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Best Things To Do in Orlando

AOL PICK from our Editors
Walt Disney World put Orlando on the global travel map. The Mouse and the parks that followed—Sea World, Universal Resort Orlando and a host of smaller attractions—are still the main draw for the city’s 44 million annual visitors. The world’s largest Legoland is scheduled to open in 2011 in nearby Winter Haven on the site of Cypress Gardens (the state’s first themed attraction, opened 1936, two years before Marineland). If you're visiting with the family on spring break, or kicking off the kids' summer vacation, the theme parks top the list of the best things to do in Orlando. But theme parks aren’t the only reason to visit. From November through April, the weather is dry and temperate, with clear skies, low humidity and daytime temperatures in the mid-1970s. There are cold days when Canadian fronts slip down to plunge overnight temps near freezing, but it’s rare for them to last more than a few days. That’s perfect for some of the other best things to do in Orlando, such as outdoor activities: golf, tennis, fishing, skateboarding, hiking, bicycling, kayaking, motorcycling, boating or just hanging out in the sun with a nice glass of Cabernet. Even during the hot months, outdoor activities are pleasurable early in the morning and in the evenings. Orlando has a small but sturdy collection of art museums, is home to immense musical talent, has a thriving theater scene and plenty of restaurants, spas and resorts.

Universal Orlando Resort

Neighborhood: International Drive
Universal Resort Orlando is a complex of rides, attractions and theme areas divided into two parks, Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventures. Universal also owns and operates Wet ’n’ Wild, the area’s original water park. The rides and shows at Universal are themed to popular movies and television shows including Shrek 4-D, The Simpsons, Revenge of the Mummy and Men in Black. The Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit roller coaster is 167 feet high and goes 65 m.p.h. Islands of Adventure continues the movie theme with Jurassic Park River Adventure, The Cat In The Hat, Spiderman and two coasters: The Incredible Hulk and Dragon Challenge (formerly Dueling Dragons, renamed to make it part of the newly opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter). The Dragon coaster is the only inverted dueling coaster in the world. Cars run simultaneously on two separate tracks, and riders on the two trains come within 18 inches of each other three times during the ride at a combined speed of over 100 mph. The Incredible Hulk features a launch lift, which propels riders from zero to 40 mph in two seconds producing 1.42gs. There are shows and Universal City Walk, an area of shops and restaurants that includes a Hard Rock Café, Emeril’s, the Latin Quarter, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, NBA City and the NASCAR Sports Grille.

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Ybor City

Neighborhood: Ybor City
Another popular daytrip about 90 minutes from Walt Disney World, Ybor City was the capital of U.S. cigar production in the 20th century. It was a factory town, built by Vicente Martinez Ybor, a Cuban cigar maker whose factory in Key West burned in 1886. Today the historic district’s brick buildings house restaurants, retail shops and a few tabacaleras making cigars by hand. Eat lunch or an early dinner at the Columbia, a Spanish restaurant that has been in the same family since its founding in 1903. The tile work alone is worth the trip to Ybor. While in the Tampa Bay area, a visit to the Salvador Dalí Museum across the bridge in St. Petersburg is a must. Some of Dalí’s most important (and largest) works are here: The Hallucinogenic Toreador, The Discovery of America by Christopher Columbus and Portrait of My Dead Brother among them. The Florida Aquarium is also nearby.

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Cirque du Soleil

Neighborhood: Lake Buena Vista
The Cirque du Soleil is an inscrutable but fascinating blend of music, gymnastics and theater. There is no dialog; the show is entirely a series of performances precisely choreographed to an original score performed live each night by musicians hidden in towers around the stage. Gymnasts bounce, jump, fly through the air and contort their bodies in ways not intended by nature. Another “flies” across the stage while performing an aerial ballet clinging to a red cloth draped from the ceiling. Cirque du Soleil is one of the most entertaining live performance experiences and is always leading our list of the top things to do in Orlando. Located in Downtown Disney; reservations are recommended and ticket prices range $90 - $130.

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Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex

Neighborhood: Titusville
From the claustrophobic one-man “tin can” capsules of the Mercury program to the 363-foot Saturn V rockets that launched Apollo astronauts to the moon, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor’s Complex gives you an inside look at the people and technology that conquered space. There are historic artifacts at every turn—a rocket and missile museum, the space suits worn by Shepard, Glenn and others—and interactive simulator experiences including a shuttle launch and a half-day astronaut training simulation. The Astronaut Hall of Fame is here along with an Imax theater and the immense Vertical Assembly Building—the fourth largest building in the world by volume—where they put the space shuttles together. KSC is about an hour east of Orlando and there are shuttles and bus services that make the roundtrip between KSC and Orlando hotels. Open daily 9am-6pm except Christmas Day and some launch days. Basic admission is $38 for adults and $28 for children aged 3 to 11; some tours are additional.

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St. Augustine

Neighborhood: St. Augustine
A popular day trip with those staying a week or longer, St. Augustine is a tasty blend of Spanish Colonial and beach town funk. The city was founded by the Spanish in 1565 as a bulwark against French settlements in Florida and to protect Spanish treasure fleets on their way from Havana, Cuba back to Spain. It is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in North America. After the city was burned by Sir Francis Drake in 1586 and again in 1668, a massive stone fort covering 20 acres, the Castillo de San Marcos, was built. The Castillo remains in pristine condition today and is the oldest fort in America. Run by the National Park Service, it gives visitors a glimpse of what life was like for the early settlers. For those who are fans of history, one of the best things to do in Orlando is check out St. Augustine. Nearby, several blocks of Spanish buildings have been reconstructed along St. George Street. Henry Flagler, co-founder of Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller, built his first hotels in Florida in St. Augustine—the beginning point of modern tourism in the state—in the 1880s. One of these, the Casa Monica, has been restored and reopened with gracious rooms and a stellar restaurant, 95 Cordova. The beach at Anastasia Island, just over the bridge from the Old City, is a favorite with residents.

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SeaWorld

Neighborhood: International Drive
Sea World comprises three separate attractions: Sea World, Discovery Cove and Aquatica. More than an aquarium, Sea World offers the chance to see and touch what’s in the oceans, learn more about the planet and ride two excellent roller coasters. Sea World offers some of the best things to do in Orlando as a family: learning, having fun, and getting splashed together. Sea World revolves around scheduled shows and the rides. The Shamu show, called Believe, is the best-known and features killer whales performing for audiences in an open-air theater. Blue Horizons blends human acrobats with dolphin performers. A’lure is an indoor stage show with gymnasts and dancers. Clyde and Seamore is the long-running sea lion slapstick show. Between shows, visitors walk in a plexiglass tunnel through an aquarium filled with sharks, pet dolphins in a pool, take an indoor (and heavily air-conditioned) Trip to the Arctic and experience the rides. At 140 feet high and 58 m.p.h., Manta is the second tallest and fastest “flying” coaster in the country. Riders are suspended in harnesses face down toward the ground. The coaster soars, dives and twists through four complete inversions on 3,300 feet of track. Kraken, also floorless but with riders held upright, is slightly taller—149 feet—and faster, up to 65 mph, with inversions and a roll that produces a weightless effect. Visitors can also swim in heated pools with dolphins at Discovery Cove and enjoy water park rides at Aquatica. Sea World is open 9am—7pm, but stays open until 10pm May through August with nighttime performances, musical concerts and fireworks displays. The baseline pricing for Sea World is $79 adults and $69 for children ages 3-9. Aquatica starts at $48/$42 and Discovery Cove admission starts at $199, which includes unlimited admission to Sea World, Aquautica or Busch Gardens in Tampa during your stay. 

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Orlando Museum of Art

Neighborhood: Downtown
No one is going to make a pilgrimage to Orlando for its art, but there are a couple of collections worth spending an afternoon with including the OMA. The museum is in Lochaven Park, which also contains the Orlando Science Center (a good rainy day destination with kids) and the Shakespeare Theater, which mounts some very good productions of the Bard. OMA covers lots of ground; it has an extensive collection of pre-Columbian Meso-American works, 19th century American, African art and a number of challenging contemporary pieces. You’re not going to get lost in a reverie inspired by endless galleries, but if you’re an art fan, the OMA is worth a trip downtown. Closed Mondays and major holidays, admission is $8 for adults, $5 for children 4-17, ages 3 and under free. 

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Walt Disney World

Neighborhood: Lake Buena Vista
This is the mothership of Orlando tourism. Walt Disney World employs more than 50,000 “cast members” and encompasses four separate theme parks: Magic Kingdom (older Disney icons and rides), EPCOT with its world-fair style country pavilions, Animal Kingdom (African safari theme) and Disney Hollywood Studios (Tower of Terror, backlot and shows). The Disney parks consistently lead the lists of top things to do in Orlando. In addition to the parks, there are themed resorts (Grand Floridian, Beach Club, Contemporary, Polynesian, Ft. Wilderness), five golf courses including PGA regulars Magnolia and Palm, two water parks (Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon) and a real town (Celebration). If you’ve never been to Walt Disney World, take some time to study the Walt Disney World website along with some of the unofficial park guides and travel sites that offer specialized Disney information. The official Disney site has some excellent planning tools (itinerary builder, hotel guides, money saving options). Figure out what’s most appealing and take into account wait times (especially during peak visitation weeks), the ages of any children traveling with you, the distances between attractions and parks and the tiring effect of the heat, especially in the summer. The opening hours of the parks are staggered (not everything opens and closes at the same time) so factor that into your daily itinerary. Also check out the ticket prices: Magic isn’t cheap. Current pricing is $79 for a one-day ticket to one of the four parks for one adult, $68 for children ages 3-9. Buying a five-day pass lowers the per-day cost to $45.60/$39, and you can add the “park hopper” option allowing you admission to any of the four parks the same day for $52 per pass. At the end of the day, it’s Disney and there’s nothing else like it. Sitting outside wrapped in the cozy atmosphere of a tropical night eating an ice cream cone with your kids while fireworks go off overhead is a memory you’ll savor for years.

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Harry P. Leu Gardens

Neighborhood: Winter Park
Want to see why the Spanish called this “The Land of Flowers”? Deeded to the city by a wealthy businessman, Leu Gardens is a botanical charmer. The Leu House, built in 1888, is surrounded by 40 acres of formal gardens. Leu was an avid horticulturist and, as he and his wife Mary Jane traveled the world, they picked up dozens of exotic species to plant at their home. Leu was especially fond of camellias, which normally don’t grow well in Florida. After a decade of experimentation, Leu bred several varieties that thrive here. During the spring bloom the camellias and azaleas overpower both the eyes and the nose. Despite this potential assault on your senses, you should take the time to visit these gardens, as they are definitely one of the best things to do in Orlando. Stone paths meander between hedgerows and beds thick with camellias, azaleas, bougainvillea, trumpet vine, canna lilies and other tropical plants, past a gazebo, a cottage and a large rose garden. There’s a butterfly garden (active year-round), a museum and educational tours. Open daily 9AM-5PM except Christmas Day, admission is $7 for adults and $2 for children.

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Playa Linda

Neighborhood: Titusville
The 24 miles of shoreline in the Canaveral National Seashore is the longest undeveloped stretch of public beach on Florida’s east coast. It’s just north of Kennedy Space Center. If there’s a shuttle sitting on the pad at Launch Complex 39, you can see it clearly from the beach (if a shuttle launch is imminent, the road to the beach is closed.) Despite the infrequent closures, this is one of the prettiest and most peaceful beaches in the state, and one of the top things to do in Orlando. Bring everything you need as there are no vendors or stores. There is a restored historic house, an interpretive museum devoted to the area’s Native Americans and the Turtle Mound shell midden, 600 feet long and more than 50 feet tall, making it the nation’s tallest. The area north of the northernmost parking lot (#13) has been used for clothing optional sunbathing. This is officially against county ordinance, but isn’t regularly enforced due to questions about the legality of the ban. South of 13, it’s all family friendly. From May through October endangered sea turtles nest on this beach; if you see wooden stakes in the sand and/or plastic fencing, they’re protecting a turtle nest. Do not walk over or disturb the nest as the eggs can be broken by foot traffic. 

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Fantasy of Flight

Neighborhood: Polk City
Located a half-hour southeast of Walt Disney World, this is Orlando’s answer to the National Air + Space Museum. One man’s private collection of aircraft turned into a restoration facility dedicated not to just repainting old airplanes so they can be looked at, but rebuilding them to perfect working condition. Everything at Fantasy of Fight—from World War II bombers to famous American, British, Japanese and German fighters and even flying boats—can fly. There’s a realistic simulation of a B-17 raid over Germany and flying demonstrations and flights in hot air balloons and biplanes are available.

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