Theme Park Insider vacation makeover: Orlando, with roller coasters

December 8, 2009, 11:15 PM · It's time for another theme park vacation makeover. This time, our reader is a teen boy in a family of three, looking to fly from Salt Lake City to Orlando for a week (or more?) at the Central Florida theme parks. Let's meet the family:

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.

Incredible Hulk Coaster

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'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 - with where you want to go, when, a budget and how many people are traveling.

Replies (11)

December 8, 2009 at 11:40 PM · Great job, but I have to disagree (yeah, I have a bias)

I would still consider Disney on the radar, especially since you are looking for something a bit more intersting than just a roller coaster. Call me a cynic, but I have never been much of a fan of the Mummy. Dueling Dragons, or whatever is going to be called is great and worth a ride!

And for the Disney not doing anything new for 2010, for a majority of the people out there who never get to go as much as we all do (I consider myself lucky)

I think Universal is great, but to me it will always be a day or two excursion from Disney. Curious to hear from the person. I think it matters when they will go due to the Harry Potter being open or not.

But yet again, great insight and article from the fantastic Robert Niles! I would agree with you more if I wasn't such a Disney fan :) Your "Real" FL mentions are spot on!

December 9, 2009 at 12:03 AM · I agree that a Uni & SeaWorld vacation is a great option, BUT if enjoying the finer accommodations is a consideration than you MUST, MUST, MUST look at the Portofino Bay Hotel.

I've stayed there three times now-- and its the only hotel on or near Universal I'd consider. The visuals, amenities, rooms, room service are all absolutely top notch.

One of my favorite things at a theme park ever is a drink during dusk at the Thirsty Fish (the hotel's wine bar) overlooking the water and watching the nightly singers perform on one of the hotel's balconys.

I was there this past October for Horror Nights and it reminded me just how wonderful this place is-- the Bellagio of Orlando.

Also, don't forget to get ressies for Mythos!

December 9, 2009 at 12:34 AM · Looking at the ages... I'd say the Universal parks are better for teens. I seriously consider Disney more for ages 10 and under... and adults 30 and older. On the other hand, if the visiting teens love the nostalgia of Disney surroundings-- then I'd place Disney first.

Universal definitely has more thrilling attractions, but it also offers enough things to do with Mom included.

Outside attractions-- call it corny, but if you want cheap, late-night, and fast munchies. Visit the McDonalds with the largest playplace! I've always ran into "interesting" people there.

And whether you're visiting Disney or not, definitely visit Downtown Disney. It's fun just walking around... and the Lego Store is a picture must... but also waltz inside the restaurants to see the awesome themes... and of course... lots of Disney gifts everywhere.

December 9, 2009 at 8:19 AM · If you are spending a full week(7 days), then I would opt for a Disney Moderate Resort as the hotel. They don't feel like typical hotels and of course you get to take advantage of more time in the disney parks with their "Extra Magic Hours" benefit. You'd be saving money on a car rental because Disney offers their "Magical Express" to take you to and from Orlando International Airport to the resort you choose. Each of the disney parks has its own selection of both thrill rides, shows and gentler rides but the best thing about them all is that they're all unique. You don't really need more than 4 days max to experience all the disney theme parks and they also have 2 waterparks if thats in your interests. If not, then spend the other 3 days and take a 1 day trip to the Universal theme parks(only need 1 day really to do all the good rides in both Universal Studios and Islands Of Adventure), the 2nd day to visit SeaWorld and for the 3rd day You could either take a trip to Busch Gardens Tampa(using the shuttle bus from SeaWorld to Busch instead of renting a car). Or Take a taxi over to International Dr. and either take a walk seeing the other unique attractions of Orlando(i.e. Ripley's Believe It Or Not Muesum, Wonderworks, or Wet'N Wild Waterpark. Finally, If you go at the right time of year(off season), then you will find the resorts are cheaper and the lines to the attractions are much shorter so you can do more and spend less.
December 9, 2009 at 9:31 AM · I personally think that they should go to Disney AND Universal. BTW, nobody is too old for Disney :)

If we are speaking of hotels to stay at, Whats wrong with staying at Disney? They got many choices.

Maybe, and this is just an idea, you can go to Universal and stay a night or two at Disney. Then you get two great hotels and two great parks' perks!

December 9, 2009 at 10:08 AM · I do like the the way Univesal lets you get first in line if you are staying at one of their hotels, however, something about the park will always feel second rate to Disney, the company just always seems like they are trying to stay in the race, not lead it. It reminds me of the movie water world which they had a show for. All of this money is spent, but in the end we just have a a more themed version of a six flags, with one or two expensive rides, which hurt the park financially.
December 9, 2009 at 10:16 AM · The clear choice is Universal/Sea World. The age of the children and their interests tell me that Disney simply doesn't fit the bill. The choice becomes even more clear when you can buy the combo ticket for Universal and SeaWorld/Busch Gardens. If it's pure coaster riding you are after, I highly recommend going to Tampa for Busch Gardens. Universal has a few good ones, but Busch Gardens has them outgunned in the coaster department, and the wildlife park offers something extra when you are "coastered out". It's not that far of a drive, and as Robert said, you could go to the beach as well on the gulf side, albeit without the waves of the Atlantic.

My beach of choice when going from Orlando is Daytona. It's a little over a half hour away. It can be a little touristy in spots, but if you go a little north or south (Ormond Beach for example) you can get some quiet beach time. If someone likes NASCAR, a visit to the Daytona speedway is recommended, and there are obviously other things to do in the area.

To me, the lodging choices and decisions on upcharges (front of the line...etc) will depend on when you go and for how long. If you go during peak season (late June/July/early August), it may not be a bad idea to budget the money to be able to cut in line. You can avoid at least some of the crowds by going in early-mid June or mid-late August, and going to the parks during the middle of the week. Staying on site helps too, as the trip back and forth to the hotel is quick and doesn't require a car. My last trip to IOA was in mid August on a Tuesday a couple of years ago, and the lines were very manageable. I stayed off site, and the whole park was done very comfortably, with breakfast, lunch, and dinner in a day. That being said, you can stretch your money (and thus your vacation) by staying offsite and still have a fighting chance against the crowds.

Good luck!

December 9, 2009 at 1:21 PM · With the budget, I opted for the Royal Pacific since it is the least expensive of the three Universal hotels. But as an earlier commenter pointed out, you can't beat the quality at the Portofino Bay, our winner this year for world's best theme park hotel.
December 9, 2009 at 3:16 PM · I dont mean to be rude but did you ever get a email about a senior trip to Cedar Point? Sorry to ask my hotmail account has had a history of not sending emails that iv sent. But on subject now you'll probly want to bring your own food into the park, not sure if they will let you or not but I did it a few years ago, because the park food in florida is very expensive.
December 9, 2009 at 4:51 PM · Okay, I will reveal it is me, but only because it sounds like I should add a bit more. Thank you for all of the great advice. This actually got my Mom to look and she absolutly loves all of the suggestions.

So we are most likely going to stay at the Portofino Bay, but how would mixing this idea and another idea we had, a coaster filled road trip, and driving up from Orlando along a place we have always desired to visit, the east coast? Our friend works for Southwest and can get us free Airline tickets, so all we would have to pay for is hotels, parks, and car. Plus if we do that, my Mom would higher the budget quite a bit. Good idea?

December 11, 2009 at 4:52 PM · I like the proposed plan overall, but "Mom" is causing some issues.

My mom is also not a big theme park person, and on our last trip enjoyed the canoe excursion you mentioned more than any attractions at any of the parks.

However, my mom especially didn't enjoy the Universal parks, as they had too many thrill rides for her liking and lacked her type of atmosphere. Don't get me wrong - I love Universal, and I highly enjoy their theming, but my mom prefers something along the lines of Epcot or Animal Kingdom, where the atmosphere is less intense, the music is nice, and the gardens and exhibits allow for casual strolling. She loves walking and stopping to smell the flowers. She also loved having a glass of wine in the France pavilion while sitting in the shade and watching the French acrobats. Epcot's World Showcase provides a distinctly different theme park experience. Additionally, my mom had no problem with Epcot's rides, and even enjoyed some of them (Mission: Space and, in particular, Soarin', which remains her favorite theme park attraction). She also loved Impressions de France. At Universal, though I love(d) it, we encountered constant breakdowns, delayed openings, and other problems that made the experience feel like a standard amusement park outing.

Maybe try one day at Epcot (or another venue of interest) as something different. If not, the vacation Robert planned sounds great, too.

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