This month, we spent two weeks in Florida, mostly to visit the Disney World parks and spend some time with our friends. G had never been before and it had been 20 years since I went! So, I thought I would write a few tips for things we experienced and discovered on this exhausting but brilliant trip. Plus, it’s an excuse for me to share some holiday photos!
We purchased tickets in advance using this UK website meaning we got a 14 day unlimited pass for all Disney parks and Universal studios too. It was expensive but worth it. We regretted not buying a ‘magic band’ which is basically a wrist band you can wear for the duration of your stay, giving you access to the parks and rides, shopping and photo services. Instead we had these credit card type tickets and had to keep getting them out.
This ticket package also got us ‘Fast Pass’ options which meant we could jump the queue of 3 rides or attractions per day. WELL WORTH IT but book them in advance.
Magic Kingdom is just as good as an adult. We both love a Disney film and this park really gave us the ‘Disney Magic’ you expect. As soon as you see Cinderella’s Castle and Mickey and Minnie Mouse start their show, you know the rest of the day is going to be brilliant.
Some park days were 12 hours on our feet so make sure you have REALLY comfortable shoes, something to freshen up with, plenty of snacks and a water bottle you can refill. Our day at Magic Kingdom was 42 degrees so we asked in the food outlets for free cups of iced water to keep hydrated. There are drinks fountains all around but they do not run very cold. We tried to pack as light as possible as neither of us wanted to carry a heavy backpack in that heat.
Visit during a seasonal celebration if you can! Both times I’ve been to Walt Disney World it has been Halloween or close to it. Magic Kingdom had a ton of fall/autumn decorations including these cute Mickey pumpkins. Some parks have ghost tours and seasonal events, so it’s worth checking these out in advance.
Be sure to get the Disney World App (and Universal Studios too). You can book Fast Pass slots, navigate around the parks and see what attractions and restaurants are available. There is free wi-fi around all parks. This was also a good option if you went on lots of water rides as the paper maps don’t tend to survive!
Schedule some time for just wandering if you want to see all the random parades and do a bit of shopping. Food in the Disney Parks was not expensive but it is definitely NOT healthy. We took apples and grapes in our bags because 14 days of chicken nuggets, chips and turkey legs does not feel good. 2 days of it doesn’t even feel good.
Be prepared to walk alot. I missed my bike! I wear a Fit Bit and it logged us as walking approximately 10 miles a day! My legs toned up so much whilst we were away (despite the junk food). There are opportunities to sit of course for rides and shows, but you will be on your feet for most of the time. We stayed outside the resort so hired a car for getting to and from parks. It’s really cheap to drive in Florida – we couldn’t believe the price of gas!
One of the things we loved doing was chatting to ‘Cast Members’ which is what Disney calls all its employees. A lot of them are retirees and work for a few hours a week in their favourite place. They each had a story to tell about their connections to Disney, so it’s well worth talking to them. We found some Brits working there and a US guy who had lived in Cambridge.
Epcot may be one of the least favourite parks to visit (for lack of thrill rides), but we loved the geeky space attractions and of course the round the world section which gets you visiting a ton of different ‘countries’. England has a British Pub and shops selling tea and crackers whilst Japan has tasty sushi, temples and a brilliant shop full of stationery and anime souvenirs. An absolute must is an ice cream in France. We tried to practice our French with the cast members but I was awful.
Stay late for park fireworks if you can, they are well worth it. In September, most of the locals are back at school so there are mostly Brits and South Americans visiting the parks. We sat next to a couple who lived about 20 minutes down the road from us! If it’s your first visit, tell a cast member and you will get a pin to wear. They also give these out for celebrations such as birthdays and weddings.
Downtown Disney is really not great. It is being developed at the moment, so may improve, but it largely consisted of shops (only one Disney one!) and restaurants. The only bit worth visiting is the Lego store which was good fun.
Animal Kingdom was a new park to us (opened in 1998 so wasn’t there on my last visit). It’s great fun, but probably the hardest to navigate around when busy. We visited the US over Labor Day and it meant more of the locals came out to parks. However, it did mean AMAZING sales at the malls!
I did some bike spotting at Animal Kingdom of course.
Now, onto Universal Studios. We spent two really full days at their parks and had the best time. This is the place to go for big roller coasters and thrill rides. You’ll love it if you like Harry Potter, Marvel Comics and Simpsons.
We rode the Hogwarts Express and went to Diagon Alley. Expect the Harry Potter bit to be the busiest section of the park. Great fun though. We visited during storm season so experienced a few heavy downpours in the afternoon. Be warned, park ponchos are $8 each.Butter beer tastes so bloody good. Get the frozen one.
Skip the Krusty Burger in Simpsons Land. We had one to see what they were like, but didn’t rate it above other burgers. Nice, but not amazing. You can go inside Mo’s Tavern too which is good fun. We had pictures taken with the Simpsons family and the Simpsons ride was the most surprising in the whole park. It made me a little motion sick, but it was really good!
Squishees and Duff beer are served in Simpsons Land too as well as Tacos and giant Donuts. Basically, go there if you are hungry and need sugar! These were so tasty and really refreshing on a hot day. We also took advantage of the refillable cups at Universal. For around $12 you can grab unlimited sodas and ice cold drinks from stations around the park all day. For subsequent days we paid $6 to reactivate the cups and drank way more soda than we paid for.
Of course Starbucks is everywhere in the USA – even in the parks. We took advantage of this, especially as Pumpkin Spice Lattes had arrived, but also because they have a bigger range of Green Tea refreshers for hot days.
We also found this Moon Cheese in Starbucks! It was so tasty.
We did take some time to do other activities outside of the theme parks in Florida. One of which was a Baseball game where we saw the Tampa Bay Rays play the Boston Red Socks. I had no idea what was going on, but it was so much fun and I watched a lot of people get really drunk! Be prepared for beers aplenty and more junk food without even having to leave your seat.
I had a jacket potato with cheese, which was basically a potato with some orange sauce on. No offence to my US readers, but I really hated the cheese sauce and craved real cheddar!
WE SWAM WITH MANATEES. Such a great experience. We took a road trip to Crystal River (west coast near Tampa) and saw these friendly creatures in the wild. I touched a baby who swam right up to my face eeeeeee! Bioluminescent Kayaking was also on our list of things to do, but we just ran out of time.
I really wanted to take G to the Kennedy Space Centre as I had heard it had been developed a lot since my last visit. We were not disappointed. It was around $50 for a day pass and there was so much to do. NASA house a live space centre there which a bus tour takes you around and the site is also a national park with tons of birds to spot.
We sat in space ships, watched 3-D IMAX films and did some geeky shopping. The centre also houses Space Shuttle Atlantis which is quite surreal to see. There are simulators to experience and Astronaut memorabilia in abundance. We touched a moon rock, saw a bald eagle and felt super inspired. A nice road trip out too.
Another road trip on our list was to visit the Everglades National Park. It is absolutely huge and we only had one day, so just enjoyed the edge of it near the coast. It took 3.5 hours to drive from Orlando, but was so worth it. Stunning scenes and friendly locals. Be sure to take bug spray – it’s proper nature there.
The wildlife in south Florida was really something else. It was nice to escape the tourist areas of Orlando and see what the state had to offer. We saw gators, crickets, manatee, racoons and every bird you could think of.
We also passed the Florida panther reserve, but didn’t see one of those! Air boat rides are must when you visit the Everglades. Our local guide had lived in Everglades city for 5 generations (it’s proper small town), but he knew his stuff and had plenty of stories to tell. These boats can go pretty fast too, so it makes for a good ride!We went through these mangrove trees on our ride which are eerie and beautiful at the same time. It was actually one of my favourite moments of the trip and made me really appreciate our time away.
We also did a ton of shopping (see my You Tube channel for hauls) and plenty of eating out (ihop!). It’s definitely not a restful or cheap trip, but one I would recommend to anyone. We had such a great break!
Now I’m just dreaming of my next destination….where shall we go?!