Orlando: Theme Parks and Beyond

Tips on how to enjoy a visit to the world’s theme park capital and explore local favorites outside the parks.


Is there anyone left on the planet who doesn’t know that Mickey, Donald, Shamu and Woody Woodpecker reside in Orlando, Fla., at the world’s greatest collection of theme parks? As a 20-year resident of Orlando with a wife and two children, ages 11 and 17, I’ve done my fair share of theme park hopping. Planned and executed with patience and a positive attitude, theme park visits are some of the best vacation experiences anywhere for people of all ages.

Orlando Culture 

While I still enjoy Orlando’s bastions of make-believe, it’s the rest of the Orlando area that makes this a truly special place to live and visit. Beyond the theme parks, Orlando is an area surprisingly rich in cultural, natural and sporting attractions. Orlandoans are a diverse group as well. It’s not uncommon to see many part-time Orlando residents from the U.K., Germany or South America who own condos and homes and who first discovered the city after a visit to a theme park. If you research closely, you’ll see the fruits of that migration with English pubs and taverns in the Kissimmee, Spanish and Cuban restaurants in east Orlando and Brazilian steak houses on International Drive.

A great trip to Orlando includes a combination of theme parks and other Central Florida experiences. One mistake many one-week visitors make is trying to do a theme park a day for seven days straight. Unless you’ve gone through Army Ranger training and are in superb physical condition, I suggest a more balanced itinerary of three or four theme parks with a couple of days off to explore the rest of Orlando. With countless lines, crowds, whiny kids (their kids, not yours), sensory overload and the broiling Florida sun, visiting a theme park can, at times, be a grueling experience fit for a commando.

If you decide to stay solely in the theme park corridor, chances are you’ll never see any of Orlando because the tourist zones are away from residential ones and most of the population lives north of both Walt Disney World and SeaWorld. One exception is Universal Studios Florida, which sits in the middle of a residential area across the street from a high school.

Must Sees and Local Tips

  • Don’t miss the fabulous factory outlet shopping in Orlando. Besides theme parks, Orlando has spawned outlet malls faster than dandelions after a springtime shower. If you want to meet a local, these are about the only places in the tourist corridor you’ll find one.
  • If you’re looking for hotel deals, in my experience booking rooms for friends and visitors, the value season goes something like this: Jan. 1-Feb. 14; Aug. 5- Oct. 3 and Nov. 25-Dec. 19.
  • While Orlando has 113,000 hotel rooms, it also has some phenomenal deals on condos and free-standing houses (vacant homes typically owned by international owners that are placed in rental pools). We recommend these options often to our visiting friends and generally hear rave reviews. Telephone numbers and Web sites for a few companies who rent homes are:

All Star Vacation Homes: tel. 800-592-5568;

Alexander Holiday Homes: tel. 800-621-7888;

Florida Sun Vacation Homes: tel. 800-219-1282;

VillaDirect: tel. 877-259-9908;

Getting Themed

For theme park information and tips: 

Magic Kingdom Park, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park: tel. 407-939-4636;

Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure: tel. 407-363-8000;

SeaWorld Orlando, Discovery Cove: tel. 407-351-3600;;

Holy Land Experience: tel. 800-447-7235;

Gatorland: tel. 407-855-5496;

Cypress Gardens: tel. 863-324-2111;

Fantasy of Flight: tel. 863-984-3500,

Behind the Scenes

As a travel writer for more than 25 years, I’ve had my share of behind-the-scenes tours at theme parks. Years ago, I felt lucky and privileged to get sneak peaks unavailable to the public. Oh, how things have changed!

Orlando’s theme parks offer numerous opportunities to slip behind scenes into restricted areas. These one-of-a-kind programs are great ways to learn and be entertained at the same time. You’re always under the watchful eye of a knowledgeable guide, and I recommend them to my out-of-town repeat visitors, who show up with that “been there, done that” look when theme parks are mentioned. Here’s a sampling of what’s available:

Walt Disney World

Walt Disney World Backstage Tours: tel. 407-939-8687;

  • Backstage Magic: This is the biggest tour Disney offers, a seven hour exploration that costs $199, including lunch.
  • Dine with a Disney Imagineer: Share lunch with one of Disney’s creative minds. $61 adults, $35 kids, ages 3-9.
  • Keys to the Kingdom: For the budget conscious, this sneak peek tour lasting 4-1/2 hours costs $60, including lunch. Minimum age is 16.

Universal Studios Orlando

V.I.P Tour Experience: tel. 407-363-8295;

  • A guided tour costs $120 per adult for one park or $150 to see both parks.

SeaWorld Orlando

Guided tours: tel. 866-479-2267;

  • Sleepovers: Kids and parents can sleepover at some of the more interesting pavilions like the Wild Arctic, which has walruses and beluga whales. Runs from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m. and costs $80 per person.
  • Behind-the-Scenes Tours: A one-hour tour costing $16 for adults, $12 for kids ages 3-9.

Beyond Theme Parks 

Once you’ve posed for pictures with Snow White at Disney World or been splashed by Shamu at SeaWorld, here are some sights and activities where you can immerse yourself in the Central Florida lifestyle:

Thornton Park (just east of Lake Eola in downtown Orlando): A tree-lined area of renovated homes, alfresco European-style cafes, bookstores and coffee shops ideal for adults that want to escape the syrupy, no-worries ambiance of the theme parks. This area is one our favorite places to sip coffee or beer and people-watch our fellow citizens.

The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art: This has to be the best museum deal in America. For $3 adults, $1 students (kids under 12 are free), you can wander through 11,000 square feet of the best collection of Tiffany glass on the planet, from stained glass to vases and lamps.

Blue Spring State Park: About 45 minutes east of Orlando in Orange City, Blue Spring State Park is my favorite place to see manatees. From mid-November through February, all boating, swimming and snorkeling are suspended while the manatees are in residence.

Dine With the Locals

Here are recommendations to some great places I send my visiting friends to dine. Read the Orlando Family Dining article for top spots for travelers with kids.

Seasons 52, tel. 407-354-5212, If you want to hang with the locals, this is one of Orlando’s busiest restaurants. The menu changes weekly depending on seasonal crops. Everything is made with fresh ingredients and the ambiance is contemporary and casually elegant.

Spoodles, tel. 407-939-3463: A Mediterranean-fare restaurant at Disney’s Boardwalk where the lemon-pepper shrimp and steak kabobs refuse to leave my culinary memory bank.

Texas de Brazil, tel. 407-355-0355; If you’re famished after a day of theme park hopping, this Brazilian-style churrascaria on Universal Drive offers huge quantities of excellent food. Giant skewers of grilled meat are the draw here.

Destinations: Florida, Orlando

Themes: Amusement Parks, Family Travel

Activities: Eat, Sightseeing

User Comments

Excellent summary of activities in Orlando.

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