A Florida family holiday and a visit to the theme parks had been on the cards for a few years; the kids had been nagging and we got to that point of ‘better go whilst it’ll still be magical’. But even as a travel agent, for some reason I felt daunted by all the options.
We wanted to take a couple of weeks and visit more than the parks so we opted for an Orlando and Florida Keys holiday with flights into Orlando and out of Miami. This allowed us to visit the theme parks and extend the trip for 2 weeks to visit other places like Kennedy Space Centre, Fort Lauderdale, Florida Keys and Miami South Beach - something for everyone in the family!
For our stay in Orlando, we took the advice of friends and opted for a relatively cheap 3* hotel close to the parks. There’s an abundance of good value hotels with big pools and restaurants, but if you're visiting the parks, you’ll be out a lot, so it really is just somewhere to sleep.
There’s so much choice! With limited time, we chose the big two; Universal Studios and Disney. Universal offers an ‘Express Pass’ paid upgrade to your main ticket. This is a VIP-type pass and allows you to walk to the front of the ride queues as many times as you like during the day.
You’ll enter the park through an area called CityWalk, home to restaurants, bars and shops plus a large multiplex cinema. From here, it splits into the two main park areas; ‘Universal Studios’ and ‘Islands of Adventure’ - I wouldn’t try to cover more than one in a day, although it is possible!
I really liked Universal Studios; there’s a wide range of attractions for both parents and the kids, from a live Blues Brothers street party to the characters including Minions, Simpsons, Transformers, Men in Black and Harry Potter amongst many others.
Here you’ll find more Harry Potter attractions (mainly mid-sized roller coasters), Jurassic Park, Dr Seuss Landing. There’s also an onsite waterpark, Toon Lagoon (with older cartoon characters) – but be aware you will get wet on these rides!
You’ll encounter all the Marvel characters like Spiderman as well as the one big roller coaster at Universal ‘The Hulk’ (although this was closed when we visited – April 2016). You can take the Harry Potter train from Universal Studios over to Islands of Adventure (I.O.A) which is definitely worth it, otherwise you’ll have to wander back to CityWalk and across over to I.O.A.
Universal's ‘Volcano Bay’ will add a third amazing theme park to the resort This new water park will be unlike anything you’ve experienced before, an all-new water theme park that only Universal could’ve created, filled with both thrills and relaxing indulgence. The 200’ high volcano will stream water during the day with fiery lava effects at night. Expect pulse-pounding water slides, plunge drops, turquoise waters and underwater caves!
Here you can visit 4 theme parks and 2 water parks; the original Magic Kingdom (Mickey Mouse, Cinderella’s Castle etc), Hollywood Studios (Toy Story, Star Wars, The Muppets), Epcot (a real mix of all sorts; Frozen, global and environmental take on things) and finally Animal Kingdom (everything animal and the nearest thing to an African Safari out of Africa). We managed to do both Magic Kingdom and Hollywood studios in a day, not something I'd repeat time-wise, but t gave us a good flavour of both parks.
Our verdict was that Magic Kingdom is probably more appealing for the smaller kids; not least because it has the Main Street parade and fireworks each evening which is still a big draw. Our kids were aged 7 and 9, and as a self-confessed Star Wars fan, we all loved Disney Hollywood Studios. It felt more relevant to the stuff our kids had grown up on, unlike Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Co.
The Star Wars area was lots of fun, with a life size AT-AT and live action ‘learn to be a Jedi’ shows that feature Darth Vader and Kylo Ren for the kids to take part in. We even got to meet Chewbacca! Although it was somewhat dated, the Indiana Jones stunt show was pretty impressive and still draws a huge crowd every few hours.
Coming from the UK, you’ll have a few options regarding ticket passes, but you generally have to buy at least a 7 day pass. These are usually upgraded free of charge to a 14 day unlimited pass, offering unlimited access to any Disney area. They also come with a free ‘Memory Maker’ upgrade, which gives you unlimited downloadable digital photos taken at the Disney PhotoPass location). If you’re just visiting for a day. I think you would be better off buying a pass on the gate - but bear in mind that for a family of 4 it'll be around £500 for the day!
It’s worth knowing that the Disney Fast Pass comes as standard with every Disney pass so don't be fooled into thinking it's a 'free extra'.
It’s a different set up to Universal, in that you can select 3 rides and choose a particular time for each. Once you've been on all 3 rides, you can reserve one more at a time. Ask one of the staff on hand at the reservation machines to help as we found it all a bit hot, busy and confusing.
Make sure you download the Disney and Universal apps in advance and familiarise yourself with the layout of each park, so you can plan a rough route and check any height restrictions. The app also lets you see live waiting times for each ride which is really handy. We found the free Wi-Fi at Universal comprehensive coverage and fast, whilst we found Disney patchy and slower.
Benefiting from jet lag, we made it for the park’s 9am opening and literally walked to the front of every ride for a good few hours, plus it was a little cooler. At peak times, l you can wait as long as 90 minutes for popular rides.
The food at Universal was pretty expensive and poor quality. Disney was slightly better, but still the choice is limited. It’s basically hot dogs, burgers or chicken nuggets washed down with fizzy drinks and it’s hard to find healthier options. I recommend visiting the take-away counter of the supermarket and making a picnic and water bottles. There are numerous water fountains all over both parks where you can fill up your water bottles.
Be aware that every single ride exits through its own dedicated gift shop, which depending on the age of your kids can make life difficult and expensive. Without sounding like a scrooge, we had a word with the kids on the first day and explained that there wouldn’t be gifts purchased after each ride which seemed to stem the nagging.
In our opinion don’t aim to do more than one area a day, it’s exhausting!
There is ample parking at both resorts for around $20-25 a day. Many hotels offer free and frequent shuttle buses to the park gates which you can also make use of.
If you’re interested in USA road trips or family trips to Florida, I can create a tailor-made holiday that includes Orlando and Disney World but also takes you further afield. I can make personal recommendations from my own experience and arrange every aspect of your trip from your flights and accommodation to trip ideas or family campervan. To book your Florida family holiday with a twist, contact Jim.