Alligators to ziplines: see, soar & more at Orlando's top attractions



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 fascinating history and futurecasting of the Kennedy Space Center, just an hour's ride away. And of course, a bunch that falls 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, who will delight in the new Hagrid-based roller coaster come summer 2019), there's Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure. For folks simply looking for shopping, movies, bowling, drinking and all kinds of dining from 5-star to food trucks, Disney Springs is a must-do, particularly if you haven't seen all the stunning additions that just keep coming! 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.



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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 Antojitos or Emeril's (named after renowned chef Emeril Lagasse) are found throughout CityWalk, offering a wide variety of choices to suit all different preferences. Eat, drink, shop, sing karaoke, enjoy live music or catch a world-class show. Come nighttime, you might choose to dance the night away, catch a movie or hit up the mini-golf course. It's amazing at night! Additionally, free water taxis can transport you to a number of beautiful on-site hotels for exploration, cocktails or elegant meals.


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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 a unique appeal in the form of cutting-edge rides and interactive attractions. Between the Incredible Hulk coaster, 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.


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Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex
Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando


 

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.


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Taller than the Statue of Liberty, the Orlando Eye is the new can't-miss icon of the I-4 corridor. On a clear day, passengers in its climate-controlled capsules can see clear to Florida's Atlantic coast. Each one holds up to 15 people for a 30-minute circuit around the wheel. But you can conquer the crowds. In fact, you can book a private capsule for special evenings. Romantic ones. Proposals, even. Not that we're pushing for it. ICON has a "Romance Capsule" package ($185) that includes drinks, rose petals, a gourmet box of truffles and private space for you and your special someone to enjoy the ride. A dedicated coordinator can help you make any special arrangements...


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South Orlando
Gatorland
Photo courtesy of Visit Kissimmee, Florida


 

It bills itself as "Orlando's best half-day attraction" and we tend to agree - though increasingly it's upping its game. 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.


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Magic Kingdom® Park
Photo courtesy of Visit Orlando


 

Don't ever count out the classics. The Magic Kingdom may be the first of Walt Disney World's theme parks, but it's no less relevant. Plus it's always changing, whether a new ride, a new shop or a new dining venue. But the more things change, the more they stay the same: 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 earworm 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.


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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 â€" 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 â€" even those that are 21+!).


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This could easily be an entry for Islands of Adventure, as well, because the Wizarding World of Harry Potter spans that two-park empire. It's been a few years since the opening of Diagon Alley, serious Potter fans (and those merely charmed by the books and films) are still WILD about Harry. With thrill rides, brilliantly immersive scenery, attractions like Ollivander's Wand Shop and delicious bites (you drink your butterbeer or eat it as frozen custard, for example!) and more, the Wizarding World is a must for most. Elsewhere, fun flows like Class 4 rapids. From Despicable Me Minion Mayhem to Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, to the all-new Fast & Furious - Supercharged, 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.


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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, but the entire experience is also 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.


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Disney Springs ®


 

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 its gems (T-Rex Cafe, Disney's Days of Christmas and World of Disney to name a couple) 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, Free People, and Alex & Ani and 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.


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Meet A.D. Thompson

Amy Drew has spent nearly three decades as a professional writer and roughly half her life as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum.

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