The Best of Orlando’s Theme Parks

Sure, you’ve heard of the Magic Kingdom and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but Central Florida is known for its world-class amusement parks for more than a just Disney and Universal: this region’s got a wealth of roller coasters, water parks, attractions where you can swim with dolphins, wrestle alligators, and visit landscapes made of LEGOs. For the uninitiated, Walt Disney World is comprised of several parks: the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom Theme Park, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Blizzard Beach. Visitors can buy endless variations of plans from one-day/one-park tickets to multiday Park Hopper tickets which allow them to move between the parks. At Universal Orlando Resort, you can visit Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios (the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is split between these two, with Diagon Alley at Universal Studios and Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure), as well as the waterpark, Volcano Bay. Again, there are several ticket packages that can buy you as much or as little access to the Universal world of Marvel superheroes and Hogwarts characters.

1180 Seven Seas Dr, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830, USA
A trip to the original Magic Kingdom Park in Orlando is a theme park rite of passage. This is the mouse’s original outpost. And if you hit only one theme park among Orlando’s vast amusement offerings, you won’t go wrong here. Home to such iconic attractions as the original Cinderella’s Castle, the Space Mountain roller coaster ride, the nightly parade down Main Street, It’s a Small World kids’ ride, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and much, much more, you can easily occupy two days taking it all in. And while many of the rides and character meet and greets (every princess and her cousin is in attendance here) are clearly oriented toward younger visitors, there’s enough to keep adults smiling, too. Favorite tamer rides for younger kids include Adventure Land’s Pirates of the Caribbean and the Jungle Cruise. And if you’ve still got some staying power after a whole day of rides and shows, stick around for the park’s nightly grand finale—a fireworks display on par with anything you’d see in a big city on the Fourth of July.
2901 Osceola Pkwy, Orlando, FL 32830, USA
Opened in 1998, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park is home to animals, animated attractions, and thrilling rides for the entire family. The animal lovers in your entourage will swoon over the fun, informative Kilimanjaro Safari Rides, during which you’ll take an open-air vehicle across the “savanna” to spot herds of giraffes and elephants, while thrill seekers will love the roller coasters, rafting rides, and character meet-and-greets. There are also exhibits on everything from gorillas and okapis to hippos, flamingos, and living coral reef, as well as the new Pandora—The World of Avatar area, which features 3-D rides and other, milder attractions for little ones. Standard admission tickets include enough to keep you busy for two days, plus you can add on experiences like evening safari rides, dining packages, and behind-the-scenes tours with naturalists to learn about the day-to-day care of the African elephant herd.
200 Epcot Center Drive
Leave it to Disney to give visitors the chance to travel the world without leaving a theme park. At Epcot’s World Showcase, you’ll find several countries re-created to surprisingly realistic effect, all surrounding a centerpiece lagoon. Experience the landscapes, food, and cultural performances of such diverse lands as China, Italy, Canada, and Morocco, or embark on a “drink around the world” journey by grabbing a Hefeweizen in Germany, a vin rouge in France, a margarita in Mexico, and so on. The staff working in each area are natives of the country, so you can expect an authentic experience wherever you stop. Also worth visiting in Epcot are the 3-D rides, the Frozen-themed attractions, and the underwater coral reef. In addition, the park hosts annual events like the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival in the late fall, and the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival each spring, making it more than worth a visit.
6000 Universal Blvd, Orlando, FL 32819, USA
One of the most popular attractions in Orlando, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a two-part experience. Visit Hogsmeade at Universal’s Islands of Adventure and then take the Hogwarts Express to Diagon Alley at Universal Studios for the full adventure. You’ll recognize a lot of things from the books and movies, but the highlight is the Quidditch ride that sends you flying through the air with Harry and his friends. Don’t forget to grab a Butterbeer before you leave.
6000 Universal Blvd, Orlando, FL 32819, USA
If thrilling roller coasters, mind-blowing 3-D animation experiences, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter sound like your trifecta of fun, then Universal’s Islands of Adventure is really the only park you need to visit during your Orlando vacation. The most adult-oriented of Orlando’s theme parks, IOA, as it’s known, is home to one of America’s most exciting roller coasters, the Incredible Hulk, as well as incredible 3-D rides like the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Skull Island: Reign of Kong, and much, much more. The Hogsmeade portion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is IOA’s major new attraction and includes the extraordinary 3-D ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. If you want to see Diagon Alley and the rest of the Harry Potter attractions, be sure you buy the ticket that also grants access to the Hogwarts Express and Universal Orlando Resort.
1 Legoland Way, Winter Haven, FL 33884, USA
Opened in 2011 in Winter Haven, Legoland Florida has more than 50 rides, shows, and attractions, making it the second-largest location of its kind in the world (only the U.K.’s Legoland Windsor is bigger). You’ll even find a Lego-themed hotel here, along with beautiful gardens and tropical flowers, which used to be part of the famed Florida park formerly located on the property. The Fun Town attraction teaches kids how Legos are made, while the Land of Adventure features roller coasters for older children. Also not to be missed is Miniland USA, which re-creates famous American cities with thousands upon thousands of Legos.
6000 Discovery Cove Way, Orlando, FL 32821
An all-inclusive experience, Discovery Cove, which is owned by SeaWorld, treats guests to an in-water interaction with the park’s resident dolphins, generous breakfast and lunch buffets, and free drinks (including beer and wine). The lushly landscaped property also features man-made lagoons, waterfalls, and beaches where visitors can relax in lounge chairs, hammocks, or private cabanas. In the snorkeling lagoon, you can even swim alongside large schools of fish, de-barbed stingrays, and sharks. Whatever you do, don’t miss a stroll through the amazing aviary, which is home to birds from around the world—many are so tame they’ll approach you to be hand-fed.
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Journeys: Africa + Middle East
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