Categories
Family Travel Theme Park

The 11 Best Amusement Parks in Florida, 2020 Edition

You can’t think of theme parks without thinking of Florida. The Sunshine State is a must-visit spot for anyone who loves riding roller coasters, splashing down waterslides, and immersing themselves in the worlds of their favorite movies and TV shows.

But all the Florida theme park options can be overwhelming. There are six different parks at Walt Disney World Resort alone, and another three parks at Universal Orlando Resort. Teens chasing thrills don’t necessarily want to find themselves in the same lines as toddlers decked out in their best princess tiaras. So here’s a breakdown of the top amusement parks in Florida to help you find the best match for your interests and travel party.

Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom

Disney Magic Kingdom

Best for: Families with young kids and nostalgic types

The theme park that started it all, the Magic Kingdom first opened its castle doors in 1971. Since then it’s been the spot for Mickey Mouse meet-and-greets, fantastical Dumbo flights, and over-the-top fireworks displays. There aren’t a lot of thrills to be found here; the park’s roller coasters skew more entry-level than scream-inducing (although riding through the dark on Space Mountain can still offer up surprises).

Head here if you have young kids or if you just love the feeling of yesteryear that’s so palpable in the Orlando-area amusement park. Try to book a meal at Be Our Guest, a restaurant jaw-dropping dining areas modeled after different rooms in the castle from Beauty and the Beast.

Where to stay: You can’t get much closer than Disney’s Contemporary Resort, which is just a short walk or monorail ride from the Magic Kingdom. It’s home to the popular Chef Mickey’s character buffet and a viewing spot for the nighttime Electrical Water Pageant boat parade.

Universal’s Islands of Adventure

harry potter world at universal

Best for: Wannabe wizards and movie fans

Named top amusement park by Tripadvisor, SmarterTravel’s parent company, in 2019 (the fifth year in a row), Universal’s Islands of Adventure is where The Wizarding World of Harry Potter first came to life. You’ll see lots of visitors wearing robes and brandishing wands as they head to Hogwarts to travel by broom on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey or stroll through Hogsmeade village with a butterbeer in hand. If you want to ride the Hogwarts Express (and you should), make sure you have a park-to-park ticket, as it travels between Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida.

If spells aren’t your thing, there are attractions based on Jurassic Park and Marvel superheroes, water rides for cooling off in the Orlando heat, and a Dr. Seuss-themed carousel.

Where to stay: From Loews Royal Pacific Resort, you can walk or take complimentary boat service over to Islands of Adventure. Guests at the South Seas-themed hotel get early park admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and free Universal Express Unlimited ride access that lets you skip the lines at most attractions, two highly beneficial perks.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Disney’s Animal Kingdom iconic tree of life

Best for: Animal lovers and Avatar fans

The park’s popular Pandora area, based on the fantasy world from the movie Avatar, draws visitors looking to immerse themselves in all things Na’vi. You’ll definitely want to visit at night, when the area’s awash in a bioluminescent glow, and snag a FastPass for the Flight of Passage, a 3D ride that simulates flying on the back of a banshee.

For animal encounters, ride the Kilimanjaro Safaris (be on the lookout for baby elephants or giraffes) and walk the park’s various trails to spot everything from gorillas to tigers. Don’t leave without hunting for the Yeti on the Expedition Everest roller coaster.

Where to stay: Enjoy the creature comforts of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. Some rooms offer savanna views where you can watch zebras, giraffes, gazelles, and other animals from your balcony. On-site restaurants spotlight the flavors and spices of African cuisine.

Universal’s Volcano Bay

Universal’s Volcano Bay

Best for: Water enthusiasts in search of the latest and greatest

The newest entrant on the Orlando waterpark scene, Universal’s Volcano Bay, offers thrills and experiences you can’t find at other area splash zones—like its TapuTapu wearable technology that holds your place in line and alerts you when it’s time to ride, or TeAwa, the Fearless River, a thrilling inner tube river ride that’s anything but lazy.

With 19 attractions on a compact 25 acres, it’s easy to hit them all in a day. You’ll be surprised at how many different ways you can plunge down the side of a “volcano” and how much fun you’ll have doing it.

Where to stay: Book a room at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort for close proximity to Volcano Bay and the ability to get inside an hour before the water park opens to the public. The resort offers lots of retro charm, plus fun amenities like a lazy river and 10-lane bowling alley.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Slinky Dog ride at Hollywood Studios

Best for: Disney movie buffs and Star Wars fanatics

In 2018, Disney’s Hollywood Studios celebrated the opening of its Toy Story Land, an imaginative area designed to make visitors feel toy-sized. It’s home to two new rides—the Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster and spinning Alien Swirling Saucers—plus must-try food items like the S’more French Toast Sandwich and “Totchos” (think tater tots meet nachos).

But an even bigger buzz surrounded the 2019 opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, where you can fly the Millennium Falcon and board a Star Destroyer.

Where to stay: Until Walt Disney World’s Star Wars–themed hotel opens (hopefully not in a future far, far away), make a reservation at the nearby Disney’s Art of Animation Resort to stay immersed in the movies. With décor inspired by Cars, Finding Nemo, and The Lion King, the resort’s family suites sleep up to six and have two full bathrooms. Disney’s Skyliner gondola transportation system (currently under construction) will eventually connect the Art of Animation Resort to Hollywood Studios so guests can travel by air between the two.

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

Sheikra Roller Coaster in Busch Gardens, Tampa Bay

Best for: Thrill seekers and Sesame Street fans

Like roller coasters that really get your heart racing? Then get in line at Busch Gardens, home to a 200-foot-tall floorless dive coaster, a triple-launch coaster, and Florida’s first family spin coaster. The newest addition is Tigris, Florida’s tallest launch coaster, which launched in 2019. It’ll be followed by Iron Gwazi, the world’s fastest and steepest hybrid roller coaster, in 2020.

But it’s not all about daredevil drops here. The park’s also a great place for the preschool set, thanks to its Sesame Street Safari of Fun area filled with kiddie rides and attractions, plus photo ops with Elmo and Big Bird. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is also one of the largest zoo facilities in the U.S., so animal lovers big and small can see everything from giraffes and cheetahs to sloths and kangaroos while strolling the park.

Where to stay: Less than a mile from Busch Gardens, the Home2 Suites by Hilton Tampa USF offers spacious rooms with full kitchens, free breakfast, and an outdoor saline pool for cooling off after a day in the sun. It’s also close to other Tampa attractions like the Museum of Science and Industry.

Universal Studios Florida

Fast & Furious–Supercharged Universal Studios Florida

Best for: Speed demons, sci-fi fans, and Simpsons devotees

The first park at Universal Orlando Resort includes beloved original rides like E.T. Adventure plus the resort’s newest attraction, Fast & Furious–Supercharged, which immerses visitors in the world of the high-speed film franchise.

You can also find rides based on Men in Black, The Mummy, and Transformers here, along with the white-knuckle thrills of the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit coaster, which sends riders on a 90-degree climb toward the sky set to the soundtrack of their choice, and the less-intense-but-still-zippy Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon. Make sure to visit the Springfield section for a Duff beer, Krusty Burger, and other Simpsons fun.

Where to stay: Live like a rock star at the Hard Rock Hotel Orlando, just a short stroll from the park. In addition to the hotel’s amusement park benefits, there’s an underwater sound system at the pool along with musical amenities that you can take advantage of during your stay, from celebrity-curated playlists to a menu of 20 different Fender guitars that can be delivered to your room.

LEGOLAND Florida Resort

LEGOLAND Florida

Best for: The under-12 set and their parents

If you’re not sure your family’s ready for a theme park with the scale of Walt Disney World, this is the place for you, especially if you have LEGO enthusiasts in your household. Located in Winter Haven (less than an hour from the Orlando area), LEGOLAND Florida offers a manageable size and plenty of fun for young kids (but older kids might not be as enthralled).

Kids can drive their own LEGO car and boat, brave dragon- and dinosaur-themed roller coasters, and put their ninja moves to the test on an interactive Ninjago ride. Brick-building zones help keep the kiddos occupied while waiting in line. Don’t miss Miniland USA, which features highly detailed LEGO re-creations of New York City, San Francisco, and other famous locales.

Where to stay: Within walking distance of the park, the LEGOLAND Florida Hotel was designed for brick heads. There’s a LEGO pit in the lobby, LEGOS floating in the pool, and more than 2,000 LEGO models made with more than two million bricks throughout the hotel. Guest rooms offer cool kid-friendly themes that make even going to bed fun.

SeaWorld Orlando and Aquatica

Manta Dips a Wing at SeaWorld Orlando

Best for: Kids who love sea creatures

SeaWorld has weathered its fair share of controversy in recent years, which has kept some visitors away. But if you do head to the Orlando park, you’ll find shows that aim to educate guests about dolphins, orcas, and other aquatic life. In addition to its signature animal attractions, the park also offers up plenty of thrill rides, from the tallest, fastest, and longest roller coaster in Orlando to a new river raft ride with the world’s tallest drop.

A new Sesame Street area opened last year with SeaWorld Orlando’s first-ever parade and re-creations of Mr. Hooper’s store and other landmarks from the TV show. This year a new coaster called Ice Breaker will make its debut. SeaWorld’s Aquatica waterpark features rides with plenty of dips and drops plus the Dolphin Plunge, which takes riders through clear tubes that travel underwater in the park’s Commerson’s dolphin habitat.

Where to stay: Check into Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld for some R&R after a long day at the park. With some of Orlando’s most spacious guest rooms, several on-site restaurants, and a waterpark with slides and splash zones, there’s plenty to keep guests of all ages busy here.

Disney’s Epcot

The Norway Pavilion is a Norwegian-themed pavilion along World Showcase promenade at Epcot.

Best for: Galivanting gourmands and cocktail connoisseurs

Yes, Epcot’s idea of the future isn’t actually so futuristic anymore. And strolling the park’s World Showcase is a pale comparison to actually wandering the streets of Paris or Venice. But if you love good food and drink, and enjoy sipping and sampling in the Florida sun, bring your appetite and walking shoes for a day filled with interesting eats.

Indulge in jalapeño margaritas, chocolate crepes, crispy fish and chips, shawarma chicken, and other international delicacies served at carts, counter-service spots, and sit-down restaurants throughout the park. You can take in performances by Chinese acrobats, Mexican mariachi bands, and other global acts while you nosh. And if you have picky eaters in your family, this is a great place to get them to try new things.

Where to stay: You can walk or take a boat to Epcot’s back entrance from Disney’s Beach Club Resort. It’s got a three-acre pool area with one of Disney World’s highest hotel waterslides and a unique sand-bottomed pool. And it’s a short stroll from the hotel to Disney’s fun-filled Boardwalk area, where you can find restaurants, games, and roving entertainment.

Blizzard Beach

Blizzard Beach Water Park

Best for: Disney fans who want to make a splash

Blizzard Beach offers a “snowy” ski resort theme complete with a chairlift that travels to the top of Mount Gushmore. You can brave the 120-foot drop of Summit Plummet or travel down the mountain in a more leisurely but still just-as-wet way. It also features a play area for younger kids, a lazy river, and single- and multi-rider slides.

Where to stay: Stay in the swim at Four Seasons Resort Orlando. The luxury hotel located on Disney property boasts its own five-acre water park with two waterslides, a lazy river, a splash zone, and a family pool that shows “dive in” movies on Saturday nights.

More from SmarterTravel:

Categories
Family Travel Packing

What to Pack for Disney World: 38 Essentials

When I walk down Main Street, USA in Magic Kingdom, I can’t help but smile. I’ve spent years growing up at Disney World, and that first glimpse of the castle after rope-drop never gets old. Whether this is your first trip or you’re a regular park hopper, here’s the essential Disney World packing list you need to make sure you have a magical time.

What to Pack for Disney World: Luggage

I always manage to throw in more souvenirs than I plan for when I go to Disney. Luckily I’ve outgrown stuffed animals and toys, but I always manage to find another mug I have to have, so I make sure to bring a larger suitcase than I normally would for a trip.

I’m obsessed with my Away Carry-On, which covers everything I need. But when I want to go bigger, I bring my trusty Samsonite Voltage DLX 29” Spinner.

What to Pack for Disney World: The Day Pack

I like to spend most of my days in the parks, and that means a day pack is essential. I got this monogrammed drawstring bag years ago, but when I need something bigger I grab my Mickey-themed Loungefly bag. As long as it fits snacks and a water bottle, I’m good to go.

If you’re towing kids or little ones, consider this diaper bag for heavy-duty travel.

What to Pack for Disney World: Park Essentials

  • Sunglasses: You’ll want to bring polarized shades that can handle the sunshine. I always pack my Ray-Ban Wayfarers when I travel since they go with everything, but if you want a little Disney flair, these are my favorites.
  • Hat: A baseball cap is a must in the parks. Don’t forget to take it off on Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster—I’ve had to buy this embroidered cap twice.
  • Water bottle: The worst thing that can happen is getting overheated on a hot Florida day. You can fill up your reusable bottle at stations around the park or at any restaurant or counter service location.
  • Mini fan: For super hot days and long waits outside, I use this mini-fan to keep cool. I always get lots of envious looks from other people in line.
  • Snacks: Disney allows you to bring pretty much any food item except for alcohol into the parks. I hate getting hangry while waiting in line, so I always keep a few snacks on hand that hold up to the heat.
  • Extra napkins: Eating ice cream at 9:30 a.m. is one of my favorite parts of vacation, but it can get messy. I keep these in my purse just in case.
  • Reusable straws: Disney banned plastic straws a few years back, so if you’re a soda drinker, bring your own.
  • Autograph book: I love meeting characters, especially Winnie the Pooh and friends at the Crystal Palace for lunch. An autograph book makes for a sweet souvenir—each character has a unique signature.
  • Stroller: If you have a little one, it’s up to you whether you want to rent a stroller or bring your own. If you do bring one, make sure it’s a compact option like the Mountain Buggy Nano Stroller and that you make it your own so it stands out—a lot of strollers look the same.

What to Pack for Disney World: Shoes

  • Sneakers: Somehow I always manage to walk at least 10 miles a day when I’m at Disney (usually from snack cart to snack cart, let’s be real), so good walking shoes are essential. I can walk all day in my Keds, and they’re cute enough to go with most of my park outfits.
  • Socks: I bring cushy options that can handle crisscrossing the parks.
  • Sandals: I go for walkability over fashion with my sandals, so I like this pair from Columbia (I use them as camp shoes when I hike). Here’s the same pair for men.
  • Dressy sandals: I throw in a pair of versatile wedges I can dress up or down, depending on my dinner reservations.

What to Pack for Disney World: Jackets

  • Lightweight sweatshirt: I usually bring a sweatshirt for watching the parades and fireworks shows in the evenings. (Here’s a similar one for men.)
  • Rain gear: You’ll likely get caught in a torrential downpour for at least a few minutes every day while you’re at the parks. It doesn’t last long, but I always bring a raincoat or poncho to stuff into my backpack.

What to Pack for Disney World: Clothing

If you’re staying on property, you’ll be able to do laundry with laundromats at every resort, through their valet service, or, if you’re staying at a Disney Vacation Club Villa, with a washer and dryer in your room. Just bring:

What to Pack for Disney World: Water Parks and Pool Days

When I get tired of roller coasters, I trade them for water parks. Blizzard Beach offers ski-themed thrills and Typhoon Lagoon feels like a tropical oasis. Of course, there’s always time for poolside lounging back at the resort, too. For water-based sports, you’ll need:

  • Swimsuit: Of course! Everyone has a different style, but I go for classic and preppy J. Crew suits. (Try these tropical board shorts for men, too.)
  • Rashguard: I have really sensitive skin, so I go for a rashguard if I’m slipping and sliding on rafts and in chutes. Plus, I don’t have to constantly slather on sunscreen.
  • Water shoes: I’m fairly uncoordinated, so water shoes are my friend at water parks. But I tend to just wear my Havaianas Slim flip-flops for around the pool.
  • Sun hat: I swap my baseball cap out for a floppy straw hat that gives me enough shade to read by the pool.

What to Pack for Disney World: Toiletries

  • Sunscreen: Because it’s sunny out there.
  • Bug spray: Disney does a great job of spraying in the parks, but Florida is a swamp, so it’s never a bad idea.
  • Blotting papers: When it gets hot and humid, I pack a few of these to use right before any character photos.
  • Frizz control: The humidity wreaks havoc on my hair, so I bring this spray for mornings and evenings.
  • Motion sickness medication: Nothing ruins a roller coaster like getting motion sick. If you struggle with it, there’s plenty to do in the parks besides the rides. But it’s always good to bring just in case.
  • Bandages for blisters: Those miles add up.

What to Pack for Disney World: Gadgets

  • MagicBand: Disney runs on MagicBands. You won’t need your credit card, room key, or Fastpasses anymore: It all works with a wave of your MagicBand. It’s best to order these ahead of your trip so you’re ready when you check in.
  • Camera: Capture the magic with a digital camera. If you’d rather stay in the moment, you can also have your photos taken throughout the park, synced through your MagicBand to order and print after your trip.

What to Pack for Disney World: Accessories

  • Crossbody bag: I like to go lighter for nighttime park visits, and this Madewell purse does the trick.
  • Mickey ears: I never leave home without my ears for Disney trips. I have a flowery pair I bought for the Flower & Garden Show at EPCOT a few years back, but you can pick any number of combinations.

What Not to Pack for Disney World

The only things you won’t need? High heels or any uncomfortable shoes—you’ll be walking a lot. Second, leave the umbrellas and selfie sticks at home. The parks get super crowded, and you’re just as likely to drop them or leave them behind while getting in or out of a ride.

Overall, when packing for Disney, don’t be afraid to get whimsical. You’ll rub elbows with tourists from around the world, so you’ll see all sorts of styles. If there’s anything to learn from Disney, it’s that you make your own magic.

More from SmarterTravel:

Always in search of adventure, Kayla Voigt hails from Hopkinton, Massachusetts, the start of the Boston Marathon. You can usually find her at the summit of a mountain or digging into a big bowl of pasta. Say hi on Instagram @klvoigt.

Categories
Active Travel Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Booking Strategy Budget Travel Cities Entertainment Travel Technology Travel Trends

The 5 Best Ticket Websites for Booking Day Tours and Travel Activities

When it comes to booking travel, most of our attention goes to finding the best airfare, hotel rate, cruise price, and maybe car rental; the big ticket, can’t-get-there-without-it, stuff. Those are obviously fundamental components of any trip. But they’re certainly not the only important bookings you’ll make. Once you’ve booked everything you need to get there, consider these activity and excursion ticket websites—the best of which let you search popular things to do and see in your destination. And whether you’re looking for something as exhilarating as skydiving or something as simple as a walking food tour, you can usually search for them on one site.

The excursions, tours, performances, and other activities you experience on your travels can make or break a trip. No one wants to be disappointed when an activity booking doesn’t work out or turns out not to be what you though it was—so you’ll want to be able to search offerings, and preferably to compare ratings of them. Plus, it’s essential to make sure you’re booking with reputable ticket websites offering reasonable prices. 

[st_related]The 12 Best Flight Search Sites for Booking Cheap Airfare[/st_related]

The Best Excursion Ticket Websites for Travelers

Here are five ticket websites and providers that won’t let you down.

Viator

Owned by TripAdvisor (SmarterTravel’s parent company), Viator is a vast activity and excursion ticket website; one of the largest out there. Travelers can book anything from airport shuttle service, to guided tours, to skip-the-line admission at attractions all over the world. And because it’s similar to TripAdvisor, travelers can also browse reviews of the activity they’re eyeing. Most listings include comprehensive details about the tour and a generous cancellation policy (usually 24-hours prior to the activity with no penalty).

Viator does not operate the tours it sells. Rather, it’s a search engine of things to do. As such, its offerings tend to focus on cities and better-known travel destinations, although that includes excursions out of those places into the surrounding areas; like tours from Boston to New Hampshire’s White Mountains, tours of the Dutch countryside from a departure point in Amsterdam, etc. This makes Viator a great option for travelers who want to headquarter themselves in one hotspot but still experience the broader region. 

GetYourGuide

Another day-tour-heavy option, GetYourGuide overlaps somewhat with Viator, but is focused more solely on experiences and tours (Viator includes services such as airport and in-town transportation services). Functionally, the sites aren’t very different; both offer an opportunity to compare tours and prices. And on that last note, it can be worth checking both: I found the exact same Dutch windmill tour on both sites, and the price on GetYourGuide was $67, compared to $73 on Viator. Not a huge difference, but for the exact same experience it’s worth noting.

StubHub

For more event-focused resale ticket website StubHub is a useful last-minute option for verified tickets to everything from sports and concerts to comedy shows and theater seats. For the uninitiated, StubHub is a resale marketplace for ticket holders (and, let’s be honest, scalpers) to unload tickets they can’t use. This means shopping on StubHub is a double-edged sword: You’ll likely pay well above face value for high-demand or sold out events, but you can also find great deals at the last minute if the opposite is true. In the former case, StubHub (or similar initial-sale and resale option Ticketmaster) may be your only viable option. And in the latter case, StubHub can be a savvy way to save or even make some money; keep that in mind if you’ve ever bought some event tickets and then couldn’t attend.

Check out SmarterTravel’s roundup of the best in booking sites for 2020. Want more expert tips and vacation inspiration? Subscribe to SmarterTravel on YouTube!

Airbnb Experiences

Airbnb is all about living like a local, and Airbnb Experiences is no different. The emphasis here is on small or even private tours led by locals rather than tour companies, with an eye toward unique experiences rather than traditional sightseeing. Sometimes these experiences can be tailored to your interests: I booked a private bicycle tour of Berlin through Airbnb Experiences a few years back, and the guide all but ditched his preset itinerary and improvised based on my interests. As a result I got to see parts of the city I might never have found on my own. 

One important consideration to remember: These are often regular folks, not full-time professional guides or tour operators, so it’s a good idea to bring a go-with-the-flow attitude on your excursion. Your experience may not be as polished or precise as a traditional tour, even if the host has been doing this for a while. Of course, the point of these experiences is to forgo those cookie cutter tours in favor of something different. AirBnB includes reviews and makes it easy to communicate with the experience host beforehand, so don’t hesitate to ask questions prior to booking.

Atlas Obscura

Speaking of forgoing the cookie cutter experience, Atlas Obscura focuses, as its name implies, on all things obscure: The bizarre, forgotten, and hard-to-reach corners of a given city or destination that you wouldn’t normally find on excursion ticket websites. While nowhere near as robust as the other entries on this list, Atlas Obscura also offers a curated selection of tours and experiences. It’s currently in a half dozen U.S. cities, with more to come. Think: A guided wine-and-bug (yes, insects) pairing experience in Los Angeles, or a trip inside a holographer (maker of holograms) laboratory in New York. The tours are offered through Atlas Obscura, but AirBnB handles the booking, After all, anyone can visit the Hollywood Walk of Fame, right? So why not be different and check out a … Sci Fi Sewage Sanctuary

Readers: What are your go-to providers for on-the-ground activities? Share your favorites in the comments below.

More from SmarterTravel: