Primarily I want to say this is not an everything Florida guide. There is so much to see and do I wouldn’t dream of attempting that. But I’ve been there QUITE a bit with my family and we LOVE it and you guys asked so here goes what we did, where we went and what we love. Also, I’ve saved stories from my 2018 and 2019 Florida holidays in highlights so you can go here and see for real what we saw and did!
Florida is NOT a cheap holiday. You’re likely to be saving for it. So, you want to plan. Let’s be honest nowhere IS cheap but Florida can really add up especially if you want to do the parks, the beaches and enjoy everything it has to offer. We have visited four times as a family. The first when the girls were 5 and 6. That was just Disney. It was pretty hard work for the youngest who found it overwhelming and, in hindsight I think TWO whole weeks of full on theme parks was just too much for her (and ultimately us!). We loved it, it was magical, but it was also utterly exhausting. I have friends who have taken younger kids than 5 and loved it though so think about your own kids and if the big long days out are something they can cope with – or plan around them to have days of calm too! After Disney we waited a few more years then I jumped on some flight deals I got and we ended up booking Universal this time. We did a bit of Disney too but it was mainly Universal and as die-hard Harry Potter fans it didn’t disappoint. And we’ve had some fabulous holidays also visiting the Gulf AND Atlantic coast so here goes..
Sources of knowledge
The Dibb, Orlando Informer and Orlando guides online are a WEALTH of information and while it’s confusing at first it will really help. You can plan and let me tell you that makes the whole holiday so much easier once you are there.
Getting there and getting around
We have always done it DIY but I know lots of pals that have got really great deals on package holidays so again compare! I think it’s easier done as a package but… we like the freedom of going where we want and I like full control. For our flights I’ve looked out for flight deals, booked in advance etc. We have flown with BA, Thomas Cook and Virgin. Also look at flying in to Tampa which is about an hour and a half drive from Orlando and can be much cheaper (plus it meant we then were closer to the Gulf Coast for a few nights which worked really well.)
We move around so much we hire a car. Ubers or Lyfts are incredibly cheap so if you are staying at an onsite hotel this is a good option for that time but otherwise hire a car. The freedom to come and go is well worth it and Florida is BIG!
When to go
We have to plan around our family and school holidays and what you can do but having been in April, May and also August I would strongly advise to avoid July and August if you can. In April and May we love that it was hot, but not overwhelmingly so. July and August is Hurricane season and you are either too hot in the morning, or too wet in the afternoon. The pools close with the threat of lightning so you can’t escape there even if you don’t care about the rain. It’s still fabulous in July and August but just not the same. I would consider Christmas too but just haven’t been then.
Where are you going?
We have done a couple of holidays just in Orlando, and a couple where we also squeezed in the Gulf Coast AND/OR the Atlantic Coast. I would say you want to get the beach in somewhere.
Orlando is intense and the theme parks are fun but wouldn’t you want somewhere that isn’t themed to relax too? Just a few nights on the beach can really add another dimension to the holiday and a level of relaxation that you absolutely wouldn’t get at the parks. More detail to follow.
What to wear
So this was asked a lot of me. And something I panicked about. In the end go comfort. The first time I went I wore shorts but in all honesty I don’t find shorts that comfortable and prefer dresses so I wore them. Comfortable shoes be it trainers or sandals or anything that you can walk 20k steps in every day. Photos show you what I’m wearing and in August I preferred dresses that I could get drenched in on the water rides and not give a stuff. Take ponchos for those downpours!!!
Oh and I bought a waterproof see through rucksack which might not have been iconic in terms of style but it helped lots on any water rides! Don’t take big bags or you will have a nightmare with the lockers that are obligatory for your belongings. Oh and get a lanyard to hold your passes it makes life a LOT easier. And don’t forget lots of sunblock!!!
Now the girls are older this is where we head to. There are two theme parks Universal and Islands of Adventure both pretty much next to each other but linked up by Hogwarts Express. You also have a fabulous water park called Volcano Bay which I will discuss later. For us we do Universal over Disney. The kids are older now so it works better for us.
We get the 2 park to park tickets because the Hogwarts Express from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley or vice versa is an absolute must for us. It’s cool and airconditioned and so lovely too! And yes for us it is MAINLY about Harry Potter. It is utterly wonderful if you are fans like us. Each ride is spectacular, eye boggling and completely thrilling, but also just wandering through Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade transports you straight to the book / film with incredible attention to detail, we truly feel it’s our happy place! Favourite rides easily Escape from Gringotts and the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride (Hogwarts!), but we are also very happy just heading in to Weasley Wizard’s Wheezes shop or down Knockturn Alley (scary!).
The very first *ride* you should do as soon as you get there is Ollivanders which is more of a wand ceremony. If you are lucky you may get picked! And there you can choose a wand for life. Of course, this is not free, it’s about £50 but the wands are interactive and then all around Diagon Alley in Universal or Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure there are so many spells you can do with the interactive wand. It adds a lot to the holiday! And these wands are guaranteed for life.. we have broken ours quite a lot and all you need to do is take it back to Ollivanders for them to magically *fix* it (ahem replace!).
Elsewhere both parks have a huge amount to offer with some specific lands that particularly appeal such as Marvel world, Looney Tunes, Simpsons land but also other rides and attractions that are not to be missed such as the Men in Black ride and for those that dare the Hulk! I would say the majority of the rides are simulation quite often you feel very nauseous (the Simpsons ride will make you ill!!!) and there are also some lovely family things to do including the Animal Actors show, the parades and just soaking up the wonderful atmosphere in each and every part.
Last year we also visited Volcano Bay which is the Universal waterpark. It was absolutely brilliant. We have also visited Aquatica and loved it. The waterparks are often a highlight for the kids so they are an absolute MUST for us!!!
I would say you need 3 days minimum for both parks, and an extra for Volcano Bay. You could do it the Universal theme parks in 2 days but you’d be going at it at a speed I wouldn’t fancy so we tend to spread ours out a bit so we can come back to the hotel and relax in the afternoons.
We live off snacks and ice cream! After the parks you don’t want big meals at the end of the days so Auntie Anne Pretzels has been a saviour at Universal they’re cheap and delicious. We also love the Chocolate Toffee Apples which are as big as your head from Honeydukes but they’re huge so get one to share (and if the kids argue then stuff them those toffee apples cost $12 I am not giving them one each)!
Lots swear by the Homer Simpson Lardlad giant donut in Simpsonland. It’s just a big donut but actually will feed a family it’s so big! Also save money by getting free water at most of the food outlets, this saves a fortune over the soda fountains.
Food in Citywalk right next to Universal is varied from higher end to fast food. Our favourite is an unassuming but fun sandwich place called Breadbox which serves club sandwiches and fries but like you have never tasted and it’s cheap and cheerful. Voodoo doughnuts are very popular but to me they are more style than substance, jeez they are so sweet they make your tongue melt. Head up the steps behind them instead and get a Menchies Frozen Yogurt with some fresh fruit topping.
Higher end restaurants exist we have only tried Cowfish that serve burgers AND sushi in cute bento boxes. The food was good but it was blighted by poor service and tired kids EVERYWHERE (none more than ours!!!). Toothsome Chocolate Emporium was pretty fun all themed steampunk style and the kids loved the milkshakes while I started a love affair with brussel sprouts charred and in salad. Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Also, an Uber or quick drive to the Mall of the Millenia is a godsend and an escape and the food choices are excellent.
This is my top tip and worth the expense. Stay at an onsite hotel for Universal . While visiting the parks we stay, four to a room, at the Hard Rock Hotel which is an onsite hotel about 10 minutes’ walk from the park.
This was a considered extra expense for us but worthwhile because with the night’s stay you also are permitted TWO DAYS worth of EARLY entry to the parks, and even better an express pass which gets you in to the express line so avoiding the long queues. We have never not had the express pass. On it’s own the express passes are pricey so actually getting one night or more at the Hard Rock or any of the premium Universal hotels really does help especially as it covers both the arrival day and departure day. Also, walking from the hotel to the park takes about 5 mins (it’s the closest of the hotels) and is a huge bonus and gives you a lot more freedom by being able to return back to relax then venture out later. The first time we went to Universal we stayed at the Hard Rock for 4 nights and it definitely worked out well but any longer, like last summer when we thought we would do 7 nights.. well that was a bit too long. The hotel rooms are great but compact and you end up sharing as family – four of us in one room for a whole week was.. how to put it.. tricky. Saying that it is worth it because the Hard Rock is an awesome hotel. The pool is huge, with slides and entertainment for the kids every afternoon. We loved lazing around there after intense theme parking in the morning. Perhaps with a huge plate of fully loaded tortillas too. Bliss!
You also get a chance to visit the other onsite Universal hotels if you are staying there. We went to Portofino Bay Hotel which was absolutely stunning and worth a visit!
We have also stayed at apartments near the Mall of the Millenia which were brilliant but this was not while visiting the parks. For us staying at one of the onsite hotels has been our preference for both the fact that it’s close to the parks, and the express passes. It is more expensive but well worth it.
The Mall of Millenia
Mall of Millenia is worth a special mention for us as it was easily our favourite place for shopping over ALL our trips. The big mall has all the shops you may want both in the Mall and sprawling around. Don’t forget to pick up your international discount card from the Welcome desk in the Mall. There is a great food court (try Maoz Vegetarian for the best falafel bowls HONESTLY delicious or Chipotle or for the fussy kids good old ChickFilA) and… the Cheesecake Factory. You have to visit this place and get the Ahi Tuna Tartare starter, share a Club sandwich, I’m not sure you’ll even have room for cheesecake!
And the shops nearby to the Mall are really good too. We loved Old Navy (especially the kids) and also it’s right next to West Elm for gorgeous homewares. Ulta beauty is practically next to Nordstrom Rack both MUST go tos. Oh and we always stopped by Target for food, drinks and pretty damn good clothes and jewellery and accessory ranges too! Note: for breakfast buy the Blueberry bagels with Strawberry Philadelphia. We live off it over there and miss it so much when we get back!
We have not been to Disney for nearly 6 years so I would say first and foremost you should check The Dibb for advice as it has changed. And there is SOOOOO much to take in. It was invaluable to me for planning what we wanted to do, what rides to make sure we used our fast passes on, and what we didn’t mind giving a miss. And again the Brit Guide to Orlando. There is Magical Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios PLUS all the water parks AND Disney Springs. The mind boggles!!! Work out what you want to prioritise and book around that. Fast passes are pretty easy when you know how and mean you can work your day around the rides you want to go on. Do not go without working this out because otherwise you may spend most of your day queueing! We love Magic Kingdom for the pure magic, seeing the characters and feeling utterly joyful seeing your children so excited. You get to meet a lot of characters around the park and in the parades and also in the rides that are so well finished you will never look at a ride at a local UK funfair in the same way again. They really do think of everything and make it so you have the most amazing time.
We also loved Epcot and especially the different countries you could visit. It was one of the few parks we visited a few times. Japan is a must with the pearl ceremony where you pay to choose an oyster from the water tank and they do this fabulous ceremony and open up your oyster with a flourish. There is a pearl in every oyster and you can have it made in to jewellery too. Each “country” also has it’s own shop with lovely pieces to buy and take home that aren’t completely ridiculously priced.
Hollywood Studios was good but it has changed hugely since we went so best look in the guides but our absolute favourite was Animal Kingdom. There was an interactive tour the kids could do with activity guidebooks and our girls loved this, a wonderful Safari bus that we enjoyed so much we did it at least 4 times, and animals that looked so well after they could well have been from a Disney movie themselves.
If you are staying onsite in a Disney hotel get food plans. We didn’t do this but I know friends that did and they also get early entry which is brilliant. As I said we stayed there such a long time ago but I remember well the Dole Whip which was a pineapple Mr Whippy. And also, the themed character meals. Time it well and book for the latest breakfast time at Tusker House at Animal Kingdom and not only do you get to dine with Mickey and Goofy and Donald Duck but also, they might bring out lunch while you’re eating so you can stuff your face even more. Ok that was just an added bonus for the piggy in me but I was delighted! All the character themed meals require booking way in advance, or if you are lucky a last-minute spot. I would say you don’t need to do all of them the cost is extortionate but we did love our experience at Tusker House and ticked Donald, Goofy and of course Mickey off the list!
When we went to Disney we stayed in a villa. I know lots do this and it was nice to have the space but in all honesty I wasn’t a huge fan of the small pool. In 2019 although we didn’t visit Disney we stayed at The Grove which are pretty new, modern apartments with a whole load of swimming pools. It was huge but we liked it and the kids loved the pools especially the waterslides. If you are visiting Disney and not staying onsite I would recommend this place though it is FAR away from Universal end!
Kennedy Space Centre
Plan this one. Get there early. Soak it up. It’s educational, and fascinating, and awe inspiring. Well worth the drive. Pretty decent food court here too so I’d say you can eat there and just enjoy the fact that you are at a theme park but it’s also educational. I’m so sorry but all our pics from there include Mr 40plus and we know he won’t be shared so just trust me it’s fab!!!
I can’t not mention this place, an affluent suburb of Orlando where we are lucky to have family. If you are going to Orlando you MUST visit, ideally on a Saturday when the fabulous farmers market is on. It’s a feast for the eyes as well as the belly. People are so friendly as they walk around with their dogs buying gorgeous food and plants and lots of delicious food stands you can buy from.
We had fresh pineapple that tasted so golden and delicious it was ungodly. We had pancakes. And kettle corn. And jams and donuts and pesto’s. I made sure I tasted every food sample, and I was in heaven. After the market take a stroll down the main street admire the sights and individual boutiques and fabulous chocolatiers and shops such as Lucky Brand for men’s and womenswear, Pottery Barn for homewear, and Williams Sonoma for kitchenware. We had a fabulous brunch at Briarspatch there which was hugely popular so book if you want to go. Oh and there is a great burger joint at Burger Fi which is a chain… but tastes too good!!! A must do for us and usually the first place we visit when we get off the plane!
Shopping in general
We have done the Outlets, and we have done the malls. For me the malls win. Outlets can be good for sportswear and my husband pretty much bought out the Quiksilver store but for me I can take it or leave it with the outlets. With all the shopping I do at home I don’t really go to the US for shopping but the kids and my husband make up for that. My husband likes Lucky Brand and Banana Republic, the girls are all about Target and Old Navy. I like the homeware in West Elm and Williams Sonoma and we have ALL found good pieces at Nordstrom Rack. And who doesn’t love a beauty store I LOVE Sephora and Ulta Beauty. Go on the Retailmenot website to check if there are discounts or coupons for any shop you go to I’ve saved lots. And most Malls or Outlets give international discount booklets too either for free or for a small charge.
The Gulf Coast
There is SOOO much to discover here with so many of you that have told me Naples and Sanibel Island and Siesta Key are amazing so I’m loathe to just recommend one spot but we have stayed at both an Airbnb in Treasure Island, and a hotel in St Petes. Neither accommodation was anything to write home about but we were out enjoying the beaches and sites so we didn’t care!!! Must visits for us were Fort de Soto National park where it is utterly unspoilt, and you can hire a bike or bike buggy and ride off to find a quiet beach just for you. We also loved Passe A Grille and I ate the most amazing shrimp omelette at the beach café while the kids had pancakes and then we splashed about in the sea and it was utter bliss. Gulfport was a really pretty town that just had the most gorgeous art shops, ice cream places and vintage shops. The kids also went with their Dad to a Tampa Bay Rays family baseball match which was a highlight for them so well worth checking if you can book one of those.
Shells – seafood. Delicious but also did a good burger and make sure the kids order the Shark Grenadine drink it’s so fun!
The beach café Passe a Grill – sitting on the most beautiful beach with delicious breakfast listening to the waves. Everything is served on disposable plates but everything tasted amazing.
The Atlantic Coast
We were lucky enough to have our Orlando family lend us their condo in Ponce Inlet just south of Daytona. We only stayed a few days but this was our downtime like the Gulf Coast. We bought food from supermarkets and did very little but enjoy the pool, the beaches and a bit of shopping of course. In fact, we DID like the Tanger outlet, just north of Daytona beach probably because there were a lot less people. The Atlantic coast had a completely different feel to the Gulf Coast. Far calmer, less populated and with huge beaches that you can even drive your car on. The sea was colder but not remarkably so but I admit to being a bit scared as I had been told it was shark bite capital so I didn’t enjoy the sea like I should and could have! It didn’t seem to put the locals off surfing. This was our chill time so we really just relaxed but we did a fabulous boat trip with dolphins just off Ponce Inlet where we also saw manatee which absolutely made our holiday. New Smyrna Beach was a lovely arty town with quite a bohemian feel and great cafes.
There were also boat trips which we did at the end of our holiday but I remember wishing we had done at the start of our Atlantic coast trip because of all the hints and tips from the guide, and reassurance that I could absolutely have swum in certain waters without risk from Jaws…