THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO ORLANDO, FLORIDA
By Helen Wright
There is sun, blue skies and palm trees, there are people dressed as cartoon characters and it’s the number one family destination in the world… Yep, you got it, this is our complete guide to Orlando, Florida!
IN THIS GUIDE:
Which holiday package to buy from the UK.
How to find the best theme park tickets.
Car rental Information.
Hotel, villa, restaurant and bar reviews.
Helpful Orlando Vlogs.
Frequently Asked Questions.
HOW CAN I HELP?
I was at a travel convention recently where someone introduced me as ‘the theme park girl’. With 15 years of publishing experience under my belt, I was all ready to object and explain that I was, in fact, a serious journalist, but then I thought, ‘HELL YEAH. That’s a great job – I’m owning it!’. To further add to my credentials, I was once the ‘theme park representative’ for The Disney Store, giving advice to guests wanting to plan their dream trip. Through this I spoke to hundreds of families so I know how special this holiday is, how confusing it can be to organise and that, for many, it really is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. My first ever overseas holiday was to Orlando when I was eight years old, so I feel like I’ve grown up along with it.
I’m lucky enough to be heading to Orlando for the 20th time this year and I can tell you it never gets boring. Of all the destinations we have featured, a comprehensive guide to Orlando is by far the most common request. Trying to find out the best information on how to plan a holiday to Orlando can take you deeper into a rabbit hole than Alice in Wonderland. Despite the fact that most people save up for years to afford to go, people still say they felt discombobulated, confused about the options and disorganised.
Based on questions and requests from our followers on social media, my own experience and a few little tricks and tips I have picked up along the way, here is my ULTIMATE GUIDE TO ORLANDO, FLORIDA.
First time flying with your little ones? You may find my flying with babies and toddlers post helpful. Plus, we also have the top six essential travel items you need when travelling with a baby to toddler.
GETTING THERE FROM THE UK
PACKAGE DEAL OR DIY?
This is the first hurdle where you consider giving up on the idea completely and just going to Blackpool again. Package deals can save you money by including certain perks and discounts. But even if they don’t, some people prefer to save the time it takes to search for each component individually and have everything looked after in one place. Personally, I am very much in the DIY camp but that’s because I am one of those weirdos who enjoy organising all the ‘bits’ and find it fun – hence the birth of this website! There is also the security of booking with a respected agent which, when you’re splashing out on the trip of a lifetime is a big comfort.
(Any prices or packages mentioned on this post are intended as a GUIDE ONLY to give you an idea of what’s on offer).
Firstly, which type of package is best for you?
Flight + hotel package
VIRGIN HOLIDAYS are currently offering seven nights in Orlando from £675 per person.
What is included:
Virgin Atlantic economy flights from London Gatwick to Orlando International. Room only accommodation at 3* Coco Key Hotel & Water Resort, with basic car hire included. Price is per person, based on two adults sharing a Standard Room and including all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges.
This can be booked at www.virginholidays.co.uk, by phone 0344 557 3870 or by visiting one of the Virgin Holidays counters in Debenhams, House of Fraser, Tesco, Sainsbury’s or V-Room stores nationwide. You can no longer book Virgin Holidays packages through external travel agents.
BRITISH AIRWAYS HOLIDAYS are currently offering seven nights in Orlando from £549 per person.
What is included:
British Airways World Traveller (economy) return flights from London Gatwick. Seven nights accommodation at the 3* Maingate Lakeside Resort. You can book at ba.com/orlando or call 0344 493 0124.
We also approached Thomas Cook for information but they did not take the time to respond to our enquiries, so we’ll just leave that there…
There is also a different type of package on offer for Orlando too. If you are planning on staying at the Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando Resorts (more on that later) you might find a cheaper option by booking flights independently and then taking advantage of a HOTEL+PARKS PACKAGE.
HOTEL + PARKS PACKAGE
ATTRACTION TICKETS DIRECT, the UK-based theme park specialist, offer Universal and Disney hotel, ticket and dining packages that are cheaper than booking a flight inclusive package. They are currently offering seven nights at a Disney hotel plus Disney Ultimate park tickets from £582 per person.
What is included:
Seven nights at Disney’s All-Star Music Resort based on two sharing. Disney Ultimate ticket with free Memory Maker (14 days) and also Disney’s Magical Express airport transfers (a package usually costing $169). In addition to this they are currently throwing in a trip with Florida Airboat Rides as an extra incentive and these extras change monthly.
WATCH MY VIDEO ON THE SIX REASONS TO STAY AT A DISNEY RESORT HOTEL
CLICK HERE FOR HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT UNIVERSAL ORLANDO HOTEL FOR YOUR FAMILY
With a hotel + parks package, you will need to book your flight separately. Low-cost airline Norwegian now fly to Orlando from £205 one-way for an economy low fare or £355 low fare return, making this option very attractive if your budget is tight. Information can be found at www.norwegian.com/uk. On British Airways, the return economy fare from London to Orlando starts from £413. More info at ba.com
Since some of the airline deals include CAR HIRE, as a guide, Hertz.co.uk offer seven days, mid-size car rental from £161.
HOTEL OR VILLA
But wait – the options don’t end there! The holiday villa game in Orlando is strong and there are both perks and drawbacks to renting your own crash pad. For families in particular, the perks are high, especially if you are visiting with a large group (say, grandparents or multiple families). A standard Orlando villa will have a minimum of three bedrooms, sleeping 6+ people. The cost of one house with three bedrooms is usually significantly less than two or three separate hotel rooms. Plus, usually, your Orlando villa will come with a private swimming pool (villas without pools are available and cheaper, but I wouldn’t recommend them).
Having your own kitchen means that you can save a lot of money by not eating out every night and if budget is a big deal this is something to consider. Plus, parents with children in tow can spend time in the living area or enjoy a drink by the pool once the kids are in bed, making it more of a holiday for them after hours. Staying in a hotel room does mean that at least one of you will be confined to the room once the little ones are Disney’d out. Supermarkets are EVERYWHERE in Orlando, you will pass at least 20 on your way from the airport so don’t worry about not being able to pick up supplies. Another big plus for the holiday home option is that you will not have to pay for parking, in some cases making a significant saving.
The downside to staying in a villa is that your accommodation will be a bit further out than the popular hotel areas (International Drive, 192 Highway, Celebration and the theme parks themselves). This does virtually rule them out as an option if you are not renting a car for your visit. I have covered whether you need a car in Orlando here. However, a key piece of advice about Orlando is not to be too concerned with distances. First time visitors, especially those from the UK, are always shocked at how ridiculously huge it is. Because of this, usual search terms on sites like booking.com such as ‘distance from city centre’ don’t really work and often people are put off from a good hotel deal because it looks like it is going to be miles away. I usually tell people it’s best to assume everything is miles away from everything else (which sometimes it is) and then it will mostly be uphill from there. As a guide, you probably don’t want to go for anything more than 25 miles from either Disney Springs or Universal City Walk. Just to help put that distance into perspective, the villa we often stay in is 23 miles from Universal and it takes 45 minutes to drive there, and 18 miles from Disney, taking around 25 minutes. If you would like information on this villa click here to send me a DM on Twitter.
HOTEL + FLIGHT + PARK TICKETS
It’s worth noting that British Airways also offer a Disney Flight + Hotel + Park package from £999 per person.
What is included:
Seven nights at the 3* Disney’s All Star Music Resort Package. Includes World Traveller (economy) return flights from London Gatwick, accommodation and Disney Park passes for the duration of the stay. Visit ba.com/orlando or call 0344 493 0124.
Based on top line calculations for the cheapest flights and deals available, the breakdown is roughly this:
STAYING AT THE DISNEY OR UNIVERSAL RESORTS
First thing to point out – staying at a Disney or Universal Hotel does not mean that your hotel is inside the park entrance gate. You will still need a separate ticket to the park and most hotel packages do not include entry tickets. Your hotel will be very close to the action but you wont be able to just pop to Diagon Alley for a chocolate frog whenever you feel like it. There is some confusion about this so I’m glad we cleared that up.
Resort hotels at the major theme parks do come at a slight premium for Orlando but they also offer some great perks. These include Early Park Admission (at Universal) and Extra Magic Hours (at Disney) – basically, exclusive time in the park reserved for resort guests only. This is great if you are desperate to go on the most popular ride before the gates open and the queues start to grow. Both extra hour programmes apply only to specific parks at specific times. By this, I mean if you are staying at a Disney hotel, for example, only one Disney park or Disney waterpark may be open each day for the extra hours. The same applies to Universal, with either Universal Studios, Universal Islands of Adventure or Volcano Bay Water Park opening earlier on each day. A schedule of which park is opening each day will be given to you when you check in to your hotel.
For our review of Universal’s Sapphire Falls Resort, click here
The other big bonus for choosing accommodation at a resort hotel is that you can make use of the free resort transportation to get to and from the parks. Depending on where you are staying, this could either be a bus, tram, train or even a boat! The hotels at Universal Orlando are also an easy walk to the park entrance and for a bit of fun you can even hitch a ride on a rickshaw (*a $5 tip per person is recommended).
A handy resort v non-resort package comparison: virginholidays.co.uk offer seven nights in Orlando from £935 per person. This includes Virgin Atlantic economy flights from Glasgow to Orlando, room only accommodation at Disney’s All Star Resorts with car hire included.
This is £260 more than the same package, staying at a non-Disney resort hotel (mentioned in the ‘package or DIY’ section). No park tickets are included.
Watch my video on how to choose a Disney Resort Hotel here
A NOTE ABOUT PARKING
Even if you don’t take advantage of the free transportation, parking is free at Disney Theme Parks for all resort guests. This means you can save a lot of money on parking fees depending on how many times you plan to go. As an average, if you are aiming for three days at Universal Orlando and five days at Walt Disney World, general parking charges will be $170 ($20 per day at Universal, $22 at Disney if you are not staying at a resort hotel). Parking is free at Disney Springs and the Disney Water parks, and after 6pm at Universal.
Of course, be warned that parking at your hotel may not be included in your room fee so definitely check before booking. As a guide, self-parking at Universal’s Sapphire Falls is $22 per night. At Disney’s Port Orleans Hotel it’s $19 per night.
Use of FastPass+
If you are staying at a Disney Resort Hotel, a big bonus is the opportunity to make your FastPass+ reservations 60 days in advance. This gives you a big advantage as you can reserve prime times to ride the busiest attractions before anyone else. I didn’t know this when I stayed at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge (and no one at the hotel told us we could do this) and as a result we weren’t able to ride the new Avatar Flight of Passage attraction or the Na’vi river journey at all because the lines were over three hours long all day…
We explain FastPass+ and clear up a host of other confusions on our post about Orlando’s FAQs.
NON-DISNEY HOTELS AND WHAT DOES ‘RESORT’ MEAN
When searching for hotels within the Disney resort, options such as Bonnet Creek and Lake Buena Vista will come up as being within the Disney property. This is technically true, Disney own 43 square miles of land and not all of it is covered with colourful attractions. There are often great deals to be had at these hotels, some only ten or 15 minutes from the Walt Disney World entrance. We recently reviewed this holiday village, a few miles from Walt Disney World. But only ‘Disney Resort Hotels’ include the benefits above, so parking charges may apply both at the non-Disney hotels as well as at the parks, making the ‘bargain’ deal suddenly less attractive. Also, do read the small print as the definition of ‘children’ can vary between hotels, some viewing 12-years and above as adult, and others allowing a child price up to age 19. Find out more about Walt Disney World Resort Hotels here.
DISNEY ROOMS ARE CHEAPER THAN YOU THINK
Attraction Tickets Direct offer rooms starting at £57 per night – this is an affiliate link to book with ATD, which means I will receive a small financial benefit if you book via this link. I hope you have found my information useful so far and so will come back to my site and use this link if you decide to book tickets. My website passportstamps.uk is a (very) small business and supporting me in this way helps us continue to produce accurate and helpful content.
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The complete guide to Orlando continues below
If you decide to stay in a non-Disney or Universal hotel, check the location and access details. Often hotels advertise a free shuttle to the theme parks but these can often serve three or four hotels making your actual journey time twice or even three times as long as it would be if you self-drive. Or, they may only serve one stop, such as Magic Kingdom. You will then need to use the (free) Disney transportation to reach a different park (such as Animal Kingdom). This can add another ten or fifteen minutes to your journey.
DO YOU NEED A CAR IN ORLANDO
In my opinion, having a car in Orlando will significantly improve your visit. If you can’t or really don’t want to drive, there are options available (some of which I have detailed above). But exploring Orlando and making the most of your time there will be significantly more difficult. Park shuttles and resort transport are great for moving around the resort, but if you are staying at a Disney property and you want to go to Universal – that will be a 25 minute drive (or cab ride), even longer on public transport or shuttles. Same applies for trips to other non-resort attractions such as the Florida Mall, Premium Outlets or I-drive. Of course, anything is possible in Orlando but like in most of America, life is more convenient if you have a car.
If you aren’t sure about driving in the USA, read about my experience and get some useful advice.
Everything you need to know about Orlando
Like a giant Lard Lad doughnut at Universal Studios, this is all quite a lot to digest so I have divided the rest of my guide to Orlando into handy bite-sized portions: