Orlando On a Budget
The climate in Orlando is typical of the rest of Florida. It is quite hot and humid in the summer and cooler but comfortable in the winter. It is not unusual for there to be one or two weeks each winter when the weather is uncomfortably cold. Because of the city's extreme popularity as a vacation destination for families, you should time your visit around school and holiday schedules in addition to the weather. Holidays such as spring break and summer vacation can be quite crowded and make for an uncomfortable trip. Prices can also climb significantly higher during these times. It is best to avoid these peak times if at all possible.
SightsOrlando really is about theme parks. It's the home of Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and Sea World among many others. It has long been the fantasy destination for many children. The largest, and most famous theme park in Orlando is Walt Disney World, which has several parks in its system including the Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, and Animal Kingdom. It also has many hotels and restaurants over a range of costs and quality levels. In addition to the many hotels, there is a campground, located on the Disney grounds as well.
Many visitors to Disney World purchase a package vacation that includes a hotel stay, some meals, and admission to a variety of the theme parks. Although at first appearance it may appear that Disney's package deals are there best option, it is actually cheaper to stay outside of the theme park areas in many situations. There are some great discount hotel options around at quality resorts, many of which offer a shuttle to the parks. You can still purchase theme park tickets as a multi day set for a discounted rate, and you will not have to pay the marked up price for the Disney hotel. Recently, Disney also changed their rules regarding food in their theme parks. You are now allowed to pack your own lunch and carry it into the park. This can dramatically cut down on costs for food, particularly if you are traveling with a large family.
Also, the time of year that you visit Orlando can affect the cost of admission to various parks. (Ticket price information below.) In fact, Orlando at Christmas is a terrific time to visit, as there are plenty of things to do. Other holidays are also plenty of fun.
Theme ParksOrlando is the definitive place in America to visit theme parks. But you obviously knew that already, and that's why you're visiting.
From Disney to Universal to SeaWorld, and then on to the smaller places like LegoLand, the nature activities, and the water parks, you could spend an entire month in Orlando visiting parks before you saw everything. Here's the overview.
Disney World's first park in Orlando was Magic Kingdom, the original fairytale land with the famous castle and plenty of rides that are great for younger kids. It's just as magical now as it was when it first opened, and new rides have been added over the decades. Epcot is all about technology, science, and culture. The rides here are sometimes thrilling, but more often they are slower and educational, but still fun. And the back half of the park has the World Showcase where you can learn about different countries and cultures, all while eating delicious foods from these places. Animal Kingdom is half zoo, half amusement park. You'll find rides, roller coasters, and animal encounters here, along with some dinosaur themed stuff as well as rides from the movie Avatar. Hollywood Studios is the movie-themed park where you'll find plenty of activities, rides, and shows centered around the film industry, as well as plenty to see for Star Wars fans. Disney Springs is a large shopping area with free parking, free entry, and multiple stores and restaurants, plus a few small experiences and shows that you pay for as you go. Disney also has some water parks on its property (more on that below).
Moving on to Universal, the two main parks are Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Both offer rides, but each has its own specialties. Both have Harry Potter attractions, but the main Wizarding World of Harry Potter is found in Universal Studios. Universal also has a great water park (more on that below). The main entry area to the two theme parks, City Walk, is free to enter (but you pay for parking). Here you'll find some great restaurants and some shops with souviniers.
SeaWorld has two parks, the main SeaWorld park and its neighboring water park, Aquatica. SeaWorld is a mix of rides, roller coasters, aquariums, and animal shows centered around marine life. It also has a much lower price tag. As we have mentioned in other articles, SeaWorld is a great bargain right now because there are less people visiting this park than Disney or Universal, so the lines are shorter, but the fun is still there.
How much does Disney World cost?Ticket prices to the main Disney World parks such as Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios cost anywhere from $100 per day to $160 per day. The price varies by the date, the season, the overall demand of tickets for a particular day, and whether or not you buy multi-day tickets in advance. The best ways to save money on tickets for Disney World are to buy multi-day tickets (this lowers the daily cost), purchase tickets in advance from a discount ticket seller, and pay attention to which days have lower prices well ahead of your arrival date.
Parking at the Disney theme parks is usually $25 per car, per day for standard parking. You can upgrade for a closer spot, and RV's and buses must pay more.
How much does Universal Studios in Orlando cost?Ticket prices to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure cost anywhere from $100 per day to $150 per day. The price varies based on the day, as it can fluctuate for demand, high season vs. low season, and holidays. Purchasing multi-day and multi-park tickets is a great way to save money, as the price per park will be lower if you get a package deal. Also, pay attention to which days are less expensive and you can save some money there, too.
Parking is $25 per car for standard parking.
How much does SeaWorld in Orlando cost?SeaWorld tickets are usually much lower in cost than Disney or Universal Tickets. It's possible to get a great price if you purchase in advance, depending on the time of year and the overall demand. Often, they issue coupons and sales. You can check prices here. Multi-park tickets are available if you also want to visit their water park as well as Busch Gardens in Tampa.
Parking for SeaWorld is usually $25 per car. You can often get a discount if you purchase in advance with your ticket.
NeighborhoodsOrlando and the surrounding suburbs make up a sprawling metropolitan area. Most visitors come for the theme parks, which are located outside of the city proper. International Drive is one of the main tourist drags. It's a major road that is lined with cheap hotels, outlet malls and restaurants. On the south end you'll find Sea World and the Orange County Convention Center.
Downtown Orlando has undergone a recent revitalization. There are many new condos and a young urban population. There are also many bars, clubs and restaurants that are worth visiting.
In addition to Orlando, the metropolitan area also includes the cities of Altamonte Springs, Davenport, Kissimmee and Winter Park. Kissimmee is where you'll find Walt Disney World. The western side has cheap hotels that appeal to tourists. The Disney designed town of Celebration is also close by and worth a visit.
ActivitiesIn addition to visiting any of the many theme parks around Orlando and the surrounding areas, there are many other entertainment options that appeal to adults and kids alike. Popular activities include golf, tennis, shopping, or attending a sporting event such as an Orlando Magic basketball game.
Water ParksYes, Orlando is home to many water parks. All of them are plenty of fun, especially in Florida where it stays warm almost all year long. Let's get wet!
Volcano Bay (tickets), part of Universal, is an absolutely amazing water park. Not only will you find fun water slides, but the overall atmosphere is very well designed and immersive. A large volcano is the middle of the park, and multiple slides come out of it. You'll also find areas for the little ones, plus some fast rides for the big kids and grownups. Group slides, lazy rivers, and a relaxing beach are on the agenda, too.
Aquatica (tickets) is found next to SeaWorld and is home to some thrilling waterslides along with a wave pool, lazy river, kids' areas, and more.
Blizzard Beach (tickets) is part of the Disney complex, and has a winter ski theme in the form of a warm-weather water park. The rides are plenty of fun, kid-friendly, and have that special Disney atmosphere to them where everything is designed to totally immerse you in the experience. You'll also find a wave pool, lazy river, and a gondola to take you to the top of the mountain.
Typhoon Lagoon (tickets) is another water park owned by Disney, but this one has a tropical summer theme (which just makes more sense). The slides and rides will keep the whole family entertained. As with the others, you'll also find a wave pool (the largest in the U.S.), toddler areas, and more.
Island H2O Live (tickets) is yet another water park that is affordable, fun, and offers pretty much everything you would expect such as slides, a toddler area, and more.
Lego LandAbout half way between Orlando and Tampa is this fun and kid-friendly theme park which is a great option for anyone who loves Legos (and who doesn't?). You'll be able to ride roller coasters, see fun creations made with Legos, build things, and more. Tickets start around $85 per adult.
Other ExperiencesCrayola Experience (tickets) is a fun and interesting way to spend an afternoon. Learn about how the crayons are made, make art projects, and immerse yourselves in a world of color, art, and fun. ($19)
A variety of shows and events can be found around Orlando near the theme parks. Check out th Pirates Dinner Adventure, which features exciting stunts and acrobatics, along with music, audience participation, and pyrotechnic effects. Or, visit Medieval Times to watch a battle of champions as knights on horseback engage in swordfights and jousts, and perform tricks with their horses. (Tickets & Prices)
No trip to Florida is complete unless you have an encounter with an alligator at GatorLand. Visit this fun and engaging park to learn about the alligators, watch some thrilling shows, ride on the zipline, and more. ($25)
Also, why not take an airboat ride through the swamps of central Florida? You'll have a blast as you zoom through the marsh looking for wildlife. ($25)
Horseback Riding around the rural areas of central Florida is also a fun activity. These tours can take you and the kids through the wildlife areas located just 20 minutes outside of Orlando. It's a fun way to get into nature and do something different than visit the parks.
Food and DiningThere are several areas in Orlando that offer a high concentration of restaurants for visitors. CityWalk at Universal Orlando is a great option. There you will find Margaritaville, Hard Rock Cafe, Pastamore, NASCAR Cafe among other options. You do have to pay for parking ($14 during the day and $5 after 6PM except during certain times).
Disney Springs (formerly known as "Downtown Disney") also has a variety of options such as Rainforest Cafe, Planet Hollywood, and many other restaurants with fun atmospheres. Disney's Epcot Center offers a variety of international dining options within the park. Favorites include the Moroccan restaurant and the Canadian steakhouse.
If you're looking for something a little different, head to downtown Orlando. There you'll find some of the city's best restaurants with options including French, Italian, Chinese and Japanese.
TransportationIt is possible to travel in Orlando without a car, particularly if you stay within the Disney grounds. If you hope to visit any other theme parks however, it can be far less efficient without a vehicle. The city is known for its sprawling development and most of the area's attractions are located far from each other or far from the downtown part of the city. Many are in nearby cities such as Kissimmee and Lake Buena Vista. Driving is relatively easy and the roads are of great quality. Traffic congestion can be high during the holiday seasons or when parks are first opening or closing. Road construction projects are also not uncommon.
It is very easy and relatively affordable to rent a car in Orlando (see prices here). Arranging the vehicle in advance will offer you the best rates. All of the major rental companies are available including Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, E-Z Rent-A-Car, National, Sixt, and Thrifty.
If arriving by plane, here's how to drive from the Orlando Airport to Disney World. There are multiple options, so plan for the various routes if you find heavy traffic.
Taxis are available from any of the dozens of taxi companies located in the city. It's relatively easy to find a taxi from the airport to your hotel or from you hotel to a theme park. Prices, however, can be quite expensive. If you plan to be in town for any significant amount of time then this option is less convenient than renting a vehicle.