Orlando is the theme-park capital of the world, and you could almost argue that there really is no off season here, though the busiest seasons are whenever kids are out of school. Late May to just past Labor Day, long holiday weekends, winter holidays (mid-Dec to early Jan), and most especially spring break (late Mar to Apr) are very busy. Do, however, keep in mind that kids in other hemispheres follow a completely different schedule altogether. Obviously, an Orlando vacation -- and especially a Disney vacation -- is most enjoyed when the crowds are at the thinnest and the weather is the most temperate. Hotel rooms (likely the largest chunk of your vacation bill) are also priced lower (albeit only slightly) during the off season, though don't expect that period to follow the traditional winter/summer patterns of most areas.
Peak-season rates can go into effect during large conventions and special events, either of which may occur at any time of the year. Even something as remote as Bike Week in Daytona Beach (about an hour's drive away) can raise prices. These kinds of events will especially impact the moderately priced hotels and resorts located off Walt Disney World.
Best times: Try the week after Labor Day until the week before Thanksgiving, when the kids have just returned to school; the week after Thanksgiving until mid-December; and the 6 weeks before and after school spring vacations (which generally occur around Easter).
Worst times: The absolute worst time of year to visit is during spring break -- usually the 2 weeks prior to and after Easter. The crowds are unbelievable, the lines are unbearable (my kids have waited upwards of 2 hr. to hop on some of the most popular attractions), waiting times at local restaurants can lead to starvation, and traffic -- particularly on International Drive -- will give you a headache. The December holidays and summer, when out-of-state visitors take advantage of school breaks and many locals bring their families to the parks (the latter also flock to the parks during Florida resident discount months, which usually fall in May and Nov), can also prove a challenge. Packed parking lots are the norm during the week before and after Christmas, and the summer brings with it oppressive heat and humidity.
Seriously consider pulling your kids out of school for a few days around an off-season weekend to avoid the long lines. (You may be able to keep them in their schools' good graces by asking teachers to let them write a report on an educational element of the vacation. Epcot, SeaWorld, and the Orlando Museum of Science offer the most in the way of educational exhibits.) Even during these periods, though, the number of international visitors guarantees you won't be alone.
One other time-related hazard: For several weeks in May and September, you will find yourself in the midst of the dreaded "love bug" season in Central Florida. These small flylike insects emerge twice a year, get into practically everything, and like nothing more than to commit suicide on your car windshield, leaving a messy splatter. They don't bite, but they are a serious nuisance. If you can avoid them, I highly recommend it.
Weather -- It's not uncommon for the skies to open up on Orlando, even when the day begins with the sun ablaze. Florida is well known for its afternoon downpours, so don't be too concerned -- storms don't usually last too long. Most people simply run for temporary cover, and then resume their activities when the rain slows to a drizzle or stops altogether. It is wise, however, to bring along some type of rain gear, as storms can spring up rather quickly. A small fold-up umbrella can protect you until you can get to shelter. If you forget your gear, rain ponchos can be purchased throughout the parks for about $6 for a child-size poncho, or $8 for an adult size. The child-size poncho also happens to cover the average stroller quite well, protecting camera equipment and souvenirs -- not to mention the child sitting inside it.
Don't let a rainy afternoon spoil your fun. Crowds are dramatically thinner on these days, and there are plenty of indoor attractions to enjoy, particularly at Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Universal Studios Florida, where many of the attractions are actually indoors. The flip side, of course, is that many of the outdoor rides and attractions at Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld are temporarily closed during downpours and lightning storms.
Note: If you're taking advantage of a land/cruise package, make sure you take into account hurricane season, which generally runs from around June 1 to November 30 (when the majority of Central Florida's afternoon downpours tend to occur). Inland, the worst is usually only sheets of rain and enough wind to wipe the smile right off your face. That said, the summer of 2004 (when three hurricanes passed through the area) was a noticeable reminder that the worst can happen, and 2005 brought with it what seemed like an endless number of storms, extending the rainy season well beyond the normal timeline. And while 2006 was relatively quiet weather-wise, tornados touched down and devastated areas just north of Orlando in 2007. Although the past few years have been relatively quiet, forecasters predict an increased number of storms in 2012 -- but how many will actually reach land (or affect areas as far inland as Orlando) is unknown. The moral of this story: Be prepared, because almost anything can happen. If you are on the coastal areas or at sea, you will likely be at the point where the storms hit their hardest, making them extremely dangerous. Tornadoes and lightning -- two particularly active summer curses -- should also not be taken lightly.
Holidays -- Banks, government offices, post offices, and many stores, restaurants, and museums are closed on the following legal national holidays: January 1 (New Year's Day), the third Monday in January (Martin Luther King, Jr., Day), the third Monday in February (Presidents' Day), the last Monday in May (Memorial Day), July 4 (Independence Day), the first Monday in September (Labor Day), the second Monday in October (Columbus Day), November 11 (Veterans' Day/Armistice Day), the fourth Thursday in November (Thanksgiving Day), and December 25 (Christmas). The Tuesday after the first Monday in November is Election Day, a federal government holiday in presidential-election years (held every 4 years, and next in 2012).
Best Days to Visit
Like Universal Studios Florida, it's best to visit Islands near the end of the week, on a Thursday or Friday. The pace is somewhat fast Monday through Wednesday, with the heaviest crowds on weekends and during summer and holidays.
The park is open 365 days a year, generally from 9am to 6pm, though often later, especially in summer and around holidays, when it's frequently open until 9pm, sometimes later. Also, during Mardi Gras and Halloween Horror Nights, the park closes around 5pm, reopens at 7pm (with a new admission), and remains open until at least midnight. The best bet is to call before you go so that you're not caught by surprise.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.