Travel // Orlando, Florida {Part One, Theme Park Fun}

May 02, 2018

Hello! We're back from America after such an incredible, fun filled couple of weeks. It felt like the longest trip? I think because we packed so much in. It had been five years since our last trip to Orlando and I'd forgotten just how much there is to do there. It was a family trip, with my husband, parents & brother and despite us all being grown up, we couldn't travel to Florida without revisiting some of the parks.
On previous trips when we were younger we used to spend days and days there at our favourite rides, I think there's SO much for children to enjoy in the parks, even just looking out for the characters and collecting autographs. This time around, there were lots of other things we wanted to do around Florida so just spent three days at the parks , and we actually finished at all of them around 2pm each afternoon as we got there before opening {which was more than enough to enjoy them but also nice not to spend our whole trip in the parks}. We chose to mainly do Universal Parks this time around, they're a bit more suited to adults with more thrill rides but the one day we did spend in a Disney Park - Animal Kingdom which did take me back to that childhood Disney magic {and had probably the best ride of the whole trip, more below!}.

// A bit of background about our trip to Orlando {I've had lots of messages via Instagram about sharing our trip}.... We booked a villa on Highland's Reserve Golf Club in Davenport, it's about 30 minutes in the car from all of the theme parks, yet out of the craziness of central Orlando. It's a really beautiful golf community and you can actually walk to Publix, the supermarket from there {a lot of Orlando isn't that well suited to sidewalks!}, the boys enjoyed the golf, and it felt safe enough to run around the streets early in the morning. I wouldn't though recommend the villa we stayed in this time, it was the same one we stayed in 5 years back but unfortunately it seemed like the owners hadn't done any maintenance in those 5 years! That aside, it was fine for what we needed and a great base for us all with separate bathrooms and a sunset view over the golf course. My Mum found the villa, I know there are tonnes of villa rental websites out there and for other properties in Highland's Reserve but afraid I can't personally recommend any. The only place I feel safest booking on is Airbnb as it's payment protected, I guess do a little research before paying for a property on the internet just in case. We booked our flights and car, as always, through Dial a Flight. We really like to self cater in the States, especially as we were there for 2 weeks and had some long days out. It was really good to come back and cook a BBQ/have breakfast/make lunch to take with us etc. But if you want the full on Disney/Universal experience, there are lots of Disney and Universal hotels which offer early access to parks as well as encapsulating all of that themed magic. So many people I've spoken to have stayed in the Animal Kingdom Lodge, I guess for children it would be pretty amazing. 

Whether it's your first time visiting, or your third, you'll want a game plan to maximise your time having fun, and minimise the queueing. I can't recommend these books enough {Universal guide here and Disney Guide here} to help you plan your trip, they get updated each year. We've used them since our very first trip to Orlando back when I was about 11?! I could write for hours about my tips on the parks but the books would say everything, and more, so much better - it's literally their job to test out the best game plans, and there's info on everything from days of the week to visit, to food options to a scare rating on rides {for small children} etc. 

One thing I would say about buying park tickets though is to buy them direct. It used to be cheaper to get them from certain, slightly dodgy, websites or ticket booths in Orlando but we did a lot of research and all tickets are now attached to your finger print so it really is best to just pay once and know your ticket is valid! As we just wanted a small selection of parks we bought them individually which worked out cheaper but if you're there for a week/2 weeks and want to do all of the parks, especially the Disney ones, you can buy combined hopper tickets which will cover you for going back into parks multiple times. 

// Universal Studios & Islands of Adventure

We did both of these parks in one day as part of the 2 parks in one ticket. Our tickets were also Unlimited Express tickets, meaning we could skip almost every single ride queue, which made such a difference to our experience at Universal. Most rides have two queues, a regular, and then the express line which reduces your wait by at least half. The most we queued on any ride, across both parks, was just 20 minutes, the majority we literally walked straight on. So if you're short on time, or just hate queueing, then 100% get the unlimited Express tickets. 

I love that feeling when you wake up early {we always check what time a park opens and then get there at least 30 minutes before that at the turnstiles. They often let you in early and you want to be front of the queue, plus allow time for parking and security} and are excited for a day at the parks. The mornings start so still as the sun rises and you know it's going to be a beautiful day. On paper, I'm not a theme park lover, but actually when you're there you just soak it all up and take in all of the theme music, the surroundings and that feeling of switching off completely for the day. You're just there for the sole purpose of having fun and what a fun day it was. We always remember coming in the past and one of the park attendants said 'leave all your worries at the gate folks' and it really is that kind of place. Everybody is happy and excited, no unhappiness will be tolerated in Florida!

On previous visits I didn't really take in just how beautiful, and well kept the parks are. There are SO many staff who make everything run like clockwork, and actually it's all just really well done. Even if you're not into a particular zone in a theme park, you really have to appreciate just how much effort has gone into it and the sheer level of detail. Is that just me?! 

Universal and Islands of Adventure are linked, so there's one parking lot for both and then you walk over to the park entrances via the Citywalk - full of bars and restaurants to get to a lake. I'd recommend buying a ticket that lets you into both so that you can get between the parks using the new Harry Potter train. 

Family photo before we started! It was such a great thing to all do as a family, it's hard to find time to get everybody together back home so I really appreciated all the fun times we spent out there.

Ready & waiting at the turnstiles, seriously it sounds like a military operation, but it makes for a much better day if you get there for opening to minimise queues. And wear comfy shoes as you'll rack up the miles during the day!

Island's of Adventure is home to the original Harry Potter world, Jurassic Park, the Hulk rollercoaster, Toon Lagoon {Popeye etc}, and a new King Kong section, along with lots for little ones.

Our game plan was to ride the Harry Potter simulator, then head round to the new King Kong Ride before riding the Hulk rollercoaster {which is still one of our favourite rides ever} and then the Jurassic Park water ride.

Filled with palm trees and beautiful tropical flowers, it really was another world in there.

From screams of fun coming from the rollercoasters to quiet corners for a picnic, it's such a varied park with glimpses of the famed Hogwarts castle from pretty much everywhere you are in there. It feels so spacious in there though, walking around a central lake. We noticed this especially when comparing it to the overcrowded Animal Kingdom later in the week. Maybe the Disney parks are just always a lot busier? Universal made it all so easy.

Even if you're not into Harry Potter, you can't fail to be impressed by the village that they've built. There are owl shops, wand shops, Butterbeer stands, and even smoke coming out of the chimneys on top of the glittering snow and crooked rooftops. 

We visited this five years back, but now it's on another level with a train to take you to a new Harry Potter world next door in Universal.

My Brother was in his element, he's definitely the most mad on theme parks out of us all! He made me laugh such a crazy amount on that trip.

Getting the train over feels like you're actually on the Hogwarts Express, again it's all so cleverly performed and when you arrive into Platform 9 3/4 it feels exactly like Kings Cross, with the subway tiles, real buskers and the narrow staircases of the underground. JK Rowling works with Universal on all of the Harry Potter decisions and I'm sure she makes sure that it's things like this that make it really come alive. 

Islands of Adventure, apart from the addition of the new King Kong area, was pretty much as we remembered it. But Universal Studios had changed so much. This new Harry Potter world has been added and is incredible. Tucked behind a wall, you have to actively seek it out which adds to the mystery of it all, and I'm sure some people miss out on it completely! But once you get into the world, it's bustling - with banquet halls, themed ice cream parlours and Gringott's Bank which is where the new ride is - a must do. Go to this first, it was the busiest ride but well worth the wait.

The rest of the park has different themed areas. There's the Simpsons and some Transformer areas which we skipped, but we adored the filmset studio parts where you genuinely could have been in LA and Hollywood, and then San Francisco and then New York. If you're American lovers like us then you'll find this really well executed and I think it was my favourite park to walk around. We stopped for an ice cream at the Ben and Jerry's Parlour in 'New York' before carrying on with the rides. You must go on the new Jimmy Fallon studio ride which is entertaining as well as throwing you around New York in a simulator. It's funny how simulators have become some of my favourite ride types now, I guess they feel safer than coasters but still give you enough of a thrill? I wasn't brave enough for the Rip Ride Rocket {photo above!}. I think there's more than enough for everybody though whatever your age and preference.

Cali or Orlando?!

Those endless blue skies!

We all really enjoyed our day in Universal and Islands of Adventure. But it was home to re energise ready for the water park in the morning!

You can find more on all of the Universal Parks online here.

// Volcano Bay Waterpark 

Forget what you think you hate about waterparks and go visit Volcano Bay. Universal's newest addition which has replaced Wet & Wild from the old Orlando days. We'd heard so much about Volcano Bay in the press and from friends since it opened last year and were really impressed. All waterparks should take this lead, essentially there's no queueing as it's all cleverly ordered with a virtual queue system so you're not having to worry about burning under the hot Florida sun whilst waiting, it was sparkling clean {and I'm such a clean freak about places like this} and in a cool tropical Hawaii theme centred around the volcano. 

Again, I'd recommend getting there for opening - you have to park in the Universal car park and then get a Volcano Bay bus across as there's no parking on site. Take towels with you, and I'd recommend a pack lunch as the food options there weren't great, but on arrival you'll receive a waterproof electronic wristband {called Tapu Tapu in the Hawaiian spirit} which will become your locker key, electronic ride tap on and you can link a credit card to it so you don't have to carry money with you. There are plenty of sunloungers around, so bags some early in true German style, but we hardly used these all days. Go to the ride you want to ride first and tap in for it, meanwhile you can then go around the rest of the park to ride the 'ride now' rides and wait for your wristband to tell you to go back to the original ride. Then you can tap in and 'queue' for the next one, again whilst going around. It worked really well. I guess I should mention that we went outside of school holidays, so I guess crowds and queues would be different in real peak times. But you'll never have to queue in the sun as such. 

I had to be careful with photos so can't show everything {children in swimwear and bloggers with cameras don't mix well!} but I think everybody would enjoy this park, there were some really great areas for small children, lazy rivers, fast rivers where lifejackets are compulsory, thrill water drop slides and fun rapids to ride on as a family. 

Three of the rides are wrapped around the volcano. I'd want to really only visit on a hot day as you're in and out of the water all day, you might start to feel chilly on a cloudy or slightly cooler day weather wise. The music, and general vibe made us feel like we were in the middle of the tropics! You can buy express tickets for this but it was an extra 50 bucks a ticket which we didn't feel was worth it with the Tapu system.

You can find out more here

// Animal Kingdom

We hadn't originally planned to go to Animal Kingdom, wanting to wait and see how we felt after our days at Universal. But the minute we even landed into Orlando airport and caught sight of almost every other person wearing Mickey ears and it's hard not to get caught up in the Disney magic that radiates this city. Plus, we'd heard so much about the Avatar ride which is at Animal Kingdom - our favourite Disney park from previous trips {even our builders last summer who had just got back told us that it was their best ride ever, and for grown matcho builders, that says a lot!}. So we bought our tickets whilst out there, using the Disney App. We then started reading up about Animal Kingdom and realised that queues often reach 5 hours {!!} for Avatar and you can't buy any fast pass/express tickets. Fast passes are released 30 days prior, or 60 days for Disney hotel guests, so there was no way we'd bags one now. We realised we'd have to get there super early and take our chances.

The park opened at 8am that day, check before you visit as it varies each day. Also try to avoid a Disney extra hours day {this is marked on the app} as that's when all the hotel guests will already be in the park, filling up some ride queues already. We got to the park entrance by 7am, the sun had just come up! My brother fuelled up on Dunkin Donuts, he doesn't find mornings that easy compared to the rest of us ha.

Our e-tickets on the app were converted to paper tickets in the queue, saving us precious time, and they decided to open the park early at 7.20am! So definitely get there as early as you can. This meant we practically ran to the Avatar ride and got on the first ride of the day! By the time we came out, 10/15 mins later, the queue had reached 90 minutes already and by 8am {the time the park was meant to open} the queue was 3 hours long! Insane.

I hadn't seen the Avatar film, and now really want to. But you don't need to for context of the ride. I guess it would just help you understand the scenery a little better. The ride really was incredible, and unlike anything else we'd ever been on. Lots of people had messaged me on instagram before to say how they came out in tears, it was that good. My family and I all agreed that it was the best of the trip, I won't go into too much detail as I don't want to ruin the surprise, and probably can't explain the technology in a way that would do it justice, but wow!

Feeling SO smug that we'd conquered Avatar so well without queueing, the rest of the park was really quiet so early. We got straight on the Kili Safari, a mini safari ride with real wild roaming animals. We all liked it, but if you've been on a real safari then of course it won't compare.

From there it was onto the Everest rollercoaster, we actually did this twice straight over. Just having to wait for about 15 minutes and it was such a thriller. Parts of it go backwards and the theme is escaping from the Yeti on Everest, for a Disney park it's a pretty good ranking coaster! And then the River Rapids which we poncho-ed up for to avoid getting soaked through. A lot of the rides across Universal and Animal Kingdom have free temporary lockers so you don't have to worry about your bags on rides which was handy. They also have parent swaps if your children aren't old enough to ride to avoid parents having to queue on their own. Again, the books explain alll of these little tips that help to make maximise your days. 

Animal Kingdom is centred around the tree of life and we wished that we'd stayed for of the evening, it's interactive and lit up once it's dark and is meant to be magical. There's also a laser light show on the lake and spectacular parades. We were just sad we didn't catch a glimpse of Mickey or Minnie! Do the characters still walk around? I seem to remember them in Safari gear on past trips. It's fun to see the huge amount of adults in Disney headgear or T-shirts. It's almost like a religion? In a good way I mean, these tribes of Disney fans all coming together. 

Because it's Animal Kingdom parts of it feel like an open zoo, a lot of it is heavily African or Asian themed depending on which world you're in, and again you genuinely could be in an African or Asian country in parts - the level of detail with tuk-tuks or bikes left along a crumbling wall, so much reminded us of our travels. There's also a Dino world there and quite a few other rides but we felt pretty accomplished by this point and stopped for a picnic lunch and soft serve ice cream before deciding that we'd rather leave on a high and go and do some mini golf/shopping rather than stand around in a queue for a few hours. I guess if you've got younger children you'd feel more pressure to wait for them, but with our group we felt pretty happy to leave after we'd done enough - especially since we'd been there since 7am! 

With our theme park itch well and truly scratched, we were ready to explore the rest of Orlando {and rest of the week before my Brother was flying home}. Back soon with the alternatives to Orlando, once you've had enough of the parks. 

I hope this has been of some use though? Have you been or are you planning a trip? I hope we get to take our children someday, it would make for such a magical trip to see it all through their eyes.

R <3 xx 

{A huge thank you to Visit Orlando and Universal for helping us plan our trip, our tickets were gifted but all opinions are 100% my own and this is not a sponsored post}.

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