Editor’s Note: Viator recently held a contest to “Win Your Dream Travel Job” where we selected 4 finalists to travel the world shooting video. For 60 days, these teams traveled and filmed in some of the world’s top destinations, documenting their experiences along the way. Go here to read more about their Orlando adventures!
No longer the scrubland of its farming roots, today Orlando is a major metropolis and epicenter of Florida family fun. Known for its extensive theme parks and downtown nightlife, Orlando is a modern city with a bundle of outrageous daytime and nighttime activities, dotted with beautiful lakes and southern backwaters. Catch Broadway-quality plays, ride rollercoasters, or see the magic of SeaWorld – all is available in Orlando.
Orlando’s history dates back to 1838 and the height of the Second Seminole war. The U.S. Army was worried about protecting the settlers of the area and so decided to erect Fort Gatlin to guard them against Indian attacks. Originally named Jernigan for the family which first settled there, six years later the citizens lobbied to have the name changed to Orlando for reasons still unknown.
Long a farming scrubland known for its citrus groves, building booms in the late 1800s and then again following WWII helped define Orlando as a major metropolitan center. But it wasn’t until 1971, when the development of Walt Disney World spurred a massive construction boom, that Orlando became a world-class tourist site. Hotels, banks, commercial shopping areas, and, of course theme parks helped bring tourists in from all around the world. Today, more than ever, Orlando caters to these tourists and can delight and dazzle them in myriad ways. That being said, upon your visit you’ll likely receive a bunch of free literature on what there is to do in the city. How about some tips from an insider?
Where to Stay
With so much to see and do, it seems that hardly any one trip to Orlando could cover it all. Truly, a lifetime couldn’t be enough, because the numerous theme parks are constantly updating and renovating their sites and attractions to engage and enthrall their tourists, and beyond these glitzy walls lays a city full of southern history and charm waiting to be explored. That said, where you stay is really dependent upon where you want to go.
Walt Disney World, Downtown Disney, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios are all located just to the southwest of Orlando. There are plenty of places to stay and Disney is among the leaders in hotels and overnight accommodation for the area, though deals can be had just outside the greater Magic Kingdom. If you’re looking for alternative accommodation in this area, consider any number of hotels in Maingate East – this neighborhood’s namesake. All of these areas are connected by monorail to make transportation to and from the resorts a breeze.
If you’re headed to the Universal Studios Orlando, you’re more likely to want to stay just to the Northeast of Walt Disney World by the International Drive which shuttles visitors to six of Orlando’s greatest theme parks (including SeaWorld and Universal Studios Florida). In addition, the I-Drive (as its locally referred to) offers a trolley service and access to hundreds of designer boutiques, restaurants, and other shopping experiences.
Downtown and North Orlando offer visitors a chance to experience the local’s side of Orlando, away from the flash and dazzle of the resorts. See the city’s cultural attractions from the Orlando Museum of Art in Loch Haven Park, while Winter Park offers relaxing days of window shopping and romantic nights out.
What To Do
Undoubtedly, you’ve come to Orlando to have some fun. With over 500 separate hotels and 113,000+ hotel rooms, Orlando, quite literally, is ready to accommodate whatever your heart desires. From water parks to circus acts, Orlando’s readily accessible entertainment is just waiting to be explored. To get a better idea of scale, however, it’s best to break down your options into categories.
Walt Disney World Resort is the world’s most-visited entertainment resort, and with good reason. The Magic Kingdom Park is where all your favorite Disney characters come to life and walk amongst castles, fireworks, and amazing themed rollercoasters. Epcot Center and its iconic metal dome is a dreamscape of modern and future technologies from around the world. Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon is a water park wonderland and welcome escape from the Florida heat, while Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park is where you and the kids can experience the African plains, and Amazonian jungles, and the Florida swamp in the same safari-themed day. Additional attractions include Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which, if you’re interested in a movie-themed vacation, makes a good pairing with neighboring Universal Studios. Both offer behind-the-scenes glimpses into how your favorite blockbusters were created, while offering adventure park rides and dazzling fun.
Universal Studios also offers Universal’s Islands of Adventure, which is composed of seven different islands, each themed to suit. Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, The Lost Continent, and Seuss Landing are the mainstays, while the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the latest and greatest from this theme park. Here, you can step into the world of Harry Potter and let your inner wizard roam free.
If, instead, you find yourself wanting to explore Orlando for the unique Florida city it is, outside of its theme parks, consider heading to the Winter Park district and experiencing some of the areas great window shopping and culinary flair. Loch Haven Park is a haven for more than botanical gardens and hanging azaleas; it’s here where you’ll find the Orlando Philharmonic, the Mennello Museum of Art, the Orlando Repertory Theatre, the Orlando Science Center, and more. Some say it’s the cultural center of the city and it’s easy to see why.
Eating and Drinking
Eating and Drinking in Orlando is usually done on-site during your resort stay or while meander through the labyrinthine theme parks, but there are other options out there. If you’re staying Downtown or in North Orlando, chances are you’ve come to visit the city more so than the resorts themselves.
Winter Park offers some of the best dining in the Orlando area. While the area tends to lean toward that good old fashioned southern cooking, Orlando is a culturally diverse and large enough city to host all the major genres of gastronomic delight. The Ravenous Pig is a great gastro-pub, and Four Rivers Smokehouse a family-friendly feed house serving delicious BBQ. The Wine Room on Park Avenue is a great date-night wine escape, and the Bosphorous Turkish Cuisine.
If you’re enjoying the wonders of Disney or Universal Studios, however, you’re probably experiencing the dining offerings they present there. Don’t feel it necessary to pay the exorbitant prices, however. Dining in the Epcot Center offers budget-friendly eating, and Universal Studios has dining to suit all tastes. Some favorites are Mythos (inside Islands of Adventure), and Emeril’s. The latter can be pricey, but the food is worth it.
If it’s your first time to Orlando, don’t be fooled into thinking that you have to stay at one of the namesake accommodations. Many resorts exist just beyond the main theme park lands, have greatly reduced rates, and offer free shuttle services.
Bring your AAA card if you have one. Even if no sign is present, the 10% off is available almost everywhere.
Consider bringing your own water bottles. This is allowed in the theme parks and saves you not only money, but is some welcome relief from that Florida sun!