Planning a Florida Vacation! – 7 Months To Go – It’s Not All About Disney!

So, as some of you may know, my family is somewhat obsessed with going to Florida. We went when the Munchkin was a toddler and the Bean was a baby. We went again a few years later, and we are planning another trip next year!

I absolutely LOVE planning these holidays. I love the magic of Walt Disney World and the epic fun of Universal Orlando. I spend hours and hours in between vacations browsing Pinterest, reading Disney blogs, watching vlogs and everything. It brings me so much joy! But it is also extremely practical because this kind of vacation takes an enormous amount of planning and if it’s your first time, it can get overwhelming.

So, I decided to share the obsessive planning magic, and write a blog series to guide other families through this process, from start to finish, in real time.

 

Walt Disney World WDW planning a Florida vacation holiday

One year is really the ideal time-frame in which to plan a holiday of this magnitude, especially if you are travelling to Florida from outside the United States, like we are. About twelve months out from travelling is when many of the offers are announced and the most popular accommodation can book up this far in advance too.

It is possible to grab a late bargain, of course, and if this is how your family rolls, then that’s terrific, go for it! But this series probably won’t be for you. This is one for the planners, the organisers, the folks who want or need to get their travel plans firmed up well in advance.

You can catch up with this series here:

  1. 12 Months – Initial Planning
  2. 11 Months – Accommodation
  3. 10 Months – Dining Plan
  4. 9 Months – Saving Up & Booking Flights
  5. 8 Months – Fit for Florida!

7 Months To Go: Must-Do Attractions – It’s Not All About Disney!

I’m going to cover touring plans next month when I’ll also be guiding you through making your advanced dining reservations. But for this month, the focus is on narrowing down the things we want to do on this trip.

I started by quickly assessing what had worked and what didn’t work on our previous Florida vacations.

We’ve been twice and still not been to the Kennedy Space Centre, for example, despite it being something we’d talked about both times. We had even scheduled a day for it last time but ended up changing our plans due to the weather. We’re determined to make it this time.

We’ve still yet to get all the way around Epcot World Showcase and have tended to eat at the same restaurants each time too. So we want to get some more variety into this trip. I have already researched all of the dining options around all of Walt Disney World and created a shortlist (which is still really long – haha!) of places to eat. I made sure to do this nice and early due to the aforementioned Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs), which guests staying on-site can book 180 days prior to arrival. For us, that’s next month!

We’ve also not been to SeaWorld on previous trips because we were boycotting them due to their unethical orca program. I was pleased to learn about SeaWorld ending the breeding program and orca shows, in favour of a “natural encounter”. However, the majestic animals are dying in rather disturbing numbers at the San Diego centre, so I think we’ll still need to give this park, and those owned by them, a miss this time. This includes Busch Gardens, Aquatica and Discovery Cove. One day, when SeaWorld has cleaned up its act, we will choose to spend our money there.

Universal

Universal Studios Orlando, main gate

(c) H.B. Lyne 2015

I have to confess, despite my love of Disney, and us choosing to stay at a WDW resort, my favourite theme park in Orlando, is actually Universal Islands of Adventure! Parts of Universal also rank in the top 2 or 3 attractions for our kids.

This is in no small part down to the epic scope and detail of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Split into two areas; one at Universal Studios, the other at IOA, connected via a ride on the Hogwarts Express, this amazing experience is an absolute must for any fan of the books or movies. The detail is exquisite, the rides are epic, the shops are amazing and the whole experience is worth the huge park ticket fee on its own.

On our first trip in 2012, the Munchkin spent one delighted, if wet afternoon going on the Flight of the Hippogriff ride over and over again while there was no queue!

In 2015, the highlight was the the Jurassic Park area, in particular, the River Adventure ride. I also have a massive sweet spot for the Suess Landing area of IOA, which is packed with lovely references to the books and has some of the most fun rides for the whole family of any theme park in the area. When in a silly mood, our family will still sometimes burst into spontaneous singing of the song from the One Fish, Two Fish ride!

Universal Islands of Adventure, Florida, Seuss Landing

We’ll be allowing 4 days for Universal, as they also have a water park now, Volcano Bay. With the Park-to-Park ticket, you can move between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure as much as you like throughout the day. This is definitely worth doing, as it gives you access to the Hogwarts Express and then you can assess queue times and adjust your touring plan based on crowd levels across the two parks, travelling back and forth to find the shortest lines.

Universal doesn’t offer guests any free Express Passes. You have to pay extra for these and the price is extremely steep, which is a major gripe I have with the parks. The price is simply going to be out of reach for a significant proportion of families, giving the wealthy a very different park experience to everyone else.

Disney gives every guest 3 FastPasses, with guests staying on site able to book them 60 days in advance. If you’re staying at some of Universal’s resorts you do also get the Express Pass included. So if Universal is your primary destination, rather than Walt Disney World, and you can afford one of the more luxurious resorts, then this perk is going to add heaps of value to your stay. It’s probably worth booking the better resort rather than one of the cheaper ones just for this, to be honest.

Universal is absolutely doable without the Express Pass, but you will have to be prepared to give some rides a miss or wait in 60-90 minute lines for a few of them. But with the app on your phone, you can keep an eye on wait times and dash about the park to jump into the shorter lines.

With young children, I’m not prepared to wait in a line longer than 30 minutes. It’s a waste of our valuable time in the parks.

Some other options for families trying to fit in as many rides as possible include:

  • Single Rider lines: these are usually much shorter than the main queue. So if you don’t mind splitting up for some rides, this can be an effective way to save time.
  • Parent Swap: for the bigger rides that your kids are too small for, parents can take advantage of the opportunity to wait in a special area near the exit with the kids while one parent rides, then when they exit the ride, the other parent can go straight on without having to stand in line.

Plan Your Top Picks

Now is a good time to look at park maps online and research things like height limits so you can start putting together a bucket list of individual attractions and dining experiences.

Disney announces park opening hours around 7 months ahead (any day now for us) so you can see which days the parks have Extra Magic Hours.

There is some debate over what to do about EMH in the WDW planning world! Some bloggers recommend avoiding the parks with EMH as the crowds are typically higher. While others suggest taking advantage of these longer hours in order to get the most value out of your park tickets.

I’m somewhere in the middle. What we found worked really well was booking a character breakfast inside a park with early opening. That way we get in well ahead of the queues and can get on a (gentle!) ride or two early before the crowds arrive after we’ve filled up on a good meal. Then we leave the park to chill out at the hotel or head to a different park for a while.

Likewise, the evening EMHs mean you can stay away during the heat of the day, then head back for the evening and enjoy the different atmosphere, watch the nighttime shows and events and ride some rides in the dark!

Once you know which parks have EMH on which days, and whether you want to attend or avoid the parks during these times, then you can make a rough plan for which parks to attend on which days. That way, when your ADRs become available you already know which restaurants you want to secure bookings for on which days and for which meals.

I plan our entire trip around these reservations because some of them are hard to come by! Cinderella’s Royal Table, for example, notoriously books out very quickly. So come countdown day 180, I will be at my computer with my list, ready to book as soon as the bookings open up for day 1 of our trip!!

On that note, I’m now going to give you a sneak peek at my Trello board for planning this vacation.

Trello board for planning a Florida vacation

This is my board. I have a column on the left for key dates to remember in our planning schedule.

Then a list for each park (not all pictured above). I’ve assigned coloured labels for each park to help see at a glance which park is detailed in which list. These labels will then come in useful in later lists for planning which park/s to do on which days.

In each list, I have cards for rides, attractions, dining and character meets for each park; both for old favourites and new things we want to prioritise this time.

Trello board for Orlando holiday planning

This is what a card looks like. A quick description of what’s on the card, followed by a checklist of rides we want to try.

Trello board for planning an Orlando vacation at Walt Disney World and Universal

On a Trello board, you create as many lists as you need, scrolling to the right to see more. This is the next section over. You can see the rest of our destinations here.

Trello planning board for our Florida holiday

Scrolling further over to the right, I have created lists for each day of our vacation and listed a preliminary destination on each card, although these are almost certain to change once we know the park opening hours.

As we add dining reservations and fast passes to our schedule, new cards will go into each list detailing our touring plans.

That about wraps up the planning for this month! Thanks for reading. I hope this post has been useful. Next month I’ll be going into greater depth on booking those Advanced Dining Reservations, and my top picks for places to eat.

Next Month: Advanced Dining Reservations

Planning a Florida vacation - It's not all about Disney! Universal, other Orlando attractions, planning your top things to do