How to have a great Orlando theme park vacation: Lessons learned – How much time you need
I often get asked how much time is needed to take in the theme parks and other activities in Orlando. Here, in question and answer form taken from actual communications with guests, is how much time I recommend for the major attractions. (There are lots of other great things to see and do in Orlando – those are discussed separately.)
To take full advantage of your trip, you will need to plan your time appropriately. In addition to the time to ‘do’ the attraction, you need to allow for time to drive there and back. Even if an attraction is a ‘half-day’ item, you may need a whole day including travel and ‘down’ time.
Are there good package deals on tickets anywhere?
You can check with our ticket supplier about this. If you are interested in some of the lesser parks and attractions (i.e. NOT Disney), a couple of things to check into are the Orlando Flex Pass, and Universal Studios often has some great deals available only in advance online.
We are looking at spending a day at Discovery Cove and doing the swimming with the dolphins (our kids would love that!!) and I can get free admission to Sea World and Busch Gardens with that.
Discovery Cove is very expensive! Yet every single person I know who has done it (I myself have not) says it is such an incredible experience that it is worth the cost. They consider it a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ type of thing, and all speak so highly of it, that I can safely say you won’t be disappointed by it. Discovery Cove is an immersive (Hah! Think about that!) experience run by Sea World for a limited number of visitors each day. It must be booked well in advance. You can find out more on the Discovery Cove website.
We are also interested in the Kennedy Space Centre
Allow a full day for this trip.
Half a day, plus one hour driving time.
Universal Orlando consists of two theme parks, Universal Studios, and Islands of Adventure, and a shopping and dining area called City Walk.
The new Harry Potter attraction is part of Islands of Adventure, but the marketing of it has confused some people into thinking that it is a separate park. It is just another ‘land’ in the park, like Seuss Landing, or Jurassic Park. To confuse things even more, a new Harry Potter area has also been added to the Universal Studios park, and a train ‘ride’ runs between the two sections in each park (so a multi-park ticket is necessary to experience it).
Islands of Adventure was voted the best theme park in the world in 2010, and it certainly is on par with the best that Disney offers, although the rides are certainly more ‘adult’ oriented – meaning more intense. You will want to allow a full day for each park, PLUS if you are like my family, a third day split between the two parks doing over again your favourite activities. You can often get very good deals online for tickets at Universal if you buy them ahead of time. Their web site knows where you are logging in from and won’t make the offers available to you after you arrive in Florida. They often run a buy-two-get-one-free offer during quiet seasons, where you get three days admission for the price of two, and less frequently two days for the price of one. Check their web site and keep checking it, as the offers change constantly. I don’t know for certain how tickets purchased directly from Universal compare to our ticket supplier, but (again) our supplier guarantees the best price so they probably have the same offers available at a slightly lower rate.
Universal Tickets can also be purchased as part of an Orlando Flex Pass, along with Sea World and Busch Gardens.
Allow a full day. This is located in Tampa, an hour’s drive away from the villa.
A beach (someone told me Clearwater Beach, but they weren’t sure if that was the correct name or not).
Again, allow a full day, although you may be able to combine going to the beach with another trip; Kennedy Space Centre perhaps (but only if you find space travel boring)? Clearwater Beach is near St. Petersburg which is about another half hour past Tampa, and regarded as one of the best beaches in the US. You can also explore the Atlantic side, which is a full hour in the opposite direction.
When you buy tickets for Sea World or Universal on line are you buying for a particular day or can they be used any day?
They can be used any day, but usually have restrictions for multiple days. For example, a three day pass may expire fourteen days after the first day you use it, so you must return for your additional days within two weeks or lose them. Disney tickets usually work this way as well.
I know for Discovery Cove you have to book early and book for a particular day but I wasn’t sure about the others. I guess if you are booking special tours, then you would need to book an a particular day.
Exactly. These ‘tours’ are experiences with a high level of staff-to-customer, so the number of customers is limited and they must be booked in advance, as opposed to a theme park which can handle thousands of people a day.
For example, are some of the extra tours at Sea World worth the money?
This is a cost/benefit value equation and completely subject to one’s opinion. The best thing to do is to search for the experience you are interested in along with the words ‘reviews’ or ‘ratings’ and read online what people have to say about them. We have done some of the Disney ‘back-stage’ tours, and always enjoyed them! I have a friend who highly recommends the SeaWorld tours, especially given some of the controversy over keeping Orca in captivity.
I have laid out a general time line based on what people have told me and my research. Maybe you can tell me if it is realistic. Disney – Magic Kingdom – 2 days, the other three parks – 1 day each. What do you think?
This is correct… sort of. You should only need one day in the Magic Kingdom, but it is good to budget for an extra day at Disney to allow you to redo your favourite attractions, but they don’t all have to be in one park if you get a Park-Hopper Option on your tickets, which allows you to go from park to park in the same day. This is something that we have always done and find it worthwhile. The parks open and close at different times… for example, Animal Kingdom has traditionally closed at 5 or 6 PM, so you can then leave and go over to one of the other parks, spend the evening and often catch one of the nighttime ‘closing’ shows like the one at Disney Studios (Fantasmic – highly recommended) or the fireworks show at Epcot (always worth seeing as many times as you can) and Magic Kingdom. With the Park Hopper Option you can spend your fifth day plus part of your Animal Kingdom day at two different parks and ensure that you get to see and do everything you would like to. An extra day really takes the pressure off, especially if the parks are busy. Plus, you have more flexibility about which park to visit on which day. For example, the Magic Kingdom is always busy on Mondays (Go figure!) so if you can avoid it on a Monday, do so! The key is in always doing the opposite of what most people do – that will ensure you get the most out of your time.
Disney Water Parks – 1 day
You will only be able to do one waterpark. During the winter, one or the other is always closed for refurbishment. Plan on a full day at either Blizzard Beach or Typhoon Lagoon. Both are great water parks, and worth doing depending upon how much you enjoy water parks. I can’t get enough of them!
Downtown Disney, mini golf etc. – 1 day
You can go to Downtown Disney (now renamed Disney Springs) on a late evening after the parks have closed. It is probably better to not use up one of your precious days (or half a day) at Downtown Disney. Even a couple of evenings after the parks close will usually suffice for most people.
Miniature golf is a questionable use of your time on a Disney trip, as it is an activity you can usually do elsewhere for less money. And this is me saying this – I’m a miniature golf fanatic! The one exception to this are the four courses at Disney World itself. I would suggest that if you want to do these courses (which are quite unique and amongst the best and most difficult courses in the world) plan on combining one or two of them with your Waterpark day. The Winter-Summerland courses are just outside of Blizzard Beach and the other two courses are located in the Epcot resort area. These should be last on your list of things to do unless you are an absolute miniature golf fanatic. ( I am, but I didn’t play these courses until my third trip to the area and we had a lot of extra time available.)
That works out to 7 full days at Disney
Six based upon my suggestions, but I would also encourage you to perhaps consider using seven days by getting an extra day on your Park Hopper tickets. After having paid for six days, I believe the seventh is only about $10.00 per person per day more. This is quite a deal compared to the cost of the first three or four days.
Other attractions – Sea World – 2 days and Discovery Cove – 1 day
Sea World will only require one day. Discovery Cove will require another if you choose to do that, but each are independent experiences.
Universal – 2 days
I would use three for sure. These are two very, very good parks!
Kennedy Space Centre 1/2 day
Perhaps, but I would certainly feel rushed trying to do the Kennedy Space Center in half a day. In addition, you have to allow for an hour of drive time each way, but I would increase this to 1.5 hours each way to allow for finding your way, parking, etc. The thing about the space center is that there is a discovery center, and from there tours depart to go into the Space Center itself. They won’t let you just go into Nasa and wander around… go figure! So you have to book the tours you want to take from a selection when you buy your tickets. The tours fill up quite quickly, so you want to arrive as early as you possibly can. With the tours taking a couple of hours in some cases, and only departing once or twice a day, you can easily arrive at KSC and discover that your day would have been twice as good if you had only arrived 30 minutes earlier. Get there early and allow for the entire day. It is a fascinating place!
Beach 1/2 day
Just like a trip to Kennedy Space Center, I would plan on a whole day for this, otherwise in a half day you can drive, spend an hour and then turn around and drive back. What is the point?
Possibly Busch Gardens 1 day. (I had people say if we had to not do something, they would give up Busch Gardens.)
Add minimum one hour drive time to Tampa each way for this day.
Well, that’s it. The best advice I can give you at this time for how much time to budget for your Orlando trip. I hope it’s of use to you. If you have any questions or comments, please post them, and I’ll do my best to respond or get a good answer for you!