How to Plan an Orlando Vacation: Part One

October 17, 2014, 10:18 AM · Theme Park Insider has a number of great tools for getting the most out of a theme park-centric trip to Central Florida. It offers reviews of parks, attractions, restaurants, hotels, and much more. It also offers some general travel tips to the region and other theme park regions around the world. However, the process of planning a family vacation to Central Florida can be very complex, especially with the ever-changing FastPass+ system and the other continually expanding options beyond the gates of Walt Disney World. My family has just completed most of that planning process as we prepare for our 12-day Central Florida vacation beginning this weekend. This is by no mean our first trip (I think it's the 10th since my wife and I began dating nearly 18 years ago), but the advent of the My Magic+ system has dramatically changed the way we have planned our trip this time around.


First, let’s start from the beginning. Most visitors planning a trip typically plan their vacation around a certain time of year. For some, children’s school schedules are a consideration, while others plan trips around holidays or special events (birthdays, anniversaries, etc…). Guests should always consider the ramifications of the time of year that you choose to visit WDW and the theme parks of Central Florida. If you are a crowd-adverse person, traveling during the peak summer or holiday months (Christmas/New Year or Spring Break) could result in a disappointing trip with extensive line waiting, shoulder to shoulder crowds, and daily frustration. Even minor holidays like MLK Day, President’s Day, Columbus Day, and Veteran’s Day have become more popular over the years with heavier crowds and increased wait times (this week’s Columbus Day saw wait times for popular attractions like Escape from Gringotts and Toy Story Midway Mania exceed two hours).


However, the downside of avoiding the peak attendance days is that parks tend to gear their maintenance schedules around the expected crowds, and also tailor their park hours to past attendance trends. This means that while guests can tour the Magic Kingdom from 8 AM until 1 AM or later during the summer months, with virtually every possible attraction running at peak capacity, visitors during off-peak months can see park hours trimmed significantly with some attractions running less frequently or closed altogether. We have typically planned trips around less crowded times of year, typically in October/early November, and have usually been pleased with the crowd levels and wait times. This time of year has the advantages of seeing the parks decorated for the season (Halloween and sometimes Christmas in early November), special events (Howl-O-Scream at BGT, Shamu’s Spooktacular at Sea World, HHN at Universal, Food and Wine Festival at EPCOT, and Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party at MK), and generally cheaper hotel rates along with special room promotions.



Once you’ve decided when you want to go, it’s now time to start the serious planning. In the past, my wife and I started the initial planning process 4-6 months in advance, but with the advent of My Magic+, we started planning our upcoming trip nearly 8 months ago. Planning should start with the amount of time you want to spend on vacation, which can vary greatly depending upon your individual circumstances. We like to go for at least a full week, and our upcoming trip will be our longest ever.

Once you’ve figured out how many days you can spend on your vacation, you need to determine how you’re going to get there. For those of us on the east coast, the decision is more complicated, while those west of the Mississippi are probably flying. My wife and I have traditionally taken the drive down I-95 from the Washington, DC region, which is about a 12-hour trip that is accomplished in a straight shot. This strategy is not something I would recommend to everyone, but if you can do it, especially overnight with kids sleeping in the back seat, it can maximize time spent having fun while saving the costs of plane tickets and rental car. Some may prefer to make it more of a road trip with stops along the way, including at the infamous South of the Border, but no matter how you do it, the drive down I-95 to Florida still is a rite of passage for many in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern United States. Travelers along the I-95 corridor also have the option of the Amtrak Auto-train, but the cost can be prohibitive ($380 just for the car with passenger fares ranging from $100 to $250 each way).

For everyone else who takes a plane, there are still choices to be made. In addition to choosing which airline to fly, visitors can also choose from a number of different airports. Some may find cheaper fares and better flights into Tampa, Daytona, or other Florida airports. The obvious advantage to flying into Orlando (MCO) is the ability to take advantage of the Disney's Magical Express and numerous other hotel shuttles, which can take the need for a rental car completely out of the equation. We have never taken advantage of Magical Express, but have heard decent reviews of the system, which essentially is a free ride to and from the airport to Walt Disney World for guests who have onsite resort reservations. The obvious negative of Magical Express is that guests are stuck with all Disney all the time while they’re onsite, but there’s nothing stopping someone from splitting their vacation between multiple resorts/hotels. Many people simply spend the first half of their trip at WDW, catch a ride back to the airport, where they then rent a car for the second half of their vacation, or simply take a taxi or shuttle to a Universal-area hotel. The advantage is that you really don’t need a car while you’re onsite at WDW with its robust transportation network, and many people are perfectly happy spending a week or more without ever getting behind the wheel of a car.

Now that you know how you’re getting there, it’s time to figure out what you’re going to do while you’re in Central Florida, and where you want to stay. This is another very personal decision, and there’s really no right answer. Whether you want to spend 7 days at WDW or 5 days at WDW and 2 days at Universal, it’s something that you should try to determine early in the planning stages. For us, our trips to Central Florida almost always include at least a day at Sea World and another at Busch Gardens Tampa to make use of our BG Platinum passes.


We also considered a day at Legoland, but since our son has not yet crossed the 42” threshold, we decided to defer our visit to Florida’s newest theme park until our next trip. For us, the allocation of the remaining days of our trip came down to value based on the various park ticketing options. For others, allocation of days may come down to simple preference, or which parks are offering new attractions since your last visit. Even if you’re not a first-time visitor, a good rule of thumb is to assume that it will take at least a full day to experience each park. Depending upon when you’re visiting, you may want to also experience a special event, exclusive meal, or spend part of a day relaxing at the resort or one of the many waterparks.


With 4 days remaining to plan after allocating a day at each of the 4 WDW parks and 2 Universal parks, we chose to spend a split day between Aquatica and Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, 2 extra days for Universal Orlando (primarily to allow extra time for Diagon Alley and new attractions that our son is now tall enough to ride like Spiderman, Simpsons, and Transformers) including an evening at Halloween Horror Nights for me, and one extra day for WDW.


Some people may want to have a complete rest day or extra days to visit Kennedy Space Center, other local attractions, a day at the beach, or a visit with family. The only thing that’s important is to have a rough idea where you need to be during each part of your vacation.


Once you have a basic plan as to what parks you want to visit and how many days you’re spending in each park, it’s time to look around for hotels and buy tickets. This process should be done together (at least at first) since both WDW and Universal offer deals based upon purchasing hotel and tickets as a package. If you already have tickets from a previous trip (really old WDW tickets or tickets purchased with the non-expiring option) or have an annual pass, you may not need to purchase a package. However, even if you already have tickets or annual pass, it may be valuable to purchase a package to take advantage of deals like room discounts (typically 30%) or the free dining promotion, which Disney runs frequently during non-peak seasons. You can even choose to reserve a room simply as a placeholder, and go back and add tickets later to take advantage of a promotion. For example, we reserved a hotel for our upcoming trip back in March, but Disney offered a free dining promotion during our travel window in May. In order to take advantage of the promotion, buying tickets along with the hotel was required (we already had 10-day non-expiring park hoppers from a previous trip, but would have needed to buy tickets for our son anyway), so we cancelled our existing reservation and rebooked a package to get the free dining. Universal doesn’t typically do Disney-style hotel promotions, but onsite hotel prices typically begin increasing about 2-4 months ahead of the reservation, and the same goes for off-site hotels. However, most hotel reservations can be cancelled without penalty (unless you’re reserving through on a pre-purchase discounted rate), so there’s nothing wrong with continuing to look at rates all the way up to the day you depart to see if a deal pops up. Always remember the advantages and disadvantages of staying at an onsite resort versus off-site, and don’t forget about rental properties that can be great for larger families or extended stays. WDW resort guests have access to their resort’s amenities along with a 30-day head start on making FastPass+ reservations (more on that later). Resort guests also receive Magic Bands as part of their package, which replace the “Keys to the Kingdom”. The Magic Bands also act as room keys, allow guests to charge items to the credit card associated with the room with a simple tap, and integrate into the Photo Pass system, which now includes access to on-ride photos and videos. Disney resort guests also receive access to Magic Hours at the theme parks, which allow exclusive additional time for onsite guests to enjoy a selected park each day.

Along with that, WDW resort guests receive free parking at all of the theme parks, a cost that is often overlooked when comparing onsite and off-site resort rates. On-site guests at Universal receive early entry to the theme parks. For those staying at the Royal Pacific, Hard Rock, and Portofino Bay, guests also receive Universal Express, which allows guests to bypass the standby lines at many attractions, a perk that is considered one of the best in the industry. However, all onsite Universal guests are still required to pay for parking. Many nearby off-site hotels offer shuttles or have partnerships with the parks, but you should always check with the hotel if something seems too good to be true. Most hotels that offer shuttles do not run them like a taxi service, meaning that you are subject to their schedule. Some hotel shuttles do not get guests to the park before park opening, and do not operate after park closing, so if you want to be at the gate 15 minutes before rope drop and leave after the nighttime show, which ends 10 minutes after park closing, the shuttles may be totally worthless. Make sure to call the hotel to verify how the shuttle operates, and the times that it runs.

Tomorrow: Part Two, with advice on tickets, and dining and ride reservations, including Fastpass+

Replies (5)

October 17, 2014 at 11:00 AM · Good advice. Central Florida has so much to offer you really need to do as much planning as you can stand. I often see people who are completely lost at WDW and feel sorry for them. With so much $ invested I always want to maximize the fun by careful planning.
October 17, 2014 at 12:02 PM · When I deal with incoming guests, the first thing I ask them if they have been to Orlando and these parks before. That makes a major difference in how I approach them as new comers do need to be given extra care and quite often have no clue what they really want to do.

One major thing to consider is that Orlando has a LOT of things to do. If you don't have a full week, break it down and most of all, do not overschedule yourself. I have seen so many family meltdowns in hotel lobbies because people had unrealistic expectations of what they could do and how their bodies would handle it. We have a name for it, it is called the Disney Effect. As in, 12 hours a day racing through parks when you are out of shape with no sunblock, not used to the heat and have not hydrated properly. Next thing you know, you are in the ER waiting in line behind all those other people who did the same thing.

Even with a full week, it is still tough to see everything. Estimate 4 days at Disney, 2 days at Universal and one day to collapse in your hotel room and sleep.

October 18, 2014 at 7:08 AM · Is this a planning guide or a trip report? Not exactly helpful as a planning guide.

Need to learn how to divide up the paragraphs. TL;DR

October 18, 2014 at 7:53 PM · Anytime I've done the math a package did not save over getting it separately.
October 20, 2014 at 9:41 AM · Great tidbits of information. I particularly had not considered maintenance times for the rides and attractions being scheduled during non-peak times. I guess it really is a trade off.

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