ORLANDO INSIDER TIPS: ASK THE EXPERTS
By Helen Wright
It’s always good to have a guy on the inside and in case you don’t have time to befriend a Florida local for Orlando insider tips, we’ve done all the hard work for you. We asked six Orlando experts for their top advice on what you should do in order to make the very best of your holiday.
This forms part of our Complete Guide to Orlando. To read the guide from the beginning, click here
‘MAGIC KINGDOM HAS A SECRET SHOW’
Jason Turnnidge-Betts is a public relations executive for Virgin Holidays. He first went to Orlando in 2008 and has since been another seven times.
‘The best tips I’ve ever picked up for Orlando, Florida over the years are from our Virgin Holidays customers themselves. They really know their stuff when they ‘#seizetheholiday’ and have shared so many tips for Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World that I ended up using myself.
If you are flying out for a special occasion at Walt Disney World, be sure to ask for a badge at Guest Services – whether it’s a birthday, wedding, anniversary or even just your first time at Disney. Cast members are on the lookout for these badges and you could even get free gifts throughout the parks. For any romatics out there – if you are planning on proposing at Walt Disney World, pick your place wisely. Key attractions like the Tree of Life at Animal Kingdom and Cinderella Castle have Memory Maker Photopass photographers there all day. Give them a subtle heads up on what you’re planning to do and they will capture the moment for free!
One of my favourite tip offs was to stay inside Magic Kingdom after the park closes and head to Main Street USA. The shops stay open an hour after closing and lucky guests who are still about will see an illumination of Cinderalla Castle called ‘The Kiss Goodnight’. Not that many people know about this this, but with the park almost deserted it feels like your own two-minute VIP show. For a bit of extra fun, play the Hidden Mickey game when you go to Walt Disney World. The idea is to look out for a Mickey Mouse hiding all over the parks. There are books and apps that can help you hunt them down and it can be great competition if you’re in a big group. Look out for those that are below waist height, specifically designed for the little ones to beat you…’
SEND A LOVE LETTER
‘Over at Universal Orlando, there are lots of secret fun things to do that I had no idea about at first. The Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket Rollercoaster, as seen on Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway, allows you to choose a song from a list of tracks to play as you zoom around the coaster. But, insiders know that if you hold down on the ride logo in the middle it will unlock a library of hidden songs by entering their special code. A list of extra tracks and codes can be found here . Another really special thing you can do at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is send a postcard back to the UK from Hogsmeade! They will be sent using an official Hogsmeade postage stamp and hallmark. Pretty cool if you’ve got any Potter fans in the family.
My favourite time to visit Universal Orlando is during Mardi-Gras, a celebration usually between Feb-April. As well as all the usual fun of the theme park, guests can enjoy elaborate parades, colourful costumes, Cajun cuisine and live performances – sometimes from huge artists like Kelly Clarkson, Fifth Harmony and Sean Paul. It’s a busy time to travel but there is so much going on it adds an extra dimension to your holiday.’
‘RIDE AN AIRBOAT ON THE EVERGLADES’
Kate Bates is Head of PR at Attraction Tickets Direct, UK’s largest attraction ticket provider for Walt Disney World, SeaWorld, Universal Orlando and Disneyland Paris.
‘Orlando is one of my favourite places to go because there is so much to see and do. It’s the most fun place – even for grown-ups. I’d recommend staying at a resort hotel if you can, as having those park-to-hotel transfers included make it stress-free to get around. After a long day exploring the parks I like having somewhere next to my hotel, like Universal’s CityWalk or Disney Springs, to go for dinner and drinks so I don’t have to wander around for ages finding a restaurant. The evenings are more relaxed when you don’t need to worry about getting a taxi home.
When it comes to buying park passes, combination park tickets are ideal if you’re a rollercoaster lover like me – each of the parks has something different to offer and it’s great to be able to pick and choose which parks to do without worrying about the costs. You’ll have total freedom to go where you want so you can ride Hulk at Universal Orlando, take on on the tallest, fastest and longest coaster in Orlando – Mako at SeaWorld – and feel the acceleration on Aerosmith’s Rock n Rollercoaster at Disney – all in one day (if you have the energy!)’
‘If you have a couple of weeks in Orlando then try to make time for some of the smaller, or more authentic Floridian experiences. An airboat ride is exhilarating and you get to see native wildlife in its natural habitat. Some, such as the One-hour Boggy Creek Adventure, you can even do at night. Sports fans could take in a basketball game for a true American experience – the Orlando Magic season runs from October to April and it’s a great evening out, especially if you can splurge on premium seats with all-inclusive food and drinks!
Orlando food is varied with everything from character breakfasts to themed snacks and fine dining – and everything in between! Some of my personal favourites are The Cow Fish at Universal’s CityWalk for its amazing spicy tuna roll and innovative ‘burgushi’ boxes – fusing sushi and burgers shouldn’t be as good as this actually is! I had one of the best steaks of my life at Cítricos Restaurant at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort; or for something on the go, Hot Dog Hall of Fame back at CityWalk is brilliant, and at less than €10pp, it’s helpful if you are on a budget.’
‘GO OFF-THE-BEATEN-TRACK AT WALT DISNEY WORLD’
Mum of three, Debs Thorogood, is a Florida fanatic and has been going to Orlando every year since 2001.
‘We try to go to Florida every year and it never gets boring because every time we go it’s a totally different experience. I think that’s the real magic of Orlando. My kids have grown up going to Walt Disney World and SeaWorld each year and watching their reactions and emotions at different ages has been the highlight of our trips. When people ask me the best age to take children to Walt Disney World I would say that if you only plan on going once, six and seven are the best ages. They are still young enough to believe all the magic but old enough to experience the rides and attractions. Plus, at that age they remember the things they’ve done on their holiday, which is important.
Over the years we have done a few Disney Character Dining Experiences with the kids and our favourite was at Disney’s Contemporary Hotel. They are expensive but we’ve arranged them for birthday treats and it’s worth it to see the kids so happy and excited. Believe it or not, the food is really nice and there is so much choice.
Halloween is a great time to go
If you are in Orlando for Halloween, head to Celebration (a residential community near to the Disney parks). The homeowners go to town decorating all the houses and it’s a brilliant night out for the kids – for free! The main house everyone goes to see actually creates a haunted pirate ship and it’s amazing. One year the kids went Trick or Treating there and houses were so generous – it’s nothing like here in the UK.
Over the years we have discovered some alternative things to do at the Walt Disney World resort and they top the list of my Orlando insider tips. One of our favourites is to go to Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort. Leave the car and take the bus to the campground. There’s a beach, watersports, boats for hire, a playground and a cute post office and other shops. They also do Mickey’s Backyard BBQ at Fort Wilderness, a scheduled event where the characters arrive and dance with all the kids. We first went when our oldest son Jesse was little and it is one of our favourite ever memories.
We also like to go to Disney’s BoardWalk, which has three hotels surrounding a lake. They have bikes you can ride around between the hotels and from the bridge you can see Epcot’s fireworks at night. Plus they have magicians, street performers and kids entertainment. The beach around Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club hotels has hammocks and a big outdoor screen to watch movies. It’s magical.’
Disney’s BoardWalk features in our or 14-Day suggested Orlando Itinerary
ORLANDO INSIDER TIPS: WE ASKED THE EXPERTS
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‘HEAD TO THE SUBURBS’
UK writers Susan and Simon Veness now live in Orlando full-time and are the co-authors of the Brit Guide to Orlando, now in it’s 23rd year.
‘Many people don’t venture far from the theme parks and International Drive, and that’s a shame, as there is SO much more to discover here than just the obvious. If you want to see more than just the theme parks, spend a couple of days exploring the suburbs around Orlando. First stop, the chic northern suburb of Winter Park (actually, it’s a city in its own right). This cool neighbourhood is absolutely jam packed with real local flavour, from its shops and cafes to the park and museums. Some of the best restaurants in town are here as well as our favourite coffee shop – Foxtail Coffee. Even if you don’t have a car, you can get here easily on the SunRail commuter train from Sand Lake Road.
The name sounds like it could be inside one of the theme parks but DeLand is actually small local city with that great ‘small-town’ feel and a friendly, modern vibe. DeLand is just 30 minutes’ drive north of Orlando and makes for a really nice day out for locals and visitors alike. Wander along the high street, Woodland Boulevard, which is as pretty as they come, with a 1920s vibe. For beer lovers, this area is also home to a great local craft brewery, Persimmon Hollow.
For those on an adult-only trip, Downtown Orlando (not to be confused with ‘Downtown Disney or ‘Disney Springs) is Orlando’s main city area and a great place to go out. It’s small enough to walk around and has some great dining choices as well as lively bars and clubs.’
‘BOOK YOUR FASTPASS IN ADVANCE’
Eric Barnett has the brilliant job of being a VIP tour guide at Walt Disney World.
‘I started with the Walt Disney World College Program while attending University and worked as a lifeguard at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon waterpark and on the Disney Cruise Line. When I finally decided to settle in Orlando three years ago, I became a VIP Tour Guide and love every minute of it. The best part of my job is seeing the happiness and joy the parks bring to our guests.
A VIP tour at Walt Disney World is a tailor made experience for individual guests and their groups. My job is to show guests our wonderful theme parks in the most efficient, practical and fun way imaginable. I will organise reserved viewing areas and seating for the live shows & parades, park-to-park transportation, dining reservations as well as entertaining them with my Disney trivia – did you know Animal Kingdom is the largest of all the Walt Disney World parks? Every experience is different and completely tailored to each individual party.
If you aren’t able to book a VIP tour you can still make the most of every park with a bit of planning. Instead of feeling like it’s a chore, include the plan in your pre-holiday build up and encourage all of your family/travel party to get involved. Walt Disney World has six parks now, which seems like a lot, but if you plan out your days and book your FastPasses in advance you can make sure you tick off all of your must dos. Start by downloading the My Disney Experience app on your smartphone. This allows you to link your park tickets, Disney hotel reservation, dining and FastPasses so everything is in one place. Wifi is free in the whole resort, so you can make adjustments and book things on the go with the app as well as check waiting times and temporary ride closures too.
be organised to save time and money
I love taking my guests to Disney’s Animal Kingdom park. It is my personal favourite park and no one who has visited it with me has ever been disappointed seeing it first hand. Of course, Pandora – The World of Avatar is at Animal Kingdom. Don’t miss the “Flight of Passage” attraction, which is incredibly popular so make sure you book a FastPass+. If you buy your tickets in advance, you can book FastPasses up to two months in advance with Fastpass+. The UK also has some exclusive ticket deals throughout the year, such as 14 nights for 7, so look out for these and save money.
Walt Disney World tickets in the UK also include Memory Maker, Disney’s digital photo offering which is an amazing deal because it costs $199 if you buy it in Orlando. Photographers are positioned at loads of iconic locations so when you meet a character or have a photo taken on a ride they will automatically be uploaded into one place to create a digital album of your trip.’
‘BUYING TICKETS IN ADVANCE MAKES PLANNING EASIER’
Kevin Gibson is the Publicity and Promotions Manager at Universal Resorts and Parks
‘Despite visiting Florida five or six times a year for work, I took my extended family out to Orlando last year and it was a completely different experience. Getting to visit a lot means you can end up taking this amazing destination for granted but arriving with a group of people who had never been before helped me see it in a whole new light.
I realised too that planning an itinerary for the parks and buying tickets can be really confusing and I am always asked the same question – Is it better to book tickets in advance? The answer is yes. There are really good ticket packages available in the UK, which actually give you great deals. Plus, when you are planning a trip for a large group of people, it helps to know in advance what people really want to do and then have time to research and buy the best tickets to suit your trip.
One of my favourite tips for arriving at Orlando International Airport is to keep your luggage with you once you have collected it from the carousel. The signs can confuse people but you don’t need to drop your bags off again to have them delivered to your terminal. The service is available if you don’t want to carry them, but you can also keep your suitcase with you and take it on the shuttle. Sometimes the bags can take over half an hour to appear again on the other side. Believe me, from many past experiences, keeping your suitcase with you will save you a lot of time and get you out of the airport much quicker.
Get a Universal Express pass for free
The other common thing I am asked is whether it is better to stay on site at a theme park– such as Universal Orlando Resort. I definitely recommend staying at a resort hotel as your transfers to the park are included so you don’t have to worry about driving and parking up. Plus, the exclusive benefit of early park admission means you can get into the park an hour before non-resort guests and head straight to your favourite attraction. It’s a definite plus. You’d be surprised how many rides you can do in an hour!
The preferred and premier hotels at Universal also include a Universal Express pass for free – which is a massive bonus! Staying at a resort hotel means you can also charge anything from the parks back to your room so you don’t have to worry about carrying your cash and cards around. This is extra handy when you get absolutely soaked on Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge Rat Barges – my favourite ride!’
We explain FastPass+ and Disney’s Memory Maker in our post about Frequently Asked Orlando Questions.
Click here for our COMPLETE GUIDE TO ORLANDO
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