The description of my Orlando vacation from five years prior is over here. This is an update in 2016.
Orlando is a great place for a family vacation – we love it. It’s designed for vacations with typically great weather around the whole year and lots of inexpensive flights and places to stay. Plus, the people seem to be mostly transplants from the New York area so their ‘cultural’ ways are familiar to many of us. They drive a whole lot slower though and their traffic lights are long. The downsides are that there’s not much to speak of for kosher food and minyanim and the entertainment is expensive.
Where to Stay
If you want to be near a minyan, Chabad of South Orlando recently moved to a new larger building down the road from where they used to be. Their at 7347 W Sand Lake Rd, Orlando, FL 32819 and their website is www.jewishorlando.com. They have regular Schachris, Minchah, and Maariv minyanim. They are no longer as close to the hotels but if you’re willing to walk .5 to 1 miles, there are plenty to come by. It’s in the ‘north’ with respect to the parks, near SeaWorld and Universal Studios. Update: It turns out also near this area is the Orlando Torah Center which is in a residential area with vacation house rentals, is building an Eruv at the time of this writing, and also has three minyanim a day. I did not know about this before my current trip but a comment below informed me. There’s always next time!
That’s what we did on our earlier trip. However, it no longer makes sense for us to stay in hotels and I’m not sure it makes sense for most people to do so . . . especially not in the Orlando, Fl area. About a half hour drive to the south in Kissimmee are hundreds of houses for rent – they’re within 30 minutes of the larger parks and for the same price as a hotel room, you get an entire house with kitchen that you can kasher and your own private family swimming pool and game room. Our kids liked our house better than the Disney parks. (One child said it tied with Magic Kingdom – only a ticket just for one child at Magic Kingdom cost about the same as the house rental per day).
I know people who’ve stayed at Disney hotels and get packaged Kosher food brought to them … there are no minyanim (well, see below) and it’s quite expensive but you can hop on a monorail to get to the parks. If you’re only going to Disney parks and can fit everyone into one hotel room, maybe it’s worth it to you.
Where to Buy Tickets
This is what I found – Walt Disney World tickets are no cheaper anywhere else. There are no discounts that are worth it. Just buy your tickets at the gate.
SeaWorld – Undercovertourist has the best deal – about 20% off. They are also a pleasure to do business with. They have a calendar telling you how busy a park is on a given day, presumably based on ticket salses and if you don’t use your ticket, they’ll refund 95% of the cost.
Universal Studios – Chabad of South Orlando had the best deal here. You can pick up your tickets when you go to daven there, or you can pay to have them mail you your tickets. I do not think they are refundable.
Where to Get Kosher Food
The Publix supermarkets have some amount of kosher food. Each Disney park has a restaurant with pre-packaged kosher food. It’s gotten a bit better in quality, but still nothing too great. If you call ahead at least two days, they will have kosher food brought to any restaurant in the parks for you. Warning: I moved a reservation from one day to another and the kosher food request did not transfer. I did, however, get a free dessert ticket for all of us (the pre-packaged Mickey Mouse ears ice cream around the parks is kosher) and a “fastpass” to cut the line. Totally worth it. Lines were up to two hours at some rides that day!
Medieval Times – you do not have to call ahead your kosher food order. Just show up and tell them you want kosher food and they’ll heat up some double-wrapped kosher food for you. We did not end up going on our trip, but this is what they told me on the phone and is the same for any of their locations, including East Rutherford, NJ. (See what Tosofos says about jousting at Jewish weddings in the middle ages – it’s quite interesting.)
There is no kosher food (beyond the typical pre-packaged sodas, et al.) at any of the other parks for which I am aware. However, Orlando parks do actually strive to not give you a hard time – despite signs at various parks, we had no trouble anywhere bringing our own food in.
During yeshiva break week there are also sometimes more kosher options at some hotel or another or a food truck at the Chabad. There’s also one restaurant – http://koshergourmet.biz/ but I have not been there to tell you about it. The restaurant next to the Chabad’s old location
lost it’s hashgocha. I have no further information on this. It is certified by the Orlando Vaad which is recognized by the CRC.
Where to Find Minyanim
See the first paragraph of ‘Where to Stay’ above.
Further, you can usually catch a minchah/maariv minyan in Disney parks. Someone has apparently been reading my blog because on my post of five years ago, I told how three of us with yarmulkes were in the same place at Epcot and we decided on a time and place for minchah and every frum Jew we saw (man or woman) we told about the minyan and so it spread. We had about 50 people show up for minyan based on that! During yeshiva break week, there’s no shortage of Jews for a minyan at the parks. This past time, sure enough others were doing same and I heard from every Jew I passed “5:40pm in Mexico for minchah/maariv”. Until someone comes out with a “minyan app” to start these electronically (maybe it’s a security problem?) just use this word of mouth option to start or promulgate a minyan at Disney. It works really well!
When to Visit
Go during yeshiva break week (late January). Your kosher food options are much greater and, as above, you won’t have a hard time finding a mincha/maariv minyan. Another benefit: January is the slowest month for Orlando tourism. The rest of the country gets off from school in late December and then not again until mid-February. In January, it’s a bunch of Jews and Europeans (including some Jews we heard speaking French) in Orlando. The lines are also shortest.
Where to Visit
Walt Disney World – Your number one choice is Magic Kingdom. This is the epitome of theme parks. It is the best in the world and people come from all over the world. It’s Disney’s first and main park with the iconic castle. I find reading about it’s construction (you’re actually on the second floor above tunnels) and design (vacuum cleaner garbage cans) and thoughts about everything (point only with two fingers because some cultures consider one finger rude) to be the most fascinating part. They really strive to make you happy. If a child drops and ice cream cone, they replace it free of charge. If they mess up your kosher meal, they give you free food tickets … and in my case, a “Fastpass” to cut the line. They want no one to leave unhappy, no matter the cost. You will not find a crack in the pavement anywhere and everything is bright and immaculate. It’s also huge. I’ve never been able to do the whole park in one day. (Some of that has to do with the long lines, but…). There are live shows all over the place and the rides are just professional. There are flume rides and roller coaster rides all over, but there’s something just better about Splash Mountain and Space Mountain – there are no jerky movements and everything flows. It’s best for ages 3-9 an then 30-90.
Epcot Center – This is Disney’s #2 park meant to showcase new technology and worldwide cultures. I have to say it’s lost it’s luster for me. My favorite ride, Test Track, has been neutered. No more extreme heat and extreme cold and going fast into a door that only opens at the last second. I don’t know what they did to it. The fast outdoor part at the end is still good, but everything up until there … I’m just shaking my head. They’ve replaced a lot of the indoor amusement with very young kid things and I have some of those but it just wasn’t that appealing – I expect more out of Disney than put the right shape in the hole or spin the shape until it fits right. My 3 and 5 year old do more sophisticated things with our own building toys and computer games. Then the world showcase … well, my son ruined that for me when he pointed out that you go to Italy, Germany, Japan, wherever … it’s all restaurants and gift shops. Canada has a 9-screen movie advertising itself and there’s some live shows at the United States area (where the kosher food is, by the way) but eh.
Hollywood Studios – Haven’t been there. This is on my list for the next trip instead of Epcot. Have a review of it? Please add it to the comments.
Characters are also at the Disney World theme parks … my sons don’t really care but one of my daughter’s does to an extent. You wait on line so they can meet the character. Some mother’s make a religion out of it with their daughters … they know where every character is and when and have an autograph book where they collect as many autographs as possible. My daughter’s best friend doesn’t even let her watch princess movies!
(Fun side note: At one of these I asked people, “Which princess is this?” They said, “Merida” and I turned and said to my daughter, “Do you want to see Miranda?” Everyone in line gave me these looks of disgust like I just committed some terrible sin of not only not knowing who I was looking at, but speaking words of apocrypha to my daughter. Like I’m supposed to remember which one’s the bear and which one’s the mermaid. Whatever.)
SeaWorld – Our visit the first time during great weather was amazing. This past time it was raining and the performances were very off. The girl didn’t make it onto her dolphin and worse, they’re no longer allowed to go in the water with the killer whales making the show pretty lame now. I’d still go back, but only in better weather! (This is how I know undercover tourist will refund 95% of your unused ticket by the way … I was a die-hard and went in the rain, but not so for all of my group.)
Universal Studios – I loved it twenty years ago. This was my first time back since then. Eh. I did the entire park with one of my daughter’s after the rest of my family went back to the swimming pool (thank you Uber). It’s broken up into sections by movie which is sort of problematic because my kids don’t know many of the movies and some of them are really dated … Men in Black … ugh. Some are just stupid … they took out the stunt show and put in a physical game show where they catch squid and dare people to eat sheratzim. Why? That’s better than a stunt show? I come to a movie studio for explosives and you took that away from me! There’s not even a studio tour anymore and Nickelodeon Studios is completely gone for some guys pained in blue with no entertainment there the entire day when it’s just dead space.
My kids wanted to see Harry Potter world so we went there first. At first, it is really amazing … you walk through a wall and there’s the entire set of the Harry Potter movies. Then you realize it’s all just traif restaurants and over-priced gift shops – $50 for a thin little plastic wand. I’m waiting for mine to come from Malaysia for $3 off Ebay. There’s one … count it … one ride in Harry Potter world. It was a good ride, I’ll give it that … just very short. They take you from one large screen to the next in your roller coaster thing.
The rides in general are really good – they really are. The problem is that you only need to go on about two of them. After that, they’re just variations of the same … mostly some type of individual coaster through movie scenes except this one is on rails, that one is held from above, this one can spin, that one can spit water at you. My favorites were probably the Mummy (neat effect with the roof being engulfed in fire) and Harry Potter (more neat fire effects – maybe I just like fire and explosions). The ET ride had the best line – it’s pretty dark and you’re between redwood trees, but it’s not clear to me which rides they decide to keep and which they decide to update. ET is incredibly out of date with a video intro by Steven Speilberg about how great the ride’s technology is … they type your name in and ET speaks it out at the end of the ride … it’s so 1990. I showed the movie to my daughter once we returned home so she got it.
Other rides, they changed out. They changed Back to the Future for the Simpsons?! That was their best ride! It’s now corny as anything with not a memorable thing about it. It was far from canonical making me further cringe. (The ride outside, the “non-threatening time waster” that spins around in circles was cute.) Clearly they did not realize what a big deal “Back to The Future Day” would be in 2015 (my birthday).
They had a cute Curious George section for the real young kids where you walk through as you read pages of the book. Otherwise, if the trip is for your kids, I’d say skip this park. Most frum kids, and for that matter, many non-frum kids won’t know most of these movies and the park is just not staying in the present. It’s an answer to Disney for older kids, but Disney has this way of making movies and entertainment which much better stand the test of time.
Gatorworld – I didn’t make it here, but it was on our short list. It’s far less expensive than the big parks but probably also only a half-day activity. You see alligators and stuff like that I think.
Kennedy Space Center – I went on my last trip. Don’t bother unless you have a child really interested in seeing space shuttle history and that sort of thing. Nasa isn’t doing the kind of interesting cutting edge stuff they used to be doing either.
Medieval Times – I loved this as a kid. I’m not sure how kosher this is, but they do serve pre-packaged kosher food. It’s a live jousting show with a lot of different teams.
Legoland – This was on our list but was quickly cut. It didn’t get such good reviews and was largely described as being like any other smallish amusement park with the same rides, just Lego-themed.
My kids liked the private house with heated pool best. I wasted a whole lot of money on tickets! Our next vacation: a house with a private pool anywhere in the United States and I take day trips only with the kids who want to come with me. The house and Magic Kingdom were the biggest hits this trip. On our last trip, Seaworld probably impressed us most. When you go during yeshiva week break, you’ll find plenty of frum Jews, more kosher food and minyan options, and shorter lines. If you read this whole article – sorry about my Universal Studios rant.
Comments are appreciated. Please also feel free to use this as a point on the internet to discuss the topic in general.