Florida Theme Parks
In 2018 there were over 75 million visitors that traveled to Orlando and the major reason for it was the central Florida theme parks. Orlando is the top travel destination in the US and home to major theme parks in the Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Studios and SeaWorld. With all these attractions its no wonder that Orlando is known as the theme park capital of the world.
And just a short drive from Orlando there are two other major theme parks resorts including Legoland Florida and Busch Gardens Tampa/Adventure Island Tampa.
With so many theme parks to choose from, Orlando is the place to be for all the excitement and attractions.
The Walt Disney World Resort
Since October 1971, The Walt Disney World Resort has been the pinnacle of all the theme parks in the world. Disney features four individual theme parks, two amazing water parks, over 30,000 hotel rooms, a major sporting venue and one of Florida’s largest shopping, dining & entertainment venues. These include:
- The Magic Kingdom Park
- Disney’s Hollywood Studios
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom
- Typhoon Lagoon water park
- Blizzard Beach water park
- ESPN Wide World of Sports
- Disney Springs (shopping, dining & entertainment)
The 107-acre Magic Kingdom Park is the most visited theme park in the world hosting more than 20 million guests each year which is over 2 million more than its sister park, Disneyland in California. The Magic Kingdom originally opened in 1971 and was the first of Disney’s four theme parks in the Central Florida area.
There are a total of six themed “lands” in the park each with its own themed rides, shops, shows and restaurants. The park’s individual lands are designed around Cinderella’s Castle which is the central hub of the Magic Kingdom as well as home to its amazing shows and parades.
- Main Street USA
- Liberty Square
Some of the most popular rides and attractions are the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the Seven Dwarf’s Mine Train, “it’s a small word ride”, the Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain. In addition to its rides and attractions are meet & greets with some of the Disney iconic characters including Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Tinkerbell, Anna & Elsa from Frozen, Ariel from The Little Mermaid and Belle from Beauty and the Best.
The Magic Kingdom hosts a number of special events every year including Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party and Disney Villains After Hours at the Magic Kingdom.
Disney’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, known as EPCOT is the second of the four theme parks in the Walt Disney World Resort. Spanning 305 acres (which is twice the size of the Magic Kingdom), Walt Disney originally intended for for EPCOT to be a true city where people would live, work and play but today it is one of the most visited theme parks in the world.
Some of the most popular rides and attractions at EPCOT include Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, Frozen Ever After Spaceship Earth, Mission Space, Test Track and Soarin.
The World Showcase is located at the rear of the park and is a world traveler and foodie’s delight! Circling a 40-acre lagoon, there are 11 individual nations featuring food, art and culture from their country. These 11 nations at the world showcase include Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, Morocco, France, the United Kingdom and Canada.
Guests can sample fine cuisine and enjoy amazing wines from around the world in the numerous restaurants. At the end of the evening, make sure you find a great place along the lagoon to watch the fireworks show.
EPCOT is also known for its special events hosting number of fun filled experiences throughout the year with each having its own theme. These four events are as follows:
- Epcot International Festival of the Arts (Late January to early February)
- Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival (Early March to early June)
- Epcot International Food & Wine Festival (Late summer to early fall)
- Epcot International Festival of the Holidays (Mid-Fall to winter)
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Disney’s Hollywood Studios is inspired by show business with some parts being an operating production studio. Formerly known as MGM-Studios, it was the third theme park built at the Walt Disney World resort. The park as a whole is themed after a number Disney’s classic movie franchises and television shows including Star Wars, the Toy Story franchise, and Disney Junior television shows.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios recently underwent a major transformation and expansion which brought a all new Star Wars Land and Toy Story Land to the park, bring the total number of individual park areas to nine.
- Hollywood Boulevard
- Echo Lake
- Commissary Lane
- Grand Avenue
- Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge
- Toy Story Land
- An Incredible Celebration
- Animation Courtyard
- Sunset Boulevard
Several of the most popular rides include Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster, Toy Story Mania!, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror.
In addition to the amazing rides and attractions, there are a number of great shows including Beauty and the Beast – Live on Stage, Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular show, For the First Time in Forever: A “Frozen” Sing-Along Celebration, Muppet Vision 3D and Fantasmic! which is the nighttime spectacular with characters, fireworks and more.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Opened in 1998, Animal Kingdom is the largest of all four Disney parks in the Orlando area and at 580 acres, the largest theme park in the world. This park features Asian jungles and African savannas to go along with rainforests and animal encounters.
There are more than 250 different species of animals at Animal Kingdom with over 1,700 in total. Beyond the natural wonders there are a number of thrill rides and attractions that will keep you keep at the edge of your seat.
There are are six themed lands at Disney’s Animal Kingdom with each having their own rides & attractions, shops, shows and places to eat. Theses lands include Oasis, Discovery Island, Pandora – The World of Avatar, Africa, Asia and Dinoland USA.
More recently, Animal Kingdom has been expanded featuring a number of Pandora – The World of Avatar themed rides and attractions. This expansion really has brought this park to life by adding a way to cap off the day with evening events & attractions. Several of the popular Avatar themed rides and attractions include the Na’vi River Journey and the 3D ride, Avatar Flight of Passage.
Several of the most popular rides, shows and attractions outside of Pandora – The World of Avatar are as follows:
- Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain (roller coaster)
- DINOSAUR (dark ride)
- Finding Nemo – The Musical (show)
- Festival of the Lion King (show)
- Kali River Rapids (water ride)
It is still our opinion that the best attraction at of Animal Kingdom is the 100-acre tour of the savannah known as Kilimanjaro Safaris as you get an up close and personal experience with a number of animals that you won’t find in your local zoo.
Disney’s Water Parks
Originally built to take the place of Disney’s River Country, Typhoon Lagoon opened in 1989 and features one of the world’s largest outdoor wave pools that provide surfable waves. There is actually a program at Typhoon Lagoon that teaches those ages 8 and up to surf.
- Typhoon Lagoon Surf Pool (full wave pool)
- Castaway Creek (lazy river)
- Ketchakiddee Creek (for the little ones)
- Keelhaul Falls (tube ride)
- Mayday Falls (single rider tube slide)
- Gangplank Falls (four person tube ride)
- Humunga Kowabunga (drop five stories in this water side)
- Storm Side (three different body slides
- Bay Slides (slides for those under 60 inches)
- Mountain Trail
- Miss Adventures Falls (family raft ride)
- Crush ‘n’ Gusher (roller-coaster style raft ride) (Endless Summer favorite)
Due to the success of Typhoon Lagoon, Disney opened Blizzard Beach in 1995. Blizzard Beach is a 66-acre water park that is themed after the melting of a snow ski resort.
- Melt-Away Bay wave pool
- Cross Country Creek lazy river
- Ski Patrol Training Camp: activity play area for pre-teens
- Tike’s Peak: a water playground for those under 48 inches
- Green Slopes – for the daring
- Summit Plummet
- Slush Gusher
- Teamboat Springs (six person raft ride)
- Chairlift (chairlift to the top of of the mountain)
- Purple Slopes – moderate level slides
- Toboggan Racers (mat slide)
- Snow Stormers (mat slide)
- Downhill Double Dipper (racing tube slide)
- Red Slopes – for the faint at heart
- Runoff Rapids (tube ride down three twisting slides)
Formerly known as Downtown Disney as Disney Village Marketplace, Disney Springs has been redeveloped and expanded into an enormous 120-acre shopping, dining and entertainment complex which are built around “bubbling springs”.
Disney Springs was originally built in 1975 as the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village and has evolved to the massive development it is today. The most recent expansion and rebranding was started in 2013 with some limited construction continuing today. There is no admission charge and parking is also free.
Disney Springs features a host of retail shops which feature Fashions & Sportswear, Home Decor, Footwear, Toys & Games, Jewelry & Accessories as well as Beauty & Health. Also featured is the 51,000 square foot World of Disney store which is the largest Disney store in the world featuring everything from classic Disney merchandise to the most recent Disney themed toys, clothes and collectibles.
Disney Springs features over 50 dining options at Disney Springs which range from fast casual dining & quick service to more formal table service. Restaurants include
- The Boathouse
- Morimoto Asia
- Planet Hollywood
- STK Orlando
- Blaze Fast-Fire’d Pizza
- Chicken Guy!
- D-Luxe Burger
- EARL OF SANDWICH
- The Polite Pig
Beyond just shopping and dining, there are a number of unique entertainment experiences and attractions located at Disney Springs. These include:
- AMC Disney Springs 24 movies
- House of Blues Music Hall
- Splitsville Luxury Lanes
- Vintage Amphicar & Italian Water Taxi Tours
- The Coca-Cola Store Rooftop Beverage Bar
Disney Hotels & Resorts
There are over 30 resorts at the Walt Disney World Resort including the Disney Vacation Club (fractional ownership) properties totaling more than 30,000 hotel rooms and over 3,000 vacation club units.
Hotels and resorts are separated into different categories which include:
- Deluxe Resort Hotels
- Deluxe Resort Villas
- Moderate Resort Hotels
- Value Resorts
- Disney’s campgrounds
The Universal Orlando Resort
The Universal Orlando Resort is the second largest theme park in Orlando behind Disney but has been closing the gap due to the opening of Volcano Bay (water theme park) and the soon to be opened EPIC Universe.
The original Universal Studios opened in 1990 and was themed as a “Ride the Movies” type of park . As part of a massive expansion in 1999, Universal opened a second theme park called Islands of Adventure, a dining & entertainment complex called Citywalk and several on-site themed hotels.
Similar to Disney’s FastPass+, Universal offers the “Universal Express” option which in our opinion is the best theme park benefit of any throughout Orlando. Universal Express allows you to skip the regular lines at most of the rides and attractions throughout Universal Orlando. Unlimited Express Pass is a FREE hotel benefit when staying at any of Universal’s Premier Resorts or you can upgrade your admission to a one time per participating ride Express Pass or an unlimited Express Pass. The “unlimited” version allows you to skip the regular lines and ride the participating rides as many times that you want. Prices for Universal Express and Universal Express Unlimited start from $69.99 per person per day for one-park.
And if you are a Universal Orlando Premier Annual Passholder, the one time Universal Express (after 4:PM) is included with the cost of your pass. CLICK HERE to learn more about the Premier Annual Passholder benefits.
Universal Studios Florida
Universal Studios Florida is Universal’s original Florida park and in 2018, has hosted more than 10 million visitors making it the 11th most visited theme park in the world. As indicated above, Universal Studios was originally designed as a “Ride the Movies” park but has evolved and changed with the times.
Themed lands include
- New York
- Production Central
- San Francisco
- Diagon Alley – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
- World Expo
Some of the most popular rides and attractions are themed after movies including Despicable Me, Escape from Gringotts Bank, The Mummy Roller Coaster and Men In Black Alien Attack. Universal Studios Orlando is also famous for its special events. Two of the more popular are Halloween Horror Nights and Mardi Gras at Universal Studios.
On most nights from September to early November the park closes early and is transformed into a giant horror fest known as Halloween Horror Nights (“HHN”). The event is so popular that it is has been running for 29 years and the crowds continue to grow. HHN features scare zones, haunted houses and a number of great shows. If Halloween is your thing, HHN is not to be missed.
Universal also host a huge Mardi Gras celebration which is a family friendly event that typically runs from early February to early April. The Hollywood, Production Central and New York sections of the park transform with a New Orleansesque theme. There is a nightly parade (with floats and beads), weekend concerts and great cajun / creole food.
Universal’s Islands of Adventure
Universal’s Island of Adventure is consistently rated among the top theme parks in the world. Originally developed as more of a “thrill” type park to compliment Universal Studios Florida, Islands has a number of roller coasters and “thrill” type rides that definitely draw the crowds.
What really increased the popularity of this park was when in 2010 Universal added the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade Village and Hogsmeade Castle to its line up. As a result, Island of Adventure was in the top 15 in theme park attendance for 2018 with more than 9.7 million guests crossing their gates.
There are eight individually themed “islands” at Islands of Adventure that have rides and attractions suitable for all ages.
- Port of Entry
- Marvel Super Hero Island
- Toon Lagoon
- Skull Island: Reign of Kong
- Jurassic Park
- Hogsmeade – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
- The Lost Continent
- Seuss Landing
The most popular “thrill” rides and attractions at Islands of Adventure include the rides at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Harry Potter & the Forbidden Journey and the Flight of the Hippogriff), the Incredible Hulk Roller Coaster, Dr. Doom Fear Fall and the Amazing Spiderman ride. In addition to the thrill rides, this park features there amazing water rides in the Jurassic Park River Adventure, Dudley Do Right’s Rip Saw Falls and Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges ride.
There is an island also dedicated to kid rides and attractions known as Seuss Landing which of course is themed after the stories of Dr. Seuss. In addition to great rides like Cat in the Hat and One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, there are a number of character meet & greets in Seuss Landing.
And under construction in a new roller coaster that will have Jurassic Park theming. Limited details have been make public at this time so check back for updates.
When Universal underwent their expansion in 1999 they added CityWalk which is their entertainment and retail district. Universal’s CityWalk is the “epicenter” of the Universal Orlando Resort featuring a number of restaurants, shops, nightclubs and entertainment venues.
After parking in either the garages or being dropped off at the transportation center, you will need to pass through CityWalk to get to the entrance of Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.
CityWalk features a more than 20 dining options which range from fast food to quick service dining as well as table dining. There is a wide variety of dining options so if guests are seeking a intimate dinner for two or just a quick bite to eat with the kids, there will be a wide variety of options to chose from.
Restaurants include Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., The Cowfish, NBC Sports Grill & Brew, The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen and the Hard Rock Cafe Orlando.
During the evening hours there is no better place to party than Universal’s CityWalk. CityWalk features a number of clubs and lounges which include CityWalk’s Rising Star (karaoke bar), Lone Palm Airport (outside bar) and the Red Coconut Club.
If bar hopping is not your thing or if you are visiting with children, than don’t regret as there are plenty of things to do for you when the theme parks close.
- Universal’s Great Movie Escape (escape adventure)
- Hard Rock Live Orlando (concert venue)
- Hollywood Drive-In Golf
- Universal Cinemark (movie theater)
The most recent addition to the Universal Orlando Resort is Universal’s Volcano Bay which is a themed water park. Originally opened in the summer of 2017, the park uses a unique wearable device that wears like a bracelet that guest use to hold their pace in line as well, interact with a number of park features, and make purchases of food & merchandise (provided its connected with a credit card).
Universal’s Volcano Bay features a variety of water attractions, including water slides, wave pools, lazy rivers, and other water-based rides and experiences. One of the park’s main attractions is the Krakatau Aqua Coaster, which takes riders on a thrilling ride through the park’s centerpiece, a 200-foot-tall volcano.
The park also features a variety of dining options, shopping opportunities, and other amenities. It is designed to offer a unique and immersive water park experience, with theming and attractions that are inspired by the culture and traditions of the South Pacific.
Universal’s Epic Universe
In the summer of 2019 Universal announced that is will develop a fourth theme park called Universal’s Epic Universe. This new park will be located on over 750 acres off Sand Lake Road and a future extension of Kirkman which will run to Universal Boulevard. This new site will feature a completely new theme park, hotels, shops, restaurants and an entertainment center.
It is anticipated that Universal’s Epic Universe will open in the summer of 2025.
Universal On-Site Hotels
Universal Orlando features a wide range of places to stay during your visit. From first class on-site hotels to family suites as well as value hotels, you can find the perfect place to stay that fits your budget.
Universal’s on-site hotels and resorts are separated into three different categories:
- Premier Hotels & Resorts
- Preferred & Value Hotels and Resorts
- Prime Value Hotels and Resorts
There are a number of great benefits that come from staying on-site at a Universal Orlando hotel. These amazing benefits include:
- Complimentary transportation by either bus or boat
- Early park admission to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter as well as Universal’s Volcano Bay one hour before park opening.
- Universal Express Unlimited for those guests staying at a Premier Hotel and Resort
The SeaWorld parks & resorts are the smallest of the three major central Florida area theme parks & resorts but its has a fairly wide footprint ranging from locations in both Orlando and Tampa.
Busch Gardens Tampa was it’s first Florida theme park which opened in 1959; followed by SeaWorld Orlando in 1973. Both the Orlando and Tampa locations have accompanying water parks which add to the guests overall experience.
SeaWorld Orlando is the flagship park in Florida. Located on approximately 200 acres just east of Interstate 4 and south of the Orange County Convention Center, SeaWorld is a both a theme park as well as a marine zoological park as it features a number of different marine life exhibits.
If you enjoy animal experiences, then SeaWorld is the park to visit. You will find a number of different animals and mammals from dolphins to manatees, killer whales to turtles, even alligators and pink flamingos. And there are also a number of different aquariums where you will find a number of different species of fish as well as other marine life.
This park, as well other SeaWorld parks, is undergoing a transformation and trending towards less marine life shows accompanied by more thrill type rides and attractions. Several of the more popular rides and attractions at SeaWorld Orlando are as follows:
- Infinity Falls – prepare to get wet on this river raft ride.
- Mako – one of the fastest and longest roller coasters in Orlando.
- Kraken – thrills about on this amazing roller coaster.
- Manta – fly through the sky just like a Manta Ray on this exciting roller coaster.
- Ice Breaker – the all new stand up roller coaster
- Journey to Atlantis – amazing water coaster ride through Atlantis.
- Sky Tower – 400 foot observation tower ride. You can see all of Orlando from the top.
There is something for everyone at SeaWorld Orlando including the little ones. Sesame Street Land is a very well themed “kids area” which has a number of rides an attracts that are perfect for children 10 and younger. Several of the Sesame Street themed rides and attractions include Abby’s Flower Tower, Bid Bird’s Twirl ‘N’ Whirl, Cooke Drop!, Slimey’s Slider and the Super Grover’s Box Car Derby. There is even a fantastic Sesame Street themed as well as “Storytime with Big Bird”.
In addition to the amazing rides there area a number of fantastic shows and animal experiences which are what highlight the theme of Sea World as a hole. Here are some of the featured shows and experiences.
- Orca Encounter – Killer Whale Presentation and Ocean Discovery
- Dolphin Cove and Dolphin Nursery – watch the dolphins train and play. You can even take a special tour (paid of course).
- Manatee Rehabilitation Area
- Underwater Viewing – SeaWorld has underwater viewing for both dolphins and killer whales.
- Pacific Point Preserve – Sea Lion viewing
- Shark Encounter – go underwater with the sharks and other marine life
- Stingray Lagoon – did you ever pet a stingray? Well you can here.
- Turtle Trek – huge aquariums of turtles, fish and manatees
Aquatica at SeaWorld Orlando
If you enjoy water parks then Aquatic will be on your must do list during your next visit to Orlando. From thrill water rides to two large wave pools as well as both fast and slow “lazy rivers”, Aquatica is the perfect place to stay cool in the hot Florida sun.
- Ray Rush – Family friendly raft slide
- Dolphin Plunge – water slide through a pool of commerson dolphins
- Ihu’s Breakaway Falls – drop style water slides for the daring
- Omaka Rocka – raft water slide into flumes and funnels
- Walhalla Wave – six-story twisting and turning raft ride
- Whanau Way – high speed raft ride with four different experiences
- Cutback Cove & Big Surf Shores – side-by-side wave pools with a sandy beach area
- Kata’s Kookaburra Cove – kids play area featuring a number of sides and water features
- Loggerhead Lane – lazy river featuring aquarium viewing
- Roa’s Rapids – “fast” lazy river ride
- Walkabout Waters – multistory play area for kids with slides, water features and more
There area a number of dining options at Aquatica which include the all you can deal Banana Beach Cookout, quick service dining at Waterstone Grill and the grab & go market Mango Market.