If anyone tells you not to believe the hype about Orlando, ignore them.
The world theme park capital keeps every extravagant promise it makes and then some. Magical for younger kids, end-to-end teen excitement and fantastic for multi-generational family holidays, Orlando’s also cultured, creative and works well beyond Disney, Universal and SeaWorld.
The city’s just over an hour by road from Cape Canaveral and beach resorts on the east coast. The gorgeous Gulf Coast’s under two hours to the west. And swamps, forests, national parks and huge lakes are easy day trips if you want to mix a little wild Florida in with the manmade thrills.
Year round direct flights from several UK airports to Orlando with flying time of just over eight hours.
Central Florida’s warm and sunny all year round with average temperatures of 19˚ in December and January, rising to 30˚ and above in July and August.
Disney has 14 themed resorts in Lake Buena Vista, 25 minutes from Orlando Airport.
There are over 400 hotels in the Orlando area and most have theme park tickets and accommodation deals.
Orlando has some of the USA’s largest and deepest discount designer outlet malls.
Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve, Kissimmee Chain of Lakes and Ocala National Forest are all within 40 minutes drive of Orlando.
Cape Canaveral, the only place in the world to see rocket launches, is an hour from Orlando, on the east coast.
Where to go
Lake Buena Vista
Lake Buena Vista
Lake Buena Vista sits to the west of Orlando Airport and it’s where you’ll find all Disney’s resort hotels, Disney theme parks and waterparks. There are a few other attractions and the area likes to say it’s, ‘more than Disney’, but could just as easily claim, ‘not much more than Disney’. If you’re up for immersion in the brand but want to be within easy reach of other Orlando behemoths like SeaWorld and Universal Studios, Lake Buena Vista should be your first choice.
Home to Walt Disney World Resort, Disney Caribbean Beach Resort, Disney Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, Disney Coronado Springs Resort, Disney Yacht Club Resort, Disney Contemporary Resort, Disney All-Star Movie Resort and Disney all-Star Music Resort.
Area for Disney Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon, Hollywood Studios and Epcot.
If you’re immersing yourself in the Disney experience, multi-park family tickets are best value.
You don’t have to stay at a Disney resort to enjoy Disney, several other brands including Wyndham and Radisson have resorts in Lake Buena Vista. It’s also a good area for self-catering holiday villas and apartments.
Just 25 minutes from Orlando Airport, Kissimmee is a small, friendly city and the best place to base a family holiday if you want to be close to theme parks but not surrounded by them. The choice of accommodation here’s vast and covers everything from five-star resorts to budget apartments and hotels.
15 minutes from the Disney parks, International Drive, SeaWorld and Universal Studios
20 minutes from Orlando city centre, close to the Florida Turnpike and just over an hour from east coast beaches.
Excellent local shopping and restaurants but under half an hour from Orlando’s famous outlet malls.
Shuttle services to all major theme parks and waterparks run from Kissimmee.
South Orlando’s main drag stretches for 17 non-stop, dazzling kilometres. If you can think of a US food chain, it’s here: from the world’s largest McDonald’s to six different varieties of Subway, Taco Bell in triplicate to Sushiology and Starbucks every which way. It’s the highway for outlet malls or designer discount stores and SeaWorld, Madame Tussauds, Coca Cola Orlando Eye, Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Wet ‘n’ Wild are just a few I-Drive’s iconic big ticket attractions.
One of Orlando’s best areas for families with older kids. Every major brand from Great Western to Hilton, Wyndham, Sheraton and Ramada has at least one enormous resort hotel on International Drive.
A journey along I-Drive on a cute I-Trolley is a tourist must-do in Orlando.
Take a theme park breather and go visit Downtown Orlando. It’s one of the largest urban centres in the US and the place for museums, science centres, galleries, non-outlet shopping, chic restaurants and some very pretty parks and gardens. Even just walking around for an hour or two is good fun.
Take a tour and discover Downton Orlando with an expert city guide. Themes include art, food, history and hauntings.
Don’t miss: Orlando Science Centre, Orlando Museum of Art, Mennello Museum of American Art, swan boats on Lake Eola and the Amway Centre.
What to do
Disney Magic Kingdom Park For the traditional Disney magic of Cinderella’s Castle, character meets, theme rides and theme restaurants, legendary evening parades and firework displays.
Disney Hollywood Studios From Star Wars to Toy Story, Beauty and the Beast, Indiana Jones, Toy Story and Frozen, this is the world of Disney movies.
Disney Animal Kingdom Disney mixes up African safari, glossy stage productions, wild rides, extravagant events and meets with characters from the Lion King, Finding Nemo, Jungle Book.
Disney Epcot Travel round the globe, under the sea and out into space on Disney’s whistle stop world tour taking everything from the Great Wall of China to frozen Arctic wastes.
Universal Studios Florida The Universal blockbusters’ theme park and where to find the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit rollercoaster.
SeaWorld Orlando Swimming with dolphins, immense aquariums, encounters with manatee and, of course, the One Ocean killer whale stadium.
Disney Blizzard Beach Orlando’s best known waterpark with the world’s tallest waterslide, Mount Gushmore, balanced by lagoons, lazy rivers and safe, gentle splash about play for younger kids.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not Believe it or not, this is even bigger than Disney in Orlando. An ‘odditorium’ designed as a vast sinkhole and packed with the world’s weirdest exhibits designed to make jaws drop and minds boggle.
Coca Cola Orlando Eye 122m high, slowly revolving Ferris wheel for views over the theme parks across lush, green central Florida and as far as Cape Canaveral, on a clear day.
Gatorland As close as you want to get to Florida’s infamous residents, this is the place to see alligator wrestling, alligator nurseries, alligator conservation in action and sail across ponds of gators on a zip line recently voted best in the US.
Educational value for kids
Described as ‘edu-entertainment’, WonderWorks mixes white-knuckle rides and amusement park fun with interactive learning experiences.
The Manatee Rehabilitation Centre at SeaWorld lets kids see the work being done to protect these gentle and fascinating Florida natives.
Visit Orlando Wetlands Park and walk some of the 32km of traffic-free trails through unspoiled, wild countryside that pre-dates Disney by millennia.
The 60 year old Orlando Science Centre is one of the oldest in the US, covers four huge floors and has kids’ events all-year-round.
Balance manmade thrills with one of Orlando’s kayaking or biking eco-tours into the wild land beyond the theme parks.
Before Kissimmee became resort central it was simply Osceola County, discover the living history of the area at Shingle Creek Pioneer Village.
Take a Behind the Scenes tour at SeaWorld for an insight into the inner workings of the world’s most famous aquatic park.
Getting around with kids in Orlando
If you want to see more than the theme parks in and around Orlando, hire a car. Like most states in the US, Florida’s designed for driving and relying on public transport is time-consuming and limiting. The weather’s hot and humid in summer, so always carry bottled water, plan your route before heading off and don’t forget to keep an eye on fuel if you’re using air-con.