Best Things To Do in Orlando-Walt Disney World
Orlando is the sum of its parts, or rather, parks. Most associate the city with one in particular; Walt Disney World, but this mega-resort is actually located approximately 16 miles away in Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, Florida. If you have several days to devote to Mickey and Minnie, definitely stop by. But don't rule out the city's many other kid-friendly sites. There's SeaWorld Orlando and its sister properties Aquatica Orlando and Discovery Cove, plus Universal Orlando Resort, which houses its star attraction, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Need a break from the kid stuff? Then browse the shops at The Mall at Millenia, play a round of golf or swing by the Harry P. Leu Gardens for a breath of fresh air.
Updated February 5, 2020
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Excessive, exhausting and expensive, Walt Disney World Resort is above all else enchanting. Composed of four theme parks (the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney's Animal Kingdom), two water parks (Disney's Typhoon Lagoon and Disney's Blizzard Beach), more than two dozen hotels and the Disney Springs shopping, dining and entertainment complex, this sprawling property features iconic sights and rides like Cinderella Castle, "it's a small world," Spaceship Earth, Toy Story Land and Pandora – The World of Avatar. Even Anaheim's Disneyland can't compete, according to some.
Of course, there is one major drawback. Walt Disney World park tickets are expensive, regardless of whether you're visiting for just a day (single-day tickets for kids and adults ages 10 and older start at $109). Meanwhile, one-day water park tickets start at $64 for adults 10 and older. Most suggest you visit this expansive property over the course of several days to justify the high entrance fees. If you have limited time, consider skipping the parks in favor of exploring Disney Springs, which is free to visit.
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Whether you're traveling with little ones, teenagers, friends or your significant other, odds are you'll find something to enjoy at Universal Orlando Resort. This sprawling entertainment area features two theme parks, as well as Universal CityWalk, a pedestrian thoroughfare with shops, restaurants, a movie theater and nightclubs. The original park – Universal Studios Florida – is home to the 3-D Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride and The Simpsons Ride, while Universal's Islands of Adventure has several rollercoasters and "Jurassic Park"-themed rides and experiences, among other highlights. A water park – Universal's Volcano Bay – is also available.
But the main draw of Universal Orlando's parks is its Harry Potter sections. In Universal Studios Florida, you'll find The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, where you can escape from Gringotts, eat at the Leaky Cauldron or get chosen by a wand at Ollivanders wand shop. And at Universal's Islands of Adventure, there's The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade, which houses the Three Broomsticks, Hogwarts and Hagrid's hut.
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The International Drive Resort Area is one of Orlando's most diverse regions to visit. Situated less than 10 miles southwest of downtown Orlando, this area features a variety of shopping, dining and entertainment venues, including WonderWorks, two outlet malls, Ripley's Believe It or Not! and Pirate's Cove Adventure miniature golf course. Eateries here offer all sorts of cuisines, or travelers can enjoy a meal while watching a themed show. For night owls, I-Drive boasts a B.B. King-affiliated blues club, a Howl at the Moon dueling pianos venue, a Señor Frog's restaurant and bar, the world's largest permanent ice bar and more.
Though several former visitors caution that I-Drive tends to get clogged with cars, many said everything one could need is located along this road. Plus, prices here aren't as high as those found in the adjacent theme parks.
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If you enjoy shopping, then no visit to Orlando would be complete without perusing the city's outlet malls. Although several are available in the International Drive Resort Area, some of Orlando's best shops are at Orlando International Premium Outlets. This outlet mall – which is the largest in Florida – houses everything from standard stores (think: Bath & Body Works, Claire's and J. Crew Factory) to high-end retailers like Armani and Coach. And when you need to quench your thirst or satisfy your hunger, a coffeehouse and multiple cafes and snack shops are available.
Shopaholics rave about the retail options (and discounts) offered at Orlando International Premium Outlets. But remember, this shopping mecca is an open-air facility, so it's best avoided on rainy days. Also, parking is notoriously limited here, so consider taking a taxi or riding the bus or I-RIDE Trolley's Red Line to the property.
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As much a part of Orlando's culture as Mickey and Minnie, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is another alternative to the city's crowded theme parks. Though it's about 45 miles east of downtown Orlando in Titusville, Florida, the space center is worth a visit, especially for those with an interest in NASA history. Items and exhibits found on-site include the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, NASA's former launch countdown clock, a garden with various rockets, astronaut training simulators and the space shuttle Atlantis. You can also take a tour of the property's facilities, watch space-themed IMAX movies or even have your photo taken with a real astronaut.
Space enthusiasts and families alike will enjoy exploring the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Most former visitors said the site offers tons to see and do, especially if you're looking to kill some time on a rainy day and many recommend spending the whole day there. Standard tickets include one day of access for $47 per child and $57 per adult. Since this attraction will take most of a day (if not multiple days) to explore, it may be worth spending an extra $20 to $25 for a multiday ticket. With this upgraded ticket, you'll enjoy a year of unlimited visits, plus a one-time free parking pass for use after your first visit and discounted admissions for up to six members of your party.
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Popular brands like Apple and H&M rub elbows with high-end boutiques like Prada and Versace at the The Mall at Millenia. Providing a nice change of pace from the overpriced souvenirs you'd purchase inside one of Orlando's parks, this mall houses approximately 150 stores to browse. It also offers a great way to pass the time on a rainy day.
Several prior travelers appreciated The Mall at Millenia's assortment of stores, which appeal to an array of budgets. Another plus: the variety of dining options. Everything from grab-and-go eateries in the food court to chain restaurants like P.F. Chang's and The Cheesecake Factory can be found here. There's even a Capital Grille to satisfy shoppers looking to treat themselves to a formal meal.
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Let's face it: Orlando is not the place for a cheap getaway with the kiddies. But this 110-acre preserve of alligators, crocodiles, snakes, toads, turtles and more offers an affordable break from some of the city's more expensive amusements and recent visitors say it's a great park and a great value. Watch more than 20 species of birds soar through the sky in the free-flight rookery or watch as handlers wrestle one of the scaly creatures that call Gatorland home in the Legends of the Swamp Arena.
Prior travelers said visiting White Gator Swamp is a must: It's home to some of the largest white alligators in the world. For an additional $10, you can pose with a gator at the Meet-the-Gator experience near the arena. Just be sure to allot enough time for this attraction. Many previous visitors suggest staying two to four hours to see the bulk of the property.
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If you're not coming to Orlando to explore its theme parks, chances are you've come to visit its links. More than 170 golf courses – many of which have ties to area resorts – can be found throughout Orlando and its suburbs. Walt Disney World Resort offers four courses, while guests who stay at accommodations located on Universal Orlando Resort grounds receive golf privileges at select area fairways.
According to prior visitors, some of Orlando's best greens are part of the Villas of Grand Cypress Orlando, the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club Orlando, Grande Lakes and the Waldorf Astoria Orlando properties, thanks in part to their beautiful surroundings and friendly staff. Another favorite: Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge's Champion, Challenger and Charger links. This course was rated among the best public golf courses in Florida by Golf Magazine and is popular with locals and tourists alike. However, a few previous visitors felt that the Disney courses were a bit overpriced, especially after factoring in the average link conditions, and just like its park, crowded.
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There are animal encounters and then there's Discovery Cove – a companion site to SeaWorld Orlando that receives rave reviews from past travelers. Here, you can get up close and personal with dolphins, stingrays, marmosets and otters, plus exotic birds. And since it's a reservation-only park (capacity is capped at 1,300 guests per day), you'll get to interact with the animals and trainers more intimately. When you're not swimming with the dolphins, try snorkeling with tropical fish and rays in the park's coral reef or floating throughout the park's lush landscape on the Wind-Away River. If you need a break from the water, dry off on one of the beaches or feed some of the birds in Discovery Cove's Explorer's Aviary.
According to recent visitors, it's this plethora of diverse attractions that make Discovery Cove such a memorable Orlando experience and many also comment on how relaxing the park is to visit. While a trip here will cost you (packages start at $149 per person without the dolphin swim experience), past visitors offer a few cost-saving tips: Avoid buying the pricey photo package offered by Discovery Cove. And if you're not set on swimming with dolphins, opt for the standard Day Resort Package instead of the more expensive all-inclusive Dolphin Swim Package (which starts at $199 per person). If you're planning to visit SeaWorld and Aquatica, it may be worthwhile to purchase one of the park's package deals, which offers one-day admission to Discovery Cove, as well as unlimited admission to SeaWorld and Aquatica. Packages start at $170 per person.
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Despite the fact that most vacationers spend their time pounding the pavement, trundling tots from one amusement park ride to the next, Orlando is actually a great place to stop and smell the flowers. Swing by Harry P. Leu Gardens and get a sense of the real Orlando. This botanical oasis – which sits 4 miles northeast of the city center – offers 50 acres of plants like camellias, roses and azaleas. Plus, there are horticulture classes, permanent and rotating art exhibits, a botany reference library and a restored 19th-century home.
Recent visitors said this is a nice change of pace from park-palooza, even when it's not peak bloom season. According to many, the Butterfly Garden is a must-see, especially if you have kids with you. Many visitors remark on the garden's permanent and visiting exhibits, which add another enjoyable element to the peaceful property.
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While Mickey's house and Harry's wizarding world are certainly magical, many vacationers find Shamu's lair equally enchanting. And if you're short on time, you might want to make this central Orlando spot a priority. Larger resorts like Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando are best enjoyed over a few days, anyway. Take your pick of rides (including Orlando's tallest, fastest and longest rollercoaster, Mako) and an array of shows and exhibits.
Travelers love SeaWorld's animal experiences, heart-pounding rides and relaxed atmosphere, but some caution that food and merchandise are pricey and lines can be long. Meanwhile, others warned that the park is better suited to older kids as most of the rides do not allow young children.
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Although these amusement parks are not as well-known as those found at SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Orlando Resort and Walt Disney World Resort, Fun Spot offers a plethora of rides, including carousels, go-karts, tea cups and Ferris wheels. For thrill-seekers, Fun Spot America even features a virtual reality rollercoaster and a wooden rollercoaster, both of which are the only ones available in the city.
Recent visitors give the park high parks and say lines are short, service is good and that Fun Spot America is a more budget-conscious option for the area. Single-day passes cost $44.95 when purchased online and give visitors access to most rides and the Gatorland-affiliated Gator Spot.
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