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Orlando Reader Experts Share Their Secrets

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Disney characters at the Magic Kingdom (Photo: Walt Disney World Resort)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on August 10, 2009. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, booking strategy, Disney, family travel, hotel, Kissimmee, Lake Buena Vista, multigenerational travel, Orlando, resort, restaurant, Sarah Pascarella, shoulder season, theme park, vacation rental.

Greetings, Orlando vacationers! Are you planning on heading to sunny Florida soon to play at the region's theme parks? We recently asked you to share your best Orlando travel-planning strategies, and we culled the best tips from the bunch to help you plan your next vacation. Read on to find out what works for your fellow readers—and don't forget to submit your own tried-and-true strategies in the comments section!

Getting to Orlando

As Orlando is a popular vacation destination across all demographics, there is no shortage of flights to this sunny locale.

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Jeff Sheldon of Dallas recommends that travelers who have flexible schedules search for flights on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays to find good airfares. "Start by looking at the airline's own website if they allow you to search by price and schedule, as there can be big differences between flights on the same day," he says. "A major consideration when traveling with young children is to limit your choice of airlines to those who fly non-stop, unless perhaps you can save more than $100 per passenger [with a connecting flight]."

Southwest Airlines was as a popular choice among readers who wrote in, mainly for its inexpensive flights to Orlando. Beyond Southwest, you can find a host of other low-cost carriers that service the region, including AirTran, JetBlue, and Spirit. Many of these airlines offer discounted fares on a regular basis, so by comparing fares, you should be able to find a price that fits your upcoming vacation budget.

Staying in Orlando

In a recent column, Eileen Ogintz lauded the benefits of booking a vacation rental over staying at a hotel. The benefits are plentiful: You'll have much more room for your family and friends, kitchen facilities for cooking your own meals (a huge cost savings), extra amenities such as a pool and/or outdoor patio, and the cost-benefit of splitting your per-night rate (usually comparable or cheaper than area resorts) among a group. A quick web search on Vacation Rentals by Owner showed a plethora of listings for Kissimmee, Lake Buena Vista, and Orlando.

However, many travelers prefer to stay directly at a theme park-affiliated resort when visiting Orlando. Since Walt Disney World and Universal Studios have so many attractions and activities to choose from, staying on-resort provides a great convenience with easy access to the parks. The time you save in getting to and from the resort can be instead used for going on rides, touring the parks, dining out, and the like.

"I've stayed at a Disney-owned resort on each of the [20-plus] trips I've taken to Walt Disney World in the past few years," says Sandown, New Hampshire-based Bill Burke, author of Mousejunkies: Tips, Tales and Tricks for a Disney World Fix. "It's a matter of convenience and customer service. When I land at Orlando, Disney's Magical Express will take me directly to my resort for free. It's door-to-door service. The customer service on-property is second to none, and your stay includes transportation to the theme parks. This means I don't have to rent a car if I don't want to, and I can leave the driving to them." If you're planning on spending the bulk of your vacation at a theme park, staying on property (while possibly costing more per night for accommodations) may offer savings when compared to renting a car, parking fees, and fuel costs.

Marla Westberg of Littleton, Massachusetts, always chooses a theme park property for her vacation. "If you're going to Disney, it's very convenient to go back to the room in the afternoon for a quick nap or to use the resort pool. I always look at DisBoards for updates on the latest discount codes. There is a forum just for this under 'Disney Resorts' called 'Codes and Rates.' Always use a discount; for example, there is one available now for fall that includes dining at no extra cost."

Staying at a Universal Studios property will also add extra value to your vacation, as you'll be granted front-of-the-line access for rides just by showing your room key. If you put stock in the old adage that time is money, then saving a ton of time on the lines (by paying a little extra for your hotel room, compared to an off-resort property) may be worth its weight in gold.

When to Go/When to Plan

Regardless of when you're planning your vacation, it's always a good idea to start early. With a few months' lead time (or more), you'll have more choices for airfare, accommodations, and rental cars—and possibly better prices. If you're visiting during peak-travel times (such as summer and school holidays), having the extra planning time is essential to make sure you'll get good values for your visit.

"You have to start planning a Walt Disney World trip at least eight months in advance," says Burke. "Don't believe me? Try getting a dinner reservation at Le Cellier (the restaurant in the Canada pavilion at Epcot) on a Friday or Saturday night in March with only weeks' advance notice. Or try getting a seating for breakfast at Cinderella's Royal Table any time of year. It can be a challenge. It's not impossible, but it takes planning. Namely, make your plans early, be persistent, and be willing to be flexible."

"My absolute favorite time to go is the first two weeks of December," says Sheldon. "It's between the holidays so you don't have any crowds whatsoever, [and you'll] tend to find some great deals and values during that time. In December, it's cooler and very pleasant."

"If you're limited to traveling around a school calendar, try to go the minute the kids get out of school or the last couple of weeks right before they go back to school," Sheldon continues. "You don't want to be there over the Fourth of July weekend. Avoid major holidays. Labor Day is busy, but so incredibly hot and humid that it ends up really taxing you to where it's not as enjoyable."

Visiting the Parks

Just as you wouldn't book airfare or hotel without a bit of research, plan on doing some advance prepping before heading to the theme parks. You'll make the most of your time by having a reasonable itinerary for each park you visit.

There are plenty of websites that offer theme park visitation tips, with topics ranging from scoring admission discounts to how to minimize your time waiting in lines. Recommended sites include AllEars.net, MouseSavers.com, and WDWInfo.com.

"Think about which rides and attractions are the most important to you," says Westberg. "Head for those right away, and get a Fastpass if offered."

"At [Disney World], check the estimated wait times board posted near the entrance of each park and always utilize FastPass," says Sheldon.

"My cardinal rule: Don't try to do everything," says Burke. "Walt Disney World and the Orlando area have way too much to offer for a typical one-week vacation. Have reasonable expectations, set reachable goals, and slow down.

Your Turn

Do you have a great Orlando tip we haven't mentioned here? Share your expertise by submitting a comment below!

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