The ultimate guide to Orlando’s best theme parks

Meet Mickey, Minnie and friends at the Orlando parks  (Disney)
Meet Mickey, Minnie and friends at the Orlando parks (Disney)

A holiday to Orlando tops most families’ bucket lists thanks to year-round sunshine, child-friendly accommodation and world-famous theme parks.

With their magical mix of high-octane thrills, traditional charm and dazzlingly detailed immersive theming, Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando Resort are fail-safe favourites for any parent planning a Florida trip their kids will never forget. Throw in big-name attractions from Star Wars, Harry Potter, Toy Story, Marvel, Frozen, Minions, Jurassic Park and Guardians of the Galaxy and it’s no surprise that Orlando is the most popular destination in the US for British visitors.

However, there’s more to a holiday in Orlando than simply buying theme park tickets. From navigating queues for the most popular rides to cutting costs in the parks, here’s what I’ve discovered on my visits to Florida to help you have a stress-free holiday to remember.

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The Incredible Hulk Coaster in Universal Orlando Resort (Siobhan Grogan)
The Incredible Hulk Coaster in Universal Orlando Resort (Siobhan Grogan)

When should I book?

As early as possible to nab the cheapest flights and best hotel deals. Standard rooms at Disney’s most affordable properties sell out first, yet offer the same perks as the priciest on-site hotels, including free resort transportation to Disney World’s four parks, early park entry and advance restaurant booking.

Check for early booking bonuses too. Rooms at Disney’s Pop Century Resort with its three heated pools and nightly campfires start from £126pp per night in 2024 including direct flights, dining credit and park tickets. You’ll save even more if you can avoid school and US holidays including Thanksgiving, Christmas and Spring Break in March and April. The quietest months include January, February, May, late August, September and early November.

Should I book the cheapest hotel at Universal Orlando Resort?

Not always. Rooms at the three most expensive Universal hotels – Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort – start at £369 per night but include an Express Pass to access shorter queues in the resort’s two theme parks, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida. Even in peak season, it’s almost always cheaper to stay at one of these if you’re considering buying Express Passes anyway as these start at £92pp a day. Remember the pass includes days checking in and out too, so even one night’s stay will give you two day’s queue-jumping. Consider ticking off the busiest rides before moving to a cheaper hotel for days by the pool or visiting Disney World and nearby water parks. Try Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suites, which has a surfboard-shaped pool, in-room pizza delivery and rooms from £109 per night.

Take a spin on Dumbo the Flying Elephant at Magic Kingdom (Disney)
Take a spin on Dumbo the Flying Elephant at Magic Kingdom (Disney)

Can I skip queues at Walt Disney World Resort?

Yes, but you’ll need to buy a Disney Genie Plus+ pass, starting at $15 a day and requiring a separate theme park reservation and ticket. This can only be bought from midnight on the day of your visit and allows you to use the Lightning Lane entrance at selected rides. You can make your first selection at 7am, then the next once you tap in for that ride or after two hours, whichever comes first. Disney estimates this allows you to ride two to three attractions a day more quickly, but I’ve usually managed more, especially in the Magic Kingdom. Reserve the most popular ride first on the dot of 7am, then pick up reservations for quieter rides through the day, setting a phone alarm to remind you when each booking window opens. If parks are busy, it’s well worth the extra cost and I’ve never waited more than 15 minutes in any Lightning Lane, compared to 90 minutes or more in the regular queues.

How can I make the most of my days at the parks?

Arrive early and stay late as wait times drop when families with young children leave or people head for dinner. It’s also easier to get on rides more quickly during evening fireworks displays. Try to see theatre shows like Disney’s Hollywood Studios’ hilarious Frozen Sing-Along or Universal Studios’ Bourne Stuntacular in the afternoon when crowds are heaviest and temperatures highest. It’s also worth using the single-rider line to fill any spots left on rides by larger groups. This is free and much quicker than the regular queue, but you will ride separately from the rest of your group.

Ride TRON Lightcycle / Run in a race across the Grid (Disney)
Ride TRON Lightcycle / Run in a race across the Grid (Disney)

Any advice for Disney World?

The Walt Disney World Resort covers a colossal 43 square miles so consider where you’ll be each day before booking restaurants, so you’re not jumping between the four huge theme parks. On-site buses, boats and monorails are free, but leave an hour to travel between places. Uber is also very reliable, and much quicker and more convenient if time is tight. For dining, book restaurants in advance, order quick-service meals on the app to skip queues and remember that character breakfasts are much cheaper than dinners if you’re splurging on a meal with Mickey and friends. Rides not to miss include the brand-new, exhilarating TRON Lightcycle/Run; Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance; and the spectacular Avatar Flight of Passage.

And at Universal Orlando Resort?

Carry as little as possible. You’ll need to stow everything in free but very small lockers for several rides including The Incredible Hulk Coaster and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit with bigger lockers costing $2 (£1.60) a ride. If you’re using an Express Pass, bring a lanyard from home for easy scanning as one in the park will cost at least $20 (£16). Most importantly, go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to sample butterbeer at the Leaky Cauldron and ride a real-life Hogwarts Express either first thing or before the parks close to avoid huge crowds. Be warned that wizard robes cost around $139 (approx. £111) so bring one from home or call in at Target or Walmart just outside the resort as both stock a huge, reasonably-priced range of Universal and Disney merchandise.

Don’t miss the Happily Ever After firework extravaganza on Main Street (Disney)
Don’t miss the Happily Ever After firework extravaganza on Main Street (Disney)

Travel essentials

A 14-night stay at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida costs from £1,766pp with Walt Disney Travel Company International. This includes accommodation at Disney’s Pop Century Resort, direct return flights with British Airways, $504 Dining and Merchandise Credit, Disney 14-Day Magic Ticket for the whole party and a $400 Disney Gift Card;

Seven nights at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort including Universal Orlando 3 Park Explorer Tickets costs from £2,552 based on two adults and two children aged three to nine sharing a standard two-queen room. A Universal Orlando 3 Park Explorer Ticket cost from £319 per adult and £309 per child aged three to nine, valid for up to 14 consecutive days;

Virgin Atlantic flies daily between London Heathrow and Orlando from £464 per person.

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