We all know that Orlando delivers big time when it comes to theme parks and amusement parks. But there are more things to do in Orlando than just hanging with Mickey and looping through the sky at 150mph. Orlando offers amazing outdoor adventures for the wild at heart—want to wrestle a gator? You can do that. And the world’s top chefs are making inroads here, too—that’s Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto serving some of America’s best sushi (in Disneyland, no less). Plus there’s top shopping, parklands made for picnicking and a vibrant cultural scene.
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Best things to do in Orlando
There’s no finer way to get your initial bearings of the city than from Florida’s newest icon, the Orlando Eye (8401 International Drive #100, 866-228-6438). Opened in April 2015, the 400-foot Eye is the tallest observation wheel on the east coast, with its 30 air-conditioned capsules showcasing mind-blowing views over Orlando and a large slice of central Florida beyond. Time your ride for just before sunset, then grab celebratory drinks and dinner at I-Drive 360 (8445 International Dr), the $250 million entertainment complex at the foot of the wheel that includes Madame Tussauds, Shake Shack and must-see live music venue Tin Roof.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Transformers? The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man? Whatever excites you most about visiting the legendary Universal Orlando Resort (6000 Universal Blvd, 407-363-8000), you need a plan. Because at both of its monumental theme parks, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, it’s very easy to get lost—or stuck in line for considerably longer than the average Hogwarts lesson. The VIP Universal Experience sounds pricey at $329, but when you add up everything you get in return—from complimentary valet parking and behind-the-scenes tours to priority front-of-line access and reserved seating—it’s certainly worth considering.
Around an hour’s drive from downtown Orlando, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (State Road 405, Kennedy Space Center, 866-737-5235) offers guests the chance to vicariously live the star-spangled life of an astronaut. Through high-tech interactive exhibits and special effects—including augmented reality and Star Wars-style holograms—you’ll get a very real sense of what life in space is like. Highlights include the Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit (the famous craft itself hangs from the ceiling in all its mid-flight glory), the United States Astronaut Hall of Fame(fascinating and humbling in equal measures) and the Shuttle Launch Experience,which does pretty much everything you’d expect, save leaving the Earth.
Treat yourself to a slap-up meal at one of the finest Pan-Asian restaurants in the country. Opened in September 2015, Morimoto Asia (1600 Buena Vista Dr, 407-939-6686) is the signature establishment from TV’s Iron Chef, Masaharu Morimoto, and the spectacular two-level space is one of the hottest reservations in town. Grab a martini in the cocktail lounge or out on the lively terrace before requesting a table next to the exhibition kitchen: a high-energy space where you’ll be able to watch the chefs preparing dim sum and carving Peking duck from Morimoto’s menu in front of you.
Visiting Orlando without going to Walt Disney World Resort (Lake Buena Vista, 407-939-5277) would be like heading to Paris and missing the Eiffel Tower. See its four famous theme parks—Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom—from a new perspective by trying a backstage tour, whether a Segway ride through EPCOT (the ‘Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow’) or a wildlife encounter on Animal Kingdom’s Wild Africa Trek. And don’t forget Disney World’s two water parks: Typhoon Lagoon boasts the largest outdoor wave pool in the world (complete with shipwrecks), while Blizzard Beach is a unique ski-resort cum-water park centered on the infamous Mount Gushmore.
Chill out in Winter Park
A short drive north of Orlando, Winter Park was founded in the late 19th century as a place for the wealthy to holiday during the colder months. Today it’s evolved into a hotbed of independent retailers and world-class restaurants, centered on Park Avenue, a moocher’s idyll. Spread across 10 blocks of the oak-lined avenue, 140 shops and boutiques sell everything from high-end footwear to pooch-friendly pastries. Once you’re all shopped out, spend time exploring the Winter Park History Museum (200 W New England Ave, 407-647-2330), before sampling one of the many excellent dining options nearby, including Prato (124 N Park Ave, 407-262-0050) and the Ravenous Pig (1234 N Orange Ave, 407-628-2333).
Photograph: Courtesy Visit Florida/Julie Fletcher
Don’t try this one at home folks. Gatorland (14501 S Orange Blossom Trail, 407-855-5496) is a wildlife preserve and theme park offering visitors the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and wrestle an alligator. If you’re not quite up for that, try the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line instead—30mph ride high over the park’s Nile crocodiles, or the Trainer-for-a-Day program, which includes time spent feeding baby alligators. Failing that, simply join one of the frequent tours of the 110-acre park—home to thousands of reptiles—or sit back and enjoy one of the Up Close Encounter shows. Just don’t get too up close.
Follow your art
It may be known for big, splashy theme parks, but Orlando has one of America’s more vibrant local arts scenes. Top billing goes to The Orlando Museum of Art (2416 N Mills Ave, 407-896-4231), home to a number of permanent collections including the outstanding “Art of the Ancient Americas,” plus an impressive array of contemporary holdings besides. Meanwhile, the quirky Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (445 North Park Ave, Winter Park, 407-645-5311) contains the world’s most comprehensive collection of Tiffany glass, jewelry and ceramics. For those searching for something a little different, CityArts Factory (29 South Orange Ave #362, 407-648-7060) is a collective of art galleries in downtown Orlando showcasing new and emerging talent, rotated on a monthly basis.Photograph: Courtesy Visit Florida/Julie Fletcher
Orlando’s serene Eola Park (512 East Washington St, 407-246-4484) and its Centennial Fountain have been a focal point for city life since the earliest settlers used to water their cattle here. A popular spot for runners, the sidewalk circling the lake is almost exactly a mile long, making it easy to keep track of distances. But the traditional way to enjoy yourself here is on a lazy afternoon, hiring one of the swan-shaped paddle boats and gliding peacefully among the real-life swans, before grabbing a bite to eat at the appropriately named Relax Grill (211 Eola Parkway, 407-425-8440) and taking in a concert or play at the park’s 900-seater Walt Disney Amphitheater.
Adjacent to the colossal SeaWorld Orlando (6000 Discovery Cove Way, 888-800-5447), Discovery Cove is an island oasis away from all the fanfare and spectacle next door, where guests can swim with bottlenose dolphins, snorkel with rays and hand-feed exotic birds. Book yourself an all-inclusive day here and you’ll get a free 14-consecutive-day pass to its neighboring sister resorts, SeaWorld and Aquatica. The latter boasts the colossal Ihu’s Breakaway, Orlando’s highest and steepest freefall waterslide.
Home to the Orlando Ballet and a string of touring Broadway productions, the state-of-the-art Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts (445 S Magnolia Ave, 844-513-2014) is located at the very heart of downtown Orlando. Aside from hosting award-winning productions in its three theaters, it also offers plenty of opportunities to interact with those on stage, including dance masterclasses with Broadway actors and its regular PechaKucha Nights (named after the Japanese term for “chitchat”). Conceived as an opportunity for creative people to meet, network and share ideas, the evenings involve an hour of PowerPoint presentations led by some of the most interesting people in Orlando, all based on one simple rule: you show 20 images, each for 20 seconds.
Get to Kissimmee, quick
Just south of Orlando, the pretty city of Kissimmee lies on the northwest shore of Lake Tohopekaliga (nicknamed Lake Toho). The lush Kissimmee Lakefront Park features walking paths, playgrounds and a fishing pier, where you can hire boats or join an airboat ride (make sure you go for the longer tours—30 minutes isn’t enough!). But the big news is that the mountain biking here is about to get significantly better, with the newly approved Shingle Creek Regional Trail (SCRT). Designed to tie a number of the smaller paths together into a 32-mile route connecting Kissimmee with Orlando, the SCRT will wind through beautiful Shingle Creek Regional Parken route.
Photograph: Courtesy CC/Flickr/Ricardo Mangual
Party in Thornton Park
Trendy and eclectic, Thornton Park is a cluster of bars and restaurants around East Central Boulevard, and a favorite among favorites for a fun night out. Fans of a laid-back dinner and drinks will enjoy burger bar Graffiti Junction (900 East Washington St, 407-426-9503) while oenophiles can drink their fill at the classy Lake Eola Wine Co. (430 E Central Blvd, 407-481-9100). If beer’s more your thing, dive straight into World of Beer (431 E Central Blvd, 407-270-5541), while in the basement beneath it, fans of burlesque can shake their tail feathers or try their hand at billiards in the Stardust Lounge (431 E Central Blvd, 407-839-0080).
Join the Cirque
Cirque du Soleil’s extraordinary La Nouba is exclusive to the Walt Disney World Resort, and a major attraction in its own right. The mesmerizing avant-garde show touts itself as the place where “the mundane meets the marvelous” and features the company’s renowned blend of acrobatics and special effects performed by more than 60 international performers. It’s staged in a purpose-built 1,600-seater auditorium on Downtown Disney’s West Side, with tickets starting from as little as $49.
The vast 4,700-acre Forever Florida Wildlife Conservation Area, an hour southeast of downtown Orlando, is a thrill-seekers’ paradise. Tour operator Forever Florida (4755 N Kenansville Rd, St. Cloud, FL; 407-957-9794) offers a variety of adrenaline-packed options within its nine distinct eco-systems, from horse riding to zip-lining (by day or night) and a controlled 70-foot freefall called the ‘Panther Pounce.’ The latter thankfully doesn’t involve real panthers, but the greater reserve does contain a few, as well as alligators, black bears and white-tailed deer. Activities depart from the picturesque cattle ranch at the heart of the conservation area; try the popular overnight horseback adventure, where you camp out under the stars with Forever Florida guides.
Spend big at big-name designer outlets
A fashionista’s dream, Orlando has not one, but three designer outlet centers at its heart. If the (recently expanded) Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets (8200 Vineland Ave, 407-238-7787) and Orlando International Premium Outlets (4951 International Dr, 407-352-9600) with their who’s-who of brands from Hugo Boss to Burberry weren’t enough, there’s also the sprawling Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores (15657 S Apopka Vineland Rd, 407-238-9301) with a similar line-up and free shuttle bus to and from 60 hotels. And that’s before you’ve even made time for the Mall at Millenia (4200 Conroy Rd, 407-363-3555), the upscale complex near the northern end of International Drive, which houses names like Prada, YSL and Breitling, and was recently ranked among the world’s top 10 shopping centers. Better pack that spare credit card…
Photograph: Courtesy Visit Orlando
Open daily from 9am to 5pm, the Harry P. Leu Gardens (1920 N Forest Ave, 407-246-2620) are a welcome calm among the storm of Orlando’s more high-octane sights and sounds. A botanical paradise just minutes from downtown, they were founded in the 1930s by local industrialist Mr. Leu, who would travel the world, bringing rare plants and seeds back for his blossoming project. The tropical and semi-tropical gardens unfold across a rolling 50 acres of landscaped grounds and streams, with meandering trails shaded by 200-year-old oaks and forests of camellias. Don’t miss the stunning Tropical Stream Garden and the Leu House Museum, and after you’re done exploring, enjoy a picnic lunch on the patio of the Garden House.
The statuesque Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe (8300 Vineland Ave, 407-239-6600) was originally built to service the large number of Catholic tourists flooding into Orlando following the grand opening of Walt Disney World in the ’70s. Today it’s a tourist destination in its own right, thanks to its spectacular architecture and the Shrine Museum, displaying church art from around the world.
At Revolution Off Road (4000 State Rd 33, Clermont, FL; 352-400-1322) you can get behind the wheel of an All Terrain Vehicle, amphibious ‘Mucky Duck’ or dune buggy and let her rip in the back country for all you’re worth. The site, just 22 miles west of Orlando, is dedicated to serving up off-road fun—with lashings of mud on the side. But if racing your friends and getting filthy don’t appeal, there are a number of more harmonious (and less automotive) options on site too, including fishing and archery lessons.
Given the choice, which would you prefer: a flea market or an antiques market? In Orlando, it doesn’t matter because in Renninger’s Twin Markets (off US-441, Mount Dora, FL; 352-383-3141) you have both in the same place at the same time. A 30-minute drive from downtown, the twin markets are a bargain hunter’s Valhalla, with a vast antiques barn crammed with treasures standing right next to a bustling flea market, containing pretty much everything you could wish for. Hungry? No problem: there’s a Farmer’s Market outside too.