In 1965 Walt Disney earmarked Orlando as the location for his second theme park, and this rural city in subtropical Central Florida would never be the same again.
Where there used to be ranches, cypress swamps and citrus groves is an epic sprawl of theme parks, golf courses, malls, hotels and entertainment amenities.
There’s nowhere like Orlando on the planet, and the city continues to evolve, with a new cluster of skyscrapers downtown, spectacular new zones at Disney and Universal, and ever more outlandish attractions on the fabled International Drive.
To visitors, Orlando means the rush of a rollercoaster, moments of knee-quaking awe at the Kennedy Space Centre and the thrill finding something special at a designer outlet.
There’s a wild side too, at crystalline natural springs and lakes where alligators plod lazily on the banks, while a growing roll-call of museums will bring some culture to the party.
1. Walt Disney World Resort
Four of the five most visited theme parks in the United States are at Orlando’s Walt Disney World Resort.
In order, these are the Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and what’s incredible is that attendance at all four continues to rise year on year at this city within a city.
As Disney World grows, so do the prices, but the sense of wonderment and undeniable charm will win over the most cynical parents.
And now for a breathless run down of what else is on the Disney World Property: There are two water parks (Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach), three 18-hole golf courses (and one 9-hole), 34 contained resorts and hotels (many with spa facilities), the dining and entertainment of Disney’s Boardwalk and Disney Springs, and lastly the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex with nine different sporting venues.
2. Kennedy Space Center
NASA’s main launch centre for human spaceflight since 1968, the Kennedy Space Center is an hour out of Orlando on the east coast.
That drive is nothing for an experience this momentous.
Arrive as early as you can, to give you enough time to take a bus tour (included with admission) and discover all there is to see at the visitor complex.
At the dumbfounding Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit the namesake shuttle is suspended at angle from the ceiling as if floating in space.
You’ll find out about the vital missions carried out by this orbiter, and can get a taste of lift-off at the Shuttle Launch Experience.
On the narrated bus tour you’ll venture out into NASA’s immense compound to visit the launch sites for the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions, combined with stops at the surrounding nature reserve to see alligators and bald eagle nests.
The Vehicle Assembly Building, designed to assemble Space Shuttle components, is on an unimaginable scale, and one of the biggest buildings in the world by volume.
Book online (includes transport): Kennedy Space Center Tour
3. Magic Kingdom Park
The park that started it all is crowned by the emblematic towers of the Cinderella Castle.
As with Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Walt Disney was deeply involved in the planning for the Magic Kingdom, but passed away before the park opened in 1971. Using that winning template, the park is organised into six different Lands: Main Street U.S. A was conceived as Magic Kingdom’s opening credits, Adventureland has exotic environments from around the world, Frontierland revives the Old West, Liberty Square is a Revolution-era colonial town, Fantasyland harks back to a romanticised Medieval period while Tomorrowland is all about the future.
There, Space Mountain is the Magic Kingdom’s must-do ride, closely followed by the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Frontierland and the Haunted Mansion at Liberty Square.
Encounters with characters and parades are at the core of any visit to the Magic Kingdom, not to mention the Happily Ever After fireworks every night at 21:00.
4. Disney’s Animal Kingdom
The youngest of Disney World’s four theme parks opened in 1998 and is themed on the natural environment and animal conservation.
There are 1000 or so animals here, from about 200 species, allied with classic theme park shows and thrill rides.
During planning, a lot of care was taken to make sure that the park’s rides wouldn’t interfere with the enclosures, and the environmental design in Animal Kingdom’s seven themed areas is a thing of beauty.
Animal experiences like the Maharajah Jungle Trek and Kilimanjaro Safaris are as transformative as any Disney ride, bringing you close to tigers, komodo dragons, giraffes, lions and zebras in Indian and African-themed environments.
There are lots of more traditional theme park attractions like the breathtaking rollercoaster Expedition Everest, which was the most expensive rollercoaster in the world when it was completed in 2006, after three whole years of construction.
In 2017 Pandora – The World of Avatar opened with two sensational rides, the Na’vi River Journey boat ride and the brilliant Avatar: Flight of Passage simulator.
5. Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Themed on show business and designed like an idealised Hollywood in its golden age, Hollywood Studios is infused with the magic of filmmaking, animation and stagecraft.
Four of this theme park’s six lands come from Los Angeles locations immortalised by film.
There’s Hollywood Boulevard, Echo Lake (Echo Park), Grand Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, along with Toy Story Land and the Animation Courtyard, bringing to life Disney’s beloved animated creations.
A focal point for more than 25 year is The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a drop ride based on the famous TV series and set in one of the tallest buildings in the entire Disney World Resort.
The MuppetVision 3D show in a massive auditorium is as hilarious as it is technically impressive, while Star Tours: The Adventures Continue is a high-speed 3D motion simulator adventure through the Star Wars universe.
Finally, Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage condenses the emotional journey of a Broadway musical into less than half an hour.
6. Universal Studios Florida
The younger challenger to the Walt Disney Resort arrived in 1990 and quickly made a name for its high-tech indoor simulator rides and environments from movies and TV Shows.
Universal Studios Florida has changed with the times, as rides for Back to the Future and Jaws have been usurped by more contemporary productions like Harry Potter and The Simpsons.
Diagon Alley is this theme park’s half of the hugely popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter, also based at Universal Studios’ sister, Islands of Adventure.
The park’s headline ride is Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, a thrilling indoor steel rollercoaster with the cast member performances you expect from Universal rides.
The Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit is a high-speed rollercoaster that plays a song of your choice (from Daft Punk to Kenny Chesney) via speakers mounted in the headrest.
The Simpsons Ride is a motion simulator dropping you into an episode on a flight through Springfield, while E.T. Adventure is the only ride that has remained open since 1990, as you mount a bike and help E.T. escape police and NASA officials.
7. Universal’s Islands of Adventure
When this theme park opened along with Universal CityWalk 20 years ago it turned Universal Studios into the Universal Orlando Resort.
Ever expanding, Universal Islands of Adventure has eight themed islands and shines for the quality of its rides.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a real achievement, set in locations from the movies, like the Forbidden Forest, Hogwarts and Hogsmeade Village.
A wonderful touch is the Hogwarts Express, a train ride delivering people here from King’s Cross Station at Universal Studios, while the signature experience is the dark ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
On Marvel Super Hero Island you’ll feel like you’ve been thrown into a comic book, and the revolutionary Amazing Spider-Man ride is as dazzling as it was when it opened in 1999. Also here, the Incredible Hulk Coaster is as exhilarating as any in Orlando, with a top speed of 67 mph and seven inversions.
By the 1960s Walt Disney had many grandchildren and was starting to worry about the sort of world they would inherit.
This was the genesis for his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT), a high-tech model city concept that was never realised but inspired a theme park.
Epcot celebrates human ingenuity through groundbreaking edutainment attractions.
The park opened in 1982 and its symbol is Spaceship Earth, a geodesic sphere housing a 15-minute dark ride that charts the breakthroughs in human communication through history.
Spaceship Earth is at Future World, which is scattered with avant-garde pavilions dedicated to technology and science.
The World Showcase is like a permanent World’s Fair, a whistlestop trip through the culture, heritage and cuisine of 11 nations, all set around the manmade World Showcase Lagoon.
For instance, Germany has timber-framed houses and a biergarten, while for Mexico there’s Yucatan jungle landscaping, mariachi bands and a pavilion resembling a pre-Colombian pyramid.
9. Winter Park
Now a leafy suburban city ten minutes north-east of downtown Orlando, Winter Park was established at the end of the 19th century as a winter destination for rich industrialists from the north.
The neighbourhood’s genteel character is underpinned by sprawling lakeside mansions, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (more below), more than 70 parks, upmarket shopping and dining, and a cultural calendar jam-packed with events.
Enhancing Winter Park’s reputation as an arts and culture destination is the Rollins College, a liberal arts institution dating back to 1885. Winter Park’s lakes are lined by a network of navigable canals, dug to serve a sawmill on Lake Virginia and avoid flooding, and now a beloved part of the townscape.
Included in: City Tour of Orlando with Gospel Brunch
10. International Drive
You could spend an entire holiday in Orlando without ever straying far from this 11-mile thoroughfare in the south-west of the city.
A bit like the Las Vegas Strip, everything seems to coalesce around International Drive (or I-Drive), just minutes from both the Disney and Universal resorts and all the top water parks.
There are outlet malls aplenty, themed restaurants, nightclubs, hotels, and major attractions at the upper end, from the ICON Park to Fun Spot America and the ever-popular Pirate’s Cove Adventure Golf.
What’s hard to comprehend is that International Drive is still growing.
In the last few years the immense Orlando StarFlyer ride has made its mark, and International Drive’s silhouette will never be the same again with the completion of the $250m Skyplex in 2020.
You might want to get the International Drive: Trolley Unlimited Ride Pass to get around.
11. ICON Park
In 2015 the Orlando Eye observation wheel, one of the tallest in the world, was unveiled on International Drive.
This 122-metre structure has 30 air-conditioned capsules, each accommodating 15 passengers for dramatic panoramas of International Drive and north to the Universal Resort and the towers of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
When the skies are clear you can also make out the Kennedy Space Center far to the east.
In 2018 the wheel was rebranded to Icon Orlando, and is accompanied by a bustling complex with more than 40 attractions, globe-trotting restaurants, bars and shops.
Many of the attractions, like the StarFlyer, SEA Life Orlando, the Skeleton Museum, Madame Tussauds appear in this article.
There are big outdoor events at ICON Park, marking dates in the calendar like Cinco de Mayo, and every night of the week there’s a live dj set at the ICON Park Courtyard.
12. Lake Eola Park
A verdant urban park bordered by the towers of Downtown Orlando, Lake Eola Park is dominated by the namesake 23-acre lake, which is in fact a sinkhole.
Your eye will be drawn to the lake’s fountain, especially at night in the glow of its LED lights.
On the banks are flowerbeds and neat lawns, and a paved perimeter path just under a mile long and shaded most of the way by palms, cypresses and other foliage.
On the west shore you can’t miss the Walt Disney Amphitheater, which has a billboard advertising its packed programme of concerts, plays and outdoor movies.
You can take a little cruise on Lake Eola by renting one of the swan-shaped pedal boats.
On Sundays the park’s south-east corner is the setting for the Orlando Farmers’ Market, with more than 50 vendors year round, while Orlando’s pride celebrations take place here in June and on July 4 Fireworks Over The Fountain is a big outdoor celebration for Independence Day.
Included in: City Tour of Orlando with Gospel Brunch
13. Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art
Exactly the kind of attraction you would hope to find in Winter Park’s leafy environs, this museum opened at its current location on Park Avenue in 1995 but has a history going back to 1942.
A turning point in the museum’s story came in 1957 when the founder Jeannette Genius McKean bought up much of the contents of the destroyed Laurelton Hall, the Long Island estate of the great artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933).
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art has the most complete collection of pieces by Tiffany of any museum in the world, straddling media such as stained glass, jewellery, enamels, furniture, mosaics, lamps, pottery, paintings and the recreated chapel that he designed for the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893.
Although Tiffany is the star there’s much more decorative art to savour, whether it’s stained glass by William Morris and Frank Lloyd Wright, jewellery by Peter Carl Fabergé and René Lalique, furniture by the likes of Louis Majorelle, pottery and furniture.
John Singer Sargent and Rembrandt are both represented in the strong painting collection.
14. Harry P. Leu Gardens
Moments from Orlando’s CBD, the Harry P. Leu Gardens are a year-round delight, with almost 50 acres of neatly landscaped grounds and lakes.
The gardens’ serpentine trails are shaded by towering oaks more than 200 years old and draped with Spanish moss.
On the hour and half-hour there are guided tours of Leu House Museum, formerly home to the gardens’ founders Harry and Mary Jane Leu, who moved here in 1936. As a botanical garden there are huge collections for temperate, subtropical and tropical plants, but the most prized is the nationally important camellia collection, with 2,000 plants and 230+ cultivars.
For a very brief summary of the many areas to discover, there’s a butterfly garden, citrus grove, conifer collection, floral clock, herb garden, bird garden, vine displays, palm garden and a subtropical and tropical fruit collection growing mango, guava, avocado, macadamia, pineapple and more.
The rose garden is heavenly, with a total 650 roses from 215 varieties.
Pack a picnic and give yourself at least a couple of hours to see it all.
Think Florida and one of the things that springs to mind is alligators.
Well, Gatorland touts itself as the “alligator capital of the world”, and is a refreshingly down-home alternative to Orlando’s mega-parks.
Opened back in 1949, this is the most convenient way to see Florida’s magnificent reptiles in a full spectrum of sizes, from little grunts you can hold in your hands to four-metre monsters.
Gatorland also has the world’s largest collection of white leucistic alligators (missing skin pigmentation). As it was when the park opened, gator wrestling is the soul of the attraction, and you might be shocked by how high these creatures can leap for meat, at the Jumparoo show.
There’s more besides gators, at a huge free-flight aviary, the Screamin’ Gator zip-line (over alligator ponds), up-close encounters with Floridian snakes and the Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure.
Recommended tour: Gators, Gators, Gators! Airboat Ride & Gatorland
16. Orlando International Premium Outlets
At the very north of International Drive, a stone’s throw from both Universal and Disney you’ll be at the largest outlet mall in Florida.
A staggering 17 million+ shoppers descend on Orlando International Premium Outlets each year for discounts of up to 65% on luxury fashion and sports brands.
And despite these hordes, the loose town-centre layout makes this quite a relaxing place to browse provided you show up early in the day.
There are upwards of 180 outlet stores here, and at Orlando Outlet Marketplace, under the same umbrella but a short way down the road.
To name names, there’s Polo, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Lacoste, Nike, Hugo Boss, Ted Baker, The North Face, Under Armour, Michael Kors, the list goes on.
17. Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour
The best way to encounter leafy Winter Park is on the water, and you can do this on an hour-long tour departing from Lake Osceola.
There are departures on the hour every day from 10:00 to 16:00, and the voyage takes in three of Winter Park’s seven lakes, as well as two of those famous canals.
Even in this suburban location there’s masses of wildlife, be it an elegant crane catching fish or an alligator sunning itself on the lakeshore.
On the trip you can enjoy the subtropical flowers, 250-year-old oaks, lofty cypress trees, palms and ferns, as well as the lavish homes, many by architect James Gamble Rogers II (1901-1990), who contributed lots of Historicist mansions in the 30s, 40s and 50s.
On the cruise you may also be overtaken by rowing crews from Rollins College.
18. Clearwater Beach Daytrip
If you can’t do without a day at the beach there are lots of good options on the Atlantic coast like Daytona Beach, Cocoa Beach and portions of the Canaveral National Seashore.
But for those willing to travel just a little further, one of the very best beaches in the entire United States is in striking distance on the Gulf Coast.
Clearwater Beach is almost too good to be true, with silky white sand, light surf, shallow water and sunsets to make your heart sing.
Just a few hours out from the theme parks you could not ask for more.
On GetYourGuide.com you can pick from a range of day trips, whether it’s a simple “Transport Only” transfer, or packages including lunch and a dolphin-spotting cruise or high-speed “Sea Screamer Boat Ride”.
19. Legoland Florida
This child-oriented theme park and wider resort has sprouted in stages throughout the 2010s in Winter Haven.
From 1936 to 2009 the site was occupied by Cypress Gardens, Orlando’s first big visitor attraction, and Legoland has preserved its historic landscaping.
At 145 acres, Legoland is flush with green space and has a day’s worth of rides, shows and amusements in “lands” with names like Fun Town, Duplo Valley, Lego City and Lego Technic.
Miniland USA features Lego scale models depicting monuments from the Empire State Building to the Kennedy Space Center, as well as locations from the Star Wars universe.
As the name tells you, The Lego Movie World is based on the popular Lego Movies, while the Ford Driving School at Lego City is a driving experience where kids aged six to thirteen can qualify for a Legoland drivers’ license.
On the hottest days the onsite Legoland Water Park will be a godsend for its slides, gentle wave pool and water play areas for children and toddlers.
20. The Mall at Millenia
When this lustrous and airy shopping centre opened in 2002 it was the first upscale mall in Central Florida, and remains the region’s prime shopping destination for people on the hunt for premium brands.
Anchored by Macy’s (the first in the Orlando area), Nordstrom, Bloomingdales and Neiman Marcus, The Mall at Millenia mixes fashion emporia like Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, Emporio Armani, Versace, Yves Saint Lauren, Prada and Carolina Herrera with main street mainstays like H&M, Gap and Banana Republic.
You can put a bow on your shopping expedition with lunch at the likes of Capital Grille, Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Changs and Johnny Rockets.
21. Fun Spot America Orlando
A pared-down antidote to Orlando’s big corporate theme parks, Fun Spot America is a smaller operation set near Universal Orlando, with free admission (you pay for individual attractions) and shorter lines.
The main rides here have been purchased from other theme parks, like the 76-metre-high SkyCoaster, which was relocated from MGM Grand Adventures in 2013. The bone-shuddering White Lightning is the first and only wooden rollercoaster in Orlando, with a maximum drop of 20 metres and a top speed of more than 44 mph.
Fun Spot America’s six rollercoasters and thrill rides have all arrived in the last decade and are complemented by midway games, classic amusements and fairground rides, from bumper cars to carousels.
Here since 1998 are the four go-kart tracks, three of which have unusual multi-level designs.
22. Universal Citywalk Orlando
More than a gateway to Universal Studios, CityWalk Orlando is a neon-lit entertainment, shopping and dining district, set where the original parking lot used to be and linked by water taxi to Universal’s three on-site hotels.
CityWalk is the place to go and watch the Blue Man Group, or try karaoke at Rising Star, backed by a live band.
There are dining options for all palates, whether you’re up for Caribbean (Bob Marley – A Tribute to Freedom), Italian (VIVO Italian Kitchen), classic American (Hard Rock Cafe, Hot Dog Hall of Fame), Mexican (Antojits) or pan-Asian (Fusion Bistro Sushi & Sake Bar). You can follow up a meal with a sweet treat from Cold Stone Creamery or Cinnabon, mosey around shops like the Universal Studios Store, play mini-golf and dance into the early hours at nightspots that stay open to 02:00.
23. Wekiwa Springs State Park
More welcoming natural space, Wekiwa Springs State Park is 7,000 acres of wilderness at the source of the 16-mile Wekiva River.
This river has the designation “Wild and Scenic” as it has never been dammed or rerouted, which is remarkable considering how close it is to downtown Orlando.
The spring, fed by two sources, is the park’s big attraction sending 163 million litres coursing into the river each day.
There’s a half-acre pool so you can swim and snorkel in these crystalline waters, which have a steady temperature of 22°C year-round.
But what attracts most people is the opportunity to navigate the Wekiva River by canoe or kayak.
As long as you come prepared (a hat, insect repellent and sunscreen are a must), a trip through lush woodland and undergrowth, spotting gators on these pristine waters is one of the great Orlando experiences.
For a half-day adventure you can paddle to the Buffalo Tram Camp and back.
24. The Florida Mall
At more than 167,000 square metres The Florida Mall is the largest shopping centre in Central Florida and one of the largest in the United States to be set on one storey.
There are more than 250 retail and dining choices here.
Think Macy’s, JCPenney, Dillard’s, H&M, Apple, Zara, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Victoria’s Secret.
What adds to The Florida Mall’s appeal, especially for visitors, is its line up of exclusive shopping experiences, like Carlo’s Bakery (by Cake Boss Buddy Valastro), The Disney Store, M&M’s World and the spectacular American Girl doll shop.
The Crayola Experience at The Florida Mall is an attraction in its own right, and we’ll cover it below.
Food-wise, there are international fast casual favourites like Shake Shack, Five Guys and Sbarro, complemented by sushi, pan-Asian, Brazilian food (Hocca Bar), Italian and fast food staples like Subway and Taco Bell.
25. Blue Spring State Park
During the cooler months from November to March scores of manatees drift up to the spring that empties into the St.
John’s River not far north of Orlando.
There’s a boardwalk about a third of a mile long, giving you an excellent vantage point for photographs of these gentle giants.
Outside of winter, Blue State Spring Park is a honeypot for water activities: You can swim in these pure, transparent waters, which have a constant year-round temperature of 23°C.
Qualified scuba divers come to explore the spring’s cave, and on the surface you can rent a kayak, canoe or stand-up paddleboard and paddle off to see what you can find.
Picnic tables are sprinkled throughout the park, and there 51 campsites and 6 cabins for rental.
Recommended tour: Orlando: 3-Hour Manatee Encounter by Kayak
26. Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park
Wrapped in tropical foliage, Typhoon Lagoon opened in 1989 and is a year-round attraction, using heated water in the cooler months.
This is the second most visited water park in the word.
There are nine slides and streams varying in speed, from the lightning quick Humunga Kowabunga (hitting speeds of almost 40 mph) to the more sedate Gang Plank Falls, a family tube ride.
In the shadow of the now iconic volcanic mountain impaling a shrimp boat is the surf pool generating waves up to metres high every 90 seconds.
For small fry there’s Ketchakiddee Creek, a fun and safe water wonderland with gentle rides, jets, a cave with a waterfall and a small sandy beach.
There’s no lack of places to grab refreshments, whether you want a burger, sundae or fancy sipping a strawberry margarita by the pool.
27. Orange County Regional History Center
To tap into Central Florida’s history and heritage, make for the Neoclassical former Orange County Courthouse in downtown Orlando.
This distinguished building dates back to 1927 and has housed this beautifully presented museum since 2000. Exhibits here cover 12,000 years of local history.
You can find out how Florida’s indigenous people lived before European settlement in the 1500s, learn about the cattle ranches and citrus groves that dominated the landscape into the 20th century, study the achievements and tragedies faced by Florida’s African American community and go into depth on the state’s animal and plant life.
There’s a recreated pioneer cabin from the 19th century, an exhibition devoted to the advent of Orlando’s theme parks and another all about the aviation landmarks that took place in Central Florida.
All these exhibitions are brimming with artefacts, from 19th-century steamships, long-lost ranches and citrus farms.
Best of all has to be the Timacuan canoe, dating to around 1000, alongside arrowheads and pottery going back 2,500 years.
28. De Leon Springs State Park
The Timucuan Indians who inhabited North Central Florida dubbed these springs “Acuera” or “Healing Waters”. De Leon Springs State Park is a comfortable drive north of Orlando, and one that needs to be made if you’ve clocked up the miles trekking around Orlando’s theme parks.
You can bask in the cool, clear waters of the spring pool or set off along the Wild Persimmon Hiking Trail, for an amble through cypress swamp, vestigial farmland and hardwood hammock.
Look for the 600-year-old cypress on the paved nature trail, and try to go slowly and quietly for a better chance of seeing wildlife like turkeys, wild hogs and even black bear.
As with Blue Spring, manatees are known to migrate up the river to the springs in the winter.
There’s a visitor centre open every day and presenting the human and natural history of the landscape, and you can take a guided boat tour into the vastness of the Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge (21,574 acres).
29. Orlando Museum of Art
A worthwhile cultural interlude, the Orlando Museum of Art grew up throughout the 20th century.
The complex, close to the Orlando Science Center, has mid-century architecture by Nils Schweizer and Duane Stark, two students of Frank Lloyd Wright.
The collections here are wide-ranging, encompassing contemporary art, African art, a big cache of art from the Ancient Americas and American art from the 1700s up to 1945. At the time of writing in 2019, the museum had recently acquired a big collection by the Belgian Post-Impressionist Louis Dewis, with more than 100 pieces appearing in the first major exhibition for this artist in the United States.
30. Bok Tower Gardens
In the undulating, citrus coated hills in Lake Wales, Bok Tower Gardens is at one of the highest points in Peninsular Florida.
The gardens were planted in the 1920s when the magazine editor Edward W. Bok commissioned the eminent landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. to turn an arid 90-metre sandhill into a “spot of beauty second to none in the country”. Olmsted set about planting 10,000 azaleas, 1,000 large live oaks, along with palms, fruit shrubs, gordonias and magnolias on this previously arid terrain.
The hill, Iron Mountain was also crowned with the 62-metre Singing Tower, completed in 1929 and blending neo-Gothic and Art Deco design.
The Singing Tower houses a 60-bell carillon, which is played during two 30-minute concerts each day, at 13:00 and 15:00. The best shots of the tower can be had from the reflection pool, just to the north.
You can also take a self-guided tour of the 20-room Mediterranean Revival Pinewood Estate mansion (1932), a winter home for the steel industrialist C. August Buck.
31. Orlando Science Center
This private science museum has been around since 1955, and after a big expansion in the 90s mixes jaw-dropping exhibits with hands-on fun.
NatureWorks on Level 1 is a wonderful recreation of Florida’s natural habitats, like cypress swamps, mangroves and coral reef, home to a variety of live fish and reptiles.
Above is the Kinetic Zone, with interactive exhibits tackling the forces, like gravity, electricity and magnetism.
Children fascinated by dinosaurs will be besotted with DinoDigs on Level 4, where they can uncover fossils in the giant dig pit.
On the same floor, Our Planet has more hands-on exhibits examining the peculiarities of the Solar System, and the systems that shape Earth.
Here you can check out live images from the NASA Hubble Space Telescope.
Included with admission are shows at the domed giant-screen Dr. Phillips CineDome and the high-definition 3D Adventure Theater.
You can check their schedules before you come to see if anything takes your fancy.
32. Crayola Experience
At The Florida Mall, the Crayola Experience is an indoor theme park based on the famous crayon brand.
All members of the family but especially smaller ones will be able to express their creativity, see colour in new ways and immerse themselves in art and technology.
Among the many things to do, kids can colour to their hearts’ content at the Ultimate Coloring Starion, make a personalised crayon, compose a painting with melted crayons, clamber through the two-storey Color Playground and see Bluetiful, the world’s largest crayon measuring 4.75 metres long.
Augmented reality displays like Color Magic brings children’s creations to life, while the Crayon Factory Show uses real manufacturing equipment to show you how Crayola crayons are made.
33. Reptile World Serpentarium
Not many can say they’ve witnessed deadly snakes being milked for their venom.
Well that’s just what’s in store at Reptile World Serpentarium.
Founded by herpetologist George van Horn in the 1970s, this is as much a venom supply facility for the production of antidotes as a visitor attraction.
Its founder has been bitten by snakes no fewer than a dozen times, including twice by a king cobra.
You can feed turtles and handle non-venomous snakes and baby alligators, and tour enclosures and terrariums containing the likes of green mambas and monocled cobras.
There are also alligator feeding sessions, but the highlights are the venom extraction shows at 12:00 and 15:00, when George and his wife Rosa milk cottonmouths, rattlesnakes and cobras for their venom using beakers topped with plastic wrap.
34. SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium
The Orlando branch of the international aquarium chain has much to recommend it, best of all a 360° viewing tunnel.
This is the only exhibit of its kind in Florida, and, with the help of clever lighting, gives you a sparkling perspective on sharks, turtles, colourful fish and eels as they swim above, beside and beneath you.
SEA LIFE Orlando also has a timetable of dive shows, where presenters jump into the tanks for wildlife demonstrations.
Touch tanks meanwhile let you find out what starfish and sea anemones feel like, while the aquarium’s celebrity resident is Ted the sea turtle.
He helped conservationists develop the Turtle Excluder Device, allowing sea turtles to escape trawler nets, reducing turtle deaths around the world.
Combo ticket: Madame Tussauds and SEA LIFE Aquarium Combo Ticket
35. Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures
One of Florida’s trademark images is an airboat skipping through marshes and mangrove forests.
Orlando is a good four-hour drive from the Everglades National Park, but closer to home you can set a course for the south shore of Lake Tohopekaliga for a more contained adventure.
Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures has a menu of tours that are as exhilarating as they are educational, as you hit speeds of 45 mph, in search of gators and water snakes.
Something to keep in mind: You’re more likely to spot alligators before 10:00 on a hot day, and later in the afternoon on a cooler day.
Boggy Creek offers private trips, sunset cruises, and even a session where you can take the controls.
You can also rent a bike to explore the 32-acre lakeside park and get a good look at more than 30 juvenile alligators at the Gator Pond.
Related tour: 90-Minute Airboat Everglades Adventure Tour
36. Skeletons: Museum of Osteology
At ICON Park this peculiar but engaging museum has more than 500 genuine animal skeletons in 40 exhibits.
Skeletons: Museum of Osteology is just the thing for future doctors and veterinarians, carefully mounting these bones into lifelike poses and presenting them in detailed tableaux.
By way of introduction, there are humans, monkeys, ungulates, alligators, elephants, hippos, whales and a variety of birds, from penguins to toucans.
All exhibits are labelled with informative but accessible information panels.
For grownups, there’s a Forensic Night when you’ll study real human skulls to determine things like age, sex and cause of death.
Book here: SKELETONS: Museum of Osteology Admission
One just for kids, WonderWorks is an indoor amusement park in a building designed like a mansion turned upside down by a tornado.
The story goes that this is the home and laboratory of Professor Wonder, transported here from the Bermuda Triangle by a vortex after an experiment gone wrong.
WonderWorks has more than 100 hands-on exhibits, many of which are slyly educational and have a loose science theme.
These are arranged in six “Wonder Zones”: Far Out Gallery, Imagination Lab, Light and Sound, Natural Disasters, Physical Challenges and Space Discovery.
Youngsters can feel hurricane force winds, lie down on a bed of nails, journey to Mars, become a human lightning rod, design their own rollercoaster, and much more besides.
In the basement there’s a 4D motion simulator ride, laser tag and a high ropes course three storeys high.
Get tickets: WonderWorks All Access
38. Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets
The only place in the Orlando area for luxury brands at discounts of up to 60%, Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets has a serious lineup of stores both inside and outside on palm-shaded streets.
You’ll find Jimmy Choo, Burberry, Prada, Armani, Hugo Boss, Guess, Karl Lagerfeld and Tommy Hilfiger, to name a very select few.
These are joined by sports brands like Adidas, Nike, Reebok, Asics and New Balance, as well as a range of midmarket names from Gap to Converse, Clarks and Superdry.
A must for families is Disney’s Character Warehouse and for food there’s a choice of sushi, crepes, burritos, Italian cuisine, Philly steaks, Subway and treats like Ben & Jerry’s, frozen yoghurt and pretzels.
39. Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition
Few peacetime events in the modern age have captured the world’s imagination like the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. On the 100th anniversary of the disaster this exhibition to the ocean liner opened on International Drive.
In 17 galleries you can see exact replicas of the doomed ship’s decor, including the First Class Parlour Suite, Boiler Room, Promenade and Grand Staircase.
You can also inspect the 2nd largest piece recovered from the Titanic, a three-ton section of the ship’s hull.
Added to all this are more than 400 artefacts from wreck and a chunk of a real iceberg that you can touch.
Book online: Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition
40. Amway Center
The current home of Orlando Magic opened in 2010 and seats 18,846 for basketball games.
Facing the highway there’s a massive LED screen, while the building’s 55-metre tower makes it a prominent landmark in Orlando’s cityscape.
If there’s something you can guarantee about the Magic is that they’ll be competitive and have some up-coming stars on their roster.
Shaw O’Neill, Penny Hardaway and Dwight Howard all played for the Magic early in their career, while the franchise has gone to the playoffs in 15 of the 30 years it has been in existence.
The Orlando Magic Team Shop is open at the Amway Center every day all year, for authentic jerseys and hats.
The arena has also hosted NCAA Division I games, and is a major concert venue, booking the Black Keys, Khalid, Jonas Brothers, Florence and the Machine and Sara Bareilles in 2019 alone.
41. Pirate’s Cove Adventure Golf
The best adventure golf in Florida according to Orlando Magazine, the swashbuckling Pirate’s Cove has two eighteen-hole courses, Captain’s Course and Blackbeard’s challenge.
Both courses have cleverly laid out holes, lush tropical vegetation and transformative landscaping with waterfalls, sunken ships, rope bridges, wooden walkways and a pirate dungeon.
Captain’s Course is the more forgiving of the two, while Blackbeard’s Challenge will bring out the technician in you.
For a marathon session you can combine the two courses on a “36-hole Adventure”, to save a few dollars.
42. Forever Florida
Another chance to encounter Florida at its wildest, Forever Florida is a 4,700-acre conservation area for rough-and-ready activities like horseback riding, cattle herding, camping and zip-lining, as well as all kinds of tours.
You can tackle a high ropes course in pine woodland, zooming down seven different zip-lines, or see Central Florida as the first settlers would have done on a ride through palm hammocks and forest of oak and cypress.
You can test your mettle on a cattle drive or experience a working ranch as a cowboy or cowgirl for half a day.
Less demanding are the off-road buggy tours, through a series of ecosystems, or via the Central Florida Animal Reserve, a sanctuary for big cats like tigers, leopards and cougars.
For an overnight experience you can camp under the stars like a cowboy or book a climate-controlled cabin on the ranch.
43. Tibet-Butler Nature Preserve
Across Lake Tibet from Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge is a 440-acre swathe of wilderness, composed of scrub, marshes, bay swamps, cypress swamps and pine flatwoods.
You can visit all year from 08:00 – 18:00 to hike the 3.6 miles trails, keeping an eye out for North American river otters, gopher tortoises, American alligators and a variety of other reptiles.
The birdlife at the preserve is especially plentiful, and among the 100+ species recorded here are ospreys, bald eagles and eastern screech owls.
Before you set off, swing by the Vera Carer Environmental Center, which has taxidermies, live exhibits and interactive displays about the Preserve’s habitats and wildlife.
44. Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
A reminder that Orlando is firmly on the cultural map, this glass-fronted performing arts venue opened its doors in 2014 and as of 2019 is in the middle of a second phase of development.
The Dr. Phillips Center stages more than 300 shows a year, from Broadway to touring recording artists, world-famous comedians, family shows, opera, symphonies and dance.
The main auditorium, the Walt Disney Theater, seats 2,731, while the 300-seater Pugh Theater is for smaller scale concerts and plays.
After 2020 the complex will include the 1,700-capacity Steinmetz Hall, designed specifically for operas and orchestral performances.
For now, the concert-going experience is as smooth as you could wish.
At intermission the lines for the bars and toilets are short and move quickly, and even at the back row you’ll have a clear view of the stage in the Walt Disney Theater.
45. Orlando Helicopter Tour from International Drive Area
In the space of 50 years a land of swamps, lakes, forest and orange groves has been reworked into the theme park capital of the world.
Just to get a handle on this metamorphosis, a helicopter flight over the cityscape is a fulfilling thing to do in Orlando.
This experience, available on Viator, has a choice of six different trips.
On the shorter flights you can choose whether you want to see Walt Disney World, Universal Studios or SeaWorld from above.
The longer trip, just shy of half an hour, will carry you over more of Orlando, as your pilot points out celebrity homes, all of the main theme parks and the Butler Chain of Lakes glinting in the sun.
46. Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens
The Czech-American representational sculptor Albin Polasek (1879-1965) produced more than 400 works in his career, around half of which can be viewed at his home and studio in Winter Park on the south shore of Lake Osceola.
You can look around his home, personal galleries and the property’s serene and well-tended sculpture gardens.
The Polasek is among the United States’ 36 Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios in the United States, and the only one to be found in the State of Florida.
Among the many works by Polasek and his first wife Ruth Sherwood, you can ponder lots of fine decorative items that belonged to the artist.
In the galleries are changing exhibitions by artists from the region, while standouts in the garden are the cycad collection on the front drive, the two water gardens and the beautiful butterfly garden.
47. Camping World Stadium
Built in 1936 and last renovated in 2014 at a cost of $207m, the Camping World Stadium seats more than 65,000 people and hosts some of the biggest games on the college football calendar.
This is the stage for the Citrus Bowl, played at 13:00 on New Year’s Day between two of the Top 25 NCAA teams, and known for its massive payout ($8,550,000 in 2019). The Camping World Bowl, another big post-season game, falls a few days earlier, while the NFL’s all-star game, the Pro Bowl moved to the stadium in 2017 and kicks off at the end of January.
Soccer historians may recognise the Camping World Stadium as one of the venues for the 1994 World Cup and the Copa América Centenario in 2016. For the remainder of the year the Camping World Stadium puts on monster truck rallies, the Drum Corps International marching music competition in June and the Orlando edition of the Electric Daisy Carnival musical festival in November.
We’d be remiss to write about Orlando and not set aside a paragraph for golf.
There are 26 golf courses in Orlando proper, and then another 41 if you’re willing to travel within 20 miles of the city.
It will come as no surprise that golf is a year-round game in Florida.
Loads of PGA pros call Orlando home, and a big chunk of Orlando’s courses have been designed by the game’s greats like Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson.
We could write a whole article about golf in Orlando and barely make a dent: There are four highly-rated courses at Walt Disney World alone.
Suffice to say that if you want prestige, Bay Hill Club & Lodge (Bay Hill) is Arnold Palmer’s winter home and is ranked by Golf Magazine as the third best public course in Florida.
For a round of golf like no other in Orlando, Jack Nicklaus’ Grand Cypress Resort has been designed just like the Old Course at St Andrews, while the municipal course in Orlando is Dubsdread, which was founded in 1924 and has tapered fairways and small greens.
49. Old Town
A sociable evening out, Old Town is 18 acres or four blocks of tree-lined brick streets, built to look like a traditional Florida townscape.
Old Town combines live entertainment with a pedestrian mall boasting more than 70 eateries and non-chain stores selling souvenirs and collectibles.
There’s also a video arcade, magic shows, a haunted house and a 26-metre Ferris wheel brought over from Italy.
Old Town has hosted car shows every weekend since it opened.
On Friday evenings you can catch the muscle car cruise, while on Saturdays timeless classic cars roll down the street.
For two-wheel connoisseurs, there’s a display of Harleys, Indians, trikes and slingshots at the Bike Show on Thursdays.
Also popping up on the schedule are family movie nights, karaoke nights and lots of live music.
50. The Escape Game Orlando
Orlando has also been caught in the escape room wave, and has put a theme park slant on the craze.
Social, fun and immersive, not to mention challenging, The Escape Game Orlando near ICON Park on International Drive has a choice of escape rooms to solve.
These throw you into transformative environments, at a gold rush cabin, an art gallery for a heist, a prison or a spaceship clad with interactive touch screens.
If you’re new to escape rooms there are more forgiving, but no less rewarding experiences in store, like Playground, where you have to complete some unusual assignments before you can leave for summer vacation.
Most of the rooms are for 2-8 players and require an hour to complete.
You get a pin for each room you complete, and the enthusiastic staff will make you feel like a rock star when you get out!
Check availability: 60-minute Escape Room Adventure
51. Orlando Sunrise Hot-Air Balloon Ride
To mull over Orlando’s cityscape in a more leisured way you can take a one-hour flight in a hot-air balloon as the sun comes up.
You’ll meet an hour before sunrise, allowing 20 minutes for inflation, before taking to the skies as a new day breaks on this vast playground in Central Florida.
This experience is offered via GetYourGuide.com, and will give you more time to contemplate the major theme parks, as well as Orlando’s lakes, primeval swamps, forests and the last fragments of its orange groves.
At the end of the flight you can toast the new day with a glass of champagne.
The take-off location and length of flight (up to 1 hour and 45 minutes) depends on the speed and direction of the wind.
52. Orlando StarFlyer
In 2018 the skyline on International Drive was transformed with the completion of this 130-metre swing ride.
The Orlando StarFlyer is the tallest of the three dozen or so StarFlyers in cities around the world, lifting you on a two-person open-air bench to a point about 106 metres over the ground and then spinning to speeds of more than 40 mph.
Before you reach top speed you’ll have plenty of time to contemplate Orlando’s skyline from what may be the best vantage point in the whole city.
In 2020 this stretch of International Drive will welcome the Skyplex, which will have an even taller tower (170 metres), with the world’s tallest rollercoaster, Skyscraper incorporated into its framework.
53. Madame Tussauds
At ICON Park next to the wheel, Orlando’s Madame Tussauds has the usual assortment of waxworks waiting for photographs.
The collection is kept up to date and represents a whole spectrum of personalities that all members of the family will recognise.
Some of the models are extremely lifelike, and that goes for Oprah Winfrey, Jim Parsons, Anne Hathaway, Justin Bieber, Neymar, Jimmy Fallon and Jackie Chan.
Others not so much, but it’s all part of the fun.
Since 2018 Justice League: A Call for Heroes allows you to get up close to Henry Cavill’s Superman, Gal Gadot’s Wonderwoman, Jason Momoa’s Aquaman and Ben Afflecks’ Superman.
As with all of Madame Tussauds’ more accurate exhibits, the Justice League figures were “sculpted from a sitting”.
Combo ticket: Madame Tussauds and SEA LIFE Aquarium Combo Ticket
54. Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe
With the massive influx of tourists and theme park employees to Orlando in the 1970s came a need for places of worship.
For the Roman Catholics this expansive Latin Rites basilica was consecrated in 1979 on Vineland Avenue, minutes from the Disneyworld Resort.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe is a Roman-style construction with an arcade of round-headed arches at the entrance and flanking the immense nave.
The church can seat 2,000 and is accompanied by a museum and rosary garden.
Seek out the rose window on the main facade, the 2.4-metre image of Mary with Child, sculpted from Carrara marble, as well as the collection of statuary and paintings going back to the 1500s in the museum.
55. Nona Adventure Park
There’s another opportunity to be active and make the most of Orlando’s abundant water, this time south-east of the city, just past Orlando International Airport.
On the lake of the same name, the Nona Adventure Park boasts a floating Aqua Park, more than 300 metres long and with tricky obstacles like a tire run, ninja jump, whirlpool and two Mount Rainiers.
There’s also a cable park with two tracks, able to accommodate ten riders at a time.
The first of these is for beginners and intermediate riders, while seasoned wakeboarders can challenge themselves on the second track, more than 750 metres long and hitting speeds of 36 mph.
Out of the water Nona Adventure Park has a climbing tower, with a ropes reaching a height of nearly 20 metres, as well as two climbing walls 15 metres high.