AVOID SUMMER HOLIDAYS IF YOU CAN
It may seem like an obvious consideration, but traveling outside of the summer holidays has more than just a financial impact. Yes there will be significant cost reductions if you avoid the school holidays, but there will also be a lot less people (i.e. queues) in the parks. If you have a low tolerance for queuing, and an even lower tolerance for screaming children, try to book your holiday outside of the traditional July-August period (as well as Easter and October half terms.) We deliberately chose a two week period over the end of September to the beginning of October so we could avoid the huge crowds and minimise queue times - and it absolutely paid off. The longest we waited for any one ride was about 35 minutes, with most having a 15 minute or less queue time; when the heat is beating down on you and you really need a wee, that can only be a good thing. Although there are still lots of kids about, the atmosphere is definitely a touch different (and the queues to meet Buzz Lightyear are basically full of 30 year olds.
TO HIRE OR NOT TO HIRE A CAR?
As British people, we often struggle to understand the concept of how vast the American landscape actually is. On a map everything may actually look pretty close together, but that may actually translate to a 45 minute journey; it's impossible to get around just by walking, so it's best to make a decision on whether you want to hire a car or rely on inter-park transport early on. Most hotels provide shuttle buses and the big parks offer trams or coaches to get you around, but depending on where you're staying you may also need to invest in an Uber tab. Having a hire car did make getting from A to B much easier, but what they don't tell you before you go is that all of the themeparks charge a daily $20 parking fee on top of the ticket price. If you're going in pretty much every day, that cost can soon add up. It's definitely worth considering your plan of action, and where you want to be located, before you start firming up any other details.
VILLAS ARE GREAT, BUT IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE
Leading on from my previous point, it's impossible to stay in a villa and not have a hire car. The villas are spread out at least 15-20 mins drive away from any one of the theme parks, let alone a shop or restaurant, so it's just not realistic to struggle on without your own transport. Our villa was located about 20 mins away from Disney and a bit more from all of the other parks, but it was also a good ten mins drive to even the closest shop; our location and reliance on a car also had an impact on what we did in an evening, as you obviously can't have a nice relaxing glass of rose when you have to drive back afterwards. Although our four bedroom villa was beautiful and gave us all the privacy we needed, if we were to go back again we'd definitely stay in one of the more central hotels just to give ourselves options; when you're on holiday you want to be able to chill out, but I spent the majority of the time driving and feeling envious of anyone with a cocktail in their hand.
BUY YOUR PARK TICKETS BEFORE YOU FLY
If you intend on spending a lot of your time in one of the many theme parks Florida has to offer, then it's advisable to book your tickets before you leave the UK. Not only do many of the UK tour operators provide discounts off the gate price, but you can buy tickets in bulk which also offers great savings. Disney often offers a special price 14 day pass which gives you access to all their parks and water attractions, while Universal Studios also bulks together their partner parks to offer much better value for money. (The two Harry Potter 'lands' are also in different parks, so make sure you get the tickets for both!) Similarly, if you book a day at Discovery Cove you also have a seven day pass to all the Seaworld attractions and owned water parks, saving you a significant amount of money. It's worth talking to your travel agent when you book your holiday to ensure you get the best deal, plus you may even be able to get a further discount off the overall price; we booked our trip during a Virgin Holidays offer period and got 10% off the entire cost, including ticket prices.
THE AIRPORT IS INCREDIBLY CONFUSING
Unlike a lot of airports (which offer clear signs and are small enough to easily navigate,) the one in Florida is huge and incredibly confusing. If you need to meet a tour operator or pick up a hire car, it's worth asking exactly where it's located before you fly. We wandered around for about 45 minutes before eventually finding where we needed to be, which is not what you want when you step off a nine hour flight after having spend another 90 minutes getting through passport control. Cue the first argument of the holiday..!
FLORIDA IS MORE THAN JUST THEME PARKS
Although it's tempting to spend the entirety of your break in the parks you've dreamt so much about, Florida is so much more than Mickey Mouse and Hogwarts Castle. There are endless malls, trips to the everglades, zoos and mini safaris, more mini golf courses than you can imagine, snorkeling and diving opportunities, huge water parks and so much more besides. You're only an hour away from the Kennedy Space Centre and a few hours drive to Miami, so make the most of your time and experience as much of what Florida has to offer as possible. Two weeks wasn't anywhere near enough, but we managed to fit in as much as we were able without coming back feeling utterly exhausted. One of my personal highlights was a trip out into the everglades to see the real Florida landscape (including crocs,) as well as the incredible experience of snorkeling with stingrays, sharks and dolphins in Discovery Cove. We also drove down to the Disney-owned town 'Celebration', which is like a 1950's timewarp, to mix with the locals and see the 'real' side of Orlando... We even joined in with their pub quiz and unsurprisingly came bottom.
WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES & HAVE A DAY OFF
You'll be doing a *lot* of walking in Florida, no doubt about it. Even one day in the park feels like you've completed a half marathon, thanks to the vastness of the attractions and the amount of time you spend on your feet. I've never been in so much pain as I was on our first full day in Disney, having worn pretty but completely impractical shoes that left me in absolute agony from my feet being unsupported. It's vital to not only invest in some shoes that will keep you comfy all day long, but to take a day out between every big park day to recover; we spent every other day doing something non-park related to give ourselves a rest, while ensuring we got to see as much of Florida as possible. Alternating days in the parks will see you appreciate every moment more, rather than rolling about in pain at the end of the day and wishing Goofy would chuck an ice bucket over you.
BE PREPARED FOR UNPREDICTABLE WEATHER
It doesn't take a genius to work out that Florida is hot, but what you may not necessarily be prepared for is the daily downpours that come as quickly as they go. Us Brits may know rain, but the rain you experience in Orlando during the hurricane season is nothing like you've ever experienced before. Between 3pm and 7pm every day (June-November) there will inevitably be some kind of downpour where you'll find yourself utterly drenched and laughing because there's absolutely no way to avoid it. Although the searing heat means you dry off pretty quickly, it's worth packing a waterproof or taking an umbrella in case it hits while you're in the middle of a park with nowhere to go for shelter. The parks do sell ponchos, but we found these would sell out pretty quickly when the weather turned!
TAKE AN EXTRA CASE; YOU WILL SHOP
Whether it's cuddly toys you pick up in Universal, photos of all your favourite moments, or simply bargains you find in the malls and outlets, you will shop - so make sure you take an extra case or bag with you. If you're there for anything more than a few days the things you pick up will slowly pile up, making for a troublesome situation when you need to pack your case to come home again. If you can take a couple of fold-down bags or cases that can be brought back as hand luggage, then that will definitely solve a lot of problems; I had to pay an excess of $40 for my heavy case, plus I had an additional carry-on bag on the way back, and I shopped quite cautiously. Be prepared!
DOCUMENT IT, BUT DON'T GO OVERBOARD
It's great to take pictures so people at home can see what you're up to, as well as creating memories you'll treaure for a long time, but don't let the need to document your every mood overpower the fact that you should be absorbing everything around you. I made a general rule that I was allowed to take my camera out at any opportunity within the first few hours, but then it went away so I could fully immerse myself in the experience. Sometimes we forget that spending our time creating the perfect image prevents us from actually creating memories that are far more precious. (However, if you are into photography and want to take a million pictures, I can't recommend the Go Pro enough.)
Have you been to Florida or would love to go? Do you have any top tips that are worth considering before you book a trip, or while you're there?
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