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August 22, 2017
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10 tips to get the most out ofan Orlando theme-park vacation

Once upon a time, Orlando, Florida was a sleepy town filled with orange groves. Today, it is home to three top entertainment complexes — Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld. The area attracts 44 million visitors annually to eight theme parks covering an area the size of Toronto.

As if that weren’t enough, Orlando boasts 95 other attractions, large and small, along with a plethora of recreation, shopping, nightlife and dining opportunities. An estimated 112,000 hotel rooms, villas and suites cater to vacationers.

Naturally, any trip there requires some advance planning. Below are 10 tips to make your stay as enjoyable as possible. Read and deliberate: the Mouse awaits!

1. When to Go
Late fall until Christmas and the first six weeks of the year are the periods when a family can save literally thousands of dollars and enjoy the lack of line-ups, since this is when park attendance and prices drop dramatically. Plus, Orlando’s winter daytime temperatures hover around 25°C. Warmer weather arrives after February, as do the higher prices associated with March break. www.orlandoinfo.com.

2. How to Get There
Orlando is served by Air Canada (tel: 888-247-2262; www.aircanada.ca), WestJet (tel: 800-538-5696; www.westjet.ca) and Air Transat (tel: 866-847-1112; www.airtransat.com) along with charters and US carriers. Flights from eastern and central Canada take roughly three hours; add 90 minutes or so from the west. Remember that passports are now required for Canadians (including children and infants) flying to the US.

Deals are endless, and flights can be as cheap as double digits in some areas: never pay over $500 for a return ticket from a major eastern Canadian centre. Check your newspaper, the airlines, the Internet and travel agents. Packages offered by tour operators like Air Canada Vacations (tel: 866-529-2079; www.aircanadavacations.com) or Transat Holidays (tel: 866-322-6649; www.transatholidays.com) as well as some resorts may include airfare along with airport pickup and transport during your stay. Many return visitors consider at least some time in a rental car a must; Orlando is very spread-out.

3. Reasons to Go
For the young at heart, the appeal is obvious: Orlando is an escapist’s paradise and the most elaborate, expensive and mind-boggling playground ever built. Even the most adult-minded visitor will find a million things to do — it’s easy to be astonished in Orlando.

Better still, it’s getting cheaper. The cost of resorts and parks has plummeted because of competition and the strength of the Canadian dollar. Rooms at Disney’s deluxe Animal Kingdom Lodge, where African animals like giraffes roam freely under the balconies, are now in the US$200 range per night, down from US$400 in 2000.

4. The Goods: Disney
Four spectacular theme parks make up Walt Disney World (www.disney.ca): the Magic Kingdom (classic Disney), Disney-MGM Studios (movies, thrills), Animal Kingdom Park (safari park and rides) and Epcot (science and technology of the future). In addition, there are water parks, shopping and nightclub districts (including a Cirque du Soleil show), as well as timeshares and hundreds of restaurants.

The 23 Disney hotel resorts offer 25,000 hotel rooms in five price categories, ranging from deluxe resort hotels (US$205 to US$375 per night) to Value Resorts (US$82). Recreational activities are virtually limitless. A one-day single-park ticket is US$60 for those 10 and under; US$71 for visitors over 10.

Daily ticket prices decrease with the length of stay (a five-day pass will lower the daily price to US$40). Additional features, such as the Park Hopper option, allow you interchangeable access to all the parks at slightly higher costs. Disney offers a variety of individualized ticket and vacation packages.

5. The Goods: Universal
Long the stepsister to Disney’s Cinderella, this movie studio theme park is now lauded by visitors with a zest for pop culture. Universal Orlando (tel: 407-363-8000; www.universalorlando.com) has two attractions: Universal Studios, a.k.a. “the movies you can ride” and Islands of Adventure, featuring infamous thrill rides inspired by superheroes, Jurassic dinosaurs and even Dr. Seuss characters.

Universal Orlando has three luxury resorts (US$200 to US$270 per night through late February), and an entertainment complex with restaurants, shops and music venues (the Blue Man Group). The resort is offering free, seven-day passes with stays of four or more nights; it also advertises unlimited admission for less than the price of one day at Disney (see special conditions online). The most expensive one-day ticket price is US$80 for adult entrance to both parks, and many packages are available. Their agents (www.universaltravelagents.com) advise that Internet access is easier than telephone.

6. The Goods: SeaWorld
SeaWorld (tel: 800-327-2420; www.seaworld.com/orlando) includes Adventure Park features trained marine mammals and some thrill rides, while its sister park, Discovery Cove, presents marine life in more natural settings and restricts visitors to 1000 per day (reservation only). There is a water park and extensive entertainment, dining and shopping districts.

One-day single-park tickets are US$68 for adults ($10 less for children nine and under). Admittance to both parks is US$100. All prices are currently $10 off if booked online.

Although SeaWorld is Orlando’s most expensive park, it does offer a five-park Flex Pass in conjunction with Universal that allows two weeks of consecutive access to all the parks involved. Prices start at US$195 per adult; US$160 for children nine and under.

7. Armchair Planning
Planning all this is easier than you think thanks to the Internet. The real difficulty is deciding which deal to settle on. Orlando is an industry in its own right: along with the major players, there are countless smaller operators posting discount package, hotel and ticket prices on the Web. Simple key words — such as golf or even wetland bird-watching — bring up endless options.

The official sites of the “Big Three” are also worlds of their own, offering overviews of their properties, extensive online services and seasonal vacation packages with tickets attached. Look for pages comparing the pricing and amenities of resorts.

To learn about the most recent changes and additions, check out media archives online, like the Orlando Sentinel Theme Park Rangers(http://blogs.orlandosentinel.com/features_orlando/).

Disney (www.disney.ca) runs a Canadian site with Canuck-oriented deals; transactions, however, are routed through the US website (tel: 407-939-7429; www.disney.com) and calculated in American dollars.

8. Places to Stay
Orlando has many other lavish hotels beside the inclusive park resorts. Renting a villa or apartment is also a popular option, so much so that searching “Orlando private stays” online calls up two million results. There are large, reputable rental agencies (some with airline connections) and some truly splendiferous accommodations.

9. Logistics on the Ground
This is the hard part: once you’re there, all bets are off. Make a daily plan even if you veer from it. Expect to entertain yourself in lineups and don’t overdo it in crowds. When in doubt, remember the swimming pool at the hotel. Find out about the services and amenities provided where you’re staying; they’re often considerable. Try Universal’s Meal Deal (www.universalorlando.com/tic_meal_deal.html), an affordable meal plan at select restaurants, that beats outlandishly expensive park snack food.

Disney provides VIP guides (tel: 407-560-4033; email: wdw.vip.tours@Disney.com; US$125 per hour) to ease and speed your experience. And you should definitely take advantage of conveniences like Disney’s FastPass or Universal’s Express Plus Pass — the parks’ best ways to beat wait times.

10. Dozens of Other Attractions
First and foremost, there’s the Kennedy Space Center (tel: 321-449-4444; www.kennedyspacecenter.com), full of impressive bits of NASA rockets and lore. Astronaut ice cream, designed to be eaten in zero gravity, is available as a souvenir.

There’s also Gatorland (tel: 407-855-5496; www.gatorland.com), a 45-hectare theme park which claims to have more alligators than any other place on earth, and the nearby Daytona International Speedway (tel: 386-254-2700; www.daytonainternationalspeedway.com), as well as numerous local theme parks and smaller attractions. Busch Gardens (tel: 888-800-5447; www.buschgardens.com), an hour away, has the fiercest roller coasters in the world, and packages are available with its sister park, SeaWorld.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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