A plan is the wish your brain makes: planning a visit to Disney and Universal

May 14th, 2013

As I mentioned in the introduction to this series, a visit to Disney World and Universal Studios theme parks is more of an expedition than a vacation. It entails a great deal of planning beyond the usual considerations of how to reach your destination, where to sleep, and what to eat. The parks–particularly Disney’s–are marvels of human engineering, but they are not something to dive into without advance research and a strategy in hand. If you happen to enjoy that kind of thing, like I do, planning a visit to Disney and Universal is half the fun. If not, I hope our experience can make the planning phase more navigable.

Advice on planning a visit to Disney and Universal is an industry unto itself. Here are the resources that I found most useful:

  1. Friends: I know people who have been going to Disney World all their lives, and I bet you do, too. I met up with one over coffee one day, and took notes the entire time. Natalie was a wellspring of information and enthusiasm. Some of the best advice I got came from our interview, including a succinct explanation of the Disney free advance reservation system for rides, called FASTPASS, a fantastic restaurant recommendation (Yak & Yeti, in Animal Kingdom), and an emphatic warning to arrive early at the parks and head with laser beam focus to the popular attractions first. I also polled other friends who had been there, done that, and asked what they had most enjoyed.
  2. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World by Bob Sehlinger and Len Testa: if you only read one guide book before you go, this is the one (it covers all the Orlando parks). Well-organized and incredibly thorough, it doesn’t just break down the attractions, it offers strategies for everything from mapping out your day to handling the inevitable child (or adult) meltdown.
  3. Brit Guide to Orlando by Simon and Susan Veness: I enjoyed this guide book for it’s unique, outsider perspective on what is arguably the quintessential slice of Americana. It was fun to read descriptions of familiar chain restaurants like Denny’s, as translated for a British audience, and I was tickled to death by warnings about the American insistence on filling beverage cups with ice.
  4. Crowd Calendar by Undercover Tourist: We went to Orlando during spring break, at peak crowd season. But we hardly knew it, thanks to consulting this calendar and knowing which days to hit which parks.
  5. Mobile Apps for Universal Studios and Walt Disney World by Undercover Tourist: Once inside the parks, these apps were indispensable for everything from gauging wait times to finding food or bathrooms nearby.
  6. All Ears Disney restaurant menus: all the Disney property menus, with prices, so you can make decisions in advance about what to eat and how much to spend, before everyone gets tired and hungry.
Before we left home, we had our itinerary laid out for the week; not just which parks on which days, but a rough idea of which attractions within each park were the must-sees. It sounds a little obsessive-compulsive, but even my go-with-the-flow husband agreed it was well worth it. I would have been happy spending our entire visit at Disney parks, but my mom really felt that the kids should see the Harry Potter attraction at Universal Studios, and I’m so glad she insisted. This was our original itinerary:
  • Travel day
  • Day One in Orlando: Magic Kingdom
  • Day Two: Universal Studios Islands of Adventure
  • Day Three: Downtown Disney for St. Patrick’s Day brunch/Universal Studios Florida
  • Day Four: free day or use bonus tickets for Universal (we had a buy two, get one deal)
  • Day Five: Animal Kingdom
  • Travel day
We didn’t stick to the plan exactly, but having a plan was crucial. In the next few posts, I’ll review each day’s itinerary, starting with our amazing day at the Magic Kingdom, and share what worked and what didn’t.
Until then, here are a few snapshots of our easy travel day from Little Rock to Orlando, on a new, insanely economical non-stop route with Southwest Airlines. Our return fare was less than $200 each!

Leaving Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport.

Arriving at Orlando, ready to find Nana.

Above all, don’t forget to pack a skateboard and back-scratcher.

A little night swimming before the big day. We loved our rental at the Terra Verde resort.

(Inspired? For more in-depth strategy and recommendations, see my post about beginning at the very beginning with the Magic Kingdom.)

3 Responses to “A plan is the wish your brain makes: planning a visit to Disney and Universal”

  1. marilee pittman says:

    Oh this is making me homesick.Wasn’t it a wonderful holiday?

  2. John C. says:

    Bookmarked! We’ll be taking our 4-year-old daughter to DW for the first time next February, and I’m sure these resources will be a big help. While such in-depth reconnaissance runs counter to my normal vacation MO (i.e., go with the flow, follow the locals, etc.), I know advance preparation will be necessary with such an enormous swath of real estate to cover …

    (Not doing so would be sort of like strolling past the Louvre and saying, “Hey look, a museum — let’s check it out.”) Thanks for sharing!

  3. […] some first-timers may not know (I didn’t, until I began planning our visit), is that there are four distinct parks within Walt Disney World, not counting the two water parks. […]

RSS feed for comments on this post.