If you’re planning your first visit to Orlando, you want to make sure you’re as prepared as possible! If you’re responsible for creating the perfect trip for your family, the weight on your shoulders can feel a little heavy. But don’t worry – we’re going to help you out and relieve a little of that stress.
After reading these tips, you’ll feel like a veteran tourist, and your family (and you!) can relax and have a great vacation.
1. The parks are much bigger than you can imagine
The sheer size of Walt Disney World Resort is amazing in and of itself – it’s roughly the same size as the city of San Francisco (that’s 40 square miles!). Disney’s resort is made up of four theme parks, two water parks, two shopping/dining/entertainment districts (including Disney Springs), and over 40 on-site hotels (just take a look at the Hyatt, featured above – and that’s not even a Disney resort). Add to that golf and putt putt courses, campsites, trails, waterways, and more, and you can see how you can really get lost in there!
Currently, Universal has three parks (Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and its newest addition, the Volcano Bay water theme park), CityWalk (the entertainment complex), and six on-site hotels. What’s more, there are two more venues opening up all throughout 2019 and ’20 (which are collectively called Endless Summer Resort), along with talk of building a third theme park on some 1,000 acres of land that were just recently purchased.
The parks will definitely make you feel small, so take your time and try not to rush amid all the excitement.
2. The difference between a theme and amusement park
If you are anything like me, you grew up near an amusement park that was filled with roller coasters and lots of spinning rides that made you question your sanity. You generally hop off one ride and right on to the next. There was a midway for playing games, and some of the best guilty-pleasure food around. The general idea is to go have a good time and ride as many attractions as possible.
To create their theme parks, Universal and Disney have taken the various elements from these amusement parks and enhanced them with stories, characters, and, well, themes, including the restaurants and shops. Each section is carefully crafted to make you feel like you have been transported to a different world or time. The rides are a little more spread out and not always the main attraction of the destination; be prepared to do a lot of walking, and to exit from reality to a fantasy world of princesses, dragons, wizards, and Wookiees.
Not to mention, cast members (Disney’s term for its employees), team members (Universal’s), and animal ambassadors (SeaWorld’s) do their best to help create a total-immersion experience. Universal does a particularly good job with this in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – the team members there are in character the entire time, making you feel as if you’re actually a part of Harry’s world, so play along with them and have fun!
3. Where are the beaches?
When I first visited Florida as a kid, I assumed beaches were everywhere. If you’re on either coast, sure, they are; if you’re in Orlando, however, not so much. While there are some lakes in Central Florida open for swimming, many of the lakes and ponds are going to be off-limits for guests – this includes the various bodies of water at Disney World and the waterways at Universal Orlando. Yes, there are gators in the lakes, but there are also a host of other, more microscopic creatures that will definitely ruin your vacation should you come in contact with them. (If you are looking to see the ocean while in town, Cocoa Beach is the closest coastal beach, about an hour’s drive away.)
If beaches aren’t your thing, but you still want to have some fun in the water, Central Florida is also host to several natural fresh-water springs, including Blue Springs, which is home to fish, turtles, and, during the winter months, manatees. But we can’t stress this enough: just please be sure to pay attention to any signs and warnings – not just for gators, but for other creatures, too. This is for your and their mutual benefit.
4. Not always the Sunshine State
Many people we hear from are saddened to check their weekly weather forecasts and see a 40% chance (or more) of rain every day of their summer vacation. Try not to let this get you down. Understand, it will probably rain every day you are here if you visit during the “rainy season” (about late May to mid-October), but, luckily, it doesn’t typically last. Expect about an hour of heavy rain in the afternoon, but then you can go and enjoy the rest of your day. Of course, there are lucky dry days, and days when the rain seems like it will never stop; during those times, take advantage of rides that remain open during bad weather (the lines will be almost nonexistent!). A rainstorm is also a great time to check out shows, such as the Horror Make-Up Show at Universal or Blue Horizons at SeaWorld.
Just remember to take extreme weather warnings, including lighting storms, seriously. And if a ride or water park is closed due to the weather, keep in mind that it’s for your own safety. The rain is just one of mother nature’s forces to deal with, so be prepared for any weather, no matter what time of year you come.
Pro tip: if you do get caught in some bad weather, the parks will all gladly sell you ponchos, but I highly recommending grabbing a few at the corner dollar or drug store and bringing them with you. This will definitely save you some money if you get caught in a downpour.
5. Pay attention to extra fees
If you have decided to visit the parks, you have probably already come to terms with ticket prices; unfortunately, as guests, we can’t get into the park without admission, so it’s best to just research and budget what works best for the family.
Tickets, food, and souvenirs are not going to be the only things tugging on your wallet, though – the parks (and many hotels and resorts) charge parking fees. At Universal Orlando, the price for general parking is $25, with premium and valet parking also being offered for a bit more (you can find all the prices in our complete transportation guide). Over at Walt Disney World, meanwhile, you can pay for parking at each theme park, or you can choose the Disney transportation system (monorail, buses, and water taxis) to get from one to the other.
Remember, when dining out, that most full-service restaurants and bars operate with a tipping policy. If you are unfamiliar with this, you may want to do your research on what is appropriate. And be sure you check your bill, as some establishments add on an automatic gratuity (the percentage and policy varies from place to place), as well as leaving a spot for you to add an additional tip as you see fit. This is especially helpful to those from other countries who aren’t sure what a good amount to tip is, as well as for those of us who don’t feel like doing math at the end of a good meal! Many establishments will also put the suggested tip amounts based on 15% and 20%, which is also helpful.
6. Different types of accommodations
When my family went on a trip that required us to spend a night or two, it was pretty simple: you found a nice little hotel near your destination, and everyone crammed into one room. You can still do that if you want to, but the good news is you don’t have to.
With over 400 hotels in Orlando, there is bound to be something that piques your interest, from basic chain hotels to elaborately themed resorts that make you feel like you don’t need to leave the property! (The latter is the specialty of both Disney and Universal.) If you are traveling with a large party, or if you prefer more privacy, you may want to look into a vacation home – you have all the amenities of a single-family house, room for everyone, and, if you’re lucky, a private pool. And let’s not forget the other options of timeshare resorts, campgrounds, and RV sites.
There are pros and cons for each. With a little research, you can quickly find what’s best for your vacation. (To help get you started, take a look at Universal Orlando’s six on-site properties.)
7. Don’t forget to relax!
Between the theme parks, the beaches, all the restaurants, and the smaller attractions, your to-do list may seem never-ending. I cannot tell you how many guests I see at the end of their stay that are miserable and exhausted because they tried to do it all. And I don’t blame them – how can you not want to see and do everything? Especially if you have been planning and saving for this special trip for your family for a long time.
A key to keeping a smile on everyone’s face is to take a day or two and enjoy that beautiful resort you picked out, lay out by the pool, or just slow things down for a bit, perhaps by doing a half-day instead of a full day at the parks. After waiting in line, bumping into crowds of people, being beat up by the sun, and battling traffic, a day to just relax can make all the difference. Your body and your mind will thank you for it!
BONUS: The overlooked experiences
Central Florida is, of course, known for its theme parks, but if you want to get out and explore beyond that, there is certainly more to see. Take a break from the parks and visit one of the many outlet malls that not only feature the usual mall shops, but also fun things like the Crayola Experience, which is located in the Florida Mall. Check out the Downtown Orlando area and take a ride on the swan boats in Lake Eola and feed the real-life swans that live there. Downtown Orlando is also home to the new state-of-the-art Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which lives up to its motto of “Arts for every life” by featuring all kinds of shows, from Broadway hits to comedy performances, concerts, and more.
The City Beautiful is also surrounded by fun and unique towns that offer their own forms of entertainment and atmosphere, including Winter Park (which is home to one of the largest annual art festivals in the country) and Sanford (which has a fantastic Oktoberfest celebration each year, as well as a pretty terrific zoo). There are many other fun areas to explore, so no matter what your interest is, Central Florida has something you’re bound to enjoy. Welcome!
Share your first-time tips with – or ask your first-time questions to – literally tens of thousands of other theme-park enthusiasts in our Facebook groups. You can find our Universal Community here, and our Disney World Community here.