In the heart of The Sunshine State and home to the ‘happiest place in the world’, it’s hard to think of reasons NOT to visit Orlando. It’s scattered with dazzling attractions and wall-to-wall rollercoasters, but if you think this place is reserved for the most avid of theme park fiends? Think again. There’s more to Orlando than just Mickey Mouse ears and the Magic Kingdom. Read up on our travel guide to make sure you don’t miss a thing.
What do I need to know about Orlando?
- A direct flight from the UK to Orlando will take just over nine hours and when you touch down in The Sunshine State, you’ll need to wind your watch back five hours.
- Multiple airports service Orlando but flying from the UK, you’re most likely to visit the International Airport (MCO) where you’ll get cheaper direct flights. With over 100 gates to fly out of and as the 10th busiest airport in the US, it’s B.I.G, so download the Orlando MCO Airport app to help you get around.
- To get the cheapest flights and the best value for money, use the best time to book cheap flights tool. Here you’ll see that if you book your flights as late as three weeks before your trip, it’ll be 15% cheaper than the average price. If you book 24 weeks in advance, you’ll pay 9% more… and nobody wants that.
- You may have figured this one out for yourself, but Orlando is known as ‘The Theme Park Capital of the World’. So, if you’re coming for the parks, buy your tickets ahead of time to avoid being stung by on-the-day price hikes.
- If you’re forking out for all the park tickets, save yourself money and choose a hotel that’s situated outside of the parks. Now the majority of hotels in the area offer free shuttles to all the parks anyway.
When is the best time to visit Orlando?
- As the home of the theme park, if it’s a school holiday anywhere in the world, Orlando is going to be busy… and most likely hot, so plan your trip carefully.
- Avoid Spring Break (the two weeks before and after Easter) summer holidays, Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday of November) and Christmas as this is when the crowds will gather.
- Thankfully, Orlando is warm all-year round so you can easily afford to skip peak season, beat the crowds and get cheaper flights and accommodation.
- Choose the shoulder months of March-May or September-October when the temperatures still reach mid-20s and there’s a smaller chance of rain. If you’re planning a theme park-based holiday, you’ll want cooler temperatures and calmer weather when you’re queuing for those rides.
- Don’t forget to pay attention to hurricane season too. While tropical storms don’t normally give us their arrival details, the occasional hurricane may make an appearance from June to August when the temperatures start soaring.
Which theme parks do I need to tick off?
It’s not been given the title of Theme Park Capital for nothing, so it’d be rude not to indulge while you’re there. Even if you had a month to spare though, you’d struggle to see all 20 parks and attractions – Walt Disney World covers just under 129km square alone. You can give it a good go though, with our advice.
Planning is key here and there’s a fair amount to get your head around so here’s the breakdown…
The resort is split into four theme parks and two water parks:
– Magic Kingdom: this is probably the most famous of all the parks, and it’s split into six themed lands with 40 rides and attractions across the kingdom. To get the lay of the land, hop on the Walt Disney World Railroad for a fast-paced tour. In Fantasyland, make sure you grab the iconic photo in front of Cinderella’s Castle, then head onto Tomorrowland where you’ll get the biggest thrills (and screams) on Space Mountain.
– Epcot: this one is all about space, the future, the seas and Mother Nature. You’ll want to start at Spaceship Earth which sits within the park’s centrepiece, the geodesic globe (that’s the one that looks like a giant golf ball). Here you’ll experience a time-travel themed attraction that takes you through the history of communication. Further into the park, you’ll find the World Showcase with attractions for 11 different nations. To pay homage to China, Beijing’s Temple of Heaven has been recreated and in the south you’ll find the Mexican Pavilion modelled after an Aztec temple featuring a twilight-lit market place and a boat-ride attraction. From 29 August to 23 November 2019, you can also enjoy the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival.
– Hollywood Studios: head here for all things lights, camera, action. As expected, all rides and attractions are based on blockbuster movies, most notably the Star Wars franchise and Toy Story. You’ll also find a replica Hollywood Walk of Fame and the famous Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in a haunted hotel elevator.
– Animal Kingdom: an immersive wildlife experience, this park somehow manages to combine African grasslands with Asian jungles. Take part in the Kilimanjaro Safari and you’ll see everything you’d expect to in Africa, from rhinos and hippos to lions and cheetahs. If you’re an animal lover, you won’t want to miss this one.
– Typhoon Lagoon: as the name suggests, this is an action-packed water park. Filled with water coasters and rafting rides, pack a change of clothes or put your rain mac to the test. There are family friendly attractions like Castaway Creek, a relaxing ride around the park or more white-knuckle rides in the form of Humunga Kowbunga, which sends you down a 65 metre drop at a 60-degree angle (oh, and you’re in complete darkness).
– Blizzard Beach: once upon a time, Blizzard Beach was a one-time ski resort thanks to a freak snowstorm. When Florida’s balmy temperatures returned and melted it back into a watery land, Blizzard Beach was created. Former ski slopes are now waterslides and the chairlifts are still in place to transport swimmers rather than skiers.
Top tip: before you visit, check the list of ‘Special Events’ happening in each park to make sure you don’t miss out on unmissable entertainment. In 2019, expect Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Epcot’s International Festival of Holidays.
Price: now this is the big one, so it’s a pricey affair. The cheapest ticket you can buy is a 2-day ticket with access to one park a day (excluding the water parks) costing £214 for an adult. The 7-day ticket will get you unlimited access to everything but it will set you back £385 (that’s £55 a day).
Universal boasts one of the most exciting parks in Orlando and it’s not to be missed: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter takes the Harry Potter Studio Tour in Watford and raises the bar… considerably. Go to Gringotts and exchange all those US dollars into Gringotts’ bank notes to spend in Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade. Just watch out for the 18-metre dragon who guards the vault and breathes fire. Not sure what to spend your money on? Choose your own wand in Ollivanders and you can perform ‘real’ magic at various stops around the park. If you’re feeling at all homesick, book yourself a seat on the Hogwarts Express at King’s Cross and take a ride through the Great British countryside. You may even spy Universal’s version of London and Grimmauld place with a few red telephone boxes thrown in for good measure.
If you don’t sit waiting for your letter from Hogwarts on a daily basis, that’s alright, because Universal happens to have a fair few other attractions. Marvel Super Hero Island, Seuss Landing, The Simpsons Ride, Transformers: The Ride 3-D, the E.T. Adventure, Fast & Furious – Supercharged and Universal’s Volcano Bay (another water park), are just a small selection of the rides on offer.
Price: To gain access to the Universal Studios, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay, your best value ticket is a 14-day entry adult ticket for £298 (in 2020 this rises to £302). If 14 days is a little too much for the bank account and the annual leave allowance, a one-day two-park ticket is $170 (£133) or a two-day two-park ticket is $284.99 (£223).
Whoever said Lego was just a kid’s toy, has never been to Legoland. The Orlando version is, as you would expect, a little bigger than the Windsor offering, with over 50 rides and attractions, life-size Lego displays and interactive entertainment everywhere you look. Following the release of The Lego Movie, you can now find a whole world dedicated to the adventures of Emmet and Wyldstyle as they battle against the Kraggle.
You’ll find Duplo Valley, Farm and Splash & Play for the littlest of visitors and the Botanical Gardens, planted back in 1939 offer a peaceful and serene break from the theme park madness. Our favourite attraction is the often overlooked Miniland USA, featuring replicas of many famous cities including Orlando itself, and made out of, wait for it, 32 MILLION Lego bricks.
Price: A one-day super saver ticket with access to the park only (excluding the water park) will set you back $84.99 (around £66) saving you $15 if you book online 7 days in advance.
Orlando isn’t just famous for its theme parks. It’s famous for its abundance of alligators too. So naturally, it’s created an alligator theme park. Before you rule this out as the most dangerous way to spend your holiday, Gatorland is actually Florida’s leader in alligator safety and education, ever since is was founded by the late Owen Godwin in 1949.
Try out the Screamin’ Gator Zipline, standing seven stories high above the crocs and launch yourself over the 130 giant alligators in the Breeding Marsh. Or why not go for an off-road adventure or simply walk around the park and get close to the many gators as well as Lucy, the 300-pound Galapagos tortoise and the rare Florida Panthers, Neiko and Lucy.
You can tick off this attraction in half a day and carefully slink away from the snappers in the afternoon.
Price: A single day pass into the park will cost you as little as $30, that’s about £23 for an adult (but you’ll save yourself an extra $3 off if you’re booking in advance online). The Zipline and tours will cost you extra.
As ever, there’s not just one park to see here, there’s a whole world of attractions at SeaWorld. Here are the three resorts to track down:
– SeaWorld: Start at the Shark Encounter tunnel and walk beneath the underwater world. We then recommend heading for a meal at the Shark’s Underwater Grill, where you can dine with a toothy audience. Then be sure to check out the Kraken, a rollercoaster that’ll take you on a deep-sea adventure. A one-day ticket to SeaWorld only will currently cost you $94.99 (around £74) if you book in advance online.
– Aquatica: Located next to SeaWorld, south of downtown Orlando, you’ll need to bring your swimming costume for a day at Aquatica. This is less about rollercoasters and more of an actual water park and it has a few alternative attractions you’ll want to check out. We’re most interested in the Dolphin Plunge, a ride that sends you down a see-through water shoot while dolphins (yes, real life dolphins) swim around you. There’s also a lazy river, wave pools and the daring Breakaway Falls, the steepest multi-drop tower in Orlando. A one-day ticket to Aquatica will cost you $53.99 (around £42).
– Discovery Cove: In this park, it’s all about getting up close with the animals. The Dolphin Lagoon is the most popular attraction with 30-minute sessions available where you can swim with the dolphins. Or if you’re into something more exotic, head to The Grand Reef where you’ll be given a snorkel set so you can see thousands of tropical fish. Or maybe you want to feed some stingrays or go on an underwater walking tour – if there’s an experience you want, we’re pretty sure you’ll be able to find it here. Discovery Cove is an all-inclusive day resort with prices starting at $149 (£116) for general admission or $199 (£155) to include a 30-minute dolphin session. Combine it with your SeaWorld ticket to save money.
What if I’m not into theme parks? Where should I go?
We understand that the sugar-hyped crowds, the loop-the-loop rides and the giant real-life film characters aren’t for everyone – an oversized Mickey Mouse is terrifying however old you are. Thankfully, Orlando has more than enough to keep all you urban dwellers and outdoor types busy too.
We have it on good authority that the Thornton neighbourhood is the coolest place to hang out in Downtown Orlando, brimming with cool boutiques and up-and-coming restaurants. It’s where you’ll find the art galleries and best architecture too. If you find yourself in the area on a Sunday, head straight for the farmers market and pick up some edible treats to enjoy by the districts biggest landmark, Lake Eola Park. If you’ve brought your walking shoes, the park has 14km of pathway surrounding it, or you can take to the water and rent a swan-shaped paddle boat. And if you’re missing the theme park hype, go to the Walt Disney Amphitheatre where you can watch a concert set against a backdrop of the Orlando skyline.
It’s the heart of Downtown Orlando and its revamped Church Street Station is an iconic stop on any traveller’s trip. It now sits alongside the SunRail commuter rail line but the old station still stands as a reminder of Orlando in the 19th century, before it became theme park central. It’s also the best way to start a night out in the city. One80 Grey Goose Lounge, on 400 West Church Street, is a pretty fancy rooftop bar with some pretty fancy prices too but it’s the best place for a view of the skyline.
If you’re looking for a slice of culture, the Museum of American Art has your back. It houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The American artist and designer is best known for his stained glass work. The museum holds his jewellery, pottery, paintings, leaded glass lamps and windows as well as the Byzantine-Romanesque chapel interior he designed in 1983 for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Price: $6 adults (just under a fiver) and free for children under 12.
Minutes from Downtown Orlando, you’ll stumble across 50 acres of botanical gardens covered with every pant and flower under the sun. When Harry P. Leu bought his home in Florida, he and his wife Mary Jane, began planting exotic plants in the sizeable land that came with the house. When the couple passed away, the gardens were donated to the city and are now a tropical oasis with some of the most exotic plants including a celebrated collection of camellias, one of the Leu’s favourite plants.
Price: $10 (£8) for adults. Open every day except 25 December from 9am-5pm.
Fancy a trip to Florida’s award-winning interactive museum? With four floors of exhibit halls, labs, workshops, theatres and an observatory, this makes for a fun half-day trip. The experiences on offer change with the seasons and feature some hands-on interactive exhibits. We love the planetarium on the top floor and the Dr Phillips Cinedome, a mega-dome theatre with daily film shows. Down on the bottom level, you’ll find Nature Works, including live animals like baby alligators, creepy crawlies and an aquarium filled with tropical fish.
Price: $21 (£16) for an adult ticket. Open every day 10am-5pm.
Over 116 acres in the Sandford district, the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens is home to over 500 animals. It’s not the biggest of zoos, especially by Orlando theme park standards, but it is an attraction worth considering. You can zipline though the zoo or get up close and personal with some of the animals in the Rhinoceros Encounters exhibit and daily giraffe feedings. Open daily from 9am-5pm.
Price: $19.90 (£15) for an adult ticket
For live entertainment and sporting events, The Amway Center will satisfy your needs. As a multi-purpose venue, it’s regularly transformed from a live music hall to an ice hockey rink. If you get the chance to see a match, you may catch a glimpse of one of the three teams Amway Center is home to: NBA’s Orlando Magic, Arena Football League’s Orlando Predators and ice hockey’s Orlando Solar Bears. It’s also where pop royalty play when they come to town so check the listings before you arrive to grab yourself some tickets.
Standing 120 metres tall in the middle of International Drive in ICON Park, The Wheel (formerly known as the Orlando Eye) is one giant ferris wheel with 30 pods and views over the city, its theme parks, all the way to the Kennedy Space Center on the East Coast. It’s the tallest observation wheel on the East Coast and weighs an almighty 3 million pounds. Book in advance and you can choose a specific day and time slot.
Price: A general ticket, booked at least a day in advance is $28 (£22). If you’re visiting the other parks, you can buy a combined tickets with Madame Tussauds, Sea Life and Legoland Florida to save you money.
I’m hungry! Where can I grab a bite to eat?
Walking around all those resorts is tiring and hungry work. Make sure you don’t get hangry and check out our top five restaurants, from budget friendly diners to fine-dining eateries.
Location: 8625 International Drive
If you like food served with a side of fun, you’re going to love Café Tu Tu Tango. Unlike any restaurant we’ve ever come across, this place is as much an artist’s workshop as it is an eatery. While you dine on a range of small-plates from simple crispy chicken sliders to spiced alligator bites, local artisans share the space and work around you – and all their wares are available to buy too. The space itself is busy, colourful and has an unfinished, work-in-progress look to it. Don’t be surprised to see singers, dancers or magicians burst into spontaneous performances around you.
Location: 7549 W. Sand Lake Road
If you’re craving a traditional Swiss fondue in the Floridian heat, no problem. The Melting Pot is an unexpected gem with four locations in Florida, offering high-quality customisable meals based around the delectable cheese fondue. Choose your cheeses, your meats or sides and your cooking style and then all dig in together. Or if you’re stuck for choice, go for the four-course experience which includes a cheese fondue, salad, an entrée and a chocolate fondue – So good, you’ll start to wonder why all food isn’t served melted.
Location: 4898 New Broad Street
Owned by husband and wife duo Jason and Sue Chin (also their head designer) Seito Sushi has been serving award winning sushi and pan Asian cuisine for 20 years. Situated in Baldwin Park and Sand Lake, it’s the ideal spot for a slightly upmarket meal out and they’re known for their impeccable (and fast) service. Sue’s favourite dish is the Modern Chirashi selection but you can find everything from poke bowls to exquisite ramen and Izakaya (informal tapas-style dining meant for sharing, where small dishes are served whenever they’re ready).
Location: 601-B South New York Avenue, Winter Park
The Ethos Vegan Kitchen isn’t fancy with its décor and their website isn’t exactly going to win any design awards, but it’s the food, as you would hope, that does the talking. Wall-to-wall five-star reviews from vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters alike, give you an indication of what to expect. The Samson Burger, a grilled black bean burger served with all the usual suspects and a special veganaise and spicy mustard gets our thumbs up, and it’s cheap too!
Location: 4899 New Broad Street
This beautifully designed restaurant has an old rustic charm to it, with a central bar and open kitchen. Chef Elek, has risen through the ranks and gained an AAA four diamond award for his work at the Ritz Carlton – in other words, he knows his stuff. Come for brunch and sample delights of braised short-rib sandwiches and Canadian bacon Benedict with tomato jam and arugula (that’s rocket for us common folk). And, plot twist, it just so happens to be owned by Jason and Sue Chin, the same owners as our new fave sushi restaurant next door, Seito Sushi. With a completely different cuisine and style, these guys clearly know what they’re doing.
I’m tired! Where can I rest my head for the night?
The best thing about so many tourists flocking to Orlando, is the amount of hotels and resorts that have sprung up to accommodate them. Whether you want to be in the middle of the city or next to the theme park entrance gates, we’ve found you some great value options.
Location: 227 North Eola Drive
For a great location in Downtown Orlando, and just round the corner for Lake Eola Park, The EO Inn is a perfectly placed, clean and comfortable place to stay. For the average price of £138 a night for a double room, there’s also a hot tub, rooftop terrace and a restaurant and coffee shop on site, and you’re in the right place to step out the front door and explore the local art galleries.
Location: 7600 International Drive
If the theme parks hub of Orlando had a city centre, this would be it. Along the International Drive (or I-Drive) you’re right in the middle of all the attractions, sights and the famous Wheel, and surrounded by budget hotels and luxury resorts. Rosen Inn is excellent value for money at around £48 a night, with a free theme park shuttle, an outdoor pool and a spa. It’s sat just opposite Universal’s Volcano Bay and within walking distance of many restaurants, but you can get yourself a breakfast buffet on site for a reasonable price too.
Location: One North Jacaranda Street
If you’re looking for some premium accommodation or want to splash out for one night, book a stay at the Villas of Grand Cypress, a five-star rated series of villas. Surrounded by the lush green lawns of the Grand Cypress Golf Course, but still only a complimentary 5-minute shuttle to Disney, each suite has a fully equipped kitchen. If you don’t feel like cooking though, you have access to 24-hour room service, or you can book a private chef to come and prepare you a meal. There’s also free parking, a pool and sauna, a rock wall and bicycle trails. All without the price tag of the Four Seasons or the Ritz-Carlton – although we wouldn’t say no to either of those. From £155 a night.
Location: 5780 Major Boulevard
You can’t get much closer to the entrance of Universal Studios, especially for a budget hotel as good as this. With great wellness facilities including a large gym and an Olympic sized pool, there’s also a Starbucks on site as well as an ice cream shop and three restaurants. The Orlando International Premium Outlets is close by too if you fancy a mid-holiday shopping trip. From £73 a night.
Location: 500 South Orange Avenue
Aloft is a contemporary hotel with 118 guest rooms and suites sat right in the middle of Downtown Orlando. The design is simple and the rooms and spacious but what you’re really here for is the location – just a few steps away from the Orlando City Hall, the City Stadium and the Dr Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. You can walk to Lake Eola and you’re even close by to Church Street SunRail station, Orlando’s answer to the subway. From £173 a night.
Are you ready to book your trip to Orlando?
All flight and prices mentioned in this article are estimates of the cheapest prices based on Skyscanner’s flight search tools. These are subject to change and were correct at time of writing on 11 June 2019.