The ultimate in family holiday destinations, Orlando is really just one big theme park for kids of all ages, with something to offer everyone from adrenaline junkies to animal lovers to shopaholics
When to go
Orlando’s location makes it the ideal year-round destination, with average temperatures ranging from 22° during the winter months to 34° in the summer, but with intermittent cooling afternoon showers.
The theme parks can be a bit more crowded during summer months and holiday times than at other times of the year. However, with careful planning and these helpful hints, you can avoid most of the queues and get the most out of your visit.
- Arrive early. Theme parks open at 9am sharp - try to be there before this time. You can see most of the park before the temperatures rise and the crowds start to arrive, and can also avoid the brief summer afternoon thunderstorms.
- Start your visit from the furthest point away from the entrance and work your way back.
- Research in advance which rides members of your group are interested in, and work out a plan.
- In Universal Studios, make use of the ‘Single Rider’ queues.
- In the Disney theme parks, take advantage of the ‘fast-pass’ facility for the most popular rides. You slot your theme-park ticket into the ‘Fast-Pass’ kiosk, and receive a ticket giving you an allotted time to return to the ride. This allows you to go off and explore other parts of the park in the meantime.
- In Busch Gardens, I would recommend purchasing the Express ticket, which allows one ticket per ride. The cost of this varies, but can be anywhere between $30 and $50 for one day; a family ticket costs around $120.
- Try to eat a good breakfast, and avoid lunches at the theme parks – these can be expensive, and typically not much more than fast food.
- When scheduled parades & shows are taking place, this can be a quieter time to visit the most popular attractions.
- Buy tickets online before you go - the 6-Multi-Flex Ticket, available from Disney and Universal Studios, gives access to six theme parks, and is not available to buy in Florida.
- Try to do all of the wet rides together first – you can either dry off in the Florida sun, or take another set of clothes to change in to. All of the theme parks have lockers.
As there is so much to do and see in Orlando, I have highlighted my favourite experiences:
Disney Magic Kingdom
Simply magical from the moment you enter the theme park, and the best for kids. This has everything from Disney Parades and gentle rides that the whole family can enjoy to slightly more exciting rides that will excite and thrill but not terrify!
Splash Mountain – best water ride in Orlando, Disney-style.
Space Mountain – fast indoor rollercoaster in the dark.
Thunder Mountain – fast, bumpy, fun roller-coaster for all ages.
Pirates of the Caribbean – reopened in 2007 following renovation; Captain Jack never looked so good. Great gentle experience.
Haunted Mansion – completely updated; a ghost-train Disney-style, with impressive special effects, and a few scares!
Great fun, with lots of great rides, shows and attractions. Kids and teenagers will absolutely love this. The scenery and layout, which is just like a studio, are fantastic.
Revenge of the Mummy – simply my favourite; a very fast, thrilling, theatrical indoor ride, helped along with special effects, dramatic drops, twists and turns and, of course, ‘mummies’!
Men in Black – indoor interactive attraction; great fun and you get to kill aliens.
Jaws – water ride in a boat, during which you will get a thrill and get wet.
Terminator 2 3:D – a special-effects show based on the movies.
Universal Islands of Adventure
Wow! What an amazing park, with more rides and thrills than Universal Studios. A fun day out for all of the family.
Ripshaw Falls – another favourite water ride, with lots of hidden drops, and a sudden 80ft drop at the end. You will get wet!
Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges – a fun-filled white-water rapids adventure.
The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman – where 3D combines with other special effects to create one unforgettable and completely unique experience.
Duelling Dragons – two roller-coasters, the red and the blue ride, that run at the same time, and come within feet of each other at several intervals throughout the ride, adding to the fear factor!
The Hulk – coaster that twists and turns at breakneck speed.
Get up close to many amazing sea creatures – manatees, graceful dolphins, playful penguins, fascinating sharks and so much more. With two rides, and many shows to entertain, SeaWorld may operate at a slower pace than the other parks, but this can be welcome after busy days in the other, more crowded, theme parks.
Kraken – longest roller coaster with the most inversions & loops; for serious adrenaline junkies.
Journey to Atlantis – a water ride with a big drop, and a hidden twist at the end of the ride.
Dolphin Enclosure – truly a unique experience; you can purchase food for about $10 to feed the dolphins at close range.
Seamore & Clyde Show (otter & sea lion show) – entertaining, hilarious, and fun.
Arctic Adventure – where you get to visit polar bears after a simulated journey in a helicopter.
Busch Gardens is located in Tampa, about an hour from Orlando. If you buy a multi-flex ticket, you can also purchase a ticket to include Busch Gardens (your bus transport to the theme park is included in this ticket). Busch Gardens offers a little bit of everything for everyone in the family. If you're into roller coasters and thrill rides, you're in luck, because there are many large coasters, including a wooden roller coaster and the new Sheikra. There are three water rides, shows and animals in the reserve in the centre of the park.
Tidal Wave – a water ride ending with a drop that soaks both the riders and spectators in the splash zone.
Water Flume Ride – original water flume with two drops; good fun.
Congo River Rapids – probably the best rapid ride in Florida, fast and furious, and getting wet is guaranteed!
Sheikra – since this ride made a comeback as a floorless ride in 2007, this must be one of the most thrilling coasters in existence, with sharp vertical drops, twists, turns and loops at breakneck speeds.
For an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime experience where you get to swim with dolphins and spend a day in a marine park, with up-close access to stingrays and other sea life. Expensive but worth it. Includes all food and drinks, and they also limit numbers to just under 1,000 visitors per day.
You should try to visit one of the many water parks - my favourites are Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Aquatica by Seaworld. Not to be missed are the infamous ducks at the Peabody Orlando on International Drive. The ducks are permanent regal residents of the hotel, with their own suite and 24-hour security; at 11am each day you can witness the ceremonial red-carpet march of the ducks from the lift to the fountain in the main lobby area! Yes, really!
A visit to the Kennedy Space Centre is a worthwhile day out, and it’s educational too. It’s a sprawling attraction that requires specials buses to take you between attractions, so its best to allow full day for the experience. Highlight was definitely the Shutttle Launch Experience, a simulated ride where you get to experience the thrill of what the real thing Is like. Admission costs $38 for adults.
Where to stay
Renaissance Orlando Hotel at SeaWorld
We have stayed here on three occasions, and keep coming back. It's ideal if you choose not to drive, as the hotel offers packages with transport included to all of the major theme parks and attractions. The I-ride trolley also stops just outside the hotel, which will take you north or south of International Drive. You are also just across the car park from SeaWorld. The hotel has fabulous spacious rooms; you can get interconnecting rooms for families, and there are also suites available. You can choose either a view of SeaWorld, or a pool view room, where you can also see the nightly fireworks in the distance at Disney. There is a beautiful pool area, a nice bar serving good bar food all evening, a sushi bar, restaurant and even a Starbucks.
The Peabody Orlando
Quite an elegant hotel, with an old-world class about it. Rooms are spacious and decorated in calming and classic colours. Centrally located with a great roof-top pool. Also home to the infamous Peabody ducks, mentioned above, and the fabulous Capriccio’s restaurant. Rooms start at $170 per night for a standard double and go up to around $500 for a luxury one-bedroom villa.
The Villas of Grand Cypress
If you want a more independent villa-style holiday, I would recommend this elegant property. It is a beautifully landscaped golf resort, built around numerous lakes, within 11 miles of the theme parks, and offers transport to all of the parks. Villas vary in size and style, but all have an exceptional level of comfort and service. You can hire bicycles or play tennis or simply chill out at one of the many pools. Avid golf fans will be spoilt for choice, with a number of quality courses nearby, and can sample the Jack Nicklaus-designed 45-hole course in the resort. Club Suite Villa from €80; two-bedroom luxury villa from €160 per night.
Where to eat
Bergamos (8445 International Drive Ph: +1 407 352 3805, www.bergamos.com)– good quality Italian food, and the staff (who are all professionally trained singers) will entertain you as they serve. Unique.
Bahama Breeze (8849 International Drive Ph: +1 407 248 2499, www.bahamabreeze.com)
a bit of the Caribbean in the middle of International Drive. A relaxed atmospheric restaurant with a real holiday feel. It can get busy in summer; try to get here before 7pm to reserve a table, and sip a mojito on the fan-cooled deck while the sun goes down and reggae music plays.
Café Tu Tu Tango (8625 International Drive Ph: +1 407 248 2222, www.cafetututango.com)
– international restaurant serving tapas-style portions from a huge and diverse menu, which is prepared in many kitchens. It's best to order two or three dishes at a time as you will never know when or in which order your food will be served. Walls are decorated with artworks for sale, and most evenings there is entertainment. Good for kids.
Thai Thani (11025 South International Drive, Ph: +1 407-239-9733, www.thaithani.net)
– authentic Thai restaurant decorated in traditional Thai ornate style. Also has a great Sushi bar, where you can eat exquisite freshly prepared sushi for less than $ 10.
Texas de Brazil Churrascaria (5259 International Drive, Ph: +1 407 355 0355, www.texasdebrazil.com)
– a meat-lover's paradise. Upmarket Brazilian-style steakhouse at the top end of International Drive. For about $40, you can eat from the salad buffet, and sample up to 14 types of meat, all differently cooked and presented. A novel idea: you have a disc on your table, which you turn green-face-up when you are ready for more meat, and within seconds a server will be at your table.
Capriccio Grill (at the Peabody Hotel, 9801 International Drive, Ph: +1 407 345 4450, www.peabodyorlando.com)
– fine dining restaurant, with an Italian theme, offering excellent steaks, pastas, and good wines. A two-course meal with wine would be around $120.
Where to shop
Florida Mall – one of the biggest malls in Florida, with all of the high-street brands and four department stores under one roof.
Prime Outlets & Premium Outlets - for discounted designer labels, and sports gear.