Welcome to the City Beautiful, crown jewel of Central Florida and the undisputed capital of theme park splendor. After all, Cinderella built her castle here. That's got to count for something. Orlando has a host of attractions and activities, from Cindy's manicured palace on the grounds of the Magic Kingdom to the wild, untamed acreage of the Forever Florida ecological park and its many back country adventures. And of course, a bunch that fall somewhere in between. For animal lovers (and those looking to connect with our state's unique fauna in particular), a visit to Gatorland will fit the bill nicely. For theme park excitement with a side of movie magic and rides to delight both small children and adrenaline junkies (not to mention Harry Potter aficionados), there's Universal Studios Florida. For fans of theater, shopping, movies, bowling, drinking and all kinds of dining from 5-star to food truck, Disney Springs is a must-do, particularly if you haven't seen all the stunning additions! Ready to join the party and plan a visit to O-Town? Pack up your suit, your sunscreen and your most comfortable shoes and make your life easy. Just print out our list of must-sees and customize a getaway that suits your style.
Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex
Roller coasters are undeniably exciting but let's face it: they're child's play compared to real rockets, and that's precisely what you'll find in spades at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, just over an hour's drive from the Orlando theme-park area. From the incredible scientific evolution illustrated in the oddly artistic Rocket Garden, where you can explore at your own pace or hop onto a free guided tour, to the human side of space exploration on display at the Astronaut Hall of Fame, featuring the largest collection of personal memorabilia anywhere, KSC Visitor Complex is an amalgam of history, science and wonder. Tour the launch pad or the launch control center, take in a fascinating IMAX feature or have lunch with a real astronaut. Colorful theme-park heroes and heroines might capture our imagination, but the real heroes you'll learn about here will move you with inspiration. ((877) 404-3769)
Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure®
Not that it was in any danger of becoming irrelevant, but the addition of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter more or less cemented Islands of Adventures' place amid the list of must-visits for Orlando-bound theme park enthusiasts, adding Harry Potter enthusiasts to their vast marketing segment with aplomb. Of course, each of the park's "islands" – Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, Marvel Super Hero Island, Seuss Landing and The Lost Continent – has unique appeal in the form of cutting-edge rides and interactive attractions. Between Dragon Challenge, the truly astonishing Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, debating which ride rules supreme is best slated for some after-park drinks at nearby Universal CityWalk after thoughtful research in the field. (407-363-8000)
It bills itself as "Orlando's best half-day attraction" and we tend to agree. In a city that often puts people at odds with their budget (time and/or money) with so many amazing parks to visit, Gatorland does the day's schedule for you: half spent exploring a park devoted to Florida's most famous native inhabitants, half spent by the resort pool with a cold beverage. Of course, if you want more gator – have at it. Catch Gatorland's animals and handler shows in the afternoon, hit the splash pad with the kids, then try the Screamin' Gator Zipline, where adventurers soar at speeds approaching 30 m.p.h. over live alligators and crocodiles. There's a nighttime run, as well. Other fun add-ons include the Gator Night Shine and various into-the-swamp jaunts for up-close alligator action. Even with supplemental activities, Gatorland still ranks as a comparative theme-park bargain. (407-855-5496, 800-393-5297)
Magic Kingdom® Park
Don't ever count out the classics. Magic Kingdom may be the first of Walt Disney World's theme parks, but it's no less relevant. In fact, with the opening of the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ride, its New Fantasyland expansion is complete and ready for exploration. And of course, Cinderella's castle still beckons, the groundbreaking indoor thrills of Space Mountain remain a solid coaster experience, It's A Small World still delights children and the parents and grandparents who remember their first visit decades ago, musical ear worm notwithstanding. Fireworks light up the sky nightly and as always, everyone's favorite characters, from Donald and Goofy to princesses past and present, are on-hand for photo-ops and magically memorable moments. (407-939-1289, 407-934-7639)
Universal Studios Florida®
With the summer 2014 opening of Diagon Alley, the second Wizarding World installment within the Universal Orlando Resort complex, everyone is just wild about Harry – and Universal Studios Florida! This new section of the park contains a brand-new thrill ride in Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and loads of other features. Elsewhere in the park, of course, fun and entertainment flow like Class 4 rapids. From Despicable Me Minion Mayhem to Revenge of the Mummy to Transformers and much more, the rides are thrilling, the entertainment tie-ins first-rate. Pop into Springfield and spend time with the Simpsons, hit up Spiderman in his 3-D immersion digs and be sure to hit all the loops on the park's world-class coasters while you're here. Fans of the macabre take note: this park is home to Halloween Horror Nights, six-time winner of Amusement Today's Golden Ticket Award for "Best Halloween Event." If your visit falls during the season, come find out why. (407-363-8000, 800-711-0080)
Universal CityWalk ®
The numerous eateries, nightclubs, theaters, live entertainment and shopping venues located in this 30-acre complex will reel you in and keep you for the entire afternoon and night. Casual and fine dining establishments such as the Nascar Cafe and Emeril's (named after renowned chef Emeril Lagasse) are found throughout the area, offering a wide variety of choices to suit all different preferences. Live entertainment includes celebrity appearances, cooking demonstrations and amusing street performances � sure to keep you laughing for hours on end. As nighttime approaches you will get to choose to dance the night away in one of the many happening nightclubs or to reflect upon the day's experiences in one of the laid back bars. (407-363-8000)
Few attractions are more hands-on historic than Warbird Adventures, which offers thrill-seekers the unparalleled opportunity to fly like the hero aces of World War II in the North American T-6 Texan (also known as the SNJ or Harvard). Not only is this the aircraft in which most Allied pilots received their training, the entire experience is customized. Whether you have your sights set on a smooth, relaxing sightseeing mission or a flight rife with daring acrobatics, an experienced pilot will hook you up. Flights range from 15 minutes to an hour. A visit to the nearby Kissimmee Air Museum is a wonderful way to round out the experience. (407-870-7366, 800-386-1593)
Orlando Science Center
3D movies and planetarium shows, towering dinosaur skeletons and the wonders of space, four floors of interactive science exhibits in the realms of weather and engineering, live animals and hands-on science programming, not to mention limited engagement exhibits of all kinds depending on when you visit make the Orlando Science Center an ideal place to spend a day – with or without children. Experience the gale force winds of a Category 1 hurricane firsthand, watch a live gator feeding, discover the real life sea monsters that ruled the prehistoric seas and take in a giant-screen movie or laser show in the Dr. Phillips CineDome . You can even plan an evening SkyWatch at the Crosby Observatory (check the OSC website for this and other special events). (407.514.2000, 888.OSC.4FUN)
Forget the Mouse for a moment, take a break from the buffet lines, and immerse yourself into primordial Florida with a journey back in time to a Sunshine State before theme parks and condominiums. Forever Florida is a 4,700-acre wildlife conservation area with nine diverse subtropical ecosystems that are home to alligators and black bears, white-tailed deer and hundreds of species of birds and even the endangered and elusive Florida panther. And for those of you less impressed by the myriad bird-watching opportunities, it's also home to the Rattlesnake: the first zipline roller coaster in the United States. While whizzing through the canopy is undoubtedly thrilling, there is also much to be said for exploring the terrain at ground level, particularly on horseback or in the comfort of the all-ages Coach Safari. (407-957-9794, 888-957-9794)
Have you been to Disney Springs lately? If not, you are in for a serious treat. This exciting new offering (formerly known as Downtown Disney has upped its ante considerably, holding onto some of it's gems (Cirque du Soleil's "La Nouba," T-Rex Cafe and World of Disney to name a few) while expanding its dining and shopping offerings. A whole new look has made the place pretty stunning, as well. Outdoor entertainment offerings abound and new restaurants, from the magnificent Morimoto Asia to the waterfront allure of the Boathouse, to places like Jock Lindsay's Hangar Bar and Dockside Margaritas tempt diners and drinkers with all kinds of delicious fare. Looking to spend? Brand names repped include Havianas and Art of Shaving along with a host of others. And of course, exclusive Disney merchandise runs rampant. New walkways and a state of the art parking lot are making getting in, out and around a breeze. (407-939-6244)
About A.D. Thompson
A.D. Thompson has spent more than 20 years as a professional writer and roughly 15 as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum.
A roller coaster enthusiast, A.D. readily admits there is fun to be had amid the madness of the theme parks, but has found there is magic, as well, in the outer-lying reaches of Mickey’s long shadow. She is delighted to share with you the spoils of her adopted city.
Visit her colorful compendium at www.amydrewthompson.com.
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