Saturday, November 11, 2017

Travel Post - Orlando, Florida ~ Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and Swimming With Manatees!

I'm going to take a little break from Beauty posts today and share some fun travel bits! I love to travel; but, I don't do it very often! We usually take a small trip every year or two (think a few days or week in California), with big trips (Hawaii, Honeymoon) every few years.

It's no secret that my family looooves going to Disney - or at least my husband and I do, the verdict is still out on my older son (and the baby will decide in January whether or not he likes it!). But, I really wanted to experience The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Florida (they do have a small bit in Universal Studios Hollywood; but, I think any true Harry Potter fan needs to see the huge set up in Florida!) Also, as a true Disney fan, I really wanted to check out Disney World and the 4 Disney parks! 

Travel Post - Orlando, Florida ~ Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and Swimming With Manatees!

Three years ago (to the month) I planned a huge trip to Florida - and, I'm talking PLANNED! The first thing you need to know about Disney World is that it would be very difficult just to wing it. Disneyland is much smaller and can easily be an unplanned, quick trip; but, Disney World in Florida is not small. Think, it has 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, golf courses and over 20 hotels - it's huge!! Disney recommends you plan at least 6 months in advanced and after planning a trip myself, I would vouch that you should be planning at least 6 months in advance, if not a little longer - I was planning 9 to 12 months out.

I won't go crazy on the planning aspects, because there is websites out there dedicated to planning Disney World trips - when to go, what days of the week for what park - there is some serious information out there! (I really liked Under Cover Tourist and Kenny The Pirate).

Travel Post - Orlando, Florida ~ Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and Swimming With Manatees!

But, I will share a few of my best Disney World planning tips:
  • Book a special dining reservation - whether you want a character breakfast or a special dinner, this isn't an experience you can get elsewhere so book something! But, if you want something special, dining reservations open 180 days in advance and book up quickly! We chose a Winnie the Pooh themed Character Breakfast at the Crystal Palace and I woke up at 4 am MST to book the day I wanted (trust me I woke up the day before at 6 am MST and it was fully booked on a different date!) Also, they offer breakfasts 1 hour prior to the park opening so you can get a family photo in front of the castle with no crowd, eat breakfast and still see the park opening! 
  • Decide where you want to stay - out of the park is much more affordable (I found a motel for $30 US a night with a free breakfast). Most of these nearby motels have free shuttles and are more affordable.
  • If you are staying on site, take advantage of the magic hours. If you are staying off site, plan to go to a different park than ones that have extra magic hours! 
  • Use a park map when you book your Fast Passes (and do so 30 days in advance) - seriously some parks are huge so don't book ride times too close together if the rides are far apart or you will end up skipping parts of the park! 
  • I suggest 1 day per park - they are spread out and especially with kids, it would be really rushed to try and do more than 1 in a day. On the days that we did the smaller parks, we booked dinner reservations in Downtown Disney. 
  • If you want your kids to get picked for the stage shows - Jedi Training Academy or Pirates of the Caribbean, make them stand out - bring a sign and sit up front early (it can get really busy and not everyone gets picked!)
Travel Post - Orlando, Florida ~ Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and Swimming With Manatees!

Some of our favorite memories were the extras we did - we booked a Disney Pirates Cruise where were spent one night and ate a lot of treats and watched the fireworks from on the lagoon. We also took a day and enjoyed one of the waterparks and it was so quiet! We also did some Disney minigolf and booked a few fun dinners - Rainforest Cafe and T-Rex restaurant! 

Travel Post - Orlando, Florida ~ Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and Swimming With Manatees!

Now, for us Harry Potter geeks, Universal Studios Orlando is the place to be! Again, have a look at crowd calendars when picking the days of the week or time of year that you think is best to go! 

Universal Studios is 2 parks in Florida (plus a Water park) and the Harry Potter part is divided between the 2 parks and I would plan for 2 days - either 1 day per park or as we did, 1 day for Harry Potter and 1 days for the rest of the 2 parks! 

Travel Post - Orlando, Florida ~ Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and Swimming With Manatees!

A few of the tips that I would suggest when visiting Universal Orlando:
  • As a true Harry Potter fan I really wanted to experience the H.P. world the right way. If you want the true experience, start at the Universal Studios Florida park (not the Island of Adventure park) as this is where Diagon Alley is. This way, you experience Diagon Alley first, then go through Platform 9 3/4, hop on the Hogwarts Express and go through Hogsmeade and then see Hogwarts! (If you want to see Hogwarts first then start in Islands of Adventure!)
  • Don't miss any of the Harry Potter goodies - go to Ollivanders, they have an amazing interactive experience, try Butterbeer both ways (I have had remakes since and nothing is as good as the original), and make sure you take the Hogwarts Express both ways as it is a different experience! 
  • There is also some other really great areas - the Simpsons, Minions, Jurassic Park and Dr. Seuss areas areas are big and great. 
  • There is 3 really intense water rides - maybe if it's a colder day, don't do all 3 in a row like we did or you will be soggy all day. 
  • Universal is really going the way of 3D rides and they are a lot different than regular roller coasters - to us adults they made us a little woozy after 3 or 4 in a row (where my son preferred them over the traditional rides!) 
Travel Post - Orlando, Florida ~ Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, and Swimming With Manatees!
We were really busy with theme parks - we actually did all 6 theme parks for 6 days in a row (just the best for crowd calendars at the time we travelled) - so we treated ourselves to a waterpark day on day 7! For me I spent the day relaxing and reading a book and the boys ran around some more. Also, my son was 9/10 at the time so we could go morning to night for a full week and he could handle, but any younger kids i'm sure you might have to slow the days down a bit! 

Now, every time we are on a big vacation I always like to plan one really memorable activity - we did a helicopter in Kauai, parasailing in Turks and Caicos, etc. So, in Florida I needed to swim with Manatees!

We chose to do a private Manatee tour on the Homosassa River (you can also go on the Crystal River but I had heard that it was busier there) and what a cool experience! It was about an hour or two drive from Orlando where we were staying, but worth the drive! I have enjoyed snorkelling a couple of times, but I find the ocean can be a little intimidating. So, I liked the idea of snorkelling in a quiet, slow river! 

At the time of our visit, Manatees were still considered an endangered species (they have since been upgraded to threatened, which while it still needs work is great news!) so the whole experience was really regulated. Only so many people get to go each day and the rules are enforced on how to swim with them; but, what a great experience! Manatees are adorable and they are really curious, so when they are awake they will swim right up to you as you float along the water. There was even little babies when we there! 

I'm really happy we chose to do this - I think it was a once in a lifetime activity and even my 9 year old son enjoyed it! Although, he was a little nervous - while they are cute and gentle, they are huge! 

If we were to plan another trip to Orlando, Florida a few things on my next to-do list would include: A float ride through the Everglades, the Kennedy Space Centre, and Tampa Beaches! 

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