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The investment
I thought Spring Break 2017 could very well be my last.  So, when I decided to end up at law school this year, I looked at these Spring Breaks as bonus time!! I want to make the most of these breaks and travel as much as I can because once I start working full time, vacation time might be hard to come by. The only problem is…money. Ya feel me? I am trying to be better about being on a budget. I’m not terrible with money, but when I have it, I like to treat myself. Nothing extravagant, maybe a new dress here or a nice dinner out there, but stuff starts adding up. And I think I’m not the only one who has looked at the their credit card bill one month and was like, “Whoa, when and how and why did I spend all that??” But this isn’t a Dave Ramsey blog, and you didn’t come here to listen to me talking about money management. But here’s my point! I strongly believe that if I spend money on something, I want it to be travel. Because travel is an investment. Travel enriches my life and adds to my worldview and perspective. It’s the only thing I think that is guaranteed to make you richer the more you spend on it. If you think about the material things you spend on, while clothes and food are necessary, do you really need to eat out every day or buy that cute top when you have 10+ ones similar to it? No! (And I have to preach this to myself. LOL :)) But all that to say, travel is affordable. Once I decided I wanted to go to Disney, I watched my spending habits more and was way stricter on myself. I didn’t do the monthly clothes binge at Old Navy. I didn’t let myself run wild through Target, and I tried to have a competition with myself to see how much free food I could get and how long I could make my groceries last. And it was kind of fun! That’s what happens when you have a bigger goal in mind. And for me, that goal was DISNEY. I was going to make it here for Spring Break!!
Plan Ahead
The second part of watching my wallet was making sure every part of my actual trip was as cost-effective as possible. That meant plan, plan, plan. Here are my best tips for the planning stage of your Disney trip to make it as wallet-friendly as I did:

  • Flights: I found direct flights to Orlando for $87 roundtrip (including taxes and fees). Be prepared to check with Allegiant Air often and jump on the lowest price you see. Bonus points if your dates are flexible and you can truly go at the lowest priced dates. Middle of March was a good, cheap time for me and traveling on weekdays! Packing efficiently is key on Allegiant as well. You are only allowed one free personal item, and that was totally fine for me. But it’s something to keep in mind. If you don’t tend to pack light, your bill will be a little higher.
  • Hotel: Yeah, it would have been super nice staying at a Disney Resort. I even toyed with the idea of renting an Airbnb for the week, but opting for a cheaper hotel (as long as the reviews are okay) is really not too much of a sacrifice. The parks are open from around 9 am- 9 pm, so you really aren’t spending a lot of time in the room anyway. Bonus points if you find a hotel with a free shuttle to the parks and complimentary breakfast. Uber there and back to the parks each day is cheaper than parking as well. This Ramada was very reasonably priced and only about 15 minutes on average from all the major parks!
  • Tickets: Around the middle of February is when Disney tickets start to go up in price. I saved about $11 on my tickets to Disney by buying them late January/early February. Plus, Fast Passes open up 8 am 30 days before the date you want to reserve your ride times, so you definitely want to have your tickets before then so you can utilize this service! For Universal, I didn’t notice too much of a change in price and got those tickets less than a week before the trip. I did both Universal parks in one day, and I would highly recommend it! I was a little on the fence about this because I didn’t know if there’d be enough time to hit everything, but its was really great, and a park-to-park ticket is required for a ride on the Hogwarts Express! The difference between a one day one-park  ticket and one day park-to-park ticket is about $55, so you have to decide if it’s worth it for you. I looked at it as actually saving money because I didn’t spend extra on two separate days of one-park a day tickets. See what I mean?
  • Food: I made it a point to eat one actual meal out max per day plus a few snacks at the parks. I made PB&Js, bought granola bars and trail mix, and filled up water bottles at the parks. If you limit yourself to one $15 meal per day, you’ll spend about $60 for 4 days at the parks plus groceries and park snacks, so you could easily eat for under $100!
Day One
Magic Kingdom!! Park hours: 9 am- 11 pm. We arrived at the park almost as soon as it opened and made the mad dash to high priority rides before the lines got too long. The first two hours at the park are key. Get there early and ride high priority rides that are close in proximity to one another to knock them out early in the day. We set our Fast Passes between 11-2, the busiest time and longest lines for rides. We chose Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Enchanted Tales with Belle for our fast pass choices. So, here’s the method, after reading several travel blogs:

  • Get your fast passes as early as possible. Reservations for some rides go quick, so get online 8 am the day you can reserve to ensure first dibs on the rides you want.
  • The most popular rides at Magic Kingdom and the best ones for Fast Pass are: Space Mountain, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. We decided to take into account the fact that we would try to hit some of these early in the day and went from there.
  • Arrive at least 30 minutes before the park opens. The first two hours of after the park opens is the best time to get those popular rides in. So 9- 11 am: ride popular, short rides in close proximity to one another, 11 am- 2 pm: ride your Fast Pass rides and long, more unpopular rides with shorter wait times (the park is busiest at this time), and then as the park starts to settle down closer to the evening, get back and ride those more popular rides when lines are shorter.
You can’t go wrong with Magic Kingdom, and I think any trip to Disney can’t be complete without a trip to this park. It truly is unlike another more magical world!!

Some of my favorite Magic Kingdom highlights were:

  • Favorite Ride –> Space Mountain: this is my all-time favorite ride at Disney. I was too scared to ride it when I was a kid, but it did not disappoint. We got to ride it twice. Once at the Fast Pass time and once right before the park closed. It was the best!
  • Best Food –> Waffle Sandwiches at Sleepy Hollow. I got the Sweet & Sour Chicken as well as the Berry Nutella! Favorite food of the whole trip!
  • Most Underestimated –> Monsters Inc, Laugh Floor. To be honest, this ride just came about because it had a short wait time, and we needed something to do while waiting for a prior Fast Pass reservation. But it pleasantly surprised me! It’s an interactive comedy show that is pretty hilarious and incorporates park guests in the acts. Definitely don’t miss it!
  • End your Day here –> Of course, you cannot miss the fireworks and light show at the end of the night. At 8 pm, Cinderella’s castle lights up for Once Upon a Time.
  • Hidden Treasure –> Peoplemover in Tomorrowland. I really liked Tomorrowland. It was one of my favorite spots at Magic Kingdom. However, I was unaware of this ride until close to end of the night. I could hop right on with no wait time, and it moved us through the different rides at Tomorrowland in a car on a track at an average pace. It was actually a really great way to end the night right after the Astro Orbiter, of course!
Day Two
Universal!! Islands of Adventure park hours: 9 am- 8 pm. Universal Studios park hours: 9 am- 9 pm. Same deal with Disney. Get there as close as possible to the park opening for sure! Since we had a park-to-park pass, we decided to start off at Universal Studios for the first half of the day (which ended up being pretty empty, and we was able to get through lines super quick!), move to Islands of Adventure after ride on the Hogwarts Express around 2 pm and then back to Universal Studios for that last hour after Islands closed. Here are some general tips: 

  • Single rider lines are the best! Even if you’re in a group, I would highly recommend going through the single ride line. Oftentimes you still end up on the same coaster car as your party, just a different row or sometimes the same row! But you get through lines 2, 3, sometimes 4 or more times as fast! It’s amazing! That is how we made the most of our time and got to hit most every ride we wanted to between the two parks.
  • Plan for weather. This was one of the days it was raining on and off. Oftentimes the crowds die down during the inclement weather which means it’s the perfect time to get in line for rides. Always bring a rain jacket or even a change of clothes to make sure rain doesn’t stop your momentum.
  • Think about your top priorities! Have a basic idea of what the rides are at Universal. I picked up a map that had pictures of each ride that made it super easy to know where I wanted to go. Universal is a little smaller than Disney and a little easier to navigate. And especially when you don’t have to deal with wait times as much as Disney, you can be really efficient with your time.
  • In terms of comparison, I’d say Islands of Adventure is the more popular and crowded park, so bear that in mind. The rides here are more thrilling and newer, and, of course, you can’t skip the classic Hogsmeade Village. While Diagon Alley was amazing at Universal Studios, and I wish I had spent a little more time here, if you had to choose one park, go with Islands!
All things considered, I think I loved the overall feel of Disney World. But in terms of thrilling rides and more adult-catered content, Universal was definitely amazing! I’m so glad I got to spend a day here!

Some of my favorite Universal highlights were:

  • Favorite Ride –> Revenge of the Mummy (Universal Studios). It was the very end of the day. We had just made our way back to Universal Studio to get that last hour of fun in, and I realized we hadn’t ridden The Mummy yet. My expectations were neutral. I like the movie, but I wasn’t expecting something super amazing or anything. But it was so fantastic!! Dare I say, my favorite ride of all four days!! You just have to see for yourself. And the best part was going through the single rider line several times at the end of the day with <5 minutes of wait times to ride.
  • Best Food –> Butter Beer in Diagon Alley (Universal Studios). we ate at the Leaky Cauldron (great food and atmosphere). The fish and chips was tasty, and the Butter Beer was even better! This is a must if you go to either of the Harry Potter worlds!!
  • Most Underestimated –> The Cat in the Hat (Islands). Same kind of deal as Peoplemover in Tomorrowland (see above). We ended our day at Islands with this ride, so everything was dark except for lights on the rides contrasted with the reflections on the lake. It made for a super pretty birds eye view of the park on this relaxing ride.
  • End your Day here –> Jason Derulo! We lucked out and coincidentally planned our trip right in the middle of Mardi Gras festivities at Universal. And we just happened to go on the day Jason Derulo was performing at Universal Studios! It was awesome getting to see him in concert and definitely added value to my ticket price. Plus, that concert started at 8:30, so the park stayed open until after 10 pm. Check to see if there are any special events going on when you’re there!
  • Wish I Had Spent More Time here –> Diagon Alley. We left Universal to head to Islands with hopes of returning with enough time to head back to Diagon Alley and ride Escape from Gringotts, but we didn’t. Next time!! At least we did get to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey in Hogwarts. That was epic!
Day Three
EPCOT!! Park hours: 9 am- 9 pm. This was one I most anticipated and had very high expectations for, and it surely did not disappoint. Being someone with a love for travel, I really enjoy the idea of the World Showcase. Sampling food and culture from countries around the world in a such a small space is so exciting and one of the few things I actually remember from going to Disney World as a little kid, so I knew I definitely wanted to make this a priority to visit. We kept with the same method for Fast Passes, choosing them in the middle of the day for Spaceship Earth, Mission: Space, and Frozen Forever After. We didn’t do so well this time with Fast Passes. We ended up knocking out Spaceship Earth right off the bat and then going to try Mission: Space at a low wait time. Fast Pass was helpful however, for Frozen Ever After since it’s a new ride with a perpetually long wait. Here are my best tips for Epcot:

  • I hit up all the Disney food blogs to find out recommendations for the best food in Epcot, and we planned our “world tour” around our snack stops. Crepes and Gelato Sandwiches in France, Hummus Fries in Morocco, Lefse and School Bread in Norway, and Tacos in Mexico. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
  • Try to visit a festival while you’re there. Epcot has several throughout the year, and I just LOVED the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival while we were there. Think beautiful blooms and Disney characters fashioned out of greenery and flowers everywhere. It was incredible!
  • The most popular rides at Epcot and the best ones for Fast Pass are: Test Track, Soarin’, Frozen Ever After, Spaceship Earth, and Mission: Space. Definitely make Test Track and Soarin’ your priorities.
  • Another thing to keep in mind is that the world showcase didn’t open until 11 am the day we visited, so we still got there early to knock some other rides out of the way before having time to soak in all the stops around the world once it opened!
Epcot is truly a one-of-a-kind place, and it was a highlight for this trip. I honestly would love it if I lived in Orlando because I would visit Epcot and the countries every day. No joke. It’s a park that just doesn’t get old.

Some of my favorite Epcot highlights were:

  • Favorite Ride –> Soarin’. This is a ride with a huge screen with sights and smells to complete the feeling that you truly are soaring around the world. Loved it so much! It was worth our wait.
  • Best Food –> Pub Burger at Rose & Crown Dining Room in the UK pavilion. It’s an insane burger! We stopped here for dinner at the end of the day and were able to watch the fireworks show from their outside dining area!
  • Most Underestimated –> Impressions de France (panorama video). Surprisingly enough, a video was one of my favorite parts of Epcot. I loved this film! Not only is France beautiful, but the film is set to some of Debussy’s finest musical compositions which made it a super great experience.
  • End your Day here –> Illuminations: Reflections of Earth. The show starts at 9 pm, and it’s on the pond and really cool. Stay for it.
  • Hidden Treasure –> Gran Fiesta Tour in the Mexico pavilion. There really isn’t too much signage advertising this ride, and I don’t remember it being on the app or any maps, but it’s a pretty cool ride with a short wait time, and I really love the Mexico pavilion. It’s indoor and has a really cool vibe and aesthetic. Spend some time here!
Day Four
 Animal Kingdom! Park hours: 8 am- 10 pm. This is the only park we didn’t get to as soon as it opened. It might have been the exhaustion setting in or the fact that we weren’t actually sure if we would go to Animal Kingdom (we were also  considering Universal’s Volcano Bay), but we arrived leisurely around 10 am, and it turned out to still be plenty of time to get in everything we wanted! That being said, we had no fast passes in place in advance but were able to get one for the Kilimanjaro Safaris and one for the Na’vi River Journey on the fly which was amazing because it’s one of the newest rides along with Flight of Passage in the new Pandora world with the longest wait times. Here are some general tips for Animal Kingdom:

  • Remember the single rider line at Everest. It’s a great ride, and you’ll probably want to ride it more than once! Single rider lines allow you to do this!
  • The most popular rides at Magic Kingdom and the best ones for Fast Pass are: Avatar Flight of Passage, Na’vi River Journey, Expedition Everest, and Kilimanjaro Safaris.
  • Animal Kingdom is more of a chill park. Sit back, relax, and enjoy your time. It’s a great place to end your trip with a more relaxing experience and not too much of rushing around.
I was on the fence about Animal Kingdom. I don’t remember it being my favorite Disney park as a kid, but almost every Uber driver we had recommended it. In the end, I’m super glad we went here instead of Volcano Bay on our last day although I would like to try that at some point.

Some of my favorite Animal Kingdom highlights were:

  • Favorite Ride –> Expedition Everest. Really cool ride with some unexpected things thrown in and a great view of Animal Kingdom (and even Epcot in the distance) on the way up the mountain. We rode this one a couple times utilizing the short wait times in the single rider line. Liked it alot!
  • Best Food –> Satu’li Bowls and Cheeseburger Pods at the Satu’li Canteen. This was probably the most healthy thing we ate the whole trip, and it sure was tasty! You can pick your protein and starch for your bowl, and their options were unique and delicious. Don’t miss it!
  • Timeless Classics –> Kilimanjaro Safaris and Festival of the Lion King. These were two highlights of Animal Kingdom I did actually remember as a kid, and it was even better going back. The safari is just a classic ride you simply can’t miss, and the Lion King show is absolutely phenomenal. We got into both with little wait times!
  • Most Underestimated –> Primeval Whirl. You might be tempted to pass by the Dinosaur carnival-type area that seems geared more toward little kids if you don’t have any, but don’t!! This ride is worth a stop and was surprisingly a fun little thrill ride.
  • Hidden Treasure –> It’s Tough to be a Bug. This is a 4D show inside the Tree of Life. I remember walking out of this show as a kid because the creepy crawly effects scared me, but regardless of how old this show is, it’s super well done but easy to overlook. We started our day at Animal Kingdom here, and it was just the best!
I hope this post was helpful for you! I sure did love reminiscing and writing it. Of course, there was so much more we could have seen and so much more I wanted to do like spending more time at Universal, checking out Volcano Bay, and chilling in Disney Springs and Universal CityWalk, but that just means I’ll have an excuse to go back. 😉 If you’re planning a trip to Orlando soon, I’d love to hear about it!! Contact me using the page on my site or shoot me an email at nicholelaurenphoto@gmail.com. Can’t wait to hear about it all!

Posted in: Uncategorized

April 24, 2018

Walt Disney World & Universal Studios | Orlando, FL | Travels

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Nichole Lauren is a photographer & business coach in Greenville, SC & available for travel worldwide.

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