Beyond the perfectly manicured theme park grounds, Orlando boasts a world of excitement waiting to be explored. For this city overflows with charming cafés nestled along tree-lined streets, extraordinary museums, a thriving art scene, and a seemingly endless programme of world-class sporting events. With an average of 233 days of sunshine a year, you may be inclined to spend your day perched by the resort pool, but then you’d miss out on all this marvellous city has to offer, from rocket launches to ’gator wrestling. If you’re looking to cobble together the ultimate vacation hit list, here’s our pick of truly unmissable things to do in Orlando right now.
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Best things to do in Orlando
What is it? Brushing the clouds at an astonishing 400 ft tall, ICON Orlando is easily the highest observation wheel on the east coast. If you're looking to indulge in incredible, Floridian skyline views, then hopping aboard one of the air-conditioned pods is a must.
Why go? Since you'll see a great slice of Orlando, the ICON is a perfect way to acclimatise to your surroundings. But besides the 360-degree views, it's a prominent celebration spot—and for good reason. Hiring an entire capsule is an easy way to ensure privacy for a get-together or romantic date (ooh la la). For the ultimate ride, go just before sunset and then grab celebratory drinks and dinner at the $250 million entertainment complex at the foot of the wheel. Oh, and if you're feeling particularly brave (or want to show off in front of your date) head over to the Orlando Star-Flyer for some swinging sky-high thrills.
What is it? A legendary resort that has it all—from witches and wizards to Marvel superheroes. Great for families, film fans and kidults alike, you can also stay on site, giving you priority entry to the park (an hour before non-hotel visitors). No queues = bliss.
Why go? The Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Transformers? The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man? Whatever excites you most about visiting Universal Orlando Resort - make 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.
What is it? The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex offers guests the chance to vicariously live the star-spangled life of an astronaut.
Why go? You can get a very realistic sense of what life in space is like through the complex's high-tech interactive exhibits featuring augmented reality and Star Wars-style holograms. Highlights include the Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit (the famous craft itself hangs from the ceiling in all its mid-flight glory) and the Shuttle Launch Experience, which does pretty much everything you’d expect, save leaving the Earth.
What is it? C'mon, you know what Walt Disney World is: the four theme parks and two water parks that are collectively the happiest place on earth.
Why go? Visiting Orlando without going to Walt Disney World Resort 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 or a wildlife encounter on Animal Kingdom’s Wild Africa Trek.
What is it? A short drive north of Orlando, Winter Park has evolved from a place for the wealthy to holiday into a hotbed of independent retailers and world-class restaurants.
Why go? 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, before sampling one of the many excellent dining options nearby, including Prato and the Ravenous Pig.
What is it? The former Downtown Disney is now a renowned dining and entertainment mecca. With 102 shops, 60 restaurants and eateries, and 25 shows and events daily, Disney Springs overflows with fun activities from sunup to sundown.
Why go? Pick up a framed print at the Art of Disney or get a bird’s eye view of the magic from the world’s largest hand-painted helium balloon. Be sure to arrive hungry, in case you want to sample multiple dishes from the array of vendors. And don’t miss the gothic-themed Edison, known for its signature cocktails and adult-only entertainment featuring aerialists, cabaret-style dancers, DJs and stilt walkers.
What is it? Don’t try this one at home, folks. Gatorland is a wildlife preserve and theme park offering visitors the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and wrestle an alligator.
Why go? Even if you aren't up for gator wrestling, there's still plenty to do, like the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line, a 30mph ride high over the park’s Nile crocodiles, or the Trainer-for-a-Day program, which includes time spent feeding baby alligators.
What is it? The home of various permanent collections of art, including African art, contemporary and the outstanding “Art of the Ancient Americas.” Founded in 1924 with the aim to let the public experience and learn about art, this museum is one of Orlando's cultural institutions.
Why go? It may be known for big, splashy theme parks, but Orlando has one of America’s more vibrant local arts scenes. After you check out OMA's impressive array of ancient and contemporary art, head to the quirky Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. This museum contains the world’s most comprehensive collection of Tiffany glass, jewelry and ceramics.
What is it? Orlando’s serene Eola Park and its Centennial Fountain have been a focal point for city life since the earliest settlers used to water their cattle here.
Why go? A popular spot for runners, the sidewalk circling the lake is almost exactly a mile long. You could easily spend a peaceful afternoon on foot, but the traditional way to enjoy yourself here is by hiring one of the swan-shaped paddle boats and gliding peacefully among their real-life counterparts.
What is it? An all-inclusive tropical day resort set amid lagoons and pools where you can swim with dolphins, snorkel with stingrays, and enjoy unlimited food and drink all day.
Why Go? The closest you’ll come to hanging on your own private island in Central Florida, Discovery Cove limits attendance to 1,300 guests per day, meaning you won’t be battling crowds for a spot on its sandy shores. While the highlight is undoubtedly swimming with dolphins, a range of other one-of-a-kind experiences – particularly the underwater walking tour – make this a true tropical paradise.
What is it? The best-known beach among locals, New Smyrna, lies along Florida’s Central Atlantic Coast. A little over an hour from Downtown Orlando, this charming surf community boasts white sand beaches and a quaint downtown bursting with artsy boutiques and outdoor cafés.
Why Go? Whlie most tourists head to Cocoa Beach, you’ll find locals, high surf and a laid-back vibe make the extra 15-minute drive well worth it. Known for its ‘drive-on beach access’, NSB is one of the only places in the U.S. where you can cruise along the sand before finding the perfect spot to spend a sun-filled day. Adrenaline junkies, grab your board and head to Ponce Inlet for the best surfing around. And don’t leave town without a trip to JB’s Fish Camp where you can savor the daily catch, paddleboard among bottlenose dolphins and hang with manatees on the Intracoastal.
What is it? Home to the Orlando Ballet and a string of touring Broadway productions, the state-of-the-art center is located at the very heart of downtown Orlando.
Why go? Aside from hosting award-winning productions in its three theaters, Dr. Phillips 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”).
What is it? Just south of Orlando, the pretty city of Kissimmee lies on the northwest shore of Lake Tohopekaliga (nicknamed Lake Toho). Although it's mainly known for the abundance of theme parks that lie within, the rest of the area is much more chill than thrill.
Why go? Kissimmee is a naturel over's playground. The lush Kissimmee Lakefront Park features walking paths, playgrounds and a fishing pier where you can join an airboat ride. But the big news is that the mountain biking here is about to get significantly better with the addition of the 32-mile Shingle Creek Regional Trail.
What is it? Trendy and eclectic, Thornton Park is a cluster of bars and restaurants around East Central Boulevard, and a favorite for a fun night out.
Why go? Fans of a laid-back dinner and drinks will enjoy burger bar Graffiti Junktion while oenophiles can drink their fill at the classy Lake Eola Wine Co. If beer’s more your thing, dive straight into World of Beer, while in the basement beneath it, fans of burlesque can shake their tail feathers or try their hand at billiards in the Stardust Lounge.
What is it? The expansive 4,700-acre Forever Florida Wildlife Conservation Area, an hour southeast of downtown Orlando, is a nature-loving-thrill-seekers’ paradise. Exploring the wild never got so easy.
Why go? Forever Florida offers a variety of adrenaline-packed options within its nine distinct eco-systems, from horseback riding to zip-lining. Make sure to visit the "Peregrine Plunge" where 1,300 ft of zipline offers incredible views of the park and the "Panther Pounce", where you'll partake in a controlled 70-foot high freefall drop. Thankfully, "Panther Pounce" doesn’t involve real panthers (phew), but the greater reserve does contain some of the big cats, as well as alligators, black bears and white-tailed deer. Fancy getting a closer (but not too much closer) look? Jump onto one of the trail buggies and journey deeper into the wild.
What is it? A fashionista’s dream, Orlando has not one, but three designer outlet centers at its heart.
Why go? If the Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets and Orlando International Premium Outlets 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 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, which houses names like Prada, YSL and Breitling.
What is it? The Harry P. Leu Gardens are a welcome calm among the storm of Orlando’s more high-octane sights and sounds.
Why go? A botanical paradise just minutes from downtown, the gardens 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. Various different plants come into season across the year, which means that the spectacular view constantly changes too. Entrance to the garden is $10 adults, $5 kids and free for children aged 3 years and below.
What is it? The statuesque Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe 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.
Why go? Even if you’re not religious, it’s worth taking time out of your trip to visit this church, which has become a tourist destination in its own right. Admire the spectacular architecture and visit the Shrine Museum, which displays religious art from around the world.
What is it? From pro basketball to soccer, a range of professional and semi-professional sports teams call Orlando home. Check out Orlando’s NBA team, the Orlando Magic, major league soccer club Orlando City Soccer Club, women’s soccer players the Orlando Pride, or ECHL hockey team the Orlando Solar Bears.
Why go? Most teams play at the Amway Center or the Exploria Stadium, not far at all from Downtown Orlando. Make a night of it and head to historic Church Street Station, where many of the city’s best restaurants, bars and entertainment venues can be found.
What is it? At Revolution Off Road 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.
Why go? Buckle up for an adrenaline-filled afternoon. The site, just 22 miles west of Orlando, is dedicated to serving up off-road fun with lashings of mud on the side. If racing your friends and getting filthy don’t appeal, there are a number of less automotive options on site, including fishing and archery lessons.