I’m returning to Florida for the third time this September with Phill and I can’t wait for the sunshine, thrill rides, food and shopping trips. Having been twice before I have learnt some valuable lessons and so I wanted to impart some travel tips and advice on how to make the most of your trip to the sunshine state.
When it comes to a holiday in Orlando, Florida you’re promised sunshine, theme parks, shopping and big portions. It’s a full-on fun holiday destination from beginning to end, and whether you’re travelling as part of a couple or large family, there is something to keep everyone entertained.
For many people, a holiday to Orlando is a once in a lifetime trip and the prospect of visiting can be both exciting and daunting. With so much to see, do and eat, it can work out to be an expensive holiday destination but by doing your research and following these top tips you could save yourself a lot of money and hassle once you arrive to the sunshine state.
1. Set a budget and 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 have available to spend during your holiday and try your best to stick to that. To keep track of what you’re spending, regularly check your online bank accounts. It’s all-too-easy to forget about all the little snacks bought and tips handed out. And speaking of 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.
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 often be cheaper than buying it in the UK!
Lastly, take advantage of the coupon books you will see dotted around your hotel and in restaurants. There will be money-off coupons or buy one get one free offers which could save you money when dining out or on activities like mini-golfing.
2. Buy your theme park tickets in advance and 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!
The Disney and Universal Combo Ticket is a popular choice for many Orlando first-timers and aficionados as it allows you to visit all the Universal and Disney Parks (including water parks) at any time over your holiday. With a combo ticket you’ll even be able to visit multiple parks in one day. Visit Attraction Tickets Direct or Florida Tik for up-to-the-minute ticket prices.
3. If you can, visit on off-peak months.
If you have flexibility, or are travelling as part of a couple or with very young children I would advise avoiding the popular months of July and August as theses are the times the parks are their busiest and also the time Orlando is at its hottest.
During off-peak times, like January or September, there are less queues for the rides and the heat and humidity is less intense. Unsurprisingly, you’ll get your Orlando trip that bit cheaper if you go off-peak.
4. Stay on I-Drive to have everything on your doorstep.
I-Drive, or to give its full name – International Drive – is one of the most popular places to stay when in Orlando. With tons of hotels, restaurants, shops and entertainment spots, it’s an affordable place to base yourself whilst also staying close to the theme parks.
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.
The local transportation service is really good and unless you want to travel outside of Orlando to the likes of Tampa or Miami, or you have a large family, I wouldn’t bother adding the expense of car rental to your holiday.
5. Enjoy the variety of food but don’t get too carried away!
As with other parts of America, Orlando can get a bad rep with regards food, particularly in terms of the sheer volume of fast fried food on offer. 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!
For many people, eating out on holiday is one of the pleasures but it can get expensive and it can be easy to constantly feast on fried food. Saying that, most restaurants will cater to your needs so if you want to swap out fried for a salad or if you want to share a main course with your partner/friend then just ask. Another idea is to request a doggy bag to take back to your room (so long as you have a fridge).
6. Bring comfy shoes and 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. Make sure you break your shoes in before you so you know they won’t hurt you. There’s nothing worse than sore or uncomfortable feet – you’ve been warned!
Another tip would be to bring a backpack with you to carry your camera, money, drinks and snacks in. Remember, you’ll be at the park most of the day and carrying a backpack can often be the most comfortable and the most convenient, especially if you end up buying a lot of souvenirs as you will have a place to put them!
7. Plan out your theme park adventures.
Planning your day at the theme parks makes great sense and can save you a lot of time and energy in the long-run. 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 its own monorail system) and Universal. It’s simply not possible to do absolutely everything in one day, nor should you try! Instead plan out your must-do’s each day and stick to your list as much as you can. Pre-planning your trip will be even more important if you are travelling with children or are only going to the parks for a day or two.
The good news is you can start planning weeks before your holiday begins! Universal and Disney both have apps to allow you to plan your trip more efficiently. For example, you can book on rides before you go to avoid long queues once you are there. These are often referred to as fast passes and can come in useful for the really new or popular rides. You can even book in at a particular restaurant at Disney…but don’t leave it too late, especially if you want to do character dining with your kids as these experiences book up fast.
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.
It’s not unusual to visit the parks from morning to evening. Disney always put on a fantastic light show in the evening and there are always buses running to take you to Disney Springs (previously named Downtown Disney), where there is an abundance of restaurants, shops and bars. 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!
As much as you may enjoy activity holidays and want to make the most of your time in Orlando, be sure to kick back and relax whilst 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!
Doing a day on and a day off from the theme parks often works a treat and avoids the dreaded burn out. So whether it’s catching rays by the hotel pool or sipping a rum cocktail by the bar, make time for downtime!