Trip Report – Orlando for Disney and Universal theme parks

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Timmy getting ready to go into the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride at Islands of Adventure in Orlando

My family enjoyed a wonderful week in Orlando with another family.  We flew for free on Southwest, stayed at the Marriott Grande Vista using our timeshare, and spent 6 days at the Disney and Universal theme parks.

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Orlando Trip Details

Join the Disney Book Club

Before leaving for Orlando, we thought it would be a good idea to order some Disney Books to read on the plane and enjoy at the timeshare.  You get 4 books for only $0.99 with no commitment and free shipping!  Plus, all of the books that you buy are available digitally through their iTunes app or using your browser on any phone, tablet, or computer.

Disney Book Club - ebooks for free

Booking our Flight on Southwest

Whenever we fly across the United States, our first choice is always Southwest.  Unfortunately, they have very few direct flights anymore, but saving a ton of money with the Southwest Companion Pass is so worth it!  Essentially, wherever I fly on Southwest, my wife can fly with me for free, whether I am paying cash or redeeming points for my ticket.

If we were going to pay cash for our tickets, they would have run about $450 a person from California.

Southwest SNA to MCO roundtrip cash

Instead, we used 26,000 points each for Timmy and me… while Anna only had to pay the taxes of about $5 each way.

Southwest SNA to MCO roundtrip points

Unlike most other frequent flier programs, Southwest allows you to earn this awesome benefit through spending on their credit card and using partners like hotels and car rentals to earn the 110,000 points required.  In reality, you can earn these benefits before you’ve ever stepped foot on a Southwest airplane!!!  The other airlines require you to buy tickets and fly places to earn their benefits.

Staying at the Marriott Grande Vista

We own a couple of timeshares, so we get to vacation each year using those points.  A couple of years ago, we had a week that was expiring, so we deposited it with a trading company.  We used that week to book our stay at the Marriott Grande Vista for a 2 bedroom unit that was about 1,300 square feet, with a living room, 2 balconies, a full kitchen, and spacious bedrooms.

Marriott Grande Vista Orlando timeshare kitchen

You can also pay cash to stay here for about $229 a night, which works out to about $1,800 for the week including taxes, whereas we paid $199 to trade into this week.  If you’d like to book a room at the Marriott, please use my affiliate link for Marriott Deals & Specials..

Marriott Grande Vista Orlando cash price

The resort was pretty huge and there was plenty of places to explore and activities to participate in.  We spent a lot of time at the theme parks, so we didn’t take full advantage of all of our options.  Although, Timmy did make himself comfortable at the bar ordering virgin pina coladas!

Marriott Grande Vista Orlando timeshare Copa Loca bar

Getting discount theme park tickets

There are some places online you should check out, like MouseSavers.com, to get tickets before you go.  My work participates in a program called WorkingAdvantage, which is where we bought our tickets.  WorkingAdvantage is a free benefit program that is open to all employers, so if your company doesn’t offer it, I would recommend that you ask your HR Department/boss to sign up.

There was a special on Universal Studios park-hopper tickets where we were able to get 4 days at both parks for the price of 2 days.  Actually, I think we paid $5 LESS a person than the price on the Universal website for those extra 2 days… what a deal!

Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure theme parks

Make sure that you download the Universal app on your phone.  It was invaluable as a map and it provided wait times for every ride!

It was definitely worth getting the park hopper tickets for the Universal parks because of the new Harry Potter train ride (Hogwarts Express) that takes you from Hogsmeade (Islands of Adventure) to Diagon Alley (Universal Studios).  If you don’t have a park hopper ticket, you cannot ride the train!

Islands of Adventure Hogsmeade with train conductor
Islands of Adventure Hogsmeade with train conductor

Most people go to Orlando for Disney, but I was most interested in the awesome rides at the Universal parks and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  We even rented all of the Harry Potter movies leading up to our trip so that I could refresh my memory and I could introduce my buddy and Anna to the story lines.  You’ll still have a good time on the rides, but not everything will make sense (like the Escape from Gringott’s ride) unless you’ve actually seen the movies.

Timmy was a little scared on some of the kiddie rides because of the overly cartoonish characters and the really loud sound effects.  However, he loved the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride.  We went on that ride several times for him.  Even though there is a height requirement, there are a few seats in the front for little kiddos (like Timmy) that aren’t tall enough yet.

Timmy pointing to the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride on the map
Timmy pointing to the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride on the map

Walt Disney World theme parks

Make sure that you download the Disney app on your phone.  It was invaluable as a map and it provided wait times for every ride!  Also, be sure to log in and book your FastPass tickets.  You get 2 rides per day per person where you can book into the FastPass lines.  We went when the park was pretty slow, but, even then, a couple of attractions ended up with 45-60 minute waits.

We bought the park-hopper passes for Disney thinking that some of the parks (namely Epcot) didn’t offer many “cool” rides… and certainly didn’t offer enough value to pay full price to spend an entire day there.  I ended up getting really sick one night, and ended up going to Disney only 1 of the 2 planned days.  I’m glad we splurged on the “no expiration” tickets.  We bought 6 days because we figured that we would be back when Baby #2 gets a little older and before Timmy turns 10… the discount on the tickets, plus the expectation that Disney will continue increasing prices, makes the tickets a nice little investment for me.  =)

We had a fun time at the Disney Hollywood Studios park.  Timmy spent a lot of time playing in the Honey I Shrunk the Kids Adventure playground.  Luckily, the Moms were good sports and watched the kids while the big kids (aka the Dads – Travis and me) went on a lot of rides, bringing the kids on whichever rides they were tall enough for.

Timmy trapping Daddy at Honey I Shrunk the Kids Adventure playground
Timmy trapping Daddy at Honey I Shrunk the Kids Adventure playground

We went to Epcot in the late afternoon, but didn’t make it to the various countries that surround the lake.  We went on a couple of rides, then bailed out because of the rain.

Mommy and Timmy at Epcot
Mommy and Timmy at Epcot

Conclusion

We had a blast spending a week in Orlando.  It was the first time in a long time that we spent an entire week with another family on vacation.  As can be expected, there were a couple of times where we went different directions based on interests, but overall we explored Orlando together.  We saved a TON of money by using frequent flier miles to fly there and our timeshare as a place to stay.  Then we saved even more by eating most breakfasts and dinners at the Marriott and bringing snacks during the day.

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