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

How to Plan a Florida Vacation!

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.

We are planning to go in May 2018, and we began planning last month, about one year ahead. So please consider this post the 12 months out step, even though it’s now 11 months until we go. I’ll publish an update every month to guide you through the planning each step of the way.

Now, the kids know nothing about this yet! A year is a long time to have two small people constantly asking if we go tomorrow! So, we’ll be surprising them with the big news much nearer the time. It’s your call how you approach this. Maybe your kids are a bit older and would enjoy being part of the initial planning stages. If so, go for it! I’m looking forward to the days when my gang can help pick the resort we stay at without going crazy waiting for departure day!

So, the first thing you need to do, about a year ahead of travelling, is take some time to consider these four elements:

  • Budget
  • Duration of stay
  • Your party, and any unique needs
  • What kind of vacation you want this to be

Let’s get into some detail…

Budget

Maybe you already have the funds saved up, this is definitely the sensible way to do it. But perhaps you are budgeting in advance, knowing you will have it all covered in time. Either way, you need to know your budget before you book. This will help you determine everything else, from where you stay, how you travel, how long you go for, whether you get the dining plan or not… everything.

You should think about what you are comfortable spending on each of these general categories:

  • Accommodation
  • Flights/travel
  • Food
  • Souvenirs
  • Car Hire
  • Park Tickets

Now, some of these are relatively fixed, such as park tickets, but others are highly variable. Your budget will likely play a significant role in determining whether you stay at a Walt Disney World resort, a Universal one, or another hotel or villa off site. There are pros and cons to each of these options, which I will talk about more in my next post in the series. Where you decide to stay will also determine whether you decide to rent a car or not. If you’re staying on property at WDW, and are not planning to check out much else in or near Orlando, then you probably don’t need to hire a car. Guests staying on site have access to free Disney transportation between parks and resorts, and on the whole, it’s pretty good. When we went in 2012, we just hired a car for a few days when we scheduled out days at Universal. This kept the costs down. We managed just fine without a car for the rest of the two weeks we were there, despite having a small baby with us.

It’s easy, when browsing package vacations online or in brochures, to see the cost per person and think it seems totally reasonable and doable, without thinking of the other costs associated with the trip. Don’t forget about eating while you’re there! This can be extremely costly. There are ways to mitigate the costs and save a bit of money, again, there will be more on this in a later post, but you need to factor it into your budget from the outset. Same goes for other spending money whilst away, and any other parks or destinations you intend to visit whilst in Florida, such as Sea World, the Kennedy Space Centre, Busch Gardens, and so on.

Duration

This will be determined by your budget and the needs of your family. When I was 11, me and my parents went to Orlando for just 5 days and had a blast. We only went to Magic Kingdom, of the WDW parks, but we also went to Wet ‘n’ Wild, Universal Studios and Busch Gardens.

The two times I have been as an adult, with my young children and all of my husband’s family, we went for two weeks. When travelling from thousands of miles away, it’s a good idea to consider the time it takes to travel, the recovery from that (hello, jetlag), and how long you will need to make the most of your trip. It’s often very economical to go for two weeks instead of one, with the price not being as much more as you might think.

But for our next trip, we are going all out and staying for three weeks! This might sound crazy to some folks, but for us, it makes a lot of sense. Both our previous trips were interrupted with brief illnesses (I blame economy flights and all those germs percolating in a pressurised cabin). There is so much to do, especially if you want to go away from Disney for a bit, and the weather is so hot for most of the year – us Brits with fair complexions have to think about our sun exposure! Both previous trips were exhausting and we would prefer to pace ourselves. When you stay at a Disney resort, one of the perks is Extra Magic Hours; when one of the parks opens early or stays open late for resort guests. When you can plan to take advantage of this, you can easily retreat from the sun and busy parks during the peak of the day (roughly 12 noon-3pm), then head back out late afternoon for a few more hours.

We want to do this and still have time to do everything we want to do. We don’t want to be contending with blisters, sunburn, fatigue and so on; all perils of this kind of holiday.

Your Party

This is very much wrapped up in the above point; consider who is travelling with you and what they need from the experience. How many adults? How many children? Anyone with accessibility needs? Anyone autistic? These things will be important in deciding where you stay and how long for. What are the unique needs of your party?

Last time we went, we were a party of 5 adults, and 6 children, including a baby only a couple of months old. One of the adults had recently had a hip replacement, too. So we had to consider this in deciding where to stay and how to structure our vacation. For example, we hired cars for the entire duration, rather than just a few days like the previous trip, so that we had more transport options for the less mobile members of our family.

What Kind of Vacation Do You Want?

This might seem like a daft question, but it really isn’t. It’s not a simple matter of Florida = Theme Parks and Thrills. A Florida holiday can be a slow and relaxing one; with ample golf, sunbathing, and spa treatments. It might involve exclusively Disney, or completely avoid WDW! You might want the high-adrenaline of Universal at Halloween (totally on my bucket list for when the kids are older!), or the awesome experience of seeing a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral. All mod cons and luxury? Or rustic wilderness?

Disney has a resort for everything. Never mind the myriad of non-Disney options.

If you’ve decided on staying at a Disney resort, think about which park or parks you’re likely to visit most on your vacation. If you have young children, that’s likely to be Magic Kingdom; older kids might be keen to spend several days at Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios; adults only may get most out of Epcot (though there is lots for kids too!). Consider this when looking at the resorts and their locations. Think about transport. WDW is huge, it can be a fairly long bus ride out to Animal Kingdom, for example, so if that’s your top destination, consider staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge.

My point is: do your research!

I highly recommend the following sites for all your Florida vacation prep needs (I am not affiliated with any of these sites or companies and only ever recommend people or products that I have used myself):

Walt Disney World – official travel site

WDW Prep School

Disney Tourist Blog

WDWInfo

Universal Orlando – official site

And you can’t beat Pinterest! Check out my Florida board!

Now, I’ve gone and dumped a whole load of information on you, I’m sorry. After what I said up top about overwhelm. Well, I want to help you beat the overwhelm and plan the vacation of a lifetime! So take a look at my free printable worksheet. This should help guide you through the initial planning stage and focus your thoughts. I’ve also included a basic planning schedule, with reminders of when you will need to organise the different aspects of your trip and plenty of space for notes.

WDW Walt Disney World vacation holiday planning worksheet free printable

Florida Vacation Planning Worksheet

Next Month: Accommodation