Our pick of parks in Orlando, the theme park capital of the US, and tips on how to visit them.
Orlando may be the theme park capital of the United States with half a dozen major parks and dozens of smaller attractions within them. Deciding how to spend your time in Orlando can be confusing—here’s what you should know.
Home of Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney World® Resort is the self-proclaimed “happiest place on Earth.” This powerhouse resort, which spans an area the size of San Francisco, comprises four main parks, including Magic Kingdom® Park and Epcot®, as well as two water parks.
The park that started it all. This is where you can watch fireworks explode above Cinderella Castle (in real life not just on screen) and see your favorite Disney characters. The classic rides spread out across the park’s six themed lands serve up serious nostalgia—think Peter Pan’s Flight®, Pirates of the Caribbean®, and it’s a small world®, for example. For trips planned around holidays, whether it's Halloween or Christmas, here’s where to catch the big parades and themed events.
Pro tip: Don’t just walk around Cinderella Castle to get to Fantasyland—walk through it! The castle’s doors are open for most of the day except for during performances and before the fireworks.
Take a trip around the world, under the sea, and into outer space at Epcot®. Symbolized by Spaceship Earth, the giant golf ball-esque structure that sits near the park’s entrance, Epcot® is something of a permanent world’s fair. The park is split into two areas: Future World and World Showcase. Packed with futuristic-themed attractions, Future World explores technological innovations and is where the hotly-anticipated Guardians of the Galaxy ride will open in 2021. While at the World Showcase, you can travel around the globe, discovering different cultures and even exploring the icy world of Frozen.
Pro tip: If you’re visiting Epcot® with kids, look for the Kidcot Fun Stops at each World Showcase pavilion.
Go behind the scenes of a Hollywood TV or movie set at Disney’s Hollywood Studios®, previously known as Disney-MGM Studios. Movie buffs can step into a galaxy far, far away at Star Wars-themed attractions such as Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge; shrink down to the size of a toy at Toy Story Land; or take a ride in The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror™’s unpredictable hotel elevator.
Pro tip: To avoid the lines, arrive right as the gates open and head directly for the most popular rides: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror™ and Rock 'n’ Roller Coaster® Starring Aerosmith.
Head into the wild at Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park, which is as much a zoo as it is a theme park. Here you’ll find yourself immersed in a rain forest–like environment (the park, which opened on Earth Day in 1998, is home to more than 4 million trees and other flora), complete with real-life birds and animals. Open-air safari vehicles take visitors on guided tours of an African savanna, while the Kali River Rapids® twist and turn through a jungle in the heart of Asia. Na'vi River Journey® and Avatar Flight of Passage® are essential stops in Pandora – The World of Avatar®, the newest addition to the park.
Pro tip: Don’t skip the Conservation Station®, where there’s plenty of opportunity to learn about the wildlife conservation work carried out at Disney’s Animal Kingdom®.
Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park and Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park
Editor’s note: Both Disney water parks are closed. Disney plans to reopen one of the parks in March 2021, pending government approval.
Escape the Florida heat and hit the waterslides and thrill rides at Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park or Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park. Home to North America’s largest wave pool and Castaway Creek’s lazy river, the tropical paradise–themed Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon is perfect for those traveling with young ones or looking to relax. Disney’s Blizzard Beach, on the other hand, is a watery wonderland where you’ll find the most nail-biting attractions, including Summit Plummet, the world’s fastest free-fall water slide.
Pro tip: Sign up for a surf lesson to get inside Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon before it officially opens for the day.
How to visit Walt Disney World® Resort
Walt Disney World® Resort ticket options usually range from the Magic Your Way® Base Ticket that grants access to one park per day, right through to a multi-day Park Hopper® option, which allows visitors to enter one park in the morning and another in the afternoon.
A 4-day ticket is a great way to cover all four parks during your trip, and you can also upgrade to include your choice of water park. Other add-ons include the coveted Disney FastPass+, which lets visitors skip the lines at popular rides, and Extra Magic Hours for extended theme park hours.
Editor’s note: Through 2020, Walt Disney World® Resort ticket options are limited to a standard theme park ticket, which is the equivalent of the Magic Your Way® Base Ticket, allowing access to only one park per day, with no option of hopping between. Disney FastPass+, Extra Magic Hours, and all Disney dining plans are temporarily suspended.
Marvel superheroes and villains, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™, and jungles teeming with Jurassic Park dinosaurs—Universal Orlando Resort™ is where the movie magic happens in Orlando. This blockbuster resort combines three of the best theme parks in the US.
Jump into the action of your favorite movies and TV shows at Universal Studios Florida™. The ultimate family-friendly Universal park, Universal Studios features rides, shows, and attractions based on the world’s biggest film and TV franchises. Take an unpredictable ride with Gru and the Minions on Despicable Me Minion Mayhem™, flee from Voldemort™ and Bellatrix on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts™, and even race through New York City with late-night talk show host Jimmy Fallon. For the younger set, there’s also kids’ play areas and the chance to see characters such as SpongeBob SquarePants.
Pro tip: Potterheads, spring for a Park-to-Park Ticket to ride the Hogwarts™ Express between both lands of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ (Diagon Alley™ is in Universal Studios Florida™ and Hogsmeade™ is in Universal's Islands of Adventure™).
Encounter superheroes, dinosaurs, and magical creatures at Universal’s Islands of Adventure™. This is the Universal park of choice for adrenaline junkies. Roller coasters and thrill rides are spread across multiple themed “islands”—Marvel Super Hero Island®, Seuss Landing™, and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ - Hogsmeade™ included. Jurassic Park fans won’t want to miss the new Jurassic World: VelociCoaster, which reaches speeds of up to 70 mph (113 kph) and is set to open summer 2021.
Pro tip: If you’re visiting Universal’s Islands of Adventure™ (or any other Universal park) with kids, check out the child swap program. It allows the person who waited with the little ones while the rest of the party went on a ride to go on that ride directly after without waiting in line.
Editor’s note: Universal’s Volcano Bay™ is closed for the season, with plans to reopen on or before March 1, 2021.
Universal Orlando Resort™’s tropical-themed water park, Universal’s Volcano Bay™, comprises four areas that draw on influences from across the South Pacific; Hawaii, New Zealand, and Easter Island included. At the park’s center, the 200-foot (61-meter) Krakatau™ volcano is the base for the park’s gravity defying water slides—and for those set on taking things easy, Waturi Beach and Kopiko Wai Winding River are the perfect places to unwind. All of the rides at Universal’s Volcano Bay™ have virtual lines, which can be joined via your TapuTapu wearable device. Simply tap your TapuTapu to secure a ride time, then go swim, eat, or explore until you feel your wrist buzz.
Pro tip: Slides with “Ride Now!” let you jump right on without losing your place in the virtual line for whatever other ride you’re waiting for.
Universal Orlando Resort™ tickets range from admission to a single park on a single day, right through to multi-day passes that cover all three parks. If you only want to visit one of the Universal parks, choose a single- or multi-day One Park Per Day Ticket. To see as much as possible, opt for a 2-Park Park-to-Park Ticket (for access to Universal Studios Florida™ and Universal’s Islands of Adventure™), or a 3-Park Park-to-Park Ticket (for all three parks).
Popular add-ons include the Universal Express Pass, an in-demand extra that lets visitors skip the lines at participating rides and attractions, and the VIP Experience, which grants behind-the-scenes access as well as skip-the-line privileges.
LEGOLAND® Florida Resort
LEGOLAND® Florida Resort features more than 50 rides, shows, attractions, and LEGO® models. Photo: LEGOLAND® Florida Resort
Everyone’s favorite building block comes to life at this interactive theme park. One of Orlando’s most imaginative attractions, LEGOLAND® Florida Resort features dozens of rides scattered across multiple themed lands, a water park, a botanical garden, and whole (miniature) cities made entirely out of LEGO®. It’s the largest of the world’s LEGOLAND® resorts, and a must-visit park for Orlando visitors traveling with kids aged 2–12.
THE LEGO® MOVIE™ WORLD is the newest of the lands, and where you’ll find two of the most popular rides: THE LEGO® MOVIE™ Masters of Flight and Unikitty’s Disco Drop. Other fan favorites include LEGO NINJAGO® The Ride, The Great LEGO® Race, and The Dragon.
Pro tip: Head to Cypress Gardens, a botanical garden that dates back to the 1930s, when you need a break from the Florida sun or the resort’s highest-octane attractions.
How to visit: LEGOLAND® Florida Resort offers 1- and 2-day Super Saver tickets, with the option to upgrade to include water park admission. Other available add-ons: pre-paid parking, water park cabana rental, and Fastrack skip-the-line ride passes. It's also worth noting, you'll need a car to visit LEGOLAND® Florida Resort as it's located in Winter Haven, roughly 43 miles from Orlando.
Visitors ride the Yo-Yo swing at Fun Spot America.
Fun Spot America might not be the first place to come to mind when you think of theme parks in Orlando, but thrill seekers and the nostalgically minded won’t want to sleep on this all-American gem. With all the charm and trappings of a small-town fair, Fun Spot America Orlando is home to White Lightning, the city’s only wooden coaster, and one of the tallest SkyCoasters in the world (the other’s at Fun Spot America’s Kissimmee location). Expect multi-level go-kart racing tracks and a range of roller coasters, thrill rides, and kiddie rides. There’s also a 2-story arcade, which is the perfect place to spend a rainy day.
Pro tip: Purchase a souvenir cup and you’ll receive free, unlimited soda refills for your trip—and the remainder of the year.
How to visit: There are two single-day ticket options to choose from: the Single Day Fun Pass and the Single Day MEGA Fun Pass. Both include all-day riding on the go-karts, roller coasters, thrill rides, and Kid Spot rides, as well as access to Gator Spot and a chauffeur pass. The MEGA Fun Pass, however, is the ticket you'll need if you want to ride the 250-foot (76-meter) SkyCoaster. If you have a Go Orlando® pass, admission to Fun Spot America—and your choice of four rides—is included.
Emma is an Auckland-based writer and editor who arrived in Aotearoa from London after a stint in California. Find her between the stacks at your local bookstore, planning trips over flat whites, or heading to the beach with her dog.