Fun, lively and family friendly, Orlando is America seen through rose-tinted spectacles. It’s one of the most popular holiday resorts in the world, and the collection of town-sized theme parks that make up the city’s southern suburbs continue to draw huge international crowds. But the appeal of this Floridian gem goes beyond cartoons and fairground rides. A growing collection of museums, modern art galleries, theatres and ballet venues puts Orlando firmly on the cultural map and provide a perfect antidote for any visitor suffering from an overdose of kitsch. Add a calendar packed with events and festivals, and you’ve got a city that delivers far beyond its theme park-heavy reputation.
It might not have a natural beach, but there are plenty of places to cool off in Orlando when the mercury rises. Take a dip in a lagoon under the watchful eye of macaw parrots at SeaWorld’s Aquatica resort (5800 Water Play Way), reach speeds of up to 95kph on Blizzard Beach’s Summit Plummet slide (1534 Blizzard Beach Drive), or snorkel with real sharks at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park (1145 Buena Vista Drive). The summer ends with the riotous Festival Calle Orange in October, which brings huge crowds to the centre of Orlando for a colourful Hispanic-themed celebration.
The easiest way to explore Orlando and its surrounding parks is to hire a car. Huge parking lots cater for drivers, and the roads are easy to navigate outside commuting hours. The buses are irregular and walking generally isn’t practical, so if you’re not prepared to shell out for a taxi then the only other option is the I-Ride Trolley. This friendly-faced bus runs every 20 minutes between Orlando Premium Outlets on International Drive and SeaWorld, and kids under 12 ride for free. If you’re planning to make several journeys on the I-Ride Trolley, it’s worth investing in the unlimited one-day travel card.
Top cultural sites
Orlando’s art scene is dominated by modern American artists, and work by top local talent is shown at venues such as the CityArts Factory (29 South Orange Avenue), the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (445 North Park Avenue) and the Mennello Museum of American Art (900 East Princeton Street). The Orlando Shakespeare Theatre (812 East Rollins Street) is the city’s miniature Stratford-upon-Avon, while Orlando Ballet (111 North Orange Avenue) puts on a series of both classical and contemporary ballets throughout the year. Film buffs should time their visit to coincide with the Florida Film Festival in April, which showcases the best of new independent film.
Best for families
Most of Orlando’s attractions are geared towards children, and kids will have the time of their life exploring the various world-leading theme parks. Disney’s Epcot (1320 Avenue of the Stars) sprawls over 123 hectares and encompasses everything from an aquarium and a lagoon to a conceptual spaceship. At Universal Studios’ Islands of Adventure (6000 Universal Boulevard), the Wizarding World of Harry Potter brings J K Rowling’s famous children’s books to life; and younger kids will adore the 60 Lego-strewn hectares of Legoland (1 Legoland Way). Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Osceola Parkway), a realistic take on a safari park in the heart of Florida, should wow the whole family.
Best for couples
Kick off your romantic break with a balloon ride over Disney World (Lake Buena Vista). From the air, you should be able to spot Discovery Cove (6000 Discovery Cove Way), where you can snorkel with dolphins later in the day. The upmarket environs of Grande Lakes Orlando offer the perfect opportunity to stroll through sculpted grounds and perhaps enjoy a quick round of golf – afterwards, why not book into the Ritz-Carlton (4012 Central Florida Parkway) or the Marriott (4040 Central Florida Parkway) for a quick spa treatment and a gourmet meal?
If you love a thrill
From flying in an open-cockpit biplane to racing an airboat through critter-infested swamps, Orlando has plenty of adventures up its sleeve. Push your adrenal glands to the limit with a hang-gliding flight over Wallaby Ranch (1805 Deen Still Road, Davenport), drive a supercar with Exotic Driving Experience (3450 North World Drive, Lake Buena Vista), or take an Air Force Fun helicopter tour of SeaWorld (12211 Regency Village Drive). If you prefer your adventures to be less hair-raising, then Horse World Riding Stables (3705 South Poinciana Boulevard) offer equestrian tours of the Central Florida area.
Best hidden gems
It might be internationally famous for its theme parks, but in local circles Orlando is best recognised for its profusion of classy spas. Serenity Spa by Westgate (10000 Turkey Lake Road) is a true temple of tranquillity that will instantly ease shattered nerves, while the glitzy Waldorf Astoria Spa (14200 Bonnet Creek Resort Lane) specialises in cutting-edge relaxation treatments. If you’d rather explore the area than chill out in a spa, then hiring a private airboat is a great way to navigate the lush wetlands around Orlando – Boggy Creek Airboat Rides (2001 East Southport Road, Kissimmee) offers wildlife-watching tours, and you might even spot an elusive alligator.