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Plan a fall vacation at Disney, Universal, Busch Gardens when crowds are light

Now that the busy summer vacation season is ending, Floridians can come out to play.

By planning an off-season vacation at one of the state's many theme parks, you can often find Florida resident deals on admission. When you are there, especially if it's a weekday, you'll spend a lot less time waiting in line.

And with Florida's theme parks in a veritable arms race of spending on over-the-top attractions, there's a lot of new drawing power.

"Summer is fading, as will the crowds by the end of the month," said Len Testa, president of Touring Plans, a website that since 2001 has used complicated computer modeling of theme park wait times to predict crowd levels. "The wait times actually started dropping off (already) … and there will be another drop after Labor Day. It will stay that way really through Columbus Day."

The Touring Plans crowd calendar predicts the busiest days at the theme parks on a scale of 1 to 10 by collecting data on 8,000 ride times. Earlier this month most of the parks were a 7 or higher, or above-average crowds. As Labor Day approaches, most drop to a 5 or below, especially on weekdays.

But be mindful of holidays and school breaks. Thanksgiving week and the last two weeks of the year are by far the busiest, with crowd levels of 9 or 10.

Don't head out to any theme park without first downloading the app. The latest apps, especially at Disney and Universal, are essential tools to schedule ride and show times, make dining reservations and access park maps to scope out where the crowds are.

TECH HELP: An app and a phone charger are theme park essentials these days.

Here are some tips for what to look for when you take advantage of the lighter crowds and (hopefully) cooler weather.

Universal Orlando

Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure

Universal has less crowd pressure than Disney in the fall, except for the days of Halloween Horror Nights. With Halloween blockbuster themes to draw on — this year has a haunted house based on Stanley Kubrick's The Shining — the separate-ticket event has a huge fan base that often spills over into larger crowds during the day. Check the halloweenhorrornights.com calendar for select dates Sept. 15 through Nov. 4. Tickets start at $59.99.

Surprising absolutely nobody, the popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter is also expanding yet again, this time with a new "highly themed" attraction opening in Universal Studios in 2019. You have until Sept. 4 to ride the Dragon Challenge coaster, which the new attraction is replacing.

NEW RIDE: Jimmy Fallon shows off his new ride at Universal Orlando

For the first time, visitors will get to experience Christmas at Hogwarts. The original Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure and Diagon Alley at Universal Studios will deck their highly themed halls and celebrate Christmas with new experiences. The festivities apparate Nov. 18-Jan. 6.

And Sept. 8-9, Rock the Universe will bring Christian music's biggest names to Universal Studios, including Grammy winner Chris Tomlin, rock band Casting Crowns and hip-hop artist Lecrae.

Tip: Check out the burgeoning "virtual line" system Universal Studios rolled out for the new Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon. Select your ride time and tap "Virtual Line Pass" on the park app.

Volcano Bay

Where else can you lounge in a cabana or sip tropical cocktails poolside in the middle of December? Unlike other water parks, Universal's new water theme park will not close for the season, and it has temperature-controlled pools.

The Polynesian-themed Volcano Bay comes with an impressive 200-foot volcano that looks like it spews lava at night. The innovative Krakatau aqua coaster shoots four-person canoes up and down inside the volcano. There are nine raft and body slides, a wave pool, a beach with a lots of lounge chairs, relaxing reefs and lagoons and six places to chow down or grab a drink.

Tip: The free Tapu Tapu bracelet every guest gets upon entry is your ticket, wallet and virtual line holder. Before you plunge into the wave pool, make sure your Universal app and tickets are connected to the Tapu Tapu so you don't have to make frequent locker trips for your wallet or phone. Also, get in the virtual line for the Krakatau aqua coaster first. It's the best ride in the park.

For info on all three Universal parks, see universalorlando.com.

Walt Disney World

Magic Kingdom

This remains the most popular theme park in the world, so the best you can hope for is "less crowded." In recent years Disney instituted a surge pricing model for single-day tickets of $99-$119, which means you pay more to visit during the busy summer and Christmas vacation season. Much of September falls into the lowest-price tier.

Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, a separate ticket event, starts shockingly early this year with its first party this weekend on Aug. 25. The park closes at 7 p.m. to the general public on select nights and guests, many of them in costume, find treat stations, special fireworks, a villains dance party and a parade. If you go early in September, you can get in at 4 p.m. and see the crowds dwindle after the park officially closes for the party. Tickets start at $74 and rise to $115 closer to Halloween.

In early December, consider going to the Magic Kingdom to kick off your Christmas season. You'll find the park is beautifully decorated.

Disney sells a discounted Florida resident seasonal pass with blockout dates for summer, spring break and holidays that is $200 less than a regular annual pass. There are also three-day and four-day tickets available at a discount for Florida residents that expire six months after first use.

Tip: Strategically using the FastPass+ and getting to this park early in the day before crowds build are the best ways to avoid waits. The Magic Kingdom now allows guests to gather on Main Street USA an hour before the park officially opens; many use this to get in line for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride, which still draws hour-long waits even in off times.

Epcot

This world's fair of a theme park is celebrating its 35th anniversary and its most popular event, the International Food & Wine Festival, opens Aug. 31 for a record 75-day run. The park's World Showcase will be home to dozens of pavilions serving foodie delights like charcuterie in a cone and spicy hummus fries along with local and imported brews and wine.

DESTINATION FOODIE: Theme parks expand food festivals to feed all tastes

Expansion isn't just on the calendar; it's also on the menus, with more than 30 new dishes and more than 60 new beverages hitting Epcot's streets. There are also some 35th birthday throwbacks like L'Orange cotton candy and something called a cheddar cheese macaroni handwich.

Being a Florida resident means you can go on a weekday or Sunday when festival crowds are lighter. If you go on a Friday or Saturday night, you'll find food station lines 30 people deep.

Tip: While foodies flock to the World Showcase, Future World and other front-of-the-park attractions stay relatively light. Also, while others are busy imbibing, you might finally be able to ride Frozen Ever After in Norway, which is notorious for having hourslong lines and few FastPasses.

Animal Kingdom

The biggest expansion in Animal Kingdom's history arrived this summer with the opening of Pandora: The World of Avatar. The secluded area recreates Avatar from director James Cameron, complete with floating mountains and a bioluminescent river ride.

PANDORA: James Cameron, Zoe Saldana and more stars open Disney's Pandora

Not surprisingly, this area has been the busiest, with two- and three-hour waits for Pandora's Flight of Passage, a high-tech simulator that puts you on the back of a banshee. The more relaxed but also eye-popping Na'vi River Journey also has had hourslong wait times since opening in May. Wait times have dropped slightly, mostly under two hours, so experts advise hitting this area when the park opens or at the end of the night.

Tip: Try the Disney app's new mobile food ordering, available at more than a dozen different quick-service restaurants, including the new Satu'li Canteen in Pandora. You can order on your phone and your meal will be ready a few minutes after you check in at the restaurant.

Hollywood Studios

It can be a bit alarming heading into Hollywood Studios as large swaths of the park remain under construction for Toy Story Land opening in 2018 and Star Wars Land in 2019. But it's still the park to get your Star Wars fix, as well as book a stay at the infamous Hollywood Tower of Terror. Star Tours, Tower of Terror and Rockin' Roller Coaster are this park's most popular rides, but fall brings the wait times to under an hour.

PREVIOUSLY: Disney's Star Wars Land joins trend of theme parks putting you 'in the movie'

Tip: Don't miss the high-tech fireworks show starting Nov. 9 called Jingle Bell, Jingle Bam, which debuted last year and features a race to find Santa through memorable Christmas Disney movie moments. It combines laser beams, fireworks and movie images.

For all four Disney parks, find ticket, resort and reservation information at disneyworld.disney.go.com.

Busch Gardens

The Tampa theme park is the coaster king in Florida. It has six major roller coasters — the most of any theme park in the state — and a half-dozen other thrills like the Falcon's Fury drop ride and assorted kid-friendly rides. And this time of year, you can walk on just about all of them.

If you are a horror fan, the park's other thrill is the Howl-O-Scream event, returning on weekends starting Sept. 22 with haunted houses and a cadre of scare actors roaming the park. You can also ride several of the coasters in the dark, including the new spin coaster Cobra's Curse, during this separate ticket event, $39.99-$44.99.

HOWL-O-SCREAM: Here's what it's like inside a writhing, growling Howl-O-Scream audition

Little kids get a new Halloween treat this year included with admission. Every weekend Oct. 7-29, the park's Sesame Street zone will have kid-centered Halloween fun featuring a hay bale maze, fall festival activities, character parades and trick-or-treat candy stations. Another first: They can show up to the park in costume.

After Thanksgiving, the park turns into Christmas Town, a wintery market and village sporting park-wide lights and animal decorations, specialty holiday dishes and sweets, and special guests like Santa and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Tips: Use the recently updated Busch Gardens app for exclusive discounts, to earn prizes, to store your ticket information in a virtual wallet and even to plot on a map where you parked your car.

For ticket information, see buschgardens.com.

Plan a fall vacation at Disney, Universal, Busch Gardens when crowds are light 08/24/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 23, 2017 12:38pm]
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