Universal Studios, Florida
I have been to Orlando, Florida, on a number of occasions and can't rate it highly enough for families and also grown-ups with a sense of adventure and fun.
So where do you start when booking a holiday to Orlando? This is a guide to my top ten tips.
1) Read About The Destination
My first port of call when booking any holiday is to read about the destination, be it in guide books, travel brochures, apps, or the Internet. There is a wealth of information out there.
Visit Orlando is a good place to start to read about places to stay and things to do in Orlando. Visit their calendar of events for up-to-date seasonal news.
Two guide books I recommend are The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and The Brit Guide to Orlando . In the back of The Brit Guide, there is a section of vouchers for money off attractions.
A great site for those that like Disney is The Dibb - Disney With A British Accent. They mainly focus on the Disney theme parks but also cover other theme parks and travel advice too. To get real insider information it's the website to check out.
Of course, Trip Advisor is a great site to compare reviews of hotels, restaurants, and attractions. The forum section is very useful if you have a question to ask.
2) When To Go?
Many of you may be confined by school holidays however if you can, consider going out of high season to save money.
Package holiday prices and flights will be higher if you fly from the UK in the school holidays. This can severely impact on your budget! Other dates to take into account are the 4th of July, Spring Break, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. The parks will be very busy on these dates and hotels are likely to be more expensive.
If you can go out of high season try May, September or November for quieter parks and cheaper prices. September however, is in the middle of their hurricane season - the heat can feel oppressive at times and you will get thunderstorms but these clear quickly.
If you want to stay at a Disney hotel many have free Disney Dining at certain times of the year, you usually have to buy theme park tickets at the same time as your booking to qualify.
If you can't go out of high season a great time to go is October half term, as most parks will have some sort of celebration for Halloween and this often goes on for the whole of October. Halloween is celebrated with Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party in the Magic Kingdom which is suitable for little ones and the Halloween Horror Night at Universal which is only suitable for older teenagers and not for those of a nervous disposition. My personal favourite is the Halloween Horror Nights at Universal but M.N.S.S.H.P. is great for those with young children.
Another great time to go is the end of November and December for the Christmas celebrations in the parks and beautiful festive decorations.
3. Package Holiday Vs DIY
Firstly think about where to stay.
One of the main areas is International Drive, which is in the heart of the action, close to Wet and Wild, Universal Studios and Seaworld and surrounded by shops and restaurants. This area has a range of affordable accommodation too.
I like staying on site at Walt Disney World and Universal Studios but this is a more expensive option. The main advantage of staying onsite is that you can often enter the parks earlier.
You may prefer to stay in a villa, apartment or condo instead of a hotel for more space. There are a lot of independent places to stay and you can get some good deals.
My personal favourite hotel is The Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Studios. With movies at the pool, early entry to the park and a great rock 'n roll vibe it's a perfect hotel if you have teenage kids. Another great place to stay is Vista Cay near Universal Studios. These condo apartments have very high-quality accommodation and are reasonably priced.
When booking holidays I price up a package holiday and compare it to a do it yourself holiday where I book flights, accommodation, and tickets separately.
Compare package holidays with companies like Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Thomson.
A flight comparison site such as www.skyscanner.com or www.kayak.com can help compare prices for the best deals on flights, and accommodation is often cheaper if you book direct, however hotel comparison sites such as Trivago are useful for booking hotels at the best price.
Go to the travel agent with your dates and preferred hotels/areas to get a quote. Can they match what you have found online? Most allow you to pay a deposit to book flights or a package so you don't have to pay for the flights immediately as you would if you were booking direct. I have often found DIY is the cheapest option, but some people find good deals so it's always worth checking out your local travel agent.
4. Theme Parks
Most people visiting Orlando will visit a Disney theme park, or two or three. It's the home to The Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Universal, Islands of Adventure, and Seaworld and that's just for starters!
The parks are vast so consider buying a multi-park ticket to get the most out of your stay. These can be bought from the Theme Parks direct on the day or through specialist ticket agencies where you can sometimes get a good deal. Always go through a reputable company. I check out Money Saving Expert for some great advice on where to buy theme park tickets.
My favourite parks are Universal, Islands of Adventure, and Hollywood Studios, as I love the movie theming in these parks and I feel they cater for slightly older children, perfect for my teenage son. Amazing rides include Aerosmith's Rock and Roll Rollercoaster and Tower of Terror in Hollywood Studios and Spiderman in Islands of Adventure. If you love Harry Potter you must go to Islands of Adventure and visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Hogwart's is amazing.
Orlando has shopping for everyone, whether you are after great bargains or are happy to splash the cash.
The Mall at Millenia is a designer oasis, with brands such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel, and Cartier.
Orlando premium outlets on International Drive has a range of discount outlets from Ted Baker and Tommy Hilfiger to Michael Kors and Hugo Boss all at great prices and Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores has Converse and a Disney outlet amongst others.
Downtown Disney has a wide array of over 40 shops including a great Lego shop where you little kids (and big kids) can play with their creations.
Orlando has plenty of budget options but also lots of high-end restaurants too. I find Trip Advisor great to give you a general idea of restaurants in the area. There are just so many places to eat and drink I can only talk from personal experience.
For a meal on a budget consider I.H.O.P., Dennys, and Earl of Sandwich at Down Town Disney. For a moderately priced meal, I rated Olive Garden and Bahama Breeze on International Drive.
Regarding high-end restaurants, the best meal I had was at the Yachtsman Steakhouse at Disney's Yacht and Beach Club. A delicious starter of scallops, beautifully cooked steak, and a fabulous vanilla cheesecake, with impeccable service with a smile. Another recommendation for a special meal is the California Grill in the Contemporary hotel. If you time your meal right you can also view the fireworks over the Magic Kingdom.
Hollywood Studios7. Tipping
Tipping in the USA is expected especially for those that are paid relatively little like porters, chambermaids, and restaurant staff. Tipping is a way of showing your appreciation with the service you have received. It is considered really bad form not to tip if the service was good, so I feel it is best to budget for tips in your spending money.
A general guide to tipping in the US which I have taken from various websites:-
15-20% for taxi drivers.
1 to 2 dollars a drink for bartenders.
1 to 2 dollars a bag for porters.
Housekeeping staff 2 to 5 dollars a day.
Obviously, don't tip if you have had poor service but it's rude not to if the service was good or exceptional.
Many package holidays offer "free" car hire but you almost always have taxes and fees to pay on top, so read the small print. You can always book a car yourself and car hire is relatively cheap in the US. Driving is fairly simple in Orlando, lanes are wide and generally, traffic is not fast moving around the theme parks.
If you do not want to drive, many hotels near the parks have shuttle buses that are free or have a nominal fee to use.
If you are based on International Drive, the I-Ride trolley can take you up and down the street, to Wet and Wild for example.
9. Off The Beaten Track
Kennedy Space Centre
Kennedy Space Centre is an easy 45-minute drive away and is a fantastic place to visit for older children and those with a love of space. A trip to the coast to visit Clearwater or Sarasota is also to be recommended.
There are many places to explore and interesting attractions within the Orlando area, so please take some time to go outside of the theme parks and explore further.
10. Take Time Out
If you plan too much you will be exhausted after a few days. The theme parks are huge and you maybe walking for miles. This coupled with jet lag may find you flagging by the third day. Plan in some downtime, early on, such as a day spent by the pool, or visiting a beach resort. Your body will thank you for it later in the holiday.
This maybe a once in a lifetime holiday or you may have gotten the Orlando bug and find you will be back. Don't forget to savour the experience, and take time every night to reflect on your adventures. There is so much to see and do you may try to cram so much in after a few days you may be exhausted!
The Magic Kingdom
So this is my top ten tips on planning a holiday to Orlando. I hope you enjoyed the photos as they were all my own. Let me know if you have been or if you have a top tip too. I would love to hear from you!