An Insider Guide To Orlando – Written Version
The podcast version can be found here.
This is the us city traveler podcast with taylor goldblatt session number 4 and today I’ll be speaking with Robert Niles, a former walt disney world cast member and the founder and editor of Theme Park Insider, a consumers’ guide to the world’s most popular theme and amusement parks. It’s been named the top theme park site on the internet by Forbes and Travel + Leisure magazines and it has been featured in the New York Times, ABC’s Good Morning America, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Readers Digest.
Robert is the author of “Stories from a Theme Park Insider,” a collection of stories that take you behind the scenes of the Magic Kingdom to give you an insiders look at how a theme park works, and today we will be discussing his latest book, “Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014,” which is Roberts first guidebook, with more than 200 pages of tips, descriptions, and advice to help anyone considering an Orlando-area vacation. Those interested in visiting Orlando will want to be sure to stay tuned to learn about all of the latest attractions and insider tips and tricks for having the vacation of a litetime. We’ll get into all that and more, right here.
Hi Robert, it’s a great pleasure to have you on the show.
Hey, thanks for having me on!
Sure! Well how would you describe the Orlando theme park scene to first-time visitors?
Well I think overwhelming would be the first word that comes to mind. You’ve got seven theme parks in three different resorts, each one of which could be at least a full day of visiting. Plus, there’s all of the extra stuff. You’ve got shopping districts, all of the stuff outside the parks, movie theaters, mini golf, big golf. Yeah, there’s just enough attractions there that could probably keep you busy for the entire year. So it can be quite intimidating and overwhelming for a first-time visitor. But the good news is that there is so much stuff to do in Orlando that you really can’t go wrong. No matter how much time you have there, you’ll find something fun to do.
Ok, and if someone only had two days in Orlando, where would you tell them to go?
Well that depends on if you have two days and an unlimited supply of money or two days and a budget. If you had the unlimited amount of money and you were just pressed for time, I’d actually go hire a VIP tour guide at Disney World, it’s pricy, it’s $700 per hour, but what they’ll do is get you no wait into pretty much anything in any of the four Disney World parks. And they’ll come and pick you up in a van and drive you around too, so you won’t have to worry about monorails, transportation, or any of that other stuff. So if you really wanted to see as much of Disney World as you possibly could in the shortest amount of time, the VIP tour guide is the way to go. They have a similar thing over at Universal Orlando as well, so they actually do pretty much any top don’t miss attraction at Disney World and Disneyland, if you had several thousand bucks to drop on the VIP tour guides. Now if you’re a normal person like the rest of us and you have a budget, I think it really comes down to thinking about what you’re looking for. If you’re a big Harry Potter fan, I think one of those two days absolutely has to be at Universal’s Island’s of Adventure to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and if you’re going to be visiting later in 2014 when the new Diagon Alley is open at Universal Studios Florida, I mean spending one day going between those Harry Potter lands would definitely be a day well spent. If you’ve got people in your family who are big fans of the Disney or Pixar things, then you’d want to consider one or possibly both of the days being at the Walt Disney World Resort. In Animal Kingdom, I absolutely love the Expedition Everest Coaster, and the Kilimanjaro Safaris ride, which is great to do first thing in the morning when the animals are up and awake and around, but they’ve got some great shows over there. I love the Broadway style shows that they have for Finding Nemo and Lion King at Animal Kingdom. I’m also a big fan of Epcot, wonderful food there, especially in the World Showcase area. I’ve written several times about how I think Impressions De France the movie that they have in the France pavilion is just about the best movie ever made for a theme park, I could watch that just about all day, so those are a couple of things that I would go for if I had just a couple of days in Orlando.
Okay and how would you describe the Fastpass program to someone whose never used it?
Ahhh, basically you think of Fastpass, which is Disney’s trademark term for a ride reservation system. What you’re doing is you’re getting a reservation time to come back and go onto the ride without having to have much more than a minutes wait to get back on. It’s kind of like going to a restaurant and you put down your name and they tell you to come back in an hour or thirty minutes and we will have your table ready. That’s essentially what you’re doing with Disney’s Fastpass system. And the way it works is you just take the little ticket card that they give you that gets you into the park and you stick it into a little Fastpass machine at the attraction and it spits back a little paper ticket that says to come back between 2:30 and 3:30 PM and then when it gets to be between 2:30 – 3:30 PM you get in the FastPass line and they let you in and you skip the regular line and you know just go down to the loading area for that particular attraction and you only have to wait for everyone else that came to that loading window. If you read the book or have been following websites, you might have heard of a new system called Fastpass Plus, which is a new thing for people staying at the hotels that want to have an advanced reservation and instead of coming into the park on the day that they visit and go to one of these Fastpass machines, they go to a section on Disney’s website that allows you to make a reservation that says “I want to go on Splash Mountain at the Magic Kingdom at 2:00 PM on February 15th” when I’m visiting, for example. And there’s several Fastpass Plus reservations that people can look at after they’ve stayed at a Disney World hotel, but that’s basically what the system is and how it works at this point.
Okay and do Universal and SeaWorld have anything comporable?
They both have ride reservation systems. Universal has a really simple service for the people who stay at their three top on-site hotels, the Lowe’s Portofino Bay, Lowe’s Royal Pacific, and the Hardrock Hotel and what it is is when you check in there they get you a pass that gives you front of the line access to pretty much everything in the two parks. You don’t have to collect any return times, you don’t have to make any reservations, you just show up whenever you want to and just skip the line, which is one of the great perks in the theme park industry because it completely changes the way you go into the park. You don’t have to really think about planning anymore, it becomes much more impulsive, you just do what ever you want whenever you want and enjoy the day. Now if you’re not staying at one of those three hotels, Universal has a paid ride reservation system called “Universal Express,” where you can buy a pass that allows you to basically skip the line one time on each of their major attractions and the price of that varies based on the time of the year. There’s obviously some times of the year when you don’t need that, there’s not much of a wait at all. Other times of the year, such as the Fourth of July, even paying $80 or $90 for that pass could really be worth it. SeaWorld also has a paid line skipping service called QuickQ. The price depends on how busy the park is on that particular day, but it allows you to skip the lines on the major rides or reserve seats in the show theaters throughout the day.
Okay and what are some of the theme park’s best kept secrets?
Were talking a lot about the extra money that you can spend on tour guides and front of the line access, but there are also lots of little freebies that you can get while visiting the parks. For instance, if you’re at Walt Disney World and riding any of the boat transports that they have between the resort hotels, a lot of times the person driving the boat has free trading cards that they’ll give kids who just ask for it. So there’s that, that is a little freebie that you can get when visiting the park. Free buttons if you are celebrating a birthday or anniversary or anything like that. There’s little shows that you can participate in. If you get there early enough in the day, you can sign your child up for the Jedi Training Academy at Disney’s Hollywood Studios where you can go up and fight Dark Vader with a light saber. You can get little certificates after participating with that. If you’re a fan of American Idol, you can actually be on the theme park version of American Idol, at Walt Disney World you can register for that. So There a lot of little freebie things that can be found throughout the park and actually, we mention them in the Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014 guidebook.
What are some of the most popular shows?
Yeah one of the great things about Orlando is that it’s not like one of these amusement parks that are based solely on thrills. In fact, there’s so much there and a lot of thrill ride fans are disappointed with Orlando because they don’t think there’s enough thrills there. I think I mentioned the Finding Nemo and Lion King shows at The Animal Kingdom. Those are two really delightful broadway quality shows that you’ll see. They’ve also got a couple of fun shows at Universal, there is their Horror Makeup Show at Universal Studios Florida. The idea is that they show you how to do special makeup and things, there’s a little bit of audience interaction and it’s sarcastic and humorous and shows all of the things that visitors have come to expect from Universal theme parks. So that’s a way of looking at movie making in a really entertaining way. Also, a unique show that’s over at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor Attraction that they have. You might think that you are going in to see a movie or something but it’s actually an interactive comedy club where they’ve got people who are looking out into the audience and they are voicing the Monsters Inc. characters that you see on the screen. You would think that it would all be prerecorded but they are actually voicing it live, so they are doing some kind of give and take back and forth to make fun of people in the audience, with a lot of things that you would see in a comedy club with a real live comedian there, except it’s the characters from Monsters Inc. who are up on the stage telling jokes about guys in the audience. That’s a fun little twist that puts a fun technological twist on it that you can only find in a theme park.
Okay and what are some of the most unique theme park ding experiences?
Oh wow. There are so many unique dining experiences that I think this is one of the great attractions. People particularly in Orlando have the opportunity to try a large variety of dishes. Some of my personal favorites would be over at Universal in that Harry Potter land that I mentioned, in the Three Broomsticks Restaurant that looks like it’s straight out of the Harry Potter movies because it is. The production designers on the Harry Potter movies actually worked with Universal’s creative people on the design of that restaurant at the same time that they were in the movies, so when you are seeing the Three Broomsticks in the film, they are actually using the design that they had created for the restaurant in Orlando so it’s just a copy if the set that they were using over in England for that. So they’ve got Fish N Chips, Shepard’s Pie, you know some traditional British fare there. Also, Butter Beer, which is a highly addictive wonderful sweet drink that they have at Universal Orlando. It’s called Butter Beer, but it’s really not alcoholic, like how root beer isn’t alcoholic. But it is somewhat addictive for people who’ve tried it and really love it and they have that there at the Three Broomsticks. Over at Epcot’s World Showcase, really dining is the main attraction there, they’ve got some beautiful restaurants, Masseur Paul which is named after the legendary French chef Paul Bocous is up there on the second floor of the French pavilion. Actually, I think it’s the most expensive theme park restaurant in Orlando, you know we’re talking about $70 or $80 French cuisine there but it’s high quality cuisine that’s really worth it. He’s one of the original French superstars of French chefs and from his family. Also some really unique experiences are that you can dine in the castle at the Magic Kingdom’s Cinderella’s Royal Table. It’s a tough reservation to get, we talk about this in the book, you really need to call six months to the day in advance of the day you’re planning to eat there at I think it’s 6:00 AM to get those reservations! But your opportunity to dine in Cinderella’s castle, have your picture taken with Cinderella and to enjoy a wonderful experience there.
Which hotels would you reccomend?
My first choice again would be one of those hotels at Universal Orlando, not only because their wonderful hotels, I mean they’re great 4-star hotels, in easy walking distance of the parks themselves, you can literally just park your car and not even have to have a car while you’re staying there. Just walk around the resort and as I mentioned, there’s free from-of-the line access to everything at Universal Orlando, plus you get into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter an hour before the park opens. So just in terms of the value you get, in terms of the price of staying there, it’s just a wonderful place to stay. And if you’re at Disney, they don’t have that same perk but they do have the opportunity to make a few advanced ride reservations with that new Fastpass Plus system that I mention and some of the great ones over there is the iconic Contemporary Hotel, that’s the A-frame hotel next to the Magic Kingdom where the monorails go whooshing through the lobby. On the other side of the Magic Kingdom, there’s the delightful Grand Floridian Hotel, they just opened a new wing of that for Disney’s Vacation Club members, those are the people who have a timeshare deal at Disney hotels. Another one I love is the Boardwalk hotel over there by Epcot, that’s actually in walking distance of Epcot and the Hollywood Studios park. There’s just so many Disney hotels that are so well done. They can be a little bit pricy, but you’ve got a lot of access and convenience with them that can make them worth the price for a lot of Disney fans.
Alright and what budget travel advice do you have?
One of the great things about Orlando is the budget flexibility that you have. I started talking all silly about you know dropping an unlimited amount of money on the VIP tours, but the vast majority don’t do that. Really you can meet just about any budget in Orlando. In fact, we’ve got a section in the Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014 guidebook on how to do the absolute budget cheap low cost Disney vacation. You know there are a ton of hotels on US 192 on Kissimmee Florida, which is right on the Southern end of the Walt Disney World property, where you can find abundant rooms for well over $100 a night., you know $30, $40 a night. Sometimes you can bid on Priceline for these for just $25 or $30 a night. So you’ve got that opportunity there. It’s very car dependent in Orlando but it’s an easy days drive to I’d say 50% of Americans. Particularly for people on the East Coast, it’s easy to drive down to Orlando that saves you on the airfare and having to have the rental car while you’re down there. There’s an abundance of ways to eat cheaply throughout the parks or outside of the parks. There’s a feeling that people think you can bring food into the parks, but actually you can. They just ask that you don’t bring hard sided coolers, but if you want to pack a picnic lunch in your backpack, you can do that as a way to save a few bucks with it. I think it’s better to enjoy some of the unique dining experiences in the park and split meals and make sure you’re not overeating. To save on drink, just have water, you can get free water anywhere. To take advantage of some of these free souvenirs and we list many of them in the guidebook as well. And just buy your tickets in advance. If you do nothing else to save, buy your tickets in advance because that allows you to skip the ticket lines in the morning, shop around for the best deal, if you’re a member of the auto club AAA, you can get discounts through them. They also do discounts on the theme parks so there are plenty of opportunities to find. Just get your tickets online in advance, which allows you to come first thing in the morning before the lines build up so you can get a lot of attractions done without spending too much, or pay extra for those front of line privileges that we talked about earlier.
And what advice would you give to parents concerned about safety?
One of the wonderful things about theme parks is that they are very safe environments as long as you’re paying attention to what’s happening and following the rules. There’s the opportunity to really introduce this urban environment to kids, but you really don’t have to worry about safety except you need to tell people don’t go on the rides that they tell you not to go on. If your child’s too short for a ride, that’s for a reason. Don’t trick or cheat that. Stay behind the yellow line until they tell you to get onto the ride. When you’re on the ride, sit down the way you’re supposed to, hold onto the lap bar if there is one, keep your hand and arms inside the vehicle as frequent theme park visitors have that spill now playing in their head and when you get to the end of the ride, wait till you are told to get off. But if you follow that, you are far safer in the theme park than you are in the car driving to the theme park, which is much more dangerous than anything in the theme parks themselves. But the main thing is to tell kids to watch me, you know follow the rules and you’re going to have a great time.
And other than them parks, what other attractions are in the area?
Well there’s, obviously you’re in Florida so you’re never too far from a beach at any given time, the only real question is do you want to head over to Cocoa on the Atlantic side or head over to St. Pete on the Gulf side, it’s a little more choppy on the Atlantic than what you’d find on the gulf. For some people that’s more of an attraction and others are looking for more calmer water. Sometimes a little warmer water over on the gulf side as well. If you are a fan of science, technology, and the space program then you probably won’t want to miss the Kennedy Space Center, it’s over on the Atlantic Coast, just about an hour or so due East. From Orlando, you can see the launch facilities from which Americans went to the moon, from which we continue to send interplanetary probes out from. There’s some wonderful science museum exhibits that they have over at Kennedy Space Center as well. We mentioned outside the Orlando theme parks, but if you have kids in elementary school, there’s a wonderful theme park called Legoland Florida that’s a little bit west or Orlando on the site of the old Cyprus Gardens in Winter Haven. It’s a delightful park that’s really just tailored around kids with legos and playing with legos and all of the wonderful properties that they have there. That’s a really nice thing to do. If you’re a fan of shopping, there’s an abundance of retail all throughout Orlando. There’s two big outlet malls, traditional malls, lots of shopping that you’ll find on International Drive and US 192 as well. A lot of people, typically foreign visitors, will come and they are looking to do a lot of American shopping at those outlet malls that are every bit as crowded as the attractions and theme parks themselves. There’s also movie theaters and other types of entertainment, pretty much anything you’d want to do, you can find in the Orlando area.
Alright, and what’s the biggest mistake people make on their Orlando vacation?
The biggest mistake people make is they don’t really do any advanced work, they just come in and you wake up at 8 or 9 o’clock and you stroll over to the theme park and get in line to buy your tickets and now you’re making a rush decision because you waited in line half an hour to buy tickets, you haven’t really looked at your options, you’ve visited the park during the busiest part of the day and now all the sudden everyone is cranky and angry because you’ve spent a lot of money and you’re not really getting to do things. You can avoid all of that by doing a little advanced research, shopping around for ticket prices and buying them in advance so you know and also looking up at when the park open, getting there in advance so you can start getting on rides the moment that the park opens in the morning and you can get so much done in that first hour. Now all of the sudden everyone feels like you’re ahead for the day and it’s several weeks ago so you’re not thinking about that so much and you’ve got several rides out of the way and you just kind of feel like you can spend the day relaxed instead of stressed.
Okay and what are some of the newest attractions at the parks for people who haven’t been in a few years?
Okay. The biggest new things that opened in 2013 have been the antarctica pavilion at SeaWorld Orlando where they took their old penguin exhibit and remade it so the area around it now looks like these huge rocked structures from Antarctica and it has this little kind of trackless ride in front of it where you’re in these little 8-person vehicles that spin around on these ice caverns in these seemingly random patterns because there’s no track on the ground, it’s all done by these computer guidance systems and there’s a short little presentation there about this little baby penguin they call “Pacus,” diving in the ocean for the first time and then this big screen comes up and reveals this big new penguin encounter that they have there. In other words, they’re no longer behind this big plexiglass wall, actually they are right there. Maybe there’s a little net or pound separating you, but there’s no glass barrier separating you and the penguins. Now what that means is that it is really cold in there, like 40 degrees cold. So for a lot of people visiting during the summer, they’re not going to be able to visit for more than a few seconds because they are going to freeze in it. But if you bring a little jacket or sweater in there with you, it’s a wonderful little environment where you can spend as much ime as you care to. It’s just within a few feet of these wonderful penguins. Disney’s Magic Kingdom is still developing it’s Fantasyland expansion. In late 2012 they opened a new Little Mermaid dark ride, the new Beauty and the beast themed restaurant that is themed to the castle in Beauty and the Beast. You are dining in the castle. Actually the dishes aren’t talking and singing like they were in the movie, but thje food is excellent, actually. But sometime in 2014 they will open this new Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Mine themed roller coaster that’s out in the middle of the new Fantasyland expansion. Over at Universal, the biggest thing they opened in 2013 was this new Transformers 3D Ride. If you’ve ever been to Universal before and you’ve been on the Spiderman ride, it is a similar type, it’s called a motion based vehicle where you’re in this car that’s going through street scenes but the car is bumping and jostling around, but it’s all themed to the Michael Bay Transformers movies, it’s in 3D with absolutely spectacular affects that they’ve done with this. The speed of all of the action they’ve done with the Transformers movies boiled down for about 5 minutes of nonstop mayhem, without any of the plot exhibition that slows down those Transformer movies. So you get all that good stuff in one ride. Of course the big new thing in 2014 at Universal will be the new Harry Potter Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida, where they’ll have an indoor roller coaster in the Gringotts bank. They’ll have a new leaky caldron restaurant there and they’ll also have a Hogwarts Express train that will take you from Diagon alley in Universal Studios Florida out to Hogsmede and Hogwarts castle at Islands of Adventure. Even though you’re just in a train going across the Universal backlot there, these kind of fake video screen windows that make it look like you’re taking this trip through the English countryside and there’s a rumor that there might be a do mentor attack and that will be a popular addition to the Universal theme parks this year.
Alright and can you describe what it’s like visiting the Orlando theme parks during the holiday season. Wow, the holiday seasons have become so popular with the theme parks. They used to go all out with decorations, it used to be okay there goes a Christmas tree in towns square at Disneyland and then some garland on Main Street and now over at SeaWorld you’ve got this huge sea of trees thing where they’ve got 100 trees floating out on this lagoon where they’ve got this coordinated light show. Over at the Hollywood Studios they’ve got this Osborne Family of lights with millions of lights that cover every inch of the backlot and now they’ll sell you a pair of Mickey ears called glow with the show ears that have light up ears on them in coordination with the light show happening on the Osborne street lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios so you become part of the experience with that. Disney also has something they call Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party which is a separate party in the evenings on certain nights at the Magic Kingdom where they have a special Christmas Parade, special fireworks, special Christmas greetings, they even have free cookies and hot chocolate that you can get during the party as well and at Universal Studios Florida, if you really like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, you can continue to watch it throughout the holiday season because they’ve got several of the balloons from the parade that come down to Florida during December and they have a daily Macy’s parade at the park and at Universal as well.
Okay and what are some other special events that happen throughout the year?
The biggest special event outside of the holidays is at Halloween that they have during the holidays. It’s another after hours hard ticket separate ticket thing, but they create a dozen haunted house mazes in queues and attractions throughout tthe park. Most of them are themed to horror movies and they will actually work with original directors from these horror films and they make this immersive authentic experience where you feel like you’re one of the characters being chased by these zombies in one of these horror films, so it’s a wildly popular event. Disney also has a Halloween event, but instead of going after the horror crowd, they are going after the family crowd so it’s not based on haunted houses, but it’s based on tricker treating and it’s called Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween party and they’ve got half a dozen tricker treat zones throughout the park. They give you a little bag when you come in and they just give you some candy that you can carry out of the park and that’s another wildly popular event. Also in the fall at Disney, and this is not another separate ticket event, but actually something you can do during the regular day during regular admission. Over at Epcot they have their Food and Wine Festival where they set up special counter service dining stands throughout World Showcase where you can enjoy the cuisine in many countries in addition to what you already have seen in World Showcase, including Brazil and Greece and other countries. You have some really popular cuisine, but you don’t have the big national pavilions there throughout the year. That’s a really popular event there. Sometimes they have special presentations form chefs from the food network and special parts and so a lot of stuff is happening at Epcot for the Food and Wine Festival and one more I’ll mention because this is a big deal now because Disney has bought Star Wars, but for many years Disney has hosted a Star Wars weekend in late may abd early June, actually several weekends at the Hollywood Studios where they’ll have an actress from the various Star Wars movies come in and do meet and greets but they’ll also have lots of star wars action events, motion events, and they do this really fun satirical show during the evenings that’s called Hyper Space Hoopla, where it’s kind of this medley of pop tunes where it’s all performed in this alleged dance of between the rebels and the bad guys snd it’s all great fun.
Alright and can you tell us more about your book?
Well Theme Park Insider: Orlando 2014 is on sale now at Amazon, you can get it as an eBook or Kindle and if you don’t have a kindle then you can read it on the free Kindle app on the iPhone or iPad or any type of tablet, or you can get it on paperback as well. As you mentioned before, it’s 200 pages of tips, advice, and reader ratings collected from the hundreds of thousands of people who read and participate on ThemeParkInsider.com over the year and you’ve got complete descriptions of everything at the main seven Orlando theme parks, overviews of some of the other area attractions, a lot of tips on how to approach going thought the park so you can get as many attractions done as possible without having to resort to some of the paid front of the line passes, but if you are interested in that sort of thing, we’ve got your options there and we’ve got some advice for what is the best deal for you and your family. Ultimately what we want to do is to make sure that people are going to a park or attraction that they are really interested in, so they are not just following the herd but really choosing things they’re interested in and they’ve got enough information about what it s happening so ultimately I say there is no wrong way to do a theme park if you are having fun. So you don’t need turn by turn directions on what to do throughout the day, but you should go in with some advanced knowledge so you know what’s available at the particular parks so you’re going to the parks that are going to be best for your family, getting the best deal, and approaching the park so you are staying safe , have a great time and get the best deal for the entire time you’re there.
Alright, well thanks for being on, I really appreciate your time.
Well thanks for having me on.
It’s my pleasure! And I’d like to invite everyone once again to to go to themeparkinsider.com, it’s the best theme park site on the internet! So thanks for listening today. I’ll see you next time, right here.