When most people think of Orlando, Florida, they instantly think of the world famous theme parks and attractions, especially Walt Disney World. It’s a little strange to think that Walt Disney World itself is not actually in the city of Orlando, but is actually situated in Lake Buena Vista just down the road. The tourism industry in Orlando is something that has never really stopped growing, since Walt Disney’s dream came true and the Magic Kingdom park finally opened in 1971, sadly only a few years after the death of Walt Disney. Infact, the tourism industry has grown to such an extent that estimates currently put the number of visitors at around 52 million per year. New attractions are appearing regularly with the quality varying from top notch to downright tacky.
Planning a Trip to Orlando
Orlando is a fantastic place to visit for many reasons. There is simply so much to do and there really is something for everyone. Making the most of a trip to Orlando certainly isn’t an easy task so be aware that it does require some significant planning. To simply turn up and decide what to do when you get there could end up being a real waste without you getting to see anywhere near as much as you could. There really is nothing else in the world like Orlando and it’s fair to say that with good planning you’re almost guaranteed to have a good time, whether you’re travelling as a family, a couple or even on your own.
Of course, Walt Disney World is probably the biggest and most famous attraction in Orlando, but there are also a whole host of other parks and attractions including Universal Orlando Resort, Seaworld and more. Covering most of the major attractions in Orlando in just 2 or 3 weeks is certainly possible, but it may not be easy with some saying it can almost require military precision. There will be plenty of walking, queuing and eating and you will likely get quite hot (depending on the time of year).
Looking at it simply, it would be fair to say that there are 8 main (some may say essential) theme parks to cover in the Orlando area. It’s easy to see that once you add in a few other attractions, water parks and a little bit of shopping, 2 weeks can disappear rather quickly indeed. There is simply so much to see and do that people who “get the bug” feel the need to come back time and time again. If you can, then a 3 week trip would definitely be recommended simply to give you a little breathing space but don’t worry, with careful planning you will still be able to get great value from a 2 week (or less) break in Orlando.
Walt Disney World Resort
It’s safe to say that World Disney World Resort in Florida is Orlando’s biggest and most well known attraction. This place really does seem to make the ‘magic’ come to life. You may think it’s just for kids but it’s certainly not uncommon to see plenty of adults getting into the spirit too! World Disney World resort itself is so vast that it is made up of 4 main theme parks along with 2 fantastic water parks, 28 resorts and hotels, not to mention the selection of 18 hole golf courses, miniature golf courses and the gigantic shopping and entertainment hub that is Downtown Disney.
World Disney World resort first opened its gates on October 1, 1971, and is now the most visited attraction in the whole world with its gigantic stretch of property covering a whopping 66 square miles. Peak periods can get very busy indeed as you would expect, with estimates putting over 200,000 people in the resort at busy times of the year. Disney takes customer service incredibly seriously. Infact, you will notice that the staff who work within the resort are not even referred to as staff, they are infact known as “Cast Members” with each and every one of them playing their part in making the magic happen. It’s a nice work ethic to have it really shows when you’re in the resort.
Disney’s Magic Kingdom is definitely a great starting point for a visit to World Disney World and is the original Disney park that opened first in October 1971. It’s the park that started the “Magic” that was Walt Disney’s dream and sparked a huge boom for tourism in Orlando and the surrounding area that still continues to this day. The most well known and popular park in Disney World, Magic Kingdom features the iconic Disney castle and attracts almost as many visitors as all of the other parks put together. Check out our comprehensive Magic Kingdom guide for more information on this park.
The rather unusual name of this park actually translated to “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” but regular visitors to the park are sometime known to affectionately call it “Every Person Comes Out Tired”. You’re totally correct if you are assuming that this is a very big park. It’s a huge place that covers an enormous 300 acre plus plot. To put that into some kind of perspective, Epcot is not far away from 3 times the size of Magic Kingdo, a park that isn’t exactly small, so yes, comfortable footwear is recommended. Epcot is actually split into two parts, “Future World” and “World Showcase” and to do it justice, sometime a 2 day visit is required. It also has some great rides and fantastic places to eat.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
The Hollywood Studios park takes you straight into the action with a fascinating insight into the world of television and film, along with some show stopping rides, great gift shops shows. There’s plenty here for the whole family, and although it is substantially bigger than Magic Kingdom, the park can still be covered in a day providing that crowds are not too heavy. Disney’s Hollywood Studios was previously known as Disney MGM Studios but was renamed back in 2008.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Disney’s newest park is definitely offers a significant change of pace from the other three main Disney Parks, with an emphasis much more on nature and conservation. Although there are still some thrill rides in the park, the overall style is far more relaxing with some fantastic shows to see, some wonderful scenery including the “Tree of Life” and a fantastic Safari.
Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park
Although by no means the newest water park, Typhoon Lagoon is still easily the busiest in high season. Its tropical setting centres around a humongous man made lagoon and wave pool, featuring white sandy beaches and palm trees. Typhoon Lagoon offers visitors a great place to unwind in the sun after a hectic day at one of the theme parks.
Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park
Set in a snowy “Ski Resort” setting as opposed to the tropical setting of its Typhoon Lagoon sibling, Blizzard Beach features a huge selection of exciting water rides including “Summit Plummet”, a monstrously tall ski jump style ride that sends you “plummeting” down an incredibly steep slide at speeds of up to 60 mph.
Disney’s wonderful shopping district features everything that you could possibly want in a shopping centre, only with a heavy Disney theme. There are plenty of shops, including some fairly unique ones. It also features a fine selection of restaurants, bars, a cinema complex and some other top attractions like Disney Quest, an indoor interactive theme park. Downtown Disney also plays host to one of the world’s most famous circus acts, “Cirque du Soleil”.
ESPN Wide World of Sports
This could easily be classed as one of the best sports facilities in the Orlando area featuring over 30 sports in a 220 acre complex. A handful of spectator events are available to watch here as well as plenty of opportunities to give some of the sports a go for yourselves.
Disney’s Wedding Pavillion
Of course, Disney World just wouldn’t be Disney World without a fairytale wedding venue for those who wish to get married within the resort. The magical setting overlooking bay lake means you’re almost guaranteed a picture perfect big day.
Universal Orlando Resort
Universal Orlando Resort is the second biggest entertainment resort in Orlando after Walt Disney World. It features 2 main theme parks, 3 hotels and an entertainment district called City Walk. The original park is Universal Studios where you “Ride the Movies” with multiple movie themed rides and attractions. Its sister park, Islands of Adventure is far more thrill ride orientated but with a nice mix of family attractions including the fabulously presented and very popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Wet ‘n Wild
This water park is situated on International Drive and whilst it lacks some of the scenic polish that come with the Disney water parks, it makes up for this with the quantity and quality of its thrill rides. It features a multitude of brilliant rides along with a fantastic kids’ park (including kids’ wave pool), Lazy River, Surf Lagoon, restaurant and picnic areas.
Seaworld is firmly regarded by most visitors to Orlando as another essential attraction to visit. It offers a distinct change of pace from some of the other parks and is often quieter in terms of queues than some of the others. Killer whales are the main attraction here at the famous Shamu Stadium, although the park has much more to offer and also includes some modern and excellent thrill rides including Manta, a beautifully designed face down coaster.
Seaworld’s much more exclusive neighbour offers you a day away from from the hustle and bustle of the rest of Orlando’s attractions, with your own tropical paradise experience. Discovery Cove is definitely a more premium experience both in terms of feel and price, but for the extra cost you get a park that is restricted to just 1000 guests per day and the chance to swim with dolphins amongst other experiences.
Aquatica has become a firm favourite among visitors to Orlando since its opening in 2008. Its colourful styling is supposedly inspired by the “tropical Pacific culture of the South Seas” and features some interesting animal encounters and some unique rides such as the Dolphin Plunge where the slide takes you underneath the water of a Dolphin enclosure!
Whilst not strictly in Orlando, SeaWorld’s sister park Busch Gardens is easily accessible in nearby Tampa and offers a great mix of thrill rides and family attractions. As well as being a proper theme park, Busch Gardens also incorporates a zoo containing more than 2,700 animals. With a distinctive African theme across the park, highlights include a 65 acre safari type section of “Africa” offering special tours that allow hand feeding of some animals and some quality thrill rides such as the excellent SheiKra.
Don’t take the above list as complete in regards to what Orlando and the surrounding area has to offer, it’s far from it. The Kennedy Space Center is another big draw for visitors and is located just under an hour outside Orlando on the east coast. The Kennedy Space Center has been significantly improved since a major overhaul and upgrade in 2007 and now includes some great attractions such as the Shuttle Launch Experience making the attraction well worth a visit, even if you have been in the past. Along with the Kennedy Space Center, there are also a seemingly endless list of other attractions, many of which are worth a visit. Don’t forget Gatorland, Fantasy of Flight, and the incredible selection of attractions and things to see that International Drive has on offer.
The Best Time to Visit Orlando
The main two aspects to take into consideration when planning a trip to Orlando are the crowds and the weather. As the majority of families that visit Orlando are governed by school holidays, these are of course the best times to avoid if this is possible for you. For example. between October and December is normally a great time to visit for avoiding the main crowds, as long as you avoid Thanksgiving week and the main Christmas to New Year period. The busiest times of the year tend to be Easter, the whole of the summer period right from Memorial Day (the last Monday in May) through to the first week in September, and the Christmas period. During the busiest days of the peak season, it is not unheard of for some parks to stop taking new admissions after mid morning – you have been warned!
Florida is known as the Sunshine State and is famous for its exceptionally hot and humid summers, punctuated by tropical downpours in the afternoons. Generally, even the winter is not the cold by most people’s standards, with the weather between November and February often sunny but cool with the occasional bit of drizzle. Generally, the best compromise in terms of getting the weather right and avoiding the worst crowds tends to be in April, providing you go after Easter and also mid September to October. If it does rain, and with Florida having a tropical climate a shower is not uncommon in the afternoon, most attractions and rides are normally unaffected unless there is a thunderstorm looming. If you have waterproofs or a poncho (available cheaply almost everywhere), this can be a great time to beat the crowds to a ride while the majority of people take cover inside. During winter periods, a few warmer layers are alway recommended for the mornings and as it warms up throughout the day, take advantage of the park’s lockers and store your garments there. For the hotter days make sure you drink plenty of water and take advantage of the plentiful air conditioned gift shops and indoor attractions. If you have to go in summer due to the school holidays then late August tends to be the quietest part of the summer period when some US schools have already returned.
A lot of people get very worried about “Hurricane Season” when planning a visit to Orlando or Florida in General. Whilst the official season is June to November (especially August and September), it is fairly rare for storms to affect central Florida and Orlando. Even the larger than normal storms of 2004 caused no significant damage to any of the major attractions with the worst thing for tourists being the loss of power for a few days while problems were fixed. In short, don’t worry about whilst planning a trip but in the unlikely event of a major weather event, follow the advice of local officials and keep an eye on weather and news channels.
Shopping in Orlando
For the avid shoppers among us Orlando is a paradise. It’s easy to spend plenty of time exploring the extravagant shopping malls and outlet centers and at least one day is definitely required if you want to make the most of your shopping time in Orlando. Particular highlights include the massive Florida Mall, the beautifully designed Mall at Millenia, and the Prime and Premium outlet centres. Obviously the busiest times at these places tends to be the weekends but they can also be worth a visit if the rain makes an appearance. If it’s Disney merchandise that you’re after then there is no place like the World of Disney store at Downtown Disney. It’s worth a look for its sheer size and design alone.