A few weeks ago, in a midnight bout of work-related-anxiety insomnia, I booked myself a a last-minute trip to Orlando for Labor Day weekend—I'd always wanted to go to Universal Studios (it opened in 1990, and the last time I went to Orlando was as a kid in the late-80s) and also wanted to revisit the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. I wound up staying at a Universal Orlando resort (the Aventura Hotel, which just opened August 16) and splitting my theme park days half-half—Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios, Epcot, Universal's Islands of Adventure. I also made some vlogs about two of those days (embedded here), so instead of rehashing them in any sort of detailed way, here are some key learnings / strong opinions I have about visiting these theme parks, especially if you're a solo traveler.
— The Magic Kingdom is a massive undertaking—and where I noticed the most child meltdowns during the day. The lines are long, there's a lot of walking involved, and the rides are hit-or-miss in terms of ROI (return on investment, in this case time spent waiting on line). Be prepared to space out your day and take plenty of breaks. Having a breakfast and/or lunch reservation helps structure your loop around the park. I grabbed a last-minute lunch spot at the Be Our Guest restaurant, which lets you inside the Beast's Castle. The food was fine—not good, not bad, fine. And prices throughout the park are on par with prices you'd see on a NYC diner menu, so not expensive, but also not cheap.
— Fast Pass: I booked my vacation too late to score any of the harder-to-get fast passes, but my priority in visiting Disney properties wasn't to go on rides—I was more interested in just walking around, eating cute snacks, shopping, and checking out any newly-developed themed corners of the parks. If you're traveling with young children, I'm pretty sure you'll need to employ some serious Fast Pass strategy, in order to avoid killing each other.
— Wear socks. I read so many blog posts and articles about the best shoes to wear while walking the 10+ miles you'll be covering each day at any Orlando theme parks, and so many of them recommend Tevas and flip flops and sports sandals. Fine, OK, sure I guess I could see how that would work, because of the handful of water rides here and there that might get your feet wet—but I weighed the options and I'd rather bring a pair of sandals / Tevas in my backpack to change into just in case I went on a water ride instead of getting painful blisters from wearing shoes without socks all day long. My recommendation is to choose a pair of soft sneakers without any abrasive seams—ideal: any of the sneakers from Nike's Flyknit range—and wear them with socks (I prefer Bombas).
— Wherever you stay, take advantage of early park entry. I went to parks on a Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday over a holiday long weekend. It doesn't matter which day of the week you go—these parks are packed (I'm from NYC, I know packed). You'll get so much done during the pre-admission hour—at Universal Studios it makes all the difference in the world when it comes to exploring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter—I rode the Gringott's ride twice in a row because the lines were so short in the morning! At Disney World, I didn't have early park entry (because I was staying at a Universal property), but even just making sure to get there as the park was opening made a huge difference in getting to popular rides early.
— Don't worry about backtracking. I'm a huge fan of workflow and efficiency, but threw all that out the window when I was in Orlando, especially at the Disney properties. At Epcot, for example, I got there just as the park was opening and triaged Frozen Ever After, Soarin' Around the World, and Test Track all within the first 90 minutes of arriving. It was a lot of dashing back and forth to different corners of the theme park, but once I got to ride those, I felt like I had the rest of the day free to explore whatever I wanted at Epcot with zero pressure.
— Get all your souvenirs delivered. Every park offers the free option to have the souvenirs you buy throughout the day delivered to the front gate for pickup on your way out—and if you stay at a Disney resort or a Universal resort, you can have theme park deliver your shopping directly to your hotel.
— Cool down spots. It was a sweltering (but typical, I guess) 90 degrees and humid all four days I was out and about at theme parks in Orlando—even in the mornings!—so I figured out pretty quickly that there are some important cool-down spots that are easy-ish to access when you need time to just decompress, sit down, soak in the air conditioning, and not have to buy a meal or a drink (or wait on line). My favorite spot that combines limitless cool-downing and people watching: Knockturn Alley in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter—that dark side street where Borgin and Burkes is. It's ultra-air-conditioned, pretty dark (no sun!), and has benches where you can sit with a bottle of water for as long as you like.
— Opinion: Epcot needs a revamp. I found Epcot to be the most challenging theme park I visited over the long weekend—it was blistering hot, there wasn't a lot of shade or air conditioning to duck into while I was making my way around to visit the different countries, and the rides were just... OK. Frozen Ever After might be fun for super-fans of Frozen, but there wasn't anything about it that felt high-touch or surprising / delightful. It felt like they needed a Frozen ride, so they made a Frozen ride. At Epcot I was also surprised at how outdated some of the points of view were on representing different cultures in this setting—I found the "Africa" corner of the park to be especially problematic (1. Africa is not a country and 2. Presenting an entire continent as a monolithic grab-bag of kitsch "tribal"-themed souvenirs is... a really old cop-out of an idea that needs to be overhauled ASAP.).
Last takeaway thoughts on solo travel to Orlando:
— Theme parks are a great solo trip option because you get to do whatever you want and you get to cut down on your line time by choosing Single Rider lines.
— Staying at a Disney property or a Universal property will make your daily logistics much easier.
— Drink at least twice as much water as you usually drink—you'll dehydrate faster than you think.
— A larger-than-average belt bag can hold most of what you need—not carrying a backpack will keep you way less sweaty and make it easier to go on some rides.
— After going on a bunch of Hogwarts rides, I feel like being a student there would be really stressful. There are a lot of scary creatures and bad guys constantly trying to kill you—how do these kids ever get any studying done!