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Disney World & Universal Studios 2015: Travel & Planning Tips

We’re all sufficiently exhausted from a whirlwind trip to Orlando.  My man has insisted that we take the kids to Disney for as long as we’ve dated and I’ve been hesitant. Why would I want to take a vacation and be surrounded by thousands of people? It didn’t sound appealing….

Until….

My youngest daughter became obsessed with Harry Potter and wanted to visit Harry Potter World at Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando.

And….

I realized I could kick off the Christmas holidays with Mickey Mouse.

SOLD!

Here’s how we did it:

Planning

We started planning the trip at least 9 months ago. I put together an example itinerary and began doing research. My goodness, there’s a TON of research on these trips. We had to pick a date and it looked like the best dates would be around Thanksgiving. Except that EVERYONE ON THE PLANET goes at Thanksgiving and, as previously noted, I didn’t want to be crowd-bound for vacation.

[Hint: Many thanks to Orlando Informer and Undercover Tourist for their Crowd Calendars.]

Dates for the trip

I found out that our school district allows up to 5 days off of school per year for things such as family travel. So, instead of Thanksgiving, we’d be leaving the Saturday after Thanksgiving and returning a few days into the following week. The kids would only miss a couple of days of school and Mommy would miss the crowd. Win-Win.

Itinerary

Saturday

Flight to Orlando. Land in Orlando by noon.

Car rental – 3 days

Arrive at resort by 2 pm at the latest – check in, unpack, get settled.

Drive rental car and park at Disney’s Epcot by 3:30/4pm. Park closes at 10pm

Sunday

Get to Universal Studios when gates open at 9 am – See Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley first. Explore the park.

Leave Universal by noon/1 pm. Go back to hotel to rest.

Arrive at Disney’s Magic Kingdom by 4 pm – rides, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. Park closes at midnight.

Monday

Sleep in. Get to Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure by lunchtime. See Harry Potter’s Hogsmeade/Hogwarts first.

Explore the park. Park closes at 7 pm.

Tuesday

Fly home.

Lodging

As I started looking into places to stay, I saw there were some advantages to staying within the parks. Then I started weighing the options of renting a car or taking a shuttle and staying outside the parks. When I realized that many of the resorts are timeshares, I remembered that I knew someone who already owned a timeshare in Orlando. I reached out to him and he wasn’t using it at all this year. Voila! Lodging at a better rate than I would have expected because he said I could pay what I could afford!

[Hint: Put it out on Facebook when you’re planning to go. Someone you know may already have a timeshare.]

Airfare

Planning early also came in handy for booking flights. I checked airfare pretty regularly to find a good fare. I also checked during the week because I’d heard somewhere that rates are cheaper mid-week. It is helpful that I live near one of the largest airports in the world so airfare is fairly reasonable. I budgeted based on the initial search, however, once I found an airfare that was less expensive than my original search, I booked it!

[Hint: When trying to reserve seats together on the plane, especially with a family, check your flight the day before. I was told the air marshals reserve seats throughout the plane but release them about 24 hours before a flight. We reserved seats near each other when I booked the flight but were able to confirm them in the same row the day before our flight.]

Meals

I was happy to read that the parks allow you to bring water and snacks. We planned to go to the grocery store when we arrived to stock up on snacks and breakfast items to save some money. I still estimated $15 – 20 per person/per meal/per day. I included breakfast, lunch and dinner on all days – including our travel days. I figured if we had extra, then we could use it for souvenirs or a nicer meal during the trip. We didn’t choose any park meal plans because we decided to go with quick service options when we felt hungry. Also, because of our limited time in each park, we didn’t make reservations for any park restaurants because we wanted to make good use of our time exploring. Plus, we wouldn’t have to tip anyone so we could save more money.

[Hint: We drank water at most of our meals to stay hydrated. Every place we went had a cup of ice water at no charge.]

Car Rental

I called the resort where we’d be staying and inquired about shuttle service. The times the shuttle would be picking up and dropping off weren’t very conducive to the times we’d actually want to go to the parks. Parking at Disney and Universal is $20/day so I factored that into my budget and found a really cheap price for a rental car.

[Hint: Do your research on renting a car instead of a mini-van or something larger. The car rental place may try to tell you that you can’t fit your luggage into the trunk but they may be trying to upsell you. Orlando is used to seeing lots of tourists.]

Park Tickets

I spent a lot of time on the Disney and Universal Studio’s websites. Disney has vacation plans that include lodging but I was putting together our package a la carte since we were paying someone else for lodging. After becoming completely confused on the website, I called to talk to a Disney specialist. It seemed that she thought it should make sense to me when it really didn’t. I think they are used to working with people who travel to Disney for vacation every year. After doing much research, I bought the following tickets (Hints below):

Disney’s Epcot Tickets – 1 Day Ticket – $97/per person over 10 years of age
(bought on Disney tickets website. This ticket could have also been used for Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios but you could only choose one park per day.)

Universal Studios + Islands of Adventure – 2 day Park-to-Park tickets – $200.21/per person over 10 years of age
(bought on UndercoverTourist website.
I found this awesome website in my research and saved money on tickets to Universal. They were also very helpful over the phone and said they couldn’t beat the prices for the Disney parks we’d be visiting.)

Disney/Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party – $79/per person over 10 years of age
(bought on the Disney website. A regular ticket to Magic Kingdom is $105/per person so it was a bonus to find out that I could kick off Christmas with Mickey at a lower cost. The Christmas party is a special event and the tickets included admission to Magic Kingdom from 4 pm until midnight. )

Saving up to go

Once I figured out the itinerary, airfare and lodging, I put together a budget for us. My man and I would each put money into a savings account for the trip. Since we’re both single parents and business owners, we put extra money in when we had it or otherwise a small steady stream. Planning early was definitely helpful for achieving this goal.

Packing

We were going to be visiting in late November/early December but the temperatures would be a perfect 78 – 80 degrees Fahrenheit in Florida. We packed clothing and what we’d expect to be carrying around the parks.

Clothing

  • Short-sleeved light tops (that wouldn’t feel heavy in the humidity)
  • Shorts
  • Socks (that would wick away sweat)
  • Tennis shoes (that you’re used to walking in. We averaged 8 – 10 miles/day walking.)
  • Bathing suits (in case we wanted to swim at our resort)
  • Flip flops for pool

To have on your phone

  • My Disney Experience app
  • Universal Studios Orlando app
    [Hint: Download these! Both apps offered VALUABLE information including park open and close times, restaurant options, restroom locations and ride wait times]

To carry around parks

  • Small backpacks for the kids
  • Larger backpack for me (Note – all backpacks are searched at every park so the less zippers, the quicker the search.)
  • Sunscreen
  • Sunglasses and/or hats
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Wet wipes
  • Panchos (in case of light showers/wet rides)
  • Tissue
  • Reusable water bottles
  • Flavor packets for water (to get the kids to drink more)
  • Light jacket for the evenings (it did get chilly when the sun went down)
  • Our handmade Christmas Mickey ears
  • Portable phone chargers (like this one)
  • $100 for each kid (doled out during the trip) for souvenirs

To buy at the store upon arrival

  • Breakfast items such as cereal, milk, yogurt, fruit
  • Epsom salts (BIG HINT: TRUST US. Taking Epsom salt baths in the evenings soothed our aching muscles!)
  • Bottled water
  • Snacks for the park such as granola bars, beef jerky, assorted nuts, trail mix
  • Snacks for the room such as vegetable sticks, smoothies

In the next post, I’ll cover all that we did at each park and other hints we learned along the way. To continue to the next post to read about our adventures, get more tips and see pictures, click here.

Categories:   chronicles, family, fun, travel

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