What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of theme parks? Florida. The Sunshine State is a honey-pot for anyone who loves roller coasters, nostalgia and immersing themselves in worlds that bring your wildest imaginations to life. America’s theme park mecca lends itself to all ages, across all tastes – think big thrills and spills to awe-inspiring experiences and year-round sunshine.
Whether you’re a first timer, or a repeat offender (guilty as charged) – park options can be overwhelming. Walt Disney World Resort has six different parks and Universal Orlando makes up another three.
From someone who knows a fair whack about Florida’s theme parks, here’s a breakdown of the very best (and they don’t all include Mickey and co).
Think of the Magic Kingdom as the granddaddy of theme parks. By convention, there aren’t many high-octane thrills to be found here, and still, it remains the #1 theme park in the world. Having first opened its castle doors in 1971 the park captures the enchantment of fairy tales with classic attractions, beloved Disney characters and so much more. In 2014, the Magic Kingdom averaged 50,000 visitors per day – so the next time you’re there, take a second to think about the people that picked the same day to visit as you. Mind-boggling.
Whether you’ve got young kids, consider yourself one at heart or love the feeling of yesteryear, you’ll feel right at home. Take a surprising interstellar ride on Space Mountain, tuck into one of Casey’s delicious foot-long hotdogs, marvel at the theatrical parade and embrace the magical-and-over-the-top fireworks displays. Between the rides, snack hunting and making the character rounds, you’ll need at least two full days to find your feet. They don’t call it the most magical place on Earth for nothing!
Best for: Young kids and old-school Disney fans.
Universal Studios is a fusion where old classics like E.T and The Mummy meet Despicable Me and Shrek. What makes this part of the park so feel-good, is that the space isn’t overly cluttered, and yet there’s plenty to do, see and taste. Thrill seekers will gush over Rip Ride Rockit which sends riders on a 90-degree climb with a soundtrack of your choice. From experience (almost 50 rides and counting), Kanye West’s Stronger is a belter. Critics, do your worst!
Take a break from the rides and spend time in the Springfield section for a cold Duff beer, Lard Lad supersized doughnut and a Krusty Burger! The different themed areas have been finely tuned to the very last details, the real showstopper is Diagonal Alley. One look at their Kings Cross Station replica and you’ll almost believe your back home. Temperatures sky rocket as quickly as it can rain in Florida, so if you’re looking for a release, head to Finnegan’s. This Irish pub is the place to be merry!
Best for: The best of all worlds.
Events: Halloween Horror Nights.
Top tip: If you can visit during Halloween Horror Nights (usally from September to first week of November), you won’t regret it. You have to pay extra for the event but think scares, haunted houses and ghoulish snacks – amplified by 100.
Good to know: Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are within walking distance of each other (no more than 5 minutes). If you don’t want to walk it, you can take the Hogwarts Express which connects the two parks from the inside. But you’ll need to have purchased tickets to both parks to get the train.
3. Epcot, Orlando
Ignite your imagination at Epcot. OK, the idea of the future isn’t so futuristic anymore. But Mission: Space will always be a ride to remember. You won’t find fancy thrills here, but if you want to get on the best rides, you’ll need FastPass for Test Track and Frozen Ever After (queues get as long as 2hours+). As fun as they are, Epcot’s main allure is in its World Showcase – 11 countries, all for yours to explore. Go through the streets of Paris, grab a pint in London, see the acrobats in China and so much more.
For the most part, Epcot is ideal for adults and groups of friends looking to fill their boots with food and drink. The brave will want to take part in the unofficial ‘Drinking Around the World at Epcot‘, 11 drinks in 10 hours. Good luck, you’ll need it. Just don’t forget your ID.
Best for: Foodies and cocktail connoisseurs.
Events: International Food & Wine Festival.
Top tip: Come prepared to spend a pretty dollar, but if you’re making a day of Epcot, be sure to catch the fireworks before closing.
Fancy yourself an adrenaline junkie? Get in line at Busch Gardens. Home to a 200-foot floorless diver coaster, Florida’s first family spin coaster, a furious 335-foot freestanding drop tower and soon to house Florida’s tallest launch coaster, the rides are guaranteed to take your heart rate up a peg, or two. The biggest and baddest rides are scattered across the park so the “head to the back of the park first” tip will only work for individual coasters. But it’s not all about daredevil drops here. Little ones will love the Sesame Street Safari of Fun zone which has photo opportunities and gentler attractions for them to savour.
Aside from rides, Busch Gardens is home to more than 12,000 animals from 300 different species. Animal lovers can see everything from sloths, elephants, giraffes, and more while strolling through the park. If you’re going for the animals, we recommend starting early, as they’re more active in the morning when the temperatures are still relatively fresh.
Best for: Thrill seekers and animal lovers.
Top tip: Bring a change of clothes – there’s a very good chance you’ll get soaked on the rapids! It also takes over an hour to get to the park by car from Orlando, so pre-plan your transportation.
Moons ago, Hollywood Studios was famously known for its big-hitting attractions: Tower of Terror and the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster® Starring Aerosmith. Coveted as they are, today, Toy Story Land draws in the mammoth crowds, where guests of all ages are made to feel toy-sized. Since it’s opening, the park has come alive with a flurry of families looking to ride Slinky Dog Dash and other themed attractions. Meet and greets are a given, so have your autograph book at the ready to meet Woody, Buzz and crew.
Very excitingly, 2019 marks the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge – a sci-fi land where you’ll have the chance to fly the Millennium Falcon, among other attractions. It’s sure to be a theme park game-changer.
Best for: Jedi’s and movie buffs.
Events: Flurry of Fun.
Top tip: Food choices are more limited in this park, so you might be better off bringing your own food/snacks.
Islands of Adventure is where the Wizarding World of Harry Potter first came to life. You’ll see plenty of guests enjoying a butterbeer, with a wand in hand and fully kitted in robes and merchandise. Don’t worry if it’s not your thing, at first I thought it wasn’t mine, but once you see Hogwarts, you’ll be well under its spell.
But hey if all else fails, there are other attractions based on Jurrasic Park, King Kong and Marvel (the super-charged Hulk coaster is a winner) and a Dr. Seuss-themed kiddie area. Bursting with the most colour of any park, your eyes won’t know where to look.
On a comforting note, you’ll really appreciate the water fans dotted around the park.
Best for: Marvel fanatics.
Top tip: Make sure to empty your pockets before riding the Hulk, you’ll pass a metal detector – so leave the phone and valuables in the lockers just outside beforehand.
Good to know: Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are within walking distance of each other (no more than 5 minutes). If you don’t want to walk it, you can take the Hogwarts Express which connects the two parks from the inside. But you’ll need to have purchased tickets to both parks to take the train.
Much like the name suggests, Animal Kingdom is ‘purfect’ for animal lovers. Kilimanjaro Safaris is just one of many animal encounters, spot baby elephants, gorillas and tigers to name a few. On the coaster front, the biggest thrills come from Expedition Everest (which has a plot twist like no other).
The park very recently opened a Pandora area based on Avatar – which brings the film to life in every possible Na’vi way. You’ll have to snag a FastPass for the Flight of Passage, a 3D ride that simulates flying on the back of a banshee. We’re just going to say it, there’s no ride in Florida quite like it, which goes to show in wait times of three hours.
Best for: Animal lovers.
Top tip: Head to Pandora first, or live to regret it!
8. Volcano Bay
Sure, who doesn’t love a good waterpark? Well…The standards have been set, and quite frankly we’re not sure who will be able to match it, at least not anytime soon. The 200-foot Krakatau volcano is Volcano Bay’s centrepiece and commands your attention from the get-go. Oh, and it’s not just for show either, there are slides running from the volcanos. Think nerve-inducing, but all the fun.
Since its opening in 2017, Volcano Bay has been drawing in crowds thick and fast. Operating via a digital wristband reservation, you can take the time to unwind in the lazy river, grab a bite to eat, or simply chill by the pool until its time to ride.
Best for: Carefree island lifestyle
Top tip: Ride out the rain, you’re already wet so just roll with it. Plus, you’ll quickly notice that times for slides and attractions will shorten as people start to leave the park.
What we offer
- The Full Monty Combo ⇒ Disney Ultimate + Universal Explorer + Seaworld + Aquatica + Busch Gardens
- The Real Steal ⇒ Disney Ultimate + Universal Park Explorer
- Super Six ⇒ Universal Park Explorer + Seaworld + Aquatica + Bush Gardens
- 3 x 2 ⇒ Seaworld Multi Pack + Legoland
- International Drive ⇒ Wonderworks + Magic Dinner Show + Icon Orlando
- Walt Disney World 7 days Ultimate Pack + Memory Maker
- Walt Disney World 14 days Ultimate Pack + Memory Maker
- Walt Disney World 21 days Ultimate Pack + Memory Maker
- Universal Orlando 2 Park Explorer
- Universal Orlando 3 Park Explorer
- Blue Man Group Orlando
- 3 x 2 ⇒ SeaWorld + Aquatica + Busch Gardens
- SeaWorld all day
- Busch Gardens all day
- Aquatica all day
- Dolphin swim package
- Non-Dolphin swim package
- Kennedy Space Center
- Icon Orlando
- Airboat Rides
Just send an email to Amelia, our resident expert on all things Florida, and she will be happy to help.
And if you want more information about timetables, prices, theme parks, and all frequently asked questions about Walt Disney World Resort, check our Disney villas page.