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If there is an epi-centre for fun, excitement and imagination in the world, then it is right here in the growing metropolitan area we call Orlando, Florida. The home of Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld and much, much more. This is both a family luxury holiday par excellence and a great experience for couples, as there is SO much to enjoy, much of it with a very grown-up slant these days.
Just to start with, there are more direct flights to Orlando, Florida from the UK than any other airport in Florida and it puts you right in the heart of the action. Orlando International Airport is the biggest and busiest airport in the state, while Orlando Sanford International Airport, just 30 miles north, is a handy alternative for some charter airlines. Orlando is a three-hour drive from Miami, an hour from Tampa and a little more than two hours from Jacksonville, while the Atlantic coast is only an hour’s journey to the east and the gorgeous Gulf Coast beaches are about 90 minutes’ drive west. The lower Gulf Coast area (from Bradenton down to Naples) is two to four hours away to the south-west.
Prior to Disney’s arrival, this was a rather insignificant town with its military airbase and proximity to the Kennedy Space Center as its main attributes. Since then, it has grown massively to become an entertainment colossus that now boasts world-class theme parks, hotels, restaurants, shopping and performing arts, and has huge all-round appeal as a destination for adults and children alike. But be aware this is a massively complex place to visit. There are seven full theme parks, five water parks, dozens of smaller attractions, plus huge outlet shopping centres, malls, themed resorts and plentiful nightlife, not forgetting many natural attractions, state parks, great sports – including almost 200 golf courses! – and a growing reputation for craft beers and foodie hotspots. This is not the place to walk into unprepared, so doing some holiday ‘homework’ in advance is essential!
Without doubt, the biggest attraction in town is Walt Disney World, all 47 square miles of it. Packed in here are four theme parks, two water parks, 22 resort hotels, a massive complex of shops, restaurants and entertainment, four golf courses and a surprisingly natural aspect from its many waterways and wooded areas. It is completely separate from the rest of Orlando and has its own transportation system, hence it functions like a small city in its own right.
Universal Orlando doesn’t pale by comparison, though, despite boasting ‘only’ two theme parks, a water park, six hotels and its own dining/nightlife district, called CityWalk. Like Disney, it has developed a distinct adult component with the quality of its resorts and the food and beverage offerings, as well as entertainment like the Blue Man Group and several nightclubs. Nearby is SeaWorld, with its own spread of rides and exhibits in a very natural setting, while there is also a sister water park and Discovery Cove, where you can swim with dolphins.
In many ways, that only scratches the surface of Orlando’s many and varied attractions. Gatorland is a fascinating look at the local wildlife, which you can also experience on a variety of local airboat rides (which are like visiting the Everglades without the four-hour drive), while Revolution Offroad features four-wheeled adventures in the countryside. At I-Drive 360 you can ride the 400-ft-high Orlando Eye, visit Madame Tussauds and the SeaLife Center, and enjoy a great selection of restaurants – as you can at Pointe Orlando, Mall at Millenia, Sand Lake Road and Winter Park. Even given three weeks, you really won’t be able to “do it all” here!
Aside from SeaWorld and Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park, this is a surprisingly good place to experience a good slice of Florida wildlife, in addition to all the other excitement. Gatorland features bobcats, giant tortoises, raccoons, flamingoes, owls and the endangered Florida panther, as well as the headline alligators and crocs, and also boasts a superb zipline experience. Wild Florida, to the south of Kissimmee, has its own animal park in addition to its airboat rides, and Forever Florida, further south, offers a huge slice of Florida’s flora and fauna.
There are other wonderful natural places like Lake Louisa State Park and the small-scale Lake Tibet-Butler Preserve, while the suburb of Winter Park has a gorgeous tour around its surrounding lakes that offers even more nature experiences. Despite the presence of the theme parks, you don’t have to go far to find the ‘real’ Florida.
Sports & Activities
In keeping with Orlando’s idea of non-stop excitement and opportunity, the sports and other activities are top notch. It starts with the two main sports of basketball and soccer (yes, football as we know it), with the major league teams of the Orlando Magic (in the NBA) and Orlando City (in Major League Soccer), both of which are well worth sampling for the great big-game atmosphere they generate.
This is definitely the home of great golf, the headquarters of the US Tennis Association and even minor-league ice-hockey, with the Orlando Solar Bears playing at the huge Amway Center, which is also home to the Magic. The number of golf courses alone is positively mouth-watering, while this is also a great place for watersports of all kinds, from kayaking to parasailing, and is world-renowned for bass fishing.
It is easy to visit Orlando, Florida without actually seeing Orlando. The downtown city hub is about 15 miles from the theme parks and requires a specific journey away from the main tourist areas to discover. But it’s worth it, by day and by night, as it boasts its own attractions, like the Orange County Museum of History and beautiful Lake Eola, and has a terrific array of restaurants and nightlife, including the new Dr Phillips Performing Arts Center, the Amway Center for concerts, the Orlando Shakespeare and Ballet companies, the eclectic Mad Cow Theater, the highly kid-friendly Orlando Rep theatre and Sak Comedy Lab for improv humour.
The swanky suburb of Winter Park is another Orlando ‘secret’, with a really upscale style for shopping and dining – including its café society vibe along Park Avenue – while Winter Garden is a similar quaint local neighbourhood, with more unique shops and restaurants, including the excellent Crooked Can Brewery. To the south, the city of Kissimmee offer more small-scale charms, with a great lakefront location, and the city of Sanford, just to the north is another great example of small-town America, with its own tempting array of bars, restaurants and micro-breweries.
This is most definitely the place to come with an empty suitcase, as Orlando has a dazzling array of shopping opportunities, with three major discount outlet centres, five main shopping malls, endless gift shops and several open-air shopping centres, which all add something new.
The two Orlando Premium Outlets complexes feature hundreds of big-name brands at bargain prices, all in a very elegant setting, while Lake Buena Vista Outlet Stores is similar, and the vast Florida Mall and Mall at Millenia offer the contrasting indoor mall experience in great style, and variety. For a more European style, Winter Park’s boutiques are well worth a casual stroll if you don’t mind your wallet taking a beating! The local visitor centre’s walking tour is a great adjunct to the highlights of Winter Park, too.
Dining, cuisine and foodie tips
It used to be the case that Orlando – with all its theme parks – had a reputation for very ho-hum food. Not any more. This is now definitely the place for a genuine foodie experience, with big-name chefs, gourmet offerings and great wine and cocktail offerings to go with the food. Even the parks have got on board with some distinctly above-average restaurants – try Tiffins at Disney’s Animal Kingdom or Monsieur Paul at Epcot – and, while many venues, especially of the chain restaurant variety, are still more quantity than quality conscious, it’s hard to get a bad meal. And you certainly won’t go home hungry!
For those looking to branch out and try something different, there are a lot of Cuban and Latin influences, as well as a lively Vietnamese dining scene and some of the best seafood in Florida. Many locals head for ‘Restaurant Row,’ which is the west end of Sand Lake Road and boasts a dazzling line-up of choice, while downtown Orlando also has plenty to offer, notably in the College Park, Mills 50, Milk District and Thornton Park areas. And, if you don’t try Winter Park at some stage, you will really be missing out.
We shouldn’t really need to answer that question, should we? This is simply one of the world’s great destinations for excitement and creativity, with a really high-quality approach to everything it does and a truly astounding array of possibilities in absolutely every aspect.