Budget Guide 2013: Orlando

The notion that “Orlando” and “Budget” don’t go well together has its basis in fact; theme parks are not a cheap day’s outing. Admission alone can cost $100 per person without spending a dime on parking, food or souvenirs. Still, without trying all that hard, a good time can be had on a budget in and around Orlando – a time that captures every bit of the magic and wonder.

In the past, budget travelers and Orlando had a hard time connecting. 2013 looks to see average room rates hovering around $100 per night with popular International Drive and luxury hotels running several times that amount. Stay on property at a major resort like Disney World and expect to pay over $250 each night with the sky being the limit. Orlando’s hotel business has been hit hard by the economy in recent years. Now a recovering work in progress, there are plenty of budget hotels in the market.

Theme park admission, hotel rates and dining aside, there are a variety of activities to do and places to see in Orlando that are free. The Downtown Disney area of Orlando is a good example and has free admission and entertainment. Every chain restaurant in the world, it seems, has a version of what they do here from TGI Fridays to The Capital Grille and everything in-between. You’ll also find friendly locals eager to help with directions, though odds are they’ll be dining at a local place as simple as a grocery store meat counter.

Hotels

Orlando hotel developers have returned to building hotels after suffering during the economic depression. In what seems to be a new sense of purpose, hoteliers in Orlando are now paying better attention to the details of their work. It’s kind of like a ride, watching them handle things so efficiently. It’s refreshing.

New this year, big resorts have individual special offers worth up to 50% off the price, reduced rates for children and other promotions. Expensive luxury hotels aside, here are some reliable, nicely priced places to stay.

Best Western Plus Orlando Gateway is a full-service hotel with an outdoor pool, two restaurants and a fitness facility. Located within easy access to Wet ‘n Wild and Universal Studios Orlando, and not far from Disney World and other attractions, this hotel has free Wi-Fi, free parking and a free shuttle to area parks.
From $70. 7299 Universal Blvd – bworlando.com

Travelodge Maingate Suites is in Kissimmee, not far from parks and other attractions, and has a free shuttle to theme parks. Unique to this hotel are cooking facilities in each room including a microwave oven and refrigerator. Free Wi-Fi, parking and a continental breakfast along with a picnic area make this one a good choice for budget-minded families. The average year-round price of $30 is a bargain at twice the price.
From $30. 4649 W Irlo Bronson Freeway – travelodge.com/hotels/florida/kissimmee

Days Inn Orlando Midtown is also not far from the theme park action as well as downtown places of interest like Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital, the revitalized downtown area and more. Days Inn Orlando Midtown, like other Orlando hotels, is more expensive on the weekends. From $48.
3300 S Orange Blossom Trail – daysinn.com/hotels/florida/orlando/

Eat and Drink

Like hotels, a good way to eat and drink at a reasonable cost in Orlando is to steer clear of International Drive, the hub of all things Orlando, and the attractions … although, the world’s largest McDonalds is probably a must-see for fast food lovers and it sits not far from Disney World.

Mama B’s Giant Subs is located downtown and is open for lunch only. A local favorite, there is a choice of 30 different sandwiches, all customizable and all huge. They have a $6 lunch special that includes any half sub with chips and small drink. For a big group, a 3-foot feeds 10-15 people ($36.96), 4-foot ($49.38), 5-foot ($61.00), 6-foot ($72.68) Note that they only take cash – no credit or debit cards accepted.
692 N Orange Ave - Mama B’s Giant Subs

Bubbalou’s Bodacious BBQ is a favorite of local residents looking for a whole lot of good food for little money. This is where local barbecue fans that know what they’re talking about eat. Absolutely nothing fancy to it, this place has Floridians driving from as far away as Jacksonville. Unique menu items here include Fried Pickles ($2.99), Fried Okra ($3.49) and Sweet Potato Tots ($3.99). Beef, pork, chicken and seafood are prepared fresh daily as sandwiches ($5.99) or dinners ($11.99).
12100 Challenger Parkway – bubbalous.com

Fish and Chips is actually the name of a restaurant in the Orlando suburban city of Apopka that started as a hole-in-the-wall place in a strip mall in 2006. Fish and Chips has such a big local following that it was expanded and moved to a larger location at the end of 2012 and looks poised to be even better in 2013. Based on a simple premise of providing hearty portions of quality seafood at reasonable prices ($5-$7), the fish served at lunch today “was swimming last night,” the owners are fond of saying.
1146 West S R 436 – fishchipsorlando.com

Budget Activities

Splitsville Luxury Lanes and Dinner Lounge is a 30-lane bowling alley ($15 per person per hour, all-you-can-bowl) in Downtown Disney that’s a hip, retro venue and also features pool tables (free) and a balcony bar that overlooks Downtown Disney. Budget watchers will like that at Splitsville they don’t need to bowl to enjoy the bars and food offerings. In addition, Splitsville has live music (free) on some nights, with a variety of theme nights on others.
1494 East Buena Vista Drive – splitsvillelanes.com

Pleasure Island, is a free entertainment area in Downtown Disney that can be a cheap, if not free night out. Parking is free and so is non-stop entertainment at various venues. Try a candy apple from the Candy Cauldron, watch singers and musicians for a few hours or ride the free water taxi around to see the area. On the marketplace side, visitors can always get a free chocolate sample at the Ghirardelli Chocolate shop.
1590 Buena Vista Drive – wdwinfo.com/downtown/pi/

Universal City Walk is similar to Downtown Disney and a fun area of restaurants, shops and entertainment that requires no admission. You’ll pay for parking here ($20) but buy something in a store and they will credit your purchase towards the fee. Travelers who enjoy a Caribbean cruise for a trip to Margaritaville can stop by Jimmy Buffet’s place for a Cheeseburger In Paradise fix and a LandShark beer.
6000 Universal Blvd – universalorlando.com

Get Around

By Bus: Orlando’s citywide bus system is called the LYNX public transportation system. The extensive system that runs until midnight is worth learning over other transportation methods. A one-way fare in a single direction anywhere on the system is $4, and transit directions can be pulled from Google Maps on your smartphone. To or from Orlando International Airport (MCO) and the suburbs via cab or private car will run around $100 each way.

By Car: Rental cars in Orlando are usually very competitive because of the high volume of tourists. Cars are almost always available and everyday prices for compacts start at just $25 per day with unlimited mileage. Start your search at kayak.com for a good aggregate of fares.

By Train: While a train is not a good way to get around once in Orlando, using one to get there is another matter altogether. The Orlando area has three Amtrak passenger train stations. The Orlando station is close to the attractions but the Kissimmee station is the closest to Walt Disney World. The Winter Park station delivers passengers to a quaint suburb with frequent street markets and old-fashioned charm.

Budget Tips

Watch Disney World Fireworks For Free by going to Disney’s Polynesian Resort (no admission fee required) for a cheap dinner at Captain Cook’s quick-service restaurant, then go sit on the beach attached to the resort for the show.
1600 7 Seas Drive – disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/polynesian-resort/

Driving? Bring a roll of quarters, as many roads frequently traveled by visitors are toll roads. Better yet, if you’re going to be in town for the good part of a week, buy a SunPass transponder to save on what a car rental company might charge. Save time driving too by paying attention to road congestion via your favorite up-to-date GPS-based app; major highway projects in 2013 and beyond will make driving an activity all of its own.

Pick a suburban hotel if visiting during peak times when hotel availability may be tight. Pick something close to I-4 if visiting attractions. It will be about a 30 minute drive to Disney World, Universal Studios and others but well-worth the savings. It is almost always less costly paying for the rental car and expenses vs. staying at a pricey hotel or resort on-site.


Top 10 holiday sights to see at Walt Disney World

Walt Disney World is known for building theme parks and resorts that are larger than life. So it should come as no surprise that Disney goes all out during the holidays. It’s enough to have anyone humming “White Christmas,” even if it is 80 degrees outside.

Many of the holiday festivities start this week at Walt Disney World – yes, Disney skips directly from Halloween to Christmas. Here are my Top 10 sights to see at Walt Disney World during a November or December visit:

Snow on Main Street U.S.A.
It only gets cold enough for a flurry every few years in Orlando, but you can see snow at the Magic Kingdom on select nights each November or December. The flakes fall during Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, a special event that includes a holiday parade, Christmas fireworks and treat stations dispensing free hot chocolate and cookies.

The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights
Millions of lights twinkle in time with holiday music during this dazzling presentation at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Entire buildings are covered in lights, and more lights form Santa and his reindeer and other familiar favorites. The shows happen nightly after dark in the park’s Streets of America section.

Minnie’s Christmas cookie parade float
Minnie Mouse’s float in Mickey’s Jingle Jungle Parade delights the eyes with giant Christmas cookies and candy. But this “must-see” is a “must-smell,” too. Be sure to get a whiff of the cinnamon scent the float emits as it rolls by during this afternoon parade at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Santas with an international flair

In Epcot, the World Showcase pavilions show off traditional décor – and traditional jolly old elves — from their home countries each holiday season. Don’t miss a visit with Pere Noel in France or Father Christmas in the United Kingdom.

Stars on parade
The Walt Disney World parade shown on TV each Christmas Day is actually taped during a few days in early December, and Disney recruits members of the public and park visitors to be part of the audience for the taping. The 2009 parade audiences were treated to musical performances by stars including Kris Allen, Yanni and Nick Cannon. This year’s tapings are scheduled for Dec. 3 and 4.

Giant gingerbread
Disney’s pastry chefs work overtime during the holidays, creating larger-than-life masterpieces that are amazingly edible. Take a tour of the resorts to see their handiwork: a gingerbread carousel with chocolate horses spins at Disney’s Beach Club, toy soldiers guard the perimeter of a gingerbread gazebo at Disney’s Boardwalk Inn, and a 17-foot gingerbread tree towers over the fourth floor of Disney’s Contemporary Resort. If all that gingerbread sharpens your sweet tooth, stop by the life-sized gingerbread house at Disney’s Grand Floridian, which doubles as a bake shop selling cookies, peppermint bark and – you guessed it – gingerbread.

Towering wilderness
While Walt Disney World is home to more than 700 Christmas trees each December, the beauty at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is a consistent favorite of Disney visitors. Shooting up more than 60 feet in the center of the lodge’s lobby, the Christmas tree is adorned with 60,000 lights and décor that suits the national park theming of the resort, including ornaments made from antlers. In fact, Disney’s Imagineers designed the Wilderness Lodge lobby with Christmas in mind, even installing power outlets in the floor where they would be needed for the tree.

Christmas-y campsites
While Walt Disney World decorators string more than 8 million Christmas lights around the resort, guests at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground also get on the action. It has become an annual tradition for many families to camp at Walt Disney World during the Christmas holidays, and they bring their celebrations – and their decorations – with them. Take a spin through the campground after dark to see the creative ways these Disney visitors light up their tents and RVs.

Cinderella’s Holiday Wish
Each night at dusk, Cinderella appears on stage at the Magic Kingdom to ask for a special holiday wish. With a wave of her Fairy Godmother’s magic wand, the princess’s castle is lit up with sparkling holiday lights. The glittering castle makes a great back-drop for a family photo.

Surprising treats
Holiday surprises also abound at Walt Disney World’s restaurants. Keep your eye out for special holiday menu items, such as chocolate Mickey waffles on the Crystal Palace breakfast buffet or a frozen Dole Whip dessert colored a Christmas green at Disney’s Polynesian Resort.

[Image credit (gingerbread house): Flickr user M. Keefe]