Orlando, Florida is a must-visit destination on many travelers’ lists, and for good reason. Affectionately and aptly known as The City Beautiful, it has a huge amount to offer its visitors, including the world-famous, family-friendly theme parks. Here are the city’s best attractions, including some lesser-known ideas if you want a break from the Disney parks.
No list of Orlando attractions would be complete without the main attraction – Disney’s Magic Kingdom Park. It has been a staple of the city’s tourist scene since it opened in 1971, and it’s where you can meet your favorite classic characters including Mickey Mouse and friends, as well as all the Disney princesses.
If you love animals, then you can’t miss a visit to Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park. Covering more than 500 acres (202ha), it is the largest Disney park in the world. The reason? It’s a vast, safari-style expanse featuring all kinds of different animals and the famed Tree of Life – a 45-m (145-ft) -tall replica of a baobab, replete with over 100,000 artificial leaves. See if you can identify the extinct and existing animals carved into its trunk.
Epcot is the fourth of Disney’s four main parks in Orlando and is the land of grown-ups. Although it has rides and attractions that kids will enjoy, it’s known for its adult-oriented festivals, such as the two and a half month-long Food & Wine Festival. Either way, Epcot is a good low-key option when the crowds at the other parks might be getting too big.
Looking for a way to beat the Central Florida heat? It’s Disney to the rescue, yet again. Typhoon Lagoon is the brand’s biggest water park, complete with a wave pool that boasts huge swells (surfing lessons are also available) and a special, shallow area reserved for the little ones. There are also water slides of all sizes and thrill-levels scattered throughout the park, one of most exciting of which is Humunga Kowabunga.
Hollywood Studios is an oft-overlooked Disney park, but since the resurgence of interest in Lucasfilm’s Star Wars franchise (and Disney’s purchase of the movie company), the park has seen a spike in popularity. The Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Star Tours and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror are just some favorites at this film lovers’ paradise.
Take a break from the parks and check out the newly redesigned Disney Springs. Once known as Downtown Disney, the company recently overhauled the area, adding in some great specialty shops (including a vegan bakery). It’s the perfect place to walk around and relax after a day at the parks. You can also take an eight-minute (tethered) ride in the world’s largest hand-painted helium balloon, from which you can see for 10 miles (16km) on a clear day.
If thrill-seeking is your aim, Islands of Adventure is a must-visit. Filled with rollercoasters and thrill rides, this destination features the newly minted Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where fans are now flocking to get a chance to visit Hogwarts. Another top choice for visitors to the Islands is the Jurassic Park River Adventure – although be warned, it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Universal CityWalk is similar to Disney Springs. There are loads of restaurants serving traditional American cuisine (many of which also offer live music several times a week), plenty of shops, plus some fun family activities, including bowling and miniature golf.
If you’re not into the Disney characters, Universal Orlando – partly designed by legendary film director Steven Spielberg – is a great place to visit. The classic park features rides including the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit and the ET Adventure. You can even meet some new favorite characters, including the Minions from Despicable Me.
Contrary to popular belief, there is a lot to do in Orlando besides visiting the theme parks. One of the city’s best non-Disney attractions is the Orlando Science Center, which has a rotating list of experiences and exhibits, so it’s sure to please any science enthusiast or history buff. Among the permanent fixtures are exhibits that take you back to Roman Pompeii and to the world of the dinosaurs.
The Wheel at ICON Park is one of the city’s newest and most celebrated attractions, and has been unofficially named the brightest light in Orlando’s skyline. The Eye is 400ft (122m) tall and features glass capsules for guests to ride in (complete with air conditioning), giving you a far-reaching, unobstructed view of Orlando. Private capsules with space for up to 15 people are available for a slightly higher fee.
Lake Eola Park is one of the city’s most peaceful locations, despite being situated in the heart of Downtown Orlando. The park centers around the lake itself and hosts several fairs and festivals throughout the year, as well as a weekly farmer’s market. When the weather is pleasant, take a ride on a swan boat, or jog or stroll around the sidewalk that circles the lake.
Accessible (Wheelchair), Accessible (Deaf), Accessible (Blind), Family Friendly, Kid Friendly
Harry P Leu Botanical Gardens
The Harry P Leu Botanical Gardens (known among locals as the Leu Gardens) cover approximately 50 acres (20ha) and their mission is to inspire visitors to learn about plants. The gardens are one of Orlando’s favorite settings for events, including business gatherings and weddings, and provide an idyllic area to walk through. Be sure to check out the Butterfly Garden and the collection of banana and fruit trees.
After a long day of exploring, you may want to stop and have a cold one, and Orlando Brewing is an excellent option. Formerly Orlando Brewing Company, this organic taproom is a city favorite, offering over 30 varieties of beer brewed on-site. As the weather is almost always perfect in sunny Central Florida, they often host live music on their outdoor patio.
WonderWorks™, located on Orlando’s famed International Drive (I-Drive to the locals) at the Pointe Orlando commercial complex, is a dream for those who love and want to learn about science while playing with some cool toys at the same time. WonderWorks™ features hands-on science exhibits and attractions for everyone – and the best thing is that the building housing it is upside down.
La Nouba by Cirque du Soleil is hosted at Disney Springs. If you’ve never seen a Cirque du Soleil performance, you are in for a treat. And even if you have, La Nouba will still surprise and delight you. The 90-minute show, similar to other Cirque du Soleil performances, features amazing acrobats, great music and feats of athleticism that will have you holding your breath.
You can’t leave Orlando without doing some serious shopping, and Orlando International Premium Outlets is a great place to get all the best from your favorite designers and brands at a reduced rate. The venue is designed like a strip mall: open air, lots of room to walk and plenty of opportunities to enjoy the warm Florida sunshine. Several dining venues offer a variety of food and drink, including smoothies and burgers.
Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe
The Basilica of the National Shrine of Mary, Queen of the Universe is a unique attraction in a place that’s filled with bright lights and theme parks. Originally built to provide a home for worship for Catholic tourists visiting the Orlando area, this Latin rite basilica has become a tourist attraction in its own right. And while it still holds daily services, many visitors to the city head there just to see the magnificent architecture.
While the Kennedy Space Center isn’t in Orlando proper (it’s an hour’s drive east from the city), it’s still a must-visit attraction if you’re in the Central Florida area, and is a great day-trip option. A NASA junkie’s dream, you can tour through memorabilia from various missions and astronauts and see shuttle launch simulations, all of which should make your inner nerd deeply happy.
Think you can’t travel back to a simpler time? Think again, because in Orlando anything is possible. Old Town is one of the area’s lesser-known attractions; it’s reminiscent of small-town America in the ’50s and ’60s, and retro enthusiasts will love the classic car shows, old-fashioned candy shops and the spooky haunted houses. It’s a very different atmosphere here from that of the Central Florida area.
Gatorland is home to over 2,000 alligators, including two of the giant white leucistic species, of which there are only believed to be 12 on the planet. It’s a great choice for a family day out, featuring daily shows in which some of the park’s largest alligators – which are over four meters long – jump out of the water to catch a snack. Other residents include crocodiles, Florida-born panthers Neiko and Lucy, snakes, scorpions and giant turtles.
Fans of beat writer Jack Kerouac – author of the counterculture classic On The Road – will want to go and see the house where he spent his last years, located at 1418 Clouser Avenue. Now run by the Kerouac Project and used as a writers’ residency, this unassuming wooden building was where Kerouac lived with his wife and mother from 1957 to 1958, and where he wrote The Dharma Bums.
Discovery Cove’s key draw is its range of interactive experiences, which enable you to share the water with dolphins, exotic fish and a variety of freshwater creatures. You can also swim in a tropical river and meet the feathered inhabitants of the Explorer’s Aviary. Enjoy an excellent breakfast or lunch at the Laguna Grill, included in the price of entry. Towels and snorkeling gear are also provided for no extra cost.
Orlando’s Randall Knife Museum is attached to the family-run workshop of the same name, which enjoys a reputation as one of the world’s finest knife manufacturers. Browse a collection of over 7,000 exquisitely made blades, including the world’s largest switchblade and the first ever knife to go to space. Also on display are military knives, swords, machetes and axes. Founder Bo Randall died in 1989 and the business is now run by his sons and grandsons.
Universal’s water theme park is the ultimate place to get soaked on one of the many huge rides or slides – either with or without little ones in tow. Centered around a towering replica of a volcano, the park also has wave pools for budding surfers, artificial beaches on which to soak up the Florida sun and rentable cabanas. Several on-site hotels offer a completely immersive experience and the TapuTapu device enables easy, electronic queuing for the rides.