You have three days, some comfy shoes and the stamina to delve into Orlando’s theme parks. It’s a lovely plan—until you realize you’ll have to choose from a slew of magical kingdoms, each of which can easily entertain your troupe for more than a full action-packed day. Here’s how to take in as much as possible during one long weekend.
TIME IT WISELY
You’ll have a blast even if you visit Orlando during Spring Break. But at this time of year in general, you might only make it onto six attractions—even if you dash around from the moment you finish your character breakfast until the after-dark fireworks shoot into the sky. You’ll need to rise early so you can enter the parks as the gates open. Aim for 9 a.m. at the latest—crowds build as the day goes on. You can keep a virtual eye on wait times by downloading a smartphone app like Universal Orlando Wait Times. (Note: As a special perk for those staying at selected Walt Disney World>® Resort Hotels, every day one of the Theme Parks offers the Extra Magic Hours> benefit—extended hours just for guests.)
MAP OUT A PLAN
Josh is dying to see Universal’s Hogwarts Castle and try its Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, Madison wants to zip through kiddie literature on The Cat in the Hat, and you’re eager to watch the talented tricksters at the Eighth Voyage of Sinbad Stunt Show. Choose one “must” apiece—no more. Not only are the theme parks large (which means long walks between attractions) and apt to have lines; they’re also filled with unexpected wonders. As you stroll around, you’ll see musicians, storytellers and characters signing autographs and posing for photos. Why rush through? If you each get your No. 1 pick, you’ll all leave satisfied. But promise the kids more and then don’t deliver, and they might leave disappointed.
Even if your itinerary includes all thrill rides, live shows or character encounters, consult a map and the park’s daily schedule (available near the entrance) before you embark on the day’s journey. Don’t hustle from one end of a park to the other and back again when you can take on your top picks in geographic order.
BYPASS THE LINES
Some rides at the Walt Disney World® Resort, like Soarin’™ at Epcot®, are so popular that the only way to avoid a long wait is by using the free Fastpass® Service. You simply insert your tickets in a machine outside the desired attraction and get them back with a time window indicating when to return to enter without waiting in line. Only the most popular rides have this option. Universal’s version is the Express Plus Pass, which lets you walk straight onto most attractions once during the course of a day. SeaWorld has a similar offering called QuickQueue.
EAT AT ODD TIMES
We all tend to crave food between noon and 2 p.m. And that means your stop for cheeseburgers and veggie wraps can take a grueling 45 minutes—and more shuffling feet in long lines. Instead, fuel up at breakfast, snack on popcorn at 10:30 a.m. and then share an oversized turkey leg while you wait for an afternoon parade to start. That’ll buy you more time to do the activities less mundane than eating.
Another option is to make some lunch sandwiches at your resort and eat them on a bench when hunger strikes. For dinner, choose a restaurant that accepts reservations and lock in your seats. Avoid the chain restaurants just outside the parks that don’t take reservations—they usually have crowds waiting for tables from 6 p.m. on.
WAIT OUT THE PARADE
Orlando’s theme-park parades are always joyful and uplifting, and hordes of visitors gather to watch the floats pass by. But as soon as the parades end, usually in mid afternoon, throngs of people head for the exits, so stick around.
Universal’s parking lot often has a long morning wait to enter, so its shuttles and water taxis might be the way to go if you’re staying at one of three on-site Loews. But the parks and resorts that are part of the Walt Disney World® Resort are spread out, and its shuttles run on a time-consuming hub-and-spoke system. The best way to save time is by staying in a resort near the theme park you plan to focus on. (For example, the Magic Kingdom® Park and Epcot® are easily reached via monorail from three hotels, and the Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld is essentially just across the street.) Or you can rent a car and drive yourself around.
DO THE BUSYWORK AT HOME
Why spend even an extra minute waiting to buy tickets when you can be strolling through gardens, zooming around on roller coasters and hugging comic-book heroes? All it takes is a computer and/or a phone at home to rent your car, reserve your room, book your dinner tables and buy your theme park tickets. You can even pre-arrange to have your daughters transformed into little princesses at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique>, and to take backstage tours, dive with sharks, splurge on a character breakfast and more—before you hit the city.
BUT BUY THE RIGHT TICKETS
Single-day, multi-day, single-park, multi-park—there’s a multitude of options when you’re buying theme park tickets. One thing you need to keep in mind: Admissions are discounted when you pay for more than one day at a time. Just be sure you’re getting what you want. For example, if your plan is to participate in the American Idol Experience at Disney’s Hollywood Studios™ by day and later dine at the tony Bistro de Paris at Epcot®, check that your ticket will allow you to “park hop.” And be aware that when you buy tickets for SeaWorld, you can add on discounted days at its nearby Aquatica waterpark—and even at Busch Gardens in Tampa, 90 minutes away.
Need a stroller or wheelchair? Bring your own, since rental lines can be lengthy in the morning. Plus, the rental strollers at any given park are all identical, so you might waste 15 minutes searching through a field of clones after exiting each adventure. By contrast, your own Maclaren or Graco will stand out. If you do choose to rent, tie a brightly colored ribbon onto the handlebar to make your carriage easy to spot.
Follow these tips and you’ll be able to pack a load of experiences into a trio of 12-hour days. And if that sounds exhausting, feel free to just meander over to a megapark whenever you feel like it, or simply to spend the afternoon by the resort pool and have a leisurely dinner while enjoying the warm spring weather. There’s no wrong way to enjoy Orlando’s theme parks.
Universal Studios Orlando: 6000 Universal Blvd; 407.363.8000; universalorlando.com
Walt Disney World® Resort: Lake Buena Vista; 407.939.5277; disneyworld.disney.go.com
SeaWorld: 7007 Sea World Dr; 888.800.5447; seaworldparks.com/en/seaworld-orlando