The Best Things to Do in Orlando

Say the word “Orlando” and most people picture a mouse in shorts or a young wizard in glasses. While Orlando is proud of its Universal Orlando Resort and Walt Disney World, there’s more to the City Beautiful than waterparks and roller coasters. The lush Florida setting means lakes and wetlands (with paddle boats and spectacular wading birds), tropical gardens, and lots of wildlife.

1920 N Forest Ave, Orlando, FL 32803, USA
While Orlando typically inspires images of amusement parks, the city is also home to sites that are completely separate from the manufactured worlds of Disney and Universal—such as the Harry P. Leu Gardens. The urban oasis teems with tropical plants like azaleas and palms, and includes an historic home once inhabited by the Leu family. With more than 2,000 camellia plants and 230-plus cultivars, its impressive collection ranks among the largest in the United States.
512 E Washington St, Orlando, FL 32801, USA
Orlando’s centerpiece lake sits right in the middle of downtown, close to the pretty neighborhood and dining district of Thornton Park. A pedestrian-only path fringing the water stretches for nearly a mile, offering visitors a great place to stroll or jog. Along the lake you’ll also find an amphitheater for concerts and festivals, a picturesque pagoda overlook, and a kiosk where you can rent pedal boats shaped like swans. Bring the kids to feed the ducks and swans, or visit the farmers’ market, which takes place on the lake’s southeast corner every Saturday morning.
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.
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.
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.
6000 Universal Blvd, Orlando, FL 32819, USA
Similar to Disney Springs, Universal CityWalk offers adult-oriented—but totally family-appropriate—fun for when you’ve wrapped up another theme park day. An entertainment zone with free admission, it connects the Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure theme parks. Still, it’s most happening after the parks close, when it turns into a veritable dining and nightlife district that often attracts more revelers than downtown Orlando itself. All the restaurants and bars surround a man-made lagoon, which becomes busy with boats ferrying guests to and from the Universal hotels. To eat, there’s everything from casual cafés and a food court to extravagant theme restaurants like the new Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen. Bar options are similarly wide-ranging—you can drink a hurricane at Pat O’Brien’s (which looks just like the original in New Orleans), sip a Red Stripe beer to the tune of reggae music at Bob Marley—A Tribute to Freedom, or catch the big game at the NBC Sports Grill & Brew. Parking is free after 6 p.m. so expect crowds starting at sundown. You’ll also want to keep an eye on the calendar, as CityWalk hosts major concerts and festivals throughout the year.
445 N Park Ave, Winter Park, FL 32789, USA
If you’ve ever admired Louis Comfort Tiffany’s intricate lamps, you’ll appreciate the chance to visit this museum wholly dedicated to the artist himself. Called the Morse Museum for short, this Winter Park institution houses the world’s largest collection of authentic Tiffany works, including wondrous pieces of jewelry, pottery, leaded-glass lamps, art glass, and windows. Plan to stay for at least 90 minutes to fully enjoy the riot of color on display, and be sure to watch the short film that explains the story behind the famous glassworks.
1800 Wekiwa Cir, Apopka, FL 32712, USA
With all of Orlando’s man-made attractions, it’s refreshing to get deep into nature at this wonderful state park, located north of downtown and the theme-park corridor. Spread across 7,000 acres of pristine central Florida forest, the park centers around the headwaters of the Wekiwa River, a beautiful, blue-and-green-hued spring with a roped-off area that’s safe for swimming (alligators do dwell in the main river). Rent a kayak or canoe at the park and paddle from the spring into the river, where you can spot turtles and alligators sitting on the banks. If you’re seeking a more primitive experience, you can also book one of the park’s spacious campsites, some of which come with hookups for electricity and water.
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.
29 South Orange Avenue
Believe it or not, Orlando has an impressive—and ever-growing—arts and culture community. To get a feel for the scene, visit CityArts Factory, a collective of contemporary art galleries in the heart of downtown Orlando. Admission is free and exhibits by both local and international artists rotate monthly, meaning there’s always something new to see.
900 East Princeton Street
Located on a pretty lakefront expanse in Loch Haven Cultural Park, this museum draws visitors with an impressive collection of folk art. Browse constantly changing exhibits on all aspects of American art, then pop by the gift store and shop curios dedicated to the genre. The museum also features a lovely outdoor sculpture garden and hosts the popular Indie-Folkfest on its grounds every February.
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.
College Park, Orlando, FL 32804, USA
In recent years, this pretty neighborhood, located just five minutes north of downtown Orlando, has become a dining, shopping, and entertainment destination in its own right. Edgewater Drive is lined with restaurants, shops, and offices, while the surrounding residential areas feature historic bungalows, Craftsman-style homes, brick streets, and lakefront views. Favorite eateries in the neighborhood include Jade Sushi & New Asian and K Restaurant, which is nestled in a cute old house. While there isn’t a college nearby, the area gets its moniker from streets named after famed universities like Princeton, Dartmouth, and Harvard.
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