While Orlando theme parks offer year-round fun, the best kept secret among industry insiders is that the fall months may be the perfect time to visit Central Florida.
October, November and December bring cooler weather, shorter lines, and--with special events, festivals, holiday happenings--additional attractions inside and beyond these parks.
The Walt Disney World Resort is the biggest of the bunch, home to four astounding theme parks and a seemingly unlimited supply of shopping, dining, and other entertainment opportunities.
Just 20 minutes up the highway is the increasingly-popular Universal Orlando Resort, drawing more attention than ever with its recently-opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter and some of Orlando's most thrilling attractions.
SeaWorld Orlando lies in between these two parks, providing more than just exciting rides, also featuring interesting, educational exhibits featuring stunning aquatic life. Theme park fans looking for a little more fun shouldn't skip Busch Gardens Tampa. Though it's a little more than an hour away from the other three, it's well worth the trek, placing guests on an African safari through wilderness, wildlife, and onto wild rides.
Theme park operators realize they need to add extra perks to draw audiences during the "value" season. Parents need a good reason to pull kids from school instead of planning a family vacation during summer, spring, or winter breaks.
Below are some of the best attractions on offer. These are great way slow down and enjoy theme parks and other attractions at a relaxed pace, instead of bucking the enormous high-season crowds.
Here are a few fan favorites:
--October is packed with Halloween thrills, from the scream-filled to the not-so-scary. Universal Studios Florida draws thousands of thrill-seekers annually with Halloween Horror Nights, this year featuring haunted houses that include exciting properties like AMC's "The Walking Dead" and a park filled with "scare-actors" lurking around every corner, as nowhere is safe to hide. Busch Gardens Tampa puts on a similarly spooky event called Howl-O-Scream, relying on sheer energy, quick startles, and a taste of terror. While both of these events are strictly aimed at adults, Walt Disney World corners the kid market with Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, providing unlimited trick-or-treating, a special Halloween-themed parade and fireworks shows, and much more fright-free fun. Those with even younger kids may want to check out SeaWorld's Halloween Spooktacular, with colorful entertainment aimed at toddlers. Many other Halloween attractions spring up during October throughout Central Florida, from the town of Celebration south of Walt Disney World to many independent haunted houses worth exploring.
Wine and Dine
--Walt Disney World holds one of the year's best special events for those with an affinity for culinary greatness as the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival offers small plates of tasty treats at kiosks representing cities and countries worldwide, each paired with a wide selection of beers and wines. From saucy French classics to spicy Australian lamb recipes to savory South American eats, the Food and Wine Festival is a must-do for all who visit Central Florida in the Fall. This year it runs daily in the park through Nov. 12.
A Whole New World
--Fall 2012 is a particularly special time in Orlando as Walt Disney World will be opening its biggest expansion ever of the Magic Kingdom theme park. They're more than doubling the size of Fantasyland, adding a new ride based on "The Little Mermaid," a village, tavern, and restaurant featuring "Beauty and the Beast," with more still under construction in the new area throughout the next couple years. Previews for all park guests begin on Nov. 19 with the grand opening scheduled for Dec. 6.
--Almost immediately after Halloween disappears, the holiday season begins throughout Central Florida, particularly in its theme parks. Though it may begin to look a lot like Winter, Fall doesn't technically end until Dec. 20, 2012, which is about when the big crowds will arrive. Early November and December are some of the best times of the entire year to visit Orlando and Tampa, with gorgeous weather enhancing lightly-attended attractions. Within a week of Jack-O-Lanterns put back into storage, Walt Disney World decks its halls with garland, ornaments, and giant ornate trees, rolling in Christmas cheer, with the first Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party taking place on Nov. 9. Meanwhile Universal Orlando transforms its parks with Macy's Holiday Parade and their Grinchmas celebration. Both SeaWorld and Busch Gardens this year will offer park-wide makeovers with carolers, specially-themed rides, festive foods, and plenty more Christmas cheer.
If all the added entertainment, better weather, and smaller crowds weren't enough reasons to vacation in Central Florida during the fall months, prices often drop during this time of year as an added incentive, with some of the best hotel rates being offered. But it's also important to note that not all of fall is a perfect time to visit. The week of Thanksgiving is generally quite crowded in the parks, often more so than during the summer, so unless a theme park turkey is an absolute necessity, it's recommended to visit before or after this holiday.
Ricky Brigante is a theme park expert and fan who edits InsideTheMagic, a blog focusing on Disney and theme park news and entertainment. He's also host of the award-winning "Inside the Magic" podcast.