Family Holiday: Disney, Orlando
Direct services mean the Sunshine State has never been more accessible for Scots
Disney World’s Magic Kingdom proclaims itself to be the ‘most magical place on earth’. And it’s hard to disagree.
Regardless of age, the moment you step through the entrance of the famous theme park in Orlando, you sense you’re in a special place.
Whether it’s the Disney characters, the musical performers on Main Street or the imposing backdrop of Cinderella’s Castle, young and old alike are quickly smitten by the unique atmosphere.
It’s said that every year more people visit the park than any other theme park in the world. If you happen to go during the busiest holiday times such as Easter or peak summer time, it can feel as if the whole world is visiting!
With Virgin Atlantic flying a seasonal direct service from Glasgow to Orlando International, the Sunshine State has never been more accessible for Scots. Its much-vaunted in-flight entertainment system lived up to its billing and meant parents and kids were able to find plenty to keep them amused in the 8hr 30 min journey across the pond.
Key to getting the most out of your holiday is planning ahead: I’m talking months in advance not just weeks.
To help avoid the huge queues and ensure you don’t miss some of the most popular rides, it really is essential to map out your daily schedules with military precision as early as possible.
With an array of options to choose from in the Disney parks – Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom – in addition to Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon water parks, the choice can become quite daunting.
Four years ago Disney launched its reservation system FastPass+ which allows visitors to book free, advance automated reservations (replacing the previous physical Fastpass ticket systems) for experiences and attractions in the parks.
This is strongly recommended as a means of getting the most out of your park experience and having enjoyed the benefits of this first hand, I’d say this is a must have on any pre-planning to-do list!
The wait time you can expect with a FastPass+ ticket is a maximum of 10 minutes – a no-brainer compare to some of the length of queues.
So how does it work?
FastPass+ selections are stored within your My Disney Experience profile on your credit card-style admission tickets which are activated with your fingerprint the day you arrive.
Guests staying at Walt Disney World Resort hotels can make their on line FastPass+ reservations up to 60 days in advance of check-in for their entire length of stay. Guests staying offsite can make reservations up to 30 days in advance of each day of their theme park visit.
You’re allowed a maximum of three Fast Pass+ reservations a day in total. If you have purchased a multi-park ticket (which is by far the best value for money), it’s important to note that these can be used to reserve the majority of rides at any park (excluding the water parks where FastPass+ does not apply).
When you consider that some attractions such as the newly-opened Avatar Flight of Passage at Animal Kingdom or the Seven Dwarves Mine Train and Space Mountain (a roller-coaster in the dark!) at Magic Kingdom, as well as the Aerosmith Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster at Hollywood Studios, regularly have queues of up to three hours, it pays to book ahead!
Another perk of staying at an on-site Disney hotel is Magic Hours, which gives hotel residents early and late admission to Disney parks which varies each day. In addition to extended park hours, another huge advantage of staying ‘inside Disney’ is the regular bus shuttle to and from your hotel to the front door of whatever park you may be visiting.
The hop on-hop off service runs approximately every 10-20 minutes throughout the day and evening, meaning you never have to worry about the traffic.
Staying in the resort comes at a price compared to the likes of nearby Kissimmee but is worth considering, especially when you consider the parking rates of $20 per day at each of the Disney parks, not to mention the flexibility of returning at night for the amazing nightly entertainment.
We opted for the Swan and Dolphin Hotel and were delighted with the location. It was a huge bonus to be within walking distance of EPCOT and Hollywood Studios, while there was also a short boat shuttle which offers a fun ferry service to each as well, via the delightful Boardwalk – a light-filled promenade of restaurants and fun atmosphere right on your doorstep.
If Disney is big on enjoyment, it is however huge on expense.
This isn’t a cheap holiday but as most people view it as a family ‘must have’ and a while until it is repeated, then it’s worth loosening the purse strings and making the most of the experience.
Having said that, restaurant dining inside the various parks is a definite no-no, with many set menus charging at least $50 per person and few reductions for children.
For those on a budget, there are ways to cut those costs. A hearty breakfast set us up for the day, with lunchtime snacks enough to see us through to dinner. It’s advisable to bring plastic water bottles to fill up on plenty of water throughout the day, with access to free water available in all parks.
Spectacular evening fireworks shows are held at each park, and the Happily Ever After show at Magic Kingdom will live long in our memories. Think Edinburgh Castle at Hogmanay – then times it by 10!
PARK BY PARK
Aim to arrive 30 minutes before park opening and be one of the first to walk through the gates to catch the Let the Magic Show Begin extravaganza featuring some of Disney’s beloved characters. After strolling down Main Street towards Cinderella’s Castle, your kids’ ages will dictate which rides you head to first, however here is a recommended route around the park:
- Fantasyland – features include Peter Pan, It’s A Small World and Seven Dwarfs’ Mine Train
- Tomorrowland – features include Space Mountain (roller coaster in the dark), Speedway Racer and Buzz Light Year
- FrontierLand – features include Splash Mountain, Thunder Mountain Railroad and Tom Sawyer’s Island
- AdventureLand – features include Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise and Magic Carpets of Aladdin
This fun-filled park should never be mistaken for a zoo (they get touchy about that word around Animal Kingdom). The 500-acre site is based on different ‘lands’ including Africa and Asia which take you on exciting adventures. A ride on the Kilimanjaro Safari will give you a chance to see many of the 1700 animals as they take you through the African Savannah (though the jeeps you ride in will rarely slow down long enough to allow you a good picture). The iconic Tree of Life is at the park’s centre and at 145 feet high, this 14-storey artificial baobab tree has the images of more than 300 animals hand-carved into its trunk.
Gracing the landscape in Asia is the towering Expedition Everest, a roller-coaster which features a track system that takes guests forward, then backwards down a drop of 80 feet at speeds up to 50mph. The newly-opened Avatar World features the hugely popular Pandora, the Flight of Passage which sees you fly on the back of a mountain banshee during an exhilarating, 3D ride above this vast moon. Typical wait lines can reach up to three hours so get there when the park opens!
Disney’s second park which opened in 1982, Epcot sprawls across 300 acres – twice the size of Magic Kingdom – and is divided into Future World and World Showcase. The latter features 11 countries from around the globe tastefully recreated to reflect their cultures. Contained within them are authentic dining experiences and regular performances such as the Japanese Taiko Drummers.
The nightly fireworks show Illuminations: Reflections Of Earth is not to be missed. The fascinating Future World – Walt Disney’s vision for a city of the future – is more to do with technology and science, with numerous hands-on experiments everyone will enjoy. Top ride attractions here include the high-speed Test Track, which allows people to design their own vehicle before putting it through its paces, and Soarin’, an exhilarating simulator which takes you flying over the various continents, complete with accompanying sounds and smells.
The smallest of the parks but still offering plenty to enjoy. From the Tower Of Terror to the 57mph Aerosmith Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, thrill seekers are well catered for. If you’re a Star Wars fan then this is the place for you, with lots to see including regular parades featuring the Storm Troopers. A favourite of ours was the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, a 30-minute live show featuring some of the actual stunt doubles from the popular Harrison Ford films.