Orlando is fondly known as the theme park capital of the world. In 2014, Disney World Resorts, Universal Studios, and Sea World combined had almost 73 million visitors. That number continues to rise with additions like Harry Potter land in Universal and Islands of Adventure, Frozen in Epcot, and Star Wars land in Hollywood Studios.
I went to Orlando almost every year as a child. Recently, I took a weekend trip as an adult to hit up a few theme parks. I only wish I had more time there this time.
Walt Disney World
Disney World Resorts in Orlando consists of 4 theme parks, more than 25 hotels, and over 27,000 acres of land. You can get from the resorts to the parks, go from park to park, or just travel around the property by Disney’s free monorail. There’s also a ferry you can take to Magic Kingdom – it’s so magical!A dream is a wish your heart makes. Click To Tweet
Magic Kingdom features classical theme park attractions like It’s A Small World, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Space Mountain. It’s here you can find Cinderella’s castle, firework shows, musical parades, performances, and most Disney characters. It’s the perfect park for kids, adults, couples, groups, and families. There’s something for everyone!
Roar! Animal Kingdom is like the world’s biggest and most interactive zoo. See exotic animals like Asian tigers, African lions, and Western lowland gorillas. Go on a Kilimanjaro safari or ride the Kali river rapids. Night time comes alive with Discovery Island’s Carnivale and the Tree of Life awakens with bright colors and light. Enjoy shows, rides, and experiences inspired by adventures of the world.Lights, camera, action! Click To Tweet
Hollywood Studios, formerly Disney MGM Studios, focuses on the world of movies, television, music, and theater. Adults and kids alike can enjoy Hollywood-inspired attractions like the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror or Rock ‘n Roller Coaster. Star Wars fans like myself can explore the Star Wars universe in a galaxy far, far away with a variety of Star Wars experiences. See live shows with music and fireworks to finish your day!
Visit 11 countries in 1 day at Epcot! Taste the local flavors of each country as you wander from continent to continent. Have lunch in Morocco, afternoon tea in England, dinner in Japan, and cap the night off with a pint in Ireland. Sail through the Mexican pyramids after a taco and margarita, then visit Frozen’s Elsa and Anna in Norway. When you’re finished traveling the world, take a trip to outer space in Spaceship Earth, a ride that goes through the iconic Epcot ball and shows you the history of humans from pre-cavemen to present day.
Tickets for each Disney park start at $97 for one day, but the cost goes down greatly if you buy tickets for multiple days. Each ticket comes with a FastPass, which means you can schedule a time for 3 rides per day to skip the line. If you have a park hopper, you can schedule any 3 rides in any of the 4 parks. If you have a ticket only for one park, you can schedule any 3 rides in that park. By scheduling a ride, you block out an hour where you can skip the line for that ride. For example, I scheduled my FastPass for Spaceship Earth between 11:30 and 12:30, and I got to go in a special line with no wait. The Disney FastPass is free with your ticket purchase.
I have family that lives in Orlando so I never needed to think about hotels, but I can see the value in staying on Disney property.
First, parking is $20 per day at the theme parks. If you stay in a Disney resort, resort parking is free and transportation to all Disney parks (including water parks) is complimentary. Disney resorts also offer free airport service for flights between 5:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. However, if you’re going to the parks, airports, or hotels during peak times, there might be a wait. If you want to go to non-Disney parks, you’ll also need to find alternate transportation.
Second, if you stay at a Disney resort, you can book FastPass reservations and dining reservations before anyone else, so you get first dibs on popular rides. By the time I booked my FastPass for Epcot, Frozen was sold out every day with a 2-hour wait for no FastPass. Just a thought.
Third, get a free MagicBand! I bought one because, as James said, “all the cool people have them.” They’re only $15 to buy, but if you stay in a Disney resort, you get one for free. The MagicBands are great because you don’t have to carry a ticket or card with you, you can just scan your wrist at the entrance to every park and attraction and you won’t lose it. They also serve as your room key and you can use them for purchases in the hotel and parks. A resort employee will bring any souvenirs you buy straight to your room for you so you don’t have to lug them around the park! They’re also good for years, so if you plan to return soon you can just reactivate it and use it over and over again. Super convenient, and it looks cool.
Fourth, you get extra hours in the parks. At least one park each day hosts the “extra magic hours,” either an hour before the park opens or two hours after it closes only for resort guests.
Finally, you can’t beat the location of an on-site resort. Some of the hotels are walking distance to the parks, others are just a quick ferry or monorail ride away. Many of the resorts are themed, like the Polynesian Villas and Bungalows over the water across from Magic Kingdom or the Port Orleans Resort – French Quarter hotel across the street from Epcot.
When it comes to choosing a place to stay, make sure to factor in the benefits of staying in a Disney resort. Although they are more expensive than off-Disney properties, they give you free parking and transportation, extended park hours, and white glove service. If you’re traveling with kids, imagine how much easier it is when you can come and go as you please without having to think or worry about a thing!
Magic Kingdom is the most visited and most iconic Disney park in my eyes. It’s the perfect place for any age. You can visit six themed lands in Magic Kingdom: Main Street U.S.A., Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Frontierland, Adventureland, and Liberty Square, or take a train ride around the park. Fantasy becomes reality in Magic Kingdom, and it really is the most magical place on Earth!
One of my favorite rides in Magic Kingdom is Pirates of the Caribbean, which is good enough to make four movies out of it! It’s a slow-moving swashbucklin’ voyage to a time long ago, when pirates ruled the seas.
I also like It’s A Small World because it’s a ride to unite the cultures and countries, even though that song will get stuck in your head for days and you might even find yourself singing it in other languages.
The Haunted Mansion is another of my favorites. It takes you on a slow-ride tour of a spooky house, perfect for an October/Halloween trip to Magic Kingdom.
Finally, no visit to Magic Kingdom is complete without a trip to Tom Sawyer’s Island. Take a boat to Mark Twain’s rustic, secret hideaway and explore an early frontier fort, wander through a haunted rocky mine, and cross rope bridges in this magical island.
My favorite part of Epcot is the countries. I’d be totally fine with no rides in Epcot, but it wouldn’t be Disney World without the rides. That said, book your FastPass in advance because with such few rides, they book up quickly!
My favorite ride was Spaceship Earth, a slow-moving ride that takes you up into the iconic Epcot globe for a look at the history of world civilization from the prehistoric cavemen era to the present day technology age. See how far we’ve come over the span of hundreds of thousands of years in only 15 minutes! Spaceship Earth makes education and history fun for everyone.
Test Track is another great ride in Epcot. Choose a concept vehicle and test its limits on Epcot’s test track. It’s like a mini roller coaster that takes you along a track with quick stops, sharp turns, jerky movements, and speeds up to 80 mph. Note: I hate roller coasters – they terrify me. This looks like a roller coaster but it’s not. It only gets up to 80 mph at the very end on a straight run, then slows back down – just to test the speed of your designed concept vehicle. If I can handle Test Track, anyone can handle it!
Soarin’ is a new ride that takes you soaring over the world. See the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel Tower, waterfalls, rivers, and other landmarks from a hang glider! Your feet do dangle so be sure to wear shoes that won’t fall off, but you won’t really be soaring. It’s a virtual ride with a big screen that simulates hang gliding across the world. It lasts about 10 minutes and is pretty cool, but not worth an hour wait. If you have a FastPass option, definitely add it! If it books up, skip it.
Finally, one of the best Epcot rides is Living With the Land. It’s a slow boat ride through a greenhouse that shows you the future of living off the land. Gardeners and farmers will love the innovative ideas, but anyone can appreciate the techniques Disney is now using to make the most out of our land. The best part is that the parks use the food grown here in their parks! This ride really gives you a behind-the-scenes look at how Disney operates and how “green” the parks really are.
Hollywood Studios (Formerly MGM Studios)
Hollywood Studios focuses on movies, music, television, and theater. It’s not my favorite park – I actually haven’t been there since 2010 so my favorite rides are a little outdated.
One cool thing we did was go see an interactive show. They asked for volunteers so our group volunteered and we were part of the show! I think this interactive show has now been changed into something else though.
Toy Story Midway Mania is a 4D shooting ride – you sit in a car and try to hit moving targets with a laser gun. It’s great for all ages who like a fun competition!
The Studio Backlot Tour was a fun behind-the-scenes ride through popular movie sets and ended in a Honey, I Shrunk the Kids movie set experience for kids. It closed in 2014 to make room for the new Star Wars Land. I wish I knew about Star Wars Land before my Disney adventure – I would have spent all my time meeting the characters, training to be a Jedi, touring the sets, and watching Star Wars shows!
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is a popular ride but not my thing. Remember, I hate roller coasters. The Tower of Terror is in the “roller coaster” category for me! It’s a haunted hotel 13 stories high (nearly 200 feet tall) that takes you through haunted rooms with different drops throughout until the end, when the cable “snaps” and your elevator car drops from top to bottom in a free fall. I wish I had known that before I waited in line for an hour thinking it was the Haunted Mansion in Magic Kingdom!
Finally, the Rock’n Roller Coaster. James thought it would be a fun idea to tell me it wasn’t a roller coaster, it was just Aerosmith’s ride. Since it’s an indoors roller coaster, I couldn’t tell any differently. We waited almost an hour for this too. When I sat down in the ride and they pulled the safety bars down over our heads, I looked at him like, “Why do we need these?” Then it took off, from 0 to 80 mph in about one second. It’s all inside, super fast, and apparently all dark, which I wouldn’t know because my eyes were closed the whole time to keep from throwing up or passing out. It plays loud Aerosmith music in your ears the whole time. Roller coaster fans might enjoy this ride, but I sure didn’t!
I haven’t been to Animal Kingdom in probably 20 years, so I’m going to skip this part until I have more up-to-date information. From what I remember, it’s the perfect place for exotic animal lovers! And how can I forget the Tree of Life. I will try to get back to Animal Kingdom on my next trip to Orlando!
Universal Studios is Disney’s biggest rival in Orlando. There are two parks: Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. You can buy tickets for either park or both parks.
Universal Studios is my favorite park. It includes rides like Men In Black, the Simpsons, Shrek 4D, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem 4D, Transformers, ET, and Diagon Alley from Harry Potter. Islands of Adventure has rides like Spider Man, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Jurassic Park River Adventure, Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls, Dueling Dragons, and the Hulk roller coaster.
The best addition to Universal Studios was Harry Potter Land. It spans both parks, with Diagon Alley in Universal Studios and Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure. If you get the 2-park ticket, you can ride the Hogwarts Express from park to park and see both worlds of Harry Potter.
Specifically in the wizard’s street Diagon Alley, you can drink butter beer, buy a wand at Ollivander’s (some of which are interactive and can really do magic around the park), go to Gringott’s and exchange your money with the goblin, or go into other shops that you can find in the books in Diagon Alley. Take a trip into Knockturn Alley and see Bourgin & Burkes, which specializes in the Dark Arts. You can even see Number 12 Grimmauld Place, Sirius Black’s home, just outside Diagon Alley. Save your appetite for lunch at the wizarding pub/inn, the Leaky Cauldron. Note: try the butter beer. It’s amazing!
When you leave Harry Potter world, just head next door to the Men In Black ride. I can’t visit Universal without going on Men In Black more than once. Like Disney’s Toy Story ride, you sit in a spaceship and try to shoot aliens in New York City. If you’re up for a friendly competition, check out Men In Black early before the crowds!
Next to Men In Black in the new Simpsons ride, Krustyland, which used to be Back to the Future. The set up is the same – you get in a car and a screen opens in front of you simulating a chase through Springfield. There are no real drops or anything scary in this ride – it’s just a simulator and you don’t move on a track. You can also have a Duff beer at Moe’s, eat Donuts with Homer, and take pictures with Simpsons characters (both real and statue).
E.T. is a quick walk from the Simpsons and a staple at Universal Studios. The crew at Universal built a whole world for this ride, where you get into a bicycle and take E.T. from Earth to his own world. At the end of the ride, E.T. thanks you personally!
Despicable Me and Shrek 4D are both 4D movies. Don’t get discouraged by the long lines, the theaters hold a lot of people so the lines move fast!
Transformers is a simulation ride on a track that makes you feel like you’re helping Optimus Prime save the world. It’s not a roller coaster, so it’s fun for everyone! You can even get your picture taken with the transformers outside the rides.
When you finish up these rides, jump on the Hogwarts Express over to Islands of Adventure and Hogsmeade. On the train, you’ll see Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s shadows saving you from Dementors in the hallway. Watch for Hagrid to fly up to your window on a broom! And don’t miss all the spectacular scenery from England and Hogwarts.
Islands of Adventure
Hogsmeade. Need I say more? The Hogwarts Express will drop you off right in Hogsmeade, where you can go to the Owl Post (unfortunately, not real owls). Muggles can get their mail postmarked from Hogsmeade here! You can talk to Moaning Myrtle in the bathrooms, see portraits arguing with each other in the Hogwarts castle, have a Pumpkin Fizz at the Three Broomsticks, or try fire whiskey at the Hog’s Head Pub. The snow never melts in Hogsmeade, no matter what time of year it is!
In Hogsmeade, you can ride the Dragon Challenge roller coaster if you’re brave enough. This isn’t my cup of tea. Kids can ride the family-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster. My favorite ride in Hogsmeade is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey through the Hogwarts Castle. It’s a simulator on a track where your feet dangle and you fly on a broom with Harry through Hogwarts. It does tilt you on your back, from side to side, and forward so don’t bring anything with you – I almost lost my sunglasses off my head. They offer free lockers for your belongings. Also, every one of us got nauseous and almost threw up, but just make sure you don’t go on this ride after eating or drinking and don’t let this stop you from going on – it’s one of the most amazing rides ever!
Islands of Adventure is a great place for children or adrenaline junkies. Seuss Landing, Toon Lagoon, and Marvel Super Hero Island are all geared towards kids. You can’t ride the Pteranodon Flyers in Jurassic Park unless you have a kid with you.
Adrenaline junkies will love the Hulk roller coaster, which screams as it launches you through misters, twists, and turns. Just to give you an idea of the intensity: there are nets under the upside-down parts in case anything falls out of your pockets, although they’re very thorough in checking you to make sure you don’t have anything loose on you, including sunglasses and cell phones. There are free lockers to store your belongings if you’re brave enough to ride this monster.
Spiderman is a great simulator ride, probably the best ride in the park. Like Transformers, it takes you on a track following Spiderman and helping defeat his nemeses. It’s not too scary for someone like me who doesn’t like roller coasters, fast launches, or unexpected drops.
I opted out of Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls and the Jurassic Park River Adventure because you will get wet on these. Ripsaw Falls is similar to Magic Kingdom’s Splash Mountain with a vertical 75-foot drop where you’re guaranteed to get soaked. The Jurassic Park River Adventure has an 85-foot and 60-degree drop at the end where you’ll get anywhere from damp to soaked depending on where you sit.
The Skull Island: Reign of Kong ride had a super long line, so we decided to save it for last and hope the line went down. By the time we came back, it was delayed, so we skipped it. With such a long line though, it must be a good ride!
Islands of Adventure has interesting shows as well as the rides. We did Poseidon’s Fury, which is a high-tech walk through watching the gods battle. I recommend it after you’re done with the rides and need a low-key break, but it was well done and fun to watch!
The best way to beat the lines in Universal is to buy the Express Pass. There’s a separate line for Express Pass holders and they only sell a limited amount so you’re guaranteed a shorter wait time. Most of our waits with the Express Pass were less than 20 minutes (normal lines were closer to an hour wait.) Note: Express Pass tickets don’t work on every ride, and don’t work on anything Harry Potter in either park. The Express Pass price starts at $40 for Islands of Adventure, $60 for Universal Studios, or $85 for both parks. Staying at an on-site resort will get you a free Express Pass.
If you don’t want to spend the money on an Express Pass, there are also single rider lines. If you don’t mind riding next to strangers, these lines are usually short and move fast. Single riders get to ride when only 2 people get in a ride with a 3-person row. Sometimes, there will be a family of 4 in a 6-person ride, and 2 single riders can ride together. This line moves fast because there are rarely the right amount of people for a ride, so this is a great option to experience the most rides in a short time.
Universal Studios tickets start at $105 for one day, or $155 for both parks for one day. It gets cheaper if you buy multiple days. If you’re a Harry Potter fan get both parks so you can ride the free Hogwarts Express between the parks!
Other Things to Do
There’s more to do in Orlando than Disney World and Universal Studios. You can check out the controversial Sea World, which has gotten some heat over the years but have cleaned up their act in how they treat their animals. Escape the heat in a water park like Typhoon Lagoon, Busch Gardens, Wet ‘N Wild, Blizzard Beach, and Discovery Cove, where you can swim with dolphins and snorkel. Learn how science can be fun at the Orlando Science Center. Check out a high energy show from the Blue Man Group. See a performance or dance the night away at the House of Blues. Or catch a game at the Citrus Bowl Stadium. You can shop, eat, drink, and play without theme park tickets in Downtown Disney and Universal’s CityWalk.
There are also plenty of amazing local restaurants and bars outside the theme parks. Most of the restaurants and bars are tourist-free because people coming to Orlando for the theme parks tend to stay within the theme park boundaries for meals and entertainment. If you want to experience Orlando like a local, venture outside the theme parks and check out some of the local hotspots.
Have you been to Orlando? Did you visit the theme parks? What is your favorite memory from you trip? Let me know in the comments below!
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