Fireworks over Walt Disney World. Photo courtesy of Laura Begley Bloom.
Orlando recently announced that it is the most-visited destination in the United States: 72 million people came here in 2017 alone. And it's no wonder. This city is a family-friendly playground that's home to Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and so much more.
Orlando is constantly adding attractions, hotels and restaurants, so there is always something new for visitors to experience. In fact, in the last five years, more than 100 new attractions, resorts and themed restaurants have opened, and this summer, another 10 family-friendly attractions will be added to the already dazzling list.
My 5-year-old daughter Lucy and I went on a recent jaunt to Orlando to get a sneak peek at the news and check out some of the classics. Here's what we're most excited about right now.
Where to Play
Whatever gets your motor racing, you'll find it in Orlando, from heart-thumping rollercoasters to mind-blowing 3D rides to drenching (and thrilling!) waterslides. These are the latest and the greatest.
Toy Story Land 2. Photo courtesy of Walt Disney World.
- Toy Story Land 2
Do the names Buzz Lightyear, Sheriff Woody and Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl ring a bell? Everyone's buzzing over Walt Disney World's big news: the opening of Toy Story Land 2, inspired by the Pixar films. This massive new land sprawls across 11 acres at Disney's Hollywood Studios and will make you feel like you have shrunk to the size of a toy. We can't wait to ride Slinky Dog Dash, a roller coaster inspired by Slinky’s coils, and Alien Swirling Saucers, which incorporates rocket ships and the green aliens from Pizza Planet.
- Disney Skyliner
If you've been to Walt Disney World, you know that getting around is no easy feat. So the soon-to-open Skyliner will be a welcome addition. These gondolas will whisk you between Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, as well as three resort hotels: Caribbean Beach Resort, Pop Century and Art of Animation.
- Legoland Florida Resort
Legoland — it's not just for Legos. The resort is unveiling Great Lego Race VR Coaster, its first virtual reality roller coaster. Designed specifically for children, it's loaded with mind-bending special effects.
- The Lego Ninjago – Master of the 4th Dimension
Newly opened in January 2018, this attraction features a short film that combines 3D computer animation with 4D real-world effects, all adding up to an amazing ninja adventure.
Fast & Furious 2. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios Orlando.
- Fast & Furious 2 - Supercharged
Buckle up for Universal Studios Orlando's latest high-octane attraction. This intense street-racing simulation is sure to be the highlight of your little car enthusiast's day (and yours, too!).
- Infinity Falls
This raft ride — the tallest drop of its kind — will wow fans of all ages at SeaWorld Orlando. Coast through the remains of a lost civilization, complete with waterfalls and jungles, and get ready to get drenched. Really drenched.
- Ray Rush
Over at Aquatica SeaWorld, the thrilling Ray Rush is a family raft ride that goes from zero to who-knows-what in mere seconds. You'll twist around in a colossal water sphere and swoop up and down on giant manta wings. This one will leave you with your heart in your throat.
- Icon Orlando 360
Giving the London Eye a run for its money, this 400-foot observational wheel is a great way to get a bird's eye view of Orlando. Plus, it's completely enclosed and air-conditioned. The big news here — in addition to a recent name change — is the 450-foot Orlando StarFlyer, a towering swing ride near the wheel that opens this summer.
- Nona Adventure Park
Perfect for the adventuresome family, this new water-sports park in the Lake Nona area of Orlando features an inflatable, floating obstacle course, wakeboarders pulled along by cables and a 60-foot climbing tower with a ropes course.
Where to Eat
Some people think Orlando is the land of hot dogs and chicken nuggets. Wrong. Look beyond the obvious, and you'll find a sophisticated food city that will appeal to discriminating palates. From secret discoveries to the newest entries, here's what we're crushing on right now.
Decadent milkshakes at Toothsome. Photo courtesy of Laura Begley Bloom.
- Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen
Chocolate lovers rejoice! This sweet spot in Universal Studios Orlando's CityWalk is home to an in-house working chocolate factory and retail stores selling plenty of goodies. The restaurant serves up a mix of dishes. Whether you're looking for Asian-inspired fusion salads, creative pizzas or classic surf-and-turf, you'll find it here. But save room — what you're really here for are the decadent signature milkshakes, with toppings that have to be seen to be believed.
- The Polite Pig
Modern gastropub meets down-home BBQ joint at this new Disney Springs hot spot from James and Julie Petrakis, the James Beard-nominated owners of The Ravenous Pig and Cask & Larder, both based in Winter Park, Florida. Patrons flock to The Polite Pig for inviting outdoor seating (plus more indoors in the cool and lofty space), housemade BBQ, creative sides and a wide variety of tap beer.
Explore Spanish tapas in the heart of Disney Springs, thanks to the world-renowned chef, Jose Andres. The sixth installment of his groundbreaking Jaleo restaurant is expected to welcome guests this summer. The multi-level space will be the largest Jaleo yet, serving dishes like hand-carved Jamón Ibérico de Bellota and croquetas de pollo, Spanish chicken fritters that will definitely put chicken nuggets to shame.
- Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill
Wolfgang Puck is bringing his laid-back California dining concept to Town Center, Orlando. The restaurant is sure to please each member of the family, with everything from signature cocktails to a sophisticated kids menu that won't make you feel guilty serving your kids another meal of pizza and pasta.
- Jinya Ramen Bar
So you thought you knew ramen? Think again. This isn't your average bowl of ramen at Jinya Ramen Bar. You can also enjoy a selection of Japanese tapas dishes. The restaurant is set in Orlando's lively Thorton Park neighborhood.
- Heirloom Deli
Good news for visiting vegans. Mary Mattern, former road chef for the band Blink-182, and Neil Westfall, guitarist for A Day to Remember, have created this New York-inspired hit. From drinks to bakery items, it's all 100-percent plant-based.
- Wine Bar George
Get a babysitter and head to Disney Springs for the only Master Sommelier-led wine bar in Florida. An absolute must for the vino-loving traveler, it's the perfect date night spot for mom and dad with its exquisite wine and cheese pairings.
Where to Stay
Are you a glam family who wants a refined oasis of calm or a fun-loving bunch who wouldn't mind breakfast sing-alongs? You'll find all that — and everything in between — in Orlando.
The tropical lobby at Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. Photo courtesy of Loews Sapphire Falls Resort.
- Loews Sapphire Falls Resort
Set just a quick boat ride away from Universal Studios Orlando, the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort is a Caribbean-inspired getaway that provides the perfect jumping-off spot for a Universal vacation. But when you spot the hotel's water slide surrounded by cascading waterfalls, you might not feel like venturing very far.
- Four Seasons Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort
It doesn't get much better than the Four Seasons, especially for families in search of luxury at Disney. Where do we begin? First, there's that signature Four Seasons welcome. Kids are given a little backpack filled with treats, before being ushered to your plush room. There are gift shops filled with extravagant must-haves (Missoni mouse ears, anyone?), plus a character breakfast with unrivaled Minnie and Mickey time. The stunning pool and the lazy river will make you reconsider doing just about anything else. The spa here isn't just for mom and dad — your little princess can get pampered, too. At night, don't miss the panoramic view of the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Animal Kingdom from the top-floor Capa restaurant.
Sheer luxury in Orlando. Photo courtesy of Four Seasons Orlando.
- Grove Resort and Spa
One of the best deals in town is the newly opened Grove, which has sprawling suites (choose from one to three bedrooms) and a great amenity for families: full kitchens. You'll also find a lazy river and a massive waterpark on property. And as if that weren't enough, there's also free transport to the parks.
- Universal's Aventura Hotel
For family-fun accommodations at a great deal, check out Universal's Aventura Hotel. The new value property will feature a 16-story gleaming glass tower with 600 guest rooms, including 13 kids' suites, plus the first-ever rooftop bar and grill at a Universal property. It is expected to open in August 2018.
- Margaritaville Resort Orlando
Due to open in 2018, this epic resort will feature 175 rooms, 1,000 Margaritaville-themed vacation homes, 300 timeshare units, a 12-acre water park, a wellness center and plenty of singalongs to Jimmy Buffet classics.
- Delaney Hotel
This newly opened downtown Orlando boutique hotel is perfectly equipped for high-tech families. Remote check-in, digital tablet-based concierge services in each of the 54 rooms, smartphone keys and smart TVs are just a few of the conveniences.
- Disney's Coronado Springs Resort
This Southwest-themed resort is expanding with a new 15-story tower topped with a rooftop restaurant that provides an amazing perch for a panoramic view of nighttime fireworks.
By Laura Begley Bloom
For more on these locations and other Orlando hotspots, check out VisitOrlando.com.