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When Should We Go?
Let's be honest: there is no "empty" time at Orlando's theme parks. Crowds thin in January, after New Year's, and stay reasonable until around Presidents Day. From that point through Labor Day, though, crowds are either heavy (as in mid-February through early June and again in late August) or very heavy.
Things lighten up after Labor Day, but grow busy again around Columbus Day. After that, comes another light patch until right around Thanksgiving, which is huge in the parks. There's a slight lull in early December, right between Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations.
If your schedule demands that you go at a peak time, you can always get a break from the crowds by planning non-theme-park days. Visit the Kennedy Space Center early in the workweek, when you'll avoid both weekend crowds and late-week school field trips. Eschew Saturday theme-park madness in favor of a trip to charming Winter Park, where you can stroll a farmers' market between 7 am and 1 pm. Stick around to roam the grassy parks, visit small museums and galleries, or maybe catch a matinee at the Winter Park Playhouse.
If you'd rather not venture far from the parks, you can escape the crowds by simply slipping back to your hotel for a spa treatment, a swim, a walk around the grounds, a paddleboat ride—many of Orlando's hotels offer such a variety of recreation options that they're practically theme parks themselves.
Considerations for Different Types of Travelers
As always, the makeup of your travel group will determine when it's best to go. In this case, however, it boils down to two types of travelers: those with school-age kids and those without them.
Orlando Theme Park Itineraries
The baseline is a day for every theme park you visit, plus two travel days. So, to have a rich, full experience in all six of the Disney and Universal theme parks, you'd need eight days. To include SeaWorld or one of the water parks or a non-theme-park attraction, add another day—for a total of nine days. Phew! Some find trying to see too many theme parks in a short time rather like eating too many sweets at a buffet. This is a vacation, not a marathon, so be sure to schedule free time.
If you're selective, though, you can have a great five- to seven-day trip, including two travel days. Families with young kids might spend full days at only a few theme parks. Those with tweens or teens might do two parks in a day but take in only the highlights. Singles, couples, or groups might take the full-day park-tour approach or mix the half-day park-highlights approach—perhaps with half days of downtime (rather than at other parks).
How long you stay might also affect your hotel choice. The longer and more varied the trip, the farther from the theme parks you can stay. The shorter the trip and/or the more time you plan to spend in Disney or Universal parks, the better off you are staying on or very near Disney or Universal property.
You should add two travel days to the following three- and five-day itineraries. These are our dream trips, but for best results, you really should create your own!
FAMILIES WITH YOUNG KIDS—3 Days
Day 1 —Magic Kingdom early, with a nap or pool break back at the hotel, returning for the evening Wishes fireworks show or parade. Day 2 —the whole family by the hotel pool or the kids busy in the hotel's children's program while Mom and Dad head to Downtown Disney or the BoardWalk. Day 3 —Hollywood Studios through to the afternoon parade; back to the hotel for a nap before enjoying the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue dinner show.
Other Recommendations: Use Magical Express airport-transfer service; stay on Disney property; get the basic Disney meal plan; buy two-day Magic Your Way parks tickets (which you don't need to use on consecutive days). Work in a character meal on arrival or departure day. Take time to let the little ones rest and recharge.
FAMILIES WITH TWEENS—5 Days
Day 1 —Magic Kingdom highlights in the morning; Epcot later in the day with dinner at World Showcase, followed by IllumiNations. Day 2 —a day at Blizzard Beach or Typhoon Lagoon or, if it's raining cold, at DisneyQuest. Day 3 —Kids head to the hotel's kids' program; Mom and Dad rent a car and head to Winter Park or Downtown Orlando. Day 4 —Islands of Adventure, with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter first thing. Day 5 —SeaWorld or Kennedy Space Center.
Other Recommendations: Stay at a Disney or Lake Buena Vista property; skip the Disney or Universal meal plans. Add the Park Hopper option to the one-day Disney ticket, but skip the Water Parks and More option. Consider Universal's Express Pass.
Orlando Theme Park Itineraries
FAMILIES WITH TEENS—3 Days
Day 1 —a full day at Universal Studios. Day 2 —teens spend time by the pool while Mom and Dad play golf or hit a spa; dinner together followed by an evening—together or apart—at CityWalk. Day 3 —a full day at Islands of Adventure.
Other Recommendations: Take a shuttle or cab to and from the airport, and stay at a Universal property; do the Universal Meal Deal on theme-park days. Consider taking in Blue Man Group on the night out at CityWalk. Buy multiday Universal tickets online in advance to save; invest in Universal's Express Pass (note, though, that this is free if you stay at a Universal hotel except the new Cabana Bay).
SINGLES, COUPLES, OR GROUPS OF FRIENDS—3 Days
Day 1 —morning at hotel pool or spa, lunch at the hotel, late-afternoon Magic Kingdom highlights and dinner at California Grill with a view of Wishes fireworks. Day 2 —take a balloon ride, golf a championship course, swim with dolphins at Discovery Cove or Epcot, or drive NASCAR-style at the Richard Petty Driving Experience. Day 3 —full day at Animal Kingdom, Epcot, Universal Studios, or Islands of Adventure with dinner in Orlando or Winter Park.
Other Recommendations: If it's a special occasion, book a car service to and from the airport. Use shuttles or cabs the rest of the time.
Don't bother with park meal plans, but do splurge on a luxury hotel with lots of amenities (on or off theme-park property): Disney's Grand Floridian; Universal's Portofino Bay; Orlando's Ritz-Carlton, Waldorf Astoria, or Gaylord Palms.
Consider buying two-day Magic Your Way Disney tickets and getting Universal's Express Pass (free if staying at most on-site Universal hotels).
LARGE, MIXED GROUPS—2 to 5 Days
Large, mixed groups have the most flexibility. On any given day, there are bound to be some members heading to a theme park, some going out shopping or to play golf, and some relaxing by the pool or in a spa. Those who want to take in a theme park every day can do so (and will always have someone to go with), and those who don't will always have someone with whom to share the alternatives.
Just be sure to plan get-togethers: a meal or two, an evening (perhaps for a show), an afternoon—if not a full day—maybe at SeaWorld, a water park, or Kennedy Space Center.
Other Recommendations: Use the Magical Express service, opt for some version of the Disney meal plan, and stay on-site. Otherwise choose an all-suites hotel in a location that's convenient, regardless of who's doing what—perhaps a central I-Drive spot.
If group plans involve more than one day of sightseeing—say, one day in Winter Park and another at Kennedy Space Center, or a spring-training baseball game in the Tampa area—rent a van. Otherwise rely on in-park transportation, hotel shuttles, or cabs.
Traveling with Kids
It's a dilemma: you want to plan a great vacation and avoid the crowds, but can you really rationalize taking the kids out of school to visit a theme park? It's a tough call, and the best plan is to consult with your child's teachers first. Ideally, they can advise you on the best time of the school year to go and create a study plan to ensure your child's education isn't compromised during the trip.
For elementary-school kids there are ways of making the trip educational. For example, your child could write about the different countries featured at Epcot in lieu of a missed homework assignment, do a report on the animals of SeaWorld, or prepare a talk about what he or she learned at the Kennedy Space Center.
To avoid crowds and meltdowns, families with young children should visit theme parks in the morning and evening. Leave the hot afternoons for naps and downtime at the hotel pool.
Note that although it may be fine to take younger kids out of school for a few days, missing several days of middle or high school could set your child back for the rest of the semester. If you do go during school vacations like the rest of the world, all is not lost. Take advantage of Extra Magic Hours, Fastpass, or Universal's front-of-the-line privileges when you can; retreat to your hotel when you need to; and simply make peace with the crowds so you can enjoy your vacation.
Traveling Without Kids
It's very simple: avoid crowds by avoiding school vacation times. If water parks aren't a priority, early January is a great time, specifically about two weeks after New Year's. Kids are back in school, and the Walt Disney World Marathon weekend is over, so those crowds are gone, and the weather can be spectacular. If you love water parks, go after Labor Day, when kids are back in school. It will still be hot enough to make the waterslides a joy.
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