The 23 best things to do in Orlando
Orlando isn't just about the theme parks – a holiday in Florida has a wealth of unique experiences to offer, from rocket launches to singing towers
Orlando may be best-known for its theme parks – from Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom to Universal Studios, they entertain millions of visitors a year – but there’s more to the city than Mickey Mouse. From sampling a Florida orange straight off the tree, to exploring the extraordinary Bok Tower Gardens bird sanctuary, there’s plenty to write home about.
1. Meet Mickey Mouse at Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World Resort is arguably the most famous theme park destination on the planet. Covering more than 27,250 acres in Central Florida, the complex includes the fairytale-like Magic Kingdom, futuristic Epcot, Golden Age-inspired Hollywood Studios, and exotic Animal Kingdom.
From the spires of Cinderella Castle to the leaves of the Tree of Life, every inch of Walt Disney World is designed to wow, while a cast of performers bring Disney characters to life. Dozens of hotels offer guests a place to stay and two water parks give visitors reprieve from the heat. More than 50 million people visit Disney World each year – so if you want to beat the crowds, head there in late January or between Thanksgiving and Christmas when attendance is at its lowest.
2. Discover movie magic at Universal Studios Orlando
The Universal Orlando Resort takes visitors out of their everyday lives and plugs them into worlds of entertainment and excitement – from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter to the Volcano Bay water park. At Universal's Islands of Adventure, visitors can explore scattered islands, each with its own theme, like Toon Lagoon and Marvel Super Hero Island. Over at Universal Studios, the entertainment industry comes to life. Iconic films like Jaws, Godzilla, and E.T. are brought to life through rides, while performers around the park portray characters and stars as diverse as Marilyn Monroe, Dora the Explorer, and Marty McFly. Beyond the theme parks, the resort features CityWalk, an entertainment and nightlife complex, and a handful of hotels.
3. Meet an astronaut at the Kennedy Space Center
The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral is among the most impressive but often overlooked places in Florida. There’s a huge array of historic equipment from NASA’s past on display – including the enormous Saturn V rocket that helped launch the Apollo 11 crew to the Moon. You can also explore exhibits on the Space Shuttle, the equipment used during the moonshot missions and the future of NASA.
The undoubted highlight, though, is the opportunity to meet an astronaut and hear them talk about their experiences in space – check in advance to find out who’s speaking on a particular day. Time your visit right and you can also view a rocket launch from a safe distance, just a few miles away from the launch pads.
4. Pick Florida oranges at Showcase of Citrus
If Florida weren’t the “Sunshine State,” it would probably be called the “Citrus State.” Ever since the early Spanish explorers planted the first orange trees on Florida soil, the state’s been famous for its citrus fruit – nowadays it produces 90% of America’s orange juice.
If you want to enjoy an orange like a true Floridian, there’s no better way than by picking it yourself, straight from the tree. Showcase of Citrus is a veritable citrus safari – you can walk through its groves and pick your own fruit for your picnic. There are over 50 kinds of citrus to choose from, depending on the time of year you’re visiting. If you’re looking for something more rugged, hop on one their tiger-striped monster trucks for an off-road ride.
5. Hear a tower sing at Bok Tower Gardens
Bok Tower Gardens was created as a bird sanctuary in the 1920s – but the birds aren’t the only ones doing the singing. Twice a day, at 1 and 3 pm, the Singing Tower at Bok Tower Gardens erupts in a beautiful melody that might sound more at place in the "Old World” than it does Central Florida. But, a little over an hour south of Orlando, the 250-acre garden with its 205-foot tower and 60-bell carillon give visitors an experience that shouldn’t be missed. At 295 feet above sea level, the garden is one of the highest points on the relatively flat Florida peninsula and offers a unique overlook of the region’s iconic orange groves. (Image by Marianne Serra licensed under CC BY 2.0)
6. Cure your vinyl fever at Park Ave CDs
For over three decades – before the recent rebirth of vinyl – Park Ave CDs has supplied Orlando with the best alternative music records around. This small, colourful record and book store is a favourite among locals, who appreciate the collection as much as the friendly staff. Check ahead and you may be able to catch one of its intimate in-store performances – artists who’ve played there include the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Silversun Pickups and Waterparks.
7. Eat an authentic Cuban sandwich in Ybor City
Legend has it the Cuban sandwich was first pressed in Ybor City cafés, where cigar rollers would stop for lunch before returning to work in the early 1900s. Lathered in lard and with layers of roasted pork, ham, salami, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles, these pressed sandwiches have become world renowned – but the Tampa area still prides itself as the originator of this delicious dish. Stop by the historic Ybor City, just over an hour from of Orlando, for an original Cuban sandwich or even indulge in a local cigar. The huge Columbia Restaurant – the self-styled "largest Spanish restaurant in the world" – has one of the best Cuban sandwiches in Ybor City. If you’re in the mood for something a little cozier, check out the smaller, less touristy La Segunda Bakery – a favourite with locals.
8. Cruise back in time at Old Town, Kissimmee
Old Town, Kissimmee is a shopping mall with a difference – it’s a recreation of an historic Florida Main Street, evoking the Americana of a world gone bye. Every Saturday, classic car collectors meet in Old Town for a drive down memory lane during the Saturday Nite Car Cruise. Beginning at 1pm, drivers arrive behind the wheels of their hot rods, street rods, and antiques, each dating back to at least 1979. After a full day of admiring each other’s rides, the drivers start their engines again and cruise down the city’s brick-paved Main Street for a final parade at 8:30pm.
9. Uncover the secrets of Walt Disney World
Anyone can see Walt Disney World on the surface – but only a handful of astute visitors ever experience its hidden treasures. Start by digging a little deeper and looking for the "Hidden Mickey” graphics scattered around the park – a designer’s easter egg from the Imagineers behind the rides.
If you’re a truly dedicated Disney fan, you can explore the park’s secret locations on a Keys to the Kingdom Tour – it takes you behind the scenes, giving you backstage access to the park’s classic attractions and the network of underground tunnels that tie Disney World together. (Image by Jeff Christiansen licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)
10. Devour a decadent ‘Gelati’ at Jeremiah's
Jeremiah’s Italian Ice is a local favorite for anyone craving a sweet treat and break from the heat. Since Jeremiah first rolled out his pushcart in the 80s, they’ve offered classic soft serve ice cream and over 40 flavours of Italian ice – from classics like chocolate to exotic ones like horchata. Be sure to try the house speciality, the “Gelati,” a decadent layering of soft serve and Italian ice that will have you saying grazie with a mouthful.
11. Visit Enzian, the heart of indie cinema in Florida
Film buffs will feel right at home at Enzian, Central Florida’s only full-time alternative cinema and home of the Florida Film Festival. With only one screen, the cinema serves up a carefully curated programme of independent, foreign and classic films; the screening room’s kitted out with plush couches, while table service is available so you can wine and dine while you watch. If you don’t feel like watching a movie, the venue also plays host to the al fresco Eden Bar, a terrace with a canopy of overhanging weeping oaks.
12. Explore an ecodistrict at Audubon Park
Minutes from downtown Orlando you’ll stumble upon the homegrown and locally-owned community of Audubon Park Garden District. This “ecodistrict” prides itself on its sustainability. Shops are small and authentic, selling handcrafted goods – everything from artisan cheeses to vintage clothing. Restaurants serve fresh food with locally-sourced ingredients.
This lively community brings together citizens and businesses, setting an example for other eco-friendly neighbourhoods around the country – in 2016, it was honoured with a Great American Main Street Award. Drop in on a weekend or a Monday night and you’ll encounter community events, street parties and the Audubon Park Community Market.
13. Enjoy a social gathering in 19th-century style
If you’re in the mood for a classic cocktail experience, look no further than Mathers. Located in a three-story historic building dating back to the 1800s, the Mathers bar was once a furniture store and now sports a similar vintage style with dark wood, exposed brick, and chesterfield sofas. Billed as a “social gathering”, it aims to conjure up the atmosphere of 19th-century clubs – with butlers serving up boutique cocktails concocted from seasonal ingredients.
14. Eat from Chef Fish Morgan’s menu at Yellow Dog Eats
You can’t go wrong with a restaurant run by a guy named Chef Fish Morgan. This food artist, sommelier, and all-round entertainer opened Yellow Dog Eats after years honing his kitchen skills at the Culinary Institute of America. Housed in a historic building just outside Orlando, the “Dog” serves a unique mix of sandwiches, salads, and BBQ, piled high with quality – and unusual – ingredients. Think pulled pork layered with blue cheese crumbles and orange Cointreau mayo, or club sandwiches drizzled with Thai chili sauce and wasabi cucumber ranch dressing.
From eerily beautiful bioluminescent waters to the world’s largest collection of Tiffany glass, explore Orlando's lesser-known attractions by taking the road less travelled.
15. Discover Orlando’s hidden Vietnamese district
Miles away from the Epcot World Showcase, Orlando is home to Little Saigon, where refugees from the Vietnam War relocated and established their own unique community near downtown in the Mills/50 District. Here you’ll find restaurant, shops, and markets offering authentic Asian food and goods, from live eels to lychee trees. Pop into Vietnam Cuisine for tasty bánh cuốn, rice pancakes stuffed with pork, pickled radish and mushrooms, before washing it down with a bubble tea from the colourful Chewy Boba. (Photo by TastyChomps)
16. Drive an Amphicar into a lake – and out again
The Amphicar is one of the oddities of automotive history – a 1960s amphibious car that was as happy travelling on the river as on the road. In its day, the Amphicar was considered a bit of a joke. “At one time, they were considered the worst car and the worst boat in the world,” says Steven Schussler, creator of The Boathouse restaurant at Disney Springs, where you can book an Amphicar tour of the lake. Fortunately, Schussler’s team have re-engineered the cars from the ground up, while retaining their cute ‘60s bodywork – so you don’t have to bring a wetsuit.
17. Travel back in time to old Florida at Shingle Creek
With development eating into Osceola County’s cattle ranches, their historic buildings were in danger of being torn down. So the local historical society came up with a clever solution: put the buildings on trucks and relocate them to a new site. The Pioneer Village at Shingle Creek is the result: an open-air museum housing a permanent collection of authentic vintage buildings, set alongside period-appropriate replicas. As well as a 19th-century “cracker house”, there’s a blacksmith’s shop, a citrus-packing house and a Seminole village. Visitors can discover how homesteaders and the Seminole tribes adapted their buildings to the harsh climate, and explore the adjoining nature reserve, which highlights flora and fauna from the time of Florida’s Native American tribes and early pioneers.
18. Paddle through a bioluminescent wonderland
Bioluminescence – the natural process by which animals and plants generate light – is an almost magical phenomenon, and in Florida you can see it up close. From June to October, bioluminescent sea creatures appear in the lagoons on Florida’s east coast in one of the state’s most impressive natural displays. Nighttime kayak tours around the Space Coast provide an appropriately out-of-this-world experience, as every splash of a paddle creates a glowing wake that looks like something from Avatar’s Pandora.
19. Visit Solomon's Castle, a monument to eccentricity
In 1972, artist Howard Solomon began work on a castle – made not out of stone and mortar, but discarded aluminium newspaper press plates. Over 30 years later, Solomon’s Castle – just under two hours southwest of Orlando – is a monument to his oddball ingenuity. Packed with wacky sculptures and gizmos created by Solomon himself, the castle even has its own moat – with a 60-foot galleon housing the Boat on the Moat restaurant. Sadly, Solomon passed away in 2016 but his family has kept his vision and humour alive. (Photo by Richard Elsey licensed under CC BY 2.0)
20. Unwind at the most peaceful place in Florida
A short drive east from the bustle of Orlando in the small town of Mims, the White Sands Buddhist Center offers visitors a truly tranquil scene. The site’s most arresting feature is the statuary; three massive granite statues of Siddhārtha stand on the 30-acre site, depicting the original Buddha at different stages of his life. A designated meditation area is set aside for those seeking peace and quiet, while every Sunday services are announced by a monk who rings a 2,200-pound bell for half an hour.
21. See the Morse Museum's Tiffany glass collection
19th-century designer Louis Comfort Tiffany pioneered new glassmaking techniques to create his Art Nouveau masterpieces. Orlando’s Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art showcases the world’s largest collection of Tiffany glass, ranging from leaded-glass windows and lamps to a monumental chapel interior created for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Featuring five pieces from each medium and stage in Tiffany's illustrious career – as well as paintings and sculpture from artists including John Singer Sargent and William Morris – the museum makes for an authentic and grown-up contrast to Orlando’s theme parks and tourist attractions.
22. Explore the lakes from above – and land on them
The seaplane is uniquely suited to Central Florida’s clear skies and long string of lakes – so much so that the city of Tavares, under an hour northwest of Orlando, bills itself as “Seaplane City”. The city’s seaplane pilots offer a range of unique “flightseeing” activities – from short hops to lengthier excursions taking in kayaking along the Dora Canal, picnics on the beach and even alligator-spotting trips.
23. Visit a museum dedicated to Tupperware
Many families have a Tupperware collection stuffed somewhere in their kitchen – but nowhere else in the world takes the stackable storage containers as seriously as Orlando. The home of the brand’s global headquarters, Orlando’s curiously-named Tupperware Brands Confidence Center also plays host to a museum that takes visitors on a self-guided visual journey highlighting the company’s innovative products. Small but perfectly formed – like the products themselves – the museum's colourful displays showcase the brand’s history, from company founder Earl Tupper’s original idea, including the first mold machine that formed the renowned "burping bowls", to the modern-day products that can be found across the globe. And yes, they do sell the containers, too. Next door at the Tupperware Gallery is one of few places in the world where the products can be purchased from a store.