Orlando, Florida, is one of the top US travel destinations, welcoming over 74 million visitors in the past year alone. In this post, I will share our experience planning a family holiday in Orlando, along with tips for visiting Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort.
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Orlando Theme Parks
With incredible theme parks, a wide array of things to do and year round warm weather, it’s no wonder Orlando is a popular destination for tourists from around the world. Several of the world’s best theme parks that are located in Orlando, known as the Theme Park Capital of the World, include Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando and LEGOLAND Florida Resort.
The theme parks we visited on our family holiday in Orlando, which I will be going into more detail about in this post, were Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando Resort.
Walt Disney World Resort
The main focus of our Orlando family holiday was visiting Walt Disney World Resort, and we stayed on-site at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, an African-themed deluxe resort located next to the Animal Kingdom park.
There are four theme parks at Walt Disney World resort: Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In this part of planning a family holiday in Orlando, I will share our experience visiting Magic Kingdom and EPCOT with a preschooler.
Magic Kingdom Park
Magic Kingdom is the main Walt Disney World theme park, with the iconic Cinderella’s Castle and many of the traditional Disney rides. This classic Walt Disney World park was our top choice for visiting with a young child.
I was also pregnant at the time, and the Disney World attractions that worked best for our family were the gentle boat rides. The classic Disney boat rides we went on included Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid, “it’s a small world”, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Jungle Cruise.
Tip: Visit midweek to avoid the crowds – Tuesday and Wednesday are the quietest days of the week to visit the theme parks.
Other top Disney attractions our family enjoyed at Magic Kingdom were the Mad Tea Party spinning teacups ride and Splash Mountain in FrontierLand. [Note: Splash Mountain is currently closed and due to re-open in late 2024 as Tiana’s Bayou Adventure.]
During our visit to Walt Disney World, Little T loved the opportunities at parks or restaurants to meet his favorite characters. While at Magic Kingdom, we stopped by Pete’s Silly Sideshow at the Storybook Circus for the Donald Duck and Goofy character Meet and Greet.
Read more: Visiting Magic Kingdom with Preschoolers
The next theme park we visited on our family holiday in Orlando was EPCOT. EPCOT theme park is dedicated to the celebration of technological innovation and international culture.
I would highly recommend at least one evening at the parks to experience the nighttime shows, dining out and fireworks – and to explore or go on rides when it’s cooler out! EPCOT is a great choice for an evening visit, featuring a great selection of restaurants in the World Showcase and a brilliant fireworks display.
During May, Epcot was also beautifully decorated with topiaries and gardens for its annual International Flower & Garden Festival.
We arrived in the late afternoon and first stopped at the Character Spot for photos with Mickey, Goofy and Minnie. Afterwards, we went on the Spaceship Earth ride within Epcot’s iconic sphere, which takes you through mankind’s technological advances over the centuries.
We spent the rest of the evening at the World Showcase, watching the fireworks before dinner at the San Angel Inn in the “Mexico” area.
Read more about our EPCOT experience: Visiting Epcot with Preschoolers
Walt Disney World Character Meals
One of the highlights of visiting Walt Disney World with a preschooler were the character meals we booked at Magic Kingdom and Disney resorts. We booked three Walt Disney World character meals: Winnie the Pooh and Friends at Crystal Palace, Cape May Cafe Character Breakfast and Ohana Character Breakfast.
Character Meal with Pooh and Friends
Our day at Magic Kingdom started off with meeting Winnie the Pooh and Friends at Crystal Palace, a beautiful restaurant just around the corner from Main Street. You can book breakfast as early as 08:05am, so it’s a great way to get into the park early and kick off the day at Magic Kingdom.
The character lunch at Crystal Palace was a fantastic experience and my favorite out of the three character meals we booked. The buffet spread was very good, the service was great and Little T loved having the chance to meet Pooh, Tigger, Piglet and Eeyore.
Read more about our character meal experience: Lunch at Crystal Palace with Pooh and Friends review.
Character Breakfast at Cape May Cafe
At this character meal, we met Minnie Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck all decked out in their swimwear at the lovely Disney’s Beach Club Resort. I managed to book this breakfast only a few days in advance and I’m glad I did! The food was great and we enjoyed the experience.
Little T participated in a parade, pretending to swim with Goofy, and he enjoyed watching the characters from our table and of course meeting them and getting autographs whenever they stopped by our table.
Read more about this Disney character meal experience: Cape May Café Breakfast with Minnie & Friends
Character Breakfast at ‘Ohana
Out of all the character meals, I was pretty disappointed with our experience at the ‘Ohana at the Polynesian Village Resort. We waited an hour to be seated and to be honest we found the food disappointing and preferred the variety at other restaurants’ buffets.
That said, it was our first opportunity to see the Disney characters and Little T was over the moon to meet Mickey Mouse, Pluto, Lilo and Stitch.
Read more about the Polynesian Resort character meal: ‘Ohana Character Breakfast with Mickey and Friends
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge
For our family holiday in Orlando, we stayed at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, a deluxe Walt Disney World resort located next to the Animal Kingdom park. What sets the Animal Kingdom Lodge apart from Disney’s other deluxe resorts, is its stunning African-inspired architecture, cultural activities and animal programs throughout the day, and rooms overlooking a savanna with over 200 animals and birds. There are three notable restaurants on-site: Boma for a great breakfast buffet and Sanaa and Jiko for fine dining.
We stayed in a Savanna View Room at Animal Kingdom Lodge which was a fantastic experience. From our balcony, we could spot giraffes, zebras, cattle, gazelles, cranes and more roaming about the grounds. We stayed in the main section, Jambo House, and our room was comfortable with two queen beds.
While Jambo House has a large swimming pool, for younger children, it’s worth visiting Kidani Village next door for the water play area, zero-entry swimming pool with water slides, and a playground with water cannons and tipping buckets of water.
Read more in our resort review: Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge Resort Review
Universal Orlando Resort
Another top thing to do in Orlando with kids is to go to the Universal Orlando Resort, which is made up of three theme parks. The three theme parks at Universal Orlando Resort are Universal’s Islands of Adventure, the original Universal Studios and the Volcano Bay water park.
For our family visit to the Universal Orlando Resort, we chose to spend a day at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, which we felt had the best selection of attractions for our preschooler. The overall theme of the Universal’s Islands of Adventure park is to embark on an adventurous journey, which begins with entering a port from where you set off to explore the seven uniquely themed islands set around a lake.
We had a packed day at this park visiting Marvel Super Hero Island, Jurassic Park, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Hogsmeade Village) and Seuss Landing. We started off with meeting Spider-Man, definitely a trip highlight for our son!
Another highlight of visiting Universal’s Islands of Adventure with a preschooler is the Jurassic Park attraction. Jurassic Park offers plenty for young kids to explore, including the Camp Jurassic playground and the fascinating Discovery Center.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is another must for families at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. I purchased an interactive wand for us to practice magic on some of the shop windows. It was a fun experience casting spells around the village for a special surprise!
And finally we ended the day at Seuss Landing which is just perfect for young children and Dr. Seuss fans of all ages. Little T and Mr. G went on the High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride and then we all went on the Caro-seuss-el together, before bringing Little T to the fantastic If I Ran the Zoo interactive play area.
Read more about our Universal Orlando Resort visit: Visiting Universal’s Islands of Adventure with a Preschooler
Day Trip to Clearwater Beach
If you are looking for a break from the theme park crowds, Orlando is only a one to two hour drive from some of the best beaches in Florida. One of the closest beaches to Orlando is Clearwater Beach, located on the Gulf of Mexico and Florida’s west coast. At less than 2 hour away by car, Clearwater is an easy day trip from Orlando for some beach time.
Clearwater Beach is an expansive, white sand beach where you can rent a surrey bike to ride along the boardwalk. One of the highlights of our short visit to Clearwater Beach was having dinner at the lively beachfront Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill. The food was excellent and Frenchy’s is a great place to watch the sunset.
Read more about our Clearwater Beach day trip: Day Trip to Clearwater Beach, Florida
Where to Eat in Orlando
There are loads of dining options around Walt Disney World – at the parks, at Disney Springs, at the resorts and plenty a bit further afield at the shopping malls if, like us, you decide to rent a car. I made bookings for most Disney World restaurants in advance, because it is easy to do through the My Disney Experience app and the restaurants were always pretty busy.
Tip: Sign up to the My Disney Experience website or app and start booking your dining reservations up to 60 days ahead of your trip. You can always cancel or amend your reservation up to 24 hours before. Phone numbers must be 10 digits, so to book with your UK number, drop the first ‘0’.
We dined at the following restaurants during our family holiday in Orlando;
Boma, Animal Kingdom Lodge – Great selection here at the breakfast buffet, from typical items – Mickey waffles, pancakes, fruit and yogurt, oatmeal, biscuits, scrambled eggs or omelettes, pastries – to more delicious additions such as plantains and hand-carved roasted ham, turkey or African spiced corned beef.
‘Ohana, Polynesian Village Resort – Brunch was served in a big pan: waffles, bacon, sausages, biscuits and scrambled eggs to share “family style”, along with a plate of fruit and sweet bread.
Cape May Cafe, Beach Club Resort – A good breakfast buffet with the usual items: Mickey waffles, bacon and sausages, quiche and scrambled eggs, pastries, pancakes with lots of sweet toppings, cold cuts, roasted ham, asparagus and hollandaise sauce, etc.
Crystal Palace, Magic Kingdom – The lunch buffet exceeded our expectations, with various salads, a children’s buffet (chicken nuggets, corn and peas, mac and cheese, etc), oven roasted chicken, salmon and tilapia, jambalaya, roast turkey and roast beef; broccoli sautéed green beans, cornbread, collards and ham; and a delicious selection of desserts and pastries.
The Polite Pig, Disney Springs – We had lunch at this casual barbecue place and the service was pretty slow and the food was all right. I had a pulled pork sandwich, Little T had chicken tenders with carrot sticks and Mr. G had the wild salmon from the smoker.
Sanaa, Animal Kingdom Lodge – Recommended for its African and Indian fusion cuisine. We had the appetiser of five kinds of naan and nine sauces that were all delicious. Little T had the kid’s butter chicken meal which was actually much tastier than the braised lamb shank I ordered. Mr. G had the very good trio of grilled meats, a South African Braai sampling. Little T’s meal also came with a chocolate brownie to paint with coloured icing.
Kona Cafe, Polynesian Village Resort – We had dinner at the Kona Restaurant the night we arrived in Orlando, before watching the Magic Wishes fireworks in the distance from the resort’s beach. I would recommend this place for a casual meal – the Asian noodles were pretty good.
San Angel Inn, Epcot – This restaurant in the Mexico part of Epcot’s World Showcase is designed as a 17th-century hacienda at the base of Mayan ruins, dimly lit and overlooking boats going by in the small lagoon at the foot of the ruins.
Direct Flights to Orlando
The main airlines that fly direct from London airports – Heathrow (LHR) or Gatwick (LGW) – to Orlando International Airport (MCO) are Virgin Atlantic and British Airways. Another option is the new low cost carrier, Norse Atlantic Airways, which operates direct flights from London Gatwick to Orlando International Airport.
For our family holiday in Orlando, I booked our trip with Virgin Holidays which at the time of booking was having a sale that made it slightly cheaper than booking through DisneyWorld.co.uk. We have flown with Virgin Atlantic to the United States with kids several times now and always have a great experience.
The service at the airports and during the Virgin Atlantic flight is always pleasant and efficient. The food on the flight is pretty good and there is usually a good selection for families in the inflight entertainment.
Orlando with Kids
I hope you have found this post helpful for tips and inspiration in planning your own family holiday in Orlando. Read on for more details on visiting the Orlando theme parks, booking Walt Disney World character meals and a resort review for Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge;
More Disney Parks Inspiration
Read on for more inspiration on planning a Disney trip with our tips and reviews for visiting Disneyland Paris;
PIN FOR LATER – Family Holiday in Orlando