One of the most-visited cities in the entire of the Sunshine State, Orlando booms with theme parks and amusements, rollercoasters and rides like few destinations on earth.
Forever vying for the top spot are the sprawling attractions of Universal Studios and Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the respective homes of the all-new Harry Potter Wizarding World and the iconic Cinderella Castle alike.
But O-Town isn’t just about getting the heart racing on the rides. It’s also a city placed neatly on the northern fringes of the Everglades, graced with beautiful parks and botanic gardens, some truly fascinating museums, oodles of luxury hotels, shimmering skyscrapers and plenty of urban lakes to boot.
That means it’s a well-rounded stopover on any tour of the American South, offering would-be travelers a fusion of fun and relaxation, cultural interest, history and natural beauty. Check out this selection of the top 15 things to do while hitting the so-called Theme Park Capital of the World!
1. Feel the big screen magic at Universal Studios Florida
This bona fide, real-life film set where Optimus Prime roams next to Homer Simpson, the Mummy meets ET, Shrek’s fantastical fairy-tale world mingles with the Terminator’s dystopic future, and Men in Black enjoy the music of the Blues Brothers remains one of the most iconic sections of Orlando’s famous Universal Resort for sure.
With everything from adrenaline-pumping rollercoasters inspired by the robotic aliens of Transformers to immersive mock-ups of Springfield a la Matt Groening, the sprawling entertainment attraction has something for everyone.
Add to that the all-new Wizarding World of Harry Potter, with all the magic of Diagon Alley and the dragon-topped twists and turns of the Escape from Gringotts ride, and it’s easy to see why this one’s top of the list!
2. Fairy tales aplenty at the Walt Disney Magic Kingdom
The most popular of the quad of theme parks currently making up the greater Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando’s famous Bay Lake area comes in the form of the mighty Magic Kingdom.
Crowned at the center by the instantly-recognisable spires and turrets of the Cinderella Castle, this land of fantasy and imagination draws in a whopping 19 million people each year – the most-visited theme park on the planet no less!
Expect the likes of Frontierland, where the rickety Mountain Railroad weaves between the towering hoodoos and canyons; Tomorrowland, with its futuristic rides and UFOs in the air; Fantasyland, where the Little Mermaid mixes with Peter Pan and the underground mining tunnels of the Seven Dwarfs – the list goes on.
3. Wonder at the world in the Epcot theme park
Conceived as a celebration of all things achieved by mankind, and an homage to the natural and human-made beauties of the planet alike, the Epcot theme park forms another of the major attractions within the seemingly endless Walt Disney World.
The sprawling 300-acre park is famed for its futuristic architecture, popping up with the great golf-ball of the so-called Spaceship Earth and glassy pyramids aplenty, along with beautiful swathes of manicured and landscaped gardens, intended to showcase the diversity and beauties of the Earth.
Today, more than 11 million people a year flock to Epcot, eager to weave around the immersive mock-ups of Bavarian towns, the Japanese pavilions or the great Aztec temples to name just three of the worldly attractions!
4. Sample the Everglades at Shingle Creek Regional Park
With the sprawling wonders of the Florida Everglades beckoning far to the south, opt for a jaunt to these tropical wilds for your fix of the Sunshine State’s most iconic natural wonder.
Cutting through the lowlands of Osceola, the various waterways, creeks and riparian swamps of this beautiful tract of greenery in the midst of Orlando actually form the northern headwaters of the Everglades themselves.
Travelers can come and explore the area on bobbing boardwalk tracks, weave between the looming cypress trees, flitting along the banks of Kissimmee and enjoy secluded picnic spots in the woods. More daring travelers can opt for a kayak tour and hit the waters in the company of gators.
5. Thrills and more thrills at the Islands of Adventure
Not only does this half of the Universal Resort boast oodles of comic book-based rides and cartoony rollercoasters (some say the finest array in all of the Sunshine State!), but it’s also now home to one section of the iconic Wizarding World of Harry Potter (the enthralling re-enactment of the country pub and village, Hogsmeade).
Visitors also come for a heart-thumping encounter with the T-rex and raptors on the Jurassic Park River, to see the gravity-defying stunts of Sindbad on his Eighth Adventure, for the immersive 3-D shows of the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, or for the chance to meet Popeye, The Cat in the Hat et al.
6. See national masterworks at the Mennello Museum of American Art
Proving that it’s not all about rollercoasters and thrills in Orlando, the Mennello Museum of American Art offers up its fine collection of North American works from its spot amidst the cultural institutions of the Loch Haven district.
Opened in 1998, the highlight of the collection is unquestionably the pieces by the mysterious and eccentric American painter, Earl Cunningham.
Oozing an earthy, crude rusticity, these works tell tales of American folk life throughout the 1900s, going from vivid expressions of the bucolic US to immersive bird’s-eye landscapes. Add to that a great sculpture garden (check out the colossal oak tree there) and oodles of touring art workshops, and this one makes for a fine cultural detour while traveling through the city.
7. Have a splash at the Disney Typhoon Lagoon Water Park
The perfect choice when the sultry summertime temperatures of the Sunshine State get just a little too much, Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon is packed with more water-based attractions and rides than you can shake a pirate ship at!
There’s a huge surf pool to conquer, with waves soaring more than two meters high, along with the so-called Shark Reef, where stingrays mix with leopard sharks below the waters.
And there are rides too, like the mind-blowing, heart-thumping Crush ‘n’ Gusher, which turns, twists, dives and deposits at high velocity. Finally, those in need of a little R&R can hit the manmade beaches or the lazy river ways of Castaway Creek.
8. Go organic beer tasting at the Orlando Brewing Company
With a bring-your-own food policy and an unusual dedication to the 16th-century Reinheitsgebot of Germany (a Bavarian purity law that still means all of Munich’s beers are made without additives or unnatural ingredients), it’s hardly surprising that the Orlando Brewing Company has risen to become one of the most popular beer producers in the entire Sunshine State.
Certified 100% organic, all the brews – from the crisp and easy-going Blonde Ale to the refreshing and seasonal Steamee Summer steam beer – are served up at a stripped-down, industrial-chic tasting room just a short way from the railroad and the Amtrak station.
9. Enjoy some calm at the Harry P Leu Gardens
Fusing the manicured and the tropical between their blooming beds of camellias and roses, the much-vaunted Harry P Leu Gardens are amongst some of the best-known urban botanic gardens in the United States.
The folk here are dedicated to inspiring visitors to learn more about botany and branch out with their own horticultural pursuits.
That’s why you can expect a medley of flora that includes azaleas and cycads, swaying palm trees and traditional oaks, pretty elms and scented eucalyptus – the list goes on! Regular tours of the site are great for learning all about the plant life, while a trip to the Leu House Museum is the place to trace the family history of this Orlando must.
10. Get the clubs out for a round of golf
Whether you come in search of easy-going nine-hole rounds, challenging mock-up links-style courses following the golfing of Scotland, or perfectly manicured fairways crafted by masters like Tiger Woods and Johnny Miller, you can rest assured that the line-up of golf hotspots in and around Orlando will have something to suit!
Take the beautiful Legends at Orange Lake Resort, with its undulating greenery and Arnold Palmer-designed greens, or the more accessible reaches of the Rio Pinar Country Club, where the fees are relatively affordable throughout the week.
And that’s not even mentioning the likes of flat Stoneybrook or Eagle Creek, with its English-style fusion of elegance and roughness.
11. Discover your inner beatnik at the Kerouac House
It’s thought that this charming and humble little timber house on the edge of Clouser Avenue was where the beatnik luminary and recently revered author of On The Road lived for a short time in 1957.
The small home was purchased by Orlando’s Kerouac Project in the late 90s (thanks largely due to crowdsourced funds courtesy of national newspaper coverage).
It was transformed into a creative residency for budding writers, and today the project offers fully-funded stays at the Kerouac House so that artists can focus solely on their work.
Visitors can expect a glimpse at the mastermind of the American Beat Generation, along with regular poetry readings and the like.
12. Get into the wilds at the Orlando Wetlands Park
Sprawled out and encompassing great swathes of the central Sunshine State just to the west of Orlando central, this colossal wetlands park is one of the best places to glimpse the wild and swampy nature of this southern enclave.
Visitors can spot swaying palm trees that emerge like flagpoles from the murky waters, see hawks and black vultures flitting between the tropical canopies, weave along a whopping 20 miles of marked trekking trails in the company of alligators and turtles, go off-road biking (beware of the biters!) and do plenty, plenty more.
The secret? The wetlands here aren’t natural at all, but rather the result of an eco-project conceived to recycle Orlando’s vast amounts of used water.
13. See Orlando’s answer to Broadway at the Dr Phillips Center for the Performing Art
This shiny new events center now commands pride of place in the midst of downtown Orlando.
Only opened in 2014, the colossal complex includes two huge theatres and countless workshop and lobby spaces.
The calendar of events is nothing if not eclectic, going from acapella bands to magic shows to stand-up comedy to prestigious national dance troupes, while there are also oodles of corporate events and speakers hosted in the building.
However, even if you’re not interested in seeing a show, this exciting new venue for Orlando’s arts and performance artists is a real wonder to behold in itself – the building’s still not even finished and will cost nearly 600 million in all!
14. Enjoy an independent brew at the Achilles Art Café
A truly independent and quirky coffee shop that’s a far cry from the usual American chain drinkeries, Achilles is run by a German immigrant to Orlando, who only arrived in the Sunshine State in 1999.
That means the joint has an indelible Euro character, with cosy alcoves and crevices and cushioned seats aplenty. There’s also a big interest in local art and budding artists, with the walls chock-a-block with painting and photography that’s all for sale.
The menu has a simple but enticing array of grilled sandwiches and fresh pitas, while the drinks go from frothy beers (influenced by Germany no doubt) to finely brewed coffees. There’s also a sort of al fresco terrace to enjoy while sipping.
15. Have a no-nonsense steak at Pig Floyds Urban Barbakoa
Drawing from the multicultural medley of culinary influences at work on the cities of the Sunshine State as a whole – from the chilli-packed pieces of Latin America to the smoky BBQ flavors of the Deep South – Pig Floyds Urban Barbakoa remains one of the most iconic eateries in all of Orlando.
With a prime locale on the bustling strips of N Mills Avenue, the open kitchen here churns out hearty platters of pulled pork, oakwood-smoked ribs, mixed grills and more, all next to black bean tacos and Tex-Mex that would make even a New Mexican’s mouth water.
There are also plenty of sides to get through, from Carib-style plantains to deep-fried yucca. Nice.