Theme Park Insider vacation makeover: Orlando, with roller coasters
Published: December 8, 2009 at 11:15 PM
Me: 14- Love theme parks and roller coasters as well as shows and unique attractions.
Sister: 12- Loves roller coasters but also the beach and other attractions outside theme parks.
Mom: 49- Not big on theme parks, has interest in other attractions, and absolutely has to stay on property of one of the theme parks.
Budget: $5,000. "Also, we don't settle for the motel or Holiday Inn-types but prefer more of the Grand Californian, Wilderness Lodge, or any other luxury hotel type that is ON PROPERTY."
With the kids' love for roller coasters, plus less-than-a-park-lover mom's want for a top-service on-site hotel, my choice for this family would be to stay at the Universal Orlando Resort.
Typically, I recommend that Orlando visitors who aren't experts at visiting the area theme parks choose between a week at Walt Disney World or a week combining Universal and SeaWorld. You can't see all of Orlando on one trip, anyway, and it's so much easier and generally cost effective for most visitors who want to see Disney just to spend the week focused there, and not try to work in the competing parks.
But when the kids say that they love roller coasters, it's hard for me not to opt instead for the Universal/SeaWorld combo, with Rip, Ride, Rockit, Revenge of the Mummy, Incredible Hulk and Manta, among the dozens of other great attractions at these parks.
That said, if you're simply looking for value, 2010 would be the year to opt for Disney. With the Wizarding World of Harry Potter debuting at Universal's Islands of Adventure in spring, and nothing new on the schedule for Disney in 2010, I suspect that the crowds will be moving up I-4 this summer, leaving deals aplenty at the Mouse House. Disney's priced aggressively over the past two years, and with the economy remaining stagnant through 2010, I expect Disney to continue cutting vacation package deals next year. Disney's also planning a substantial redesign of the Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland for 2013, which will lead some Disney fans to put off trips until then. (And construction likely won't start until 2011, so you won't have to deal with those hassles next summer, either.)
But a discount's no deal if it isn't what you want to do.
From personal experience, I can vouch that a Universal Orlando vacation offers excellent value for the money - having unlimited front of the line access to all attractions fundamentally changes the theme park vacation experience, making it a joy even for people who aren't hard-core theme park fans. (Such as Mom, perhaps?) I know that the 40-something mom in my family had the most fun she's ever had on one of our Orlando trips when we stayed at Universal's Loews Royal Pacific Resort.
So here's what I recommend:
Airfare: Looking at around $400-$500 roundtrip per person, flying SLC to MCO on Delta, or connecting through Denver on Frontier.
Car: Around $250 for a weekly rental - economy or compact car.
Hotel: Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Nightly rates for a two Queen room range from $215 in the early months of the year, rising to about $304 a night in summer, dropping back to $274 in mid-August and beyond. Rates are higher in April and May, around when folks are expecting Harry Potter to open.
Tickets: Seven-day, two-park tickets to Universal Orlando remain online for $99 each. A one-day ticket to SeaWorld's available online for $68.95, and that will get you in a second day free, if you redeem that option while inside the park on your first day.
Food, etc.: You should be able to get by between $40-60 per person per day in the parks without economizing too much. If you do, you can get by on less.
What extras could you add, to make this a more interesting Orlando-area vacation?
Visit natural Florida: If I had an extra $200-300 per person, I'd definitely set aside a day for the dolphin interaction program at Discovery Cove, to get close to some delightful animals and Florida, uh, flora. But with a more limited budget, hop in the car and drive 45 minutes north for a more authentic (and far less expensive) experience renting a canoe at Wekiwa Springs State Park. ($15/hr for canoe rental, plus $6/car for park entry. Guided canoe tour for $35/person.)
Enzian Theater: This might not be the best option for kids and teens, unless they're film freaks, but Orlando's got one of the nation's most trendsetting independent theaters. Featuring top indie films, along with food and drink service inside the theater, the Enzian Theater in Maitland (just north of downtown Orlando) also screens a variety of cult classics and runs a summer camp for middle school kids who want to try filmmaking.
The Beach to the east: Spend a day a Cocoa Beach, and maybe a night, adding a second day at the Kennedy Space Center. (Tickets $38 ea.)
The Beach to the west: Or, head the other direction, spending the day at Clearwater Beach, adding another day riding more roller coasters at Busch Gardens Tampa. (Add $40 to your SeaWorld ticket, and you get seven days' unlimited visits to the two parks.)
The budget's tight at $5,000, staying at a top-quality on-site property. Check Universal Orlando's hot deals page for offers through the winter, as well as Bing.com's Faretracker to see when airfares come down on the SLC-MCO route.
If you're willing to go off-property, you can score a much cheaper hotel rate while keeping comparable room quality (and probably doing a bit better). But you'd lose the front-of-the-line access, which I suspect will prove essential to enjoying Universal Orlando many weeks during next summer, once Harry Potter's open. You'd find a better deal at Disney, in terms of spending less cash, but you'd lose roller coaster airtime, as well as the chance to be among the first to visit the Wizarding World.
Readers, what's your call here? What would you suggest for this Orlando-area vacation?
Want to have your vacation plans made over? E-mail Theme Park Insider editor Robert Niles at themeparkinsider - at - gmail.com with where you want to go, when, a budget and how many people are traveling.