Walt Disney World truly may be one of the happiest places on Earth—or, at least, the people who work there certainly seem cheerful, even when confronted by long lines of people and the occasional hot and overtired kid throwing a temper tantrum. Everywhere you go, cast members are waving happily. When you get on a ferry boat to Magic Kingdom, your pilot waves hello. As you take off on the charming Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a cast member waves goodbye—and then waves as you emerge back where you started, heart thumping merrily. Everywhere you go, smiles.
My family of four had arrived in Orlando ready to take the city’s entertainment options by storm. Our 3-year-old wasn’t crazy about people dressed up as Goofy or Donald, but he loved Magic Kingdom’s Winnie the Pooh ride and driving a “racecar” at Tomorrowland Speedway. And our 9-year-old thrilled at having overcome her fear of roller coasters to take on the Mine Train, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain.
In preparing for our trip, I had talked to friends who had been to Orlando, and one momentarily confused a trip there to one she had taken to Las Vegas. It’s easy to see why: While Vegas may be adventureland for adults, Orlando offers adventureland for everyone, whether you’re headed to one of the Disney parks, Universal parks, Sea World or all of them.
We began our stay at Animal Kingdom Lodge, where giraffes, zebras, kudu and more wandered through the wildlife refuge, wowing us on our balcony overlooking the savanna. Disney’s Animal Kingdom was the closest park to our resort, and it’s fun for anyone who loves animals and dinosaurs and re-created foreign lands—particularly at night, with new nighttime offerings such as the River of Light show. Unfortunately, we just missed the park’s upcoming new land; Pandora: The World of Avatar will re-create James Cameron’s magical world starting this May.
Next we hit Disney’s Hollywood Studios before finally, after a recharge day by the pool, heading to Disney’s “mothership,” the Magic Kingdom. This is the best park for little kids (or little kids at heart), with lots of imaginative rides and character experiences that bring favorite stories to life without being scary.
While there are plenty of bigger kids and adults at Disney’s theme parks, older thrill-seekers will be excited by the offerings at Universal Orlando Resort. In addition to areas inspired by The Simpsons, Marvel and Jurassic Park, there is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, my daughter’s ultimate heart’s desire since she had read all of J. K. Rowling’s children’s books.
Start your Harry Potter adventure with a trip to Ollivanders to buy an interactive wand and then practice your skills throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, where certain spells will unlock “magical” actions. Know that the Wizarding World is actually in two separate parks: Hogsmeade in Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Diagon Alley in the adjacent Universal Studios Florida. You take the fun Hogwarts Express train between the two parks, but you’ll need to buy a two-park ticket to do so.
Whatever park you visit, it pays to get there early or late when it’s not as crowded and the lines are shorter, but check park hours because they vary by location. Try to catch at least one nighttime light or fireworks show. And plan ahead without planning too much: Part of the fun of the parks is the exploration, but you don’t want to feel later as if you’ve missed something you would have loved. Finally, take a break if you need it; the parks are all about fun—and sometimes the best thing for fun is a midday nap.
WHERE TO STAY
There are wonderful resorts for various budgets on the Disney and Universal properties, and they make it easy to get to the parks. But for a lovely, quiet oasis, the Villas of Grand Cypress can’t be beat. With plenty of space to spread out in each villa, plus amenities such as full kitchens, washer/dryers, loaner bikes, a beautiful golf course and park shuttles at the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, the villas are a wonderful option for families or couples.
WHERE TO EAT
We loved the restaurants at Animal Kingdom Lodge, and you may be thinking about the dishes at Boma or Sanaa days later. At Disney Springs, check out celebrated chef Rick Bayless’ Frontera Fresco. On your way home from Universal, stop by Rocco’s Tacos and Tequila Bar for some delicious tacos and guacamole. And for something off the beaten path, check out the chic culinary options at Plant St. Market.