Just some thoughts and my personal advice on visiting Orlando and the theme parks.
When To Go
If you are visiting for the theme parks try and organise the trip for the period between Labour Day (first weekend in September) and the end of September. This is easily the best time for balance between low crouwds and warm weather. Also the Halloween celebratons will start and you can join in.
If you can’t come then and need to come in the summer, try and come either early in June or as late in August as you can. American schools largely go back around 20th August and crowds lessen somewhat at that point and hotel rates dip.
If you haven’t been before or haven’t been for a while, invest in a book. The Unofficial Guide is very good. Also look at the various online Disney Park fansites like http://www.wdwinfo.com and read the advice there. The forums on these sites are also great for picking up ideas.
Subscribe to http://www.touringplans.com and use their plans to develop your own touring plan. This is vital if you are not visiting at a time when crowd levels are very low. There are standard plans which you can copy and amend and optimise or you can build your own personalised plan. All plans will take into account projected crowd levels and queue times on the day you will visit. You can also download their app to monitor real time line levels. Or use the Disney official one. Very useful as you proceed through the day.
Regardless of when you are visiting use the Disney Fastpass + system. It will save you much time waiting in line. You can start booking passes 30 days out (60 if you are staying in a Disney Hotel).
If you are visiting from the UK then buy one of the two or three week “Unlimited Magic” tickets which allow you to come and go to all of the Disney theme parks and water parks plus give free golf at one of the courses and free crazy golf . You can also buy the same deal for the Universal parks. Companies like Orlando Attractions UK will sell you both unlimited tickets at a package price. It will give you a very relaxed holiday as you can make your own schedules rather than feeling you have to pack everything into full days. These can be exhausting.
Having a plan, using fastpass and having these go as you please tickets will allow you to enjoy the parks at your own pace rather than becoming a Disney commando and marching around all fraught and tense as you will see others doing.
If you have children under 8, Disney is probably a better choice than Universal. There are attractions at Universal for small children but nowhere near as many. Conversely teenagers will really enjoy Universal and you will definitely want both sets of tickets.
If you are visiting the Disney parks and if money is no object, opt to stay at either the Contemporary, Polynesian or Grand Floridian resorts . They have the advantage of being on the monorail system and this is a huge advantage in terms of taking advantage of early entries offered to hotel guests. Second choice would be to stay at the Yacht Club, Beach Club or the Boardwalk hotels which allow you to walk to Epcot or Hollywood Studios. All the other resorts rely on the bus service which in my opinion is not ideal. The Wilderness Lodge is also a lovely hotel and has boat service to the Magic Kingdom but it’s almost as much money as the others . The other Disney hotels are a long way from most of the park and are very pricey for what is no better than any outside hotel.
If you cannot afford the top two levels of Disney hotels then in my opinion you would do better to stay off property and travel in by car. Yes, you will have to pay parking but you can get there under your own schedule as early as you like and leave when you like.
If you are staying off Disney property and including Universal parks in your plans then it might be worth spending a couple of nights in one of their hotels in order to benefit from the early entry offered to hotel guests and also have the convenience of returning to your hotel midday for a rest.
On the Day
If you are visiting in the summer then I strongly advise that you plan to arrive at the park around 30- 45 minutes before the published opening time. In the case of the Magic Kingdom, arrive at least 45 minutes before the time. This is the single most important piece of advice I can give that will make a major difference to your enjoyment of the day. This mean you will be at the very least near the front of the queue at the turnstiles . Sometimes they open them early and let you so far into the park. It is a huge advantage to be deep in the park before the majority of people arrive . In combination with Fastpass, this means you can visit many of the top attractions in the first few hours before the heat and crowds become too much.
In terms of Universal parks, the VIP Express system is an extra chare on your entry ticket. I tend to not view this as good value. Instead, aim to be at the park for opening time and also consider using the Single Rider option. Universal maintain separate lines for single riders and then slots these individual’s into the ride to fill in empty seats. Generally speaking you ride within 10 minutes even when regular lines may be approaching 90 minutes. It is well worth it.
Consider a day outline where you go to the park early and stay there till around 1130-12. You then leave the park and visit a water park for the afternoon, or go back to your resort for a pool break. You can then go back to the park in the evening. This is a more relaxing way to tour as you will avoid the worst of the heat and the crowds.. You have to have a park hopping multi day ticket (with the water parks included) to make this work. The water parks are fabulous fun and you should definitely plan on visiting them.
If you are visiting in the heat of the summer and not in a position where you can leave the park for a break, then make a plan that puts some of the attractions that allow you to sit in an a/c theatre into the afternoon.. These would be (for example), in the MK, Hall of the Presidents, Mickey’s Philharmonic, Country Bears Jamboree. In epcot, any of the films in World Showcase, Ellen’s energy adventure, Under the Seas aquarium, The American Adventure; in Hollywood Studios, the live shows are mostly scheduled for the afternoon. They are undercover but not enclosed so cooled by fans not a/c. Still , better than lining up in the burning heat outside.
In general, if you are visiting in a busy time, you should use the published plans which will prioritise the slow loading, or very popular rides for you. These are not always immediately obvious. For example, in Hollywood Studios, Buzz Lightyear’s Adventure loads very slowly and if you don’t get there on opening or have a fastpass you will face 90 minute lines within 30 minutes of park opening. In Universal Studios, Minions, Despicable Me is a similar slow loading attraction. In the Magic Kingdom, Peter Pan Dumbo,, The Seven Dwarfs Mining Train are all difficult to ride unless it is a quiet time of the year or you fastpass or you go immediately on entry.
Unless you are visiting in September, do not think you can roll up at 11am and have an enjoyable experience.
Try and spend some time just looking around and appreciating the wonderful landscaping, the lovely gardens, find a quiet corner. There are many. Having a multi day multi entry ticket will allow you to do this.
One of the best investments if you have small children is to buy an autograph book and let them collect the characters’ autographs. Our children loved doing this and it was the “magic” of the visit more than anything else.
Make sure you see the evening shows and fireworks. They are all brilliant. Sometimes they run twice in one evening. The later show/parade is always MUCH quieter..
Eating in the Parks
If you are staying in a Disney hotel then use any Food package on offer. If not, then in my opinion you will get far better meals and at cheaper cost outside the park. Exceptions to this rule would be character breakfasts if you have small children and, Be My Guest in the Magic Kingdom which offer unique experiences.
In the Magic Kingdom there are a couple of venues which are good for fast food and offer excellent value. Pecos Bill’s in Frontierland offers burgers with a “fixings” bar which is a meal in itself. In Fantasyland, Gastons offers a great ham hock meal which is great value and in Tomorrowland Rays Starlight cafe offers burgers and a rotisserie chicken meal which in combination with another wonderful fixings bar is a veritable feast.
Consider ordering a Children’s Meal in either Disney or Universal. the portions are large (children but not as we know them…..) and the price is much lower than a very similar adult meal. No one will enquire if you actually have a child! .
If you are not staying in a Disney hotel (and therefore probably using their Food Plan), it is quite important to make a reservation if you are wanting to eat in one of the popular restaurants. They will be booked up.