1. PLANNING AHEAD
This is rule number one for a reason. If there is any advice to give anybody going to Orlando, whether they are in a group of friends, travelling with kids or a couple on honeymoon, it is to plan as much as you can before you go – have an itinerary. Meet up (if you can) before you travel and discuss the parks, the restaurants, just go through and decide on as much as you can.
Flexibility is good – there may be some things you want to do on a whim because you didn’t know about it until you were out there (a dinner show, firework display, shopping, cinema, visiting the conundrum that is Old Town, etc.), so gaps in the itinerary is not a bad thing, have a few gaps – you will find a way to fill them!
Cement the things you really want to do, though. For example, Discovery Cove can only be booked for specific dates, so you can’t just fit that in on another day when you’re there. And it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get last-minute entry there, either due to the limited numbers they allow in each day. The same goes for if you have booked any behind the scenes experiences at any of the parks.
Mix the order of the parks up a bit. You may not all be Disney-philes, coaster-junkies or the biggest fans of water parks, so alternating the parks you visit each day would be a good way to please everybody and perhaps save some aching feet (do not forget, there is something for everyone at every park in Orlando). Rest days are great, too, to fit in some shopping or just to spend a day in the Jacuzzi. Orlando is a full-on experience, so sometimes it’s nice to just take it easy.
Of course, we know the advantages of booking tickets in advance. You pay more on the gates and have to queue. Make sure all your group gets their tickets before you travel – you do not want to be that person who ignored all this great advice and made everybody wait for you as you queue to pay for your entry into the parks.
You don’t need to all book your tickets on the same order at the same time, but it would obviously be advisable to book tickets for the same parks (assuming you are all going to the same parks). Everybody else has a 3 park SeaWorld ticket and yours is for 2 parks, but you also want to go to Busch Gardens, too? Then upgrade that thing before you go!
The chances are that not all of you will be on the same kind of budget, but that does not mean somebody should have a worse time than anybody else. There is plenty in Orlando and the parks for all budgets and tastes.
If you have more cash to splash then don’t feel you have to miss out on something because others can’t afford to do the same things – but these are your friends so don’t make them feel bad or like they have missed out, either. That’s not just advice for being a good mate, but also you do not want to create a sour atmosphere for the group. Money is a stressful enough issue for home – don’t let it ruin your holiday!
The same applies if you have to skip a few restaurant meals out or can’t afford to fork out more than a few carefully-budgeted souvineers. You can still have the most amazing holiday and do plenty of activities on the cheap from chilling at the villa to crazy golf. You can even plan booking your tickets when there is a particular freebie deal on offer, such as a dinner show or airboat ride, so you can utilize these amazing offers to save you money and fill cram in more fun.
If you are all planning on travelling around in one vehicle, then work out your designated driver(s). Split the cost of the car hire between you as, assumedly, you are all going to be benefitting from it. It does cost extra to add on a second driver per day, but it might be worth it if the first driver needs a break from it or wants to drink one night. Driving a large vehicle in the States can be daunting at first if you’re not used to it, but they are usually so smooth and easy to drive, for some drivers, it’s quite fun! Make sure the driver’s age and license is valid for the size of the vehicle you are hiring particularly if you are looking at larger minivans – you may have to hire two or more vehicles if your group is particularly big. This is something you will have to sort out before you travel to save on nasty surprises when you get to the hire desk.
Also, bear in mind that you may fit all seven of your group into your seven seater car, but what about the seven suitcases and hand luggage to and from the airport? It’s possible to fit everything in, I’ve seen it done, but there definitely will be some laps going to good use.
Remember that you are in a tourist area and the price of cabs can reflect that. It is best to share a cab as much between you as you can, even if you have more than one drop off location and split the cost (don’t forget the tip!). You may become friendly with a particular driver who you’ll use a few times and if so he may just start charging you less. One decent tip can take you a long way.
3. THE THEME PARKS
Before you travel, you definitely really absolutely should all register and link your Disney tickets at www.mydisneyexperience.co.uk. You can all book fast-passes as a group for the same rides (or for some of you, if high-octane thrills aren’t your bag, at least it means you won’t have to wait for long for everybody on the ride to be done). This facility means you will all get the most from the parks and can fit in a lot more than just winging it on the day, especially in busier seasons.
Theme parks are most fun when you can do as much as you can together in your group – why would it not be? You’re friends, right? But sometimes you might enjoy things more if you split up for a little bit.
The big kids may want to meet the Disney characters, but this may not do much to excite the adrenaline-seekers. With the right planning, it is possible to meet characters AND do all the main rides (and some little ones) but do not be afraid to split up if you are wanting different things from the parks – shows, parades, rides, lunch... In this age of smart phones and with luxuries such as free wifi in the Disney parks, there is no reason not to use your devices to stay connected if you separate (or if somebody wanders off).
If you’ve not brought your phones with you, then the old fashioned notion of meeting at a particular spot at a particular time works, too. In the case of somebody getting lost (even in a group of adults it happens) have a spot where you have previously agreed upon to meet at each park. If you have lost somebody in Epcot, then I would recommend looking for them at the pub in the UK section of the World Showcase. It hasn’t failed me yet.
Universal Studios has the Hogwarts Express and Disney has free shuttle transportation between parks if any of you want to split off from the pack and park hop for the day. Orlando is your oyster!
If you are in shared self-catering accommodation, like a villa, then there are likely to be times you will be eating at said villa together… especially if it comes with a barbecue. A communal shop at a local supermarket may be the best way forward for the group meals you might be planning on having. The essentials like butter, milk, pasta, burgers, etc. can be split between you. Any extra treats can be bought separately by individuals (in my experience, it is not uncommon to have a cupboard of 5 different cereals and a tub of Ben and Jerry’s each in the freezer).
Not in shared accommodation? You probably don’t need to cook group meals, then! But some resorts do still have barbecue areas you can use. It really is fun to take advantage of this.
If you are going to go to the same restaurant for dinner, which you probably will do a few times, you may be able to just walk in but it is advisable to make a reservation especially as you’re in a group. It could save you some waiting around, particularly when visiting restaurants in theme park areas, such as Disney’s Be Our Guest restaurant in the Magic Kingdom.
There may be a time when you may not all want to go to the same places to eat - vegetarians in the group may not be so keen on eating at Fogo de Chao, for example (which is a shame because it’s amazing). Whereas it’s great to have meals together as a group, don’t be afraid to separate here, too. There are different reasons why you may not all eat together. Not everybody’s budgets cover a meal out at a different restaurant every night – or they may not like seafood or Chinese food, there are 20 of you in the group, etc. Some of your clan are probably happy fixing their own meals at base camp whilst others want to dine out and if Orlando has an abundance of anything, it’s places to eat, even for those with special diets. Don’t feel bad about doing different things or feel obliged to do the same as everybody else! You could even as a group head to somewhere with lots of options, like Universal’s CityWalk and split up for your different foody needs then reconvene after.
The same goes for lunches in the parks – not all of you may have the funds or inclination to utilize the in-park food establishments. Some of you may want to make your own sandwiches and bring them with you (it is allowed in most parks) but do check on the limitations in the parks so you aren’t wasting your time or food. There may be restrictions on container sizes, cool boxes and items such as no straws allowed in animal-focused parks.
The most important rule is to have fun – you are with your friends in one of the greatest places on the planet and on the holiday of a lifetime – be organised, be flexible and you’ll all be happy!