Looking for tips on what to do in Orlando?
As part of our city guides series, we interviewed Ben Reed who has lived in Orlando for seven years.
Ben share’s with us his insider tips on what to do in Orlando for those looking for the best things to see and do, where to eat, stay, drink, and play plus how to make the most out of a visit to the theme parks.
Orlando City Guide – Why You Should Visit
Most people visit Orlando for the theme parks.
The Walt Disney World Resort offers attractions, shows, dining and shopping on a property that is twice the size of the island of Manhattan in New York. First-time visitors underestimate how massive it really is.
Despite the artificiality that Disney Parks are known for, it’s the quintessential American vacation and it really is an experience like none other.
And with Universal Orlando, Volcano Bay, Sea World, and Busch Gardens Tampa, there are plenty of places to keep you busy.
Of course, there’s more to Orlando than theme parks, especially if you want to experience what the locals do. But if you want theme parks, below are some handy tips.
What to Do in Orlando
Beyond the theme parks, Orlando offers plenty to keep you busy – which is surprising to many.
See Wildlife in Orlando
Orlando’s top wildlife attractions allow you to get up close with real Florida wildlife in their natural habitat.
Go to the Beach
Cocoa Beach is just a quick 45-minute drive from the city on the Atlantic Coast. Free parking is available at Ron Jon Surf Shop.
While you’re there, you might as well go skydiving at Sky Dive Space Center, one of the highest drops in the world at 18,000 feet (5.48km).
Roadside Attractions in Orlando
“Old Florida” is a term that is used to describe Florida in the 1950’s, before the theme parks would arrive. Roadside Americana reigned supreme.
Few attractions are still remaining today, but the ones that are still around are some of the best.
- Gatorland touts itself as the Alligator Capitol of the World, a well-deserved title. The adventurous types can take zip lines over a pool of hungry gators. If you’re up for a drive, Weeki Wachee Springs gives you the chance to see real mermaids.
- For the astronaut in you, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex gives you a glimpse into America’s Space Program. Be sure to sign up for the guided tour which takes you all around the facility and in the near future, one of the retired space shuttles will be on display. (check this site for special entry ticket deals)
- At night, check out the Silver Moon Drive-In, one of the few remaining Drive-In Movie Theaters around. For $4 per person, you get a double-feature of first-run films from the comfort of your car.
- For a slower change of pace, visit Mount Dora, a charming town north of Orlando. They are known for their annual craft festivals each year and locally-owned shops. You’ll be sure to find a friend here.
Visiting the Theme Parks in Orlando
If you are going to visit Orlando, then you simply must spend some time at one of the many theme parks. Here are some insider tips.
How to Avoid Long Lines at Theme Parks
There’s no doubt about it, theme parks draw big crowds and long lines. But savvy visitors to Orlando know how to avoid them.
- September and January are generally quiet in the parks. Lines for popular attractions will generally average 20 minutes or so (much short than the 60-90 minutes in the summer).
- Disney offers FastPass, a ride reservation system that virtually eliminates your wait for several top attractions. It’s included with your park admission.
- Universal Orlando offers a similar experience, for an additional fee.
- And if you want to experience Christmas decorations without the crowds, the 1st week in December is the perfect time of the season to visit any of the parks.
- If you want to experience Halloween at Disney, check out this useful guide.
Save Money on Orlando Theme Parks
Discounted theme park tickets are hard to come by for out-of-state visitors. And when you add up an entire week’s worth of food, hotels, and souvenirs, the number can be quite staggering.
- Undercover Tourist is our trusted affiliate partner that offers athentic theme park tickets at discounted prices!
Which Theme Parks Are the Most Important Ones to Visit?
Orlando alone has 7 parks with an additional 5 water parks. You’ll need at least a week to experience it all.
For shorter lengths of stay, a visit to the Magic Kingdom and Universal Orlando (where you can experience the Harry Potter attraction) are the must-dos.
You may also want to visit Discovery Cove in Orlando. You can read this helpful guide here.
Watch our videos of our time at Universal Orlando Resort:
Best Neighborhoods to Explore
Orlando is a small city, so it’s neighborhoods are equally as compact.
At the center of the city is Lake Eola, a nearly one-mile (1.9km) lake that is the focal point of the city. At night, the iconic fountain is lit up in a rainbow of colors and on select night, a fountain show synchronized to music will play.
Extending to the east is Thorton Park. Single family homes, tree-lined streets and small boutique shops, restaurants and watering holes make this area a great place to relax after walking downtown.
To the west is the heart of downtown Orlando. Orange Ave. and Church street are known for their bars and clubs.
Mills Ave. is to the northeast and features trendy eateries.
Winter Park, an upscale, neighboring city 1o minutes to the north is another hot spot for shopping and dining and a casual stroll.
If your visit is centered around the tourist corridor, you’ll find more than enough shops, restaurants, child-friendly museums, bars, dinner shows and attractions to keep you busy all day and night.
International Drive and Highway 192 in nearby Kissimmee offer a mix of both.
Where to Eat in Orlando
At first glance, Orlando seems to have nothing but chain restaurants. But if you have your own car, and know a local, they’ll steer you to some fantastic gems.
- Around the theme parks, Press 101 offers gourmet sandwiches and wines at reasonable prices. Live music is played on the weekend.
- For a special occasion, neighboring Seasons 52, offers a fine dining experience with an ever-changing menu, freshly prepared food and great wines.
- In downtown Orlando, Pine Twenty2 offers locally-sourced, all-natural hamburgers that are just bursting with flavor. You can build your own or order one of the house specialities.
- For a sweet ending, stop by The Dessert Lady for freshly made gourmet cakes that are gigantic.
- Pom Pom’s Teahouse & Sandwicheria is located in the Milk District, a short ride from downtown (near the milk factory). They offer an eclectic array of teas and delicious sandwiches in an urban vibe.
But for a true taste of Orlando, you need to schedule your culinary visit around one of The Daily City Food Truck Events.
Scheduled on a weekly basis, rotating venues every week, 20-30 food trucks line up with every imaginable cuisine. My recommendation, go direct to the Yum Yum Cupcake Truck.
Where to Drink in Orlando
The good news is, there are plenty of places to grab a drink downtown that won’t break the bank.
- For something trendy, Sky Sixty is a rooftop lounge in the heart of downtown on Orange Ave.
- Ember offers food and an outdoor, Mediterranean style patio bar that is always bustling.
- Along Lake Eola you will find several casual watering holes like the Eole Wine Company and Graffiti Junktion (which also has great burgers).
- Gay & lesbian travels will want to check out Savoy and Sip for drinks. If dancing is on the agenda, Parliament House offers clubs, drag shows and drinks as does Pulse.
Best Place for a Night on the Town
If you’re looking to stay up late, Downtown Orlando has several clubs that keep busy until 2 A.M.
Your best bet for dancing is on Church Street, which offers a range of clubs. Wall St. located just off Orange Ave. is another popular spot with lots of bars and restaurants. There’s a good chance you’ll stumble upon live music too.
Of course, for that late-night meal after dancing the night away, Bananas Modern Diner is a short drive away. And Steak and Shake, a popular chain in the south will give you the greasy food your tummy deserves!
If you’re staying near the theme parks, Universal Citywalk offers a variety of clubs with individual tickets available for purchase per club, or an all-in-one access pass. A movie theater and mini golf course are also available.
Downtown Disney offers nighttime entertainment with a softer touch, but drinks can be had at Raglan Road, an authentic Irish Pub.
Where to Stay in Orlando
If there’s one thing Orlando has, it’s plenty of hotels that cater to all travel budgets.
Places to Stay at Disney
If you’re looking to stay on Disney Property the All-Star Sports Resort, the All Star Music Resort, or the All Star Movies Resort is your best bet for the cheapest price (but still pricey).
If you have the budget, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is my favorite, while Disney’s Boardwalk is located near one of the theme parks, Epcot.
Places to Stay at Universal Studios
For Universal Studios, check out:
- Cabana Bay Beach Resort (Book directly on Booking.com)
- Loews Sapphire Falls Resort (Book directly on Booking.com)
- Loews Royal Pacific Hotel (Book directly on Booking.com)
- Hard Rock Hotel (Book directly on Booking.com)
- Loews Portofino Bay Hotel (Book directly on Booking.com)
International Drive is your best bet for discount hotels, you’ll find plenty.
If you are traveling with a large group of friends or family, check out this 10 bedroom vacation home near Disney World.
Shopping in Orlando
Both the Florida Mall and Mall at Millenia are popular with both tourists and locals. The Florida Mall has a great mix of stores for all budgets while the Mall at Millenia caters to the higher-end shopper.
For great deals, be sure to visit the Premium Outlets. You could easily spend a whole day browsing here.
Events & Festivals in Orlando
Each of the theme parks offers special events throughout the year. As you are planning your Orlando itinerary, put one of these festivals on your list.
The Best Fall Festival in Orlando
If you had to only hit one, visit the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival in the fall.
Sample-size plates are available for purchase featuring cuisine from around the world. It’s a favorite of tourists and locals.
Winter Festival in Orlando
During the winter months, the Orlando Improv Festival, now in it’s 3rd year, has grown in popularity.
Each February, the Plant City Strawberry Festival draws huge crowds who celebrate the best fruit around, the strawberry!
The springtime brings the Florida Film Festival – a week of independent films with emerging and well-established industry talent.
As summer approaches, GayDays Orlando celebrates the first weekend in June with over 150,000 people in attendance at the theme parks. It’s one of the biggest events in Orlando.
Getting Around Orlando
Downtown Orlando is a very walkable city, and walking is the preferred way of getting around. But Orlando is a city that sprawls out, so if you’d like to visit anything not in downtown, you’ll need to travel by car.
Public transport by bus is available (GoLynx), but not convenient if time is important to you. You’ll need to make several transfers to get anywhere and the frequency of busses is not timely.
If you’re staying along international drive, there is a trolley that runs up and down the length of the street, making frequent stops.
Don’t forget Uber.
Book your rental car on RentalCars.com to browse all the top companies in one place.
Favorite Side Trip
If you’re in town for an extended time, Miami Beach is just a short 3-hour drive from Orlando. It’s one of my favorite week-end getaways. It has some of the best beaches in the country, amazing nightlife and an awesome vibe.
Related post – How to visit Kennedy Space Center on launch day
Best Time of Year to Visit Orlando
The best time to visit Orlando is in October and March.
Each month is warm enough for you to take full advantage of beaches, water parks and all the other outdoor activities, but without the humidity that the summer is notorious for.
October tends to be less crowded at the theme parks than March (popular with school spring break), but there is always the looming threat of a hurricane interrupting your trip – though the likelihood for that is minimal.
Getting There & Away
With Orlando being such a popular destination, direct routes from most major airports in the United States are almost always available and competition keeps prices reasonably affordable.
Direct flights from destinations in Europe and South America are also plentiful.
Orlando is served by both busses and rail, but the logistics of getting to the main tourist corridor are cumbersome at best. You’re better off renting a car from the airport.
Best insiders tip for Orlando
One of my favorite local spots is tubing down the Rainbow River. Load up your car with a picnic lunch, rent an inner tube and drift aimlessly away down the crystal clear, sparkling river – it’s pure relaxation!
I Love Orlando because
You can almost guarantee that when the rest of the country (and the world for that matter) are bundling up to keep warm, Orlando is experiencing sunshine and perfect weather all year round.
Related Post – 3 things to do in Central Florida (beyond Orlando)
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