The specific promotions described in this article have now passed, but it remains online so that the resources named will be of future use to travelers.
Fall has arrived, school's back in session, the leaves are turning a stunning array of colors -- it's a fabulous time . . . to go to Orlando. Nope, you didn't read that wrong. The masses may flock to this leisure capital in summer, but there are distinct advantages to visiting the land of 1,000 theme parks (ok, there are currently only eight majors -- but who's really counting?) in the fall. Prices for hotels and vacation packages drop, the heat and humidity drop to tolerable and sometimes delightful levels and the crowds thin out to the point where you won't feel like you're spending most of your vacation waiting in line.
Always check the park websites for SeaWorld and Universal Orlando, as they sometimes run truly amazing deals during slow periods. At the time of publication, Universal (tel. 407/363-8000; www.universalorlando.com) is running an online promotion that gives visitors who buy advance tickets a week's admission to Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure and the clubs at CityWalk for a mere $85, plus 6.5% tax. That's an unbelievable value when you consider that a one-day ticket to a single Disney park costs $67, plus tax.
SeaWorld (tel. 800/55-SHAMU; www.seaworld.com), too, is running a great "Be a Kid Again" online ticket promotion, whereby adults who purchase their tickets on the Internet at least seven days in advance of their visit only pay the child admission price (currently $49.95, plus tax). That's a $12 discount per ticket.
One of the best sources for Disney discount information is Mousesavers (www.mousesavers.com). I never go to Orlando without checking this website first as it usually has information on most of the current deals that Disney and its surrounding hotels are running. It also gives tips on how to avoid scams in Orlando.
For discounted park tickets, a good option is Maple Leaf Tickets (tel. 800/841-2837; www.mapleleaftickets.com), an authorized Disney agency that sells discounted tickets to all the major theme parks, as well as numerous smaller attractions in Orlando. The discounts vary according to the attraction and the length of the desired park admission pass, so do your homework before purchasing. I bought Disney passes from them in September and found the agency both helpful and competitively priced.
If you have kids, do yourself a favor and pull them out of school so you can take advantage of the fall season's discounts and short lines. Yes, this goes against the grain, and I'm sure that all the educators out there reading this are grumbling. But a visit to a theme park can, in fact, be an educational experience if you plan ahead (Epcot and SeaWorld are prime targets in this department). Many of the visiting children this time of year tend to be from other countries -- I heard almost as many foreign languages being spoken on my recent trip as I did English Â? meaning that your kids may get the unique experience of encountering and playing with kids from other cultures in a very familiar setting. And not spending endless amounts of time waiting to get into attractions with easily bored kids is a blessing. I hit every major theme park and never spent more than 15 minutes in line -- even at the most popular attractions. Review the time and money you'll save by taking your kids out of class and you'll already have a ready-made lesson for them on economics, strategic planning and stress management.
Do note that fall season in Orlando lasts until the week of Thanksgiving, takes that holiday week off, then resumes until the week before Christmas. Yes, it's nice to kick off the holiday season at the theme parks as they go all out to create a festive atmosphere. But arrive during Thanksgiving week and you'll pay dearly -- with your wallet and your patience -- as hotel prices and attendance figures skyrocket.
Some of the city's best events take place mid-fall. First up is Disney's 11th Annual Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, which started on September 29th and runs through November 12. Visitors to Epcot (the event is covered by general park admission, which costs $67 adults, $56 kids age 3-9, and free to kids 2 and under) can nosh, nibble and sip tasty treats and wines from 26 countries. Other highlights include seminars by world-renowned chefs and wine experts (some incur rather hefty extra charges), and entertainment by such notables as the Beach Boys, Three Dog Night and Survivor. Tasting portions run from $1.50 to $4.50, though many wineries offer free samples. For more info, surf over to www.disneyworld.com/foodandwine.
All the major players roll out tricks and treats for Halloween. The top ghoul in town is Universal Orlando's Halloween Horror Nights (www.halloweenhorrornights.com), a truly terrifying extravaganza that's not for the faint of heart or for young kids. The fright fest runs at Universal Studios Florida on select nights in October and admission is $59.95; note that costumes are strictly prohibited. For those who like their thrills with a few less chills, Mickey's Not-So-Scary-Halloween Party (www.disneyworld.com) at Magic Kingdom and SeaWorld's Halloween Spooktacular (www.seaworld.com) run on select nights in October and are both family friendly and, unlike at Universal, the kids can dress up in costumes. The Disney event runs after park hours and features parades, fireworks, and trick-or-treat options; it costs $42.95 adults and $35.95 for kids ages 3- 9. The SeaWorld event runs during regular park hours and is free with your regular admission ($62 adults, $50 kids 3-9); it too offers special entertainment, treats, and animal interaction opportunities.
Art lovers descend en masse on Downtown Disney West Side for the annual Festival of the Masters (www.downtowndisney.com), now in its 31st year. This three-day free festival (Nov. 10Â?Nov 12) is one of the best in the country and features works by more than 200 national and local artists. Other highlights include live entertainment and hands-on activities for kids.
In addition to all these events, Disney just kicked off its "Year of a Million Dreams" campaign, where visitors to the U.S. Disney parks over the next year will be randomly awarded such prizes as a coveted one-night stay in Cinderella Castle, the chance to participate in a Disney parade, Disney merchandise, special FASTPASSES that give visitors easier access to rides and attractions, a Disney Cruise, and even complimentary Grand Vacations Club memberships that will net you a Disney timeshare. The promotion will last until fall 2007; for details, check www.disneyparks.com.
Where to Stay
Though the atmosphere and location of the Disney-owned resorts often can't be beat, you'll almost always get better accommodations outside of Disney World for the equivalent of what you'd spend to stay in Mickeyville -- even during the fall. Yes, you get extras by staying on Disney property (free airport transfers to your hotel or free parking if you choose to drive, early and/or late access to the Disney parks, etc.), but the actual rooms generally aren't the best in town and the cramped bathrooms are among the worst. Disney's so-called Value resorts are the worst offenders -- they're small motel rooms dressed up in themed attire.
If you're adamant about staying on property, I recommend the romantic Port Orleans Resort in the moderate category, the Pop Century Resort in the value category (it's the newest and in the best shape), and both the Animal Kingdom Lodge (it's rather cool to wake up to a giraffe munching on a tree outside your window) and the posh Grand Floridian in the deluxe category. For information and up-to-date rates for all of the Disney properties, head to www.disneyworld.com.
If money's no object, I highly recommend the Reunion Resort & Club (tel. 888/418-9611; www.reunionresort.com) in Celebration, especially if you're traveling with a group or you're an avid golfer. The 2,300-acre luxury resort's sedate location is only a 10-minute drive from the Disney parks, but is still far enough away from the hubbub to provide you with a peaceful environment in which to unwind. Amenities include 3 golf courses (designed by such legendary names as Nicklaus, Palmer and Watson), a daily activities program (that includes first-rate options for kids), an intimate spa, a water park (complete with lazy river) and an excellent restaurant. The luxurious accommodations range from villas to private townhouses -- all of which feature top-notch toiletries, full kitchens with every gadget you could ask for, and spacious bathrooms. The staff is among the friendliest and most professional I've ever encountered -- and deserving of the 9.6% service charge the resort automatically tacks onto your bill. Rates run from $295 per night for a 1-bedroom villa to $1,005 for an 8-bedroom home; you'd pay just as much to stay at the Ritz-Carlton (a lot less per person if you're traveling in a group), but here you get a whole lot more bang for your buck. If there is a downside, it's that the resort is very spread out (there's free in-house transportation available and you may need it to get to the restaurant or water park) and that it's a work in progress -- the entire property won't be complete for years, so be sure to ask for accommodations away from the construction.
In the moderate price category, the one- and two-bedroom suites with full kitchens at the conveniently located Lake Buena Vista and International Drive branches of Staybridge Suites (tel. 800/866-4549; www.sborlando.com) are a wonderful value option, especially for families looking to save money on meal costs. Staybridge is currently running a multitude of special offers that include Disney park tickets (with bonus "Disney Dollars" that you can spend in the parks) on its website.
In the budget department, the Courtyard by Marriott, SpringHill Suites (my favorite pick), and Fairfield Inn that make up the Marriott Village at Lake Buena Vista (tel. 800/583-0179; www.marriottse.com) just got a $5 million makeover. The excellent location (only a mile from Walt Disney World) and amenities (ranging from 3 tropical pools to a food court to fridges in all of the rooms) make it an excellent choice for those watching their wallets. That's especially true this fall, when rates here start at a mere $69.
Theme Park Planning Advice
Here are some tips to help ease your theme park experience.
1. Both Disney and Universal offer programs that let visitors spend shorter times in line (usually no more than 15 minutes). Because even on a slow day you'll still be sharing a theme park with thousands of people, and some of the best new rides can attract long lines, do take advantage of these timesavers. Disney's system is better than Universal's because Disney's FASTPASS system is free, whereas Universal Express will cost you extra (anywhere from $25 to $50 above your ticket price). The only time this doesn't hold true is if you're staying at one of Universal Orlando's three resorts: The Portofino Bay Hotel, the Hard Rock Hotel, and the Royal Pacific Resort. Guests at these hotels get front-of-the-line access to all of Universal's rides and shows -- some may find it worth spending more money to stay at these hotels to get this fabulous perk.
2. Here's a statistic to chew on: Only 48% of Orlando visitors arrive in the city toting with kids. And Orlando's the top honeymoon destination in the United States. Yep, you read that right. If you're a group of adults or a couple looking for a little grown-up fun without be being surrounded by a sea of kids (admittedly a relative concept because even 48% can add up to millions of tiny visitors), the best theme parks in the city are Disney's Epcot (www.disneyworld.com), Universal's Islands of Adventure (www.universalorlando.com) and SeaWorld's Discovery Cove (www.discoverycove.com). Of course, many of you will want to spend your time exploring your inner child at all the other parks, so if you want to ride Pirates of the Caribbean at Magic Kingdom (I did), I won't tell anyone.
3. If rain is in the forecast, here's a suggestion: Because of the number of outdoor shows and attractions at SeaWorld, Islands of Adventure, and Animal Kingdom, those parks are best enjoyed in good weather. If it pours, your best bets are Universal Studios Florida, Epcot and Disney-MGM Studios; many of these parks' prime attractions are indoors.
4. Always check the online calendars available on each theme park website when planning your itinerary. As park opening hours in the fall tend to be more limited than they are during high season, it pays to do some scouting so that you can maximize your time in each park (and leave yourself some downtime so you don't end up blistered and sore at the end of the day). If you're going to spend $67 per person -- more, if you add up taxes, parking and food -- for a day in the park, you should get your money's worth.
The Hit List
If you want to relax and take your time as you explore the theme parks, but don't want to miss any new additions or absolute musts, then here are 2 to 3 attractions in each park that are either new enough or spectacular enough that you don't want to miss them:
At Disney (www.disneyworld.com)
Magic Kingdom: The recently updated Pirates of the Caribbean features a very realistic looking and sounding animatronic version of Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow -- Yo ho! If you haven't ridden It's a Small World in a while, that ride got facelift that's made it much brighter, though the familiar song still drones on and on; you'll either hate it or love, but riding it is a must. And, finally, don't miss the splendid Mickey's PhilharMagic, the first 3-D attraction
Epcot: The Mission:Space ride now has a stationary option for those who don't want to be spun around. The non-stationary version gave me a migraine (literally), but I must admit that I find the tamer option to be rather bland. If you have kids, be sure to hit Turtle Talk with Crush in the Living Seas (and even if you're without little ones, adults should be impressed with the technology that allows the animated Finding Nemo star to chat with visitors in real time. Finally, do not miss The Land's phenomenal Soarin', a flight "simulator" that rapidly climbed to the top of my list of favorite Epcot rides thanks to its multi-sensory aspects.
Disney-MGM: Though the park has a new car-related stunt show, I found it too oriented to the automotive set, though if that's your speed, then by all means check out the Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show. Otherwise, the two best adrenaline options in this park are the incredibly atmospheric (and scary) Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and the indoor and exciting Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith. One sleeper: The Magic of Disney Animation not only has a delightful film on the animation process, but also lets you take a free group drawing lesson with an actual animator. Even those of us who can't draw a straight line managed to produce pretty good versions of such Disney characters as Winnie the Pooh and Minnie Mouse (one couple I encountered spent almost an entire happy afternoon at the drawing boards).
Animal Kingdom: The big news at this park was last year's introduction of the Expedition Everest coaster and I can say it's definitely a winner, especially for those who don't like coasters that turn you upside down. The theme work is typical Disney fabulous and the ride itself has enough thrills that even the adrenaline junkie I was traveling with was happy. If you want to start off your day with a buzz, then do take in the delightful It's Tough to be a Bug, and don't miss the park's Kilimanjaro Safaris ride, where if you get lucky, you'll be treated to very close-up views of numerous types of wildlife.
At Universal Orlando (www.universalorlando.com)
Universal Studios Florida: The hilarious Shrek 4-D is my favorite of all the 3-D multi-sensory attractions in Orlando -- works great for both kids and adults. The theme work on the spooky and adrenaline-pumping Revenge of the Mummy indoor coaster is first-rate. And I must confess a fondness for the shoot 'em up style of Men in Black Alien Attack, though I consistently lose to the 10-year-olds who always seem to be able to hit every laser target that I can't.
Universal Island's of Adventure: If your day happens to be a warm one and you need to cool off, try Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls, which won't get you quite as soaked as Popeye and Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges, but offers a much bigger rush. The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man is my favorite in Orlando -- this mix of 3-D, track ride and sensory effects is a perfect showcase for everyone's favorite web-slinger. Finally, the coaster crazies among you should be satisfied with a ride on the Hulk Coaster (though it gave me a headache) or one of the two dueling coasters that make up Dueling Dragons. Cowardly me opted for the ice coaster, but true devotees say the fire coaster nets you a better rush.
At SeaWorld (www.seaworld.com)
Kids will be thrilled by the addition of more rides to the child-oriented Shamu's Happy Harbor play area, including a kiddy coaster that parents are encouraged to ride with their kids. Adults will adore the thrilling Kraken coaster -- at least one coaster junkie I ran into named it his favorite in the city. Everyone in the family will enjoy the new shows that SeaWorld's added to its stellar roster, include a new Shamu show called Believe and a great dolphin show, Blue Horizons.
Orlando is home to a number of dinner shows and club complexes. Many after-dark visitors stick to Disney's Pleasure Island (www.downtowndisney.com) and Universal's CityWalk (www.citywalk.com), especially if they have passes that include admission to these venues, but for a unique nighttime experience, head to Downtown Disney's West Side and attend a performance of Cirque du Soleil's (www.cirquedusoleil.com) eye-popping La Nouba (a very appropriate name derived from the French for "to live it up"). Set in a custom-built, state-of-the-art theater (don't feel you must spend extra for the expensive seats -- nearly every spot in the theater offers a good view), this Fellini-style amalgam of live music, dance, theater, and acrobatics will have your jaw dropping in no time at all. Highlights include a cyclist who does things with a bicycle that would make an X-Gamer jealous, a spectacular coordinated trampoline performance, and a pint-sized troupe of Chinese acrobats who did tricks with diabolos (Chinese yo-yos) that brought the house down. I rank this one just beneath my personal favorite, Las Vegas's Mystère, though the comedic interludes in this production are the best of all the permanent Cirque shows. True, the price ($63Â?$112 adults, $50Â?$90 children 3Â?9; plus 6.5% sales tax) may seem high after you've already shelled out so much cash for theme park admission, but the tickets here are actually cheaper than Cirque's other U.S. productions, and it truly does make for an unforgettable night. For details on the show and to purchase tickets, consult the company's website.
If you're already in the theme parks, however, and don't want to spend any extra money, three out of the four major Disney parks run nighttime extravaganzas on at least select nights every week. The best of the bunch, because of its incredible variety and original staging, is Disney-MGM's Fantasmic. After that I'd opt for Epcot's laser-light and fireworks masterpiece, Illuminations. Finally, there's the Magic Kingdom's breathtaking fireworks display, Wishes. Always consult Disney's online calendar to see when these shows will be schedule during your visit so you can plan accordingly.