Best Way to See Orlando in 3 Days
Since the major theme parks aren’t close to downtown, it’s hard to combine a lot of historical and cultural sites with the theme parks in just one visit. As a result, this list assumes a high interest in theme parks and thrill rides. If you’re traveling with younger children or adults with special interests, you may want to consider swapping out one attraction for another. Rest assured, though, the resulting itinerary will be amazing no matter what.
Hotel and Transportation
If you have three full days and four nights in Orlando, you hopefully won’t need to shell out too much for a hotel. Booking a hotel can be expensive in the height of tourist season, but smart shopping can save you major money. Know what amenities to prioritize and what to skip – for example, you won’t need an outdoor pool if you’re spending all of your time at the theme parks! Look for a hotel on the southwest side of the city, since that’s where the major theme parks are.
Car rental is highly recommended, especially if you’re visiting in the summer. Again, since you’re only staying for three days, you won’t break the bank by renting a car. If you want to save some money, you could try to get around via public transit and hotel shuttle busses instead, but this can be cumbersome in large groups or with small children. It’s also not fun to deal with bus delays or unreliable hotel shuttles.
Picking Times and Days
Summer is the busiest season at most Orlando theme parks, and weekends tend to be the busiest days of the week. Spring and winter break can also be very busy. Hurricanes can derail even the best-planned trips, so late summer and early fall should be avoided. Thus, the best time to visit is probably late spring (early May), after spring break but before schools let out for the summer.
If you’re trying to make the most of a short trip, try to visit on as many weekdays as possible. Consider flying or driving down on Wednesday evening, enjoying the parks Thursday through Saturday, then heading home Sunday morning. Holiday weekends are convenient, but are often very busy at theme parks.
In order to get the most of three full days in Orlando, try to arrive at your hotel no later than 6 p.m. the previous day. This gives your party time to rest and unpack so you can start on time on day one. You won’t enjoy the trip as much if your group is tired and irritable, so insist on taking it easy the first night in town.
Day One – SeaWorld® Orlando, Gatorland, and ICON Orlando
Start your day at SeaWorld® Orlando, which has a vibrant mix of animal shows, rides and more. Get there first thing in the morning to beat the lines for the roller coasters and thrill rides, then see your favorite animals in early-afternoon shows. While there’s a huge range of shows to be enjoyed, the most popular shows are no more than 30 minutes and have plenty of daily showtimes, so you can see the best ones within a few hours.
For lunch, reserve seating in advance for one of the two sit-down restaurants that allow you to watch sea animals in their habitats. As its name implies, Sharks Underwater Grill features floor-to-ceiling shark tanks right next to your table, and may not be a great option for nervous small children! Up-Close Dining at Shamu Stadium is a better option for families with small children, since it provides a close view of the orcas without the underwater feeling.
Once you’re done hitting the highlights at SeaWorld® Orlando, head over to Gatorland, which is about a 20 minute drive away. Gatorland lives up to its name, and has dozens of alligators you can enjoy from a safe distance. It also has a petting zoo that doesn’t include alligators. It’s a surprisingly educational experience that will be exciting for adventurous children and teens.
Finally, check out the ICON Orlando ferris wheel, which offers stunning night views of the area. At 400 feet high, it’s the tallest ferris wheel on the east coast, so visitors with a fear of heights might want to sit this one out. The park housing the ferris wheel also has an aquarium, which may be a better choice for guests who don’t want to ride the ferris wheel. If you’re traveling with a mix of grandparents and kids, you could always leave them back at the hotel and make the evening a romantic date instead!
Day Two – Universal Studios Florida
Movie lovers will thoroughly enjoy a one-day trip to Universal Studios Florida™! With only a few short days to spend in Orlando, you’ll want to focus on the largest of the Universal Orlando Resort™ parks. Universal Studios Florida™ is home to Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts and a number of other movie-based attractions. The park is very popular and can be crowded, but arriving first thing in the morning should help keep wait times to a minimum.
Since the park isn’t as massive as the Walt Disney World® Resort, you can hit the highlights with only a half-day visit. Superhero fans will love the Transformers: The Ride, an excellent 3D motion simulator with surprisingly realistic movements and visuals. For younger movie fans, Despicable Me Minion Mayhem offers motion-simulated racing thrills that are funny enough for the whole family to enjoy. Keep in mind that some of the Harry Potter-themed rides are in Universal Islands of Adventure, which requires a separate ticket or a Park Hopper pass.
In the afternoon or evening, you can head into the city to visit the museums, or head over to LEGOLAND® Florida. LEGOLAND® Florida is highly recommended for children under twelve and serious LEGO® enthusiasts. Since it’s located in Winterhaven, a 45-minute drive south of Orlando, it can be tricky to get to without a rental car. Older children and adults may get more out of the Orlando Science Center, which is located next to the Orlando Art Museum just northeast of Downtown Orlando.
Day Three – Walt Disney World® Resort
Time for the most iconic of all! Since Walt Disney World® Resort is fairly far outside Orlando, you should try to spend an entire day at the resort instead of adding on another attraction in the evening. With only one day to spend here, you won’t have time to really enjoy more than two of the resort’s parks – though you could squeeze in an evening meal and a ride at a third park if there’s something on your bucket list. (Maybe one of the international restaurants at Epcot tickles your fancy?) Pick two parks and prioritize rides to your liking.
If you’ve never been to Walt Disney World® Resort before, a visit to Magic Kingdom is almost mandatory. Get a family photo with the Cinderella Castle, ride Space Mountain, and see Mickey’s PhillarMagic 3D show. Depending on the ages in your group, you may also want to check out The Jungle Cruise and the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor. Character visits in Magic Kingdom can have long lines, but they’re worth it if your family wants a photo with a beloved character.
In the afternoon, try Epcot or Animal Kingdom. If there’s something you really want to see at Hollywood Studios, you can go there, but it’s the smallest of the four parks and has rides and attractions similar to those at Universal Studios Florida™. If there’s a nighttime show you really want to see at Magic Kingdom, you could also start your day at another park and end at Magic Kingdom in the evening. The possibilities are limitless! (Keep in mind that Epcot and Animal Kingdom stay open slightly later than Magic Kingdom, and Epcot’s World Showcase typically doesn’t open until 11 a.m.)
It may be tempting to swing through a drive-through restaurant between parks, but this can actually take more time than it’s worth. Drive-through fast food restaurants in the Orlando area get swamped with tourists during peak times. Keeping snacks in your car is always a good option, but they can’t replace a proper meal – especially after walking around in the sun for hours.
If you avoid peak meal times, dining in the parks can be relatively stress-free. Look for sit-down options or fast food stalls that have seating nearby. All of the major theme parks in the Orlando area have allergy-friendly and vegetarian options, though you should double-check in advance to see exactly which food stalls offer which foods.
Depending on what time you want to head back to your hotel, eating dinner after leaving the park may be a more viable option. The best family-friendly restaurants near the major theme parks are Mellow Mushroom pizzeria and Tradewinds, both of which are located near SeaWorld® Orlando and offer vegetarian and gluten-free options.
With all of the above attractions, make sure to do your own research to get up-to-date information on ride availability and opening hours. It’s also good to have a plan B ready for at least one day in case of bad weather. Universal Studios Florida™ and Walt Disney World® Resort have a decent number of indoor rides, but SeaWorld® Orlando’s indoor rides are limited. You can probably deal with light afternoon showers, but any intense rain or thunderstorms will put a serious damper on your day at the park.
For rainy day activities, you could spend more time at the Orlando Science Center or the Orlando Science Museum mentioned above (Day Two). You could also try WonderWorks, which has indoor attractions like rope-climbing courses and a motion simulator ride, or get up close with (wax) celebrities at Madame Tussauds Orlando.
Keep in mind, though, that rainy days mean that the major theme parks will have much smaller crowds than usual – and, hopefully, shorter lines for the indoor rides. In case of light rain, it may be worth it to go to the park you planned to, and make the most of any breaks in the rain. Magic Kingdom has a particularly good selection of indoor rides, so Walt Disney World® Resort is worth spending a day or more at even in inclement weather.
If some of the afternoon and evening attractions listed above don’t work for your family, you can easily substitute similar ones. The important thing to remember is that the busiest attractions should be visited in the morning, so you can get in line for the popular rides as soon as possible. Parks that focus on exhibits and don’t have significant lines should be saved for later in the day.
Universal CityWalk has fun, high-energy Blue Man Group shows that are a great evening option for the whole family. You can get tickets to Blue Man Group shows without purchasing admission to the main Universal Studios Florida™ park.
If your family can’t get enough of the animals at SeaWorld® Orlando, head over to the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens that evening after seeing Gatorland. Serious animal lovers will appreciate taking a day to enjoy multiple zoos and aquariums over the course of your trip. Though the zoo is a 35-minute drive from Orlando, you can fit it into the same day as other attractions if you make sure to head over by mid afternoon.
History lovers will find it worthwhile to drive south to Kissimmee, where the Medieval Times dinner show awaits. Knights in shining armor, princesses, and other characters star in this interactive show that’s fun for all ages.
Two Days at One Park?
With the amazing theme parks in the Orlando area, the best way to enjoy Orlando is to spend most of your time at the theme parks, with a sprinkling of other attractions mixed in. You can tweak this plan a little bit by increasing your time at one of the theme parks. Since Walt Disney World has so many parks and multi-day passes are such a good deal, you can consider spending more than one day there. You could go to one of the parks on the afternoon of the second day of your trip, for example, or combine SeaWorld® Orlando and Universal Studios Florida™ into one day and then spend the next two at Walt Disney World® Resort.
Be careful to allow time to rest, though! Spending that much time in theme parks can be more exhausting than you realize. If you have children, teenagers, or older adults in your party, they will probably be worn out if they take the theme parks at a breakneck pace. Breaking up the sunshine and thrill rides with other attractions will help keep your group from getting overtired.
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