I’m returning to Florida for the third time this August/September with Phill and I can’t wait! You’re promised sunshine, theme parks, shopping and big portions in Orlando. It’s a full-on fun holiday destination. The first time I went to Florida was in 2011 and I really didn’t know what to expect. My other half had been multiple times with his parents when he was a teenager and all I had to go on was their wonderful memories. But as someone who grew up going on traditional Irish holidays with my family, the Orlando experience was so far removed from any holiday experience I’d done.
Thankfully I had a brilliant time in Orlando once I settled in and recovered from the jetlag! I loved the big rides at Universal, the magic of Disneyland, endless refills of my favourite soft drinks and brilliant burgers and fries. Of course I also loved the shopping! When we returned again in 2013, however, I had an even better time as I knew what to expect. I knew to pack more comfy shoes for all the walking I would be doing. I knew when to slow the pace down and enjoy time by the pool to re-energise myself after a long day at a theme park. And I knew I wanted to see more of Disney!
The prospect of visiting Orlando Florida as a first-timer can be exciting and daunting. It’s not a cheap holiday destination so you want to make the most of your time there and have the best experience possible without spending a fortune. Doing your research pays off and I hope my top travel tips will help those of you planning a holiday to the sunshine state!
1. Set a budget for yourself & remember to factor in tipping!
Orlando is very much an activity holiday with an abundance of shops, restaurants and unforgettable theme parks. Temptation is all around so spend wisely. Decide on the amount of money you want to spend during your holiday and try your best to stick to that. I find writing down what I’ve spent at the end of the day (along with a running total) helps keep me in check. I also regularly check my online bank statement when I’m away. If you don’t keep a handle on your spending then you may get a shock as to how much you’ve spent when you get home. We often forget about the number of iced coffees we have and the tips we hand out! Tipping 15-20% is the norm (and is very much expected) in America. Not only do you tip after a meal, but you tip bar staff, bus/taxi drivers, housekeeping staff and concierge.
I’d also recommend taking advantage of the coupon books that are available in your hotel, restaurants etc that offer money off/deals in restaurants and activities like mini-golfing.And if you don’t have one already, get a cash card that doesn’t charge for money withdrawals abroad. If you’re planning on buying pricey items like electronic or designer goods, use a credit card (ideally an interest free one if you don’t plan on repaying it straight away) to cover you in-case there is an issue/fault with any of the goods. Finally, stick to American brands if you want good deals. For example, buying a watch from Fossil or a lipstick from MAC will be a good bit cheaper than buying it in the UK!
2. Buy your theme park tickets in advance & look for combo deals.
Let’s face it, most of us go to Orlando to enjoy the huge theme parks, whether it’s the thrill-seeking rides at Universal, getting to meet your favourite characters at Disneyland, or enjoying the animals at SeaWorld. There really is something for everyone! Once again I am buying the Disney and Universal Combo Ticket from Attraction Tickets Direct. The first year we went we bought the 5 Universal Combo Tickets which included access to both Universal theme parks, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Aquatica. We then paid for one-day Disney tickets towards the end of our trip (this turned out to be an awful experience – more of which later.) When you add Disney to your theme park tickets, the price increases considerably but for us it’s worth it.
With the Disney and Universal Combo Ticket we get to visit both Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure plus all four Disney Parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom; and the water parks Typhoon Lagoon and blizzard Beach). We can go to any of the parks any day over the two weeks. If you do what we did in the first year and wait to see if you can get discounted Disney tickets when you are on holiday, I personally wouldn’t advise it. Often along with the discount comes an obligation. For us it was a time-share experience which involved a tour of beautiful Orlando villas the morning of the Disney trip. It just ended up being so much hassle (not to mention very time-consuming) for something (the time-share) we had zero interest in. Best to just pay in advance before you go.
3. If you can, visit on off-peak months.
If you’re travelling as a couple or with very young children I would advise avoiding the July/August Orlando stampede. Phill and I head September time when the crowds have lessened and the heat and humidity are a little less intense. We actually think it would be amazing to go at the end of September/October time as then all the fun Halloween festivities happens, but I’m afraid we are just so eager for a holiday that the start of September is as late as we go! Unsurprisingly, you’ll get your Orlando trip that bit cheaper if you can hold off until after August. I find lowcostholidays.com and Expedia do the best flight and hotel deals for Orlando but be prepared to shop around to get the best deals.
4. Stay on I-Drive to have everything on your doorstep.
We’re very boring as we’ve stayed in exactly the same spot both times (soon to be three). But in our defense the hotel holds an excellent spot on International Drive (the main tourist accommodation area in Orlando). It’s on a particularly attractive part of the very long iDrive (11.1 miles to be exact) with lots of trees and well-kept greenery; and an abundance of restaurants. On our first trip the hotel was a bit of a 3* disappointment with regards the room (a bit dingy and a little odd smelling) but it underwent a transformation just before we returned in 2013. The hotel was taken under new management, received a huge makeover and received a new name. The Avanti Resort is one of the nicest places to visit on I-Drive (it has a Certificate of Excellence on Trip Advisor). The rooms have had a revamp, it boasts a huge modern reception complete with Starbucks counter and the pool area is now much bigger and a heck of a lot more attractive and appealing.
Most hotels on I-Drive operate free buses to take you to and from the different theme parks at different times during the day. You’ll also have access to the I-Ride Trolley which travels up and down the entire length of I-Drive. If you like to get out and about on days off from the theme parks then definitely make use of the I-Ride and buy a weekly ticket so you don’t need to worry about paying for every journey. There are excellent shopping outlet centres at either end of I-Drive and you can get to these on the I-Ride. Phill and I have never felt the need to rent a car in Orlando. The transportation service is excellent and unless you want to travel outside of Orlando to the likes of Tampa or Miami I wouldn’t bother adding the expense of car rental to your holiday.
5. Enjoy the variety of food but be sensibly indulgent!
I know America, and particularly Orlando, can get a bad rep with regards food – the huge quantity you can get and the fact it’s not particularly healthy cuisine. But as with everything else, Orlando is what you make it. If you want to stick to a healthy diet you can. Almost every menu has a healthy option and lists the calories per portion. And it’s not just good ‘ole American food you can enjoy, there are fab Mexican restaurants, Chinese, Japanese and more. I admit, I love American food – from the pancakes at iHop to the burgers at Denny’s, the ice cream at Cold Stone Creamery…and let’s not forget the totally indulgent cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory! Phill and I love to eat out when we’re on holiday and we’ll try a new restaurant most nights (although our favourites have to be Joe’s Crab Shack for their awesome coconut shrimp and Don Pablo’s for their delicious tortillas). When I hear that some people go to the same restaurant time and time again when they’re on holiday I can’t help but think what a waste!
On days I want to eat a bit more healthily I’ll opt for the fresh fruit and cereal or toast and eggs for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and a big salad for dinner. Most restaurants will cater to your needs so if you just want something plain and simple and healthy then ask for it! I don’t need to tell you that the meal sizes can be more than generous so if you just want a small plate, ask for it, or share a main course with your partner/friend. Or just get a doggy bag to take back to your room (so long as you have a fridge). My appetite in Orlando is bigger than at home simply because I am more active when I’m there. I need to keep my energy up by eating more regularly and having bigger meals. Fortunately I’ve never went home heavier as I’ve worked off all the food I’ve ate!
6. Bring comfy shoes & a backpack to enjoy the theme parks to the fullest.
You will walk miles on your Orlando holiday, especially if you visit the parks frequently. You’ll be getting lots of exercise without even knowing it! Most people wear trainers/sneakers or sandals in the parks and I’d recommend you do the same. Look after your feet on your holiday because when you’re feet are happy, so are you. I’d also advise bringing a backpack with you to carry your camera, money, drinks and snacks – and also to store any items that you buy (because you can’t not go to the theme parks and not buy momentos!).
7. Plan out your theme park adventures.
One thing I have learnt from Phill is that planning your route around the theme parks makes great sense (I’m more likely to plan my days at the outlet malls!). Unless you’ve been before you will find it hard to visualise the vastness of each park, particularly Disney (which is the size of San Francisco and has it’s own monorail system) and Universal. Pre-planning will be even more important for those of you travelling at peak times over July/August and those of you who are only visiting a theme park once or twice.
On arrival to each park you will have the chance to pick up the park’s ‘agenda’ for that day – basically a list of the different timings for character parades, shows, special events etc. Be prepared to queue for long times during peak season and for recently opened or extremely popular rides. You will want to make the most of each day so prioritise your must-do rides , your must-visit Disney Princesses, live shows etc. Lots of people visit the parks from early morning to late at night, which is more than I can handle! The parks are tiring business when you factor in heat, humidity, crowds, queuing and walking! But if you are only visiting the theme parks on a few occasions then you will want to do morning to night visits to pack in as much as possible. At nigh time you can travel from any of the Disney parks to Downtown Disney (where there is an abundance of restaurants, shops and bars; and which is currently undergoing a big expansion – to be completed 2016). When in Universal, the Universal CityWalk really comes alive in the evening time with lots of restaurants and bars to enjoy, as well as a cinema and even live music and big entertainment shows.
8. Make time for relaxation!
I honestly can’t emphasise this point enough. As much as you enjoy activity holidays and want to make the most of your time in Orlando, be sure to kick back and relax whilst you’re on holiday. It’s important to recharge your batteries after a busy day at the theme parks or a full on day shopping at the outlet centre or Florida Mall. Phill and I usually do a day on and a day off from the theme parks. But even on our days off we end up doing something – whether that’s shopping or mini golf or general exploring. But on our second trip together I made more time to hang out by the pool, listen to music/read and swim. Rarely do we stay out late in Orlando simply because we’re often too tired after an action packed daytime! But we try and fit in at least one night of music and drinking. I can’t recommend the cocktails from Bahama Breeze on I-Drive enough!