Florida's playground - The Buffalo News

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Florida's playground

For many families, the Orlando experience is a rite of passage. Disney is the dominant force, including its 43 square miles of theme parks, water parks, golf courses and resorts.

But Orlando as a destination has become an entire playground of family fun, with attractions like Universal Orlando Resort catching up to Disney in popularity.

Our family has visited Orlando in multiple trips, with different strategies for accommodations/park visits/food each time, so we’ve learned a little bit along the way.

One thing to know: planning it can be overwhelming. First, there’s deciding which park (or parks) you want to visit: Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, Legoland, more. Then, once you’ve decided, you’ll have to make choices for accommodations and meal plans – and they are plentiful. You will also likely experience sticker shock, especially if you’re looking to travel during school breaks in February and near Easter.

Orlando, Florida, USA. December 27,2014. Sunny day with Cinderella's Castle at Walt Disney World. Picture was taken on one of the busiest days of the year as evidenced by the crowd of people in front of the castle.

If you’re keen on Disney and haven’t visited before, a travel agent can be a huge help. After attempting to research the many options online ourselves, we decided to use an agent who knew the hotels, parks and meal plans (and what actually constituted a good deal). Find one through a Google search (or use ours: Heather Colosimo, a travel consultant for AAA who specializes in Disney, Hcolosimo@NyAAA.com).

At that point you can choose everything – how many parks within the Disney complex you want to visit — The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and/or Hollywood Studios. (The more parks you visit, the lower the cost-per-park-ticket, per day). You can also decide to stay on-premises in one of the 36 hotels and resorts, with options to suit a range of budgets. If you do decide to stay within the Disney complex, a meal plan is a good idea – the package rates will end up saving you money over a la carte meal purchases, and you won’t have many out-of-network options if you’re saying on premises anyway. And if you have children with food allergies, Disney is reportedly one of the best places you can visit, anywhere, for a range of safe (and creative) food options.

Bringing it down a notch

If you’re looking for a more low-key (and lower-cost) kid-tastic experience in Orlando, Legoland is the place to go. Not only is it much less expensive than Disney or Universal (more on that later), you can also find deals – buy one, get one free tickets if one of your kids is enrolled in the Lego fan club, for instance, or BOGO tickets at places like Burger King, which we saw in spring 2015. Sites like Groupon also offer discounted tickets, so be sure to search them out.

If you can find a deal, a family of five can experience the park for around $250 total for the day. (That’s compared to around double or more at Universal or Disney, where a la carte park passes start at $100 per person per day and go up from there.)

Yes, Legoland is smaller and bit older than Disney/Universal, but if your kids are Lego fiends like ours, they will love it: the miniature city-scapes made entirely of Lego are truly a site to behold – think London, Las Vegas, New York City in miniature. (Look closely for quirky tableaus, like minifigures kissing on the side of a building.)

New since we visited in 2015 is Lego Ninjago World, which includes a ride and activities related to the popular TV show. There are also hands-on Lego activities like the Creation Zone and Building Zone; rides, large and small (including the classic Coastersaurus and the new Lego Ninjago – The Ride) and shows throughout the day. I’d say the ideal age range for this park is 4-12 — unless Legos alone can still fascinate, they will probably have grown out of most the rides by the early teen years.

Best of both worlds

That’s where Universal comes in – it’s a good park for tweens and teens. While there are some attractions for younger kids, rides like “Return of the Mummy” and “Doctor Doom’s Fearfall” deliver true adrenaline and aren’t for the meek. There are also many 3-D simulation rides that make you feel like you’re on a roller coaster despite barely moving at all – it’s a mind-over-matter experience you have to try to believe.

But let’s start at the beginning: there are two separate parks in the Universal universe, including the original, built in the 1980s: Universal Studios Florida, and the second, opened in 1999: Islands of Adventure. They both have their charms, and are worth visiting for different reasons, although there is one uniting reason Universal will get you to visit (and pay for) both parks: Harry Potter.

In 2010, the first Harry Potter world was built in the Islands of Adventure park. It’s a re-creation of Hogsmeade, the town in which Harry’s school, Hogwarts, resides. This snow-topped village is towered over by Hogwarts itself, which is a combination experience and thrill ride. You hardly mind the long wait because the queue winds through the castle, exposing you to an incredibly detailed re-creation of Hogwarts – you’ll see Dumbledore’s office, a room with talking portraits, hallways lined with Harry Potter ephemera. This walk is truly a feast for the senses, until you finally reach the ultimate experience, 3-D simulation ride “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” – where you will literally feel as if you are riding broomsticks through canyons and playing a rousing game of Quidditch.

Brilliantly, Universal has capitalized on the success of this first Harry Potter world by creating a second one, which opened in 2014 in the other park, Universal Studios. Here you will find a re-creation of Diagon Alley. Beautifully rendered and incredibly detailed, with Harry Potter movie soundtrack music playing lightly in the background, Universal has created a moody, surreal atmosphere that truly transports you to the land inhabited in the books and movies of Harry Potter. (Be sure to try the Butter Beer.)

Connecting these two Harry Potter worlds is the Hogwarts Express – a wonderfully imaginative and beautifully rendered train ride that I won’t spoil by sharing too much here. Just be sure not to miss it – it was one of the best experiences at the parks.

Other highlights of Universal: Seuss Landing, a joyful re-creation of the imagination of Dr. Seuss; Simpsons land, where you can get a beer at Duff’s or a sweet treat at Lard Lad Donuts; Marvel Comics world, where a ride on Spiderman is an awesome 3-D adventure that engages all your senses; and Jurassic Park, where you feel as if you are walking through a movie set.

Lines are long during busy times like February break and Easter break. If going at off-times isn’t an option, or you have only one day to go - upgrading your ticket with an Express Pass is something to consider. For around $40 extra per ticket, you’ll wait in much shorter lines, a boon for families without a lot of time (or patience).

But don’t think you’ll get discounted tickets for Universal, especially if you’re just planning to visit for one day – daily ticket prices have escalated into the Disney range. For values, look at multi-day passes or combo hotel/park packages – there are a number of resorts on the property.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando Resort.

Creative accommodations

In Orlando, you can find everything from roadside no-tell motels to luxurious resort hotels within the Disney and Universal complexes, so budget will drive where you stay. At both complexes, you can combine multiple day tickets, meals and hotel into a package price; try their websites or a travel agent to find the best combo deals.

Another option to consider: renting a home or condo. For our family of five, this made sense — it’s always challenging to find comfortable hotel accommodations without renting an expensive suite, or two rooms. Plus, with so many hotel accommodations in Orlando, there are deals galore on rental homes trying to compete. For instance, we rented a brand new, 5-bedroom, 4 bathroom home with its own pool and game room, plus access to a playground and brand new community wave pool for around $100 / per night total. It was in a newer community still under construction, just a few miles from the parks. You’ll have to pay for parking at the parks, but it was awfully nice to have a large space to come home and relax in after a long day walking and riding. It would also be ideal for multiple families traveling together, especially as there are plenty of homes for rent in the 6-7 bedroom range. A great place to begin your search is Homeaway.com.

Getting to Orlando

Of course, the easiest way to get to Orlando is by plane, and it’s a popular destination for Buffalonians – which means there are plenty of flights, some direct. But if that’s still in the too-pricey realm, another option is the Amtrak Autotrain. After pricing five airline tickets for February break at $3,000 — before we’d even stepped foot into any of the parks or paid for hotels — we decided to go the Amtrak route. The journey starts with you driving from Buffalo to Lorton, Virginia (around 7 hours), where you’ll hop on the train with your vehicle (it’s stored in a separate area of the train). Seventeen hours later you arrive in Sanford, Fla., right outside of Orlando — the train leaves Virginia daily at 4 p.m. and arrives in Florida at 8 a.m. Once you arrive, they unload passengers and cars, and you’re on your way. Total saved: around $2,000, including the money we saved driving our own vehicle for the week instead of renting one.

Note that coach seats on the train – which is where you’ll find real savings – are roomy and tilt back for sleeping, but it’s still not the most comfortable night’s sleep you’ll ever have. Factor in a nap for the day you arrive.

One more thing to consider: flying out of another airport. Last year, we flew out of Pittsburgh during February break and saved a bundle – they didn’t have break at the same time, so demand was down for tickets and the prices reflected that. We paid around $300 per round-trip ticket, about half of what we would have paid flying out of Buffalo.

Regardless of how you travel, where you stay or which parks you hit, it all comes down to family fun and memories you and your kids will always remember.

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