hit all of Orlando’s major attractions in a week.

Saturday—Travel day.  Upon arrival, swim at the hotel pool, organize all of your clothes and make a trip to the closest Publix/Winn-Dixie to buy a week’s worth of food, drinks and snacks.  Review your plans for the next day and for the week.  Get everyone to bed early.

Sunday—Leisurely full day at Sea World.  Get home early.

Monday—All day at Disney MGM Studios (end the evening with Fantasmic)
  OR
       Early morning through mid-day: Universal Studios plus
       Nap & Mid-afternoon through late-night Disney at MGM Studios (with Fantasmic)

Tuesday—Leisurely day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  Get home early.

Wednesday—Full day at Disney Blizzard Beach Water Park.  Play, relax and don’t keep to a schedule.  Be sure to try the huge monster slide… just so you can tell everyone you’ve been on the world’s greatest water slide.  If you don’t like water parks, try a day at Busch Gardens Tampa, Cypress Gardens, the hotel pool or the beach.

Thursday—Full day at Universal Islands Of Adventure

Friday—Full day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, including nighttime fireworks

Saturday—Leisurely full day at Disney’s EPCOT.  Future World in the morning.  Take a nap in the afternoon.  Return to explore the World Showcase.  Plan for a nice last dinner somewhere in the World Showcase.  End the final night with the Illuminations fireworks display.

Sunday—Return travel day.


DISCOUNT TICKETS
  A common question I get from readers of this site is "Where can I buy discount theme park passes?"  Unfortunately, there is no good source of discounted tickets.  The parks generally do not offer discounts to visitors from outside the State Of Florida.  They know you're going to come regardless of admission price, so there is no reason for them to give you a break.  Besides, since the park ultimately issues every admission ticket (regardless of where it's sold), there is no competitive structure to bring prices down.
  The City of Orlando is littered with tourist trap stores and ticket kiosks that supposedly sell discount tickets.  Beware of  people who sell "a four day pass with one day remaining on it" for a discount.  The theme parks are wise to this game and may reject your ticket even if it is still good.  Please do not trust the fly-by-night stores and kiosks in Orlando!
  Do not buy tickets from unknown internet sites that promise discount tickets.  The few dollars you save simply isn't worth the risk.
  That being said, there are a few things you can do:

    > Buy your tickets in advance through your hometown AAA (American Automobile Association) office.  AAA generally offers tickets that are a few dollars cheaper.  At the very least, AAA will save you enough money to cover the AAA membership cost (then you have access to their great travel planning services.)  Besides the park front gate or official park web site, AAA is the only reputable source of tickets that I can recommend to you.  AAA also offers great hotel discounts.   Click here for more.

    > You can talk with your hotel.  Many hotels sell admission tickets at a slight discount.  If there's a problem, at least you know who you can talk with.

    > Check with the official park web sites for package deals that include discounted hotels and theme park tickets.  

    > Check the official park web sites for deals on individual tickets.  The parks will generally offer a slight single-ticket discount to you online versus buying at the front gate.  Tickets purchased this way can be sent directly to your home or picked up at the park's "will call" window.

    > Check the "Discount" sections of the following reputable web sites for theme park admission & hotel deals:
             ThemeParkInsider.com
             MouseSavers.com: "Great deals on all things Disney."
             AmusementPark.com
             Orlando Magic Card: Discount card for discounts on Orlando area attractions & lodging.
             Florida Travel Discounts:  Travel deals from About.com.
             AARP: Travel discounts from AARP.

    > Check the discount travel links (at the bottom of this web page) for package deals.

  The discounts offered on tickets are generally small.  However you can use other techniques to save your vacation dollars.  The best way to save money is on your flight, rental car and hotel.  A lot of money can be saved on food if your hotel room has a kitchenette and you stock up on food at one of Orlando's Publix or Winn Dixie supermarkets.  Check with your hotel's front desk for directions to the nearest supermarket.

MILITARY DISCOUNTS: TICKETS, HOTELS, TRAVEL

  Theme parks regularly offer discounted tickets to those in the military.  The discount offers change all the time.  Check these web sites for more information on military discounts

    Military.com: Travel discounts on theme parks and attractions nationwide
    MilitaryNow.com:
Travel discounts on theme parks and attractions nationwide.
    Disney Military Discount Tickets:  Disney discount information from "The Dis"
    ArmyMWR: Listing of sources for great military discounts on travel.


FLORIDA RESIDENT DISCOUNTS
  The parks occasionally offer discounts to Florida residents.  Of course they require proof of residency (such as a Florida driver’s license or a utility bill.)  Offers aren’t always available.  Special offers vary by season and general park attendance.  The discounts are offered when times are slow (most of the offers seem to be available in the winter and spring.)
  The best Florida resident discounts are offered through AAA-the American Automobile Association.  In January and February Florida residents can buy a year pass for the price of a one-day ticket.  Busch Gardens & Sea World will make this offer to the general public.  Universal Studios/Islands Of Adventure may make this offer available only through AAA.  This offer isn’t repeated at any other time of year.  Disney has not made this offer.  Throughout the year AAA also sells regular theme park and water park tickets at a slight discount.  Click here to see updated AAA discounts for both residents and non-residents.
  Disney offers Florida residents a few options.  First is an annual pass.  This is best if you go a lot of expect friends/family to visit during the summer, Christmas or spring break.  The second option is an “off peak” annual pass, which is generally only valid in the months when school is in session.  The “off peak” pass makes it tough to join out-of-state friends when they come down for summer vacation.  The last option is a “Play 4” pass which allows you to visit for four non-consecutive days.  The Offers such as “Play 4” are only offered occasionally.
  For our family of four, a discounted pass to Busch Gardens, Sea World, Universal Studios or Islands Of Adventure would cost about $225.  An “off peak” Disney pass would run about $800 and our regular annual pass cost about $1200.   “Play 4” type promotions cost about $100.
  As tempting as it might be, non-Florida residents shouldn’t try to cheat the system.  Disney uses electronic fingerprint technology at their gates.  Universal and Busch provide photo-ID type passes.
  Generally Florida resident discount passes do not allow admission to the parks during special theme nights at Halloween or Christmas.


ORLANDO AIRBOATS, MANATEES, ALLIGATORS, KAYAKING

  Florida is rich in wildlife and natural attractions.  It may be nice to get away from the commercialism for a day and explore "The Real Florida."  Click here for more information on Florida air boat rides, kayaking, parasailing, fishing, alligators, manatees and eco-tours.


DISNEY CRUISE LINE: CRUISE VACATION TIPS
  If your Orlando vacation includes a trip on the Disney Cruise Line or another cruise line, check out our virtual cruise ship tour and cruise vacation tips at Cruise 101: A Beginner's Guide To Cruising.



MOVING TO FLORIDA
  If you love Florida and are considering moving here, click here.  This link takes you to Moving To Florida: Relocation Tips, which is my advice page for those considering a move to the Sunshine State.  It provides information on where to live, the Florida lifestyle and some of the "surprises" you may encounter moving to Florida. 
  I assembled Moving To Florida: Relocation TIps after hearing from many readers of this site who were considering relocating to Florida.


FINAL THOUGHT
  The "theme" park was invented by Walt Disney.  His idea for Disneyland came after a simple father/daughter outing.  He wanted to create a place that adults and kids could enjoy together.
  While Orlando may represent the state of the art in theme parks, it hasn't been our family's best overall amusement park experience. 
  Our best "family together" experiences actually came at a regional amusement park near where we used to live.
  Having a season pass to a nearby park allows you to visit frequently and for just a few hours at a time.  You can go on rainy days when the weather has chased the crowds away.  Short lines mean you can ride again and again.  You can wander without an itinerary.  The kids can go where they what when they want.  Who cares how the time is spent so long as you're having fun?
  Isn't it strange?  In some ways the local amusement park may be closer Walt's original vision than current day Orlando.
  If you come to Orlando your and family enjoys theme parks together, don't forget about that nearby hometown amusement park.   A season pass there may allow for some affordable and relaxed family experiences that you simply can't get in Orlando.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR
  Our family lives in Florida and has made trips to Orlando on a monthly basis.  We're a working family with no ties to the theme park or tourism industries.  We have seen every single ride, show and attraction at each of the Disney parks.  We've visited all of the parks listed on this page many times.  Every year we buy multi-park annual passes to various properties (we alternate between Disney, Universal-IOA and Sea World-Busch Gardens.) It wouldn't be accurate to classify us as Disney fanatics, coaster enthusiasts or theme park nuts.  We visit because amusement parks are something everyone in the family can enjoy together.  
  As you can tell from reading this page, we try to enjoy Orlando's magic but aren't blind to its many failings.   I really appreciate the business risk, hard work and creativity it takes to build such interesting and technically sophisticated parks. The parks are colorful, clean and safe.  At the same time I'm concerned about the extraordinary costs associated with bringing a family to Orlando.   Families make major sacrifices to fund their Orlando pilgrimages.  They arrive with sky-high expectations based on Orlando's image marketing.  If all visitors find are overcrowded theme parks and inflated prices, they're going to be unhappy.   I was disappointed by my first trip to Orlando and I've left disappointed several times since.  The only reason I come back is for the family.  I manage Orlando better because of the information presented above.   I put the information on the Internet because I hope it will have the same benefit for you.  Best of luck with your Orlando adventure!



CONTACT
Please feel free to be in touch with any comments, questions or to share your Orlando theme park tips.  Click here for contact information.


WHAT OTHERS SAY ABOUT THIS SITE
  Literally thousands of people visit this site each month.  We're pleased to have the opportunity to share the advice learned from our family's Orlando experiences.  Here are some of the comments readers have sent:

"Wow... could you have possibly gotten any more informative?  Love your site and will definitely come in handy when we visit.  I have bookmarked it so we can start our planning the right way."   --Tracy T.

"I loved all your ideas and after reading your article we are going to try a new approach to Orlando.  Thanks for your web site.  Excellent!"  --Gigi S.

"Just a quick note to say thank you for writing your un-offical guide to DisneyWorld.  My family and I have been researching and you are the first we have found who talked about the 'other attractions' like Universal and Sea World.  I have bookmarked and intend on printing your web page for our use.  Thank you again!!!"   --Carol Y.

"I have just finished reading your site and it has prepared my for my vacation there this weekend."  --Munoda M.

"I have been searching online and taking notes. So far your site is absolutely the best!  I have saved it in my favorites and can't wait to share it with my husband.  I just wanted to thank you for such a wonderful, helpful site."   --JC F.


ORLANDO TRAVEL LINKS - MORE "UNOFFICAL" ADVICE
Virtual Tour Of Disney-MGM Studios
Unoffical Theme Park Guide
Unoffical Guide To Universal Orlando
Unoffical Disney Online Guide
The Dis--"Largest" Unofficial Guide To Disney World
All Ears Net--Disney Information
My Disney World
Adults At Disney World

Disney Rumors
More Disney Rumors
Satellite Photo Of The Magic Kingdom
Disney World-The Online Guide


OFFICIAL SITES
Walt Disney World Official Site
Universal Studios Orlando Official Site
Sea World Orlando Official Site
Cypress Gardens Official Site
Busch Gardens Tampa Official Site
AAA Discount Tickets
List Of "Hidden Mickey's" At Disney World


RECOMMENDED DISCOUNT TRAVEL WEB SITES
Travelzoo: Excellent Top 20 Discount List, Last Minute Deals
Sky Auction:  Outstanding Travel Auction site
Site 59: Travel Broker With Useful Last Minute Weekend Getaways
Last Minute Travel: Last Minute Travel Deals
One Click Travel:  Usually Has The Best Hotel Rates
Hotwire: Last Minute Deals, Fare Alerts
Travel Cuts: Cheap Travel
Orbitz: Airline Industry Owned Travel Broker
Priceline: The Original Internet Discount Travel Broker
Travelaxe: Excellent Travel Search Tool
SideStep: Traveler's Search Engine



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