This post has been a long time coming – I did huge amounts of research before we went back in October 2015 – and really want to pass over to you my most valuable information for accommodation, travel, food and shopping. We travelled to Orlando as a young couple, and so I’d say that this travel guide is for anyone looking to visit for a Disney and Universal theme park based trip on a smaller budget than going all-in. We stayed off theme park site, travelled by public transport and ate in lots of non-theme park restaurants. This was all to do the trip on a reasonable budget. I’ll take you through each aspect of a trip, what we did and how we tried to save money. These are all, of course, tips and advice from my point-of-view – you may not find all of the information here useful, but I hope to at least give you some rough points to think about if planning your own holiday.
We stayed at Comfort Suites Maingate East during our stay and we can had a great experience. It was a lovely base for our two-week holiday, with plenty of restaurants and amenities close by and also within about 30 minutes of most of the theme parks. Breakfast was included in our stay, which was the perfect way to start each day, as we could fill up and know we wouldn’t need to eat again until we’d walked a few miles around a theme park. There was a small swimming pool, which we only used a couple of times, a poolside bar, which we ate at a couple of times when we wanted snacks and the opportunity to buy tickets for activities and the parks right from reception. There is plenty of parking out front if you hire a car, but there’s also a free shuttle to and from the main theme park destinations. We used this a few times, but it was very restrictive and so we used the public bus from the highway a couple of minutes from the front of the hotel. More about that in the Travel section.
If we are lucky enough to head to Florida again, we probably wouldn’t stay here again. Even though I definitely would recommend it to others who want to go as a couple or an older family, we will be travelling with a child next time and I don’t know that this hotel would suit our needs and I think we would make the effort to stay on Disney property. It really was the perfect reasonably priced hotel for our trip and I don’t regret choosing to stay here, but it was a little restrictive given that it advertises its theme park shuttle – I feel that this could be more frequent.
I have read that since we stayed, it has been refurbished, which is great, as it did need a bit of an update, so give this hotel a look if you’re doing your research.
We travelled with Virgin Holidays and had a great flight experience. We paid the extra money to have access to the V-Room at Gatwick airport, which started our holiday off in the perfect way. We had breakfast, a couple of drinks and got to chill out in comfort while waiting for our flight. I would recommend doing it, as it really is a minimal cost given how much you spend on a holiday to Florida and will help to make your travel as calm and stress-free as possible as you feel really taken care of.
We paid to upgrade our flights to Premium Economy; we did this because we were on our honeymoon, but having experienced it, I would pay to do it again. The extras you get, like the extra leg room, the bubbly on boarding, and the extra food choices really add that special touch to a 9-hour flight and make everything that much more comfortable. We’ll be travelling with a young child next time we go and for that reason I would make the effort to upgrade again and make it as comfortable as possible for us all, especially as one of the flights is overnight.
We decided not to hire a car for our trip for two reasons: my husband can’t drive and so I would’ve done all the driving and I’m not totally comfortable driving in a foreign country, but also, we knew the hotel we were staying in was well connected transport-wise so we didn’t think we’d need it. Looking back, I think I’d have been okay driving as American roads are fairly straight-forward and I’m a confident driver, but that’s something for next time. As mentioned above, the shuttle from our hotel to the theme parks wasn’t great as it was really restricted on times, so we relied mostly on public buses and also taxis. This was fine for us, as we didn’t mind the extra cost and walking involved but, next time, with a child, we will definitely hire a car and we will also stay on Disney property, so we can at least make use of Disney transportation.
One thing we did splash out on which we loved was the private transfers to and from the airport to our hotel. This was ideal for us as it was door-to-door service, pre-paid and meant no stress at either end of our holiday as it was all sorted beforehand, and we had the friendliest driver ever.
So, my main advice in terms of travel is to upgrade on the little things where you can – if you’re anything like me, and stress out a little when it comes to travelling, then making the effort here to have things be more comfortable is totally welcome. The upgraded flights were the best decision we made, as that extra comfort was the thing that got me really excited about the start of our journey and also made our trip home that bit more bearable.
We ate most of our meals outside of the theme parks on our trip and this saved us both time and money. If you are splashing out on a Disney dining plan then you will obviously spend most of your time eating on Disney property and all of your eating costs will have been paid before you travel, but this wouldn’t have suited us, so we chose not to do this. We ate breakfast at our hotel probably 10 out of the 14 days we were away, choosing to go to local eateries like Denny’s and Bob Evans on the other days.
As we spent most of our days at theme parks, we had mostly snacks around lunchtimes, choosing to eat at the quick service restaurants and picking up a few extras here and there when we spotted something that took our fancy (hello, pretzels and dole whip). We didn’t have any table service restaurant meals within the theme parks and we think we probably saved a ton of money by doing that. A few of the other places we went to eat included Checkers, Raglan Road at Disney Springs, The Cheescake Factory, Logan’s Roadhouse, Cracker Barrel and Olive Garden. I’m so glad we did this as we got to experience more than just what Disney had to offer in terms of dining options and we loved all our choices. When we return we might try a couple more of the Disney restaurants if we stay at a Disney resort, but I hope that we still get to experience some of the other places that Orlando has to offer.
I think this is probably where we saved the most money as theme parks are notoriously expensive for food options, so my advice would be to try and stay at a hotel that offers breakfast so that you can fill up at the start of your day and also don’t be afraid to leave the parks to go get dinner and then come back later for the nighttime entertainment.
We dedicated a few days here and there to do shopping on our trip. As well as visiting the shops at Disney Springs (there are so many new things there since we went, so I imagine this can take so much longer now) we also went to Mall at Millenia and to Target and Kohl’s. We bought a bunch of Disney merchandise at the parks or at Disney Springs, but we also took advantage of some of the merchandise stores off-site to get some better deals and still be buying plenty of souvenirs for ourselves as well as for friends and family. If you have kids, this would be a must, as theme park souvenirs will be super expensive in comparison to what you can get in other shops and there are so many you’ll come across if you travel around Orlando.
I would, however, say that some things are worth splashing out on if there are special items you’d like to bring home with you as a reminder of your trip. I bought myself a Pandora charm bracelet, which I’d have had no interest in getting if we’d been at home. I bought only Disney-related charms (which at that time you could only buy in America – they’ve since released some Disney charms in the UK) and picked up a few that were Walt Disney World exclusive. We also bought a gorgeous figurine from a shop in Magic Kingdom, which is one of my most favourite things in our home now.
We chose to travel to Orlando in mid-October, when Halloween celebrations were in full swing! We got to experience the Disney and Universal parks in full theme-mode, which was great fun as I love Halloween and knew we had the option to go to special events in both Magic Kingdom and Universal Studios. We opted to attend Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and this was one of the best decisions we made. If you do choose to take your trip at a special holiday time of year then I can’t recommend these events enough. We had the best time picking up trick-or-treat candy at all the stations in Magic Kingdom and watching the special parades and shows that were just for ticket holders. And the fireworks were the best I’d ever seen at a theme park, so I was in heaven. We plan to go in December next time so that we get to experience some Christmas events, which I know will be amazing. These extra events are not cheap, but they are so worth it and I would really recommend them if they can be squeezed into your budget.
We also got to attend when Epcot’s Food & Wine Festival was taking place, which is a brilliant event to enjoy as you can just wander around Epcot as if it’s a normal day, but pick up some country-specific food and drink to try on the way. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back again for this, as I loved it and I know it’s super popular, and because it’s technically free (you obviously have to pay for the food) you’re not actually parting with cash to attend.
Some of my absolute favourite things we experienced at Disney and Universal, or in Orlando in general, which I would recommend to anyone who fancied it:
Eat at off-site restaurants
We had some of our best meals at all the different restaurants we tried outside of the theme parks, so I definitely want to give plenty of restaurants a go next time. Yes, we had some great food at the parks and on theme park property, but it’s just so expensive, that we simply couldn’t afford to have all our meals there. We’ll likely book at least table service meal when we go with a child, as sometimes it’s just easier to feed them whilst at one of the parks, and there would be something super magical about going to one like Be Our Guest, but I didn’t regret off-site eating and would definitely recommend it as a money-saving tool.
Experience all nighttime shows and parades
Some of my favourite parades, shows and firework displays happen after dark and I would recommend making sure you go to all the theme parks in the evening to make sure you’re not missing out on any of the fun things on offer. There have been new nighttime shows added to Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom since we’ve visited, so I’ll be excited to attend all of the parks after dark next time we go and would highly recommend making sure you make the most of what each park has to offer.
Visit a water park
A lovely way to chill out mid-holiday is to take a trip to at least one of the water parks. We headed to Typhoon Lagoon on our holiday, but next time I’d like to visit Blizzard Beach and the new Volcano Bay at Universal too. It’s like having a day at the beach in the middle of a very busy and tiring theme park trip and is a great way to unwind and enjoy some swimming or playing in the sand. If you miss the big thrills, there are still plenty of ‘attractions’ in the form of water slides, so you can get a bit of an adrenalin fix. And you’ve got to have a go on a lazy river, what better way to relax than to pop yourself into an inflatable ring and laze all your worries away?
Go to the BoardWalk
Disney’s BoardWalk, which we visited a couple of times after visiting Epcot, is a quarter-mile promenade with a bunch of different dining, shopping and nighttime experiences. We spent a good portion of one day at the ESPN Club, watching football on the big screens and doing lots of eating and drinking and it was some of my happiest memories of our whole honeymoon. It was lovely to take time out, spend quality time together doing something really enjoyable and not rushing around the theme parks. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back and this time probably take more advantage of the nightlife and food choices.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
I could recommend so many different attractions in both Walt Disney World and Universal Resort, but if I had to pick one section of any park it would always be The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This place is incredible, and this comes from someone who would never really have called herself a HP ‘fan’ before we left. I’d seen and enjoyed the films, but hadn’t really bought into it all, but was left completely amazed and in awe of all the incredible things to see and do at TWWOHP. The rides, the food and drink, the shops, everything was just awesome and I can’t really do the experience any justice by trying to talk about it here. It’s set up over the two Universal theme parks and you can travel between them on the Hogwarts Express (O.M.G.). Even if you’re not a fan, you should be able to appreciate the work that has gone into it, as well as really enjoy attractions like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which was my absolute favourite ride at any of the parks. You won’t regret making the effort to spend some time here.
Tips and advice
A few things I would say to anyone visiting the Orlando theme parks for the first time:
Be prepared to walk
You will walk. A lot. Miles and miles, in fact. Walt Disney World and Universal Resort are huge and if you want to see everything then be prepared to go the distance for it. It’s worth it to do all the things you want to, and often you won’t even notice you’ve walked that much because you’re having so much fun, but just make sure to pack your most comfortable shoes. I imagine this would be more noticeable if you had kids who were having to walk too, but then you have the option of strollers, so I might just advise to take regular breaks, especially for water.
Have an itinerary (but be okay with deviating)
I had planned what we would do every day on our trip, meaning that we knew which theme parks we were going to when and when we had some down time to shop, or take in a water park. This meant we were able to take advantage of organising ‘fast passes’ for the most popular attractions in Walt Disney World before we arrived in Orlando, but we also knew we’d fit everything in. Having said that, we knew we could switch things around if we needed to, say, if the weather was particularly bad on a day we’d planned a water park trip. I would definitely advise having some rough plans in place before you go, there is so much to squeeze in and it’s hard to stay focused and not be overwhelmed by all the choice. Plus, planning for down time is important in such a crazy trip, otherwise you’ll feel exhausted if you have wall-to-wall theme park days with no rest.
Celebration Buttons are fun
If you are visiting Walt Disney World for a special occasion (honeymoon, birthday, etc) or it’s your first trip you can pick up special buttons to wear to let everyone know you’re celebrating. We got ‘Happily ever after’ ones for our honeymoon and had lots of local congratulations from Disney cast members as we went about our day. We picked ours up from Guest Relations near the entrance of Magic Kingdom.
Get to viewing spots nice and early
If you want to see parades or shows at any of the theme parks make sure you get to your viewing spot nice and early as they are, rather obviously, always super popular. If there are more than one of a parade or show, the later ones will generally be quieter, as families tend to leave the parks earlier, but still be prepared to pick your spot and not move. We just picked up some snacks and a drink to make the wait more enjoyable, but you can’t beat a bit of people watching as you sit on the curb and wait.
If you have any ‘must-do’s’ or any tips you want to share, pop them in the comments below, but I hope you enjoyed my little guide to Orlando and the theme parks.