Updated: Jan 27
A 12-day adventure through Orlando's most popular theme parks, in celebration of the New Year
By Amanda Raquel Dorval
January 16, 2023
Curtis, Darius, and I traveled down to Orlando, Florida for almost two weeks, between December 30 and January 10, to visit Disney World and Universal Studios. This was Curtis' and my 4th trip together to Disney, and our whole family's 2nd time together going to Disney and Universal. In fact, Darius was just 8 to 10 weeks old when we first took him to Disney and Universal at the end of 2019, just a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic caused worldwide shutdowns. I made a blog post about our previous trip--including what it was like traveling with an infant while also still recovering from a C-section--which can be found here.
Amtrak Train From NYC to Orlando
When I began planning our 2023 trip to Disney and Universal, I quickly realized that traveling for New Years during the holiday season would add additional costs. As one of my cost-saving measures, I decided that we would travel down to Orlando by Amtrak train (a 23-hour journey), and fly back into NYC at the end of the trip. This tactic ended up saving us about $500. However, now having completed the journey, I will admit that I'm not convinced that these savings ended up being worth the discomfort, stress, and boredom of a 23-hour train ride in coach class.
We boarded the Florida-bound Amtrak Silver Meteor at the newly-built Moynihan train hall at NYC Penn Station in the afternoon on December 29th, and arrived in Orlando the next afternoon on the 30th. From the train station in Orlando, we took an Uber to Disney's Royal Caribbean Beach Resort.
Disney World, December 30, 2022 - January 5, 2023
For the Disney leg of our trip, we stayed at Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort, a huge, expansive moderate-level resort that has access to the Skyliner for quick traveling to EPCOT and Hollywood Studios. We stayed in the Trinidad section of the resort, which was a bit of a walk from the Skyliner and the hotel's main building, Old Port Royal, but our room was newly renovated and quite cozy, with The Little Mermaid-themed décor. Around the resort there were manmade beaches and themed pools, which were a be a big hit with Darius during our chill day at the hotel later on after four busy days walking around the parks. The resort has multiple quick-service food options, bars, and even a fine-dining restaurant called Sebastian's Bistro (a real hidden gem!). One of my favorite meals from our whole trip was a vegan yucca bowl, filled to the brim with delicious pieces of crispy fried yucca, beans, cheese, pico de gallo, and plant-based sausage.
Genie+ and heavy crowds
Since last visiting Disney in 2019, Disney has implemented its new (and controversial) Genie+ system for ride reservations through the Lightning Lane feature. I will say that Genie+ was not my favorite, and I much prefer the former FastPass+ system that allowed everyone to make 3 FastPass ride reservations in advance of their visit, on a complimentary basis. Genie+ is a paid system, which isn't necessarily a deal-breaker. I did not like the dynamic pricing system, because I ended up paying the top-end of the range each day we went to the parks since we were visiting during the New Year holiday. I also don't like that Genie+ can only be purchased the day of one's visit to the parks, which forces you to wake up before 7a.m. when Genie+ opens for purchase, otherwise you run the great risk of not getting the Lightning Lane passes you're looking for. Despite these complaints, I feel that purchasing Genie+ each day we were there was a no-brainer, given how heavy the holiday crowds were. Most of the wait times for the parks' most popular attractions regularly stayed at two to three hours, so Lightning Lanes came in handy big-time, and allowed us to ride the newest attractions--including Remy's Ratatouille Adventure (EPCOT) and Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway (Hollywood Studios)--without having to wait on the queue.
Memory Maker (Disney PhotoPass)
As we have done each time in the past, I invested in Disney's Memory Maker (PhotoPass) service, which allowed us access to unlimited photos taken by Disney's park photographers, including pictures taken on rides. This year, we ended up with well over 100 excellent photos through the Memory Maker add-on, taken at various locations in each of Disney's four parks...well worth the price, in my opinion.
New Years Eve at EPCOT
For New Years Eve 2023, I wanted our family to spend the day "around the world" at EPCOT, and we were NOT disappointed! It was a long and fabulous day that culminated in fireworks and multiple DJ-hosted, light-strobing dance parties in several of the World Showcase pavilions. Crowds were heavy, but it was a lot of fun walking through each pavilion and seeing the different DJs.
Backtracking a bit, I woke up after the first night super early to ensure that I could snag us a position in the virtual queue for Disney's newest Guardians of the Galaxy-themed coaster, Cosmic Rewind. Luck was on my side that morning, and I was able to get us into the virtual queue as part of Boarding Group 2, with a call-back time of 9:15 a.m.
After a quick ride on the Skyliner from Caribbean Beach Resort to EPCOT, it was awesome to be able to ride Cosmic Rewind as the first activity of the day. Because Darius was not tall enough to ride, Curtis and I had to do a Rider Switch, so unfortunately each of us had to experience the ride alone. Nonetheless, it was definitely a thrilling ride, and (in my opinion) a game-changer for ride experiences at EPCOT.
After riding Cosmic Rewind, we went for an early lunch in the Mexico Pavilion (a smart move since lunch crowds became insane a couple hours later). We enjoyed some empanadas, rice, beans, maduros, and margaritas. After lunch, we headed over to Norway so that we could meet Anna and Elsa from Frozen. Darius showed Queen Anna his plush Anna doll, and she was impressed. After meeting Anna and Elsa, we then rode the Frozen Ever After ride, one of my favorites at Disney. With some time to kill after the ride, we walked through the World Showcase, pausing to take some pictures in Italy, Japan, and Morocco.
Capture Your Moment private photo session
I decided to purchase a private photo session with a PhotoPass photographer using the Capture Your Moment service, a new add-on to the Disney experience that was introduced in 2020. Though it was an additional cost on top of the Memory Maker purchase, I thought it was completely worth it. I mean, the pictures below speak for themselves! It was a hectic 20 minutes full of laughs and silly moments (and some moody ones too) with our three-year old. We chose to do our session in the Morocco pavilion, which is probably our favorite pavilion at EPCOT and one which invokes special memories for us (both of us were linguists specializing in languages of the Middle East and North Africa, and we visited Morocco back in 2018 before Darius was born).
We returned to Caribbean Beach Resort after our Capture Your Moment Session so that Darius could take a much-needed nap. Around 6pm, we went back to EPCOT for a dinner reservation at Tutto Italia in the Italian Pavilion. While walking through the park towards the restaurant, we were able to catch glimpses of the Harmonious fireworks show, which had begun that evening at 6:30.
For dinner, Curtis and I shared an eggplant parmigiana appetizer and opted for some yummy pasta dishes, while Darius munched on a pizza. While we were eating dinner, we heard the DJ starting to gear up outside, since Italy was one of the pavilions hosting dance parties that evening in celebration of New Years Eve. The music was honestly really good and there were definitely party vibes.
After dinner, we enjoyed the party music and ambience for about an hour while sitting in the France pavilion, as we waiting to go to our 10:30pm Lightning Lane Reservation for Remy's Ratatouille Adventure. It was nice to go right on, since wait times that day for the ride were consistently three hours or more.
After riding Remy's, we decided to leave the park for the night. We left a little after 11pm, and though we didn't quite make it to New Years at 12am, it was nice to beat the crowds going back to the hotel. Darius needed to get into bed, too...it was certainly a long day for him! HAPPY NEW YEAR!
New Years Day at Magic Kingdom
We spent New Years Day at Magic Kingdom, which was wildly crowded. Because of the large crowds, we had more of a casual day in the park. We met Princess Tiana and Rapunzel, rode the carousel in Fantasyland, watched the Festival of Fantasy parade (a pared-down version compared to its pre-COVID days), and frolicked in front of Cinderella's castle while Darius fought a nap. We had lunch at Be Our Guest restaurant, where we were seated in the Beast's dark and stormy west wing (which put Darius in quite the state of unease). We didn't do many rides here since lines were hours long for many attractions, and there really aren't too many worthwhile rides in Magic Kingdom, anyway (Tron, the newest coaster at Magic Kingdom, won't be opening until April 2023, which will hopefully up the thrill level at this park). Darius and Curtis waited about 35 minutes for Test Track during the afternoon, but Darius got upset when he found out he was too little to be the driver.
For dinner, we had a reservation at Tony's Town Square restaurant, which is one of our favorite restaurants at Disney. They have a super yummy plant-based spaghetti and Impossible meatballs dish, which we both ordered. After dinner, we headed to our 7:40 p.m. Lightning Lane reservation to the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster, which Darius was tall enough to ride. This was also the first time Curtis and I have been on this ride, and it was definitely fun! Even though it's a bit of a "starter" coaster for little guys, it still went fast for Darius! He was pretty scared during the ride, but he was brave. We got a picture of us on the ride, but unfortunately my head is blocking Darius in the photo, so we can't see his priceless price.
January 2: Animal Kingdom
Our third day in the parks was spent at Animal Kingdom, which began with a yummy breakfast in the Asia section of the park, followed by an early morning Lightning Lane reservation for the Kilimanjaro Safari ride. We've been on the Kilimanjaro Safari before, but never so early in the morning. With cooler temperatures, a foggy mist, and the light from the early morning sun, it seemed extra breathtakingly beautiful.
We used additional Lightning Lane reservations to ride Expedition Everest and Nav'i River Journey. I couldn't snag a reservation for Flight of the Passage, and we did not want to wait three hours queue time. However, we have ridden Flight of the Passage on multiple occasions in the past, so we didn't feel super pressured to ride it again this time. Instead, we spent our time watching different shows, including "Finding Nemo The Big Blue and Beyond" and "Winged Encounters," and hanging out in the Dinoland playground area.
Having gotten pretty good use out of Genie+ that day, we decided to head back to Caribbean Beach Resort pretty early, around 3:30 p.m., so that Darius could take a nap comfortably in the hotel rather than fighting sleep like he did in Magic Kingdom the day before. This also worked out well, because we had dinner reservations at the resort's main restaurant, Sebastian's Bistro, which is a real hidden gem. A family style restaurant, we dined on the Taste of the Caribbean Plant-based Menu, which included dinner rolls with with plant-based guava butter and caramelized onion jam, salad, Caribbean Impossible kabob, fried yucca, and plant-based sausage, cilantro rice and red beans, vegetable curry, grilled seasonal vegetables, and bread pudding. It was my FAVORITE meal of the trip.
January 3: Hollywood Studios
For our trip to Hollywood Studios, we all dressed in Jedi costumes that I have made in years past. Darius reprised his role as Grogu (he wore the same jacket during our 2019 trip to Disney when he was an itty baby), also affectionately known as "Baby Yoda," while I wore part of the Rey costume I made for Halloween a few years back. We started the day eating a small breakfast at Star Wars Galaxy's Edge, and then bought Darius a new little Porg friend that we named Porgie. We headed over to the Star Wars Launching Bay to meet Darth Vader, Chewbacca, and BB-8, to whom Darius proudly showed his new Porgie.
For rides, we used Genie+ and Lightning Lane reservations for Mickie and Minnie's Runaway Railway, Alien Swirling Saucers, and Star Wars Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, all of which Darius was able to ride. Darius was a bit scared on Smuggler's Run, and yelled to Curtis "I LOVE YOU!" as he strapped him in the pilot seat (it's one of the telltale signs that he's scared lol), but he did great as he sat there gripping the sides of the chair. Hollywood Studios has the best rides at Disney, hands down, but we weren't able to ride most of the really thrilling ones this time. Due to the overwhelming crowds and extreme popularity of rides like Slinky Dog Dash, Rock'n Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror, and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, wait times consistently stayed around three hours for each of these attractions. For this trip, we opted against waiting for anything we didn't have a Lightning Lane reservation for, mainly because Darius is still too small to ride these and it isn't as much fun when Curtis and I each have to ride by ourselves doing rider switch. Plus, we were at least able to ride Rise of the Resistance last time we were here when the attraction first opened in 2019. We have also been on Rock'n Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror, and Slinky Dog Dash in the past. Slinky Dog Dash is the only one I really regret not been able to get a Lightning Lane reservation for (those reservations went quickly that day), because Darius was tall enough to ride it and we could have rode as family. Perhaps it was for the best though, since he was already a bit traumatized from the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster.
Despite not getting to go on all the rides, we did have a chance to check out the Frozen Ever After sing-along show which we've never seen before. It was pretty funny and we all got to sing along to the familiar songs (plus experience some faux snow magic!). We also spent a lot of time just enjoying the ambience of the Star Wars Galaxy's Edge pavilion, with character interactions from Storm Troopers and Kylo Ren!.
January 4: Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort chill day
After four very busy and tiring days in the parks, it was nice to spend a day relaxing and enjoying the amenities at our Disney hotel, Caribbean Beach Resort. We woke up nice and late (it was great not feeling pressured to wake up before 7 a.m. in order to purchase Genie+!), and spent the late morning and early afternoon by the pool area at Old Port Royal. We had yummy food and a few drinks, and spent quite a bit of time in the pool. During this trip, Darius became braver in the pool, and was able to wade around in the shallow area without wanting to be held (next step: teaching him to swim). It was the perfect ending to the Disney leg of our trip. Tomorrow, we are off to Universal Studios Orlando!
Universal Studios, January 5 - 10, 2023
January 5: From Disney to Universal
After a rainy morning checkout from Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort, we took an Uber to our hotel at Universal Studios, Loew's Royal Pacific Resort. After arriving around noon, our room was still wasn't ready (as expected), so we went down to the pool area bar to get a couple drinks and quick bite to eat. Around 2:30, a got a text that our King Suite was ready.
January 6: Islands of Adventure
Royal Pacific Resort is only a seven-minute walk to CityWalk and the Universal Studios theme parks, so that morning we took an early stroll along the resort canal to Islands of Adventure. We started our adventure by riding The Hulk roller coaster, one at a time while the other waited with Darius.
We headed over to the Jurassic Park section of Islands of Adventure, where we got on the one-hour queue together for the new Velocicoaster roller coaster. One of the best features of traveling with a little one at Universal is the Child Swap feature, which allows families to wait in line together and then switch off riding once you get to the front of the queue using the ride's family room. In contrast, Disney's rider switch program, while useful, nonetheless forces families to split up for the duration of the queue wait, while one person waits in line and then the other parent uses the Lightning Lane once the other gets off the ride. The family rooms that Universal has for its attractions is infinitely more convenient, and also means that it's possible for some members of the party to ride an attraction twice if there are more than two adults (a benefit we would use later in the day when my friend Stephanie joined us!). Curtis and I used Child Switch and took turns riding Velicoaster, one of the best rides I've ever been on. It was really fast with more than one acceleration and several inversions. Super good. Waiting on the queue, however, had proved challenging for me. I often struggle with long ride lines, because they tend to trigger my anxiety disorder (crowded, dark, tightly enclosed areas with loud noises, warning signs, and flashing lights/strobes are all triggers for me). Thankfully, after this experience, I went to guest services, explained my symptoms, showed my disabled veteran card, and was able to get a Attraction Assistance Pass.
In the video above from Velocicoaster, I am in the fourth row from the back, in the left seat, wearing a white T-Shirt and black transitions lenses.
In the video above from Velocicoaster, Curtis is in the middle of the train, in the right seat, wearing a black T-shirt with a red logo.
After Velocicoaster, we went to the Camp Jurassic playground so that Darius could have some fun time too. It was a cute playground that included bioluminescent caves, waterfalls, vantage points with binoculars, slides, net bridges, and a watergun station.
For lunch, we got some delicious falafel, gyros, and other snacks in the The Lost Continent area.
After lunch, we had some unexpected fun walking through Seuss Landing. There, we rode the The High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride! and Caro-Seuss-el (Darius' favorite!). We also spent almost an hour in the If I Ran the Zoo interactive play area, where Darius frolicked through a maze and a water playground.
After spending quite of bit of time in Seuss Landing, we walked back to the resort so that Darius could take a nap. It was during this brief respite period that Stephanie, one of my very best friends since our college days in New York City, joined our party! When she came to our suite and dropped her bags, Darius woke up from his nap and we all headed back to Islands of Adventure for the evening. We went to Velocicoaster to ride it again, using my Attraction Assistance Pass to get a call-back time while we had drinks and snacks in the meantime. After Velocicoaster, we walked back to the hotel for the night.
January 7: Islands of Adventure and Universal
Curtis, Darius, Stephanie and I got an early start at Islands of Adventure, where we went straight to Hagrid's to get a call-back time using my Attraction Assistance Pass. While waiting to ride Hagrid's, we got breakfast at Three Broomsticks restaurant in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade, then went over to spend some time in Marvel Super Hero Island. There, we all took turns riding the Hulk coaster (again!), and Stephanie and Curtis went on Dr. Doom's Fearfall while Darius and I hung out in the Fantastic 4 car. Darius even got to meet Spiderman, which he was really excited about (he showed Spiderman his little Spiderman Lego and Spidey Lego motorcycle).
We returned to Hagrid's around noon for our Assistance Pass callback, and took the backway up to the child swap family room. I rode this incredible ride, first with Stephanie, and then again with Curtis after doing child swap. I can't get enough of this coaster, it's SUPER fun.
After riding Hagrid's, we took the Hogwart's Express over to Universal Studios, ate a quick lunch before Darius and Curtis headed back to the hotel for a nap. Stephanie and I hung out, just the two of us, for a few more hours in Universal Studios, riding the Simpsons ride, E.T. Adventure Ride, and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit.
In the video of Hagrid's above, Stephanie and I are in the third row from the back.
In the video of Hagrid's above, Curtis and I are sitting in the very back row.
Wantilan Luau at Royal Pacific Resort
Prior to our trip, I had purchased tickets in advanced for the Wantilan Luau, which takes place every Saturday night at our hotel, Royal Pacific Resort. The event features authentic Polynesian food and entertainment, including an all-you-can-eat buffet and Mai Tais. The food and the show were EXCELLENT. Stephanie and I may have each let out several gasps of anxiety during the fire dance. Just an incredible show, and we made sure to take pictures with the performers at the end.
January 8: One more day at the parks
With just one day left to explore the parks, we opted to ride Hagrid's Magical Creatures one last time. While waiting for our return time for Hagrid's, we used our express passes on Harry Potter The Forbidden Journey. We spent the rest of our time once again in Seuss Landing so that Darius could have another chance to ride some things (including his beloved Caro-Seuss-el).
Stephanie had to head back to Miami in the early afternoon, so we walked with her back to the hotel, said our goodbyes, and then put Darius down for a nap. In the evening, we went back to Islands of Adventure for one last trek through Suess Landing.