- Places to Explore
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- Fodor's Choice
What Should We See and Do?
Families with Young Kids
For a happy, low-stress trip, cater to your kids' desires. That doesn't mean buying or doing everything they want, but it does mean being mindful of their needs, schedules, and patience levels. Choose your parks wisely. Sure, Islands of Adventure's Seuss Landing is terrific for young kids, but most of the other rides at that park are geared to older kids. Water parks are fun, but height restrictions can frustrate wannabe riders who don't make the cutoff.
Even rides geared to young kids can have frightening sounds or darkness. Research attractions on YouTube, so you know what's what.
Get thee to the Magic Kingdom! There's absolutely no better spot for young kids than this wonderland, especially with the new castles, rides, and experiences of the expanded Fantasyland. Everything about the kingdom lives up to its "magical" name: the horse-drawn carriages clopping down Main Street, U.S.A; the spires of Cinderella Castle and Beast's Castle; and the classic characters, from princesses to Mickey and Minnie, readily accessible and eager to share an autograph and a huge hug.
Introduce young kids to giant versions of even beloved characters tentatively; some kids are intimidated at first.
Whichever parks you hit, bring or rent a stroller. Your child may have plenty of energy and be a great walker on a normal day, but pounding the pavement under the hot sun for several hours really takes its toll. These parks are big! Avoid meltdowns before they hit by keeping a ready supply of snacks, water, and handheld games or activities. When kids are full and have things to do, they're less likely to get fussy while waiting in long lines.
When the adults in your party want to hit grown-up rides, take advantage of Baby Swap.
Universal and Disney both offer this service on rides that are inappropriate for young children. Though each company handles it slightly differently, the gist is the same: one adult waits in line while the other watches the kids, and then the other adult gets to skip to the front of the line for his or her turn.
Families with Tweens
Pick a theme park, any theme park. Even if they've outgrown Disney characters, your tweens will still love the thrills of Space Mountain at the Magic Kingdom, Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror at Hollywood Studios, and Mission: SPACE at Epcot. Animal Kingdom combines exciting attractions like Kali River Rapids and Expedition Everest with the coolness factor of live lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes, and other animals on the Kilimanjaro Safaris.
More adventurous tweens will champ at the bit to prove their mettle on Islands of Adventure's monster roller coasters. And fans of the J. K. Rowling stories will adore the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with its Dragon Challenge coasters and Hogwarts Castle. SeaWorld is also a great choice for this age, and it combines theme-park attractions with educational opportunities (shh). In warm weather, water parks Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon, Wet 'n Wild, and Aquatica are huge draws.
It's great fun to share your favorite big-deal rides with your kids, and at this age they can take advantage of just about everything—if they're ready, that is. Some tweens leap at the chance to ride up front in the Incredible Hulk Coaster; others are still frightened by Space Mountain. No need to rush into anything. The bigger rides will be there for you to enjoy together when your kids are older.
Families with Teens
Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are fantastic teen choices, with thrill rides like Incredible Hulk Coaster, Revenge of the Mummy, and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. Teens also love the late-night bustle of CityWalk, with its funky, neon-lighted stores, throngs of people, live music, and nightclubs that open their doors to younger patrons on teen nights. At Disney's Hollywood Studios, kids 14 and older can audition for the American Idol Experience, where the best singer of the day wins a chance to audition for the real American Idol TV show.
An Orlando vacation is a great time to give older teens some space. The bus and monorail system at Walt Disney World offers the opportunity for them to get around without relying on you for a ride. Just be sure you all keep your cell phones on, so you can keep in touch.
Use cell phone-based GPS to pinpoint the location of your teens.
As much as you might be dying for family bonding time, at this age your teen may be happier if he or she can bring a friend. Before offering an invitation, talk to the parents of the potential guest. Agree up front about expenses, who's paying, and how much supervision will be offered. Written permission—signed by the guest's parents and notarized—will be needed to fly. Such documentation, plus insurance info, will also be needed to get health care in the event of an emergency.
Of course, with freedom can come extravagance. Little things like arcade games or soft drinks and virgin cocktails ($1 to $5 each) add up in a hurry. Set a budget, and encourage your teens to stick to it.
Giving teens prepaid debit cards helps both you and them stay on budget.
Believe it or not, there are plenty of opportunities for high-quality together time in the theme parks. Swimming with dolphins or tropical fish at Discovery Cove or Epcot is an unforgettable experience, especially when shared with the one you love. What's more romantic than a whirlwind trip around the world? It's possible at Epcot's World Showcase. And you can always grab on to each other for dear life on the Tower of Terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios or on the Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal's Islands of Adventure.
Winter Park, just northeast of Orlando, is a great romantic getaway thanks to its Old South charm and its myriad boutiques, museums, and eateries. And on the scenic boat tour of the town's waterways you may just find yourselves holding hands.
After dark, stroll arm in arm through the Magic Kingdom, with all of Main Street, U.S.A, and Cinderella Castle lighted up and fireworks above. Later, go club-hopping into the wee hours at Downtown Disney or Universal's CityWalk.
Singles or Groups of Friends
If you're a theme-park aficionado, oh my, are you in the right place. Even if you're not a big fan, the parks here are so good that you have to visit at least one.
Use superfast-moving, single-rider lines to board crowded rides quicker. Rides with such lines include Animal Kingdom's Expedition Everest, Epcot's Test Track, Universal Studios' Revenge of the Mummy and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, Islands of Adventure's Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Incredible Hulk Coaster, and SeaWorld's Journey to Atlantis.
You non-theme-parkers are still in the right place. Orlando has all kinds of other options. Enjoy a blissful spa day at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes or the Waldorf Astoria. Play golf at the Walt Disney World Resort, or tackle one of the other fantastic courses in and around Orlando. Shopping here is a treat, too, with many malls and outlets at your disposal.
In the evening you can head to Universal's CityWalk and make some memories with karaoke at the Rising Star or with a music show at Hard Rock Live. On Disney property you can hit the BoardWalk for Jellyrolls' dueling pianos and sing-alongs or head to Downtown Disney, where entertainment ranges from House of Blues to the cool retro bowling alley called Splitsville, a double-decker treat with food and live music. You can also hang with locals at Orlando institutions such as The Social or Wally's.
To make the trip truly memorable, push the envelope. Try racing NASCAR vehicles at the Richard Petty Driving Experience; call Bob's Balloons to see the Disney area by hot-air balloon; or let the Space Coast inspire you, and take to the skies yourself with Space Coast Skydiving.
Getting everyone to agree on what to do is tricky. Preschoolers are content on Dumbo, but older thrill seekers want faster-paced rides. Grandparents might rather play golf or swim laps than traipse around a water park. And those doing the planning may find themselves also doing the mediating—far more frustrating than fun.
Orlando offers some terrific things you can do as a large group. Behind-the-scenes or customized VIP theme-park tours, dinner shows, Cirque du Soleil, the Kennedy Space Center, and spring-training games are wonderful all-ages experiences. As for theme parks, Disney's Animal Kingdom, with its live mountain gorillas and safari ride, probably has the most universal appeal.
Be sure to schedule "apart time"; not every moment has to be a group hug. You can splinter into smaller groups during the day, so some can go shopping in Winter Park or at the outlet malls, some can hit the links, some can attack a theme park, and some can lounge by the pool. When you meet up for dinner, you'll all have stories to share.Updated: 09-2013
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