We know that planning a family holiday can get a bit pricey in a hurry
– airfare, hotel, attractions & dining add up quickly. I’ll be honest and say that Orlando is not the cheapest destination to holiday in, however after a recent trip there we can say it is however one of the best. There is just so much to do! So much choice.
When you think Orlando the words “theme parks” leaps to mind, right? Rightly so! Disney World, Universal Studios, LegoLand, SeaWorld and a whole bunch of other parks are the abiding attractions of this destination that draw families from all across the world. While theme parks are the biggest thing, there are plenty of other amazing things to do in Orlando. Many of them are unique and really fun too. So here is our list of things we did that we recommend you trying if you’re making your way across the big pond from Ireland to Orlando.
Check flights on Skyscanner! We searched by location and month and found flights for late June, early July for €400 pp including taxes. We flew Dublin – London with Aerlingus and then from London Gatwick – Orlando with Virgin Atlantic
who have to be one of the most family friendly airlines in the world. Their kids meals, activity pack and a guarantee that each child will have a guardian sit side by side them is very impressive.
There’s so much accommodation to choose from in this vast city. We opted for a 3 bed house in a gated community called Windsor Hills. 14 nights worked out at €1500 for a luxury 3 bed house with its own pool. The resort is located in Kissimmee, just 2 miles from the entrance to Disney World! Windsor Hills has all the amenities of a high-end resort paired with comfort, convenience, and privacy of a high end home, at just fraction of the cost! Along with the incredible location, we had access to all the fabulous amenities available at Windsor Hills like the clubhouse, pool, market and amazing security. We booked with www.magicalvacationhomes.com
Disney’s Magic Kingdom
No visit to Orlando is complete unless you have met Mickey and Minnie at the Magic Kingdom. Accessible via monorail, ferry or bus from its parking lot across the Seven Seas Lagoon, the Magic Kingdom is divided into six themed lands: Main Street USA, Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. With its backdrop of the Cinderella Castle Magic Kingdom® is simply breath-taking.
Rides such as Peter Pan’s Flight, It's a Small World and the Prince Charming Regal Carousel are great for even the smallest of children. More intense rides, such as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Space Mountain, can keep your older thrill-seekers excited and entertained. In addition to the attractions, you can also choose from more than 40 entertainment options to see while you're at the park. We started very early, took a two hour break for a nap during the day (our accommodation was minutes away) and went back again at night for more rides, dinner and the parade and fireworks and finished the night by 11pm. It was late but that nap during the day re-energised us! The new Disney app was super as you can check queue times, and book your fast passes and meals all from the comfort of your phone (they have free Wi-Fi too)
SeaWorld, Orlando is a quite different ‘theme park’ from the others we visited. It is a fabulous marine park devoted to displaying and caring for creatures that inhabit the world’s oceans. Here you can get up close and personal to creatures you would normally never get near in other marine parks.
SeaWorld is home to snow-white beluga whales, killer whales, manatees and the friendly and adorable bottlenose dolphins. You can watch these beautiful sea creatures feed and go through their well-drilled entertainment routines. There are even interaction programmes with the belugas and dolphins, which are always joyous and hit attractions. The park also has several fabulous and unique water rides which our kids loved.
Our highlights include dining at Sharks Underwater Grill (we dined alongside scary sharks who were secured behind the large glass walls) and the One Ocean® Show at Shamu Stadium where we saw the majestic killer whales in all their glory!
LegoLand is a world where imagination becomes reality! LEGOLAND Florida is a gorgeous family theme park, where everyone's imagination runs free. The kids loved that they could ride on everything- nothing too scary but thrilling enough to excite them. It’s built for fun with more than 50 rides, shows and attractions. You can hop on Coastersaurus and take a journey through a time-forgotten prehistoric jungle with life-sized animated LEGO brick dinosaurs.
You can brave the Lego Technic® Test Track and feel the power of acceleration and braking along a wild roller-coaster track. Or you can visit Las Vegas, Washington DC, New York and Key West in Miniland USA- this was particularly awesome! They have opened the LEGO® World of Chima which is a highly-themed area with thrilling and interactive rides and attractions.
It also features a character meet and greet which is very cool. The centrepiece attraction is The Quest for CHI which features an interactive water ride where you will set off on an otherworldly and super-wet adventure. Our kids loved the pool areas at the back of the park. I’d recommend heading there first in morning when it’s not as busy and then making your way back through the park to complete each fun zone.
Universal Orlando Resort
There is something for everyone here and for movie fans it’s a must! This park has recreated a variety of movie sets and rides from comedy to horror, all of which have been tailored to give the guest the feeling of being in specific events from movies. It’s hot with everything from Transformers to Minions to the Simpsons' Springfield, Universal Studios is a Hollywood-style heavy hitter of day out.
My eldest loved the Diagon Alley addition- as a major Potter fan it was on his radar from the second we arrived into the park. Once inside Diagon Alley, you are completely absorbed into the wizarding world. Every detail from sights, sounds, smells, and even temperature make you feel like you have experienced real magic. What’s extra cool is the Hogwarts Express that’s on hand to take you from one Wizarding World to the other. So you can experience both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley on a park-to-park pass and head on to Islands of Adventure.
Islands of Adventure is one of the two theme parks at Universal Orlando Resort. It has seven individually themed islands, each with its own attractions, restaurants and shops. All the rides and attractions are based after books, Marvel comics, or mythology.
There are meet and greets with various characters throughout the day including Seuss characters, Marvel Super Heroes and Spider-Man.
We went for an express ride access pass to the lines at each ride. We had only a day to spend here and we wanted to make the most of it!
Discovery Cove is a park owned and operated by SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. It is a sister park of SeaWorld Orlando but it’s incredibly different from it. It’s more expensive than any of the other parks we visited, but after the amazing experience we had, I can see why! It totally makes sense when you realise only about 1,000 people are allowed in each day – so unlike every other park we visited there were no crowds. It was a once in a life time thing!
One option is two buy an inclusive dolphin pack that allows you to swim with dolphins for half an hour and have all meals/ drinks included.
The next is for a package that is inclusive apart from the dolphins and this still allows you access to the park and the facilities also meals and drinks throughout the day.
After we checked and received our access badge we had a family breakfast. It’s all included. After that we got our wetsuits and our snorkel and masks (again all included). They had kid sized and adult sized ones. They even supplied the towels and the sun cream!
Then from there the day was ours to do as we pleased. We started of course with snorkelling. It was amazing- the stingrays were huge. The fish were incredible. They swim at one with you – around your feet.
After lunch we went down the lazy river and waterfalls. They supply noodles and tubes that you can use in the river no matter how much swimming experience you have.
Then our time came to swim and play with the dolphins! It was amazing.
There is a nature type trail area that has exotic plants, trees, and birds that you can walk through and spend time in which is a beautiful way to finish off you day.
Our top picks outside the parks
While Orlando may be the theme park capital of the world there are lots of other things to do.
Orlando Balloon Ride
Experience a picturesque hot air balloon ride over Orlando on a sunrise flight. We took in a spectacular morning view as the balloon glided effortlessly over the forests, orchards and waterways of Central Florida. From high in the sky, we saw from Walt Disney World, Epcot, Universal Studios and downtown Disney, to orange groves, forests, swamps and much more. Post flight we enjoyed a champagne toast for the adults, juice for the kids and post-flight snacks. There's no more tranquil way to start your day in Orlando, trust me. It was a once in a life time experience and our kids loved it!
iFLY Orlando offers state-of-the-art indoor skydiving experience. All of us did this- even my four year old! This 12 foot open-flow 1000hp vertical wind tunnel has large fans that move a column of air upwards pushing and supporting your body in mid-air, in a controlled manner. This creates a thrilling, weightless flying experience. It was simply amazing!
The Kennedy Space Centre & NASA
The clear blue skies of Florida have, for decades, witnessed rockets soaring off into the far reaches of space. From the moon landings of the Apollo programme to the Shuttle launches, the Kennedy Space Center exhibits showcase an awe-inspiring look at man’s exploration of space.
The magic of space exploration comes alive when you visit The Kennedy Space Centre. It’sabout an hour’s drive away and it is an exceptional place to spend the day.
Not only was American history made here, world history were made on these grounds. Base admission includes a bus tour of the grounds and attractions like…the wonders enshrined in the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame; Science on a Sphere; Shuttle Launch Experience; Hubble Telescope Exhibit; Astronaut Memorial; Rocket Garden; Apollo Treasures Gallery and the LC 39 Observation Gantry.
The warm and sunny weather and beautiful beaches are other big reasons to enjoy Orlando. While Orlando is not on the coast the beaches are not too far away, whether you go east to the Atlantic Coast of west to the Gulf Coast beaches. There are a large number of superb beaches to choose from if you want to spend a lazy (or active) day at the seaside. We opted for Daytona Beach, known as one of the greatest beaches in the world. You can drive onto the beach, park up, BBQ, swim and sun bath for the day. Everyone does it and on weekends it’s like one big family beach party!
There are so, so many dining options in Orlando so I’ve named my kids three favourites.
Mama Della’s at the Portofino Bay Hotel
This was our kid’s favourite. It’s based within the Lowes Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal. "Mama" (there really is a Mama) invites you to dine in her home, where each room offers a warmth and a personality all its own. We enjoyed Italian specialties from Tuscany, Naples and Piemonte while strolling musicians serenade you tableside for a taste of 'La Dolce Vita' - The Sweet Life.
The setting, the food, the service were all amazing. This place is so child friendly too which can often not be the case in a restaurant within a luxury hotel. My kids still talk about the meatballs!
Pirates Adventure Show
Set aboard an authentically replicated 18th-century Spanish galleon measuring 46 feet long, 18 feet wide with 40-foot masts, the ship is anchored in a 300,000-gallon indoor lagoon with night sky lighting. Surrounding the lagoon is a six-sided showroom of six additional ships where we were seated.
Our section had it's own fearless pirate mascot whom we cheered on as the adventure unfolded with a cast of a dozen actors, singers and stunt performers engaging in a bounty of action-packed exploits, accompanied by cannon blasts, pyrotechnics and plenty of laughs. Our family even had the chance to play an actual role in our show as the evil Captain Sebastian the Black led his crews of renegades on a swashbuckling adventure before our very eyes! Dinner was served while this all unfolded.
We loved this lively jungle-themed setting and enjoyed the all-American fare at the Rainforest Cafe at Disney Springs Marketplace. It's an incredibly cool and unique rainforest theme experience with moving jungle animals, noises and atmosphere.The menu is very simple. It includes salads, pasta, sandwiches, seafood, burgers and poultry dishes, as well as a variety of vegetarian selections. we especially loved the Mojo Bones (ribs for Dad), the Volcanic Cobb Salad (for mum) and the kid's raved about the Sparkling Volcano — a chocolate brownie tower topped with ice cream, whipped cream and caramel and chocolate sauces.