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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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