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Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

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We are currently planning our third trip to Orlando and cannot wait to feel that Florida sun on our faces! But, until then, planning is a huge part of any Orlando vacation and the thing I get asked most is where do you start. When it comes to planning a Disney World or Universal holiday, where do you even start?!

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

So I thought I would put together a post talking through how we plan our Orlando holidays and some tips and advice to anyone looking to book their own Disney World holiday. This will cover Disney World, Universal and a few other things to do in Orlando. Plus, I’ll direct you to other articles and websites that might help with other aspects of the planning too.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Planning an Orlando Holiday

What are your priorities?

The main thing to decide when planning an Orlando holiday is what your priorities are. Do you want to experience all of the Walt Disney World magic and nothing else? Do you want to go on as many rollercoasters as you can across the Florida theme parks? Do you want to meet as many Disney characters as possible? Do you want to shop, eat in lovely restaurants and soak up the Orlando atmosphere but aren’t actually that bothered by theme parks? Why are you going to Florida and what do you want to do?

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

What your priorities are will set the foundations for your holiday – and it will also give you an idea of the budget you will need. We always prioritise doing as much as possible and making memories but we aren’t bothered at all by eating out or shopping. 

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

But, as the children have got older our priorities have changed. Our first trip was all about Disney. Immersing ourselves in as much of the Disney World Resort magic as we could, meeting all the characters, seeing all the shows and just really enjoying that Disney atmosphere.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

But, the next time we added the Universal Orlando Resort into the mix. The children were bigger, could go on more rides and so we wanted to experience even more. We also did a lot of little days out and activities. But this time we feel like we don’t need to do as much and can slow down a little bit!

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

What is most important to you, budget or ease and convenience?

After working out your priorities, it’s good to decide what you prefer overall – to keep costs down as much as possible or to make things easier before and during the trip. Booking a package holiday is easier but often more expensive. Staying on site at Disney or Universal is convenient but adds to the cost of the holiday and getting a Disney Dining Plan can really add to the experience, give you one less thing to think about but will increase the holiday costs considerably too. 

This is one thing I will keep coming back to. Cost or convenience? It’s a decision you have to make constantly with any Orlando holiday.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

When is the best time of year to go to Orlando?

There is no best time to go to Orlando. Any time is a good time to holiday in Florida! When to go to Orlando is a big decision but one that is often dictated by certain things. Are you restricted to school holidays? Are you happy to take your children out of school? Are you able to go at any time of the year? Do you want to avoid the heat of the summer months?

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

There really is no low season in Orlando anymore. There are definite peak times – when Disney World have festivals and parties to add to the excitement as well as public holidays. But, outside of that, Orlando is a busy, exciting place and time of year doesn’t really bring the crowd levels down very much.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

We have always tried to go the second half of the summer holidays as American schools are back which reduces crowds very slightly. However, many people like to go at Easter or two weeks across one of the UK half term holidays. Christmas is obviously popular too – although it can be unexpectedly cold.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

One other thing that may dictate when you go to Orlando is the height restrictions of the rides. Will your children be tall enough to experience everything that they want to? 40 inches tall, or 102cm, seems to be the most popular time to take children to Disney World, although some of the best rollercoasters like Expedition Everest, Avatar Flight of Passage and Space Mountain require a height of at least 44 inches, or 113cm.

At Universal more of the rides have a higher minimum height to go on them – the main reason we didn’t do the Universal parks on our first trip. It’s definitely worth checking your children’s heights against the ride listings on the Disney and Universal websites to make sure they can go on as much as you’d like them to ahead of booking.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

How long to go for?

Some people go to Orlando for a week, others for the whole six weeks of the summer holidays. The first time we went it was for two weeks but since then both our trips have been three weeks purely because it’s expensive to get to Orlando and so being there for longer makes it feel cheaper overall, and there is so much to do in and around Orlando that two weeks doesn’t feel long enough to us anymore! Three weeks means we have time to relax as well as go on big, busy days out.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

But, how long to go to Orlando for is a really personal thing. Budget will play a big part. You may also have a certain amount of annual leave from work. You may have other commitments at home. But, one thing is for sure, you’ll always have things to fill a longer holiday with. And however long you go for you will always be sad to leave! That said, many people go for a week or 10 days and have the trip of a lifetime. Have a holiday that is right for you, whether that is a week long or a month.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Do you have a rough budget?

A holiday to Orlando will never be cheap. Flights, accomodation, park tickets, food… It all adds up. And the actual cost will depend on what you want to do whilst you’re in there. Just doing the Disney parks will be cheaper than adding in Universal Studios Florida, Discovery Cove, Seaworld and anything else.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

As a family of four, with children who are pretty much classed as adults at the major theme parks where ticket prices are concerned, and wanting to do as much as possible whilst we’re there, we always have a ballpark budget of £10,000 for a 3 week summer holiday to Florida, not including spending whilst we are there – food, souvenirs, petrol, toll costs etc. But this includes our airport parking, direct flights, car hire, villa accomodation and tickets to Disney, Universal, the Seaworld parks including a day at Discovery Cove, Legoland and the Kennedy Space Center.

But, if we only wanted to do Disney, wanted to eat out every night, wanted to stay on site at Disney or simply booked a Florida package holiday, this budget could vary massively. As a guide, if we had our same flights, the same holiday dates and stayed in a hotel in the Lake Buena Vista area, relying on public transport so saving the cost of a hire car, and only doing the Disney parks, our ballpack cost would reduce to around £6500 when booking everything ourselves.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

On the flip side, if we did a two week holiday, with direct flights, staying at the cheapest Disney World resort – Disney’s All-Star Music Resort at the time of writing – and booking through Disney Holidays, it would cost a minimum of £8,600 without a dining plan, or £11,300 with a quick service dining plan, or £13,000 to include the full dining plan. This doesn’t include airport parking, car hire or any other attraction tickets.

The cost will also depend on your party size, the age of your children and any additional requirements you might have. It’s worth playing around with different booking websites to see how the costs can vary depending on your travel dates.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

When is the best time to start booking everything?

A lot of people say to start booking as soon as possible – but some people also leave things to the last minute. For us, we start to book as soon as flights are released around 11 months before we plan to travel. Flights are one thing that can vary massively in cost and so they are one of the first things we book.

However, if you are looking to book a package direct with Disney or through a travel agent like Tui, you can book 18 months to 2 years in advance and pay over time with just a small deposit. However, I would say that it’s best to start looking at prices then but take some time to compare offers and look for good deals. 

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Book a package or a DIY trip?

I’ve mentioned a few times already the choice of booking a package holiday or booking everything yourself. Package holidays include accomodation and flights but can also include a car and dining plan. They usually cost more but often come with perks like being able to pay them off over time, getting free gifts like gift cards and you can get price guarantees if costs reduce and are obviously easier than booking everything yourself.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Here are a few providers of Disney World / Universal package holidays:

However, there is the option of booking everything yourself – which is what we always choose to do. For us, it’s about the cost. Booking everything separately and by ourselves reduces the cost. It’s that simple.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Book flights or accomodation first?

If you book a package, you book flights and accomodation at the same time. Everything lines up nicely, dates match and off you go. But, when booking a Disney holiday yourself, do you book accomodation or flights first? 

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

For us, we always book flights first. Flight costs vary massively depending on the day that you travel and for us getting good value flights is a priority when travelling to Florida. After that, we can book accomodation easily that fits with the dates of our flights. 

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

However, a lot of people find a hotel deal that is too good to pass up or find a villa that they love and book them ahead of sourcing flights. Many hotels and villas offer flexible booking so dates can be changed if needed.

Really, this comes down to personal choice. For us, flights, accomodation and then everything else makes sense. But, if you see an accomodation deal that you just can’t pass up – go for it, as long as it offers flexible booking.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

What flights should you book?

With the cost of flights rising, it’s not as simple as just booking flights from your local airport direct to Orlando International Airport. It’s often cheaper to travel to a different UK airport and fly direct or fly indirect, stopping off in the most random of places before hopping on a connecting flight.

You can also fly into Orlando International Airport or other smaller local airports Orlando Sanford International Airport or Melbourne Orlando International Airport. For more options, Tampa International Airport is only about a 90 minute drive from Orlando and Miami International Airport is about a 3 hour drive away.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

We always book flights through British Airways as we collect Avios points to bring the cost down. We’ve recently taken out a British Airways Avios credit card to collect Avios points but we also get an annual companion voucher, basically giving us a free flight in the future.

But, many people also get flights through Virgin Atlantic, Aer Lingus or Norse Atlantic Airways. I find it best to look at a comparison site like Skyscanner to find the cheapest flights that work for our dates. Like with anything, it pays to be flexible on dates and flights are generally cheaper if you can fly midweek rather than at a weekend and it goes without saying that flights outside of school holidays are often noticeably cheaper too. 

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Hotel or villa?

Whether to stay in a hotel or villa is another really personal choice. I wrote about why we chose a villa over a hotel here. It’s a decision we made ahead of our first, multi generational trip to Florida and one we’ve stuck by for subsequent trips. A villa will always win over a hotel for us.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Villas are great if you want more space or your own pool. It’s also a great choice for a holiday with more people – extended family or friends. It’s a real home from home, your own little piece of tranquility away from the hustle and bustle of the theme parks and attractions.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

But, hotels are often cheaper and more convenient. They’re often closer to the parks, can have breakfast included – or a full dining plan if you stay on site at Disney – and many have shuttle buses or the official Disney transport options to take you to and from the theme parks each day.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Whenever we have researched hotels and villas, we have found hotels to be cheaper generally. Many offer suites or apartments with full size kitchens and are pretty close to the facilities you’d expect at a villa – but with a shared swimming pool and neighbours above, below or next to your apartment or room.

But, hotels can also be really cheap if you’re happy to compromise on facilities. If you’re happy to all stay in one room or connecting rooms and just use the hotel as a base, you can find lovely hotels that are really affordable and close to the Orlando theme parks. 

Here are some places we’d recommend to find Orlando hotels or villas:

We booked our first villa through Debbie’s Villas and the service was fantastic. But the last two villas we have booked through Airbnb purely because they were much more affordable.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Just Disney? Just Universal? Both?

It’s good to decide whether to go to Disney, Universal, both or neither during your trip. This will be a big part of the cost and will also sway a lot of other decisions you make for your holiday. We decided to leave Universal until the children were big enough to go on enough rides, as I mentioned earlier.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Universal has amazing rides, many with great effects and technology. There are also a few character meets, fantastic shows and wonderful theming – the Harry Potter and Simpsons areas especially are a sight to behold!

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Disney has rides for all ages including great roller coasters. There are so many characters to meet, hidden mickeys to spot, shows, parades and just full on Disney magic. The Star Wars parts are pretty special too.

From the UK, the best value option is to buy 14 day tickets to Disney and/or Universal. Disney tickets are nearly always on offer as ’14 days for the price of 7′ too. As a guide, for 2024 holidays, Disney tickets cost from £559 per adult  and Universal tickets cost from £334 per adult. Disney often have promotions where you can get adult tickets for the price of children’s tickets, saving about £50 per ticket.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Do you need a car?

Not everyone who goes to Orlando needs to hire a car. For us, staying in a villa and having a few long distance days out planned, we always need a car. But, if you’re staying at a hotel in the Disney area you could make use of Uber or Lyft as well as shuttle buses to get around.

If you do hire a car, here are some companies that you can hire a car through:

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

The ever increasing car parking costs in Orlando

One thing to be aware of when debating whether you need a car is the parking costs at all the theme parks. It costs $30 per day to park at Disney theme parks – unless you are staying at most Disney hotels. Then parking is complimentary at both the theme parks and Disney hotels.

It also costs $30 per day to park at the Universal theme parks and parking charges also apply if you are staying at Universal Resort hotels. Even attractions like Sea World and Legoland Florida have parking charges – $30 per day. This is definitely a cost to factor into your holiday plans as it really does add up.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Toll charges and how to deal with them

Toll charges are another cost in Orlando that really do add up. On our first visit to Orlando we really weren’t prepared and had to pay cash at so many toll booths. However, many car hire companies offer a toll pass and on our last holiday we discovered the Orlando Visitor Toll Pass which we would now always recommend. You can read more about it here.

Using the toll pass we paid $11 in tolls which felt like a bargain – we had paid a lot more on our first trip paying cash and car rental companies add fees to each toll they collect through their toll pass schemes. 

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

What else do you want to do during your trip?

As well as Disney and Universal there are so many other things to do during an Orlando trip. Here are a few posts with ideas of things to do on your holiday:

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Some of our favourite things to do are a day at Discovery Cove – with or without a dolphin swim – as it really is pure relaxation and such a lovely way to spend a day. Plus, you can often get packages that include entry to Seaworld Orlando, Aquatica and Busch Gardens Tampa for 14 days too

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

We also love to drive to Kennedy Space Center. It’s a really educational day out and blows us away every time we visit. If you have even a passing interest in space you will love a day at KSC. It’s well worth a day trip.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Legoland Florida is another favourite place to spend a day. The Miniland is fantastic, they have great rides and the outdoor air conditioning units are life changing! Plus, the Lego water skiing show is one of the best Lego shows we have seen. It’s a great day out – and home to the Peppa Pig Theme Park too.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Water parks are plentiful in Orlando and are always a great day out too. Seaworld’s Aquatica water park is our favourite but there’s also Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park and Blizzard Beach Water Park or Universal’s Volcano Bay Water Park. All are a fantastic day out with slides, rides and activities.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Where to buy theme park tickets

There are so many places to buy theme park tickets and the most trusted are direct through the theme parks. However, we have also used the following sites on a few occasions:

You can also get a lot of excursions, escorted tours and days out including transport from Viator. It’s where we organise many excursions when we travel and have a great range of things like airboat tours and trips to Kennedy Space Center and Legoland Florida that you could make the most of even if you don’t have a hure car.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

More importantly than where to buy tickets is when to buy them. We have always found the Black Friday sales to be the best time to book – and booked pretty much all our day out tickets and theme park passes in the last Black Friday sale on Orlando Attraction Tickets, Floridatix and Undercover Tourist. Also, The DIBB has a fantastic forum for finding out deals and special offers as well as getting answers to any questions you might have.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Day out upgrades, special events, tours and extra experiences

As well as park tickets, there are many extra upgrades that can add to your Orlando holiday experience. All of the theme parks offer photo passes and passes to skip the queues – although Disney tickets purchased in the UK include Memory Maker as standard, a really fantastic photo pass.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

We have made lightsabers at Hollywood Studios, had lunch in Cinderella’s Castle, dined with orcas at Seaworld and been on a Seaventure at Discovery Cove. But there is so much more that we would love to do. 

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

At Disney there are behind the scenes tours, character dining experiences and private photographer sessions. Seaworld offers a chance to get up close with so many different animals, a dine with orcas experience and keeper experiences. At Discovery Cove you can swim with dolphins, do a seaventure underwater trek or mingle with the flamingos! There is so much on offer and so many new experiences to try.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Here are quick links to all the upgrades on offer:


Dining options during your Orlando vacation

What you do about eating during your Orlando trip is really down to budget and personal preference. We have a couple of nice meals out during our trip and the rest of the time we eat in our villa. Plus, we take snacks and things to the theme parks to make things a little bit cheaper.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

But, there are so many restaurants in and around the main theme parks to suit all budgets, dietary requirements and tastes – plus many home delivery and takeaway options if you have cooking facilities and don’t want to cook.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Dinner shows are a big business in Orlando and you can choose whether to dine with pirates, knights or even the mob! You can read about all the available choices here.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

The theme parks – aside from the Seaworld ones – all let you take snacks and packed lunches in with you. This really helps to keep costs down. Plus, they all have water stations so take refillable bottles with you. Buying bottled water in the parks is very expensive – around $6 for a 500ml bottle on our last trip. Although crates of bottled water are super cheap in the supermarkets.

You can also buy refillable drinks cups at the theme parks giving discounted refills for the duration of your trip – and Disney have refillable popcorn buckets too!


Disney Dining Plans

When you book a Disney hotel stay you can often add on a Dining Plan. You can choose either a Quick Service Dining Plan – of counter service meals – or the standard Disney Dining Plan which includes table service meals.

Each dining plan includes two meals a day plus a drink with each meal, a snack or drink and a resort refillable mug which can be refilled at any Disney resort hotel.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

If you have a Disney dining plan credits for the food and snacks are added to your account at the start of your holiday and you can use more or less each day. But, things like character dining experiences use multiple dining credits – so one character meal might be the equivalent of two days meal tokens. This just means you’d have to pay for your dinner on another night to compensate. You can find out more about dining plans and how they work here.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Advance Dining Reservations

Many Disney restaurants require you to book a table with an Advance Dining Reservation – or ADR through the My Disney Experience App. These reservations can be made up to 60 days before your holiday – and you get an extra 10 days to book if you’re staying at a Disney hotel. 

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Popular restaurants get booked up quickly – often as soon as the ADR booking opens. But, you can keep going back into the app and checking for tables as people will often change their plans and release their table even up to the day of the booking. Don’t be disheartened if you can’t book what you want straight away. Persevere.

Here are some ideas of places to eat across the Orlando area:

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Shopping in Orlando

We are not big shoppers on holiday – aside from buying a few souvenirs. But, if shopping is your thing then Orlando has many places to indulge! There are malls, outlets and big shopping and entertainment areas all around Orlando. Here are some recommendations:

Disney Springs at Walt Disney World Resort

Disney Springs is home to a wide range of dining and entertainment options as well as more than 100 retailers that range from popular brands to Disney-themed shops.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Universal CityWalk at Universal Studios Resort

Known as the Epicenter of Awesome, Universal CityWalk at Universal Orlando Resort is a blend of shops and boutiques plus themed restaurants, dance clubs and entertainment like mini-golf and escape rooms.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

The Mall at Millenia

Located close to Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld Orlando, The Mall at Millenia is full of luxury boutiques and popular brands. It’s home to 150 stores, services and restaurants.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

The Florida Mall

The Florida Mall is Central Florida’s largest shopping center and just 25 minutes from Walt Disney World Resort and Orlando International Airport. It’s home to the Crayola Experience, American Girl, Game Park and escape rooms as well as so many shops and restaurants and coves 1.8 million square feet!

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores

Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores is near Walt Disney World Resort and home to 50 of the world’s best-known outlet stores.

Orlando International Premium Outlets

Located on International Drive, close to Universal Orlando Resort, Orlando International Premium Outlets is Florida’s largest outlet shopping center with over 700,000 square feet of discount prices.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets

A slightly smaller version of its sister outlet center, Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets features outlet stores for every need and budget.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Do you really need a spreadsheet?

I know many people who go to Orlando have spreadsheets and people who haven’t been before can’t believe that any holiday would need that level of planning. But, honestly, spreadsheets make everything easier.

I always have a spreadsheet of our plans for each day – including dining plans. I also write down what rides we’re hoping to go on at each park and I have a list of other things to do if we have time.

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

But, if you are staying on resort at Disney World and have a dining plan, or are looking to eat at Disney quite a lot, you will probably need a spreadsheet to keep track of dining reservations – which ones you’ve booked, which ones you’re hoping to book etc.

As you can see, Disney World planning is a whole other level. If you are planning a trip to Orlando to primarily be a Disney World vacation then you will probably have a lot more planning to do. But, enjoy it! Reading menus and planning whether to go somewhere for lunch or dinner is part of the fun! Create spreadsheets with pride.

Here are some spreadsheet templates and printables you might find useful:

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

What can you plan in advance?

You can pretty much plan the whole of an Orlando holiday in advance but, it’s nice to not be too regimented and allow things to change. Dining reservations can be moved, which day you’re at which park can change as you no longer need to book the theme parks in advance, and it’s nice to sometimes just go with the flow.

The things we book in advance are airport parking, flights, accomodation, car hire and theme park entry tickets. We also book a few dining reservations during the 60 day window and any upgrade experiences that we want to do. 

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

But, what we do each day we keep really flexible. One thing we’ve learnt, especially when travelling in August, is you can’t bank on the weather. Often our plans get rained out or we’re just too tired and need a break. Plan, plan, plan but be prepared to change those plans too. 


Apps, apps, apps!

There are apps for pretty much all the theme parks and they do really help not just with planning but also logistics during your visit – with maps, facilities and timings all available straight to your phone. Here are some of the apps that could help your planning:

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

Get cashback on your holiday

One thing to always do is get as much cashback as you can on your holiday. Go through a cashback site for everything from airport parking to flights and car hire and book it using a credit card – for the added security you get but also to make the most of any rewards the credit card offers. Here are some sites and offers to make the most of:

Our top tips for Planning an Orlando Holiday

I hope that has helped give you some help and also reassurance when it comes to planning your Orlando trip. Whether you are doing a Disney vacation package, staying at Universal or are staying in a villa and doing a bit of everything like us, I hope you have a great time – and enjoy the planning as much as we do!

Here are a few more posts that might help give you even more inspiration:

Also, it’s worth noting that there are specialised Orlando vacation planning services and many independent travel agents who will be happy to help you plan your dream vacation. But, like with anything, it will come at a cost – whether they actually charge you directly or simply get commission from the services they book for you. It will always be in their best interests for you to spend as much money as possible. This is why I’d always advise buying a simple package holiday or booking the components yourself directly.

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