From booking your airport transfer, to finding the perfect hotel and knowing how to beat the queues, here’s our guide to ensure you and your family have a fantastic theme park holiday in Orlando.
It’s easy to see why more than 50 million people flock to Orlando in Florida each year to experience the joy the ‘Theme Park Capital of the World’ brings. At Disney’s Magic Kingdom, children can meet their favourite Disney characters, while Universal Studios Florida thrills with rides based on popular movies and TV shows, including Men In Black and The Simpsons. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure let’s you explore the magic of Hogwarts castle and dine in the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade Village, while you can explore the giant structures in the world of LEGOLAND and splash around on water-based thrill rides at SeaWorld Orlando’s Water Park.
And that’s just the beginning.
With so much on offer, and adventure and excitement around every corner, it’s easy to feel a bit overwhelmed when you visit Orlando. With the help of our guide, learn local tips and tricks to ensure your theme park holiday is smooth and seamless, and fun for the whole family.
1. Prebook your airport transfer
Orlando International Airport (MCO) is the closest airport to travel to and from when visiting the theme parks of Orlando. The easiest and most convenient way to get from Orlando International Airport to your hotel and back is by airport transfer. Whether you want a private transfer or a shared shuttled, Jayride.com works with thousands of local transfer companies so you can find one that fits your needs and budget.
Other nearby airports in Florida include Orlando Sanford Airport (SFB), located in nearby Sanford, and Daytona Beach International Airport (DAB), where you can easily book an airport transfer to get to or from your hotel. Spend less time waiting in long taxi queues at the airport and more time on your favourite theme park rides. If you’re planning to hit the rides straightaway, or you’re staying on-site at the theme parks, just enter the theme park address you’re travelling to and from and choose from the transfer companies who’ll take you straight there. Easy!
2. On-site vs off-site hotel
While at first glance, staying on-site at a theme park may seem more expensive, there are many benefits to staying at a theme park hotel, plus you’ll have a number of uniquely-themed accommodation options depending on where you want to stay. If you’re wanting to stay Disney-side, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, Caribbean Resort, All-Star Movies Resort and the Beach Club Resort are all great options, especially for families, and provide easy access to all of Disney’s parks; Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and the two most-visited water parks in the world; Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach.
Over at Universal, hotels such as Cabana Bay Beach Resort, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel and the Royal Pacific Resort are all conveniently located to Universal’s theme parks, including Universal Studios – home of the 90-degree drop of the Rip Ride Rocket roller coaster – and Islands of Adventures, where you can explore The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Some of these hotels also have the added bonus of a free Universal Express Pass for hotel guests, so it’s worth enquiring with hotels about this before you book.
The benefits of staying on-site (apart from many on-site resorts offering park passes as part of their accommodation package) means you can easily wander back to your hotel for a break and have a dip in the pool or just some rest and relaxation in between rides and exploring. This is especially useful if you’re trying to avoid the peak-hour crowds in the middle of the day by getting to the parks early and staying late for shorter wait times.
If you’d prefer to stay at an off-site hotel instead, you’re spoilt for choice. You can easily find airport transfers to and from popular hotels including the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Centre, Orlando World Center Marriott, the Rosen Inn at Pointe Orlando and Westgate Lakes Resort and Spa.
Explore the magic of Diagon Alley at Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Photo by Troy Jarell
3. Pre-purchase your tickets online
You have a number of options when purchasing tickets to both Disney and Universal’s theme parks, and buying them online saves you from having to wait at the gate to purchase them. For Universal Orlando Resort you can buy single day tickets, multi-day tickets and tickets to Universal’s Volcano Bay. If you buy multi-day tickets online, you’ll save $20 off the front gate ticket price. If you want to skip the queues, you can also buy a Universal Express Pass, which lets you maximise your fun and get on your favourite rides even faster.
Disney World also has a number of ticket options to access their four parks, and you can also save some money when you buy 3-day or longer tickets online. Disney’s FastPass+ option is also available to purchase online, and lets you reserve access to certain attractions and rides.
4. Timing is everything
Some of the more popular attractions often have wait times of over an hour, so there are a few tips to avoid the big crowds. If you’re happy to skip the parades and fireworks shows, you’ll find that attraction wait times are usually at their lowest. Plan for an early or late lunch; you’ll not only miss the mad lunch-rush at theme park restaurants, but you’ll also benefit from smaller crowds at the attractions.
If you’re staying on-site, you have the added benefit of getting early access, so you’ll be able to avoid the crowds and see the main attractions an hour before the general public. The best times are early morning and late afternoon for shorter queue times, so plan to arrive early, stay late, or both. It’s worth looking up less-popular attractions to visit during peak times. CityWalk at Universal empties out in the afternoon and has some great shops and fun photo opportunities. There’s a ‘live’ raptor photo opportunity at Universal’s Islands of Adventure that any dinosaur fans will love and Fievel’s Playground lets kids run wild in a whimsical playground while parents can have a breather.
There are benefits of going to theme parks on an overcast day too, as many people choose to skip a visit if the weather isn’t so good. Overcast weather means it won’t be as hot either, so you’ll be more comfortable running around the theme parks. We recommend bringing a raincoat though, as Florida is known for quick downpours.
Handy hint: All outside attractions shut down when lightning is within 15 kilometres of the parks, so check the weather forecast before you head over.
5. Bring food with you
While there are some fantastic restaurants and dining options in Orlando’s theme parks, it’s no doubt that theme park dining can be very expensive, especially if you’re feeding a family over a number of days (even a bottle of water can be up to US$5!). By bringing food and drink with you, you’ll not only save money but also spend less time waiting in long food queues and more times on your favourite rides.
Orlando’s theme parks are pretty lenient with how much food you can bring in with you, so pack up some sandwiches, fruit, granola bars and other snacks for you to munch on throughout the day. It’s important to note beforehand though that portable coolers and alcoholic drinks are not allowed to be brought into any of Orlando’s theme parks.
That being said, there are some culinary delights that you simply cannot miss. Try an iconic Butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade, part of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (there’s three varieties to try!), challenge yourself to finish a giant pink donut from Lard Lad (from The Simpsons) or try out basically anything from the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium, located in Universal’s CityWalk.
Handy hint: Try a theme park dining plan, a pre-paid food plan that gives you two meals a day and unlimited drinks.
You won’t be able to refuse a chocolatey dessert at the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium in Universal’s CityWalk
6. Pack water and sunscreen
Nothing ruins a holiday more than sunburn and heatstroke. Avoid both by stocking up on sunscreen and bottled water before you head off to the theme parks. It’s possible to get sunburnt even on overcast days, so stay sun-safe and hydrated.
Handy hint: It’s a good idea to also pack bandaids for any blisters that crop up while walking around, anti-nausea tablets in case anyone in your party starts to feel a bit motion sick on the rides, and a sunhat to keep the sun off your face.
7. Take advantage of the single rider line
The single rider line is designated for people travelling on their own or who are willing to go on rides with strangers, as single riders are placed in single spots left empty on rides. These are a massive time saver as the wait time is usually just a fraction of what you would spend in the regular queue. The single rider queue is often unmarked, so many people don’t know to use them.
8. Use the child-swap area
Another underused option is the child-swap scheme. The child-swap allows families travelling with small children (who may be too young or too small to travel on certain rides) to wait in the queue together. One parent then stays off the ride to mind any children who cannot take part, while the rest of the family goes on the ride. After that, the parents swap roles so both parents are able to have a turn on the ride without having to wait in the queue again. Plus, the second parent can usually take up to three guests with them, so other family members can ride twice.
9. Download the theme park apps
Both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando have released smartphone apps, making it super easy to book tickets, check attraction wait times and review restaurant menus, plus heaps more. Universal’s app let’s you look up show times and make dining reservations, while Disney’s app lets you locate yourself on their interactive map, plus find Character Greeting locations to help maximise your time at the parks.