Orlando has everything you could want for a sun holiday, whether you have a family of young children or, indeed, you’re just a big kid at heart.
But in the theme-park capital of the world, many people face the daunting option: Disney or Universal? Most opt for both and, while some venture on to other resorts as well, such as SeaWorld and Legoland, it’s the big two that tickle most people’s fancy.
Just recently I was whisked by American Holidays to Orlando and put up in the fabulous Sheraton Vistana Resort Villas, which is located just three kilometres from the Walt Disney World Resort.
But like every other paying tourist, I was left to fend for myself and learn how to find the best bargains in gaining entrance to the parks, tips on how to beat the queues and lots of other worldly advice. This is basically a budget guide to getting the best out of both Disney and Universal.
Disney’s resort is enormous, with six parks (four theme and two water) and it’s the size of Manhattan.
Most people opt for a 14-day Ultimate Ticket, which allows you unlimited access to the park for a fortnight. Unfortunately, the cost of a child ticket (aged three to nine) is just as pricey as that of an adult – €409 compared to €429. So for a family of four, it’s more than €1,650.
It’s recommended you book this online before you go and you can cherry-pick doing a whirlwind tour in one day or a couple of days and take in as much as you can.
I managed to pack in both Disney’s Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in just one day as I was pushed for time and wanted to visit Universal the next day.
Most of the kiddie stuff, including the big parades and fireworks display, are at the Magic Kingdom, where you will also find the castle, classic Disney rides and characters. The Studios offers a variety of attractions, including an indoor Aerosmith-themed Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Star Wars live performances, an Indiana Jones stunt show and features concentrating on the likes of Frozen and Pixar’s Toy Story and Buzz Lightyear.
My own personal favourite at the Studios is the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, in which you enter a creepy building and are brought up by a lift to a huge height, before crashing down.
The famous Universal Globe at Universal Studios Florida theme park. Photo: Deposit
Disney charges an adult walk-up fee of $113 (€92) for entrance to the Magic Kingdom (it can top as much as $132/€107 during high season).
For an additional €70, you can take in one of the other parks, like I did with Hollywood Studios. Disney offers a two-day hopper ticket, which allows you to pick two of its four parks over the space of two days for $211 (€170) .Its other two main parks are Animal Kingdom, which is self-explanatory, and Epcot, which is space orientated.
Universal has three main sections, Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay.
It charges S110 (€90) for a one-day pass to enter either Hollywood Studios or Orlando Resorts, while it’s $165 (€135) for all three in one day ($67/€55 to Volcano Bay).
You can also get a four-day pass to visit all three of the parks for $328 (€266).
I opted for Islands of Adventure and realistically you’d need a day to do this. The highlight is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, including a replica castle and village, plus an indoor ride. There are several other great rides here, including indoor 3D ones themed on King Kong and Spider-Man, while there are also water rides such as Jurassic Park.
There is also an enormous outdoor twirling roller coaster called The Hulk, which I aptly turned green looking at and left one of my friends to have the ‘adrenaline rush’.
Studios Florida is geared more towards younger children, and includes indoor attractions based on the likes of the Simpsons, Shrek and Transformers, while there’s also a Harry Potter section here too. Volcano Bay is primarily a waterpark.
If you don’t have a Fastpass or Express Pass ticket for Disney and Universal – these are more expensive but mean you wait generally a maximum of 20 minutes – then the standby queues for some rides can be as much as an hour.
However, Disney allows you the option of booking three rides you want to take during the day at certain times if you have an ordinary ticket.
Another tip for Magic Kingdom is the main parade from Cinderella’s castle. It starts at 3pm and is a terrific opportunity to take pictures of all your favourite characters.
At the end of your day, try to get a good vantage point near Cinderella’s castle, where at 8pm there is an amazing nightly fireworks display with images of numerous characters lasered onto the building to lots of tunes.
Many of the restaurants at the theme parks are quite pricey – in general it’s $15 (€12) for a burger and fries and then another $3 (€2.50) for a drink.
Some travel agents selling Disney packages will tout the cost savings of Disney meal plans. If you plan to purchase three meals a day, then a Disney meal plan is a good choice for you.
But the best tip for Disney on a budget is to skip this. By eating your breakfast in your hotel room and packing a lunch for the park, you can eat out just once a day, meaning a huge cost saving (Disney allows you to bring in packed food, but Universal will only permit you to bring in small snacks, or the likes of baby food).
Disney sells a refillable mug for $16.99 (€14), but the catch is that this mug can only be used at Disney resorts.
At Universal, a similar Coke cup costs $11.99 (€10) on the first day and $5.99 (€5) any additional days. Refills are then free, but you would have to fill it four times to break even the first day.
Souvenirs can be expensive at the main Disney park, but look out for clearance stores on the likes of International Drive, where you’ll pick up better bargains.
While Universal’s two main parks are within walking distance, and also have a great restaurant and entertainment mall, CityWalk, Disney’s parks are more problematic to get around. But there is a complimentary bus and monorail service linking them, and a ferry, which I chose to bring me back after the fireworks at Magic Kingdom.
If you fancy some late-night entertainment outside of your resort, then downtown Orlando has a strip of bars centred on the Church Street area. While both Disney and Universal have on-site hotels, they are generally pricier than what’s offered elsewhere in the city and if you look around – particularly near the main tourist hub of International Drive – then you may find something that suits your budget.
For many people, this will be a once-in-a-lifetime trip and you’ll certainly be blown away.
Its current deals include seven nights at the Avanti Resort including flights from €450pp in June (Ref: 1542129), a 14-night Easter break including flights and self-catering at the Enclave Suites from €883pp in March (Ref: 1550072), and a Disney Summer Family package including seven nights at the All Star Music Resort, including park ticket, from €909pp in March (Ref: 1550141).