Whether you plan on focusing on Disney or exploring Universal Escape, Sea World and the rest of the Orlando experience, educate yourself -- especially if you're taking children or going for the first time.
This is especially true at Walt Disney World, which covers 43 square miles of central Florida real estate by itself. (About two-thirds the size of the city of Minneapolis.)
Research: Don't just rely on Disney information. We found the "Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World"(Bob Sehlinger, MacMillan, 710 pages, $15.95) to be extremely useful in anticipating the impact of lines and crowds (hint: not all long lines are created equally).
The Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau site (http://www.go2orlando.com ) is an excellent resource for information on lodging and other attractions.
The Disney Web site is http://www.disney.com . Universal Studios Escape (consisting of Universal Studios, the new park Islands of Adventure and the entertainment/restaurant district CityWalk) is on the Web at http://www.uescape.com.
Plan: Have a plan for hitting the parks before you get to Orlando. We quizzed our kids for park and ride favorites and planned our trip accordingly. Also, consider pacing your kids and saving what they consider best for last. We visited Animal Kingdom and Epcot, which both have strong educational components, before the thrill rides of Disney-MGM Studios and the traditional hoopla of Magic Kingdom.
Lodging: Disney offers a range of accommodations on its grounds, and its slick bus/boat/monorail transportation system renders a car practically useless. Staying on the grounds also gives you early-start privileges at select parks each day. Staying off the grounds is much cheaper, whether it's lodging, eating or just using the phone. (Worth noting: Universal Studios has joined the on-site lodging club with its Portofino Bay hotel.)
If you stay somewhere else in the Orlando area, plan on renting a car. And plan on spending time in traffic. Another hint: http://www.go2orlando.com is a good planning resource, especially in the hunt for lodging outside Disney World and Universal.
Rest up. Remember, if you're flying from the Twin Cities, you lose an hour. So getting your kids up bright and early at 7 a.m. Eastern Coast time will seem like 6 a.m. to them.
Create low (or at least modest) expectations. You can't see everything. The night before we visited each park, we put together a list of a half-dozen or so rides we most wanted to experience. We wound up going on several more, so everyone left more than satisfied.
Start early. 8 a.m. is always cooler and less crowded than later in the day. If you're staying on the grounds, use the first hour to hit the A-attractions on your list before the general public gets in. If you're staying off the grounds, consider visiting parks on the days that they don't have the early-bird privileges for Disney resort guests.
Leave early. It's not a sign of failure to leave a park by noon or midafternoon. Midday crowds can be brutal, especially when everyone is trying to eat lunch at the same time. Consider going back to your hotel or resort for lunch, a swim or a nap. It's a A great way to recharge your batteries if you want to go back at night.
Late starts. Going to a park in the late afternoon can be worth it because many guests are bailing out by then. Keep in mind that park hours change during the year. Most of the parks have closing-time attractions well worth seeing.
In the parks
Food. Probably our biggest disappointment was the price of even basic sandwiches at Disney-affiliated restaurants. A light lunch on our first day cost $42 (including tip) for two adults and three kids. A nice dinner at our hotel was $86. A lot of the food was average to good, and when you're hot and sweaty, that's usually enough. If you like lunch, plan to go early or late -- the noon rush can be gridlock. Call-ahead seating is available at most restaurants in the parks and at least guarantees your wait won't be long. Another worthwhile suggestion -- get your hand stamped and take Disney transportation to one of the Disney hotels for lunch. You don't have to be a hotel guest, and you'll have a quieter -- and usually better -- meal without the lines.
Attractions. Don't worry about kids getting cold feet waiting in line for a ride. If there are two adults, tell the attendant you want to "switch off," which allows one parent to stay with the unenthused child while the other rides with the other kids. When they're done, the parents trade spots.
Autographs. One of the rituals of a Disney visit is collecting signatures from Mickey and friends. The characters can drain your time, so go easy at first. If you're staying several days, chances are you'll see them again when the lines are shorter. Consider eating at a restaurant that features character visits. The same day my daughters waited several minutes for Tigger, Eeyore, Piglet and Pooh at Magic Kingdom, my son had all four come to our dinner table and sign his book while he ate.
Souvenirs: It's the same stuff everywhere, except for the name and picture of the attraction on the pen/shirt/pin/card/hat/etc. Because we went in July, we fell victim to thoese plastic water bottle fans that actually worked quite well while we there, but at $15 apiece, hardly seemed worth it once we got home.
Keys to the Kingdom
The "Keys to the Kingdom" tour teaches you just how much thought and skill go into manipulating your emotions and purse strings while you're in the park. It costs $45 and takes four to five hours. Wear good walking shoes (which is excellent advice even if you aren't taking the tour.) You have to book the tour in advance. 1-407-939-8687.
If you're interested in exploring non-Disney Orlando, check out "Orlando's Other Theme Parks" (Kelly Monaghan, Intrepid Traveler, $16.95, 479 pages.)
For the cynic's take on Walt Disney World, read "Team Rodent: How Disney Devours the World" (Carl Hiaasen, Ballantine Books, $12.95, 83 pages.) Miami Herald reporter Hiaasen dissects the big rodent with a scalpel of razor-sharp wit and keen observation. Disney is a big business, with a killer instinct when it comes to profit; Hiaasen throws a powerful light onto its dark side.
Join our online discussion of Orlando at http://www.startribune.com/talk. Staff writer Chris Welsch will be available to answer questions. Also, at startribune.com/travel, we've posted a review of Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure, Orlando's newest theme park, that ran in the Travel section in May.
Getting into Disney and Universal parks costs about $46 per adult, $36 per kid. Both parks have multiday passes and package deals that can save some money on admissions and lodging. Disney is currently advertising its weeklong cruise and park package, including lodging, for as low as $799 for adults, $399 for kids. More liberal park passes and nicer hotels can add considerably more. Also, food and souvenirs can easily add $100 to $150 a day for a family of four. And while meals are part of the cruise package, there are extra charges for wine, beer and liquor. On Castaway Cay, there are charges for renting bikes, float mats and snorkeling gear. Shopping in Nassau, the Bahamas, is duty-free.
Staff writer Chris Welsch contributed to this article.