I am 42 years old and I cried tears of joy at Disney World. Not just once, but twice – both times because I was simply overcome by the magic that makes it one of the most special places on earth. Walt Disney World (WDW) in Orlando, Florida, offers something for everyone, no matter what your age or interests. My family and I visited the parks over seven days during the summer and we packed in a whole lifetime's worth of experiences over that short amount of time – and it still left us wanting to go back for more.
WDW comprises of six parks – Magic Kingdom, which is the most traditional of the parks with its nod to classic Disney rides, futuristic Epcot, glamorous Hollywood Studios, breathtaking Animal Kingdom and waterparks Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. With the exception of Blizzard Beach, which we simply didn’t have time for, we used our 7-day park hopper ticket to maximum effect, visiting one or two parks each day. Yes, it was a tiring week and yes, our feet hurt A LOT. But there was hardly any moaning from my ten-year-old son, my eight-year-old daughter OR my 42-year-old husband as we enjoyed every single second of our once-in-a-lifetime holiday.
Laura and her family enjoyed a trip to Walt Disney World, Orlando
We flew into Orlando with Virgin Airways, who provided a fantastic service; spacious seats, lots of (actually very tasty) airline food and drink and, of course, something that is very important for a long-haul flight with children: probably the best entertainment and film offering of any flight we have ever taken. We all watched back-to-back movies as we flew over the Atlantic and arrived refreshed and relaxed in the US, ready for our great Disney adventure. My son thought it was one of the best things ever as: "I just sit here and watch TV, listen to music and people keep bringing me food and drink!"
We were lucky enough to be staying in probably the grandest hotel in WDW – the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. Modelled after a Victorian resort, with elegant turrets and whitewashed walls coupled with a gigantic lobby which features an actual orchestra playing Disney tunes every single day, the Grand Floridian was faultless. There are two gigantic swimming pools – one with water slides – in the grounds as well as seven restaurants, a huge spa and a full activity schedule including morning yoga and movies under the stars. It was with total regret that we left the hotel each day, as we could have happily spent a fortnight luxuriating in the beautifully manicured grounds and all its amenities. However, leave we did – after all, what's the point of going to Disney without visiting the main attraction?
The Grand Floridian Resort and Spa is one of Disney World's most lavish hotels
The hotel is the closest to Magic Kingdom – we could actually see Cinderella's Castle from our balcony window – and offers effortless transport options, with the Monorail to both Magic Kingdom and Epcot leaves from the second floor of the main building. There are regular free buses to all the other parks, as well as restaurant and leisure complex Disney Springs. We could also even get a gorgeous boat over to Magic Kingdom across the Seven Seas Lagoon which surrounds the Grand Floridian.
And so to the parks. There really is something for everyone here, be it the Peter Pan and 'It's a Small World' part of Magic Kingdom, the futuristic experiences of Epcot, the glamour of Hollywood Studios, with its Toy Story themed rides, Star Wars parades and gigantic rollercoasters, as well as the awe-inspiring beauty of Animal Kingdom, where we all learnt to not be afraid of insects (in It's Tough to be a Bug) and came face-to-face with lions, elephants, giraffes and zebras at the awesome Kilimanjaro safari.
We had a seven-day park hopper pass, which is a very popular one and gives you unlimited access to the four WDW parks. The pass means you can visit one, two or even three parks in a day, giving you total freedom of movement.
There's something for everyone at Walt Disney World
Also included in the pass were fastpasses – and these are literally invaluable. With these, you get to book three fastpass rides (the most popular ones, with the longest lines to wait) per day in advance, with the option of booking more each day when these have been used up. If you stay in an official WDW resort, these fastpasses can be booked 60 days in advance; if not, they can be done 30 days before you arrive. I cannot emphasise enough how important these passes are; for example, when we visited Animal Kingdom, the newest ride in WDW (and therefore the most popular), which was Avatar's Flight of Passage, had a three-and-a-half wait time without a fastpass. With a fastpass however, we were riding through the alternative universe of hit film Avatar within 20 minutes. Other rides, including Seven Dwarves Mine Train in MK and Soarin' in Epcot, as well as the perennial favourites of Space Mountain and Thunder Mountain, were also incredibly popular and a fastpass is a must.
However, there are exceptions to the rule. The incredibly useful My Disney Experience App, which links your hotel details with your passes details, your dinner reservations and booked fastpasses, has an up-to-the-minute waiting guide which changes as the day goes on. And you can sometimes get lucky; when we arrived at Epcot, the waiting time for Spaceship Earth (inside the giant silver ball that is Epcot’s trademark) was nearly two hours. As we hadn't booked a fastpass, we decided to come back after dinner and by then the waiting time was just five minutes.
The Happily Ever After fireworks at Magic Kingdom were a major highlight
There was certainly more than enough to fill every second of every day – the only problem was deciding how to cram it all in! Some must-sees were definitely the Happily Ever After fireworks at Magic Kingdom and IllumiNations at Epcot. In fact, one of the best experiences we had was, after enjoying a fantastic meal at the incredible pan-Asian restaurant California Grill on the 15th floor of The Contemporary Hotel, we watched the Magic Kingdom fireworks from a special viewing platform outside which had the music piped in (hence the tears above; the second set of tears came during the Lion King show in Animal Kingdom). Other must-sees are the daily parades, including the Star Wars one in Hollywood Studios, Pandora at Night, Jedi training at Hollywood Studios and Enchanted Tales with Belle at Magic Kingdom.
Each park was special in its own way; MK has a more traditional feel and contains rides including It’s A Small World, Space Mountain and my son’s personal favourite, Speedway; Epcot has the absolutely epic Soarin', where you sit on a simulated flight around the wonders of the world, and the incredible car-design ride Test Track, as well as the 11 mini countries that comprise World Showcase, Hollywood Studios has the wonderful ToyStory Midway Mania shooting game with some of the best graphics ever seen (the kids made us go on this five times), as well as the petrifying Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster while Animal Kingdom is staggeringly beautiful, centred around the serene Tree of Life and featuring It’s Tough to Be A Bug and Festival of the Lion King. You really feel like you have been transported to Africa while Epcot, which has the biggest square footage of all the parks, seemed to be the most relaxed in terms of crowd volume.
Epcot was the most relaxed of the Walt Disney World parks
One top tip I must pass on: buy the Memory Maker. This gives you access photographers stationed all over the parks who can take the iconic images you want to take home and keep forever – but often with a special magic touch of certain Disney characters added into the photo afterwards. After swiping your phone onto the photographer’s memory maker gadget, the image is on your phone within seconds and yours to download whenever you want.
Food inside the parks can be a bit hit and miss, which is why it’s advisable to make dinner reservations as far in advance as you can. We dined in some incredible places, our favourites being the aforementioned California Grill, Cinderella's Royal Table with the princesses inside Cinderella's Castle and the PrimeTime diner in Hollywood studios, modelled on a 1950s home and featuring waiting staff who correct you on your table manners and dish out stickers when you finish your meal – even to the adults, and made our kids lay the table (in here, they were the best behaved of the entire trip).
Laura and her family spent a lazy day at Typhoon Lagoon
We opted to spend a lazy day at Typhoon Lagoon right in the middle of our week in Orlando. After bobbing about in the lazy river, we cautiously jumped into the giant wave pool – unless you are the more adventurous type, stay towards the back as the water when it comes, arrives with a giant BOOM – and then took turns on the various waterslides, the likes of which we had never experienced before. All the rides here are fairly gentle and our favourite was the new Misadventure Falls, which we could enjoy together as a family of four, sharing one giant rubber ring. Although we spent most of our nights at the parks, we did venture out to Disney Springs one evening, which is a gorgeous outdoor dining, shopping and leisure area that includes a cinema, luxury bowling and open air concerts, as well as some gorgeous shops.
With great reluctance, we left WDW and made our way east to the Kennnedy Space Center Visitor Complex at Cape Canaveral. A must-see for anyone in the area, this was another incredible experience. The place where space dreams are made of, it was fascinating to be touring somewhere with such a rich history. After wandering around the rocket garden and being awed by the size of them, we jumped on a bus ride which took us around the entire site and included seeing launch pads, and the famous Vehicle Assembly building – featuring the biggest front door IN THE WHOLE WORLD where space shuttles are launched. We even got to see close-up the SpaceX launch pad where the upcoming Falcon rocket will be launched from.
At the end of the tour you are led into a room which tracks the Apollo missions, culminating in a second-by-second reconstruction of the first three minutes of Neil Armstrong’s historic walk on the moon in 1969. We were then lucky enough to get to have lunch with a veteran astronaut, Norm Thagard, who treated us to a brilliant talk about his experiences with space travel, complete with some of his personal photographs. Our only regret with Cape Canaveral was that we couldn't stay longer and watch some of the incredible films on offer, although we did manage to squeeze in the Journey to Mars experience and Lunar Theatre.
The family later checked into the Loews Hotel on South Beach, Miami
After all that action, it was time to relax. Jumping in our hired car, we drove down the coast of Florida towards Miami, our final destination for a bit of rest and relaxation. And what destination it was. We checked into the Loews Hotel on South Beach which we had been recommended on the basis that it was the perfect family hotel. And it was. Miami, and South Beach in particular, are very cool and hip, and there is a huge mix of partying teens, businessmen, young families and romantic couples, as well as fabulous movers and shakers who have turned this city into one of the most diverse resorts in the whole of the US. The influence of Miami’s Latin American population is evident everywhere, from the delicious Cuban and Caribbean food to the cool music pumping from seemingly all the restaurants and shops. The Loews is perfectly situated a block from the newly pedestrianized Lincoln Avenue, with its abundance of street-side restaurants and shops, and the famous Ocean Drive of the late Gianni Versace fame.
The hotel had a huge swimming pool complete with beach bar, which was wear we lazed around most days. A tiny winding path takes you directly from the back of the hotel onto the private section of Miami Beach outside, with its flat, wide perfect golden sands and miles of calm ocean which was as warm as a bath. We were lucky enough to move away from the masses and spend a day being waited on hand-and-foot in a private cabana at the Loews (the interior of which could have made a comfortable apartment, featuring a lounge and wet room), while the concierge team who work in the lobby of the Loews helped us navigate our way around some of the best, and most unusual, restaurants in the city.
Some days we just stayed at the Loews, sampling their delicious restaurants like Lure and XX and marvelling over our view of picture-perfect South Beach from our room’s balcony, while others saw us venture into the city itself, following the top tips of the staff there. There are both high-end and low-end shops – we even spent one day at the infamous outlet mall Sawgrass Mills which was full of so many bargains that we had trouble knowing when to stop handing over our dollars.
The hotel is located on Miami Beach
We left Florida happy, but with heavy hearts that our dream holiday was over. Still, there is a lot we didn’t see, so I am sure it won’t be long until we are back across the ocean..
When to go: Anytime! Florida is brilliant to visit any time of the year, due to its warmer climate and multitude of flights from the UK. Christmas and Easter holidays are the busiest though, so you may want to come at other times to have a slightly less manic experience
Where to stay: There is somewhere to reserve a room at Disney at every budget; from the very luxurious Grand Floridian, which we were lucky to stay at, to a huge selection of hotels in the local area which are just a short drive away. Villas can be a good option too. If you can afford it, there are huge advantages to staying in an official WDW resort though; you get to book fast passes a whole 30 days before everyone else, you get free parking at all the parks as well as an extra 'magic hour' of early admission to a different park each day, plus you get the option of purchasing a meal plan, which can be very cost effective.
What not to miss: Where do we start? Magic Kingdom is for fairytales and princesses, as well as the infamous Space Mountain and the classic It's a Small World, Animal Kingdom is gorgeous and transformative with rides like It's Tough to Be a Bug and the breathtaking Festival of the Lion King, while Epcot has the unforgettable Soarin' and the brilliant Test Track, as well as the epic World Showcase and Hollywood Studios has the brilliant Toy Story Mania and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. Not to mention the nightly fireworks, the parades, Typhoon Lagoon... I could go on.
What to avoid: The crowds. I cannot emphasise this enough: use your fastpasses wisely, plan what you want to see and book accordingly. That way you can avoid standing in a three-hour queue. Also, some of the food in the park can be disappointing, so book the best restaurants ahead to enjoy some amazing culinary experiences.
14 nights in Orlando from £1,219pp with Virgin Holidays including scheduled Virgin Atlantic flights from London Gatwick to Orlando, room only accommodation at Disney’s All Star Resorts, Disney’s 14 Day Ultimate Ticket + Memory Maker, with car hire included. Price is per person based on two adults and two children travelling and sharing an All Star Music Standard room, including all applicable taxes and fuel surcharges which are subject to change.