Looking for tips on what to do in Orlando?
As part of our city guides series, we interviewed Ben Reed who has lived in Orlando for seven years.
Ben share’s with us his insider tips on what to do in Orlando for those looking for the best things to see and do, where to eat, stay, drink, and play plus how to make the most out of a visit to the theme parks.
Why Visit Orlando
Most people visit Orlando for the theme parks.
The Walt Disney World Resort offers attractions, shows, dining and shopping on a property that is twice the size the island of Manhattan in New York. First time visitors under estimate how massive it really is.
Despite the artificiality that Disney Parks are known for, it’s the quintessential American holiday and it really is an experience like none other.
And with Universal Orlando, Volcano Bay, Sea World and Busch Gardens Tampa, there are plenty of places to keep you busy.
Of course, there’s more to Orlando than theme parks, especially if you want to experience what the locals do.
What to Do in Orlando
Beyond the theme parks, Orlando offers plenty to keep you busy – which is surprising to many.
Cocoa Beach is just a quick 45-minute drive from the city on the Atlantic Coast. Free parking is available at Ron Jon Surf Shop. While you’re there, you might as well go skydiving at Sky Dive Space Center, one of the highest drops in the world at 18,000 feet (5.48km).
“Old Florida” is a term that is used to describe Florida in the 1950’s, before the theme parks would arrive. Roadside Americana reigned supreme.
Few attractions are still remaining today, but the ones that are still around are some of the best.
- Gatorland touts itself as the Alligator Capitol of the World, a well-deserved title. The adventurous types can zipline over a pool of hungry gators. If you’re up for a drive, Weeki Wachee Springs gives you the chance to see real mermaids.
- At night, check out the Silver Moon Drive-In, one of the few remaining Drive-In Movie Theaters around. For $4 per person you get a double-feature of first-run films from the comfort of your car.
- For a slower change of pace, visit Mount Dora, a charming town north of Orlando. They are known for their annual craft festivals each year and locally-owned shops. You’ll be sure to find a friend here.
Visiting the Theme Parks in Orlando
There’s no doubt about it, theme parks draw big crowds and long lines. But savvy visitors to Orlando know how to avoid them.
- September and January are generally quiet in the parks. Lines for popular attractions will generally average 20 minutes or so (much short than the 60-90 minutes in the summer).
- Disney offers FastPass, a ride reservation system that virtually eliminates your wait for several top attractions. It’s included with your park admission.
- Universal Orlando offers a similar experience, for an additional fee.
- And if you want to experience Christmas decorations without the crowds, the 1st week in December is the perfect time of the season to visit any of the parks.
- If you want to experience Halloween at Disney, check out this useful guide.
Discounted theme park tickets are hard to come by for out-of-state visitors. And when you add up an entire week’s worth of food, hotels and souvenirs, the number can be quite staggering.
- AllEars.Net is a great vacation planning tool to the Disney Parks and entire section is devoted to minimizing costs.
- Theme Park Mom is another blog that offers great advice to all the area parks if you’re traveling with your family.
Orlando alone has 7 parks with an additional 5 water parks. You’ll need at least a week to experience it all.
For shorter lengths of stay, a visit to the Magic Kingdom and Universal’s Islands of Adventure (where you can experience the Harry Potter attraction) are the must-dos.
You may also want to visit Discovery Cove in Orlando. You can read this helpful guide here.
Check out our videos of our time at Universal Orlando Resort:
Best Neighborhoods to Explore in Orlando
Orlando is a small city, so it’s neighborhoods are equally as compact.
At the center of the city is Lake Eola, a nearly one-mile (1.9km) lake that is the focal point of the city. At night, the iconic fountain is lit up in a rainbow of colors and on select night, a fountain show synchronized to music will play.
Extending to the east is Thorton Park. Single family homes, tree-lined streets and small boutique shops, restaurants and watering holes make this area a great place to relax after walking downtown.
To the west is the heart of downtown Orlando. Orange Ave. and Church street are known for their bars and clubs.
Mills Ave. is to the northeast and features trendy eateries.
Winter Park, an upscale, neighboring city 1o minutes to the north is another hot spot for shopping and dining and a casual stroll.
If your visit is centered around the tourist corridor. You’ll find more than enough shops, restaurants, child-friendly museums, bars, dinner shows and attractions to keep you busy all day and night. International Drive and Highway 192 in nearby Kissimmee offer a mix of both.
Where to Eat in Orlando
At first glance, Orlando seems to have nothing but chain restaurants. But if you have your own car, and know a local, they’ll steer you to some fantastic gems.
- Around the theme parks, Press 101 (website not available) offers gourmet sandwiches and wines at reasonable prices. Live music is played on the weekend.
- For a special occasion, neighboring Seasons 52, offers a fine dining experience with an ever-changing menu, freshly prepared food and great wines.
- In downtown Orlando, Pine Twenty2 offers locally-sourced, all-natural hamburgers that are just bursting with flavor. You can build your own or order one of the house specialities.
- For a sweet ending, stop by The Dessert Lady for freshly made gourmet cakes that are gigantic.
- Pom Pom’s Teahouse & Sandwicheria is located in the Milk District, a short ride from downtown (near the milk factory). They offer an eclectic array of teas and delicious sandwiches in an urban vibe.
But for a true taste of Orlando, you need to schedule your culinary visit around one of The Daily City Food Truck Events.
Scheduled on a weekly basis, rotating venues every week, 20-30 food trucks line up with every imaginable cuisine. My recommendation, go direct to the Yum Yum Cupcake Truck.
Where to Drink in Orlando
The good news is, there are plenty of places to grab a drink downtown that won’t break the bank.
- For something trendy, Sky Sixty is a rooftop lounge in the heart of downtown on Orange Ave.
- Ember offers food and an outdoor, Mediterranean style patio bar that is always bustling.
- Along Lake Eola you will find several casual watering holes like the Eole Wine Company and Graffiti Junktion (which also has great burgers).
- Gay & lesbian travels will want to check out Savoy and Sip for drinks. If dancing is on the agenda, Parliament House offers clubs, drag shows and drinks as does Pulse.
Best Place for a Night on the Town in Orlando
If you’re looking to stay up late, Downtown Orlando has several clubs that keep busy until 2 A.M.
Your best bet for dancing is on Church Street, which offers a range of clubs. Wall St. located just off Orange Ave. is another popular spot with lots of bars and restaurants. There’s a good chance you’ll stumble upon live music too.
Of course, for that late-night meal after dancing the night away, Bananas Modern Diner is a short drive away. And Steak and Shake, a popular chain in the south will give you the greasy food your tummy deserves!
If you’re staying near the theme parks, Universal Citywalk offers a variety of clubs with individual tickets available for purchase per club, or an all-in-one access pass. A movie theater and mini golf course are also available.
Downtown Disney offers nighttime entertainment with a softer touch, but drinks can be had at Raglan Road, an authentic Irish Pub.
Where to Stay in Orlando
If there’s one thing Orlando has, it’s plenty of hotels that cater to all travel budgets.
If you’re looking to stay on Disney Property the All-Star Sports Resort, the All Star Music Resort, or the All Star Movies Resort is your best bet for the cheapest price (but still pricey).
If you have the budget, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is my favorite, while Disney’s Boardwalk is located near one of the theme parks, Epcot.
International Drive is your best bet for discount hotels, you’ll find plenty.
For more places to stay in Orlando choose from the largest range of hotels, apartments, and guesthouses with our partner Booking.com. You get free cancelation on most rooms, and in most cases you only pay when you stay.
If you are traveling with a large group of friends or family, check out this 10 bedroom vacation home near Disney World.
Shopping in Orlando
Both the Florida Mall and Mall at Millenia are popular with both tourists and locals. The Florida Mall has a great mix of stores for all budgets while the Mall at Millenia caters to the higher-end shopper.
For great deals, be sure to visit the Premium Outlets. You could easily spend a whole day browsing here.
Events & Festivals in Orlando
Each of the theme parks offers special events throughout the year. But if you had to only hit one, visit the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival in the fall.
Sample-size plates are available for purchase featuring cuisine from around the world. It’s a favorite of tourists and locals.
During the winter months, the Orlando Improv Festival, now in it’s 3rd year, has grown in popularity.
Each February, the Plant City Strawberry Festival draws huge crowds who celebrate the best fruit around, the strawberry!
The springtime brings the Florida Film Festival – a week of independent films with emerging and well-established industry talent.
As summer approaches, GayDays Orlando celebrates the first weekend in June with over 150,000 people in attendance at the theme parks. It’s one of the biggest events in Orlando.
Getting Around Orlando
Downtown Orlando is a very walkable city, and walking is the preferred way of getting around. But Orlando is a city that sprawls out, so if you’d like to visit anything not in downtown, you’ll need to travel by car.
Public transport by bus is available (GoLynx), but not convenient if time is important to you. You’ll need to make several transfers to get anywhere and the frequency of busses is not timely.
If you’re staying along international drive, there is a trolley that runs up and down the length of the street, making frequent stops.
Don’t forget Uber (use this code ql3dc for a free ride if you’re a first time Uber driver)
Finding free wifi in Orlando
Free wifi is touch and go, depending on where you are visiting. Panera Bread, a U.S. Sandwich chain offers free wifi, as does Starbucks.Finding WiFi in Orlando
Brighthouse Networks provides free wireless hotspots at select locations throughout the city if you are a local internet subscriber. However, some of the social media savvy smaller business are embracing free wifi for customers and making it available. It’s always a good idea to ask.
Additionally, many of the Orlando restaurants have embraced social media and offer deals through Yelp and Foursquare. Be sure to check-in!
Favorite Side Trip from Orlando
If you’re in town for an extended time, Miami Beach is just a short 3-hour drive from Orlando. It’s one of my favorite week-end getaways. It has some of the best beaches in the country, amazing nightlife and an awesome vibe.
Best Time of the Year to Visit Orlando
The best time to visit Orlando is in October and March. Each month is warm enough for you to take full advantage of beaches, water parks and all the other outdoor activities, but without the humidity that the summer is notorious for.
October tends to be less crowded at the theme parks than March (popular with school spring break), but there is always the looming threat of a hurricane interrupting your trip – though the likelihood for that is minimal.
Getting There & Away
With Orlando being such a popular destination, direct routes from most major airports in the United States are almost always available and competition keeps prices reasonably affordable.
Direct flights from destinations in Europe and South America are also plentiful.
Orlando is served by both busses and rail, but the logistics of getting to the main tourist corridor are cumbersome at best. You’re better off renting a car from the airport.
Best insiders tip for Orlando
One of my favorite local spots is tubing down the Rainbow River. Load up your car with a picnic lunch, rent an inner tube and drift aimlessly away down the crystal clear, sparkling river. It’s pure relaxation!
I Love Orlando because …
You can almost guarantee that when the rest of the country (and the world for that matter) are bundling up to keep warm, Orlando is experiencing sunshine and perfect weather all year round.
Related Post – 3 things to do in Central Florida (beyond Orlando)
Planning a Trip to Orlando
- Booking.com has 500+ properties in Orlando including hotels, apartments and villas. You get free cancellation on most rooms and a best price guarantee.
Flights to Orlando
- Skyscanner is a comparison website that searches millions of flights. Once you find your best deal, book directly through the airline (no extra fees).
Car Rental in Orlando
- RentalCars.com is the world’s biggest car rental booking service that compares all the major brands like Hertz, Avis, Alamo, and Europcar.
BIO: Ben Reed is a travel blogger at adventureswithben.com that writes about extraordinary destinations around the world. He’s walked with lions, bungee jumped in front of Victoria Falls and is a member of the Sour Toe Cocktail Club. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Placeling.
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