There is nowhere quite like Orlando anywhere else on the planet...
So you’re heading to Orlando and you probably want to do it all and get full value for your trip to this holiday haven. What you probably want to know is: what are the essential must see attractions for your one, two or three weeks in Vacation Central? There is so much on offer in Central Florida that you can tailor your holiday to cater to your individual needs. From theme parks, to water parks, museums, dinner shows, shops, nightclubs, restaurants and some amazing natural attractions (like airboat rides, manatee swims and canoeing) – it is impossible to be definitive about exactly what you need to do.
We can be fairly sure the key items on your agenda will be centered around the theme parks, as Orlando is home to seven of the best in the world (eight if you count Busch Gardens in nearby Tampa). In fact, there is nowhere quite like this anywhere else on the planet, which is why it is imperative to this holiday, like no other, to do your research before you embark on your travels. Resorts such as Disneyland Resort Paris and Disneyland California offer similar experiences, but it doesn’t quite compare to the entertainment state of Orlando. Nowhere else is there such an abundance of entertainment and activities quite as overwhelming and awe-inspiring as this.
Walt Disney World
So let’s start with the basics – Walt Disney World. Many first timers slip into the pitfall of thinking that Disney World (or the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, to give it its full title) is just one park or, possibly even worse, that each Disney park is in walking distance from the other. Walt Disney World is literally a world, albeit it is impossible to imagine if you are yet to witness it, but the fact that this land of play is approximately the same size as Greater Manchester should give you an idea of how seriously huge this place is and how serious Walt Disney is about certifying each and every individual has an amazing time.
This immense resort consists of four distinct, separate theme parks, twenty speciality hotel resorts, a campground, two water parks, a sports complex, four eighteen hole golf courses, four mini-golf courses and a huge shopping and entertainment district, Downtown Disney. It covers a massive 47 square miles and there are likely to be around 200,000 visitors within those confines at any one time (in fact, it sometimes feels like there is at least that number of people in the same queue as you!).
There are more than three hundred places to eat, almost twice as many shops and some 24,000 hotel rooms. It has its own road system (which can amaze and bewilder in equal measure), fire department and security, and its car parks are large enough to swallow small counties. You cannot walk from park to park (unless you enjoy one-hour hikes in the hot Florida sun) and you are bombarded with choice at almost every turn. Stay two weeks and you might see most of it; one week gives you the basics.
PRO SPOT - PARK HOPPING
- Although it is possible to switch between Disney parks it is important to remember that you must allow a significant amount of time to do so. Not only to mention that transferring parks is a tedious task. On a busy day it can take up to an hour to exit Disney’s Hollywood Studios and gain entry into Disney’s Magic Kingdom, which obviously takes away from your overall time spent in the parks.
Things to do and See at Disney
Disney has two of the best water parks that are open all year round and fully heated in case of cold weather. If the prospect of getting drenched excites you, Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon most certainly won’t let you down. Typhoon Lagoon is home to the raved about Crush ‘n’ Gusher, a water rafting ride that launches its riders four hundred feet in the air.
Covering all the grounds of each park, if possible, we estimate may take at least eight days. This of course does not include all the lifestyle goodies at Downtown Disney, which offers shopping, dining, theatre productions, including performances from the infamous Cirque du Soleil. You may also want to take a walk around some of the Disney resort hotels; the Animal Kingdom Lodge, The Boardwalk and the Wilderness Lodge are breathtaking spectacles (not an essential part of your plan, but a highly worthwhile diversion).
PRO SPOT- ACCESS TO DISNEY HOTEL RESORT FACILITIES:
Non - Guests
- Limited access to the Disney Resort hotels facilities is available for the use of non-guests, they are welcome to walk around the resorts, to shop and dine. However, use of any of the Disney Hotel resorts' swimming pool facilities is prohibited to all non –guests.
- Guests booked into any of the resorts will only have access to their specific hotel’s pool. The likes of Animal Kingdom Lodge are magnificently scenic and contain some superb facilities which are well worth seeing and, in the case of their restaurants, highly recommended for a special meal at some point in your holiday. Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge is one of the best dinner buffets you will find anywhere, while the five-star Jiko restaurant is our special favourite for a romantic occasion.
Estimated Time: To make sure you get the most from all the Disney parks we have estimated how much time should be sufficient to see and take part in all the main activities.
- Magic Kingdom: we recommend two days, particularly with young children.
- Epcot: we recommend two days for Epcot. The park is split in to two main parks within, Future World and World Showcase.
- Animal Kingdom: one full day.
- Hollywood Studios: one day, a day and a half during busier times of the year.Things to do and see at Disney
TOTAL: Seven and a half days.
So, you have eight days planned so far and are yet to venture out of the Disney grounds. Perhaps now you’re starting to get some idea of the complexity and amazing scale of what’s on offer.
Universal Orlando is the second major resort destination in the region and has two essential parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. The park offers fun and exciting ways to explore some of the best TV and Film ever made. At Universal Studios you can honeymoon with Shrek and see the world through the eyes of an ogre, with extraordinary 4-D Ogre Vision. You can take a journey through Krustyland on The Simpsons Ride or keep the streets Alien free with the Men in Black. Universal Studios has fewer hair-raising rides, but is a wonderland for younger children. The Islands of Adventure, however, is Orlando’s number one park for adrenaline surging rides a thrill seeker could only ever imagine. Travel from zero to forty miles per hour in just two seconds as you transform into the Incredible Hulk, avoid being the lunch of a T-Rex by diving into an 85ft deep dark hole in Jurassic park or come face to face with Spiderman in a 3-D world that is so surreal its breathtaking. The Islands of Adventure is also the exclusive home of the The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the most highly celebrated Orlando attraction of the year.
- Universal Studios: one full day.
- Islands of Adventure: with the addition of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter we would recommend spending a day and a half here, particularly during the busier times of the year. However, it is to be noted that younger children may not be fully occupied throughout the entire day.
- City Walk: nightlife comes alive here with clubs, bars, restaurants and live music. Spend your evenings here listening to the reggae sounds of Bob Marley whilst sipping on a cocktail or dance the night away at the Red Coconut Club.
TOTAL: 3 days (During less busier times of the year Universal Studios can be covered in two days. Queue times go down to less than thirty minutes).
PRO SPOT- PARK HOPPING:
- Park hopping between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventures is far easier than switching between the Disney parks and can be done in less than ten minutes.
Third on our ‘What not to Miss’ list is SeaWorld. This truly is the world’s favourite marine park. In comparison to the other parks SeaWorld has a more naturalistic and relaxing atmosphere, which is an aspect that many British visitors find especially appealing, and makes it the perfect park for families with younger children. SeaWorld offers the chance to get up close and personal with some of nature’s most beautiful creations. You can watch the amazingly choreographed Shamu show, Believe, performed by the entire family of killer whales or ride the flying Manta, a rollercoaster that whilst whizzing through the sky brings you in close encounter with animals. During peak season SeaWorld winds down the day with various thrilling performances and exhibitions, those particularly worth watching are the astounding firework-and-special-effects display Reflections and acrobatic performance A’Lure The Call of the Ocean.
Estimated time: one day
Total estimated time needed for top 3 parks: Approximately 13 days.
PARK HOPPING SUMMARY
While it is feasible to hop from one Disney park to another, or from one Universal park to the other and the same for the SeaWorld parks, it is not advisable to hop from a Disney park to a Universal park, or a SeaWorld park to a Disney park. As well as it being more time-consuming you can incur extra costs, as you will have to pay the additional parking fee at Universal, Disney or SeaWorld. You pay only once to park at any of Disney’s theme parks, while Universal have just one parking structure that covers both parks.
Of course there are many other parks worth visiting while you’re in Florida. SeaWorld brings together three other parks, Discovery Cove, Aquatica and Busch Gardens at Tampa Bay. Aquatica is home to a number of magnificent water slides and river rides and features the breathtaking Dolphin Plunge, a tube slide that catapults you through a lagoon filled with cheerful dolphins, while Discovery Cove offers the chance to swim with the dolphins. Busch Gardens, an innovative zoo style park just outside of Orlando, gives the opportunity to go to the Edge of Africa, in an awe inspiring African safari experience whilst being home to a number of out and out high thrill rollercoaster. The zoo themed park features the electrifying SheiKra, the world’s highest and fastest vertical drop ride and this year’s new offering, the triple-launch Cheetah Hunt.
Entertainment and Other Attractions
No doubt Orlando’s theme parks will take up the majority of your holiday time, but it is important to keep in mind that there are still loads more fun filled activities and must sees in Florida – the theme parks are simply the icing on a very large cake.
The Kennedy Space Centre
The Kennedy Space Centre is under an hour’s drive east of Orlando and offers you the opportunity to explore real life space shuttles and rocket launch areas. Although this probably won’t greatly appeal much to younger children, there is enough here to keep most families fully occupied for the best part of a day.
Just about everyone wants at least a day’s shopping as part of their essential Orlando experience, and we can thoroughly recommend a number of outlets and centres for some great bargains, as well as additional entertainment and fab restaurants. For the best malls, visit either the sparkling Mall at Millenia or the overwhelmingly large Florida Mall; for outlet shopping (brand names often at heavily discounted prices), try one of two Orlando Premium Outlets (Lake Buena Vista or I-Drive) or Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores; and the new Winter Garden Village at Fowler Grove, just off Highway 429 features major names such as Target, Best Buy, Lowes and much more. It is hard to overestimate the value and attraction of all the shopping opportunities in the Orlando area. New stores and malls spring up frequently, so much so that even regular visitors spend ample amounts of time cruising the malls. First-timers will be goggle-eyed at the huge variety of goods and amazing bargains on offer. Find out 'What's New' shopping in Orlando.
PRO SPOT: Beware the urge to fill extra suitcases with new purchases as you will run into baggage allowance problems on your return trip. Your Duty Free gift allowance is a mere £390 per person, and it is easy to surpass this figure. Clothes, trainers, cosmetics and some electrical goods (like i-Pods) are all especially good value.
The many varieties of Dinner Shows are another mainstream experience hereabouts, and it is hard to avoid trying at least one, even if they seem rather corny (and the food is often less than gourmet fare). The Medieval Times show features some outstanding entertainment (and a hearty meal), while Sleuths Mystery Dinner Theater is a more offbeat and small-scale version with adult appeal, with plenty of humour (if you find the likes of murder-mysteries amusing, as we do!). Children are drawn to Pirates Dinner Adventure and the fun Arabian Nights. Orlando’s newcomer is the Titanic Dinner Experience, a compelling interactive retelling of the Titanic story.
Book a dinner show here.
Small Scale Attractions
If you manage to shoe-horn that little lot into a two or even three-week itinerary you will have done extremely well, indeed. Hopefully you can also see how easy it is to get overwhelmed by what’s in store. Once again, the sheer choice of everything on offer, not to mention the quality and scale, comes as a great surprise for the first-timer, and it will help enormously if you are fully prepared for the main attractions.
No matter how many days you spend in the great artificial realities of the theme parks, the entertainment state does a good job of making you forget that you are still in the real world.
For attractions less taxing than theme parks, there are some smaller scale attractions that, although missing them won’t ruin your holiday, seeing Florida in its more natural and real state can add a memorable extra to your holiday. To that end we highly recommend you pay a visit to one of the many state parks in the region. These will give you a real flavour of the Sunshine State, boasting beautiful vistas, nature trails and fascinating flora and fauna. We advise you to wear insect repellant when venturing into the nature parks.
Wekiva Springs State Park in Seminole County is a scenic trek into the unspoiled lands of the state, with miles of trails, rivers, horse-rides, canoes and kayaks for you to explore Florida's nature. The park offers visitors the chance to float along the rivers admiring the National Park's wonderful widlife, picnic in the peaceful and suggestive surroundings on a self guided tour or go the whole distance and camp for up to a week on the grounds. Wekiwa Springs is located just north of Orlando.
Boggy Creek Airboat Rides
Boggy Creek are a company we know well and thoroughly recommend for the ultimate airboat rides, by day and night. The company employs some of the most qualified and experienced captains in the area to conduct these tours, using the most modern of boats to ensure complete safety. The airboat rides never fail to give a real taste of the natural side of Florida. Boggy Creek is located 30 minutes south of Highway 192, the main tourist route through Kissimmee.
Gatorland is the aligator capital of the world, offering a number of tours that allows guests to make encounters with the aligators in various ways. Embark on a night time adventure into the gator marshes armed with nothing but a flashlight and a gator expert or be wowed by live aligator entertainment wrestling shows. Gatorland is an educational and exciting way to explore Florida's wildlife.
Silver Springs is a wonderous location that shows off the beautiful springs, which pumps over 550 million gallons of sparkling clear water every day. Surrounded by animals and nature, the Silver Springs offers exploration at a relaxed pace in a breathtaking setting, making it a perfect rest day when you still want to be somewhat active. Floating along the river-way you'll see some amazing geographical features, including wild monkeys playing in the trees.
There are many other nature excursion to try in the region – Florida Eco-Safaris south of Kissimmee, Disney’s Wilderness Preserve in Poinciana and the St John’s River in Seminole are just a few.
Finally, the more energetic will probably want to sample some of the local Nightlife on their Orlando campaign – and, once again, there is an excellent array on offer. Both Disney and Universal have their own complete on-site entertainment districts that include shops, restaurants, cinemas and nightclubs. The Downtown Disney area is a magnificent mix of one-of-a-kind stores, unique eateries and sparkling entertainment. Universal’s CityWalk offers an appealing combination of tasty dining, both gourmet and fast food, quirky shops and live music.
Elsewhere, Pointe Orlando is another shopping and entertainment district on International Drive which offers Orlando’s best mix of family orientated and upscale restaurants along with a cinema multiplex. Two of our favourite family dining spots are Maggiano’s Little Italy and Cuba Libre, but you won’t go wrong at any of the Pointe’s restaurants.
For evening entertainment you may also want to make a note of a few of the great dining opportunities throughout the area, some located on theme park grounds and some on outlying areas. As a general rule, the theme parks do not serve up the best of food, however there are a few shining exceptions. Epcot’s Via Napoli is an Italian culinary delight. The restaurant was executed by the Patina Restaurant group, owners of the acclaimed Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria, whose pizzas have been honoured the Napoli certification that affirms the pizza’s quality and authenticity to be on par with the southern Italian region most famous for the creation of pizza. One mouthful of Via Napoli’s pizza will transport you to Naples in moments. SeaWorld boasts the Sharks Underwater Grill. For those seeking a unique and atmospheric dining experience this certainly fits the bill. Patrons dine against an aquatic backdrop of sharks and fish swimming in a pool the entire length of one of the restaurant’s walls. The decor in this restaurant is second to none with the service to match. Sharks Underwater Grill serves a mixture of both fish and meats and is perfect for family dining. It is also worth checking out Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure and either of these park’s resort hotels for further dining options. Beyond the grounds of the parks, International Drive has an overwhelming number of restaurants to whet your appetite.
PRO SPOT - Good Value Food
Theme parks are know for charging extortionate prices for food that is sometimes of subpar quality. However Trails End Restaurant at Fort Wilderness offers a buffet lunch and dinner with good food, great portions and reasonable prices by theme park standards. The buffet selection includes barbecue chicken, sweet corn, pulled pork and many other Southern delicacies.