We returned from our simply fantastic holiday to Orlando last week but I have been busy recovering, after walking at least 60 miles over the time we were there, in addition to being scared witless on some rides, climbing more steps at the water parks than I’ve even done in my life and generally exerting my body to all sorts of unfamiliar activities! The sheer joy on my boys’ faces however, for the majority of the time we were there, made it totally worth it! They both decided it was the best holiday that they had been on thus far (and to be honest, they have been on some pretty marvellous holidays, so that’s saying something).
So as a brief guide, we stayed off site for Disney (but in one of the partner hotels) – Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek. The hotel is very close to the parks and there is a free shuttle every 30 minutes to an hour. Sometimes we opted for Uber which cost between $7 and $12 depending on which park we were visiting (Hollywood Studios was the nearest and Animal Kingdom the furthest). The hotel itself was great; there was a fab swimming pool with a lazy river for the children to enjoy as well as a water slide which they loved. After 8 days we moved to the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Studios. This was an excellent location as it is the closest hotel to the Universal theme park – 5 minutes walk. It just made everything so much easier in terms of wake up times and trying to get the boys ready. The whole stay was more leisurely and I didn’t have an agenda to get onto every ride, as we were there for 4 days. We also stayed on the club floor which the boys were very excited about. This meant that breakfast was included, as well as some snacks through the day, substantial canapes/bowl food and drinks around 6pm and cookies before bed. Scrumptious!
Ok so what tips can I give you to get the most out of your stay and really help with the preparation before hand? Here goes:
Before you Go
- You absolutely must downloads the ‘My Disney Experience‘ app onto your phone before you go – at least 60 days in advance if you are staying on site and 30 days in advance otherwise. This allows you to book your rides using Disney’s fastpass system. You can book up to 3 rides a day, but don’t book from when the park opens as this is when it is at its emptiest, so you’ll be able to get on a few rides quite quickly with minimal queues. I would recommend booking your fastpasses from 10.30am. Once you have used your 3rd fastpass (of the day) you are then allowed to book more on a one by one basis, which is why it’s best to book them early (but not too early!)
- Must buys before you go (I have covered some of these before): ponchos (it rains a lot although this usually passes in 15-30 mins), extra batteries for camera, chargebank for mobile phone, blister plasters, high factor suncream, ziplock bags, travel sized body sprays (it’s hot!)
- Join a Facebook group specifically for Orlando – I joined a few including ‘Disney and Orlando for the Brits’! You will get many extra tips on there plus so much more
- Buy trainers for walking around the parks – don’t go in flip flops. Long days are really quite tough in the heat and your feet will not thank you for walking miles in footwear which is not supportive or comfortable. It is also a good idea to break them in before you get there
- Don’t bother packing anything stylish – I packed one dress, but had no need for it at all. There’s not many places that ask for smart clothes and they’ll just go unworn!
While you are There
- Getting through security at Orlando airport is a nightmare! We did not even land there at peak time, and it still took us around 1.5 hours to clear the whole of security. There are around 3 or 4 different areas you need to get through, which is why it take so long. Be prepared!
- While you are there, you will be using your Disney app a lot for fastpasses and for character dining too (we booked in advance of going but had to alter some dates). One thing to be aware of is that there is a chance of getting fastpasses for Avatar – Flight of Pandora (in Animal Kingdom), the day before or even on the day of. I know it’s possible because some Disney cast members mentioned it and also because I managed to get one! I had been trying from the 30 days in advance point unsuccessfully, and then the night befoer we were due to go to Animal Kingdom, I checked my app at 6.30pm and there were fastpasses available! Such a plus for us as I was not expecting to enjoy the ride this year due to the queues in excess of 4 hours on most days. So it’s worth checking all the time!
- So on the note of when to get to the parks, as I said, earlier is better. The only exception to this rule is when any particular park has opened early for the Disney hotels. These Early Magic Hours as they are called mean that the park is already heaving when you get there and it is unlikely to quieten down during the morning, so you are better off going elsewhere!
- At the entrance to all parks there is a bag security check. The queues for this seem to take forever, and I always find myself in the queue with the most thorough security guard meaning it takes even longer! But it something to take into account as 30 minutes n the queue means 30 mins less time in the park when it’s just opened and is quiet! To help security, it’s worth putting your belongings in ziplock bags as this is much easier to check through. A backpack stuffed full of items will take far longer to inspect than one with clear bags. Just a thought!
- Ubers are great, really great. We used them a lot. However the caveat to this would be at park closing time, when the prices of Ubers skyrockets – at this time (if you are not driving) I would patiently wait for your free shuttle or else bite the bullet and know that you are going to be paying up to double the usual price.
- There will be days when you want a bit of retail therapy – I managed two outings, one with my kids and one without. I managed to buy so much in the 4 hours that I was there in total that I needed an extra suitcase for my return journey. It happens to most people, so it’s either worth taking a half empty suitcase with you OR buy another one when you are there! As the airlines are quite strict on weight per bag, we also took a portable luggage weighing scale. This really helped.
- Another tip regarding the outlets – many will have a main desk in some prominent area (in the Vineland and International premium outlets this is in the Food Courts), that give out coupon books. Sometimes your hotel will have them instead. Do try to find them as these discounts can be pretty good. eg 25% off in some stores!
- Food is very expensive in the parks but the portion size is huge. In fact the portions are huge everywhere you go. Never order as many meals as there are people – you’ll never finish. We end up ordering 1 adult dish and two kids meals and then sharing everything – and even this was still too much. There are various discount cards for free meals as well that you can get in advance or while you are in Orlando.
- Water parks are great and when we went, the parks were not that busy. I think if the forecast is for rain, a lot of people don’t bother going to the water parks, but actually it’s still pretty fun so I would say these days are the best. Do understand though that pretty much every ride has about 6 flights of steps (at least) before you can get on it. By the end of the day at Volcano Bay, my thighs were in need of a massage and I had trouble trying to walk normally the following day. (I am pretty fit back home what with the spinning, cycling and pilates I do so this is no joke!)
- Definitely pack snacks to take to the parks and water if you can (pop to a Walmart when you get there to stock up on these items). Needless to say, don’t take chocolate into the parks – it will melt within a few minutes and your bag will be a mess!
- Don’t forget there’s more to Orlando than Disney and Universal. We managed to get to the Kennedy Space Centre too and this was a fantastic day where the boys learnt a lot about the Atlantis shuttle and the International Space Station as well as the newer rocket launches of SpaceX. There was a lot to see and one day wasn’t really enough but it was better than nothing! There is also Gatorland, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens etc… so a lot more for us to do when we return.
So there you have it – a few tips for you now that I have been and know the lie of the land a little better! We really loved Orlando and really did not even get to sample all it had to offer. Hence we will be back at some point, but I am not sure exactly when that will be! Enjoy your trip!