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Complete Guide to the Orlando Theme Parks

Before Walt Disney launched his Florida project, Orlando wasn’t nearly the city that it is now. This central Florida destination is now arguably the world capital for theme parks, with more options than any family can realistically visit in one vacation. There are so many Orlando theme parks in the area. Regardless of the ages of your kids, you will definitely find some at least one park that’s perfect for your children.

I have fond memories of visiting the Orlando theme parks with my family as a child, and now we’ve loved visiting with my kids. We’ve been when they were infants, and have returned on a regular basis. Now that they are teens, they still ask to visit Orlando on vacation. It really is a destination that appeals to all ages.

Disclosure: I’ve visited some of these theme parks in Florida at no cost for review over the years. All opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links. A purchase and/or click through one of these links may result in a commission paid to us at no additional cost to you.

Orlando Theme Parks to Visit With Your Family

The complete guide to Orlando theme parks, including the parks at Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, Seaworld, and LEGOLAND.

Walt Disney World Resort

Walt Disney World has grown over the years, and now includes four major theme parks as well as two water parks and the Disney Springs Dining and Entertainment complex. Visiting Walt Disney World is almost a rite of passage for families, because it’s such a traditional family vacation. While you can certainly visit any of the parks individually during your Orlando family vacation, may families prefer to stay at the resort to take advantage of the perks for on-site Disney guests.

Disney Cinderella Castle

Here’s what to expect at each park:

Magic Kingdom Park: The first of the Walt Disney World theme parks, the Magic Kingdom is home to the iconic Cinderella Castle. You’ll find other popular Disney rides and attractions, like Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Thunder Mountain Railroad, and the Haunted Mansion.

While older kids will appreciate the roller coasters, young kids have a lot to enjoy as well. Rides such as it’s a small world, the Barnstormer, Dumbo the Flying Elephant all appeal to the younger set.

The Magic Kingdom also features lots of restaurants, including character meals with the princesses and dinner in the Beast’s Castle at Be Our Guest.

Epcot: Arguably my favorite Disney park, Epcot was the second park added to Walt Disney World. It features two distinct sections – Future World and the World Showcase. At Future World, you’ll find rides such as Soarin’ and Test Track, while the World Showcase is home to the 11 countries of Epcot. It’s definitely worth spending an afternoon visiting the different countries. Epcot also has some of my favorite restaurants on property, so you’ll definitely want to eat there for at least one meal.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios: This park has gone through a huge transformation over the last year, with more to come. Originally called Disney MGM Studios, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is home to attractions focused on the world of television and movies. Popular attractions include the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Star Tours, the Rock n Roller Coaster, and Toy Story Mania.

Toy Story fans will love the new Toy Story Land, complete with rides and a quick service restaurant. It’s very popular, so you’ll want to make FastPass reservations where you can. There’s also a new Star Wars Land that is opening in 2019, and that is sure to be hugely popular.

While older kids love the thrill rides at Hollywood Studios, there’s stuff for little ones too. My kids always loved Disney Junior Live on Stage, where they can see their favorites. There’s also a character dining opportunity at the Hollywood and Vine where they can greet popular characters from Disney Junior.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Disney’s newest theme park is so much more than a zoo. Although you will find animal shows, encounters, and exhibits, there are also exciting rides and delicious restaurants. The most recent addition to the park is Pandora, the World of Avatar. Within Pandora, you’ll find Flight of Passage, one of the most innovative rides I’ve experienced. It’s hugely popular, so make FastPasses as soon as your booking window opens.

Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon Water Parks, and Disney Springs: If you are looking to take a break from the parks, you’ll have several options. There are two water parks on property. They are open year round, but in the winter, typically one is closed for refurbishment.

water feature in Disney Springs with buildings around it

There’s also Disney Springs, which includes entertainment options like bowling and movie theaters, as well as restaurants and shopping. There’s no admission fee to get into Disney Springs (the individual venues do charge admission), so it’s a good option for a day that you don’t have a ticket, or for an evening. In recent years, Disney Springs has expanded to include even more restaurants and more shops.

Walt Disney World Tickets

If you are looking to purchase Walt Disney World tickets, you’ll find loads of different ticket options. We have a full guide to Walt Disney World tickets that helps explain the various choices you’ll have, including the park hopper option and the flexible date option. You can get great deals on tickets here.

Universal Orlando Resort

Orlando is also home to the Universal Orlando Resort, which includes the original Universal Studios Florida, Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, and the new Universal Studios Volcano Bay. There’s also Universal CityWalk, with dining, entertainment and shops. Many families think of Universal as a part that more appropriate for older kids, but that isn’t necessarily the case. All of the theme parks in Florida have things for kids of all ages.

Fans of Harry Potter especially love visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions. Ride Hogwarts Express, which leaves from King’s Cross Station at Universal Studios Florida and goes to Hogsmeade Station at the Islands of Adventure park (or the opposite route). To do that, you’ll need a park to park pass which includes admission to both parks.

Universal Studios Florida: The original Universal Orlando park includes rides and attractions inspired by movies and TV shows, including the Hogwarts Express, The Simpsons Ride,, E.T. Adventure, and Men in Black Alien Attack. Older kids especially love the thrill rides at Universal.

Universal Studios Islands of Adventure: At the Islands of Adventure, you can continue (or start) your journey on the Hogwarts Express. You’ll also find some of the following rides: Jurassic Park River Adventure, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, and the The Cat in the Hat. Fans of Marvel and Dr. Seuss will especially love this park. It too has rides that older kids (and adults!) will enjoy

Universal Studios Volcano Bay: The newest addition to Universal Studios is Volcano Bay. This water park replaced the original Wet n Wild water park, and offers water slides and other water rides.

The centerpiece of Volcano Bay, as you’d expect, is the Krakatau volcano, which features several water slides. Volcano Bay uses a new TapuTapu wristband technology which can be used to hold your place in line and make purchases in the park.

Universal Studios CityWalk: You’ll find the popular Blue Man Group show as well as other dining, shopping, and entertainment on CityWalk.

Universal Orlando also has several on site hotels. If you are a guest of a Universal Orlando resort hotel, you can access the theme parks one hour before general park opening. You will need a valid park admission. Because the Harry Potter attractions can be very popular with long lines, this option can be really helpful.

There’s also the Universal Express Pass, which allows you to skip the regular lines at many popular attractions. When purchasing tickets, you’ll have lots of options, like the park to park option. You can get great rates on Universal Orlando tickets here.

Manta sign at SeaWorld

Seaworld Orlando Parks

Seaworld Orlando: most known for its popular animal shows and exhibits. But you’ll be amazed with the Seaworld Orlando thrill rides, including Manta, MAKO and Kraken. Recently opened is Infinity Falls, which boasts the world’s largest water drop.

Discovery Cove: In my opinion, Discovery Cove is the most unique of Central Florida’s parks. This park, which is owned by Seaworld, offers an all-inclusive resort experience in a day park. Arrive early, because you’ll get the most value by spending your day there. All food and alcohol is included with admission.

When purchasing tickets to Discovery Cove, you’ll have several ticket options. These include a standard day resort ticket, a dolphin swim only package, an ultimate day resort ticket, and an ultimate dolphin swim package. You’ll need to select your date of visit when purchasing a ticket.  I had the opportunity to visit several years ago as part of a press event, and really enjoyed my day. It’s definitely more relaxing than the other Orlando vacation attractions.

Seaworld Orlando also offers a water park, called Aquatica. It’s located right near both Seaworld Orlando and Discovery Cove.

You can find great rates here.

LEGOLAND Florida Resort

Located on the grounds of the former Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven Florida, LEGOLAND Florida Resort is a dream come true for LEGO lovers. It’s best for younger kids (teens may be a bit too old), and features rides like the Dragon, Coastersaurus, and Merlin’s Challenge. There’s also a botanical garden, which is left from Cypress Gardens, MINILAND USA, stunt shows at Pirates’ Cove, and 4D movies at the Fun Town Theater.

LEGO lovers may consider staying at the on site LEGOLAND Florida Hotel. This hotel really brings the world of LEGO to life, and so convenient if you are visiting the theme park.

You can get great prices on LEGOLAND Florida tickets here.

Giraffes at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

Outside of Orlando

Technically in Tampa, Florida, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is close enough to Orlando to consider visiting during your vacation. If you’ve got kids that love thrill rides, you should definitely consider visiting.

My kids absolutely loved the rides at Busch Gardens, especially Falcon’s Fury, Cheetah’s Hunt, and the Scorpion. There are also lots of animal exhibits on property, including meerkats, giraffes, elephants, flamingos, and a huge hippo.

You can definitely visit the park in one day, but I’d recommend arriving early. Quick queue, which offers front of the line privileges, is available at an additional fee.

If you are staying in Orlando but want to visit for the day, you can take a free shuttle from Orlando to Busch Gardens. It’s free with a paid ticket, there there are plenty of pickup/dropoff locations throughout the Orlando area. Book the shuttle here.

Get a great deal on tickets here.

Traveling to Orlando

As a major city, Orlando is very accessible from any destinations in the US or overseas. You have your choice of the huge Orlando International Airport (MCO), or Orlando Sanford International Airport. If you are planning on taking Disney’s complimentary Magical Express (if staying on property), you’ll want to arrive at MCO, as the service only leaves from that airport.

If you aren’t staying on property at your preferred theme park, it’s probably easiest to rent a car. There are plenty of them available at the airports. The theme parks do generally charge for parking, so you’ll want to look into that and factor it into your budget.

Where to Stay in Orlando

There are hundreds of places to stay in Orlando – from roadside motels to luxury resorts, vacation homes to theme park hotels. Before booking your vacation, you should definitely consider the type of experience that you want to have.

If you have one specific theme park you’d like to visit, it’s a good idea to see if there are any benefits to staying on site. At Universal, for instance, you can get early access to the parks by staying on site. Walt Disney World also offers fabulous benefits to their onsite guests.

Those looking for more space and a more low key vacation may consider one of the many vacation homes in the area.

You can see our recommendations for Orlando hotels here.

Which Orlando theme parks have you been to?

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