Welcome to Orlando:
This is not really a story about what to see and do in Orlando. It is an attempt at getting you around this gorgeous city without making costly Orlando mistakes. As with most tourist meccas, Orlando offers plenty of easy ways to pay top dollar for things that won't really enhance your experience. Get a National Geographic Destination Map for Orlando.
When to Visit:
There is no sure way to avoid crowds in Orlando, but certain times of the year are less crowded than others. After late August and the start of school in most places, Disney World has a history of offering discount packages to keep the trams full of visitors. Summer is the most popular and therefore worst time to visit the theme parks. Pack sunscreen and patience in equal doses. If you can avoid times when school is out, you'll see shorter lines. Find a flight to Orlando.
Where to Eat:
Most major U.S. restaurant chains have at least a few locations in the Orlando area. Most food budgets go haywire at the theme parks, where captive audiences will pay very high prices for generally ordinary food. Some of these purchases can't be avoided, but plan larger meals away from the parks. For example, eat a large breakfast and a large dinner, but make lunch a snack. It can do wonders for your budget.
Where to Stay:
On-site resorts save time, but not necessarily money. The huge bloc of low-priced rooms a few miles from the Main Gate is often the first place budget travelers check in, but Disney recognizes the need for lower room rates and offers on-site rooms at discounted prices after school starts each August. Four-star hotel for under $100/night: Monumental Hotel on International Drive. Key question: How far is your "bargain" room from the attractions you will visit? Don't stay in Apopka if you're planning to visit Universal or WDW each day. Find hotels in greater Orlando
Remember that the region has three fairly busy airports: Orlando, Daytona Beach, and Sanford. Some travelers find it easier or cheaper to use Tampa's airport, too. You'll need an Orlando car rental to visit major attractions, and it definitely pays to shop for a rental. Competition here is fierce. Beware of the booth: Greater Orlando is Florida's toll road capital.
Walt Disney World is 30 minutes southwest of downtown Orlando. Planners envisioned it as a place where construction would never "finish," a destination where people would have to come back to see the latest and greatest. Universal Studios Orlando is part of a massive entertainment complex where you can see working film sets, sample the work of world famous chefs, and ride attractions that put you in the movies. Take a look at a step by step approach to saving money at Disney World.
Beyond the Theme Parks:
One reason for Orlando's phenomenal growth is its central Florida location. Gulf and Atlantic beaches are within 60 miles, as is the Kennedy Space Center, Ocala's horse farm country and some wonderful bass fishing.
More Orlando Tips:
- Get a GO Orlando Card. This is a card you buy prior to your trip and then activate on first use. You can buy from one- to seven-day cards good for free admission at dozens of local attractions. Design your itinerary before you consider a Go Orlando purchase, to determine if the investment will save you money on admissions.
- Prepare Yourself for Admission Prices. People who don't do their homework experience "sticker shock" when they find out how much admission will cost. Check Web sites and find discounts before you go.
- Be Skeptical of the word "Discount." There is no shortage of offers for "deep discounts" and "cheap rooms." Sometimes the offers will save you money, but many have strings attached. Don't be duped.
- Save Time for Central Florida. Cape Canaveral's Kennedy Space Center is unique and should not be missed. Budget a day to see it. Orlando's trendy, upscale Winter Park area is a nice alternative to a day at the theme parks, too.
- Sunburn can ruin your trip. It might be obvious advice, but scores of people plan and save for a Florida vacation and then lose most of the enjoyment to sunburn. Buy a good sunblocker and use it. Consider it cheap travel insurance.
- Try to Blend In. Criminals target people who advertise their status as tourists. Don't stack luggage in your car so it can be seen through the windows. Keep big bills tucked away safely in a money belt.
- Watch Your Speed on Interstate 4. This main highway that connects Tampa, Disney, Orlando and Daytona is well-patrolled, especially in the area near Disney. Warnings are few and tickets are expensive.