If you think Orlando is all about theme parks, think again. There are fresh, vibrant urban and rural landscapes that exist almost side by side and offer plenty of outdoor activities to pair with serious history, art, and culture. From alligators to alley-oops (memorable basketball games, starring the Orlando Magic team) and high-tech attractions to pretty gardens, “The City Beautiful,” is peppered with surprising experiences that are both eminently Floridian and totally 21st century. century, providing a well-rounded and compelling modern metropolis that appeals to a wide range of visitors, not just families.
For more inspiration for the perfect Orlando vacation, check out our guides to the city’s best hotels, restaurants, and nightlife.
Get all-time low on O-town
Any visit to Orlando should start with the Orange County Regional History Center [sic], a Smithsonian affiliate in the 1927 courthouse building in the heart of downtown. Here, visitors can absorb 12,000 years of Central Florida’s heritage, from early indigenous peoples to the eras of the citrus industry, Space Race and Walt Disney World, as well as tragedies like the 2016 Pulse shooting.
Insider tip: You don’t need to pay the admission fee to browse the Emporium, the Center’s extraordinarily eclectic gift shop, which features all locally sourced items and gifts, including a number of rare photographs of the era highlights of 19th century Orlando.
Have fun on the river at Wekiva Island
When you need to relax and take in a breath of pure, natural Florida, head to this rustic gem in North Orlando, where they not only offer an excellent experience along the Wekiva River, but they do it all in a truly eco-friendly and sustainable manner. The big draw is the opportunity to kayak, canoe, or paddle board along the crystal clear waters that bubble up from one of Florida’s many underground springs. All the equipment is available for rent on a daily basis (starting at $35), accompanied by the fun Tooting Otter Bar and resident food truck, the Without A Paddle Cafe. Live music and friendly games enliven most nights, along with local art exhibits.
Expert Advice: To make the most of your day on the river, hire a private cabana for the duration and enjoy your own personal space and sun loungers.
Engage the children in an acting role
Orlando’s theater arts have mushroomed in recent years, especially with the new high-tech Dr Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, but families are still drawn to the old faithful at the Orlando REP, which dates back to 1926, where children can take part in classes, camps and workshops, as well as be inspired by the small-scale, but high-quality performances throughout the year.
Expert Advice: If your child is eager for some serious theater experience, there are five-day classes at The REP for ages six to 16 every June and July that give everyone a chance to play on the main stage.
Go totally tropical in a botanical wonderland
Orlando’s upscale northern suburb is home to much of the city’s wealth and its captivating 50-acre botanical showpiece. Leu Gardens was given to the city in 1961 by local philanthropist Harry P. Leu, including the restored 1858 Colonial mansion, and is now one of Florida’s finest gardens, bursting every year with azaleas, bromeliads, tropical philodendrons and stately trees in flower.
Expert Advice: While Leu Gardens is worth the price of admission, it is free for all visitors on the first Monday of every month. Complimentary wheelchairs are also available at the Garden House Welcome Center on a first come, first serve basis.
See how the richest 1 percent live
Winter Park is full of museums and architectural curiosities, but the one attraction that everyone enjoys is the hour-long scenic boat ride. This gentle meander in an 18-passenger pontoon boat around the series of interconnected lakes and canals offers a close-up of the area’s lush tropical flora and birdlife, as well as the many palatial mansions and estates that dot the landscape.
Expert Advice: While tours run all day, it’s best to take the boat ride in the morning during the summer months, both for the cooler weather and to avoid the severe thunderstorms that often occur in the afternoon. Tours run on the hour from 10am to 4pm on a first come, first served basis.
Stand up closed with an alligator
Florida’s oldest inhabitants remain among its most fascinating, and Gatorland showcases the variety of alligators and crocodiles better than anywhere else on the planet. This expansive animal encounter — which includes a chance to feed them, pose with them, and even zipline on them — is a primal Sunshine State experience of truly visceral proportions, but it’s also highly educational for kids.
Expert Advice: An extremely worthwhile extra program is the Gator Night Shine tour, which offers a trek around the wooden boardwalks surrounding the main breeding swamp at night – to discover that alligator eyes glow red in the dark.
Contact: gatorland. com
Visit the city built by Disney
When the Walt Disney Company decided to get into the business of building cities, they came up with Celebration, a beautiful community of shops, restaurants and elegant homes set around a series of lakes. The design is a distinctly 1950s Norman Rockwell image of small-town America, but it’s still immensely appealing, with its walking paths, cafes, quirky boutiques, and periodic parties, especially at Halloween and Christmas.
Expert Advice: The celebration stages one of Florida’s best Independence Day fireworks displays, but it draws a crowd and parking can be problematic. Instead, park at the nearby Water Tower Shoppes on Blake Boulevard and use the free shuttle service.
Go wild in the Florida countryside
You’ve made it all the way to Florida, but to really see the state you should go to the country or “The Middle of Nowhere” if you’re heading south to Wild Florida. This combination animal attraction and airboat ride offers a totally authentic experience, with a breathtaking hiss around tranquil Cypress Lake and the chance to see alligators and other local inhabitants in their natural habitat.
Expert Advice: Wild Florida is a certified breeding center for the endangered Central American two-toed sloth, and they have a VIP sloth experience — you get to meet and pet a sloth — which helps fund the Costa Rica Sloth Sanctuary.
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Take a drive around for a fantastic “soaring” view.
When you’re ready for a literal overview of Orlando, head to busy International Drive. This 14-mile stretch of attractions, hotels, shops, and restaurants features the can’t-miss 400-foot The Wheel of ICON Park, an air show overlooking Kennedy Space Center, 50 miles away, on a clear day. The 25-minute “flight” is especially enthralling in the early evening when the I-Drive lights up.
Expert Advice: Do you want to present yourself with style? You can make your ICON flight even more special with a ‘Romance’ package, which includes rose petals, candles, chocolates and drinks for two, or add the Sky Bar feature which offers drinks for groups of up to five people.
The theme parks
the world of walt disney
Walt Disney knew what he was doing when he explored 47 square miles of central Florida’s undeveloped fields and marshes in 1965. This unwanted land is now America’s largest tourist attraction, Walt Disney World, with four theme parks, two aquatics, five championship golf courses and its own Disney Springs complex of shops, restaurants and nightlife. If you have two weeks to visit it, you may only see most of it.
Expert Advice: Unless you just want a one or two-day visit to any of the Walt Disney World parks, the seven- and 14-day Ultimate tickets sold exclusively in the UK are far better value than anything available in Orlando.
‘Harry Potter’ parks
When Universal Orlando opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter area at its Islands of Adventure park in 2010, followed by one at Universal Studios in 2014, this bustling Orlando-themed park – which also includes a water park, hotels and a entertainment district – has become synonymous with JK Rowling’s little boy wizard, but there’s so much more, including Jurassic Park, Marvel’s Super Heroes, The Simpsons and Transformers.
Expert Advice: The best perk when you stay at one of Universal’s top three hotels is the free unlimited Universal Express pass, which provides front-of-the-line access to most rides and attractions, saving you hours of queuing.