Active Travel Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Beach Booking Strategy Budget Travel Cities Entertainment Experiential Travel Family Travel Food & Drink Group Travel Historical Travel Island LGBT Luxury Travel Outdoors Romantic Travel Senior Travel Solo Travel Student Travel Sustainable Travel Theme Park Weekend Getaways Women's Travel

10 Best Places to Go in Florida

The United States is home to more than a dozen cities and towns named Florida, but none can compare with the real Florida’s natural fun-in-the-sun appeal.

The Best Places to Go in Florida

From the coolest cities in Florida, like Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, to top theme parks like Busch Gardens and Disney World, these must-see attractions top our list of the best places to go in Florida.

Walt Disney World Resort, Orlando, Florida

Disney Magic Kingdom

It’s no exaggeration to suggest that Walt Disney should have named his Orlando theme park Disney Universe—or even Disney Galaxy. The Walt Disney World Resort is so large, in fact, that it’s difficult to narrow down which of the four main theme parks and two water parks to make time for, let alone whether to stay at a hotel within the resort confines or conserve costs with a nearby off-resort stay. Even selecting your preferred theme-park entry ticket can be daunting.

Here is some helpful Walt Disney World Resort information to get you started at this must-see Florida attraction:

Disney World ticketing options include single-day, single-park passes for Epcot, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and the Magic Kingdom. You can extend your Disney World family vacation with multi-day passes, which reduce the per-day rate significantly. For example, you can purchase two-day passes, three-day passes, seven-day passes, and 10-day passes. All tickets must be used within 14 days of your initial visit.

With multiday passes, you don’t have to limit yourself to just one Disney theme park. Tack on the Park Hopper option (with access to all four parks) to increase your ticket’s flexibility: Admission to Magic KingdomEpcotDisney’s Animal Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios is included.

For some Florida visitors, it’s not a vacation without wild water play or tee time. Disney knows how to round out the visit with two water parks (Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Disney’s Blizzard Beach), a nine-hole golf course, two mini-golf courses, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, and DisneyQuest Indoor Interactive Theme Park. Access to these extras is included in the Water Park Fun & More pass. You can also combine both the Park Hopper and Water Park Fun & More options for an additional fee.

Budget-minded travelers will easily find an array of accommodations options, with thousands of hotel rooms from “budget” to “luxury” within driving distance of Disney World. Consider a stay at a Disney Resort such as the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin if you want to take advantage of early-morning and late-night access to select theme parks. Guests of Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista also have an added hour of play before the general public is allowed in and three hours after the parks close for the evening.

With so many parades and shows, peruse the Disney calendar to find scheduled events, plan your itinerary, and work around park closings. No matter what, you’ll find there’s plenty to do in Orlando—one of the coolest cities in Florida.

South Beach, Miami, Florida

lincoln road miami beach.

Lovingly dubbed SoBe, South Beach’s reputation as a gregarious scene for the fun-loving is well deserved among young and old visitors alike. From laid-back lounges to racy dance clubs, South Beach is world-renowned for its hot nightlife (many clubs operate until dawn). And while the robust club and dining scene is too caliente to sleep through every night, SoBe also knows how to play “grown-up” during the day.

Actually the southernmost tip of Miami Beach, South Beach is one of the best places to go in Miami Beach and home to many enriching cultural offerings, including Miami City BalletNew World SymphonyHolocaust Memorial of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, and Miami Beach Botanical Garden. And you’d be remiss to pass up a stroll along South Beach’s world-famous Art Deco District. This historical part of South Beach is easy to meander along—not only because of its vintage beauty, which is alive with more than 800 candy-colored art deco-style structures, but also because of its concentrated size: a single square mile. Learn about South Beach’s celebrated history by going on a guided art deco walking tour led by the Miami Design Preservation League.

On South Beach, both locals and tourists know how to share the sun, sand, and the occasional pickup volleyball game. Expedite a speedy hangover recovery with yoga lessons from 3rd Street Beach Yoga. Generous instructors facilitate donation-based “yoga from the heart” near the beach’s lifeguard hut.

Always a popular tourist destination, South Beach experiences its biggest influx of visitors in March (spring break), April (Pride festivities), and over Memorial Day Weekend (Urban Beach Week).

Everglades National Park, Florida

everglades national park

A visit to Everglades National Park isn’t just a must-see Florida attraction or one of the top things to do in Florida—it’s an adventure traveler’s dream. The Everglades offers canoe and hiking trails, airboat and tram tours, bird-watching expeditions, and camping.

Also a mecca for those seeking out wildlife sightings, the Florida Everglades’ ecosystem is one of the top attractions in Florida because it’s like no other in the world. Alligators, crocodiles, falcons, turtles, and even panthers are but a few of the many animals you can spot in the Everglades.

Not to be missed, Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge lies on the western edge of the Everglades. This 35,000-acre national refuge comprised of mangroves and islands provides refuge to endangered wildlife, among them West Indian manatees, bald eagles, and Kemp’s ridley sea turtles. There’s some debate about how many islands are actually in the Ten Thousand Islands area. Conservative estimates have it in the hundreds, while more robust assessments estimate at least 17,000 islands during low tide. The Everglades National Park as a whole spans about 1.5 million acres.

Fort Lauderdale

canals with large boats in florida

Ft. Lauderdale is known by many nicknames, among them the “Venice of America” (for its vast system of canals) and the “Yachting Capital of the World” (because locals collectively own 50,000 private yachts). Regardless of what you call it, there’s no disputing that this Florida must-see is a dream destination for boaters. For more than 50 years, Ft. Lauderdale has hosted the Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show—the largest such event in the world.

But boaters aren’t the only ones docking in this local scene. Countless spring breakers flock to the city for hedonistic fun each March, beach bums bask on Ft. Lauderdale’s 23 miles of beaches, and snorkelers and divers seek out underwater adventures among the 75-plus artificial reefs.

Key West, Florida Keys, Florida

Key West Florida street.

The final stop on the Eastern Seaboard’s 2,369-mile Route 1, Key West really is the be-all and end-all. Geographically, Key West sits at the southernmost point within the continental U.S. and is closer to Havana than it is to Miami. In spite of its tropical climate (Key West boasts an annual average temperature of 77 degrees) and its low-lying land, Key West is hit by hurricanes less than other coastal regions.

While Key West is enthralling in and of itself, be sure to make it out to sea when in the area. Just a few miles off the coast is the third-largest coral-reef system in the world, the Great Florida Reef. Snorkeling, diving, and deep-sea fishing are popular area adventures. Man-made reefs offer wreck diving just a few miles offshore, too.

Key West was once home to Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, among other celebrities of yesteryear. These days, its most famous residents come in a more natural variety: iguanas, feral chickens and roosters, and a clutter of cats, the latter of the excessive-toe variety, nestled in Hemingway’s former home.

Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida

Universal Studios, Orlando, Florida
(Photo: Universal Orlando Resort)

Just like Walt Disney World Resort on the other side of town, Orlando’s Universal Studios can hang with the big boys. And planning a visit in advance yields major savings.

Multiday tickets purchased online offer as much as $20 off gate rates. For single-park, single-day passes, you can choose between Universal’s Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios Florida. Single-park, multiday tickets are available two days, three days, and four days. Multipark, single-day passes are also available. Multipark, multiday options are available for two days, three days, and four days.

You can skip the lines while at the Universal Studios parks with the Universal Express Pass. A multipark, single-day Universal Express Pass option is also available; as are multiday and even annual pass options (with select blackout dates). Season passes are available that offer “red-carpet treatment.”

With so many theme parks, resorts, and other top attractions to choose from all in one place, it’s easy to see why Orlando is one of the coolest cities in Florida—not to mention one of the best places to go in the entire Sunshine State.

Sanibel Island, Florida

Sanibel Island

The beaches of Sanibel Island are revered around the world as one of the best places to go in Florida by conchologists (shell collectors). The practice of shell collecting is so popular on Sanibel Island’s shores that locals have nicknamed the act of bending down for a shell “the Sanibel Stoop.”

Sanibel Islanders celebrate the seashell with an annual three-day exhibit and festival that typically runs in March. Shell enthusiasts can also learn about shells and mollusks by visiting The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. The biggest prize on the beach is the junonia shell, which can land you in the local newspaper.

While shelling is serious business on the island, so is conservation. More than half of Sanibel Island is part of a designated wildlife refuge.

St. Augustine, Florida

St. Augustine, Florida

St. Augustine isn’t nicknamed “Ancient City” for nothing. Juan Ponce de Leon first explored the area in 1513 and claimed it for Spain. It was later turned over to Britain, then back to Spain, and finally ceded (with the rest of the Florida Territory) to the United States in 1819. Today it’s one of the coolest cities in Florida.

You can see much of its rich history infused into St. Augustine’s architecture in places like Ft. Matanzas National MonumentCastillo de San Marcos National Monument, the oldest wooden schoolhouse in the country, the Hotel Ponce de Leon (once a regal hotel, now part of Flagler College and also a designated National Historic Landmark), and, of course, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. (Folklore says that Ponce de Leon was searching for the elixir of life when he stumbled upon St. Augustine.)

St. Augustine is also home to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. The park opened its doors in 1893 and now houses more than 20 species of crocodile as well as other reptiles, a bird collection, and many mammals.

Busch Gardens, Tampa, Florida

Busch Gardens, Tampa, Florida
(Photo: Busch Gardens, Tampa, Florida via Shutterstock)

For those seeking an up-close look at safari wildlife without the high price of an airfare ticket to Africa, Busch Gardens is one of the best places to go in Florida. Among the 2,700 animals that call the 335-acre zoological-themed park home are elephants, cheetahs, hyenas, hippos, kangaroos, meerkats, and lemurs.

Busch Gardens Tampa also features an adjoining water park, Adventure Island. Seek out some water-filled fun on the twisting Aruba Tuba, the 55-foot-drop Riptide, and the 700-foot-long Key West Rapids. Adventure Island closes from November through February and reopens in March; see the current calendar for more information.

All theme-park tickets provide complimentary round-trip shuttle transportation from several Orlando pickup/drop-off points.

Amelia Island, Florida

Amelia Island, Florida

Among the southernmost of the Sea Islands, Amelia Island is an easy drive from Jacksonville and only about five hours from Atlanta. Two bridges connect the island to the mainland.

Amelia Island’s seashore provides plenty of adventures for all. Scallop digging, snorkeling, and horseback riding are all quintessential Amelia Island activities. Watch for the shoreline’s playful dolphins and (if you’re lucky) perhaps even a right-whale sighting.

Amelia Island offers upscale resorts, spas, championship golf courses, a variety of festivals, and of course beaches. Amelia is routinely recognized among the top 10 U.S. islands in Conde Nast Readers’ Choice Awards.

More from SmarterTravel:

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on March 1, 2013. It has been updated to reflect the most current information about the top attractions and best places to go in Florida. 

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


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:

Arts & Culture Cities Entertainment Experiential Travel Family Travel Holiday Travel Miscellany Theme Park

North America’s Top Christmas Markets

The cozy smell of chestnuts roasting on open fire pits. A warm cup of mulled cider cradled in your mittened hands. Soft flecks of snow falling as you walk among shop stalls filled with glittering merchandise that just begs to be gifted.

Europe, and Germany especially, are famous for their traditional holiday markets, but the scene above can be relived right in your own backyard. Take a seasonal spin through this showcase of 10 amazing Christmas markets around North America to find one near you.

[st_related]Europe’s Best Christmas Markets[/st_related]


Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2014. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.


Booking Strategy Family Travel Theme Park

Disney FastPass+: The Ultimate Guide

Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, spans nearly 40 square miles (about the size of San Francisco!) and there’s no shortage of thrills, spills, and chills you can experience. But with so many choices, it can be overwhelming to navigate reservations, rides, and character visits. That’s why Disney created FastPass, now called FastPass+.

Included in the price of your park ticket, FastPass+ was designed as a way for Disney World visitors to skip the lines one ride at a time. It’s moved from paper ticket kiosks outside each ride to a complex online system that I’m here to help you navigate.

How Disney FastPass+ Works

Once you purchase park tickets or an Annual Pass, you can grab your trip’s FastPasses up to 30 days in advance—or 60 days in advance if you’re staying on property at one of Disney’s 25 resorts. Once the window opens, you can select up to three rides per park per day online or through the My Disney Experience app. After that, you can get one additional FastPass at a time.

Otherwise, you’re stuck waiting. And like most things too good to be true, there’s a catch: Because Disney releases each FastPass in tiers for every park except for Magic Kingdom, you’re only able to book one “top-tier” attraction at a time—things like Avatar Flight of Passage or EPCOT’s Test Track.

You’ll have to pick and choose carefully by location, too, unless you want to be running headlong across the park to catch a FastPass. You can change your selections anytime, but it’s based on availability and competition is fierce.

If you wait until the day of, it’s likely you’re going to wait, but it’s not impossible to get a FastPass—there are kiosks throughout each park where you can switch your selections or make your first ones. You can also swap things out in the app. Rumor has it that Disney releases more FastPasses based on availability, so if you’re dying to get on a specific ride that has a long wait time, you can keep refreshing throughout the day to see what’s available.

[st_related]8 Must-See Orlando Attractions[/st_related]

Which Disney World Rides Should You Choose for FastPass?

Since you’re only able to choose three at a time, make the most of it. Here are the top Walt Disney World rides you should definitely try to snag a FastPass for.

The Best Rides to FastPass at Magic Kingdom

If you’re picturing Disney World in your head right now, you’re probably visualizing Cinderella’s Castle from Magic Kingdom. It’s the original Disney theme park and the most family-friendly—even the “big” rides aren’t so scary.

Magic Kingdom doesn’t currently have “tier” options, but nearly all 25 FastPass rides are popular, so you still want to choose carefully based on what you’re interested in riding.

If you like…

  • Thrills: Ride Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, or Splash Mountain—these are arguably the best rides across Disney’s parks.
  • Fun: Try for Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor, or the Tomorrowland Speedway in Tomorrowland.
  • Beating lines: To avoid the longest lines, grab Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Peter Pan’s Flight, or Splash Mountain, which consistently have wait times over 60 minutes.
  • Keeping little ones happy: Try for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Dumbo the Flying Elephant.
  • Meeting characters: Go for meeting Ariel, Rapunzel, Tiana, Mickey, Tinkerbell, or Cinderella, depending on who your kids’ favorites are.

[st_related]Which Disney World Hotel Is Right for You?[/st_related]

The Best Rides to FastPass at EPCOT

EPCOT, which stands for “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” has two distinct parts: Future World and the World Showcase. Of all the parks, EPCOT will have the most construction in 2020, with tons of new rides opening in 2021, so FastPass options may be limited in the meantime.

EPCOT divides its rides into two tiers, so you’re only able to choose one “top-tier” ride at a time (Test Track, Soarin’, Frozen, and EPCOT Forever, the new fireworks show). The longest lines are definitely at Soarin’ or Frozen, so your FastPass will go much further depending on what you (or your Frozen-obsessed kiddos) are clamoring for.

After that, you can choose two of the Tier 2 rides. If you like…

  • The final frontier: Try Spaceship Earth and Mission:SPACE (my personal favorites).
  • Chilling out: Relax with Turtle Talk with Crush or Living with the Land.
  • Finding Nemo: Go to The Seas with Nemo and Friends or Turtle Talk with Crush.

[st_related]8 Unique Restaurants in Orlando[/st_related]

The Best Rides to FastPass at Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom, divided by continent, brings the animals of the world to you. Whether you’re heading out on safari, riding river rapids, or climbing Everest, it’s full of adventure.

With the recent opening of Pandora, the mystical land from Avatar, FastPasses at Animal Kingdom are split into two tiers. The two rides in Pandora (Flight of Passage and The Na’vi River Journey) make up Tier 1. Flight of Passage is one of the best rides in any of the parks right now, so if you’re able to snag it, please do.

As for the Tier 2 options (i.e., all of the other rides), there are tons to choose from. If you like…

  • Thrills: Ride Expedition Everest, Kali River Rapids, and DINOSAUR.
  • Sing-alongs: Get a seat at the Festival of the Lion King, Rivers of Light, and Finding Nemo – The Musical shows.
  • Animals: Go on safari with Kilimanjaro Safaris, UP! A Great Bird Adventure, and It’s Tough to Be a Bug.

My top picks? Expedition Everest and Kilimanjaro Safaris, no question—though DINOSAUR is a close third.

[st_related]10 Fun Things to Do in Orlando[/st_related]

The Best Rides to FastPass at Hollywood Studios

Hollywood Studios is emerging from several years of heavy construction with the immersive Galaxy’s Edge, the new Star Wars area of the park. Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run is, of course, a must-do—and it’s a Tier 1 ride, along with Slinky Dog Dash.

But there are plenty of other epic new rides at Hollywood Studios to choose from, like Toy Story Mania, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and Alien Swirling Saucers. You can’t go wrong with any of these, though Toy Story Mania has the longest lines of the bunch since it’s the newest.

The rest of the Tier 2 “rides” are mostly shows, and the FastPass allows you to sit up front. That’s where Hollywood Studios is at its strongest besides the rides, so there’s plenty to choose from and enjoy. If you like…

  • Princesses: Go for the Frozen Sing-Along Celebration, Beauty and the Beast, and Voyage of the Little Mermaid.
  • Action: Watch Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! and ride Star Tours.
  • Classics: Watch Fantasmic! and Muppet*Vision 3D.
  • Entertainment for little ones: Head to Disney Junior Dance Party!

Of these, Star Tours is the most popular, and then you can choose the show that most interests you (we’re big fans of Frozen in our house) as a nice break from waiting in line at the other top-tier options.

Need to coordinate the rest of your trip? See Walt Disney World Vacation Planning Tips: Everything You Need to Know Before Your First Disney Vacation.

More from SmarterTravel:

[viator_tour destination=”663″ type=”3-mod” tours=”111153P1,111153P2,218465P3″]

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.

Beach Cities Family Travel Holiday Travel Island Theme Park

The 10 Best Christmas Vacations for Travelers

Want more expert tips and vacation inspiration? Subscribe to our YouTube channel!

December is a magical time for people around the world, and traveling during this most festive of seasons lets you experience a truly global spin on the holidays. Indeed, Christmas travel not only allows you to take full advantage of school and office closures, but also gives you and your family the opportunity to take in rich traditions from all over the world. The best Christmas vacations are meaningful, multicultural, inclusive, and filled with warmth and cheer.

Going beyond the obvious Christmas destinations like New York City and Paris, here are 10 of the world’s best places to go for Christmas, including those that are holy to Christians—as well as those that are decidedly not.

Rome, Italy

christmas tree in front of st peters basilica rome.

Vatican City, which is ensconced within Rome, is the home of Catholicism, making it one of the world’s best places to go for Christmas. Many practicing Catholics yearn to see the Pope give Christmas mass at the breathtaking St. Peter’s Basilica. Tickets to this epic yet solemn annual event are free, but you’ll need to reserve yours at least two months in advance. Instructions about how to do so are here—note that you’ll need access to a fax machine.

If you can’t get tickets to the papal mass, you can watch Pope Francis deliver his urbi et orbi homily live on a big screen from St. Peter’s Square, shop the lively Piazza Navona Christmas Market (or the Christmas market at the Spanish Steps), inspect one of the city’s many detailed nativity scenes, go ice skating near Castel Sant’Angelo, visit the Hanukkah menorah at Piazza Barberini, or simply stroll around to enjoy this sparkling city all dolled up for Natale.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:205044″ /]

[st_related]11 Secret Italian Villages to Visit Before the Crowds Do[/st_related]

Quebec City, Canada

holiday decorations in quebec city.

Quebec City is magical any time of year, but winter makes it all the more so. Old Quebec, with its European-style streets and Old World charm, thoroughly transforms into a veritable Christmas village, exuding a very specific type of cozy, snow-covered magic.

The whole city is strung with beautiful lights, the German-style Grand Marche Christmas Market sells one-of-a-kind gifts, and family-friendly offerings abound, including the Quebec Aquarium Light Festival, La Parade des Jouets (“The Toy Parade”), and the chance to meet Santa at the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac and other spots around the city. You can also attend Christmas concerts, taste distinctive sweets, and stay through New Year’s Eve to experience the midnight fireworks over Quebec City’s Grande Allee, alongside the party-loving locals.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:185641″ /]


fireworks and holiday decorations in jerusalem.

How better to spend Christmas than by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Land? It’s hard to beat Bethlehem as one of the world’s best Christmas destinations. The ancient town’s Church of the Nativity is where Jesus was born, and the annual celebrations there are meaningful and memorable. There are performances in Manger Square, inclusive Christmas masses with audiences from around the world, twinkling lights and ornaments, a parade and other processions, and Christmas markets and trees.

In nearby Jerusalem, there are biblical places galore, including the Via Dolorosa, where Jesus walked, as well as the Church of the Ascension, where Christians believe that Jesus ascended to heaven. Jerusalem also has one of the Middle East’s most impressive Christmas markets. And Jewish people visiting Jerusalem during this time of year will be deeply moved to see the menorah being lit at the Western Wall each night of Hanukkah.

In northern Israel, Nazareth, Jesus’s hometown in the Galilee, also hosts Christmas celebrations worth experiencing. On Christmas Eve, a colorful parade makes its way through town, with the procession ending at the Church of the Annunciation with fireworks as well as a Christmas mass. Surrounding the event are outdoor Christmas and Hanukkah markets, Santas, religious services, and festive lights.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:6615598″ /]

[st_related]The 12 Best and Worst Days for Holiday Travel[/st_related]

North Pole, Alaska

santa's house and sleigh in north pole alaska.

Yes, Virginia, there really is a town called North Pole. And if ever there was a Christmas-themed entire town, this is it. Santa’s always available for visits in the Santa Claus House—where 400,000 letters per year addressed to “Santa Claus, North Pole” land. (Local volunteers respond to every letter.) And the streets have names like Kris Kringle Drive and Mistletoe Lane.

Even if you can’t arrange a trip here exactly on December 25, no worries: It’s Christmas here all year long, although only December attracts ice sculptors from around the world displaying their prodigious talents.

North Pole is just 13 miles southeast of Fairbanks, but if you want to stay overnight at this ultimate (if only slightly kitschy) Christmas vacation destination, there are several comfy hotels, as well as RV hookups and campsites.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:1776834″ /]

Southern California

child and lego santa legoland california.

The best Christmas vacations for families are in Southern California. Mix blessedly snow-free weather with mile after mile of coastline—not to mention decked-out theme park after decked-out theme park—and you’ve got yourselves a Christmas vacation to remember.

At the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, there’s post-fireworks “snow” every night, a 60-foot-tall Christmas tree, holiday-themed parades, explosions of decorations, multicultural seasonal music, and holiday overlays to several beloved rides, including It’s a Small World and the Haunted Mansion. Disneyland makes a heartwarming effort to include traditions besides those that celebrate Christmas—a klezmer band and Jewish food tip a hat to Hanukkah, soul food is offered for Kwanzaa, and Latin favorites get presented for Navidad.

Over in Buena Park, Knott’s Berry Farm transforms into “Knott’s Merry Farm,” with Christmas-themed shows, a Christmas Crafts Village, and nightly snow in Ghost Town. In Studio City, Universal Studios hosts “Christmas in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” including an impressive projection show centered around Hogwarts Castle, as well as “Grinchmas,” with a huge tree and caroling Whos. Down in Carlsbad, LEGOLAND has the world’s biggest LEGO Christmas tree, limited-edition holiday treats, live holiday shows—and yes, a LEGO Santa. Keep heading south for San Diego Zoo’s “Jungle Bells,” during which the renowned attraction turns into a light-filled wonderland.

When you’ve had enough of theme parks, head to Malibu or La Jolla for a relaxing December afternoon on one of the Pacific Coast’s best beaches. Or head into the heart of Los Angeles for some culture. L.A. is a particularly great place to celebrate Kwanzaa: Pasadena has hosted a notable Kwanzaa celebration for 30 years now, led by Thanayi Karenga, the daughter of Kwanzaa creator Maulana Karenga. And South L.A. puts on the annual Kwanzaa Heritage Festival and Block Parade and candle-lighting ceremony.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:225008″ /]

[st_related]9 Fun Things to Do in Los Angeles[/st_related]

The Canary Islands, Spain

christmas decorations in tenerife.

Although Barcelona’s Día do los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, is one of Spain’s most celebrated festivals, certain types of travelers might prefer for their Christmas travels to take them to Spain’s Canary Islands instead—which are actually not on the European continent, but off Africa’s northwestern coast.

Picture this for your December holiday: 900 miles of sun-drenched coastline, nativity scenes sculpted from sea sand, Christmas markets selling traditional pastries called truchas, Christmas feasts at local restaurants, open-air Yuletide concerts, and New Year’s Eve fireworks on the beach. Best. Christmas. Vacation. Ever?

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:292135″ /]

Southern Iceland

northern lights over mountain in iceland.

For true winter lovers, South Iceland is among the world’s best places to travel for Christmas. Faced with all-day nighttime, this remote island knows how to cheer things up during this dark, frigid time of year with lots and lots of twinkling lights. Visitors partake in Arctic adventures in the plentiful snow and ice, including dog sledding, exploring ice caves by snowmobile, skating on frozen lakes, sampling Christmas buffets in restaurants, and strolling Iceland’s charming Christmas markets.

Southern Iceland provides some of the world’s best views of the northern lights—it’s a great place to check “aurora borealis” off your bucket list. And hotels here let travelers experience Iceland’s Christmastime tradition of getting visited by not one but 13 Santa Clauses. The festively decorated Hotel Rangá, for example, lets kids into the folklore by inviting its young guests to leave a shoe in the windowsill to get a holiday treat from the country’s festive elves.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:482449″ /]

[st_related]What It’s Like to Explore Iceland with Adventures by Disney[/st_related]

San Juan, Puerto Rico

christmas decorations in san juan puerto rico.

On Christmas Eve—Noche Buena—in San Juan, locals enjoy huge, traditional dinners of pork, rice, and beans. But more importantly, they drink coquito, a creamy, eggnog-like rum cocktail that signifies the occasion. After the feast, roam Old San Juan’s lit-up cobblestone streets and join (or just watch) the parrandas, which are Puerto Rico’s take on carolers, during which groups gather in front of houses late at night with traditional instruments to sing the lively songs of Navidad. In short, the events that happen here every December 24 make Puerto Rico one of the world’s best places to go for Christmas.

Stay on the island for New Year’s Eve and beyond, especially if you’re overnighting at the iconic Caribe Hilton, just as Liz Taylor and Sophia Loren used to do. The property is famous for creating the piña colada, and also for hosting epic New Year’s Eve parties. This year’s bash will be bigger than ever, thanks to the hotel’s recent $150 million renovation. If your schedule allows, stay in Puerto Rico until at least January 6, since Día de Los Reyes Magos, or Three Kings Day, is the island’s biggest annual celebration.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:149921″ /]

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

lagoa christmas tree rio de janeiro.

Another of the world’s best places to visit for Christmas is Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and not just because the city’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue gets magnificently illuminated with the works of significant artists.

On December 1 every year, Rio debuts Lagoa, the world’s largest floating Christmas tree—more than 170 feet tall—to fireworks and fanfare on Copacabana Beach. The impressive tree stays lit and floats on the water until early January.

Rio is in the Southern Hemisphere, so the weather during Christmas is generally quite warm. There are Christmas Day concerts on Copacabana Beach, holiday pastries called panettone and rabanadas in the city’s bakeries, and plenty of restaurants that serve traditional Brazilian Christmas dinners to travelers. On Christmas Eve, the parties start late, with feasts typically beginning at 11:00 p.m. and the celebration escalating at midnight.

Stay through New Year’s Eve for unforgettable fireworks over Copacabana and the company of some of the world’s most enthusiastic partiers.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:2689513″ /]

[st_related]Tipping in Brazil: The Brazil Tipping Guide[/st_related]

At Sea

holiday decorations on carnival cruise ship.

If the mere idea of all the effort that goes into celebrating Christmas at home—shopping, decorating, wrapping, cooking, hosting—works you into a cold sweat, take a deep breath, call your relatives, and tell them you’re going on a Christmas cruise instead.

Holiday sailings make for the best Christmas vacations for families, and can be a fantastic option for cheap Christmas vacations. Many holiday voyages are reasonably priced and go to beautiful destinations around the world, from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean to the Christmas markets along European rivers—the Rhone, Seine, Rhine, and Danube.

Onboard, there’s as much holiday theming as you can bear: ugly sweater contests, elaborate holiday shows, massive Christmas trees, Santa appearances, carolers on deck, huge gingerbread houses, mistletoe and wreaths, midnight mass, Hanukkah menorah lightings, and traditional Christmas dinners. Check out the offerings from Royal Caribbean, Carnival (featuring the Grinch!), and Norwegian, as well as Disney‘s Very Merrytime Cruises.

The best part? You’ll be able to kick back and enjoy the celebrations while others are doing the work—kind of like being a kid again.

More from SmarterTravel:

Follow Avital Andrews on Twitter @avitalb or on Facebook.

Family Travel Luxury Travel Theme Park

SmarterTravel Spotlight: Gaylord Opryland Resort and SoundWaves Water Park, Nashville, Tennessee

Centrally located within walking distance of Nashville’s most famous attractions—like the Grand Ole Opry and Madame Tussauds Nashville—and just a 10-minute shuttle ride from the airport, the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center has long been a luxury destination in Music City. But last December, the resort added a whole new reason for families to visit: America’s first upscale indoor-outdoor water park, called SoundWaves, a sprawling four-acre, three-level playground filled with one-of-a-kind water experiences.

It’s not easy to describe the scale of this resort hotel in a way that accurately portrays its massive size, but here’s a number that may help paint a picture for you: Gaylord Opryland Resort has 19 different restaurants, bars, and coffee shops. Nineteen! That’s not counting the unique dining experiences available inside the SoundWaves water park. There’s also an upscale spa, of course. A fitness center, as you’d expect. An 18-hole, par 72 golf course. And nine acres of lush, naturally lit indoor gardens with a river running through them.

But for families, the real attraction—the reason for visiting even if you or your kids are not country music fans—is the water park. Here’s everything you’ll want to know about staying and playing at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and SoundWaves indoor-outdoor water park, where I stayed in August 2019.

The Location

Gaylord opryland resort location

The Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, which also houses the newly constructed SoundWaves water park, is located 10 minutes from Nashville International Airport. Resort guests can book a shuttle from the airport directly to the hotel. Once at the resort, many of Nashville’s top attractions are just a few minutes away. Both the Grand Ole Opry and Madame Tussauds Nashville are a half mile from the hotel. The General Jackson Showboat—famous for its live entertainment cruises—can be boarded at the Opry Mills shopping center, also within easy walking distance of the hotel.

[st_related]10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before My First Disney World Vacation[/st_related]

It’s worth noting, of course, that the resort is a famous destination unto itself. Food, drinks, entertainment, shopping—it’s all available inside the sprawling complex. If you’ve come for a few days of indoor-outdoor water park fun, you may never want to leave the hotel. With its massive indoor gardens and abundant natural lighting, there’s plenty of room to stretch your legs without ever setting foot outside.

The Rooms

Gaylord opryland resort rooms

Many of the spacious rooms at Gaylord Opryland Resort offer balconies overlooking the atrium, featuring sparkling views of the gardens and water features, including waterfalls and an indoor river that winds throughout the resort grounds. My family stayed in a stylishly furnished top-floor suite with atrium views, perfect for people-watching and for enjoying the live music performances that often play during the afternoon hours.

With a full-day SoundWaves pass, you can head back and forth between your hotel room and the water park as often as you want, taking a midafternoon break to chill out or catch a movie on your room’s widescreen television. There’s a movie theater within walking distance of the resort, but the hotel’s in-room entertainment features for-purchase movies that are still playing in theaters—a feature that my entire family enjoyed when we settled in to catch a new release one evening from the comfort of our couch.

[st_related]Harry Potter Theme Park Tips: What to Know Before Visiting the Wizarding World[/st_related]

Resort Activities 

For families, the centerpiece of the Gaylord Opryland resort is the new, four-acre, one-of-a-kind indoor-outdoor water park, SoundWaves, which opened in December 2018. The indoor park is open year-round; the outdoor area is open seasonally and usually winds down toward the end of September.

Attractions: SoundWaves is a unique three-level indoor-outdoor water park spread across 111,000 square feet. All the rides and experiences are cleverly named after musical terms. The Rapid Remix, for example, is a four- or five-person indoor ride in which you board a mega raft to rocket down an enclosed “vortex loop” water slide. The Crowd Surfer, another indoor ride, is a two-person high-velocity surfing and boogie boarding experience.

My kids’ favorite indoor offering was the Up Tempo Rapids River, a fast-flowing, 36-inch deep circular river complete with waterfalls and powerful spray features. It’s like a typical indoor water park’s lazy river, minus the inner tubes and with the current cranked up to 10. We spent hours there—and it was a lot of fun. But never fear, lazy river fans: SoundWaves also has you covered with the Down Tempo Lazy River, a relaxing river experience through a rocky cavern filled with LED lights and musical tunes.

Outside, the central attraction is the massive Tidal Track Wave Pool, featuring giant waves that come at you every 10-15 seconds and an outdoor screen blasting favorite music videos from both modern and classic artists. The Beat Drop is an adrenaline-pumping floor-drop ride in which you plunge down a near-vertical tunnel when the floor is literally pulled out from under your feet (it’s both as terrifying and invigorating as it sounds). The Rock’n Racer is a four-lane, 360-degree water slide race track featuring a leaderboard at the bottom to show who finished with the fastest time on each run.

Adults will appreciate the Diamond Pool, an exclusive adult-only outdoor pool for guests ages 18 and up.

Gaylord opryland resort dining

Dining: In addition to the 19 eateries and bars inside the Gaylord Opryland Resort, SoundWaves features multiple dining options of its own: Decibels, a burgers and nachos-style joint with typical theme park food; Status Cymbal, an adults-only bar that serves cocktails and munchies; and a variety of food trucks offering everything from frozen drinks to soft tacos.

During our stay, we ate a few lunches at Decibels—try the pulled pork nachos, they’re delicious—and enjoyed dinners and breakfasts at some of the restaurants outside the water park, which feature everything from American to Asian to Mexican cuisine. The food is resort-pricey and generally more filling than mouth-watering, but we enjoyed it well enough. One of our kids is a picky eater, and she found something to like everywhere we went. Cascades American Café features a sizable buffet selection, and kids eat as much as they want for just $8 each.    

How to Book: If your plans include a day or more at the water park, it’s best to purchase a SoundWaves Water Experience package when booking your hotel stay at the Gaylord Opryland Resort. Day passes may be offered to general overnight guests based on availability, but those are sold on a limited basis and may not be available at peak times.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:105443″ /]

More from SmarterTravel:

Josh Roberts received a complimentary stay at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel as a guest of the resort. Follow him on Twitter (@joshwhowrites) and Instagram (@joshwhowrites), and visit his website ( or Goodreads page to learn more about his forthcoming novel.

Cities Family Travel Theme Park

Tampa Bay CityPASS: The Ultimate Pass to Amazing Animals

Tampa Bay CityPASS is the ultimate sightseeing tool for animal-obsessed families looking for things to do in Tampa. Four of the five attractions bundled into the CityPASS are animal-centered attractions focused on education, conservation, and animal welfare.

The Tampa Bay CityPASS ticket book (or the mobile version) gets you discounted entry (and in many cases, skip-the-line entry) at four of Tampa Bay’s best animal-focused attractions: Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, the Florida Aquarium, ZooTampa at Lowry Park, and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Tampa Bay CityPASS also includes access to either the Museum of Science & Industry or the Chihuly Collection.

Here’s the scoop on the animal-centered attractions that are a part of the CityPASS bundle.

ZooTampa at Lowry Park

Kids watching a manatee at zootampa

Paths shaded by tropical foliage make navigating the 63-acre ZooTampa comfortable, even on hot days. This award-winning, non-profit zoo promotes and supports wildlife conservation in Florida and beyond. Spend time watching manatees at the zoo’s critical care center, which treats and rehabilitates injured wild animals. Or sign up for reasonably priced up-close signature encounters, including the chance to feed a rhinoceros and go behind-the-scenes at the African penguin exhibit.

Kid Take: “I liked the different sections of the zoo. My favorite part was the macaw flyover; it felt exciting to see them fly really fast. Going into the manatee area was peaceful and it was relaxing to see the manatees swim slowly around. It was cool that they rescue manatees and help put them back in the wild once they’re healthy.”

[st_related]Tampa Travel Guide[/st_related]

The Florida Aquarium

child looking into tank at florida aquarium in tampa

With an easy-to-reach location in downtown Tampa, the Florida Aquarium offers close-up animal encounters with an eye toward local Florida ecosystems. Exhibits featuring more than 14,000 animals educate and inspire families to connect with the natural environment. Visit the Florida Wetlands Trail to discover alligators, otters, birds, and fish. Head to the Coral Reef to glimpse sea turtles, sand tiger sharks, barracudas, stingrays, and moray eels. And for a globetrotting treat, explore the Journey to Madagascar exhibit, where you can watch lemurs frolic, snack, and socialize. Outside, a splash pad offers a way for kids to burn off energy and cool off.

Kid Take: “It was fun to see the otters playing around and the lemurs swinging from branch to branch. The gift shop was pretty cool, too. I also liked the splash pad right outside but I didn’t really get to play on it because it was raining like crazy when I was there.”

Clearwater Marine Aquarium

Dolphin at the clearwater marine aquarium in clearwater, florida

Arrive curious and leave inspired at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The aquarium’s mission to rescue, rehabilitate, and when possible, release marine life is on display at this modest (but soon to be expanded) facility in Clearwater. Known widely as home to Winter the dolphin, who inspired and starred in the Dolphin Tale movies; the center has dolphins, sea turtles, rays, and more.

Kid Take: “I really liked it because we saw an animal movie star. I watched Winter the dolphin move through the water like she was an underwater race car. I also liked that I learned a lot about how to protect marine animals and make the sea healthier for them.”

[st_related]World’s Most Adorable Animals (and Where to Find Them) [/st_related]

Busch Gardens

hippo peeking above water at busch gardens in tampa

Busch Gardens appeals to thrill seekers and animal lovers alike with its combination of roller coasters and animal experiences. On the Serengeti Safari Tour, visitors five and up board an open-air truck and spend 30 minutes exploring the 65-acre habitat where zebras, antelope, giraffe, and other animals roam. The tour highlight for kids and adults alike is the chance to feed curious giraffes a lettuce snack.

Kid Take: “On the safari I got to stand up in the back of a truck for the first time. We saw zebras, giraffes, a rhino, and other animals. Some of the giraffes came up to our truck and we got to feed them. I really liked being so close to giraffes. It was also fun to watch the roller coasters zooming around. I went on Cobra’s Curse; it was scary but also fun. My favorite part was when it spun slowly around.”

More from SmarterTravel:


Christine Sarkis visited Tampa as a guest of CityPASS. Follow her on Twitter @ChristineSarkis and Instagram @postcartography for more advice about making every vacation the best vacation.

Family Travel Theme Park

Walt Disney World Vacation Planning Tips: Everything You Need to Know Before Your First Disney Vacation

So, you’re planning a vacation to Disney World. Congratulations! If this is your first time visiting the popular Orlando theme parks, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed. That’s why we’ve put together this step-by-step guide on how to plan a Walt Disney World vacation. Keep reading for planning advice and all kinds of Disney World tips.

How Big Is the Walt Disney World Resort?

Say Walt Disney World, and many people immediately think of the Magic Kingdom. And while that theme park plays a big part in any Walt Disney World vacation, there’s so much more to the destination than that.

[st_content_ad]Walt Disney World Resort is home to four theme parks, two water parks, and one massive shopping and dining zone. Thus when you talk about Disney World in Orlando, you’re actually talking about seven unique destinations owned and operated by Disney. The Disney theme parks in Orlando are Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios. The two water parks are Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. There’s also a shopping, dining, and entertainment zone called Disney Springs.

But wait, there’s more: Walt Disney World Resort is home to some two dozen hotels available in a range of price options, plus two more hotels planned or already under construction.

Where to Stay at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando

One of the first things you’ll want to do when planning a Walt Disney World vacation is decide where to stay. Choosing a Walt Disney World Resort hotel comes with various perks and privileges.

In addition to the Disney theming that allows you to fully immerse yourself in a Disney World vacation experience, all Disney Resort hotels offer free bus transportation to and from the six amusement parks and Disney Springs. Some hotels also offer boat transportation to certain parks; and the Grand Floridian, Contemporary, and Polynesian resorts are located on the Monorail that takes guests to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot (via a transfer at the Transportation and Ticket Center). Coming in fall 2019, the Disney Skyliner gondola transportation system will provide service connecting Hollywood Studios and Epcot to Disney’s Art of Animation, Pop Century, Caribbean Beach, and (opening in late 2019) Riviera resorts.

In fact, if the Walt Disney World Resort is the focus of your whole vacation, you don’t even need to rent a car. Guests at Disney Resort hotels can reserve complimentary bus transportation between Orlando International Airport and their Disney Resort hotel at the start and end of their vacation. In addition to the transportation options mentioned above, guests can also use Uber and Lyft to get around Disney World—you can even access special “Minnie Van” service through Lyft and get picked up in a red-and-white polka-dot vehicle.

If you stay at a Disney Resort hotel, you can also make your FastPass+ selections up to 60 days before check-in for the entire length of your stay, a huge perk when you’re trying to get on the most popular rides. (More about FastPass+ shortly.) Disney Resort guests also get access to Extra Magic Hours at one of the theme parks each day. That’s extra time either before the park opens or after it closes to the public when select attractions and experiences are open just for Disney Resort guests.

Disney Resort hotels are divided into three levels: Value, Moderate, and Deluxe. Room size, amenities, and price all increase as you climb the levels. A standard room at a Value Resort like Pop Century Resort, for example, would mean one king or queen bed, one Murphy-style queen bed, and one sink in the bathroom. Move up to a Moderate Resort, like Port Orleans Resort, and a standard room will include two queen beds, two sinks in the bathroom, and sometimes the option for a child-sized pull-down bed. Rooms at Deluxe Resorts offer the most square footage and sometimes options like bunk beds instead of a second queen bed.

The resort level can also affect amenities. The main pools at the Value Resorts, for example, don’t have water slides, but the main pools at other resort levels do.

Larger families looking for more space can book one of the Family Suites at Disney’s Art of Animation or All-Star Music resorts. Another option is one of the cabins at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort, which sleep up to six. If budget isn’t a factor, consider one of Disney World’s Deluxe Villas, which offer one- and two-bedroom villas and even some three-bedroom grand villas.

Of course, there are lots of other hotel options located near Walt Disney World. So if you have rewards points at a certain brand or the pricing is just better for your budget, staying “off property” works just fine. There are even some non-Disney Resort hotels, including seven in the Disney Springs area, where guests can also make FastPass+ selections up to 60 days in advance.

Many off-property hotels offer some kind of bus or shuttle service to the Disney theme parks (it just might not be as frequent as Disney World’s own service). If you’ll be driving your own car to the parks each day, it costs $25 to park, so factor that into your planning and budgeting.

When to Visit Walt Disney World

Summer, Christmastime, and spring break season tend to be the most crowded times at Walt Disney World. Advance planning for a trip during these times is definitely a must to make the most of your Disney World vacation.

  • Tip: A Disney World crowd calendar, such as this one from Pixie Vacations, is a good way to anticipate crowd levels at the parks by day, week, or month, based on a number of factors such as holidays, special events, and school vacations. “If you’re looking for the best day to go to the parks at Walt Disney World, midweek is almost always a better time to go than over the weekend. Of course holidays and any time kids are out of school are popular times at Walt Disney World,” notes Steve Griswold, owner of Pixie Vacations. (Sponsored Link.)

You’ll often find smaller crowds in August and September when all the kids have gone back to school, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and in January and February after the holiday rush. But no matter when you go, there will still be a lot of other people there with you. And Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will likely bring a lot of visitors to Disney World at times that have been traditionally less crowded.

Food Options at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando

Dining reservations at certain Walt Disney World table-service restaurants can be made up to 180 days in advance. Booking well in advance is recommended if you want to eat a meal at a hot spot like Cinderella’s Royal Table (a character dining experience with Disney Princesses).

You should also decide if you want to opt for any of the Disney Dining Plans. You can choose a plan that covers two quick-service meals and two snacks each day, or a plan that includes one quick-service meal, two snacks, and one table-service meal at more than 50 Disney World table-service restaurants each day. These can be a good option if dining will be a big part of your Walt Disney World vacation. But if you’re a light eater, it may not be worth the expense.

What is FastPass+ Service?

You don’t want to spend your whole time at Walt Disney World standing in line. That’s where Disney’s FastPass+ comes in.

This complimentary benefit allows you to reserve up to three FastPass+ selections per day in advance online at the Walt Disney World Resort website or through Disney World’s mobile app. You’ll get an hour-long window during which you can skip the regular line and enter your chosen ride or attraction through the FastPass+ line. Once you’ve used your initial three picks, you can choose another FastPass through Disney World’s app or at kiosks in the parks.

If you’re staying at a Disney Resort hotel, you can choose your FastPass+ options up to 60 days in advance. Otherwise, you can make selections up to 30 days in advance with the purchase of a Disney World ticket. Mark your calendar for this perk, especially if you have must-do rides on your list.

Buying Tickets for Disney Amusement Parks in Orlando

Determining how you want to approach your Walt Disney World vacation will help you figure out the best ticket options. You can purchase tickets that allow you to visit one theme park per day, or you can choose the Park Hopper option that allows you to visit multiple parks on the same day.

If you think you might want to head to Hollywood Studios in the morning and watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks at night, a Park Hopper ticket is the option for you. As you add more days to your ticket, the price per day decreases.

Which of the Six Walt Disney World Parks to Visit

Magic Kingdom is a must-do for anyone heading to Walt Disney World Resort for the first time. And if you have younger kids in your traveling party, take note: This is a where you’ll find lots of rides and attractions geared toward little ones. Classics include Peter Pan’s Flight and Dumbo the Flying Elephant, along with the park’s three mountains (Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Splash Mountain) that offer kid-friendly roller coaster thrills. The newish Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is still a big draw, so this is a prime candidate for a FastPass.

Epcot is divided into Future World and World Showcase. The former is home to popular rides like Test Track and Soarin’ Around the World. The latter features pavilions focused on different countries around the world, a few with rides and the rest with movies or other experiences designed to teach park visitors about the country. World Showcase is a fun place to try lots of different foods and drinks as you stroll around the park’s centerpiece lagoon.

Animal Kingdom is home to the Avatar-themed Pandora land, where wait times can be measured by hours at the cutting-edge Avatar Flight of Passage ride. (Definitely try to get a FastPass for this one.) Other must-dos here include Expedition Everest and Kilimanjaro Safaris, where you’ll see giraffes, hippos, elephants, and other exotic creatures that call the park home.

Hollywood Studios is the location of the hotly anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, opening on August 29, 2019. If you’re a fan of the Force, this is  a park you’ll want to visit. Disney World’s two biggest thrill rides—the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster—are also located at Hollywood Studios, along with the popular Toy Story Land.

It can get hot in Orlando almost any time of year, so a trip to one of Disney’s water parks can be a fun way to cool down. Blizzard Beach is designed to look like a ski resort, complete with a chairlift that takes visitors to the waterslides at the top of its “mountain.” Typhoon Lagoon has a tropical island feel and boasts one of the coolest wave pools around.

What’s the Best Way to Navigate the Disney Theme Parks?

Start by thinking about your traveling party. Do you have young kids with early bedtimes and nap schedules? Can you handle marathon park days, or will you need breaks?

Figure out your must-do rides and attractions, then factor in the expected weather during your stay. When it’s hot, an air-conditioned, table-service lunch or an afternoon pool break are never bad ideas.

If you have access to Extra Magic Hours, consider using them for the chance to experience the parks in a less crowded state. Of course, every other Disney Resort guest might do the same thing, but you can often get lucky.

If you want to bang out a lot of rides and attractions, arriving at the park just before opening can often pay off. You’ll get through security before the park officially opens and will usually be allowed into the front of the park. Then once it officially opens, you can quickly head to your first ride. Attendance will pick up as the morning goes on, but the first couple of hours are usually quieter than later in the day.

Another tip: Lines for rides during popular parades and fireworks shows can sometimes be a little shorter. So if you’ve already ticked off the Festival of Fantasy Parade at the Magic Kingdom or the Rivers of Light nighttime show at Animal Kingdom, you might be able to more easily jump on a ride while everyone else is watching the action.

Be prepared for a lot of walking, so dress comfortably. Make sure to apply sunscreen and drink plenty of water. And just have fun—you are visiting the Happiest Place on Earth, after all. Following these Disney World vacation planning tips will help ensure you have a truly magical time.

What to Wear to Disney

For info on these editor-selected items, click to visit the seller’s site. Things you buy may earn us a commission.

More from SmarterTravel:

Entertainment Family Travel Theme Park

First Look: What It’s Like to Visit Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland

Whenever Disney unveils something new, it’s a big deal. Galaxy’s Edge, Disneyland’s new Star Wars-themed land, officially opened on Friday after more than three years of construction, and it’s literally the biggest thing that’s ever happened at the parks. At more than 14 acres, it’s their largest expansion yet.

And it feels that way, too: expansive—with wide walkways to comfortably accommodate lots of visitors—and intensely immersive. Any sense of being at Disneyland melts away, other than the feeling that you’ve arrived in an entirely different land. It’s the never-before-seen planet of Batuu (pronounced buh-too, kind of like a sneeze) that exists on, you guessed it, the galaxy’s edge.

[st_content_ad]This is a rugged outpost that serves as a byway for scoundrels, smugglers, and pirates on both sides of the Force. The hired hands that assist you here aren’t “cast members,” they’re “inhabitants.” Instead of “Hi,” they greet you with “Bright suns,” and instead of “dollars,” it’s “credits.” Everything is set in the current Star Wars trilogy, though there are abundant references all the way back to the original films.

The world that emerged from George Lucas’s imagination is meticulously brought to life here, with countless story-driven details that make this an authentic place with a long history—everything feels battle-worn and rough around the edges, but also on the cusp of grand adventure, featuring you as a key character. Other characters abound too, either trying to recruit little ones for the First Order (an intimidating Kylo Ren and his ilk), or obligingly posing for pictures (a tall, campy Chewbacca).

Kylo ren at star wars: galaxy's edge disneyland
Kylo Ren at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland

Galaxy’s Edge: What’s Open at Launch

Most of what Galaxy’s Edge will have to offer is open now, including its first thrill ride, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, whose designers visited Lucasfilm sets in England to ensure that they were constructing the ship faithfully. Waiting in line, you meet the charismatic pirate Hondo Ohnaka, portrayed by a highly realistic animatronic, and watch as Chewbacca loans him the famous starship.

You board as crew, in pre-assigned groups of six, and get assigned a role as either a pilot, a gunner, or an engineer. (If you don’t like the role you got, you can politely request another and be accommodated.) Then, it’s just about the most intense video game you’ve ever played, as the “ship” responds to your commands, smashing into meteors, enemies, and space debris if you don’t do your job well. There’s lots of screaming, yelling, and clapping involved. (Height requirement is 38 inches.)

Pilot the millennium falcon at star wars: galaxy's edge disneyland
Pilot the Millennium Falcon at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland

Step off to find yourself in an intergalactic shopping wonderland. The Market is a bazaar-like collection of merchants—Disney’s Imagineers traveled to Morocco and Turkey for inspiration, and it shows. You can buy a soldier’s ration kit based on the one Luke Skywalker had in The Empire Strikes Back, plus Jedi robes, Stormtrooper armor, and “pets” from around the galaxy. At Black Spire Outpost, there are “local” souvenirs, wisdom-holding kyber crystals, busts of famous Jedis, and First Order gear. At Savi’s Workshop, you can customize a lightsaber for $200.

[st_related]10 Best Disney Hotels Around the World[/st_related]

Food and beverage throughout Galaxy’s Edge is highly themed as well: There are five places to buy tasty goods, including Ronto Roasters, a meat stall; Docking Bay 7, whose entrees have names like Fried Endorian Tip-yip (chicken) and Smoked Kaadu Ribs; a stand selling delicious blue and green milk; and Oga’s Cantina, a full-on bar scene with a droid deejay and a robust cocktail list—the “Jedi Mind Trick” is built around Ketel One’s grapefruit-and-rose vodka.

Themed beverages at star wars: galaxy's edge disneyland

What’s Still to Come

Not much is known yet about Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, the next thrill ride that will debut in Galaxy’s Edge. There are plenty of credible rumors swirling, however, including that its opening date will be in October or later. The official Disney statement on the Rise of the Resistance opening date is: “We are pushing the boundaries of innovation and technology with these signature attractions and will not open an attraction until it exceeds our expectations.” Other not-yet-confirmed information is that the height requirement will be 40 inches, that the full experience will be around 20 minutes long, and that it’ll be a trackless droid-guided adventure with intense battle scenes, plenty of twists, turns, and more than 300 animatronics.

How to Experience Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge

If you’re planning to stay at one of the three Disneyland Resort hotels, you can make your four-hour reservation to visit Galaxy’s Edge when you check into your hotel. If you’re not planning to stay at a Disney hotel, you’ll have to wait until after June 23 to enter Galaxy’s Edge, at which point no reservations will be necessary to get in, though Disneyland will implement a “virtual queueing system” to visit the new land—you’ll get a push notification when it’s your turn to enter the land, and access to Galaxy’s Edge will remain subject to capacity.

[st_related]10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before My First Disney World Vacation[/st_related]

Costumes aren’t allowed for Galaxy’s Edge guests over the age of 13, but “dressing in outfits inspired by favorite characters” is permitted.

Make sure to download two specific phone apps (both are free) before entering the park: the official Disneyland mobile app, which lets you check wait times, find characters, and mobile-order food; and the Play Disney Parks app, which lets you play interactive games while you wait in line, “hack” droids, translate “Aurebesh” into English, and scan containers to collect virtual items.

Most of all, let yourself slide into the role of being a visitor—and possibly even a hero—on another planet. Everyone else is playing along, and if you resist, you’ll be the silly one. Being here is all about fantasy, role-playing, and engaging with a larger story. Know that going into Galaxy’s Edge and happy, you will be.

More from SmarterTravel:

Adventure Travel Arts & Culture Beach Budget Travel Cities Experiential Travel Family Travel Food & Drink Road Trip Theme Park Weekend Getaways

10 Fun Things to Do in Wildwood, New Jersey

There’s nothing like summer at the Jersey Shore, where you can spend your days relaxing on the beach and your evenings playing mini golf, riding roller coasters, and eating ice cream on the boardwalk. But while the beach and the boardwalk are the main draws, there are many other fun things to do in Wildwood, New Jersey—one of the most popular family resorts on the state’s southern coast.

The Best Things to Do in Wildwood, NJ

[st_content_ad]If you get restless sitting on the beach, active options in Wildwood, New Jersey, include biking, kayaking, and stand-up paddleboarding. History buffs will appreciate Wildwood’s collection of 1950s and ’60s architecture. And there are plenty of day trip possibilities if you want to add a change of scene to your Wildwood vacation.

A note on geography: What many people think of as Wildwood, NJ, is actually three municipalities that share an island: Wildwood Crest, Wildwood (also known as Wildwood by the Sea), and North Wildwood. Cresse Avenue divides Wildwood from Wildwood Crest, and 26th Avenue marks the boundary between Wildwood and North Wildwood.

[viator_tour destination=”22324″ type=”3-mod” tours=”14138P3,61661P6,45557P115″]

Each municipality has a slightly different vibe—Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood have a quieter, more residential feel than lively Wildwood itself, where you’ll find the big amusement parks and the bulk of the boardwalk. But each town runs seamlessly into the next, so you can take advantage of all the fun things to do in New Jersey’s Wildwoods, regardless of where you stay.

[st_related]The Essential Beach Packing List[/st_related]

Enjoy the Beach

Wildwood new jersey beach

During peak season at some New Jersey beaches, it can feel like you’re elbow to elbow with the family under the next umbrella. That’s not a problem in the Wildwoods, home to the state’s widest beaches. Here, it’s easy to find your own personal stretch of sand for sunbathing, reading, building sandcastles, or playing cornhole.

Wildwood Beach has recently started allowing beachgoers to park right on the beach, for a fee that starts at $10 per day (it goes higher during special events). And if you’re not up for the long walk to the water across the hot sand, you can hire a beach taxi to cart you and your boogie board to the waves. Or you can head to North Wildwood, where the beaches are significantly narrower than those in Wildwood and Wildwood Crest.

Bonus: Access to Wildwood beaches is free all year long.

Hit the Boardwalk


Wildwood Boardwalk stretches about two miles from Cresse Avenue in the south to 15th Avenue in the north. During summer, it’s a kaleidoscope of activity: Kids scream from the tops of roller coasters, bright yellow Sightseer trams trundle by with their perpetual refrain (“Watch the tram car, please.”), seagulls wheel overhead, and the air is redolent with the sweet smells of funnel cake and cotton candy.

The boardwalk’s shops, arcades, amusement parks, golf courses, and eateries can easily keep you entertained all day long. If you get tired, hop aboard one of the eco-friendly electric tram cars, which run the length of the boardwalk, typically from 11:00 a.m. until whenever the amusement parks close that day. You can pay per ride ($3.50), purchase a hop-on-hop-off daily wristband ($7), or buy a book of single-ride tickets ($15 for 5; $29 for 10; $60 for 25). These iconic tram cars have been shuttling beachgoers and up and down Wildwood’s boardwalk since the summer of 1949.

[st_related]The 10 Best Boardwalks in America[/st_related]

Ride the Rides and Slide the Slides

Three massive piers stretch from Wildwood’s boardwalk across the beach, featuring roller coasters, water slides, and other rides of all sizes—including a giant Ferris wheel that provides panoramic views over the Atlantic Ocean and Wildwood, NJ. Families will never run out of things to do at Morey’s Piers, encompassing three amusement park areas and two water parks.

Offerings for little ones include an old-timey carousel and kid-sized trains and boats. Thrill seekers should head to Adventure Pier for a heart-pounding ride on the Skycoaster, which hurtles you more than 100 feet into the air above Wildwood Beach.

Take a Morning Bike Ride

wildwood jersey bikers

Biking is one of the most popular things to do in Wildwood, thanks to the island’s many miles of dedicated bike paths. You can pedal the entire length of the island from the Wildwood Crest Dunes Bike Path up onto the boardwalk and then along the Mulberry Bike Path and seawall in North Wildwood, for a 12-mile round trip. (Note that bikes are not permitted on the boardwalk after 11:00 a.m. on weekdays or 10:30 a.m. on weekends.)

Bring your own wheels, or rent bicycles or surreys from local operators like Zippy’s Bikes, Crest Bike Rental, and D R Bradley Bike Rentals.

[st_related]Are E-Bikes the Best or Worst Thing to Happen to Bicycle Tours?[/st_related]

Behold a Blast from the Past


What sets the Wildwoods apart from just about any other Jersey Shore community is its collection of motels, diners, and other historical buildings from the 1950s and early ’60s. Neon signs, plastic palm trees, bright colors, and angular roofs are hallmarks of this retro architectural style, dubbed “Googie architecture,” or “Doo Wop architecture,” after the music of the era.

You can learn more at the Doo Wop Preservation League Museum, housed in a former 1960s diner. This small, colorful museum features a collection of signs, furniture, and memorabilia from the Doo Wop era. The museum also runs “Back to the ’50s” trolley tours on select summer nights to show visitors the best Doo Wop architecture around town. Call (609) 729-4000 for information and reservations.

Can’t get enough Doo Wop? Stay in one of the Wildwoods’ dozens of midcentury-style motels, including the Starlux Boutique Hotel in Wildwood, Caribbean Motel in Wildwood Crest, or Lollipop Motel in North Wildwood.

Savor a Great Meal


Think “Jersey Shore food,” and you’ll probably think pizza and ice cream. Of course, you can find plenty of both in Wildwood, NJ: Try Sam’s Pizza Palace, which has been serving up great slices since 1957, or Cool Scoops for sweet treats in a ’50s-style ice cream parlor. But Wildwood also has plenty of other options for hungry travelers.

One favorite fine-dining option in Wildwood, NJ, is Beach Creek Oyster Bar & Grill, where you can enjoy seafood and steak on a deck overlooking the bay; come at sunset for great views. Pacific Grill Wildwood, for its part, offers a reasonably priced three-course prix-fixe menu nightly, along with à la carte dishes such as crabcakes and braised short ribs.

For more casual fare in Wildwood, NJ, head to Maui’s Doghouse, where you can choose from more than 30 hot dog toppings, like beer-cooked sauerkraut, homemade chili, spicy brown mustard, and spinach sauteed in garlic and white wine. The final product comes to you in a plastic dog bowl. Also in North Wildwood is The Surfing Pig, serving up burgers, barbecue, and seafood with a side of lovely bay views.

Get on the Water


In the Wildwoods, the ocean and bay offer more than just pretty views. Fun things to do in Wildwood, NJ, on the water include fishing, kayaking, surfing, and wildlife watching. You can even take a swashbuckling “pirate cruise.”

The Starlight Fleet offers fishing trips as well as whale- and dolphin-watching excursions. At Lakeview Docks, you can rent WaveRunners, kayaks, fishing boats, swan-shaped pedal boats, and standup paddleboards. And Ocean Outfitters offers surfing lessons and board rentals.

Play a Round of Golf


There are several golf courses within an easy drive of Wildwood, NJ. In Cape May Court House, about a 15-minute drive from downtown Wildwood, Laguna Oaks offers 10 holes spread across 200 acres. And the beautiful 18-hole course at Cape May National Golf Club was built around a private bird sanctuary.

If mini-golf is more your thing, you don’t have to look far. Popular courses in Wildwood, NJ, include Island Miniature Golf, which also has a rock-climbing wall; Dragon’s Lair Mini Golf, a medieval-themed indoor blacklight course; and Harbor Light Golf, which also sells ice cream.

Check Out Special Events in Wildwood, NJ


Some of the best things to do in Wildwood, NJ, only happen once a year. Wildwoods International Kite Festival kicks off summer on Memorial Day weekend, followed by other annual events like the National Marbles Tournament in June, the New Jersey State Barbecue Championship in July, and the Wildwoods Baby Parade in August. Autumn brings the Wildwoods Food & Music Festival and the Fabulous ’50s & Beyond Weekend, both held in October.

For more information about what’s on during your trip, refer to the Wildwoods’ events calendar.

Take a Day Trip from Wildwood, NJ


The Victorian charms of Cape May are just a 20-minute drive from Wildwood, NJ. Here, you can bike through the historic district, take a carriage ride, or visit the Cape May Lighthouse. The Cape May County Park & Zoo makes a fun—and free—day trip with children.

If casinos and big-name entertainment are more your things, Atlantic City is less than an hour’s drive from Wildwood, NJ.

Ready to hit the beach? See What to Pack for a Jersey Shore Vacation: 28 Essentials from SmarterTravel’s sister site, What to Pack.

More from SmarterTravel:

[viator_tour destination=”33066″ type=”3-mod”]

Sarah Schlichter traveled to the Wildwoods as a guest of the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority. Follow her on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in 2018. It has been updated to reflect the most current information.

Adventure Travel Booking Strategy Cities Food & Drink Group Travel Holiday Travel Theme Park

The 12 Best Places to Travel in 2019

If traveling more is one of your New Year’s resolutions for this year, you’ll want to check off all of the 12 best places to travel in 2019—there’s one for every month of the year.

The Best Place to Go in January 2019: Puerto Rico

nightlife scene in old san juan

This January, escape the widespread wintry cold in most of the U.S. and head to Puerto Rico. A trip here supports the island’s tourist industry, which in turn helps hurricane-relief efforts as Puerto Rico continues to recover from the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria. If that isn’t reason enough, Hamilton, the world-famous musical, has special shows at the Luis A. Ferre Performing Arts Center (Bellas Artes) from January 12th to 27th, starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has Puerto Rican roots.

Where to stay: CasaBlanca Hotel is a quirky property in the heart of Old San Juan with an unbeatable location, a moderate price tag, and funky amenities, like tubs on its rooftop.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:1456033″ /]

[st_related]10 Best Things to Do in Puerto Rico[/st_related]

The Best Place to Go in February 2019: Eastern Canada

ice sculptures in wintery landscape

Yes, it’s cold, but Canadians embrace this fact of life with wonderful winter festivals in February. Head to Nova Scotia for the annual Lobster Crawl that kicks off on the first of the month, or to Newfoundland and Labrador for the Mid-Winter Bivver, a snowmobile and culinary festival. Quebec City’s famous Winter Carnival, now in its 65th year, will also be held this month, featuring an ice canoe race and night parades. And another province, New Brunswick, hosts its restaurant week, Chop Chop, at the end of the month in the popular city of Saint John.

Where to stay: Overlook the wintry landscape of Quebec City at the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac. Located in close proximity to the festivities, the hotel is inside the walls of Old Quebec.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:155587″ /]

The Best Place to Go in March 2019: Trinidad and Tobago

couple dressed up in parade for carnival

For a warm-weather carnival destination, Trinidad and Tobago is one of the best places to travel in 2019 for March. The first full week of the month is the island’s biggest party in the capital, Port of Spain. Typical of other Caribbean Carnivals, the festival always starts just before Lent and is a time to celebrate culture and indulgence.

Where to stay: The Hyatt Regency Trinidad is a newly renovated, luxurious waterfront resort located in the heart of the party.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:817150″ /]

[st_related]The 10 Best Caribbean Beaches for a Relaxing Escape[/st_related]

The Best Place to Go in April 2019: New Mexico

view of tent shaped rocks

Head to one of the U.S.’s emerging destinations before the hot summer months. Underrated and less crowded than its Southwest neighbor, Arizona, New Mexico is full of surprises—despite its desert location, the state has a monsoon season (summer) but also gets snow. Its two main cities, Santa Fe and Albuquerque, are only an hour apart and offer a variety of experiences, from fine dining at one of the top 10 restaurants in the U.S., Geronimo, to gorgeous (but not too crowded) national landmarks like White Sands and Tent Rocks.

Where to stay: Los Poblanos Ranch & Inn in Albuquerque offers a quiet escape on a beautiful lavender farm. Relax here, or use it as a starting point for a New Mexico road trip.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:215076″ /]

The Best Place to Go in May 2019: Maine

long walk way leading to a lighthouse

From its culinary cities to a world-renowned national park, Maine is a popular New England summer destination but is getting more and more crowded. Head to Vacationland in May instead and avoid the crowds; while the weather is milder, you can get lucky with warmer temps towards the end of the month.

Where to stay: Glamping is a trendy form of accommodation for 2019, especially in outdoor destinations, like Maine. Sandy Pines Campground in Kennebunkport offers carriage houses, campsites, and safari tents to rent, and its season kicks off in early May.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:1645526″ /]

[st_related]Glamping in Maine: What This Travel Trend Is Really Like[/st_related]

The Best Place to Go in June 2019: Normandy, France

french coastline with arch formation

June 6th marks the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings and the Battle of Normandy. To honor fallen soldiers and to commemorate the world-changing event, Normandy will host events all summer long, including fireworks displays, airdrops, concerts, giant picnics, concerts, and military parades. Daks Over Normandy, a reenactment of the event,  will take place on June 5th; 250 men and women will fly across the English Channel and parachute into Normandy.

Where to stay: The location of Mercure Hotel Omaha Beach can’t be beaten for the anniversary celebrations. It’s situated close to the coastline as well as Port-en-Bessin, Bayeux, and the American War Cemetery.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:287289″ /]

The Best Place to Go in July 2019: Chile and Argentina

two girls in nature looking at sky

South America will see its own solar eclipse this year, with the path of totality marked just south of Buenos Aires. The event occurs on July 2nd and is the perfect excuse to plan a trip to the region this month. SA Expeditions, a travel company that arranges tours to the region, recommends three spots for the solar eclipse in 2019: Buenos Aires, Argentina; the Elqui Valley, Chile; and Mendoza, Argentina.

Where to stay: Use Buenos Aires as your home base for a South America trip in 2019. The Home Hotel Buenos Aires is an award-winning hotel with an outdoor heated pool, a spa, and a garden that climbs on the exterior walls of some rooms—and it’s located right in the middle of the city.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:595733″ /]

[st_related]Tipping in Argentina: The Argentina Tipping Guide[/st_related]

The Best Place to Go in August 2019: Anaheim, California

fully detailed model of star wars-themed lands at disney

Summer 2019 brings the much-anticipated opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland. While the attraction could see record-breaking attendance numbers, August might be your best bet for fewer crowds as hotter temperatures hit Southern California and the initial hype begins to wear off.

Where to stay: The whole family will love the Hotel Indigo, Anaheim’s first upscale boutique property. Its location is both safe and convenient, with the Disneyland park entrance only a 10-minute walk away.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:75677″ /]

The Best Place to Go in September 2019: Portugal

view of tower at colorful castle

After a year of increasing popularity, Portugal may no longer be Europe’s best-kept secret—but its colorful palaces, historic towns, and fertile vineyards still deserve a spot on your bucket list. Visit in September for pleasant weather just about everywhere. Start in the country’s heart, Lisbon, and then travel to the wine region around Porto or the beaches of the Algarve.

Where to stay: The Lumiares in Lisbon’s trendy Bairro Alto area has apartment-style rooms that are ideal for group or family travel. This boutique hotel also has a rooftop restaurant and bar.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:12304789″ /]

[st_related]The 6 Things You’ve Got to Bring Back from Portugal[/st_related]

The Best Place to Go in October 2019: Romania  

aerial view of eastern european city with fog

Spend Halloween with werewolves, haunted castles, and, yes, Count Dracula in Transylvania. Intrepid Travel’s Halloween in Transylvania tour takes you to the vampire’s birthplace, as well as other must-see Romanian stops like a traditional Saxon village, Biertan, and the capital, Bucharest.

Where to stay: The Concorde Old Bucharest Hotel offers Eastern European architecture and hospitality with an affordable price tag. Ideally located in the Old Town area, the hotel organizes trips in the neighborhood, and when you want to rest your feet after a walking tour, you can do so at the property’s sun terrace or garden.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:12072360″ /]

The Best Place to Go in November 2019: Berlin, Germany

reflection of berlin wall art installation

Tourism to Germany is on the rise from years past and Berlin is a surprisingly affordable metropolitan destination with famous art, food and drink, and nightlife offerings. November 9th marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which divided West and East Germany for 28 years. The city will mark this momentous event with museum exhibits, concerts, performances, and even bike tours that run the length of the original wall. While recognitions and events last throughout the year, November is the most significant time to visit in 2019.

Where to stay: Centrally located for museums, shopping, nightlife, and entertainment is Select Hotel Berlin The Wall. Plus, it’s within walking distance of many of the wall’s landmarks, including Checkpoint Charlie.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:3572840″ /]

[st_related]10 Secret Tourist Attractions in Berlin[/st_related]

The Best Place to Go in December 2019: Great Britain

streets decorated for holidays in london

While currency exchange rates are impossible to predict—especially given the ongoing uncertainty around Brexit—the U.S. dollar is currently enjoying some of its strongest-ever rates against the British pound. Book early to take advantage of the savings and celebrate the holidays in England, Scotland, or Wales. It’s hard to compare other cities to London’s cultural blend of old-fashioned Victorian and modern-day glamour, which is especially celebrated during the Christmas season. Or cozy up in the countryside of the Cotswolds when the weather gets wet. Up in Scotland, Edinburgh hosts popular winter festivals and markets, while Wales’ landscape is arguably at its best under a light dusting of snow.

Where to stay: Nothing beats Christmas at Claridge’s. Located in London’s posh Mayfair neighborhood, the hotel has its tree decorated by a famous designer every year.

[js_hotel_rates_cta hotel=”taid:187685″ /]

For more ideas, see Top Travel Destinations for 2019.

More from SmarterTravel:

Ashley Rossi is always ready for her next trip. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram for travel tips, destination ideas, and off the beaten path spots.


Beach Cities Family Travel Holiday Travel Theme Park Weekend Getaways

5 Reasons to Visit the Jersey Shore in the Off Season

The Jersey Shore is synonymous with summer—think ice cream, amusement parks, and long, sunny days on the sand. But while most visitors flock to New Jersey beaches between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the quieter months of the year have their own pleasures. Below are a few reasons why you should visit the Jersey Shore in the off season.

Cheaper Rates

[st_content_ad]In August, I found a rate of $334 per night at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City on a weekend, but they’re just $243 per night over a weekend in October. Off-season prices drop even further at the nearby Golden Nugget, which costs $514 a night in August but just $289 a night in October.

Vacation rentals offer similarly dramatic discounts for stays outside the summer months, and many B&Bs are also affordable, especially on off-season weeknights. If your dates are flexible, planning your trip during the off season could be the single best way to save money on a Jersey Shore vacation.

[st_related]6 Best Things to Do in Ocean City, New Jersey[/st_related]

No Crowds

Especially on summer holiday weekends such as Labor Day or the Fourth of July, visitors often find themselves sitting in long lines of traffic en route to New Jersey’s barrier islands or swimming shoulder to shoulder beside dozens of others in the ocean. But come late September or early May, you’ll find that the crowds have melted away. This is the time of year when beaches are blissfully uncrowded, and it’s easy to find your own oceanfront stretch of sand.

In particular there are few families at the Jersey Shore in the off season, which makes this a good time of year for seniors or couples looking for a quieter romantic getaway.

Pleasant Weather

Not a fan of the summer heat? While the ocean temperatures may not be ideal for swimming much past mid-September, Jersey Shore air temperatures are typically mild enough in April, May, September, and October to enjoy biking, strolling the boardwalk, or relaxing on the beach with a good book—though you might need to bring a sweatshirt or light jacket.

Biking at the Jersey Shore in spring and fall is especially nice, not just because of the pleasant temperatures but also because of the lack of traffic. With fewer people in town, it’s easier and safer to ride along the streets and boardwalks.

[st_related]10 Fun Things to Do in Wildwood, New Jersey[/st_related]

Festivals and Special Events

The summer months boast a series of baby parades, fireworks, and concerts on the beach, but there’s still plenty of action up and down the Jersey Shore in the off season. This includes music festivals like the Exit Zero Jazz Festival in Cape May, held in November, and the Fabulous 50s and Beyond weekend in Wildwood every October. Foodies shouldn’t miss Belmar’s New Jersey Seafood Festival in May or the Que by the Sea BBQ Festival in Seaside Heights, held each September.

To find more events, check out or

Holiday Celebrations

Winter is by far the quietest season at the Jersey Shore, but things liven up around the holidays. The historic town of Cape May is a particularly festive spot to visit during Christmastime, when its Victorian homes are decorated with twinkling lights and traditional greenery. Consider a Christmas Candlelight Tour or Holiday Lights Trolley Ride to get in the spirit.

On New Year’s Eve, events include family-friendly First Night festivities in Seaside Heights and Ocean City, complete with fireworks. Other fireworks displays are held in Atlantic City and Sea Isle City. Many people even start the New Year with a polar plunge into the ocean in communities such as Asbury Park, Ocean City, and Brigantine.

More from SmarterTravel:

[viator_tour destination=”22927″ type=”3-mod”]

Follow Sarah Schlichter on Twitter @TravelEditor for more travel tips and inspiration.

Family Travel Theme Park

Disney Unveils Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios

Disney’s newest theme park innovation, Toy Story Land, opens to the public this weekend at Hollywood Studios in Orlando. I was there for a media preview and behind-the-scenes look at the new themed area ahead of its official opening on Saturday, June 30. Here are my initial impressions of Toy Story Land and the ongoing expansion and renovation of Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park.

Welcome to Andy’s Back Yard

The new 14-acre Toy Story Land is located adjacent to Hollywood Studios’ existing Pixar Place area, and everything is designed to give you a toy’s-eye view of Andy’s back yard. More than 400 toy blocks fill the area; giant Buzz and Woody figures tower over it all; and the land’s prime attraction, the Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster, coils and twists and turns through the entirety of the land.

Enormous crayons, a Rubik’s Cube, and other toys and board games provide the oversized decor. Lampposts are shaped like Tinkertoys, while benches are made to look as if they were constructed from Lincoln Logs and K’nex pieces. The overall impression is one of being a pint-sized toy at the heart of Andy’s back yard.

The Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster is one of two new rides debuting at Toy Story Land. The other is Alien Swirling Saucers, a creative new take on the classic whirling teacup motif. The popular Toy Story Mania ride, already available via the Pixar Place area of the park, gets an update and new entrance as well. All three rides fall into the family-friendly category of theme park amusements—they’re perfect for younger kids, but offer plenty of charm and gentle thrills for teens and adults, too.

The Slinky Dog Dash Roller Coaster at Toy Story Land

The Slinky Dog Dash is Disney’s first-ever double-launch coaster. At the midpoint of the ride, the coaster comes to a full stop, backs up, and then rockets forward again through pulsing rings, spinners, and flashing lights. (Star Wars fans, take note: The best views of the under-construction Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge area are from the top of the Slinky Dog Dash.)

“The first half of the ride is many swirls, turns, and dips,” says Dave Minichiello, Executive Creative Director of Walt Disney Imagineering. “After the second launch comes a drop and camelback humps, as if you were playing with a Slinky Dog toy.”

FastPass+ is accepted on the Slinky Dog Dash. Children must be 38 inches or taller to ride.

Alien Swirling Saucers at Toy Story Land

A 14-foot statue of Buzz Lightyear greets guests at the entrance to the Alien Swirling Saucers ride. (Lest anyone doubt who the true star of Toy Story is, however, the Sheriff Woody statue at the land’s entrance stands 20 feet tall.) On the saucer ride, the three-eyed, pointy-eared aliens from the Toy Story movies are the central attraction, while the dreaded Claw hangs menacingly overhead. Each alien’s flying saucer is hitched to one of the 22 rocket ship cars that spin and twirl through the Pizza Planet galaxy of Andy’s imagination.

FastPass+ is accepted on the Alien Swirling Saucers. Children must be 32 inches or taller to ride.

Dining Options at Toy Story Land

Woody’s Lunch Box, situated halfway between the Slinky Dog Dash and the Alien Swirling Saucers, serves up kid-friendly food (think grilled cheese sandwiches) and old-fashioned soda floats in an area surrounded by more of Andy’s favorite toys. Woody’s Lunch Box also features Mini Babybel cheese, which provides the inspiration for the cheese-wheel-shaped chairs and tables.

What’s Next for Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Toy Story Land continues the massive re-tooling and expansion of Hollywood Studios in Orlando, but it’s far from the only change on the horizon. At the media preview of Toy Story Land, Disney also announced the 2019-debuting Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy, “a high-octane first-of-its-kind new show that’ll put you right in the middle of the world of Disney-Pixar’s Cars.” Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway is also slated to open in 2019.

And then there’s Star Wars.

Next year, Disney will open the fully immersive Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge themed area, called Blackspire Outpost, and sometime after that will come a Star Wars-themed hotel adjacent to the Star Wars area of the park. (No official date has been announced for the hotel.) This is all in addition to the updated “Star Tours” attraction (now featuring planets and characters from Star Wars: The Last Jedi), the park’s Star Wars Launch Bay area, Star Wars: Path of the Jedi interactive training for young padawans, and of course the Tatooine Traders merchandise shop.

All told, it sure looks like Disney’s Hollywood Studios is set to become Orlando’s main attraction in the years ahead.

More from SmarterTravel:

Follow Josh Roberts on Instagram @jauntist for behind-the-scenes pics from Toy Story Land’s opening weekend. 

Family Travel Theme Park

Harry Potter Theme Park Tips: What to Know Before Visiting the Wizarding World

I’ll never forget my first glimpse of Hogwarts: the soaring spires, the winged-pig statues, the snow-covered rooftops of the surrounding Hogsmeade village. As a devout fan of the source material, those magical images will be etched into my memory forever. Of course, I’ll also never forget the sheer volume of wand-toting, spell-casting, butterbeer-guzzling people all around me, either. Elbow to elbow, we jostled for position under the hot Orlando sun like the crowds at the Quidditch World Cup.

Harry Potter Theme Park Tips

The mass of people didn’t diminish the experience for me, but it did get me thinking about the Harry Potter theme park tips I wish I’d known before my first visit. I made a few rookie mistakes my first time, but maybe you won’t have to. Here are my best tips for visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park in Orlando.

1. Buy the Universal Express Pass

Seriously, do it. Remortgage the house if you have to. It’s worth it. Universal Express Passes let you zip through the lines on nearly all of the rides at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, including all of the Harry Potter theme park rides. Express Passes are pricey, but they are unquestionably worth every penny—especially if this is your first visit to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

[st_content_ad]Express Passes come in two varieties: Universal Express (which allows you one express entry per theme park ride) and Universal Express Unlimited (which, as the name suggests, allows unlimited express entries to all rides that accept passes). For me, with a family of four including two children under 11, the Universal Express Passes did more to improve the quality of our trip than everything else combined.

Most rides at Universal have two separate lines: the standard line and the Express line. Express lines are more direct than the standard lines. This means you might wait about 15 minutes using the Universal Express Pass line to board Harry Potter themed rides. In the standard line, the wait times routinely reach 90 minutes to two hours.

For many, visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There are places where it might makes sense to cut corners to save money, but this is not one of them. Pay the extra price and zip through the lines rather than spending most of your day waiting in them.

Universal Express Passes are available for purchase before your trip or at various well-marked locations throughout the parks. Special lanyards for displaying Express Passes are available for sale throughout the parks and many shops as well.

[st_related]Orlando Travel Guide[/st_related]

2. You Need to Visit Both Parks

You need to visit both Universal Studios Florida and the adjacent Islands of Adventure parks to get the full Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park experience. And you will need at least two days to see it all.

Hogwarts Castle and the surrounding Hogsmeade environs are located inside Universal Studios Florida; Diagon Alley and its shops and rides are located in the Islands of Adventure. They are connected via the Hogwarts Express, a short train ride that’s only accessible when you purchase multi-park passes that allow you to travel between the two parks any time you want.

To sweeten the deal, Universal has made the Hogwarts Express into a short but entertaining experience, like a mini-ride all its own. I won’t spoil the surprise, but suffice it to say it’s a different experience traveling from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade than it is traveling in the other direction. True Harry Potter aficionados will want to experience the ride in both directions.

The other way to travel between the two parks is via an area called Universal City Walk, which is mostly shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues connecting the two parks. You don’t need tickets to explore Universal City Walk, but you will need tickets to gain access from the City Walk to either park.

3. Arrive to the Park Early

Get there early. Like, before-it-opens early. Leave now if you can. Once the park opens, walk directly to the Harry Potter area without stopping for anything. I can’t stress this Harry Potter theme park tip enough: If you want to experience the Wizarding World of Harry Potter without shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, you must arrive before everyone else does. There’s no other way.

With the Universal Express Pass, you can get onto virtually every ride in both parks in pretty short order. But Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley aren’t rides—they’re open areas with shops, restaurants, vendors, and all of the design details you dream about when you imagine your visit. So naturally they are quickly overwhelmed by the crowds.

By arriving at the Harry Potter theme park area first, you’ll get roughly 30 to 60 minutes of relative freedom to explore these magical spaces without the crowds. This is especially important if you or your children want to try your hand at spellcasting. Universal sells replica wands that allow you to “cast spells” at dozens of locations across the Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley areas. (I’ll talk more about the wands later.) But unless you imagined yourself or your children standing in line with scores of other people waiting your turn, you need to get there before everyone else.

Casting a successful spell in a virtually empty Diagon Alley is magical; being 10th in line to perform the same trick is frustrating and a bit ludicrous.

When you arrive at the parks, go directly to Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley, wander around, take it all in, maybe browse the shops—enjoy the scenery and the atmosphere of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter before everyone else gets there. Then, once the rest of the world arrives, use your Express Pass to quickly hop on the various Harry Potter-themed rides.

[st_related]8 Must-See Orlando Attractions[/st_related]

4. Stay at a Universal Studios Hotel

Speaking of getting to the park early, staying at a Universal Studios hotel is one of the easiest Harry Potter theme park tips to take advantage of. My family stayed at the retro-chic Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which offers a free shuttle to the parks and is within walking distance of Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, Universal City Walk, and the Volcano Bay Water Park.

The major advantage of staying at the Cabana Bay or another Universal Studios resort, as opposed to other area hotels, is the early access to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. When you book, check which park is offering early access during your scheduled dates and plan your visit accordingly. Some Universal Resort packages also include Universal Express and Universal Express Unlimited Passes.

One small advantage of staying at a Universal Studios resort: access to the gift shop merchandise at your hotel. Sure, it’s crass commercialism, but let’s face it—you’re probably going to buy that Gryffindor Quidditch team captain T-shirt anyway, so why not buy it during your down time at the hotel instead of wasting time shopping at the parks?

5. You Don’t Have to Buy Your Interactive Wand at the Park

If you’ve always dreamed of wandering into Ollivander’s and letting your wand choose you—then by all means buy the wand at Universal Studios. You won’t be disappointed with the attention to detail inside the wand shop. But if you do go this route, arrive early, go straight to Ollivanders Wand Shop (in Diagon Alley) or Dervish and Banges (in Hogsmeade) and make your purchase before the line begins to stretch outside the store.

If you’re more interested in casting spells with your wand than the experience of purchasing it, do yourself a favor and buy the wand literally anywhere else. There’s a Universal Studios gift shop at the Orlando airport and in all the Universal hotels. You can even buy it online before you arrive.

You’re going to spend upwards of $50 per wand no matter where you get it. Don’t stand in line if you don’t have to. This applies to nearly all of the merchandise you can find in the park.

[st_related]Orlando Beyond the Theme Parks[/st_related]

…Or Buy Ahead!

Harry Potter Costume set via Amazon

For all you Harry Potter fanatics out there, what better way to stay in the moment than to emulate Harry or any of your other favorite characters from the series with a packable, light costume from Amazon?

6. Try the Butterbeer

This non-alcoholic drink, which comes in both cold and frozen varieties, is sold everywhere inside the Harry Potter areas of the parks. Depending on where you purchase your drinks, you might come away with a replica goblet or beer stein souvenir as well. The sweet and frothy brew tastes like a combination of cream soda and butterscotch, but pinning down the exact flavor is hard to do—other than to say it’s pretty much perfection.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that drinking the butterbeer might be reason enough to visit the Harry Potter theme park. It’s that good. Often imitated, never equaled, the secret recipe for butterbeer is a closely guarded culinary secret—and it really hits the spot when the Orlando temperatures start to rise.

7. Check Height Requirements Beforehand

There are only a handful of actual Harry Potter theme park rides, but they are all pretty wonderful. Just be sure to check height requirements before you get in line (or get your child excited for a ride he or she won’t be allowed on). Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey’s height requirement is 48 inches; Flight of the Hippogriff is 36 inches; Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts is 42 inches. There is no minimum height requirement for the Hogwarts Express.

8. You Might Want to Repeat the Rides

Opinions vary on which is the best ride inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park, but my kids loved Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts the best. My personal favorite was Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which takes you inside Hogwarts. Even waiting in line for the Harry Potter rides is a fun experience for Potter fans, because the walls inside the castle are alive with moving portraits and other interesting set pieces.

It’s worth noting that the Universal Express line and the standard entry line inside Hogwarts take different routes to the ride’s starting point. If you’re a huge fan, you might want to wait in the standard line at some point just for the experience. Get there early for the standard line entry and then go again with your Express Pass.

[st_related]What to Pack for Orlando[/st_related]

9. Bring a Small Backpack (or No Backpack at All)

You can bring backpacks and snacks into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park areas of Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, but you can’t bring bags with you on most of the rides.

The park offers free lockers for use during the ride, but there are a few things you should know. First, the lockers are fairly small—so only bring a small backpack or purse with you to the park. Second, the lines to use the lockers can be long and the area around them crowded. If you can avoid bringing a backpack to the park, you’ll save yourself some time and hassle.

[st_deals_search search_type=hotel]

More from SmarterTravel:

[viator_tour destination=”663″ type=”3-mod” tours=”3088_1D_UO,2855P46,19475P1″]

Josh Roberts visited The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park as a guest of Universal Studios Florida. Follow him on Instagram at @jauntist and on Facebook @JoshRobertsBooks.

Arts & Culture Beach Cities Entertainment Family Travel Theme Park

San Diego with Kids: The 12 Best Family Attractions

Sun and sand aren’t the only compelling reasons to visit San Diego with kids. From one of the world’s greatest zoos to a theme park devoted to LEGOs, there are countless San Diego family attractions.

San Diego with Kids: The Best Family Attractions

Read on to get to know kid-friendly San Diego and plan your next family vacation.

[viator_tour destination=”736″]

Balboa Park

For San Diego’s “museum central,” head to Balboa Park, which has enough attractions to keep kids entertained for days—including a carousel, a children’s garden, and a puppet theater. And that’s not even counting kid-friendly museums like the Air & Space Museum, the Fleet Science Center, and the Natural History Museum with its dinosaur fossils and giant-screen theater. A free tram runs daily throughout the park.

[st_content_ad]San Diego Zoo

Visiting San Diego with kids who love animals? You can’t miss the world-famous San Diego Zoo, featuring more than 3,500 critters of some 650 species. Fun areas include the Outback, Elephant Odyssey, and the children’s petting zoo.

Seaport Village

Seaport Village is filled with fun shops and boutiques in a Cape Cod-esque seaport setting. Travelers visiting San Diego with kids should head straight for the historic carousel, which dates back to 1895.

New Children’s Museum

The New Children’s Museum offers creative kids the chance to contribute to art installations within the museum, such as the colorful Sketch Aquarium. Other hands-on activities include playing dress-up in the Costume Cave and creating your own sculpture in the Clay Studio.


You can’t come to San Diego without hitting the beach! You’ll love hanging out on the Mission Beach and Pacific Beach boardwalks (inline skates, surfboards, and bicycles are available for rent). Other good beaches for families include La Jolla Shores, with its gentle waves, and Moonlight Beach in Encinitas, which has a playground right near the sand.

Belmont Park

At Belmont Park, a beachfront amusement park located a mile south of Pacific Beach, rides include the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster built in the 1920s and still in operation. Kids can also go zip-lining, climb a rock wall, play mini-golf, and more.

Petco Park

Baseball fans will love Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres, located in the heart of downtown adjacent to the Gaslamp Quarter. Those arriving in season can take public transportation right to the ballpark from almost anywhere in the city, and enjoy the Boys of Summer at both day and night games when they are playing at home.

LEGOLAND California

At LEGOLAND California, about a 30-minute drive from downtown, the 128-acre theme park is centered on—what else?—LEGOs! Geared toward children ages 2 – 12, the park offers interactive attractions and kid-powered rides.

San Diego Zoo Safari Park

San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a 1,800-acre preserve where some 2,600 animals roam as if they were in their native habitats. There are a variety of safari experiences available, from a Balloon Safari (a 10- to 12-minute ride in a hot-air balloon) to a Caravan Safari, in which you travel by truck through a couple of field enclosures.

Whale Watching

Numerous whale-watching services offer cruises and aerial tours, particularly during the winter months (December through April). Try Hornblower Cruises & Events, Flagship Cruises & Events, or Adventure R.I.B. Rides.


The North County beach cities (about 25 – 30 miles north of San Diego) of Solana Beach, Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Encinitas, and Leucadia are paradise for surfer dudes and dudettes. You can rent boards and take lessons or just go to any one of these beaches with a picnic and watch the semi-pros catch the waves. Leucadia Surf School offers lessons for kids, teens, and adults.


For a lovely, pastoral excursion after wandering around the city, why not take a ferry onto the little island of Coronado, located in San Diego Bay? Among the numerous San Diego family attractions here are sailboat rides, ice cream shops, trolley tours, parks, and beaches.

More from SmarterTravel:

Sarah Schlichter contributed to this story.