Friday Five: Orlando Theme Parks Guide

Okay, okay, joke’s over. I read something on The Daily Post about having an Aprils’ Fool post and decided it might be fun to try my hand at it. With that, I also wanted to go back to one of my central ideas on this blog: getting a local’s perspective in every place we travel and avoiding stereotyping places we visit. If you go to a country where they speak a different language, try to pick up a few words and phrases so you can at least be polite on the streets, or connect with a local friend who can show you around. And I’m sorry for bashing on Pisa. While it may not be on the top of my list, I’d love to visit this small city and see the Field of Miracles and impressive cathedral in the city one day. Now, with that said and done, I have some other things on my agenda today.

IMG_8441Walt Disney World is one of the biggest vacation destinations in the world, and Universal Studios now packs in the crowds with all of its new Harry Potter attractions. I went to the parks over spring break with my sister Emma to celebrate her getting her master’s degree in math (Congrats, Emma!). Before we went, I did some research and discovered that’s it difficult to find many bloggers writing about Disney and Universal. People all post the same crowd-beating tips, Instagram the Grey Stuff (“It’s Delicious”), and rave about the Butterbeer, but what else is there to planning a great theme parks vacation? Today, I have a couple of tips to help you plan your next Disney & Universal vacation.

1.) Food–Theme park food is notoriously not the greatest. Turkey leg vendors abound (still have yet to try one of these massive and IMG_8440surprisingly red turkey legs, but I don’t think I ever will), and it can be tough to find some good, lighter options around the parks. Emma and I managed to pull through a couple of times here with some good options. The Yak & Yeti in Animal Kingdom has a roasted veggie and couscous wrap which is a simple departure from some of the fried options at the parks. Both of the Harry Potter sections of Universal have some better dining choices as well. The Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade has British pub fare, and The Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley does more of the same. In my opinion, the Leaky Cauldron has some better items on their menu, and, to be perfectly honest, the fish & chips were actually tasty and satisfying. At any rate, both of these restaurants are a good bet for trying the popular frozen Butterbeer without the lines you’ll find at the carts around the two parks. Florean Fortescue’s has weird flavors of IMG_8437Wizard ice cream in Diagon Alley. I liked the earl gray lavender, and Emma and I both raved over the strawberry-peanut butter ice cream. I’d stick to their hard ice cream though, because their soft serve isn’t the greatest, though pretty.

Finally, the best dining option in both parks is the Be Our Guest Restaurant in Magic Kingdom. Though it’s a pricier option, theme park food is typically overpriced, so you may as well eat well while paying a lot. They serve tasty French and French-American dishes and have small dessert plates, like the popular Grey Stuff. If you would like to go, book now. You need reservations about six months in advance.

IMG_84422.) Rides–Another important thing to give some thought to before heading to the parks is how you’ll tackle rides. When you go on a theme park vacation, you’re really going on a wait in line vacation. If you stay at a Universal hotel, you can get an express pass which lets you hop the line for everything but the big Harry Potter rides (Gringotts and the Forbidden Journey inside Hogwarts Castle). You’re bound to wait for a long time even in the single rider line for Gringotts and the Forbidden Journey, so have some fun waiting-in-line games up your sleeve. To break up some of the waiting at Universal, though, head to the Revenge of the Mummy: it’s one of the best rides the park has to offer and almost never has a wait, even for the regular line.

At Disney, download the Disney app and plan out which three rides you’d like to grab the Fastpass for. At Magic Kingdom, I recommend getting the pass for Peter Pan, Thunder and Splash Mountains. Peter Pan is a classic ride that you shouldn’t miss, but it’s a silly ride to wait such a long time for. Thunder & Splash Mountains don’t have long waits at night during the parade, so go then for sure, but the Fastpass is worth it as well. Finally, Space Mountain is one that isn’t terrible to wait in line for: though there’s usually a long wait, it’s inside and air-conditioned. As far as Animal Kingdom is concerned, try to snag the Fastpass for Everest, the safari, and Dinosaur (doesn’t seem like much but actually great).

The Disney app is also useful for checking on wait times, but use it with a grain of salt. Everyone else has the app and is checking which lines are short, so the good old-fashioned walk-by-and-see-how-long-the-wait-is might be the better way to avoid lines.

IMG_84383.) Dole Whips–This one is pretty simple, but at Aloha Isle in Magic Kingdom make sure to try a Dole Whip or Dole Whip Float. These vanilla and pineapple soft serve swirls can be enjoyed on their own or with pineapple juice and are the perfect, refreshing treat after a long day waiting in lines.

4.) General park “hacks”–One piece of advice from my aunt from Orlando is to go clockwise in Magic Kingdom. Apparently, people instinctually go to the right, so wait times might be better if you veer the other way. Another important thing to know is when parades and fireworks shows are happening, because wait times tend to plummet at these points. However, if there’s a parade and it starts to pour, all hell breaks loose. On our last night in Magic Kingdom, Emma and I took advantage of the rain and the parade and enjoyed super short lines for Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain. But when we tried to get out of the park to make it back to our shuttle, there was a mass exodus of people wanting to get out of the rain, so we ended up missing our shuttle and having to pay for a taxi instead. The long and short of it is, when it rains, everything goes to sh*t.

IMG_84395.) Getting Around–Orlando has tricky public transit, and Mears has a monopoly on airport and park shuttles. There is some I-Drive trolley which can take you from Universal to other places in the area, but service is limited and people don’t give it good marks. Mears ends up being a pretty decent deal: it’s $20 round trip from Universal hotels to the Disney parks. While you might have to stop at other hotels and parks first, you generally get there within an hour.

So, there you have it: my stab at a semi-comprehensive Disney and Universal guide. If you’re feeling adventurous, there’s also Orlando’s Gatorland where you can get some fried gator nuggets. Sea World is another big park, but it’s been catching flack lately due to controversial Blackfish.

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