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How to Plan a Trip to Orlando in 10 Easy Steps

Disney Orlando Blur

Where to stay in Orlando, what theme parks to visit, and when is the best time to go? My top tips on how to plan a trip to Orlando will ensure you make the most out of this magical trip.

I booked many holidays to Orlando when I was a travel agent, and I even visited Orlando previously, but it wasn’t until I had to organise our family holiday to Florida last year that I realised how much research was needed to plan a trip to Orlando. There are so many things to do in Orlando, so choosing the right parks and activities is so important. 


I spent months planning our family trip to Orlando and still made lots of mistakes! There are many tips for visiting Orlando online, but until you go, it is hard to fathom the sheer size and amount of family attractions that are available.

Most of us are used to family holidays where we may spend an afternoon at a waterpark or visit one family attraction. When you visit Orlando, there are over 100 standalone attractions as well as over 20 theme parks – there is a reason why Orlando is the world’s best family destination!
I learned many Orlando tips during our family holiday, and I hope by sharing them below, they will help you plan the perfect trip to Orlando.



1. Choose the right time to plan a trip to Orlando

planning a family trip to Orlando

For most of us, a family holiday in Orlando is a once in a lifetime experience. It is important you choose the right time to visit, and by that I mean the right time of year, as well as the right ages of your children.

If you are bringing young children, and are not tied to school holidays, it makes sense to travel outside the peak months of July and August, as well as Christmas, Easter and mid term breaks. Not only will this save you lots of money, but you will also avoid lengthy queues, and the hot temperatures during the summer months.


Disney World Orlando is roughly five times larger than Disneyland Paris, so it impossible to compare the two, however, if you are looking for a magical Disney experience for a young child, you will find that in Paris, at a fraction of the cost.


Once children are older, there is no doubt that Orlando will have a much wider appeal, however, it will also be much heavier on your wallet. Unless you are in a fortunate position where you can visit Orlando on more than one occasion, then I suggest waiting until your children are at an age where they will be able to go on most of the top attractions, and are old enough to cope with queues and long days at the parks.

TOP TIP: All theme parks have height restrictions listed beside each attraction. If your child is a huge Harry Potter fan for instance, make sure they are tall enough to ride the Forbidden Journey. 



2. Decide how many days you want to spend visiting theme parks.


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There are over 20 theme parks in Orlando, so you need to decide in advance how many days of your holiday do you want to spend visiting them. I am a firm believer in seeing as many as possible. Orlando is the theme park capital of the world – you can go to the beach elsewhere!


I have seen many families trying to squeeze in lots of theme parks over 7 days, without really seeing any of them properly. We enjoyed a family holiday in Orlando for the first time last year and I naively thought 10 days would be enough time in Orlando. I was wrong.


One of my top tips for visiting Orlando is to allow two weeks to visit the main parks, which should include some rest days in between.

Disney World has four main parks, plus waterparks, and Universal Studios has two main parks plus Volcano Bay waterpark – which you shouldn’t miss, so realistically you need seven days just to see both of these properly, and you may also want to visit Legoland, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and more.

Many theme park passes are sold with unlimited access for 14 days – I suggest you take advantage of this.

Read: 10 things you need to know about Universal Studios before you book



2. Book flights 11 months in advance  


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Flights usually go on sale 11 months in advance and I suggest booking as early as possible to get the best value. Try to fly direct, especially if travelling with kids. However, if direct flights are too expensive, choose the next best option – fly via another US city. Popular routes are Dublin – New York – Orlando for instance. 


Once you fly direct from Ireland to anywhere in the USA you can clear immigration in Dublin or Shannon airports before you leave. This means once you land in the US you are treated like a domestic passenger and wont have to queue to clear customs when you arrive.

Read: Top tips for booking flights and holidays



3. Prioritise your ‘must see’ theme parks


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Before you book your hotels, decide which theme parks are a priority. It is impossible to see all 20 theme parks during one holiday, so you need to select the theme parks that suit your needs best.

If you have a Disney Princess or a Luke Skywalker fan in the house, then Disney World is a must. If the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is more your scene, then make sure you give yourself ample time to explore Universal Studios. You may have a budding astronaut or someone who is obsessed with alligators – in which case you won’t want to miss the Kennedy Space Centre or Gatorland.



4.  Stay in theme park hotels if possible

staying on site at one of Universal's hotels is one of the top tips if planning a trip to Orlando

Once you have decided how long you are staying in Orlando and which parks you want to visit, the next step should be choosing the right accommodation to suit you. I highly recommend staying onsite at Universal Studios and Disney World – assuming you want to visit these parks.

You should allow three full days to visit Universal Studios and at least four full days to Disney World, plus more if you want to visit Disneys’ waterparks. I suggest splitting your hotel stays, if you want to visit both. Hotel prices at Universal Studios are can be very inexpensive so you could easily spend 8 or 9 nights there and 5 nights in a Disney Hotel – see more on hotels below.


TOP TIP: Stay beside the theme park you most want to visit first. When you visit Orlando for the first time the adrenaline takes over. You will automatically rise early due to the time difference, and the kids will be so excited to visit the parks that they are likely to at the entrance gates when they open. As the days go on, and the tiredness sets in, those early morning rises are not as easy to come by. 


Staying at Universal Studios


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Staying in one of Universal’s eight hotels is not as expensive as you might think. The newly opened Endless Summer Resorts offer superb value, and there are plenty of hotels to suit all budgets. Attraction Tickets .com offer excellent rates on all hotels, so you can book the hotel and park tickets in one simple transaction.


There are so many benefits of staying in a Universal hotel, but my personal favourite is getting early access to the parks, before anyone else. If you are travelling in peak season, this is a Godsend. As well as avoiding lengthy queues, it is wonderful being able to wander through the parks without crowds around you.


Other benefits include free entrance to CityWalks’s best venues and priority seating at selected restaurants in the parks and in CityWalk. You can also charge any meals or purchases to your room, so you don’t need to carry cash, and any merchandise that you buy, is delivered straight to your hotel.

If you can afford to stay in one of Universal’s premier hotels – Lowes Portofino Bay, Hard Rock Hotel or Lowes Royal Pacific, you will get a FREE Universal Express Unlimited Pass, which lets you skip the regular lines at some the most popular attractions in Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. I stayed in Lowes Portofino Bay many years ago – it is superb.


The price of a Unlimited Express passes  range from €79 per person, per day. So that €200 per night you think you are saving, by staying in a cheaper hotel elsewhere, may not be worth it, particularly you going to buy the express passes for a family.


You will receive a complimentary Express pass for two days with a one-night stay, three days with a two-night stay etc. This can be very cost effective if staying for a short duration. I highly recommend you to stay in one of the Universal Hotels, even for a few days, so you can avail of these amazing benefits.  

View Universal Hotels here


Staying in DisneyWorld Hotels:


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During our family trip to Orlando we wished we had stayed in a Disney Hotel. We queued for hours for rides in Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge – if we had stayed in a Disney Hotel we would have been able to take advantage of Disney’s Magical Hours and gain access to the park before regular visitors. If you stay onsite you can also pre-book individual lightning lanes for top rides an hour before regular visitors.


Disney’s magical hours don’t only apply to early morning visitors. Selected Disney hotels can enjoy admission until 11pm and even later, so you can enjoy the most popular rides without queues! See more here.

Other benefits include Disney character encounters, and the ability to pre-book your park days before you have paid in full for park tickets.

Read: 30 things to do in Disney World Florida with teens

View Disney Hotels here



Other accommodation suggestions:

hiring a car in Orlando

If you decide not to stay in a theme park hotel, then I suggest choosing somewhere that is located close to the iRide transport system, or at least provides free shuttle bus services to the parks.


The other alternative is to choose a large holiday home and hire a car, although rental fees and car parking charges have increased dramatically over the past number of years, so you should bear that in mind if choosing this option.

Regardless of which option you choose, make sure you have a spacious place to relax after a long day in the theme parks – whether that is a hotel with plenty of bars, restaurants and a nice pool area, or a spacious apartment where you can order a take away and relax.   



5. Don’t forget the other attractions 


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Although Orlando has more than enough theme parks to entertain you, there are other top attractions in Florida that you won’t want to miss. The Kennedy Space Centre was one of our favourites, and can be easily reached from Orlando.


You can visit the actual control centre that was used in the Apollo Space program and see the Space Shuttle Atlantis on display, as well as experience what it is like to take off and fly a shuttle through the simulator. I highly recommend a visit, the tour is great for kids, both big and small.

View tickets here


There are many more possibilities for day trips if you want a break from the parks. We loved searching for alligators at Boggy Creek Airboat Adventure in Florida’s Everglades. You can also combine this with a trip to Gatorland, and tours include pick-up and drop-off from many Orlando locations.

View day trips



6. Book theme park tickets in advance

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a must see if planning a trip to Orlando

You may think that the flight cost will be the most expensive part of your family holiday to Florida – think again! You may get a surprise when you see the cost of theme park tickets, but there isn’t much point in visiting Orlando without them!

It is vital that you book park tickets in advance, not only to get the best value and variety of tickets available, but also to ensure you have guaranteed access to the parks. 


TOP TIP: Disney World Orlando require you to pre-book the exact park days you want to visit each park, and if you don’t, you could be be denied entry if the park is full. 

Planning is key, if you follow my previous steps on how to plan a trip to Orlando, you will know which parks you want to visit, and book tickets accordingly. Please note that staying onsite in theme park hotels does not automatically include park entry, you still need to purchase admission tickets.


Combination tickets are the best tickets to buy, the Disney and Universal Combo being the most popular. The Orlando Freedom Ticket includes unlimited access to Disney and Universal parks, as well as SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Aquatica for 14 days. There are many more options available too.


I recommend booking with theme park specialists AttractionTickets.com who send you gate-ready tickets, so there is no queueing when you arrive. They also make it easy to spread the cost of your Orlando holiday by paying a €25 deposit to secure your park tickets, and pay the balance 6 weeks before departure.

View park tickets here



7. Plan rest days and shopping days between parks.


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In order to keep the theme park magic alive, it is vital to plan some rest days. You could easily spend 12 hours in a theme park on any given day, especially if you want to see the closing fireworks displays – this is not sustainable for two weeks.


I suggest a rest day every three to four days – I wish I had followed this advice! My children are 12 and 15 and as much as they love theme parks, after 7 days the enthusiasm definitely started to wane – early morning wake up calls became a lot harder!


Pool or Spa days are the ideal way to relax, but retail therapy is a good alternative too – especially if you have teens with you. We visited when the Dollar was on a par with the Euro, and Orlando’s Premium Outlets still proved excellent value.  



9. Check US entry requirements before booking a trip to Orlando,

check Covid entry requirements to the USA

We have become so accustomed to flying to Europe without restrictions, we tend to forget that there could be entry requirements for other countries. At the time of publication, only fully vaccinated adults are allowed enter the USA, (children are exempt). An ESTA is required for all visitors, and in some cases a visa may be required. 

Please check the Department of Foreign Affairs website before you book flights to ensure you know the latest entry requirements.
Read: 10 things to watch out for on holidays this summer



10. Download theme park apps before you go.

Universal Studios app showing wait times

When you have followed all of the above steps on how to plan a trip to Orlando, you may think you can sit back, relax, and wait for holiday to come – but there is just one more step! Each theme park has a dedicated app full of Orlando theme park tips to make sure you get the best experience possible – I suggest you download them in advance.  


I would go one step further and get the kids involved. Let them highlight their favourite rides, so you know to prioritise them, and let them help plan you park days accordingly.

The apps allow you to check wait times for rides, pre-book restaurants ( which I strongly recommend you do ), find out if there are any special events on during your visit, and even set up alerts for when queue times drop. Trust me, you will use them every day when you are there!


I hope these top tips will help you plan a trip to Orlando soon. While every effort is made to ensure accuracy, theme park facilities and attractions are subject to change.  Some of the links in this post contain affiliate links where I receive a small commission if a booking is made, but at no additional cost to you.



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Where to Stay in Orlando

mickey mouse

For anyone going to Orlando for the first time, choosing the place to stay can be a little daunting. International Drive, Kissimmee and Lake Buena Vista are all great places to stay, but how do to know which one is right for you? I teamed up with American Sky, the Florida holiday specialists, to get their view on where to stay in Orlando.


International Drive | Lake Buena Vista | Kissimmee

Walt Disney World covers 47 square miles on its own and there are over 20 different theme parks and attractions in Orlando – that just gives you an idea of how vast Orlando is. The good news is that despite receiving 50 million tourists a year, it is quite easy to get around Orlando.

It is actually the busiest car rental market in the world, so roads and infrastructure need to be good – and they are. So when choosing your base in Orlando, the first thing you should ask yourself is: do I want to hire a car? If the answer is no and you want to visit a lot of different theme parks, then the answer is simple – stay on International Drive.



International Drive

International Drive or ‘I-Drive’ as the locals call it, is best described as Orlando’s ‘Vegas Strip’. There are hundreds of hotels, restaurants, shops and attractions lined up beside each other for eleven miles. Top theme parks like Universal Studios, SeaWorld and Aquatica are here, as well numerous attractions including The Orlando Eye.


The ‘I-Ride’ bus service is excellent and runs from 8am to 10.30pm so there is no need for a car. Many hotels that are located here also offer free shuttle services to the main theme parks.

If you do decide to take a taxi to Walt Disney World, what you pay in cab fare you save in parking, so despite many people saying you have to have a car in Orlando, I think if you stay on International Drive, you can easily do without one.

where to stay in orlando - International Drive

There are many accommodation choices to choose from on International Drive. It is important to remember that when holidaying in Orlando, most of the time you are not in the hotel – you are out visiting theme parks or attractions instead. This makes International Drive an ideal location if you are looking for a reasonably priced hotel. I have chosen two hotels that are excellent value, receive great reviews and are centrally located.



$ The Rosen Inn at Pointe: 7 nights from €549pp including flights.

This is an excellent budget hotel on International Drive. Formerly the Quality Inn Plaza, this now offers three swimming pools, free WiFi and a free shuttle service to Universal Studios, Aquatica, and SeaWorld.


There are three restaurants on site and children (9 and under) eat free when dining with an adult, (one child per adult). Situated across the road from the Pointe shopping centre and cinema, this hotel receives great reviews on tripadvisor.

See more here 



$ The Avanti Resort: 7 nights from €509pp including flights.

A firm favourite with Irish holidaymakers, the recently renovated Avanti resort is located in a prime position on International Drive. There is a large swimming pool, bar and restaurant on site and there are free shuttle buses available to Disney, Universal, Wet ‘n Wild, SeaWorld and Aquatica.


They also offer interconnecting rooms which are ideal for large families.  Highly rated on tripadvisor and awarded a certificate of excellence, this is the perfect choice for anyone looking to stay in the heart of International Drive, without breaking the bank.

See more here


If you plan on spending a lot of time in Universal Studios’ three theme parks, it might be a good idea to stay in one of the Universal hotels. Not only are they exceptionally good, but you will also have access to the parks earlier than the general public. This is particularly beneficial if you are a Harry Potter fan, as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter can be extremely busy in peak season.


There are eight hotels to choose from, including the famous Hard Rock Hotel and the popular Cabana Bay Resort, which have large family suites. If you stay in one of their five star resorts, the Hard Rock, Lowes Royal Pacific or Lowes Portofino, you will also receive complimentary express passes which will save you valuable queueing time!

where to stay in orlando

$$$ Loews Portofino Bay Hotel: 7 nights from €799pp including flights and Universal express passes

I was fortunate to be able to stay in this hotel and it was fantastic. Designed by Steven Spielberg to replicate Portofino in Italy, this hotel has outdoor bars and cafes that are identical to the Italian resort.


They even have tenors singing at various times during the day. Situated on a lake, there are times when you forget where you are. The interior is luxurious too and it also offers a unique way to get to Universal Studios – a free water taxi service!

See more here



Lake Buena Vista

Lake Buena Vista is the ideal place to stay if you are planning on spending most of your time at Walt Disney World. Remember there are five different Disney Parks so if you are travelling with young children, you may spend a lot of time here.


Lake Buena Vista is also good for golf and outlet shopping. Choose to stay in one the Disney hotels or one of the many hotels, homes or villas in the area.


There are 25 different Disney hotels to choose from which come in four categories, value, moderate, deluxe and deluxe villa resorts. By staying in any of the Disney hotels you can avail of extended theme park hours, free transportation to all the parks and the airport, as well as free parking and free WiFi. For a limited time only you can also receive FREE dining on selected 2020 holidays – ts & cs apply.



$$ Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort: 7 nights from €729pp including flights

This hotel is in the moderate class and is perfect for families looking for the ultimate Disney experience, without the expensive price tag. Designed to replicate a Caribbean resort, there are seven pools, including one with water slides, as well as Caribbean style beaches. Kids will love the pirate adventure cruise and there are also pirate themed rooms available at a supplement.

See more here



$ Solterra Resort Homes: 7 nights from €629pp including flights

The Solterra Resort Homes offer the best of both worlds, luxury homes with a resort feel. Situated only nine miles from Walt Disney World Resort and minutes drive from shops and restaurants, the location is superb.


They offer five, six and seven bedroom homes, all with private pools and either a games room or spa. The facilities on site include a communal pool with a water slide, and a club house with a fitness centre and tennis courts.

See more here



$$ Sheraton Vistana Resort: 7 nights from €679pp including flights

The luxury Sheraton Vistana Resort comprises of one and two bedroom villas in 135 acres of land. There are numerous facilities on site including seven swimming pools, a fitness centre, mini-golf, tennis courts and free WiFi. Let the kids enjoy the kids club or Wii tournaments, while you have a massage on your poolside cabana.


There is a wide selection of restaurants and bars within the grounds, so there is no need to venture out at night time. Highly rated on tripadvisor and awarded a certificate of excellence, this is a great choice for a family holiday. The Sheraton Vistana is ideally located, only 10 minutes from Sea World, 15 minutes from Universal and only 5 minutes from Walt Disney World.

See more here




If you fancy something away from the hustle and bustle of the parks, Kissimmee is a good choice. Although only a fifteen minute drive to International Drive and even less to Disney, there are many homes and villas with private pools here, creating a country feel, which is ideal for large or extended families.


If you want to visit other parts of Florida and don’t plan on spending your entire time visiting theme parks – chose Kissimmee. A trip to the Kennedy Space Centre or Busch Gardens, both less than 90 minutes drive, are perfect day trip options.


There are many different neighbourhoods within the Kissimmee area and each have a good selection of shops, bars and restaurants.  Here are my top three places to stay in Kissimmee

where to stay in orlando

$ The Highland Reserve Executive homes: 7 nights from €629pp including flights

These homes are exceptional value. and are  only a fifteen minute drive to Walt Disney World. There are four, five and six bedroom homes available. Choose the simply furnished executive homes or upgrade to the executive plus, which offers a modern décor, more living space, free WiFi and a games room or spa.

The development overlooks the nearby golf course and there is a communal pool, tennis courts and play area on site.

See more here



$ The Calabay Parc homes: 7 nights from €599pp including flights

Complete with their own private pool and outdoor loungers, these homes are perfect for lazy days in the Florida sunshine. Located in the pretty countryside of Kissimmee they are approximately 30 minutes from Walt Disney World Resort and 40 minutes from International Drive.


They offer a choice of four, five and six bedroom villas. Choose to upgrade to the executive plus homes which offer modern décor, more living space, free WiFi and a games room or spa.

See more here



$$ Windsor Hills: 7 nights from €679pp including flights

These executive five and six bedroom homes are ideally located only five minutes drive from Walt Disney World and fifteen minutes from International Drive. The have excellent facilities on site include a large swimming pool, whirlpool, fitness centre and multi sports.


Children will love the games room, pool slide, the 58-seat cinema and free WiFi! The Windsor Hills homes are also next door to the Mystic Dunes golf course.  They also offer executive plus homes which have modern décor, more living space, free WiFi and a games room or spa.

See more here


$$ Magic Village Yards Trademark Collection by Wyndham: 7 nights from €689pp including flights

If you want to stay beside Walt Disney World but still want the comforts of you own home, then look no further than the Magic Village Yards. These luxury three and four bedroom villas are right in the heart of Disney. The Club house offers activities for children, an outdoor heated pool, a play room and free WiFi.


There is also a restaurant on site where you can dine or order food to your villa. If you don’t want to drive to the Disney Parks, take the free shuttle bus available and save on the parking!

See more here



Top Tips when visiting Orlando:


        • Remember to get your ESTA application before you fly. An ESTA is mandatory for non-US citizens when travelling to the USA. You can apply for an ESTA online.


        • Travel off peak if you can, prices will be lower and temperatures will cooler. If you have to travel during school holidays Easter can be a better option to summer, as American schools only have one week off at that time. Check the Spring Break dates here.


        • Book your theme park tickets in advance. Not only will this save you money, but also valuable queueing time. You will also find that you can purchase combo tickets to visit multiple parks at a lower rate, than purchasing them when you arrive.


        • Choose a hotel with a free shuttle bus to the parks, or one that is close to the iRide – International Drive’s affordable public transport option. You may or may not rent a car in Orlando, but even if you are driving, the cost of parking at theme parks is quite high. If there is a free shuttle bus or iRide available, use it. Read my top tips and tricks for visiting theme parks.


        • Allow down time. Queueing in hot temperatures, as well as the increased adrenaline can leave children exhausted. Try to plan some quiet days to laze by the pool between visits to the park.




    This post, where to stay in Orlando, was sponsored by American Sky but all views, as always, are my own.

    The Travel Expert Sarah Slattery



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