There are 168 hours in seven days.
There are 4,012 square miles in the Greater Orlando area, 66 square miles in Walt Disney World alone.
There are thousands of places to see and things to do for on a weeklong Disney family vacation.
There’s only one way to crunch those numbers without giving yourself a headache. Only one way to plan your vacation so that you don’t spend more time in the car on clogged tourist strips or highways than you do enjoying the attractions you’ve come to see. Break down the area geographically and, as much as possible, devote each day to a single area—or a single major theme park.
If you’re spending your day at a theme park, arrive as early as possible and stay at late as you can before children get so tired and cranky that the law of diminishing returns applies. If you’re going elsewhere, define an acceptable driving area and pick two or three things to do with meals in between before returning to your accommodations. Or, if you’re enjoying yourself at your resort or hotel, these are ideal days to replace a morning, afternoon or evening on the road with more pool time for kids and down time for you.
Here’s a model to follow, with a few suggestions for each day, It assumes four days in Disney, two more in or around Orlando and a wildcard “road trip” day.
First, though, here’s an absolute must to incorporate early in your planning. Plan to do one of the Disney parks on your first full day, and depending on the ages of your children, the Magic Kingdom might be best—especially if it’s their first time.
That said, assume starting early your first full day. In that case, you have two options. You can decide in advance to check in to your Orlando accommodations the night before and get a good night sleep. Or, if you’ve spent the night before in a motel en route nearby, here’s an idea increasingly popular among smart travelers. Decide to drive directly to Disney World and notify your Orlando accommodations to expect you in the evening.
And now, in (mostly) no particular order, seven days in Orlando:
Day 1—The Magic Kingdom
No matter when you secure your tickets in advance, even if the day before, it’s always better to link them to FastPass+ access before entering the park. You can do so up to 30 days in advance at the Disney World website or app. FastPass+ enables you to ride rides or see shows at the time you want (if you’ve reserved them before they fill) while bypassing waiting lines. It’s best to save them for later in the day when all the lines get longer. Meanwhile, you can gauge standby lines at other attractions after downloading the free Disney Wait Times app. One more helpful tip: Be parked an hour before the Magic Kingdom opens, and don’t forget to write down your location. Otherwise, your kids won’t be the only cranky ones.
Where do you go first? Lines form quickly at Splash Mountain, so that’s one thought. If you’ve been encouraged to flap your elephant ears and fly to Storybook Circus so you can beat everyone else to the Dumbo carousel, relax and stay earthbound. There now is a second flying Dumbo. Another new favorite in the Storybook Circus section of the remodeled New Fantasyland section is a mini-coaster ride, The Barnstormer featuring the Great Goofini. Two popular additions to The Enchanted Forest are Enchanted Tales with Belle and Under the Sea—Journey of the Little Mermaid. Also in the Enchanted Forest, your best bet for a meal at the crazy popular Be Our Guest might be lunch, wait or no wait. Dinner reservations stack up months in advance.
Of course, at some point Main Street USA is a must. That’s where the kids will meet Mickey, Minnie and any number of handsome princes and beautiful princesses. And if you’re not sure the family is game to last until the evening parades and fireworks, stake out a spot along the new Festival of Fantasy Parade route. Highlighted by Maleficent, the 35-foot-long, 26-foot-tall high-tech fire breathing dragon, the 3 p.m. daily parade is as spectacular as they come.
Now that the kids have seen Mickey, Ariel and Aladdin, chances are you’ve softened them up for a stroll around World Showcase. Once again, get there early. Come equipped with FastPass+ reservations for Test Track, Soarin’ or Mission: Space and prepared to knock off one of the others right away. You also don’t want to miss the iconic geosphere attraction Spaceship Earth or one of the exceptional international dining experiences. But depending on th ages and interests of your kids, Epcot might be anticlimactic to the Magic Kingdom, especially if visited the next day. If that’s the case, then maybe it’s a good idea for a shorter day at the park and a longer evening at the pool.
Day 3—Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Make sure everyone is well rested, because this promises to be a long (but especially fun) day for all. The attractions most likely to generate long lines include Toy Story Mania, Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock n’ Roller Coaster. Again, make sure you have a least one of them covered with FastPass+. You might also want to keep track of performance times of shows that interest you, such as Beauty and the Beast—Live on Stage and the Indiana JonesTM Epic Stunt Spectacular!
You’ll obviously have to have at least one meal at the park. Many consider the top sit-down dining experience to be the classic Hollywood Brown Derby, complete with star caricatures, while others favor the quirkier Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant. Both are fine choices and best reserved in advance. In fact, the Brown Derby is a participating restaurant in the Fantasmic! Dinner Package, so if you’ll be staying for the park-closing show but don’t relish a two-hour wait for seats, you might want to sign up for the combination dinner-and-reserved seat package.
Then again, you might want to keep a looser plan if you or a family member are thinking of entering the American Idol® Experience. If you advance through a series of auditions and the audience judges you the best performer on in your show, you’ll be one of five contestants who compete at the end of the day for a “Dream Ticket” to an actual American Idol regional audition.
And speaking of idols, the kids can meet their favorites at various locations in the park, some at various times, some all day: Buzz Lightyear and Woody from the “Toy Story” series at Pixar Place; Mike and Sulley from “Monsters, Inc.” near the Studio Backlot Tour; and Mickey and other A-list Disney characters at the Sorcerer’s Hat.
Day 4—More Mickey Mousing around
Not every trip to Disney World need be to a major theme park, so save Animal Kingdom for your next trip. On this day enjoy a water park or a round of golf or maybe (and especially if it’s rainy), a futuristic indoor theme park.
Typhoon Lagoon (open January through September), home of the world’s largest outdoor wave pools, is the world’s busiest water park, and Blizzard Beach (April through December) is No. 2 but presents a more intriguing motif—ski slopes in Florida. Summit Plummit, at the pinnacle of the Green Slope of Mount Gushmore, chutes riders down 120 feet at 60 mph, ranking officially as the second-tallest and fastest fall slide on Earth.
As for golf, Disney World offers four courses, three exquisite 18-hole championship courses and a nine-hole gem ideal for family fun. Disney’s Magnolia Golf Course is the longest, and a test for the most serious of golfers. Disney’s Palm Golf Course has been freshly renovated and updated by Arnold Palmer Golf Course Design. Disney’s Lake Buena Vista Golf Course has hosted popular events on the PGA and LPGA tours. Disney’s Oak Trail Golf Course is a par-36 walking course with three sets of tees perfect for family members of all ability levels.
Once you’ve toweled yourself off, or perhaps toweled the sand off your wedge, pair your water park or golf experience with shopping, dining and entertainment at Downtown Disney. You can entertain yourself for free there at, among other places, the Lego® Imagination Center.
And you’ll already be in Downtown Disney if you chose to begin your day at Disneyquest® Interactive Indoor Theme Park. There you and your family can engage in five floors of virtual reality experiences. One example is CyberSpace Mountain, in which you invent your own roller coaster via computer, making it as extreme as you want, and then entering a simulator synched to the exact twists, turns and plummets of your design.
Day 5—International Drive and points south
Here’s the first day without Disney World, but it’s in the vicinity. Countless vacation activities await just to the east, inside the cone formed by the intersection of Interstate 4 and Florida’s Turnpike. A few examples:
iFly Orlando, 6805 Visitors Circle (407.903.1150) provides the training and then the opportunity to simulate the skydiving experience indoors in a vertical wind tunnel. Plan on spending 75 to 90 minutes.
Ripley’s Odditorium, 8201 International Drive (407.345.0501) might be the only place in Greater Orlando where you can see a seven-legged sheep.
Pirate’s Dinner Adventure, 6400 Carrier Drive (407.248.0590) is a swashbuckling family-friendly dinner show performed on a galleon followed by a kid-centric, post-show “Buccaneer Bash.”
Day 6—Downtown and points north/east
This might be an itinerary that you assign to a specific day based on your interests.
If you enjoy pro sports, check team websites for to see whether the Orlando Magic, Orlando Solar Bears or Orlando Predators have home games while you’re visiting. The Magic play in the National Basketball Association, of course. The Solar Bears play an entertaining and competitive brand of minor-league hockey. And if you’ve never seen an arena football game, you’ll be in for a wild time at a Predators game. The Magic and Solar Bears play in Amway Arena downtown, where parking is convenient and reasonably priced. Their regular seasons run fall through spring. The Predators play at CFE Arena east of downtown on the campus of the University of Central Florida. Their season runs spring through summer.
If you enjoy the idea of watching movies together under the stars, two more websites are worth investigating during your pre-trip planning. Two communities part of Greater Orlando offer family-appropriate films for free in their respective city parks. Every other Thursday, the city of Winter Park presents Popcorn Flicks in the Park in Central Park, 251 S. Park Ave. Spread a blanket and enjoy a classic. Meanwhile, the city of Ocoee presents Food Truck Fridays in Bill Breeze Park on the third Friday of every month. As many as 10 food trucks provide a variety of options for an evening of fun that includes live musical entertainment preceding the motion picture.
Whether or not you attend one of those events, there’s plenty of other things to do downtown as a family. Children enjoy pedaling swan paddleboats around Lake Eola in Lake Eola Park, for example. And if you’re still near the urban park near nightfall, stick around. The fountain in the center of the lake comes alive twice each night. In musical programs that last just under 5 minutes, its illuminated sprays are choreographed to jazz numbers. It isn’t Disney, but it’s a nice way to end an evening.
Day 7—Road Trip
If you don’t live in Florida or at least central Florida, consider setting aside one day to venture a little farther away to enjoy unique experiences. Here are three options, the farthest away just inside two hours.
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Titusville (321.867.5000) is under an hour away in most traffic conditions. It’s a smooth, easy drive due east, mostly on State Road 528, a partial tollway.
The Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island was the operations base for every manned U.S. spaceflight from Apollo VIII in December 1968 through the final mission of the Space Shuttle Atlantis in July 2011. Now it’s control center for unmanned commercial payload missions, although those launch from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station across the NASA Causeway rather than from historic and massive Launch Complex 39 at the center itself. Still, if your visit coincides with a scheduled launch (check the KSC website), the visitor complex offers superb views. On most days, though, the main attractions at the visitor complex are exhibits and displays (including Atlantis), interactive experiences (including simulated astronaut training), guided bus tours and the opportunity to meet astronauts.
Plan on arriving early to make the most of the adventure. The best strategy is to reserve space in advance on one of the four bus tours, which can take up to 2 ½ hours, and then build the rest of your day around it. The newest tour, KSC Up-Close Explore Tour, includes stops for photos opportunities between Launch Pads A and B and in front of the still-awesome, 526-foot-tall Vehicle Assembly Building, the largest single-story building in the world.
Atlas V rockets now employed in commercial launches are just under 200 feet tall. In other words, they’re smaller than the 205-foot Singing Tower carillon at Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales (863.676.1408), another option for your road trip day. About an hour drive south of Orlando, almost half on Interstate 4, Bok Tower Gardens is a beautiful and serene botanical garden, bird sanctuary and National Historic Landmark.
The 250-acre gardens features thousands of trees and plants and hundreds of bird species. Among the vegetation are 10,000 azaleas, 1,000 large oaks and 100 sabal palms (including one at the base of carillon’s reflection pool planted by President Calvin Coolidge when he dedicated the garden in 1929). To make the most of your visit, plan for a three- to four-hour stay. The experience also includes available tours of the adjacent Pinewood Estate, restored to 1930s opulence; a picnic area where you use a table or spread a blanket; the Blue Palmetto Cafe, where you can enjoy soups, sandwiches and wraps; and a gift shop well worth browsing end-to-end.
But the focal point of the gardens in the Singing Tower, a neo-gothic and Art Deco masterpiece of Georgia marble and Florida coquina erected in 1928 at the highest point of the Florida peninsula. The carillon inside the tower consists of 60 bells that weigh up to 12 tons and are operated by keyboard and foot pedals like an organ. The sound is rich and gorgeous. Make sure in planning your visit to be on Bok Tower Gardens grounds for at least of the twice daily concerts at 1 and 3 p.m.
The third option takes you to Florida’s Treasure Coast and two destinations you can combine into a memorable day. Your ultimate destination is the UDT-Navy SEAL Museum in Fort Pierce, about 2 hours southeast of Orlando. But if you’re a baseball history buff, it might be hard to resist a quick stop in Vero Beach (on the way to look around an almost-forgotten relic of the game, Historic Dodgertown).
Historic Dodgertown dates almost as far back as the Frogmen. Dodgertown was the spring training home for the Brooklyn and later Los Angeles Dodgers from 1948, Jackie Robinson’s second year in the majors, to 2008. Today the renamed Historic Dodgertown is an all-purpose sports complex, hosting youth, high school and college baseball and softball events, adult baseball fantasy camps, lacrosse practices, pro football open tryouts and more. Visitors are welcome to walk the historic grounds, especially Holman Stadium. The iconic ballpark is unchanged over the decades—there’s still no covered dugouts, still berm instead of bleachers beyond the outfield fence, still palms sprouting from the grandstands. You can almost picture Tommy Lasorda with his arms folded on the bench, Mike Piazza blasting a towering home run or Maury Wills scooping up a grounder at short. If there happens to be a tournament or event the day you visit, you might be charged a slight fee, but otherwise admission is free.
The SEAL Museum (772.595.5845) is just a short drive east over a bridge to State Road A1A, then a picturesque drive south. At the SEAL Museum you’ll explore the history of the famed fighting unit that descended from the Navy Frogmen teams trained off Fort Pierce beaches in World War II. Exhibits range from original beach training obstacles to generations of guns, knives and improvised weapons to a model of Bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad to the actual Maersk Alabama lifeboat recovered by the SEALS who rescued Captain Richard Phillips from Somali pirates. The museum, open Tuesday through Sunday, closes 4 p.m. each day, which means that even if you stop for bite, you’ll still be back in Orlando reasonably early.
Organization is the secret to the most successful vacations. Be ready to adjust if needed, but have a plan or at least know the choices.
Looking for a week-long vacation? Check out this Orlando Getaway Package that’s sure to please the family.
Photo Credit: Walt Disney World Resort and Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex