Why should you and your family visit Orlando?

December 1, 2013, 10:34 PM · Editor's note: The following is the first chapter to Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014, our first guidebook, now available in paperback and eBook from Amazon.com.

Congratulations on starting a most exciting part of your next vacation — the planning.

I love planning vacations. Every moment I spend planning my vacation, mentally, I'm already there. Vacation planning takes my mind out of the office, away from staff meetings, out of the carpool and lets me think about a time when I can be enjoying every moment of my life. And I'm not limited to imagining just the place I'll end up visiting, either. Vacation planning allows me to think about traveling to an unlimited number of places around the country and the world, spending as much time and having as much fun as much as my imagination allows.

So enjoy this moment. Even as many families cut back their vacations — or stop traveling altogether — reading and dreaming about travel is a joy that anyone can afford.

Walt Disney World in Orlando

But this book isn't about all of those wonderful destinations that await you around the world. It's about one, very popular vacation destination — Orlando, Florida. Even though Orlando is one of the world's most popular cities, it doesn't inspire a lot of love from travel writers. If you read a lot about travel (and as a writer, I certainly do), you'll find many books and magazine articles that look down on visiting theme parks for a vacation. You can almost see the writers crinkle their noses as they sneer at anyone who would think about visiting a place as, well, unnatural, as Orlando.

I wonder if those same writers look down upon watching movies, going to the theater, or even reading novels. Because, at its heart, a theme park is fictional entertainment, just like those other forms. But instead of reading a book, watching a movie or sitting through a show, Orlando's theme parks invite you into a world of immersive, interactive storytelling. Here, you walk through scenes from around the world and throughout time. You become part of the show that a cast of thousands of talented theme park designers, performers and employees have created just for you.

And Orlando's theme parks are among the world's best. Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld are to theme parks what Harry Potter is to novels, Star Wars is to movies, and Cirque du Soleil is to live theater. They're beloved by millions of fans around the world. Perhaps it's not surprising that Harry Potter, Cirque du Soleil and Star Wars are all featured in Orlando's theme parks, too. Excellence attracts excellence, after all.

So welcome to that club. By reading this book, you're stepping into the world of Theme Park Insiders — people who love theme parks and have taken the time to learn enough about them to find the very best of the best around the world. This book draws upon the experience of tens of thousands of ThemeParkInsider.com readers, who have been submitting ratings and reviews of the Orlando-area theme parks since 1999. After you've enjoyed your Orlando journey, we hope that you'll join us online at http://www.themeparkinsider.com and submit your thoughts about your vacation, too.

But for now, read and discover all that awaits you in Orlando.

We'll start by introducing you to each of the major Orlando-area theme parks. We'll take you on a written tour of these parks, looking at each of rides, shows and restaurants you'll find there. Some travel books jump right into the nuts-and-bolts of planning a trip - booking flights, hotels, buying tickets and so on. I think it's more important to take the time to select the very best destination for you and your family, first. So I want you to get to know the Orlando theme parks the way we Theme Park Insiders do. Yes, you're going to have to make some choices about your vacation, eventually. But we at ThemeParkInsider.com want all our readers to make informed choices.

Because the Walt Disney World theme parks attract the most visitors each year among the Orlando parks, we'll start with them. That's right, I said "them," not "it." Walt Disney World isn't just one theme park — it's four. And that's not all. Disney World also offers two water parks, a huge outdoor shopping center, campgrounds, golf courses, and dozens of resort hotels — from themed motels to five-star luxury spa resorts. It's enough to keep a theme park fan entertained for months! (If only you had that much time for your vacation.)

But you're missing worlds of delightful entertainment if you never venture beyond Disney on an Orlando vacation.

SeaWorld opened its Orlando theme park in the early 1970s, and for years it was the only other theme park in town, outside Walt Disney World. Today's SeaWorld has expanded into a world-class destination of its own. In addition to its namesake theme park, SeaWorld now offers one of the nation's most popular water parks, as well as an exclusive all-day destination called Discovery Cove — where visitors can get close to birds and marine animals while a staff pampers you with top-quality cuisine and service. You can even get into the lagoon and swim with dolphins!

Universal Studios joined the mix in 1990, with the opening of its first theme park outside the original studios in Southern California. Today, the two theme parks of the Universal Orlando Resort are the hottest in town, with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter land at Universal's Islands of Adventure drawing millions of new visitors to the Universal parks. But Universal offers much more than Harry Potter. This is the Orlando home of Transformers, The Simpsons, Jurassic Park and Spider-Man (ironically, the Spider-Man character is now owned by Disney, but Universal locked up the Orlando-area theme park rights long before Disney bought Spidey and the rest of the Marvel comic book empire).

So where do you want to visit? Disney? SeaWorld? Universal? Or all of them? We'll get into the details of how to plan your dream Orlando theme park vacation in the later chapters of this book. With so many options offered by the Orlando-area parks, you'll have plenty of chances to find a plan that fits your family's budget — and inspires your dreams.

Might I start with a few words of advice? Don't keep all this fun to yourself. Getting your family or your travel companions involved in the planning can help you avoid major headaches and conflicts down the road. This is especially true for children. It's great to surprise a child with an unexpected vacation. But once you've made the big announcement, why not keep the excitement flowing by involving your children in making your day-to-day plans? Parents who load their kids in the car or on an airplane without letting them know what's happening are parents who are going to spending a lot of time answering the kids' questions when they could be enjoying the wonderful destination they're visiting.

I like to get kids involved not just with picking and planning activities, but in budgeting for the vacation, too. My single least favorite moments on vacation were when my son or daughter would pick up a souvenir, run up to me with it, and beg, beg, beg for me to buy it. Why not use the vacation as an opportunity to teach a sneaky lesson about money, instead? Either give or help your children earn some money before the trip, so they have to spend their own money on souvenirs. Not only can that help put a stop to the begging (and believe me, all theme parks are designed to encourage you to buy, buy, buy), it gives you the chance to watch your children develop into little bargain hunters before your eyes, as they try to stretch their money as far as they can.

Talk with your children about safety, too. Now, don't alarm them. Theme parks are among the safest places in the world — if you follow the rules. Your children might be familiar with the safe way to cross a street. But I doubt that their kindergarten teacher told them about the safe way to board a spinning teacup. Please wait to board a ride, or to get out of a ride vehicle, until you've been told it is safe. Each ride at the Orlando theme parks will have posted safety instructions either at the entrance or in the line. And ride attendants are there to help, if needed.

Some families have special needs, too. The Orlando theme parks provide some of the world's most accessible destinations. Many rides and almost all shows can accommodate guests in wheelchairs, and many restaurants also accommodate visitors with special dietary needs. Travel shouldn't be restricted to young adults in perfect health. The Orlando theme parks make the joy of travel available to anyone.

That's why these theme parks have become some of the world's most popular vacation destinations. When I was finishing school, some of my (okay, really rich) classmates were planning post-graduation trips to Europe and Asia. I couldn't afford anything like that. I couldn't afford to go see the world. But I could afford to go someplace where the world would come visit me.

I went to Orlando.

After graduation, I spend more than a year working at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. I drove rafts to Tom Sawyer Island, welcomed visitors to the Country Bear Jamboree and even did a stint as a Pirate of the Caribbean. During my time at Disney, I met people from all over the world — extended families from India, little old ladies from England, tour groups of Brazilian teens — people I might never have encountered in many communities across the United States. Chatting with visitors from all over helped make that job into, well, a vacation — an opportunity to connect with people around the world.

So even when you get to Orlando, your journey's not complete. Don't be shy. Start some conversations. Find out where your fellow visitors are from. Travel the world as you travel the Orlando theme parks. It's like getting multiple vacations for the price of one.

That's what the Theme Park Insiders do.

That's why we visit Orlando.

* * *

Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014 includes more than 200 pages of Theme Park Insider's reader ratings, tips, and advice for visiting Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld. We've included our analysis of ticket options, dining plans, and front-of-line passes, as well as our tips on safety, budgeting, and navigating the parks. It's the best guidebook you'll find, from the best theme park community online!

The book is available for Kindle (and Kindle apps) ($5.99, and £3.99 for UK readers) and in paperback ($9.95).

Stories from a Theme Park InsiderIf you're looking for another great Christmas gift, for yourself or another theme park fans, please consider our original book, Stories from a Theme Park Insider, a warm and funny look at what it's like to work at Walt Disney World. It's the highest-rated "cast member memoir" on Amazon and the Apple iBookstore — discover for yourself why so many readers love our insider stories by ordering a copy. ($2.99 for Kindle and $6.99 in paperback, from Amazon.)

Finally, we've signed up both our books for Amazon's "Kindle MatchBook" program where, if you buy the paperback from Amazon, you can buy the Kindle eBook version of the same title for just 99 cents. Amazon's already activated the MatchBook offer for "Stories from a Theme Park Insider." Since it's a new title, the MatchBook option for "Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014" should go live within the next few days. But paperback purchases now will qualify for the 99-cent Kindle purchase when it does. Thanks for being part of Theme Park Insider, and we hope that you love these books!

Replies (7)

December 2, 2013 at 9:06 AM · I went to see the Book of Mormon when it came to Tampa, and the main character sings his dream of visiting Orlando. They even show Cinderela's Castle, Spaceship Earth and Shamu. That was really funny as was the rest of the show.
December 2, 2013 at 10:03 AM · Orlando can be a lot of fun, but the focus on planning is way beyond what one should do for a vacation. Other than ensuring a guest has made the arrangements for lodging, transportation, tickets, and dining, then to design your vacation around attractions that last a mere 5 minutes is downright remarkable. That's what people are trying to figure out in a Disney vacation. It is most interesting.

I have to say planning is overrated. Planning might be fun, but that's what fun becomes... a plan. I picture vacation as something else. If you're trying to enjoy a moment, it is very hard to think of the next thing, but a Disney vacation forces you to become less spontaneous. You become less attuned to the moment.

December 2, 2013 at 12:14 PM · Anon, I think this guidebook might be up your alley. I make a point of taking on the ideal that every moment of a vacation has to be planned in advance, and offer a different approach that prepares people to be more "in the moment" while they're visiting the parks, instead.

Of course, that approach should be familiar to anyone who's been reading my stuff on here for a while. ;^)

December 2, 2013 at 3:03 PM · Is Universal Orlando offering any special deals in early 2014. Or should I just wait till Diagon Alley opens?
December 2, 2013 at 3:04 PM · @ Anon Mouse.

There are different models for vacations. I have just returned from two weeks on Madeira and revelled in the freedom to decide what we would do on a day to day basis. But previously we have taken a cruise and known before we set off what we would be doing every single day of the vacation. Neither model is better than the other. They just offer different ways of having a great time.
Last year we went to Orlando and I found the experience somewhere between the two. To get the best out of a Disney vacation you have to do some planning. It's no good turning up mid morning for example and expecting to be able to walk onto any ride or attraction. In the same way I research any vacation destination to ensure I get the best out of it I research orlando in order to make sure I have the best experience I can. But no matter how planned and ordered our vacation is at Disney there are still plenty of 'moments' to savour and opportunities for spontaneity... Planning doesn't impair the pleasure. It enhances it and increases the scope for the spontaneous....

December 2, 2013 at 4:01 PM · Universal is offering a handful of deals between now and late May, mostly third-day free deals. Those all go away when Diagon Alley opens, and you're looking at full price for everything for a while.
December 2, 2013 at 6:48 PM · I always plan for the off-season. Thus, getting on to rides is almost spontaneous.

One time, I went to Orlando in September. I highly recommend it. Walk-ons mostly. Hardly any wait.

My next vacation to Orlando is in May 2014. I expect it to less busy than the high season in March/April (spring break) or June-August (summer break). Planning means timing.

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