How to spend the perfect holiday in Orlando

Advice

Most people who visit ‘Orlando’ never truly see it. They arrive at Orlando International Airport and head straight for the theme parks. The city actually lies 15 miles north-east and often goes unnoticed in the rush for Disney and co – which is a major oversight, as it’s home to some of Florida’s most original experiences.

True, Orlando barely figured in the state’s top cities before the 1971 opening of Walt Disney World and the tourism-fuelled boom it generated. But a funny thing happened through the 1990s and 2000s – the city reasserted its character, diversity and creativity. Hip districts emerged as thousands moved downtown, and a thriving young, urban culture mushroomed to create craft breweries, cutting-edge restaurants and vibrant nightlife. Now, if you don’t make an effort to see The City Beautiful, you’re missing the best part of Orlando: Lake Eola, Winter Park, Mills 50 and Ivanhoe Village are among the many compelling districts and suburbs. 

For further inspiration for the perfect Orlando holiday,  see our guides to the city’s best hotels, restaurants, nightlife and things to do.


Day one

Morning

Start with breakfast at the totally Instagrammable Craft & Common, where their Pacific Fog – a cold-brew latte with lavender and Himalayan sea salt – is a heavenly concoction for caffeine-lovers. Then, stroll the two blocks to the Orange County Regional History Center, noting how compact and pedestrian-friendly the downtown area is. Two hours here will give you the full lowdown on Orlando’s history, its 19th-century frontier heritage, and the story of the Florida Highwaymen – a unique group of African American artists who emerged in the 1950s.



Orange County Regional History Center


The Orange County Regional History Center is currently displaying works by the Florida Highwaymen – a group of African-American artists who emerged in the 1950s

Afternoon

Stop in at CityArts for a showcase of the region’s thriving arts culture, which includes a Young Artists Gallery and challenging topics such as the role of art in the community.

Then, take a 10-minute stroll for lunch at French-inspired DoveCote Brasserie, which highlights how the city has developed its own culinary character. Executive Chef Jason Dixon ensures the classic French cuisine introduced in 2016 is as fresh and inviting as ever in this posh but approachable brasserie, which may just produce the best onion soup in Florida.

Loch Haven Park is perfect for an afternoon wander, encompassing three lakes, theatres and museums, as well as the Orlando Science Center, which is ideal for families. Make time for either the Mennello Museum of American Art, with its outstanding collection of work by folk artist Earl Cunningham, or the Orlando Museum of Art, which features a leading collection of art of the Ancient Americas as well as contemporary graphics. Find more of the best things to do in Orlando in our guide.



orlando science center


Orlando Science Center inspires scientific learning through its four floors of interactive exhibit halls, laboratories, workshops, observatory, and ever-changing roster of experiences


Credit: JEFF GREENBERG

Late


Stay in this area to explore happening Mills 50, one of 12 burgeoning ‘districts’ that come alive after dark with a choice of bars, cafés, street art, markets and nightclubs, including ‘Little Vietnam’. Mills is packed with locals’ staples like top restaurant pick Black Bean Deli, where the Cuban cuisine is some of the best outside Havana, and Will’s Pub, an indie music hangout since 1995 that also boasts an ever-changing array of excellent micro-brews.

Enjoy happy hour (4-8pm) at craft-cocktail-infused The Guesthouse or the chic Ten10 Brewing Company, where tasty bar snacks are offered along with their excellent ales and signature root beer.

Make time for an evening stroll around Lake Eola, the city’s photogenic centrepiece. With its central fountain, swan boats and Walt Disney Amphitheatre, it’s eye-candy at sunset. Top things off with a cocktail at the eye-catching and jazz-infused Bosendorfer Lounge of the nearby Grand Bohemian Hotel, where the Angels Martini is truly heavenly.



Make time for an evening stroll around Lake Eola, the city’s photogenic centrepiece


Make time for an evening stroll around Lake Eola, the city’s photogenic centrepiece


Credit: www.ginapricope.it (www.ginapricope.it (Photographer) – [None]/Gina Pricope

Day two

Morning

Head north for Winter Park, where breakfast at Briarpatch is practically compulsory – don’t miss their trademark eggs Benedict – before a day of cultural immersion. The Scenic Boat Tour starts at 10am and is the perfect introduction to the tropical landscapes, lakes and opulence of the area.

When coupled with the boutique Morse Museum, home to the world’s largest collection of work by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and, time permitting, Cornell Fine Arts Museum in the heart of beautiful Rollins College, which offers a well-rounded view of the neighbourhood’s charms.



morse museum


The Morse Museum is home to the world’s largest collection of work by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the 19th-century American artist and designer best known for his work in stained glass

Afternoon

Lunching at one of the many sidewalk cafés is another Winter Park staple – try Italian gastropub Prato, which serves house-made pastas and authentic pizzas – try the spicy Diavolo with Provolone Piccante imported from the historic Auricchio company in Cremona. Find more of the best restaurants in Orlando in our guide.

Afterwards, browse the one-off boutiques of Park Avenue and Hannibal Square, where super-trendy Rifle Paper Co, Peterbrooke Chocolatier and the upscale women’s apparel of Tuni.

After the polish of Winter Park, it’s time for rustic Gatorland, a 110-acre wildlife preserve dating back to 1949 that is still family-owned. Unlike the theme parks, this is pure, condensed Florida, showcasing the plant and animal life native to the state. The headline attractions are hundreds of alligators – from hatchlings to old timers – that inhabit the swamps and ponds. There are several shows, animal exhibits, and the chance to zipline over the gator marsh (be brave – it’s fun!).



Mathers Social Gathering is a Roaring Twenties-style speakeasy in Downtown Orlando


Mathers Social Gathering is a Roaring Twenties-style speakeasy in Downtown Orlando


Credit: Ina Pandora Photography LLC,www.inapandora.com 321-591-5430/Ina Bahnaru

Late

Orange Avenue and Church Street are where most downtown locals head after dark for a packed array of nightlife, from the LGBTQ-friendly Hamburger Mary’s and Southern Nights to the all-out party vibe of Wall Street Plaza, with seven venues where revellers often take over the whole street. Speakeasy-type bars are also popular – seek out Mathers Social Gathering for the ‘in’ crowd or Hanson’s Shoe Repair for Prohibition-era style. 

Oh, and you’ll need dinner. Kres Chophouse serves juicy steaks and seafood in best supper-club ambiance, while the rooftop chic of the Sky Bar at the towering AC Hotel is ideal for a pre or post-dinner libation or two. Find more of the best nightlife in Orlando in our guide.


Insider tips

Neighbourhood Watch

The Milk District cultural hub is arguably the most up-and-coming of Orlando’s neighbourhood; New York lite, if you like. Named after the area’s 1920s TG Lee Dairy, it boasts breweries, eclectic shops, vintage boutiques, coffee and juice bars, an energetic music scene and signature Tasty Takeover food-truck nights. It all adds up to a genuine locals’ experience.

Disney Hack

Walt Disney World – the big attraction in every sense – is a fabulous but fiendishly complicated place. The recent introduction of their Disney Genie and Genie+ systems has added to the extra considerations (the latter is a paid-for skip-the-main-queue option). It does offer significant benefits, though, and it is all accessed via the essential My Disney Experience app.



walt disney world - best things to do in florida


Walt Disney World is America’s biggest tourist attraction, with four theme parks, two water parks, five golf courses and its Disney Springs complex of shops, dining and nightlife


Credit: Reuter

Universal hack

Universal Orlando has its own front-of-the-line pass option for its three three parks, called Universal Express. It offers either a one-time visit to each main attraction or an unlimited ride version. Prices vary according to the time of year (from $90/£72 for a one-park pass in low season up to $330/£267 for both parks in high season) but it can save hours in queuing time and make it possible to do both theme parks in a day.

Hotels

Some of the best restaurants in Orlando are those at Walt Disney World’s deluxe resorts, and you don’t have to stay to experience them. From award-winning Victoria & Albert’s to the African cuisine of Jiko , groundbreaking California Grill, and celebrity chef Todd English’s Bluezoo, Disney is a culinary enthusiast’s playground.

Attractions

Don’t buy tickets from the various “official” ticket outlets on Highway 192 in Kissimmee or International Drive, especially if they offer big discounts. Many are timeshare promotions that are tough to shake off or just plain scams. Best to buy all your tickets in the UK from official brokers like Attraction Tickets, FloridaTix or Orlando Attractions.

Money Saver

An often overlooked way to navigate downtown Orlando is by using the free Lymmo hybrid electric bus system. Buses run a full circuit of the main downtown area, including stops at the Dr Phillips Performing Arts Center, Church Street dining district and the Amway Center, plus Orlando City Stadium and Camping World Stadium on game days.


Where to stay

Park Pick

 

Africa comes to central Florida in Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, where giraffes, zebras, and other grazing animals roam just beyond your window. Theme is everything at Walt Disney World, and this deluxe thatched-roof resort,based on traditional safari lodges, is one of the most inspired creations. Original African art abounds, floor-to-ceiling windows and cosy balconies overlook the savannah, and there’s a large pool.

Double rooms from $358 (£258).



Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge


Theme is everything at Walt Disney World, and especially at its hotels

Luxury Living

 

A superbly stylish hotel that adds an artistic flourish to the heart of downtown Orlando, the Grand Bohemian Hotel’s interior is an opulent wonderland of sumptuous décor and fine art. Every room features limited edition prints, while a free art tour of the hotel is offered daily and a different artist is featured in the in-house gallery each month.

Doubles from $246 (£188). 



grand bohemian hotel


The Grand Bohemian Hotel Orlando is a superbly stylish hotel that adds an artistic flourish to the heart of downtown Orlando

Budget Bolthole

 

Drury Inn & Suites, a consistent, cost-conscious national chain, is a relative newcomer to Florida but still delivers value for money with a flourish, including half-board value at room-only prices. The front desk is manned 24 hours a day and there is also a ticket desk for Universal Orlando and dinner shows, as well as a complimentary shuttle service. The main leisure feature is the heated indoor/outdoor pool with a whirlpool tub.


What to bring home

Visit family-owned Winter Park Honey for more than 30 varieties of unfiltered pure Florida honey. Orange Blossom Honey’s delicate citrus flavour makes it a locals’ favourite in tea or on toast.

Rifle Paper Co., in Winter Park’s chic Hannibal Square, carries unique arts and crafts by ‘guardian of style’ designer Garance Doré and celebrity lifestyle blogger Joanna Goddard, among others.



Rifle Paper Co


Rifle Paper Co, in Winter Park, carries unique arts and crafts

When to go

Yes, it’s the Sunshine State, and yes, you’re going to get plenty of sun, no matter what time of year you go. But this is also the sub-tropics, and it gets hot in the summer months (May to October) – often 30 degrees Celsius and over. From June to September, the humidity also kicks in, making it seriously sweaty to be outdoors for extended periods, while summer is thunderstorm season, with regular heavy bursts of thunder and lightning (albeit they rarely last more than an hour). Winter can occasionally get close to freezing at night. March-May and late September-early December are the optimum times to visit.


Know before you go

Essential information

 

British Consulate-General: The nearest Consular office is in Miami (00 1 305 400 6400).

Visit Orlando Tourist Board: This is the only official source of information for visitors, with a handy Interactive Map to help steer them through the extensive area; visitorlando.com.

Emergency services: Dial 911

Local road traffic accident/emergency evacuation information: Dial 511 or visit fl511.com.

Directory inquiries: Dial 411 or visit 411.myflorida.com.

The basics

Currency: US dollar

Telephone code: Orlando numbers are usually area code 407, but a few can be 321.  Calling from the UK, dial 001 then 407 or 321 followed by the seven-digit number. Within Orlando, just dial the three-digit area code followed by the seven-digit number

Time difference: -5 hours

Flight time: London to Orlando is approximately 9.5 hours, the return leg is usually 8.5 hours.

Local laws and etiquette

• Always carry your passport and driver’s license with you when driving in America, in case you get stopped by police.

• You can turn right at a red traffic light (provided you come to a complete stop first, there is no oncoming traffic and no contradictory sign saying “no turn on red”).

• As in most American cities, you must park in the direction of the traffic on the correct side of the road, otherwise you will be fined. And do not park on raised kerbs.

• Also, avoid parking within 15ft of a fire hydrant. In Florida you must also slow down or pull into an outside lane when passing a police car stopped on the hard shoulder.

Author Bio

Simon and Susan were initially drawn to Orlando from Sussex and Michigan respectively by its dazzling theme parks and attractions, only to discover that a real living, breathing city exists just beyond Tourist Central. For 30 years, they’ve written the best-selling Brit Guide to Orlando.

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