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 stay cool in the Florida heat), a visit to Discovery Cove or Aquatica 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, acrobatics and other colorful feats of wonder, Cirque du Soleil's La Nouba, the only resident show on the east coast, offers enough excitement to satisfy the most jaded spectator. 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.
10 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)
9 Cirque du Soleil: La Nouba
Cirque du Soleil has nine resident shows in the United States. Seven are in Las Vegas. One is in Los Angeles. And La Nouba is here in Orlando. We know we're pretty lucky and we're happy to share it with you and your entire family. Cirque du Soleil's La Nouba is truly an all-ages spectacle, with color and movement for the youngest audience member and near-miss, nail-biting action for all manner of adults and adrenaline junkies. Clowns amuse, music and costumes mesmerize and the depth of talent -- showcasing astounding feats from trampoline acrobatics to BMX bike skills -- is sure to leave you breathless at one time or another. (407-939-7600)
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)
One of the city's most unique water parks, SeaWorld's Aquatica is a fantastical world of twisting, turning rides, colorfully quirky buildings and sparkling white sand beaches. And if you enjoy a side of terror with your water-park fun, be sure to check out Ihu's Breakaway Falls. This towering slide, which opened in 2014, is an eight-story mind-bender of a plummet that is not for the faint of heart. The less adrenaline-addicted will still find plenty of fun splashing from one giant wave pool to another or drifting down the lazy river through a vibrant aquatic world of exotic fish. You can zoom through an underwater tube slide alongside a playful pod of black-and-white Commerson's dolphins, as well. (407-351-3600, 888-800-5447)
6 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)
5 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)
4 Warbird Adventures
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)
3 Florida EcoSafaris at Forever Florida
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)
2 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)
1 Discovery Cove Orlando
Spend just a short amount of time at any of SeaWorld Orlando's beautiful venues from the stingray touch tank to the seal and sea lion enclave of the Pacific Preserve to the dolphin nursery and you'll hear it more than once from guests of all ages: "I wish I could swim with them." At Discovery Cove, you can. Get in the water with the dolphins, touch them, see the intelligence in their bright, curious eyes. Snorkel in the Grand Reef amid a living cloud of tropical fish and gliding rays. Check out SeaVenture, a wild underwater walking tour (participants wear a dive helmet) that brings you eye-to-eye with sharks and other beautiful, mysterious ocean inhabitants. Customize your day to include any number of unique adventures and animal encounters with no crowds, no turnstiles and an admission fee that includes breakfast, lunch and all drinks and snacks. To keep crowds low and service-level high, daily attendance is kept at around 1,000 guests. Ergo, reservations are mandatory. (877-434-7268)
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 (SeaWorld’s Manta is her current favorite), 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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