The delights of the theme parks, water parks, smaller attractions, shops, restaurants and nightlife are all pretty obvious, but there is one that is not quite so obvious and is well worth seeking out – sport.
Not only do you have every type of American sport available within a short drive of Orlando, we even have our own soccer team – Orlando City, the ‘Lions’ – who are heading for the big time in 2015 when they officially join the ranks of Major League Soccer with David Beckham, Jermaine Defoe, Robbie Keane and others.
It’s a natural fit, too. With so many British visitors every year (around 800,000), plus many more from football-loving countries like Brazil, Germany and Argentina, the Lions are on course to become a major – and highly family-friendly – local phenomenon.
In 2014, from March to September, they will play their final season in the USL Pro league (a level below MLS) at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Walt Disney World, a temporary home while their own stadium is being built in downtown Orlando. It promises to be a fun, action-packed season, with lots at stake as they bid to develop a team for the higher level AND win their league for the third time in four years.
It’s worth pointing out that American sport doesn’t have relegation and promotion as we know it. Instead, teams bid to join the major leagues by proposing to create a new stadium and/or a fervent fan base in a new part of the country, and demonstrating a sound financial structure (try getting that in the Premier League!), and that’s the case with Orlando City.
Coached by former Everton and Stoke City striker Adrian Heath, they promise to provide some great sporting interest for UK visitors in the years to come.
But, if you’ve come all this way and the last thing you want to think about is football, there is plenty more with which to tempt you, and all of it with a true flavour of Americana.
We often say one of the best ways to get a genuine taste of American culture is through their sport, and here you can really do that. A sports event in the US is a proper family occasion when everyone goes along and it is fun for all, as there is often as much going on between the action as there is during it!
And you don’t need to be fully familiar with the rules of say, basketball, baseball or American football to enjoy the great atmosphere and style of the event.
Take the area’s No.1 sport, basketball, with the Orlando Magic playing at the spiffy Amway Center and putting on a wonderful show as much as just playing a game. There are cheerleaders, fan competitions, T-shirt giveaways and much more, and that’s just when there is a lull in the on-court action.
It’s easy to grab a ticket in advance, too, as Attraction Tickets Direct sell both straight tickets for all Magic games or tickets with transport if you want someone else to do the driving. The season runs from the end of October to April, or longer if the team reaches the play-offs (which, sadly, isn’t going to be this year).
If you’d like the XXL helping of American sport, head for Tampa, Jacksonville or Miami, where the NFL – or American football – is featured. This larger-than-life spectacle is on offer from September to December but tickets can be hard to come by, which is why it is a good idea to check with ATD in advance as they feature all of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ home games each season, with coach transport there and back.
There is even an indoor version of American football that is well worth trying if you’re here during the season (March-July, with play-offs in August). The Orlando Predators are our Arena League team, and they also play at the spacious Amway Center, where games are fast, loud and lots of fun. Games hardly ever sell out and tickets start from a modest $10, which represents great value, too. The Predators won their first two games of this season 49-47 and 69-63, so there’s PLENTY to watch!
Ice hockey is another big sport in America, but the nearest place to see the major-league version (the NHL) in central Florida is Tampa, where the Lightning play at the indoor Tampa Bay Times Forum from October to April. Don’t want to go that far? Well, try our Orlando Solar Bears, a minor-league version of the sport. With games at the Amway Center (also Oct-Apr), it is another budget-minded way to sample the American version of a sports occasion, i.e. fun and entertaining.
Baseball remains close to the heart and soul of the country, with the season running from April to September, and play-offs in October. Once again, Tampa hosts the only big-league team in the region (actually, the Rays play at nearby St Petersburg in the indoor Tropicana Field) but you can catch Spring Training every March when the Atlanta Braves set up home at the ESPN Wide World of Sports and make for a great evening’s entertainment after a day at the parks.
Finally, Florida is truly world class for golf. The World Golf Hall of Fame is just up the road at St Augustine, where you will also find the magnificent TPC Sawgrass course at nearby Ponte Vedra Beach, home to the ‘fifth Major’ of The Players Championship every May, which usually draws all the biggest names.
Mind you, our ‘own’ tournament each March is pretty special. The Arnold Palmer Invitational is held at the beautiful Bay Hill Club (just take Sand Lake Road all the way west, then turn right) and is highly regarded by many of the world’s top players, including Tiger Woods, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell (the latter three of whom all live in Orlando). Tickets are easy to come by, the four-day event is very relaxed and the players are right there in close-up. It is one of our favourite weeks of the year and it highlights the Florida vibe perfectly. It’s one big sporting playground!