Apps to the Rescue: Time-Saving Tools for Florida Theme Parks

Mobile Apps for Orlando Vacations

I’m as guilty as any other human who’s addicted to technology. I take my iPhone everywhere, even to my nightstand, much to the chagrin of my husband, who, as he should, likes his sleep without the visual assault of bright white light. That said, I’m more of a tasker than a gamer—sorry Kim Kardashian, there’s no room for you on my phone. I need technology that makes practical sense, is intuitive and can save me time.

 While I consider myself an “early adopter” who finds an app for everything, I have to admit that I’m new to downloading apps and relying on other technology for in-trip experiences. So when I did during our recent Florida vacation, it transformed the way I travel.

1. Technology: The new way to queue 
My kids are 8 and 10—past the full-on meltdown phase—yet still very much prone to crankiness and mouthiness when they’re hungry and tired. Factor in that the first day of our trip happened to be the hottest day in Orlando in three years and it could have been a cocktail for implosion. I counted at least five parents arguing (in five different languages) with their spouses in line, at the restroom, at the stroller parking lot. “You told me you’d meet me here!” “Should we really wait 40 minutes to see Anna?”

Thankfully, I made use of free mobile apps available for download at each of the Florida theme parks we visited—Universal Orlando Resort App, Walt Disney World’s MyMagic and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay’s Discovery Guide (all available for iPhone or Android)—to stave off any public marital discord. The apps allowed us to view GPS-powered maps, make dining reservations, view wait times for rides, identify the schedule and location of our favorite characters, find ATMs and bathrooms and so much more. So when we stood in line for 40 minutes to meet Ariel in her Grotto, we weren’t blindsided by the wait time. We knew exactly what we were in for. And at the end of the experience, when Ariel asked my girls to “swim on up here, Chicago princesses,” it was worth the wait.

2. Upgrades. Get ‘em.
Millions visit Orlando attractions every year. That’s millions you’re weaving through—and almost competing against—to get to your desired destination. In the swarms of people, it’s just practical to upgrade your access to secure your place in the “shorter” (shorter, being relative) lines. During our Universal trip, we Express Passed our way through to the Incredible Hulk Coaster, the Dragon Challenge and at least a dozen more rides, shaving hours off our day. I felt secretly guilty bypassing the other guests standing in the regular line, but then I reminded myself that the goal was to experience as much of the park as possible, and that it could be years before I’d be back here again. Note: These upgrades are an added fee on top of admission, but well worth it. Visit the park’s sites for specifics.

3. It’s cool to customize.
When we arrived at Magic Kingdom, we were pleasantly surprised to find workers taking our “orders” at FastPass kiosks for the three rides we wanted to try first (a universal privilege through They told us what was available, the times we had to be there, and then we got to book our slots.  While we didn’t snag our top pick—Seven Dwarfs Mine Train—we sailed our way through to the Pirates of Caribbean, Splash Mountain and Tomorrowland Speedway.  The beauty: You can use to lock in your experiences through FastPass in advance or the day of your trip.

4. Shoulder season is your friend.
Our summer vacation timed beautifully with the start of the Florida school year (late August). At smaller theme parks like Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, it was clear this was the right time of year to visit (not so much at Universal or Disney, which drew folks from all corners of the world. There’s nothing more charming than a Brit saying, “Harry Pott-uh.”) Thinner crowds mean more time for you so September to November, shoulder season, is an ideal time to travel. My husband and older daughter, the thrillseekers in our family, took advantage of the easy lines, riding Montu and SheiKra multiple times. While they dangled above, my youngest and I plotted our next adventures: feeding the kangaroos and riding on the Serengeti Safari. With lush foliage towering over every corner of the park and random animal sightings—graceful flamingos and chill egrets—Busch Gardens’ integration of Mother Nature somehow made the whole experience more relaxing.

5. Orlando, meet Uber.
The ride-share service has only been in the City Beautiful since June, and is a welcome addition to the destination. In our home of Chicago and plenty of other markets, it’s faced controversy over just how it and other ride-share services will be regulated, but hopefully lawmakers can work it out. It would be a shame not to. Case in point: We assumed we wouldn’t be able to use the free mobile app from the airport so we took a cab. Sixty-five dollars later for a 17-mile ride to Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort, we were crying inside. The same trip back in an UberX was $30. Bah. Wish we had known. 

Finally, download the WhereTraveler app for iPhone and iPad on iTunes for editor recommendations in the palm of your hand. Plan trips, save favorite destinations, and download your city guides for offline use. The power of Where®—anytime, anywhere.