by Fancy Free Diva
If you’re a traveler and Disney fan like me, when you travel to Florida, you do so completely ensconced by “the Disney bubble.” Once I step foot on the airplane in my home state, the bubble engulfs me, and I do not emerge until the “tragically depressed” Magical Express picks me up at my Disney resort bound for Orlando International and my plane ride home. If, like me, you travel within the Disney bubble, you may or may not know that the Orlando area and Central Florida has – gasp – other theme parks and attractions to visit. Yes, that’s right, the Orlando area and Central Florida boast other places you can (and perhaps should) visit – places outside the Disney bubble.
If you’re reading this on the Tips From the Disney Diva website, you might be wondering why I would recommend that you break out of the Disney bubble on your next vacation, and before reading Beyond Disney: The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, & the Best of Central Florida, I probably would have asked myself the same question. But I did read this book, and now I know the answer: there are some pretty amazing reasons to pop the bubble, including Legoland, Gatorland, and the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, among others.
Because Disney is the standard for most theme park goers and travelers to central Florida, the writers of Beyond Disney often make comparisons, giving honest opinions of how these other locations measure up to the mouse. Not only that, but because this is an “unofficial” guide, you can be sure that the authors are offering their unbiased opinions of the locales they are reviewing. In other words, if they recommend something, it’s going to be worth your time, and if there’s something they think you should avoid, they’ll tell you that, too. In fact, Beyond Disney offers many of these comparisons in easy to read charts. That way you can see several hotels or restaurants side-by-side to easily determine how they match up and where you would like to spend your hard-earned vacation dollars.
Diva Tip: Not only will the authors of Beyond Disney tell you the truth, they also include reader testimonials in places to show you what other vacationers thought of specific locations. At times, the testimonials will also weigh in on highly debated topics, like whether to rent a house or stay at a hotel on your vacation. These are big questions, and the writers of Beyond Disney want to make sure that you have all of the information necessary to make the right choices for you and your travel companions.
Some of the locations covered in this guide are so small that they don’t warrant an entire guidebook to themselves, so this Unofficial Guide combines the information needed for all of these smaller vacation destinations in one handy place. The table of contents is really well organized, so you can target your research, or just browse through to get ideas about places you or your family might like to visit. Beyond Disney: The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, & the Best of Central Florida has a little bit of everything.
Beyond Disney: The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, & the Best of Central Florida is split up into sixteen sections, covering everything from where to stay, where to eat, and where to play. The table of contents for this unofficial guide is truly extensive, including information on: Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, Legoland Florida, Gatorland, The Holy Land Experience, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, SeaWorld, Universal Orlando, water parks and water sports, miniature golf, Old Town and Fun Spot USA, International Drive, outdoor recreation and more, museums and cultural attractions, after dark, and dining – with a special section covering buffets and meal deals. Reading through each of these sections, you will find all of the logistical details you’ll need if you plan to visit any of these locations, including maps, prices, suggested itineraries and touring plans, and contact information. In addition to the facts, you’ll also find the opinions, including age ratings for each attraction (preschool, grade school, teens, young adults, over 30, seniors), a star-based rating system for each location and attraction, touring tips, and unofficial tips. The “unofficial tips” read like insider information, making you feel truly in the know.
Diva Tip: These “unofficial tips” will tell you if you need to get to the park early, plan for a lot of walking, prepare yourself for long wait times, or even recommend a specific time of the year to travel. There is a wealth of information in these little blue-asterisked sections!
If you think that a 376-page guidebook (396, if you count the index) with no pictures will be dry and boring to read, you couldn’t be more wrong. Despite the lack of glossy, full-color photos, the information is spot on and the writing style is really engaging and sometimes even laugh out loud funny, especially when the authors tell you that you should visit an attraction “only to get out of the rain” or that something is “surprisingly amusing for all ages.” In addition, they’ll tell you which hotel in the Orlando area to avoid if you don’t want your midafternoon naps “filled with visions of M*A*S*H and Apocalypse Now.”
Diva Tip: This is a HUGE book packed with LOTS of information. Once you’ve narrowed down your choices, don’t be afraid to tear out just the pages you need for your trip. I highly recommend you do that with any of the touring plans. The people over at Unofficial Guide will save you LOTS of time with their well-researched touring plans.
Interestingly, one of my favorite parts of Beyond Disney: The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, & the Best of Central Florida to read was the introduction. I know, most people skip those, but when I’m not vacationing in Florida, I’m an English teacher, so I read every word. This introduction provided a really fascinating history of “the attraction that ate Florida” (aka Disney), describing what Central Florida looked like as a vacation spot before the mouse moved in and detailing how some of these locations have worked really hard to survive (and thrive, in some cases) in the shadow of Disney. Reading the introduction really helped me feel empathy for some of these other tourist destinations, and it made me want to leave the bubble to see what else I could discover.
In terms of other things to discover, I learned a lot about the various lodging options in the Orlando area – options I hadn’t really thought about or explored before. Not only do the authors of Beyond Disney rate and review various hotels and resorts, but they also provide a host of money-saving tips, from which websites will help you get the best deal, which discount services you should know about if you’re a frequent traveler, and how best to communicate with the hotel directly so that you can shop for deals and secure your room preferences. The lodgings and accommodations section of the guidebook also comes with a number of detailed maps that will help you choose the best hotel or resort in the best location for the places you’d like to visit.
In terms of where to visit, Beyond Disney includes information on popular Orlando-area attractions, like Universal Orlando and SeaWorld, but it also includes information about Gatorland and the Holy Land Experience, parks you may have heard of but might not know that much about. Each section of Beyond Disney includes detailed information for each attraction at each location, including “what it is,” “scope and scale,” “when to go,” “authors’ rating,” “description and comments,” and “touring tips.” All of that powerful information is coupled with an overall star rating (1-5 stars) and an “appeal by age” rating guides you completely through your vacation planning process so that you can make truly informed and well researched decisions about how to best spend your precious vacation time.
In addition to information about theme parks like Legoland and Busch Gardens and popular attractions like Wet ‘n Wild and Aquatica, there is also an entire section devoted to outdoor recreation and more. This section is designed to help you find out how to book an airboat tour or a helicopter tour, or where you can go to zip-line over 4700 acres of working cattle ranch or book an overnight horseback safari.
If someone in your travel party enjoys more culture than thrill on vacation, there’s also a section of Beyond Disney that’s devoted to museums, including information on the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of Art, which hosts an entire wing devoted to Tiffany glasswork, or the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, which hosts works by such celebrated artists as Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. For those aerospace fans, in addition to a visit to Kennedy Space Center, you might also want to plan a side trip to Fantasy of Flight, an immersive experience dedicated to the history of flight.
When all of your touring is finished, and you’ve worked up an appetite, the final sections of Beyond Disney are devoted to the amazing culinary experiences throughout the Orlando area. With special attention to the dinner shows (think Medieval Times and Arabian Nights) and all-you-care-to-eat buffets (you’ve probably heard of Chinese Super Buffets, but there are also Indian Buffets and South American Buffets), the dining guide is organized by meal (breakfast, lunch, dinner) and by type of cuisine (American, Ethiopian, French). There is even information about character dining (outside of the Disney Parks) and dealing with food allergies and special dining requests.
In short, Beyond Disney: The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, & the Best of Central Florida has a little bit of everything, and everything you could possibly need to plan a day or a whole trip outside of the Disney Parks.
So what do you do if you want to own a copy of Beyond Disney: The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, & the Best of Central Florida or any of the other Unofficial Guides? Start by reading our other Disney Diva reviews for The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World With Kids, The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland, Mini-Mickey: The Pocket Sized Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, The Unofficial Guide to Disney Cruise Line, and The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando.
Once you’ve decided which of the Unofficial Guides is right for helping you plan your next vacation, you could order them from Amazon.com by clicking here, or you could enter our contest! That’s right- the generous folks over at Unofficial Guides have once again offered to give away one copy of ANY Of the Unofficial Guide books. Whether you’re going on a Disney Cruise, planning a trip to Universal Studios, or branching out to other Florida destinations, or even if you want more information and insider tips to help you and your family have an even better experience in one of the Disney parks, there is a book for you!
Click here for more details.
And don’t forget, we all need help planning our vacation, and a Vacation Specialist will help you plan your trip as well as SAVE YOU MONEY. With this guide, our own site, and a Travel Specialist like our favorite, Patricia aka Military Diva, you’ll be able to easily make the most of your next vacation!
Disney Diva Disclaimer: Liliane Opsomer from the Unofficial Guide series provided me a copy of the book, Beyond Disney: The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, & the Best of Central Florida, to review for free. She has also generously allowed our site to give away a copy of another Unofficial Guide book for free to our readers. I received no other compensation for my review, and my opinions are 100% entirely my own.
Also, all of the copyrights for the photographs used in the article belong to Liliane Opsomer, Dave Parfitt, or Seth Kubersky and are being used with their permission.