Orlando is ‘the’ place to be for the most famous theme parks in the country. There is a world of entertainment packed within each one of its famous parks and the added bonus of warm weather only adds sun to the fun. One of the most popular places for tourists to visit, Orlando is the theme park capital of the world. Where else can you meet Mickey Mouse, step inside Hogwarts Castle and be splashed by an Orca all in one week? Visit Disney World, Universal or SeaWorld, the top three theme park resorts in the area.
Orlando gives you the opportunity to step inside the realm of the most popular books and movies, with breakfast at The Three Broomsticks and scenes from Harry Potter, Dr. Seuss, Jurassic Park, Marvel Comics, and more throughout Universal Studios. Dine with your favorite characters at Disney World, and see the famous fairy tale castle that sets the entrance scene to each and every movie. The monorail and Epcot Center, or Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, presents a modern alternative in technological architecture to admire–compliments of the Disney vision for a more futuristic way of life. Get up close and personal with marine life at SeaWorld, and watch the whales and dolphins put on a show. Those heading to the nearby beach because they believe that the house of house is out of their price range will want to be sure to check out my post on the Top 10 Free Things to do Outside the Disney World Theme Parks.
Consider listening to Robert Niles from Themepark Insider on a recent episode of our podcast, as he discusses insider tips on visiting Orlando’s theme parks. Orlando is truly a world of fun for the whole family! It takes about a 1½ drive to get to Tampa (85 miles), 2½ hours to get to West Palm Beach, about 4 hours to get to Miami (238 miles) and 10 hours to get to Atlanta (666 miles).
Top 8 Theme Parks (In order of attendance)
1. Magic Kingdom (Walt Disney World) (17,536,000 annual visitors) is the largest and most popular of the four Disney theme parks. Since it’s opening in 1971, the Magic Kingdom has become the fifth most-visited attraction in the US and the world’s most visited theme park, which can be accessed by bus, boat or monorail. Classic attractions include the Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain (a faced paced, dark indoor roller coaster), Splash Mountain (a log flume ride; aka Flash Mountain). They recently expanded their Fantasyland to include a Little Mermaid ride, an Expanded Dumbo’s circus area, a Beauty and the Beast themed restaurant called “Be Our Guest,” and The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (2014). Mickey’s Toontown closed forever to make way for this expansion, but the Barnstormer (a kid-friendly mini roller coaster) has been renamed “The Great Goofini.” It’s fairly similar to the Disneyland version, see how it differs from Disneyland by reading Disney World Vs. Disneyland. You may notice that there are tons of Mickey faces hidden all throughout Walt Disney World – the kids will especially enjoy hunting these hidden Mickeys. Go ahead and make your dining reservations for any of the Walt Disney World resorts most popular restaurants, up to 180 days in advance, by calling 407-WDW-DINE. Admission is $95 for adults and $89 for children.
“Here in Florida, we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland…the blessing of size. There’s enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.” -Walt Disney
2. Epcot (Walt Disney World) was the second theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort, built in 1982. Today it receives over 11 million annual visitors and is divided into two completely different sections – Future World and World Showcase. The park is perhaps best known for its 180-foot-tall Spaceship Earth geosphere. In case you are wondering what is in that massive “golf ball,” it is actually a slow but magical ride through the history of worldwide communication (avoid crowds by saving this ride for later in the day), though it’s looks have changed quite a bit over the years, as described in our post on 21 Things That Are Gone From Disney World. FOREVER. The Land pavilion’s Soarin’ ride is another of the park’s most popular rides; this simulated flying sensation is a must-see and often has extremely long wait times so be sure to get a fast pass first thing in the morning. Admission is $90 for adults and $84 for children.
Those who aren’t first time visitors and already sort of know the ropes may want to consider doing a behind the scenes tour. Walt Disney World and SeaWorld are both the perfect places to step on the other side of the red tape and explore what the public never sees. Epcot Center is the location of many backstage tours like Backstage Magic for adults or Behind the Sees for preschool kids to adults. Another fun favorite is the Backstage Safari tour offered for adults in Disney’s Animal Kingdom—a great choice for animal lovers! In the Magic Kingdom, Disney’s The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains Tour is also a great favorite for tweens, teens and adults. We talk more about these tours in our post on the Top 10 Behind the Scenes Tours in America. The prices vary for each tour so check out the website to get an updated list of admission, dates and times for each tour.
3. Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Walt Disney World) This park was formerly known for its African Savannah’s, tame rides, early closing times (compared to the other parks) and child geared appeal, but in 2006 they opened the massive Expedition Everest roller coaster, which completely shifted the focus of the park to also give teens an incentive to come. In 2017 they are set to open a brand new land called “Avatar Land.” It will be the largest expansion in the history of the park, built on the former Camp Mickey-Minnie (Not to worry, the popular festival of The Lion King show has moved to the Africa section of the park) and themed to James Cameron’s 3D film, which holds the title of being the biggest box office movie of all time. The mythical world of Pandora will come to life in a action-packed fantasy world, which is rumored to include a simulator ride similar to Soarin’, a boat ride and a state of the art roller coaster. Best of all, the park will be staying open a little later thanks to a new nighttime spectacular where live music, floating lanterns, water screens and swirling animal imagery will all come about in a larger than life presentation. They will even open a nighttime version of their signature attraction, the Kilimanjaro safari. See Disney’s Avatar Land promo video. Admission is $90 for adults and $84 for children.
4. Disney’s Hollywood Studios (Walt Disney World) opened in 1989 and was formerly called Disney-MGM Studios. The park actually used to be a working film studio but has since adjusted to focusing more on rides and shows. Some of the most popular attractions include the Star Tours motion simulator called “Star Tours: The Adventures Continue,” Toy Story Midway Mania, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Starring Aerosmith. As the day comes to a close, you can’t leave without seeing their live action and firework spectacular called Fantasmic! Admission is $90 for adults and $84 for children.
5. Universal’s Islands of Adventure (Universal Orlando) is quickly becoming comparable to to any of the Disney them parks – in fact some even prefer it over Disney. For those who have not visited since June 2010, I highly recommend that you return to check out The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which you have probably heard about by now. It’s signature attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (similar in setup to the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man), is a great family ride located within this “Theme Park within a Theme Park.” This 20 acre land allows visitors to actually experience scenes from the Harry Potter books and movies. Fans who have dreamed of visiting the Hogwarts Castle or the village of Hogsmeade will get their chance to live up their wildest dreams. Other popular attractions include the Jurassic Park River adventure (a fun dinosaur-themed water ride with a huge drop at the end), the Incredible Hulk Coaster (one of the few large-scaled traditional Six Flags style roller coasters in Orlando) and children will especially love the Camp Jurassic (a super fun dinosaur themed playground) as well as Seuss Landing (an entire portion of the park devoted to the popular Dr. Seuss tales). Admission is $92 for adults and $86 for children.
6. Universal Studios (Universal Orlando) – This was the first theme park to be built at Universal Orlando, which is not overshadowed by all the Harry Potter commotion at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. But that’s all about to change as summer 2014 marks the opening of Diagon Alley, their Wizarding World of Harry Potter expansion, which was previously only located within Islands of Adventure. They will have a train called the Hogwarts Express, which will transport guests between the two Universal theme parks. This new land is built on the site of the former Jaws ride and will feature the large-scale Gringotts coaster. Other popular attractions here include the large outdoor Hollywood, Rip, Ride, Rockit roller coaster, Revenge of the Mummy (a fun indoor roller coaster), Transformers, The Simpsons Ride, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem (a 4D simulator that replaced the Jimmy Neutron attraction), and Men in Black Alien Attack. Stay at one of Universal’s three on-site resorts to be able to skip most of the lines at both Universal theme parks. Admission is $92 for adults and $86 for children.
7. SeaWorld Florida is the world’s largest marine-themed park, which has changed its focus it later years to shift from solely including animal exhibits and shows to also offering a variety of thrill rides. See everything from dolphins and manatees to the park’s signature “Shamu” orcas. Roller coasters include Kraken and Manta. Their newest attraction is their most expensive yet, called “Antarctica – Empire of the Penguin, which takes guests on a slow ride through a live penguin habitat. Admission is $82 for adults and $77 for children.
8. LEGOLAND Florida (Located 45 minutes outside of Orlando in Winter Haven) Did you know that Cypress Gardens closed in late 2009 to be transformed into a brand new theme park called Legoland? Anyone who has visited the classic California location will know that this park is geared towards younger children (ages 2-12). Those who come looking for big thrill rides will be disappointed, so don’t say you haven’t been warned! It is the fifth Legoland in the world and also their largest. It opened in 2011 and is the newest theme park to open in Central Florida. Admission is $81 for adults and $74 for children.
Top 5 Water Parks
1. Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon – The most visited water park in the world is well known for having one of the world’s largest surfing lagoons with the biggest waves of any Florida theme park. Shark Reef allows you to snorkel among fish in a 362-gallon reef environment, which is complete with coral and plant life that is often found in the Caribbean waters. Visitors ages 8 and up may want to come before the park opens to take surf lessons. This park typically closes each year from around October through December (yet Disney’s other water park, Blizzard Beach, stays open during this time). Admission is $53 for adults and $45 for children.
2. Disney’s Bizzard Beach – The third most visited water park in the world opened in 1995 and offers an experience that is likely to be unlike any other water park that you have ever visited before. Why, you might ask? Because the park is covered in “snow” from a freakishly weird snowstorm that brought along Florida’s first ski resort (so the Disney legend says anyway). The bravest in the gang will want to be sure to venture out on a ride down “ski jump,” which is the tallest and fastest water slide in the world. The top of Mount Gushmore is accessed via a real ski lift. The park typically closes each year from about January through March. Admission is $53 for adults and $45 for children.
3. Aquatica – Featuring two side-by-side wave pools, the Dolphin Plunge water slide that takes passengers on a wild ride through a dolphin-filled aquarium and countless other innovative concepts await in this water park created by SeaWorld. There’s even a sandy beach covered with 1,360 tons of soft, white sand and South Seas-inspired gardens with more than 60,000 species of plants. Admission is $46 for adults and $41 for children.
4. Wet ‘n Wild – Especially known for its selection of wild thrill rides, Wet ‘n Wild also features a huge sandcastle-themed children’s area (reportedly the largest family water play area in Florida), a wave pool and lazy river. One the most popular rides is Disco H20 where passengers on this four-person tube ride float along to a soundtrack of 1970s hits accompanied by disco balls and flashing lights. Admission is $55 for adults and $50 for children (save up to $10 off those rates when you purchase in advance).
5. Legoland Florida Water Park – Located in nearby Winter Haven, the area’s newest water park features the 1,000-foot-long Build-a-Raft River. Admission to the Legoland Water Park requires visitors to upgrade their Legoland tickets to the combo package at $15 per person.
Sci-Fi Dine-In – Located in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, this restaurant evokes the feeling of being at a old-fashioned simulated drive-in. Everyone sits in an old time car and watches sci-fi movie clips on the big screen. Prices range from about $15 to $29.99.
50’s Prime Time Cafe – Located in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, this restaurant features a 1950’s theme. Our waitress gave us her motherly bit of advice and told us to put our phone’s up when we were at the table. At one point she even took everyone’s phones with her back to the kitchen! Only at Disney! Tables feature TV sets broadcasting clips from ’50’s sitcoms. Prices range from about $15 to $29.99.
While in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, be sure to go for a spin on The Studio Backlot Tour. Those of you who still miss the “old Miley Cyrus” can actually see chicken coop that Miley painted in Hannah Montana: The Movie.
Rainforest Cafe – Step into this indoor jungle and discover one of the most realistic indoor rain forests ever created, complete with cascading waterfalls, lush vegetation, tropical rainstorms, beautiful aquariums, trumpeting elephants and wild animatronic gorillas, jaguars, and elephants. A “thunderstorm” goes off every now and then, where the ”animals” go wild and thunder and lightning appear to sound off in a dramatic yet exciting experience. The menu includes a wide variety of options, including pastas, seafood, salads, sandwiches and pizzas. Order their “volcano” sundae and they start yelling “volcano” and make quite a spectacle! Pick up a souvenir on the way out at their large, iconic gift shop. They actually have TWO restaurants at Walt Disney World – one at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and another at Downtown Disney. Rainforest Cafe is the only restaurant concept at all three U.S. Disney locations as well as Disneyland Paris and Japan. Prices range from about $15 to $29.99.
T-Rex Cafe – Eat, shop, explore and discover at T-REX Cafe, which transports you to a prehistoric world filled with fun animatronic dinosaurs and delicious entrees cooked in the Kitchen of Fire. Unearth the past in our educational Paleo Zone, and enjoy the wide array of merchandise found in our Dino Store. Also, visit the first-ever Build-A-Dino by Build-A-Bear Workshop, where you can make your own dino friend. It is owned by Landry’s, who also owns the Rainforest Cafe. Prices range from about $15 to $29.99.
Hard Rock Cafe – Located at Universal Studios Orlando in the CityWalk entertainment complex, Hard Rock Cafe Orlando is the biggest Hard Rock Cafe in the world. With large, statuesque pillars, it stands majestically as a Roman Coliseum of rock, and boasts more pieces of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia than any other location. The site includes not only a vast, multi-level cafe, but throw in Hard Rock Live Orlando, a 3,000-person concert/party venue, and you’ve got a winner. For the ultimate Hard Rock experience, stay at Universal’s very own Hard Rock Hotel, just steps away.
Mythos– Located inside Island’s of Adventure, they have an upscale atmosphere but the food is actually really good and surprisingly affordable, that’s why I highly recommend this place. This air-conditioned “cave” is complete with a cascading water, and gives you a nice break from all the rides. The crabcake sliders and the pad Thai are among diner’s favorites. They actually allow guests to enter the park to dine at the restaurant without paying for Islands of Adventure admission. Go to the guest services window and tell them you’d like to dine at Mythos. They’ll ask for a photo id and a credit card. They’ll ring up a charge ticket for the full park admission and give you a pass to enter the park and go to the restaurant. When you’re finished, you present the pass and proof that you purchased a meal at Mythos and they tear up your credit slip. You’re allowed about 2 and a half hours, which is more time than needed!
Margaritaville – Named after Jimmy Buffett’s famous 1977 song, Margaritaville, redefines the meaning of the laid back American lifestyle. Sip on a Pina Colada and chill by the bay, here at this delicious restaurant. Don’t forget to pick up Jimmy Buffet themed merchandise on the way out. Located at Universal CityWalk, right outside the entrance to the two Universal theme parks.
The Three Broomsticks Restaurant – Located at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, inside Universal’s Islands of Adventure, this restaurant has become (possibly) the most famous restaurant in all of Orlando! Harry Potter fans will enjoy being inside the fictional pub for traditional English dishes like Cornish pasties and turkey legs. The visit won’t be complete until you have the “Butterbeer,” which comes regular or frozen. There is also a Butterbeer cart right outside, which may or may not have a shorter line.
Boma – Flavors of Africa – Located in Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge (where you may get a free sighting of some African animals!), this buffet offers flavors from over 50 African countries! The lodge atmosphere, with animals grazing outside, and warm service make this restaurant a mini-adventure in and of itself. Bobotie (an African meat pie) and coconut curry chicken soup are both favorites. Of course, nothing while a trip to Disney World can easily costs thousands of dollars, your destination choice really matters. Check out my article on the “Best Free Attractions in America” for a few of the cities that are best known for offering high quality free attractions.
Chefs de France – Located in Epcot, get the feel of a Parisian bistro in this Disney setting, diners can indulge in real-deal items like escargots and quiche Lorraine at this restaurant. Don’t miss the crème brûlée and profiteroles afterward. Best of all, be sure to watch out for a celebrity sighting – Chef Remy from Ratatouille just might stop by your table!
Medieval Times Dinner Theater – is a family dinner theater featuring staged medieval-style games, sword-fighting, and jousting performed by a cast of 75 actors and 20 horses. It is housed in a replica 11th-century castle.
Planet Hollywood – Located in the heart of Downtown Disney, this planet shaped restaurant features fun theming, and a wide variety of dining options. I would come just to see their wide assortment of memorabilia, which includes Dorthy’s Ruby slippers and Evil Knieval’s riding outfit.
Whether you’re looking for mouse ears or Jimmy Choo shoes, Orlando is sure to have what you’re looking for. Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando are home to an almost endless array of shops spread throughout their parks and resorts. Universal’s CityWalk and Disney’s Downtown Disney are both great shopping and dining hubs and they are open to the public, free of charge (except Universal charges for parking). Whether you’re hunting down an outlet center or stepping into the latest and greatest of boutiques, Orlando is sure to be your one stop destination for all of your fashion needs.
Rather than buying gifts and souvenirs within Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld, consider looking online or at stores right outside of the parks themselves more generic looking gifts. Of course the parks themselves and the gift shops at the end of attractions are likely to have rarer items that may not be found outside of the parks and that could take years trying to hunt down on Ebay. Figure out your personal budget and needs and go from there. The last thing you want is to go home feeling empty handed.
If you’re looking for somewhere a little more homey, try the tree-lined streets of Winter Park, which are home to unique boutiques, well-known shops, and a number of antiques stores. The Market Street in Celebration is also home to a a delightful selection of small shops. Downtown Orlando has its own unique shopping spots, with Antique Row featuring antiques dealers, collectible shops, and better gift stores.
Sales tax in Osceola County, which includes Kissimmee, the U.S. 192 corridor, and all of Disney’s All-Star resorts, is 7%. In Orange County, which includes the International Drive area, SeaWorld, Universal Orlando, most (but not all) of Disney World, and most of the lesser attractions, it’s 6.5%.
One of the biggest downsides of shopping in a theme park is having to lug around that ginormous teddy bear for the rest of the day. Because Orlando is geared to travelers, many retailers offer to ship packages home for a few dollars more, including Disney. If a retailer doesn’t offer such a service, check with your hotel. Many of concierge or business centers can arrange a pickup by UPS, the U.S. Postal Service, or another carrier.
Few know that tons of wacky treasures are regularly put on the auction block at Walt Disney World. From items from the theme parks and WDW resorts, there are more routine items available, from over-the-hill lawn-maintenance gear to never-been-used stainless-steel pots and pans. If you’re looking for a unique piece of Disney, the auctions are held six times a year. Unique items sold in the past include a motorized surfboard and furniture from Miss Piggy’s dressing room. The auction takes place on Disney’s back lots. Call property control (tel. 407/824-6878) for information, dates, and directions.
Bigger yet are trinkets sold at www.disneystore.com. Mainstream items, including artwork, figurines, cookie jars, pins, and snow globes (as well as other modest merchandise), are available on a regular basis (and sold at a set price). But sometimes things go big time, when limited-edition trinkets, movie props, costumes, Disney resort furniture, and theme-park artifacts go on the block on www.mousesurplus.com (a division of eBay). Past items on the block include a FASTPASS sign from “it’s a small world” ($3,499), a prop plane from the Animal Kingdom’s Kilimanjaro Safaris ($5,999), and the Toy Story Van ($2,999) once used at Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios).
It’s free for anyone to park and tour these beautiful hotels. Try it out, especially if your considering staying at WDW in the future, or would like to do Disney on a dime. Reserve a day of your vacation to spend at Downtown Disney, the Boardwalk or the hotels for a fraction of the cost of visiting the parks. Come to one of the deluxe hotels, stay for a meal and take in the scenery. Now that is the life!
Disney Deluxe Resorts
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge opened April 16, 2001 and was later expanded to include 1,307 rooms and suites. Located near Disney’s Animal Kingdom, as you might have guessed. Kidani Village opened in 2009 adding another Disney Vacation Club property to the mix and expanding the animal species and offering 109 rooms and more than 300 villas opened as part of this expansion. This African themed resort was ranked number one on our list of best hotels in the U.S. (see homepage for the complete list) because of it’s very own authentic African savanna. Guest can observe African animals right from their very own room. African style cooking is served at the restaurants two major restaurants, Jiko: The Cooking Place and Boma: Flavors of Africa. Like all other deluxe hotels at the WDWR, prices are steep but it is free for anyone to come see the animals and the beautiful lobby and African architecture. Anyone not staying at this resort can come and see the gorgeous lobby, the wide selection of African animals and architecture, free of charge! Where else can you go see a free African Savannah in Orlando?!
I will have to admit that this was my favorite Walt Disney World resort until I actually visited in the daytime. We came at the wrong time, when the animals were put up, and I had to ask if we were in the main lobby or not! While I was expecting more, where else, in the US, can you go and get a room with views of giraffes, elephants zebras, a Savannah unlike any other. What a fun concept! This is a great place to take the kids, but is still fun for adults. Who doesn’t love waking up, going out on the balcony and watching animals play. Now that is cool!
We stayed somewhere else and spent part of our day here and ate at Boma: Flavors of Africa, as listed above. Picky eaters might not like the mostly African cuisine, but we really liked the bar.
Disney’s BoardWalk Inn opened in 1996 to be reminiscent of the boardwalks that were famous along Atlantic City, New Jersey and Coney Island, New York in the 1920s-1940s. The location is in the Epcot/ Disney’s Hollywood Studios area. The Keister Coaster is a 200-foot waterslide at the main pool. This hotel is really more for the older generation but kids will like it too. From the slide mimicking a rollercoaster of the past to the carnival feel of the Boardwalk, located right outside your front door, everyone is going to have fun! Eat at Big River Grille & Brewing Works, Boardwalk Bakery, ESPN Club, Flying Fish Cafe and Kouzzina by Cat Cora. We decided to splurge on a meal at the Flying Fish Cafe and we were so glad we did!!
If I was staying here I would definitely take time to walk on the Boardwalk, tight outside your front doors, and follow the path over to the Swan and Dophin. These two hotels are fun to see on the exterior but contain interiors that are fairly bland and dated. IF you must, tour the lobby, but I would continue the walk, or hop on one of the complimentary boat shuttles, to the Yacht and Beach Club. They have the BEST hotel at WDW. Step in the lobby but I’d spend awhile looking over this “never ending” lazy rive, or should I say mini waterpark! Come wearing your swimsuits and they might just let you go for a swim, without asking for a room key!
Disney’s Contemporary Resort opened on October 1, 1971, with 665 rooms and a modern (contemporary) theme. This resort has recently gone under a major renovation to make the Contemporary, Contemporary, the results are quite impressive. The 15 story Bay Lake Tower opened in 2009 offering 295 more rooms. The monorail runs through this resort giving hotel guests a convenient way to get around WDW. Restaurants include The California Grill, a place to Splurge and get a great view of the Magic Kingdom fireworks, located on the top floor of the Contemporary Resort, The Wave is a new table-service restaurant featuring American cuisine, Chef Mickey’s is a buffet that features character dining (this is one of our long time favorites), the quick-service Contempo Cafe, and The Sand Bar, which is located alongside the main pool.
Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa opened on June 28, 1988, themed to a Victorian seaside resort. Of all the resorts in Orlando, this one is my favorite …and I bet it will be yours too. If you can’t afford the deluxe rates, starting at $410, take a break from the parks to spend the evening here. Come for the evening, listen to the live music and take in the huge lobby and grand architecture for no cost what so ever! That’s something even the locals like to do! One of the best features of this resort is it’s close proximity to the most visited theme park in the entire world, the magic kingdom. This is one of only three WDW resorts that are connected to the monorail. It has 867 rooms, including 25 suites are located in six different buildings. Rent watercraft, enjoy the white sand beach, the two pools and jacuzzi, the tennis programs, a mile-long jogging trail, health club, and preferred access to the Walt Disney World golf courses. The full service spa offers massages, therapies, and other treatments. The monorail makes it convenient to get around WDW, and the great location is very close to Magic Kingdom. Dining: Victoria & Albert’s has received AAA’s Five Diamond Award each year since 2000 and no longer permits children under 10, Citricos serves up American food with a Mediterranean flair, Narcoossee’s serves seafood and offers a view of the Magic Kingdom fireworks, 1900 Park Fare includes a buffet with Disney characters including Mary Poppins and Cinderella, Grand Floridian Café serves traditional American fare, and Gasparilla Grill and Games is a 24-hour snack bar with an adjacent arcade. Check out all of my pictures from the Grand Floridian here.
Disney’s Polynesian Resort is a AAA Four-Diamond award winning resort that opened on October 1, 1971 with 847 rooms and is themed to the South Seas. Attention to detail is what this place is all about. From stepping off the monorail you will see a sign reading aloha, followed by a huge indoor atrium. “Welcome to Hawaii”, ready to go? Imagine being just minutes away from the Magic Kingdom. This is one of only three WDW resorts that are connected to the monorail. Now that can save you a lot of time! The location is in the Magic Kingdom area, but Magic Kingdom and Epcot can be easily accessed by the monorail. The Great Ceremonial House features a large tropical rain forest in its atrium, with over 75 species of plant life and several waterfalls. Dining: Disney’s Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show is a musical dinner show that is inspired by a traditional Polynesian-revue, including family style food and several authentic dances and performances intertwined with a back-story, performed Tuesday through Saturday nights. Breakfast and dinner are served in ‘Ohana, which becomes ‘Ohana’s Best Friends Breakfast with Lilo and Stitch, for breakfast with Disney characters Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Lilo and Stitch visiting tables while food is served family style in calabash platters, and ‘Ohana Feast, for dinner, a family style meal featuring several varieties of grilled skewered meats along with live entertainment. Kona Cafe serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner with Asian influences. Captain Cook’s Snack Company, Tambu Lounge, and Barefoot Pool Bar are quick service dining, lounges, and bars.
After hearing about the popularity of this hotel, despite its age, I had to figure out what all the fuss was about. We made reservations at the Kona Cafe for dinner. This place does get crowded. We made reservations a week ahead a time and ended up having to eat at 8:00. The Shrimp Pasta ($17.99) is excellent, one of the best meals we had on the trip, and that’s saying a lot! It cost $52 bucks for the three of us to eat, which really wasn’t all that bad. We get a kick out of how the WDW restaurants put the suggested tip amount on the bottom. They only give you the 15% and 20% suggested tip prices. But this is very convenient, after all. They give you what a $18 WE really weren’t all that impressed with the hotel itself. Be sure to come in the daytime when you can really take in the tropical foliage and gorgeous theming.
Walt Disney World Swan Resort opened on January 13, 1990 containing 756 rooms and is joined to it’s sister hotel the Walt Disney World Dolphin, both of which are in the Epcot/ Disney’s Hollywood Studios area. I believe this hotel is best for adults. I, personally, with a budget of $300 a night, would opt to stay somewhere else, more exciting, but that’s just me. Dining: Fine dining is served at Il Mulino New York Trattoria which offers traditional Italian cuisine from the Abruzzi region of Italy and is open for dinner, Kimonos which serves Japanese cuisine and is open for dinner. Java Bar serves Continental snacks and coffee, Splash Terrace serves traditional and contemporary lunch fare, snacks and ice cream, Garden Grove features Disney character dining nightly and for breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays.
Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort opened on June 1, 1990, containing 1,509 rooms and it’s joined to it’s sister hotel the Walt Disney World Swan. Dining: Cabana Bar and Beach Club, The Fountain is an Ice Cream Shop, Picabu is a Modern American restaurant, Splash Terrace is a Poolside Cafe. Fine dining is served at: Todd English’s BlueZoo is the highlight of this hotel. Everyone riding the elevator up to the lobby will pass by with envy, hearing the music and and seeing the blueness! featuring seafood, and at Shula, featuring steak and seafood.
Disney’s Wilderness Lodge opened May 28, 1994 with 729 rooms and is themed to the Pacific Northwest with natural and Native American elements. Based on the theming of this hotel, I thought why would ANYONE want to pay that much to stay in a wilderness, cabin, setting. But I had heard great things about this hotel, so I decided to give it a try. I was amazed! The lobby is so grand, one of the tallest on property and the backyard of it is even more amazing! The landscaping is phenomenal, from waterfalls to a fun pool you know your at the Wilderness. But this time you don’t have to rough it! I am not all that impressed by the theming of the actual rooms but the lobby and landscaping make up for it 100%. Located near Magic Kingdom. Dining: Artist Point serves American Northwest styled food and Whispering Canyon Cafe which is less formal and great for families. Ask for a bottle of ketchup. They get rowdy in here! Roaring Fork Snacks, Territory Lounge and Trout Pass serve as quick snack eateries.
Disney’s Yacht Club Resort opened on November 5, 1990 has 630 rooms and a Martha’s Vineyard Resort theme, giving guest the impressions of actually being on a ship. The location is very close to Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This resort shares amenities with Disney’s Beach Club Resort and Disney’s Beach Club Villas, including Stormalong Bay, a mini-waterpark, featuring a sand bottom swimming area, lazy river, a waterfall, and one of the highest resort waterslides at WDW. A poolside counter-service restaurant and bar, a children’s shallow area, and an elevated tanning deck. This hotel is one of my least favorites at WDW, best for retirees, other than the pool, which is actually the BEST pool in WDW. It was brilliant to share a pool with the beach club to let all guests enjoy one big double sized pool with everything you could ask for and more. Dining: Yachtsman Steakhouse is a steakhouse serving dinner only and displaying aged beef, Captain’s Grille is a more casual restaurant open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and American fast-food can be purchased at the poolside, counter-service, Hurricane Hanna’s.
Disney’s Beach Club Resort opened on November 19, 1990, themed to Newport Beach Cottages at the turn of the century, with 583 rooms. The actual hotel is best for retirees and the older set but the pool is the best at WDW! Located near Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This resort shares amenities with Disney’s Yacht Club Resort and Disney’s Beach Club Villas, including Stormalong Bay, a mini-waterpark, featuring a sand bottom swimming area, lazy river, a waterfall, and one of the highest resort waterslides at WDW. A poolside counter-service restaurant and bar, a children’s shallow area, and an elevated tanning deck. Casual dining is served at Cape May Cafe, featuring a buffet and character dining, and at Beaches & Cream Soda Shop, offering American cuisine.
Disney Moderate Resorts
Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort opened October 1, 1998 with Caribbean, a tropical islands theme. Located near the Epcot/ Disney’s Hollywood Studios area, this resort contains 2,112 rooms. A portion of the rooms have been remodeled to offer a Finding Nemo theme and a Pirate theme.
Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort opened on August 1, 1997 If you want to go moderate stay here! This is our favorite moderate hotel and believe it or not one of our favorite hotels at WDW!! The lobby is only one story but it looks very modern, yet classic. The exterior is nothing to write home about but wait until you see your room. They look very high end and modern, despite the Mexican theme of the place. Now that’s a bonus for us! We even found a few hidden mickeys mixed through the bed spread and pillows. The resort is located near Disney’s Animal Kingdom and has 1,915 rooms. Amenities include The Lost City of Cibola Feature Pool (The Dig Site) has the largest hot tub at WDW, a huge pool, a playground, an arcade, a volleyball court, and a 46-foot tall Mayan Pyramid. Dining: Maya Grill, a fine dining experience, Pepper Market serves Mexican, Italian, American Oriental, and delicatessen cuisine, Siestas Cantina is a full-service poolside snack bar, Laguna Bar is an outdoor lakeside bar that serves light snacks for guests, Café Rix, and Rix Lounge is an upscale lounge in a Mediterranean inspired atmosphere.
Disney’s Port Orleans Resort opened on May 17, 1991 at a location near Downtown Disney. There are two regions to this resort, a lovely New Orleans French Quarter theme in the French Quarter and a Antebellum South theme in the Riverside. A total of 3,056 rooms make up this resort. Dining: American Southern cuisine is served up in Boatwright’s Dining Hall, a working cotton press is located in the Riverside Mill Food Court, a bar called Muddy Rivers on Ol’ Man Island, another food court called Sassagoula Floatworks and Food Factory, a bar called Mardi Grogs, and Scat Cat’s Club, a lounge.
Disney Value Resorts
Disney’s All-Star Music Resort opened November 22, 1994, with a music theme,at a Location near Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Stay at one of the 1,604 rooms at a great price. Dining: Intermission Food Court and Singing Spirits Pool Bar, a poolside bar. Amenities include the Calypso Pool, a large pool shaped like a guitar, Piano Pool, shaped like a grand piano, a jogging trail, arcade and a playground.
Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort opened on January 15, 1999 with 1,920 rooms. Located near Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Dining: World Premiere Food Court and Silver Screen Spirits Bar. This hotel is themed to Disney movies.
Disney’s All-Star Sports Resort opened on April 29, 1994 with 1,920 rooms. Located near Disney’s Animal Kingdom, this sports themed resort is an affordable way to stay on property.
Disney’s Pop Century Resort opened on December 14, 2003 at a location near the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex (formerly Disney’s Wild World of Sports Complex). 2,880 rooms are in this 20th century American pop culture themed resort. Attractions include a bowling pin shaped pool.
Disney Villa/ Disney Vacation Club
Animal Kingdom Villas opened in 2007 as part of the first phase which includes 134 remodeled units in the main structure, which opened in 2001, called Jambo House. Kidani Village is a new building that opened in 2009 with 324 rooms. That’s a total of 458 rooms that are located in this African themed resort that features views of the authentic African Savanna.
Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort opened on August 4, 2009, adding 295 additional rooms. This new 15-story tower is connected to Disney’s Contemporary Resort by a bridge. Amenities include a swimming pool with a water slide and tennis and shuffleboard courts. Top of the World Lounge offers a viewing deck and indoor bar.
Disney’s BoardWalk Villas opened on July 1, 1996, offering 583 rooms based around an early to mid 20th century Atlantic City theme.
Disney’s Beach Club Villas opened on July 1, 2002, consisting of 282 rooms. The theme is Newport Resort.
Disney’s Old Key West Resort opened on December 20, 1991 as the first Disney Vacation Club Timeshare Resort. This resort offers 709 rooms with a turn-of-the-century Key West theme. Dining: Olivia’s Cafe is a sit down restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, Good’s Food To Go is a counter service restaurant that also is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, Gurgling Suitcase is a bar, and Turtle Shack is another counter service restaurant that is open seasonally.
Disney’s Saratoga Resort & Spa opened on May 17, 2004, later expanding in three more phases. This resort provides a 1880’s Victorian, upstate New York lakeside retreat theme. Dining: The Artist’s Palette, offering counter service, The Turf Club Bar & Grill is a full service restaurant and lounge, and On The Rocks Pool Bar is a poolside bar.
The Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge opened on November 15, 2000 with 136 rooms based around a Pacific Northwest theme.
Outside of Walt Disney World
Coco Key Hotel and Water park Resort (Avg. price $70-$169) Best value in Orlando, seriously! This hidden gem is not on Disney property, but very close to the action. Recently renovated, clean, what more could you want? Did I mention that the price of the room includes admission to the water park? It does, so put on your sun block and start packing. Perfect for families, but water park is more geared toward younger children.
Nickelodeon Family Suites – Can’t seem to get the kids away from their favorite TV shows on Nickelodeon? Then why not make these experiences come into the “real world” when staying at the Nickelodeon Suites Resort. It received the 2nd spot on our list of America’s Ten Best Hotel Pools.
Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center (Avg. price $213-$323) Never visited one of the four one of a kind Gaylord properties? You haven’t lived until you see one of these indoor atriums! Just imagine… sipping on a cup of hot coffee while sitting out on your very own private, indoor balcony, with views of luscious gardens, glass and fine dining. From riding up the glass elevators, showcasing views of the conservatory, to get to your room to going for a stroll in the Key West, you can do it all at this one of a kind resort. offering central Florida 1,406 rooms. The three atriums of the hotel are St. Augustine, themed to old- world colonial Spanish, Key West, inspired by Mallory Square, a plaza in the city of Key West, Florida, featuring a 65-foot-long sailboat, and The Everglades, themed on the river of grass. This huge resort is located just 1 mile, 5 minutes from Walt Disney World theme park. Discover the wonders under the 4.5 acre atrium. Relax and rejuvenate at the world-class Relache Spa. View a three-story replica of the Castillo de San Marcos fort. Stand over a dozen blood thirst gators. The Clearwater Cove water activities playground features a zero depth entry pool, a giant octopus slide, waterfalls, sand play, and water-jets. Coquina Dunes Recreation Park includes a 9-hole executive putting course, bocce, croquet and sand volleyball.
Loews Portofino Bay (Avg. price $257-$500) One of only 3 other five star hotels in Orlando. It’s very nice, laid back, and serene, a great place for adults to get away from it all. But there is plenty for the kids, being just minutes away from the front gate of the two Universal theme parks.