Eventually, most families with young children succumb to an Orlando vacation and for me, this summer was it. Even with all the forward planning, reservations, and online research, I still found a few surprises, several pitfalls and Orlando's tempestuous summer weather to deal with -- but overall, Orlando will be a memorable, fun and exhausting destination for you and your kids.
The advice contained herein is not gospel, nor is it universal as depending on the age of your children you may encounter different experiences and needs. But if your world consists of a two and a four year old, and you are six months pregnant (and even if you're not), hopefully some of the following will be insightful for your future trip to the theme park capital of the world.
Know Your Limitations -- Time, Dollars & Energy
With so many different attractions, theme parks, and amusements located in the greater Orlando area, you need to be realistic about what you can and cannot achieve in your allocated time without totally overwhelming yourself and your children. Before booking your vacation, speak to your children about what they would like to see and do, and then divide by at least two. For us, the decision was made easier by the fact that my little ones totally love the ocean, animals and all things Disney but we also only had two full days, so we chose Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and SeaWorld. Obviously your choices could include any or all of the six Disney parks (plus Downtown Disney), three Universal parks, three SeaWorld experiences, or even the Holy Land Experience.
Choose the Order of Your Park Visits
I would recommend doing Disney Parks last, as these tend to be the most exhausting with the largest ground to cover on foot. SeaWorld is a good starting point and introduction to the whole theme park experience for kids. The lay out is quite relaxing with a perfect blend of animals, interactive experiences, landscaped spaces, and rides. If you are only doing Disney, then allow enough time in each park to see and do everything, but factor in at least an hour from the car park to getting inside the front gates of the Magic Kingdom or Epcot (including walking, the monorail or ferry and actual admission), breaks for meals, and other delays like queuing for rides and photo opportunities. The weather forecast may also determine your choice of park order, with Universal Studios a better destination for more indoor activities and the various water parks are best on warm but overcast days to avoid too much sun exposure.
Work out a Budget
If money is no object, then skip this step. But for most of us, we have to make realistic choices and the bottom line is that theme parks in Orlando are expensive. Each park has different rules re ages, prices and multi-day multi-park tickets, and if the admission price doesn't kill you, the add-ons will. Establish where it is you will be visiting, and what your additional requirements are. For example if you aren't traveling with a stroller and think you'll need one, factor in stroller rental ($15 for a single and strangely, $31 for a double per day at Disney). If someone in your party isn't able to walk several miles per day, then there will be the cost of a ride on scooter or similar available at most parks (up to $60 per day). There also separate paying activities like feeding the dolphins ($7 per adult or child) or stingrays at SeaWorld. Then there is food, accommodation, transportation, and of course, there is no escape from most of these parks without purchasing some sort of souvenir, toy, or marketing tool, plus the professional photos (that you can buy on site for $10 to $30 each, or from theme park websites after your visit). Entry prices for a single day at a theme park in Orlando generally range from around $60 to $80 for adults and not much less for children. There are some savings when you buy in advance from individual parks' websites (i.e. SeaWorld ticket prices go down from $75 to $65) but that means committing and paying in advance. A family of four would need a minimum budget of $500 to $600 a day -- and that is being very conservative based on all of the above and my recent experiences.
Be Smart When it Comes to Accommodation
Although your first choice may be to stay at a hotel located within the grounds of one of the theme parks, this may not always be the best option, and it certainly will not be the most affordable. Yes, there are definite pluses including reduced time to get into the park each morning and extended hours for resort guests at Disney (although you may never get to utilize the latter if you have young children or if you are simply too exhausted to stay an extra hour or two). We chose the Buena Vista Suites (tel. 407/239-8588; www.buenavistasuites.com) and were more than happy. The two-room suites were gorgeous and recently refurbished. The huge double hot tub in the bathroom was a source of joy for my children and amenities like two flat screen televisions, a microwave, fridge and ample storage were well utilized. Even better, we took the recommendation from the Mousesavers website (www.mousesavers.com) and got a sensational price that was considerably lower than the hotel's published website rate. At $89 plus tax per night, you couldn't go wrong, even if the free breakfast was rather scary (skip the free breakfast with its lines and barely edible offerings and spend $20 for a more satisfying culinary experience at a local diner or eatery -- most have "free kids' meals" anyway).
Shop around for accommodation deals and look out for specials (some Disney Resorts do offer great deals at certain off-peak times of the year) but if you do stay on-site, make sure that it is in a resort area where you wish to spend most of your time as commuting from one theme park to a different brand theme park (i.e. Disney to Universal) without your own transportation may be constraining. Hotel rates can range from the cheapest motels at around $50 a night to luxurious Disney Resort suites for up to $400 a night. Most off-site hotels are located within five miles of the major theme parks so can be a practical and economical alternative.
To Drive or Not to Drive?
A tough question but one that got answered quickly for us when we found out the free shuttle service timetable at our hotel. Free shuttles are great and are one important selling point of many of the hotels located outside the park areas but beware: There was no way we could get our family of four up, washed, dressed, and fed before 8am while on vacation. That meant the only morning shuttle at 8am was out of the question and likewise, if you miss the final shuttle back to your hotel (because your child needs to use the bathroom or the crowds exiting the park after the fireworks turns your ten minute walk to the bus stop into 20), finding a taxi isn't easy. Distances are actually quite short between theme parks and most hotels, so it is likely that your drive back and forth will only take ten to 15 minutes at worst. On the down side, it costs money to park at each theme park and time to get from your car to the entrance gate, however that $10 and 10 minutes can be a small price to pay to have the freedom to come and go as your please.
Factor in the Weather
Sure it looks sunny when you wake up and then two hours later, the sky unleashes its fury. Umbrellas are cumbersome and you're likely to leave them on a ride or under the table at lunch. Possible rain delays (we got stuck for over an hour in a torrential downpour) also eat into your allocated time at each park. Embarrassingly, we all end up donning those ugly rain ponchos, which fit neither toddlers nor do they in any way cover my six-foot-five-inch husband. The ponchos are expensive at the parks, ranging from five to eight dollars each. If you can, pick up cheaper ($1 to $3) lighter-weight clear non-colored plastic versions from a convenience store before you arrive at the park and have them handy. If you have a stroller, make sure to bring the rain shield (and that it doesn't leak), and if space permits, bring a change of clothes for your children as the rain often brings temperature changes and wet and miserable kids.
Food: A Theme Park Conundrum
My pet peeve at any theme park is the food. I am often appalled at what's on offer, how long you have to line up to get it, how bad it tastes, and moreover how much it costs. So here is my basic and seemingly obvious list of how to minimize the damage
- Bring plenty of water with you. You'll probably still have to purchase a few $3 bottles of water while there, but at least start with enough to keep your family hydrated for the first few hours.
- I don't want to sound like a cheapskate, but a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches can be a godsend at a theme park. Most of the time, your kids will be too excited to eat properly anyway so a quick sandwich on a bench somewhere will save you time and dollars.
- Bring plenty of small bags of snacks -- raisins, goldfish, nuts, fruit etc. Even a few treats that they normally wouldn't be allowed to have at home will help alleviate possible tantrums and crying sessions.
- If you do need to stop at a restaurant, try to go during off-peak hours (i.e. lunch at 11.30am or after 2pm). The best family-friendly food I came across at Disney's Magic Kingdom was Tomorrowland's spaceship looking Plaza Pavilion. Here you can actually get vegetables and nutritious offerings like chicken soup. They also have a great toppings bar, so if you do choose to get a burger, you can add on field mushrooms, pickles, sauerkraut and dozens of others without paying extra. There is inside and outside dining with great views of Cinderella's castle and the prices seemed reasonable considering other options in the park.
Speaking of Cinderella's castle, this potential lunch venue was the most disappointing discovery. My four year old was desperate to get inside the castle to take a peak, but upon finding out the prohibitive cost of a set price lunch at its Royal Table restaurant ($60 for adults and $36 for kids -- but that includes a photo with Cinderella), I had to quickly explain that Cinderella was not at home -- she was out with the prince picking out a wedding dress.
Manage Your Children's Expectations
Back in the 1970's when I first visited Disney, the characters were in abundance, walking through the park in different "lands" signing autographs and getting photos taken with children. The lines seemed short and from memory, this was my favorite part of the Disney experience. I am not sure whether it was the stifling summer heat or a change in policy that has altered the way you get to meet Disney characters. We only saw two characters outdoors in our entire 12 hours at the Magic Kingdom, (apart from the procession of characters on floats during the night parade). All photos were only procured by lining up for what seemed like endless hours at select locations, mainly in Fantasyland and Mickey's ToonTown. So if your child is dreaming of meeting Donald Duck, or has spent weeks talking about what she will tell Princess Aurora when she meets her, make sure that you manage his or her expectations, don't over-promise and under-deliver. Likewise if he or she thinks that they will get to pat a whale or hug a penguin, try to soften the blow by offering alternative experiences that will get them excited.
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This article is featured as a Travel Gem on Uptake.com.