Visiting Orlando the first-time can be overwhelming for families. There is so much to see and do. Taking it all in is impossible unless you spend 67 days visiting all the attractions. On a vacation of 5 to 7 days, you should concentrate on the theme park(s) that most interest you.
Apps: Before leaving home, download mobile apps from Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando. These have up-to-the-minute information on hours, events, ride wait times and — when you leave — may help find your vehicle. Theme parks have designated areas with free Wi-Fi.
Clothing: Cress casually because you could get wet on some rides. Expect afternoon summer showers and carry a rain jacket. Eat a light breakfast; it’s also going to be an active, upside down morning. If you’re staying all day, postpone the busiest rides until mid- or late afternoon after others depart.
Rental Car: This may not be necessary if you’re staying on International Drive (I-Drive). The I-Ride Trolley takes visitors around I-Drive for a small charge. Guests flying into Orlando staying at Walt Disney World receive free transportation on Disney’s Magical Express. Many hotels offer a free shuttle to Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando. With online research, you can locate other hotels with theme park shuttles. (See also Orlando Transportation.)
Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort set one-day ticket prices according to seasonal demand. Ticket prices increase 20% or more during peak season. Value season runs from late August to late September. Multi-day passes and park-to-park tickets often are the best option. Discount tickets are available online from Visit Orlando.
Families should be aware of minimum height requirements for children. Minimums vary between 34 to 51 inches and preschoolers must have an adult ride companion. Rules are enforced at Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando. Indoor theme park rides often involve a villain from this or another world who chases you. Your escape comes only at the last second. Enjoy the thrills and make-believe high-tech special effects.
It is easy to spend an entire vacation at Walt Disney World but it’s not necessary to be confined to a single park each day. Disney’s park hopper option is worth the added cost to move between different parks. Purchase a 4-day or 5-day pass valid for 14 days from first use. Unused days are lost, not accumulated.
Avoid waiting in long lines at popular rides and shows by registering for Disney’s FastPass+. The free service allows you to make advance reservations at certain attractions, shows and for character greetings (which are difficult to arrange after you arrive). Disney hotel guests can reserve 60 days ahead. But for everyone else, it’s 30 days.
Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida are a short walk apart. Select two-park tickets to go back and forth. These also are required to see all of Harry Potter’s Wizarding World, which offers different attractions in the two parks. Hogwarts and Hogsmeade village are found in the Islands of Adventure; try the addictive butter beer, served best iced. Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley attraction is located at Universal Studios Florida. Hogwarts Express effortlessly links both Harry Potter experiences.
Both Universal Orlando parks are ride intensive. Consider purchasing the Universal Express Unlimited pass to avoid regular lines at most attractions. It also allows unlimited rides, even back-to-back.
Many rides are too intense or scary for younger children. Universal Studios offers a separate children’s ride area but Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios are best suited for tweens, teens and adults.
This is the most ”real” of the theme parks in that much of the entertainment is provided by live animals and people. SeaWorld Orlando does not rely as heavily on high tech rides. But those it does offer are on par with other theme parks. SeaWorld is most famous for its dolphin and killer whale performances at the Shamu Stadium, which overshadows other activities. The park offers an unusually large number of ticketing options, including “flex-tickets” that add other SeaWorld related attractions such as Aquatica, its affiliated Orlando water park and Busch Gardens in Tampa.
If SeaWorld itself is all you want, choose the Fun Pass providing unlimited admission through the end of the year. For an added fee, you can reserve seats for the park’s most popular shows. Thrill-seekers should investigate the Quick Queue Pass with unlimited front-of-the-line admission to all thrill rides. Special behind the scenes passes also are available. SeaWorld Orlando’s Discovery Cove is often overlooked, but it has lots of water activities, including a swim with a dolphin.
Have younger children who are LEGO fans? Consider staying at the theme park’s hotel. See Orlando Day Trip to Legoland Florida.
Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort have the largest number of theme park restaurants.
Bahama Breeze features Caribbean-style food (and a children’s menu). Roy’s Restaurant is a good place for sushi and Pacific fusion cuisine. Seasons 52 wine bar and grill specializes in seasonal menus. Maggiano’s Little Italy is a very popular Italian restaurant.
The fun Taverna Opa includes Mediterranean, Greek, International and European dishes. First Watch, with several Orlando locations, is an extremely popular breakfast place that’s also good for brunch. Q’Kenan Restaurant, an authentic Latin restaurant, specializes in Venezuelan cuisine. Seito Sushi is highly regarded for sushi and innovative Japanese and Asian dishes.
Victoria & Albert’s, in Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, is Orlando’s only AAA 5-star restaurant (and one of three AAA 5-star restaurants in Florida). The set-menu dining experience is to be savored, leisurely and refined. Advance reservations (up to 180 days in advance) are a must; dress code includes dinner jackets for men (tie optional) and dress or pants for women.
NORMANS at the Ritz Carlton is a James Beard “Who’s Who in America” Award-winning restaurant. It features healthy fusion Florida cuisine with Latin, Caribbean and Asian influences. Dress code: pants and closed toe shoes for men and boys, dress or long pants for women.
Chatham’s Place is known for fine service, excellent dining and relaxed elegance. It’s close to Restaurant Row.