When to go
Orlando, with more sunny days than not, is a great getaway most any time of the year. With a theme park for every day of the week and the second-largest convention center in the country, it’s not hard to see why.
If you’re not a fan of crowds, avoid the theme parks from late May through Labor Day, any long holiday weekend, mid-December to early January and late March to April when schoolkids are off for spring break. July tends to be the hottest month, with temps in the 90s (and a wallop of humidity). January is the coldest, from the 50s to the 70s (but mosquitos are on sabbatical). Do keep in mind: June 1 to Nov. 30 is hurricane season. Weather can range from slight drizzles to total downpours.
Ways to save: Want to score lower hotel rates? Choose January, September or November. These times also coincide with lovely weather: cooler than the summer’s highs and still very mild compared with the rest of the nation.
Where to stay
In the entertainment mecca that is Orlando, there is no shortage of places to rest your head. The metropolitan area has more than 450 hotels, more than 20,000 vacation-home rentals and 25,000 vacation-ownership properties (i.e., time-shares). Drum roll, please: That’s a grand total of more than 120,000 rooms.
The vast majority of those accommodations are near the theme parks and include everything from wallet-friendly B Resort & Spa (those 65 and up get 10 percent off) to fancy-pants resorts for at least $400, like the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes or the Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, known for its rooftop steakhouse perfect for gawking at the nightly Disney fireworks.
Staying on site at theme parks can be pricey. The upside? Perks like early park admission. Universal has five on-site hotels and DIsney has 36. These hotels have wheelchair accessible rooms with roll-in showers and chairlifts at the pools.
Rates can vary several hundred dollars depending on the season. Affordable options include RV spots (about $80 during low season) at the Campsites at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort. These are so popular, you should book at least six months ahead. Want to splurge? Within Disney World, rooms at the Victorian-style Grand Floridian start at nearly $600 a night and over-water bungalows that sleep eight adults at Disney’s Polynesian Villas & Bungalows, about $2,400 a night.
Tacking on a night or two in and around the downtown area helps weary travelers recover from theme park thrills. There’s Aloft Orlando, across from the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, in the heart of downtown; nearby Orlando Lakefront, a tiny-home resort about seven miles from downtown Orlando; and the Alfond Inn at Rollins in ritzy Winter Park, just north of downtown and a few blocks from upscale shopping on Park Avenue.
Ways to save: VisitOrlando.com blog posts often list hotel deals, especially around the holidays and popular travel periods. Airbnb, HomeAway and VRBO vacation-rental homes and timeshares can be a good alternative to traditional hotels and a great option for families. Reliable chain hotels, such as Hilton, Holiday Inn, Best Western, Wyndham and others, provide good value outside the parks.
How to get there
In 2017, a record 44.6 million travelers passed through Orlando International Airport (MCO), about 20 miles from Walt Disney World. A smaller airport, Sanford International Airport, is about 18 miles outside of Orlando city limits. Amtrak also has a station in Orlando and Winter Park, a nearby suburb about 30 to 40 minutes from the theme parks. Taxis and car-share services, like Uber and Lyft, serve them all.
DIsney’s Magical Express, a free motorcoach service, will pick you up from the airport if you’re staying at a Disney Resort hotel. Universal offers a SuperStar Shuttle between the airport and on-site hotels for $36. Both are ADA friendly.
Ways to save: Take a shared van to save some cash. Mears Transportation has wheelchair-accessible shuttles from the airport to Lake Buena Vista, where Walt Disney World is located, for $23.
Activities to arrange before you go
Let’s start with theme park tickets: You may purchase tickets once you arrive at the parks, but if you buy them in advance, you’ll save money and bypass the entry ticketing lines.
For Walt Disney World Resort, buy tickets for three days or longer online to save $20. You can make FastPass+ selections 60 days before arrival (if you are staying at a Disney Resort hotel) or 30 days before arrival (if you are staying off property). Fast Pass+ allows anyone — yes, anyone! — to feel like a VIP by reserving access to select attractions in advance. This means you can lock in up to three attractions for certain times and skip the lines.
Buying tickets online for Universal Orlando Resort saves you $20 off the gate price on all multiday tickets. If you opt for an on-site hotel you will get Universal Express access, meaning you skip regular lines at all participating rides and attractions.
Guests at Seaworld Orlando can save $20 by buying a ticket online. The All Day Dining Deal, bought in advance, is a huge value for those with large appetites. You can chow down all day at participating restaurants for $34.99
Book hotels within the theme parks well in advance. Some of the most popular ones at Walt Disney World Resort get booked months ahead and sell out during prime times. Same goes for table-service restaurants at Disney. Dining reservations in Disney World can be made up to 180 days in advance for select table-service restaurants, quick-service dining and snack locations. For some of the most beloved eateries, like Disney’s Victoria & Albert’s, a 15-year recipient of the AAA Five Diamond award, and Disney’s California Grill, you may want to call six months ahead, believe it or not.
What to pack
Pack your comfiest footwear, bug spray, sunglasses, water bottle and all the sunscreen you can squeeze into your suitcase. No need to dress to the nines: Casual, breezy outfits are the norm. No one will bat an eyelash if you don a fanny pack or a backpack. Flip-flops are always in, year-round. Ditch the ball caps and flops, however, for a night out. If you are visiting during the winter, don’t forget a light jacket; even the Sunshine State gets chilly. And during the rainier hurricane season, two words: umbrellas, ponchos.
The City of Orlando has seen a steady decrease in crime, down 5 percent in 2017. Violent crime is down more than 8 percent. Do keep in mind, however: If you are in a crowd, always keep your valuables secure. And don’t store valuables in your car.