Since completing university in England, Paul has worked as a bookseller, librarian and freelance writer. He currently lives in Florida.
As fun destinations go, it is difficult to think of many locations in the world that offer such a wide variety of things to do, places to visit, and sights to see as Orlando, Florida. The city is positively overflowing with unique events, attractions, eateries, experiences, and entertainment sites.
Located in central Florida and holding the title of the fifth-largest city in the state, Orlando has been called the "theme-park capital of the world." It is America's most visited city, and in addition to drawing many tourists, it is also one of the busiest American destinations for conventions and conferences.
In this article, I list 12 amazing attractions to visit in and around Orlando. Also included (after the main list) are six downtown-specific locations to see and experience if you are only in the city for a short time, or don't have the ability to drive around the entire Orlando area.
12 Orlando Attractions to Check Out
- Walt Disney World
- Harry P. Leu Gardens
- Universal Orlando Resort
- Cornell Fine Arts Museum
- Ripley's Believe It or Not! Orlando
- Discovery Cove
- Ocala National Forest
- Kissimmee Ghost Tours
- Kennedy Space Center
- Quantum Leap Winery
- Cocoa Beach
- Legoland Florida
I go into detail regarding each suggestion below.
1. Walt Disney World
As far as Disney attractions and events go, there is no place in the world that compares to Disney World Orlando.
There really is something for everyone, no matter their age, whether it is Magic Kingdom for the whole family, Epcot for the adults, or Animal Kingdom for those who love the earth's critters. Epcot has an excellent food and wine festival, which is definitely worth catching if you can.
One of the most awesome facts about Orlando, FL, is that Walt Disney World is, according to Forbes, the most visited vacation resort on the planet with 25 million visitors each year.
If you can dream it, you can do it.
— Walt Disney
2. Harry P. Leu Gardens
If you like beautiful subtropical and tropical gardens, you'll love Leu Garden. It consists of nearly 50 acres of landscaped grounds and lakes complete with wandering trails, 200-year-old oak trees, and exotic flowers. It's an absolute paradise for those who wish to increase their appreciation of plants.
At the heart of the gardens is the Leu House Museum, which houses exhibits that demonstrate how the families who once dwelled in the house lived at the turn of the century. The gardens and historical home were created by Mr. Harry P. Leu and his wife, Mary Jane, who traveled the world collecting exotic plants, including an incredible 240 varieties of Camellias. The house and gardens were donated to the City of Orlando in 1961.
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3. Universal Orlando Resort
With two theme parks (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure), plus a nighttime entertainment complex (Universal CityWalk Orlando), this theme park resort complex offers plenty of opportunities for fun and entertainment.
In addition to some incredible rides, movie-themed areas, and the very popular new island, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, there are also some awesome seasonal events for occasions like Halloween and Mardis Gras that take place each year. Four hotels provide convenient places to stay at the resort.
4. Cornell Fine Arts Museum
There is plenty to see for art lovers in Orlando. The Cornell Arts Museum is located on the Winter Park campus of Rollins College. It houses 5,000 objects whose origins span wide swaths of time and space stretching from antiquity up to the present day.
In addition to the museum's comprehensive array of prints, drawings, and photographs, their permanent collection also includes rare works by old masters, such as Cosimo Rosselli’s Madonna Enthroned Nursing the Christ Child (1470) and Albert Bierstadt’s Shoshone Indians-Rocky Mountains (1859).
Note: The museum is closed on Mondays.
5. Ripley's Believe It or Not! Orlando
Built deliberately to appear as if it is disappearing into one of Florida's famous sinkholes, the Ripley's Odditorium in Orlando is a Bavarian-style building located on the International Drive tourist corridor.
The Odditorium describes itself as "The only place in Orlando where you’ll find shrunken heads, an authentic vampire killing kit, a shooting gallery, and a wild spinning vortex tunnel." For those interested in all things strange and curious, Ripley's is a one-stop-shop filled to the brim with weird and wonderful oddities.
6. Discovery Cove
Discovery Cove is a unique tropical sanctuary that offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience and ends up being many visitors' favorite Orlando attraction. It offers thrilling encounters with wild animals, including 30-minute swims with dolphins, snorkeling sessions in a coral reef with thousands of tropical fish, and wading sessions in a lagoon inhabited by rays.
The on-site aviary is a crowd favorite and gives visitors the opportunity to feed, touch, and interact with hundreds of different tropical birds, many of which sport beautiful, brightly colored plumage.
7. Ocala National Forest
Located north of Orlando, the Ocala National Forest covers 350,000 acres and provides the opportunity to explore and experience Florida naturally. It includes over 600 rivers, springs, and lakes, and there are four separate recreation areas (Alexander Springs, Juniper Springs, Silver Glen Springs, and Salt Springs). As their names suggest, each of these areas features natural springs in addition to other breathtaking scenery to explore.
Visitors to the Ocala National Forest can go camping, boating, hiking, biking, birding, wildlife-viewing, horseback-riding, or fishing in the forest. Those with Jeeps or ATVs can also take advantage of the area's multiple 4-wheeling trails.
8. Kissimmee Ghost Tours
Located southwest of Orlando, Kissimmee Ghost Tours offers a tour of the haunted town of Kissimmee. An informative guide shows visitors the spookiest sites and explains the ghostly happenings associated with each place. Spooky stories include the hanging tree, the headless horseman, a small girl in a playground, and the ghost of the lake.
Reservations are necessary for the walking tours that leave downtown Kissimmee’s historic Welcome Station each night at 8:30. There is also a provision for reservations by private groups of between 2 and 100 people.
9. Kennedy Space Center
Located about an hour east of Orlando and serviced by shuttles and bus services that provide visitors transportation from Orlando hotels, the Kennedy Space Center Visitors' Complex is an experience of a lifetime and well worth a visit. The complex is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm with the exception of Christmas Day and some launch days.
Spacecraft on display include everything from the tiny early capsules to the huge Saturn V rockets that took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Exhibits range from displays of vintage spacesuits worn on historic trips to shuttle-launch simulators in which visitors can experience the sensation of a rocket launch firsthand. Attendees can also visit the enormous Vertical Assembly Building where space shuttles are constructed.
10. Quantum Leap Winery
Down a side street and hidden from the main road, Quantum Leap Winery has a cozy, intimate atmosphere that is difficult to find elsewhere in Orlando. Check out the gorgeous wine barrel room. With some great restaurants nearby, you can drink wine first then eat some excellent food nearby. The winery can be booked for private events too.
11. Cocoa Beach
Any time you're in Florida, you just have to tip your sandy toes in the ocean. Just a short drive from Orlando, Cocoa Beach is an awesome place for surfing or lounging, and there are tons of great places nearby to eat, drink, and stay. Be sure to check out the original Ron Jon Surf Shop while you're there. The Kennedy Space Center is also nearby, so you can combine a trip to the beach with an informative visit to the internationally famous NASA facility.
12. Legoland Florida
Built on the old Cypress Gardens theme park in Winter Haven, Legoland Florida is another awesome attraction that is within easy travel distance from Orlando. Second in size only to Legoland Windsor in the UK, the Florida theme park is designed for families and boasts more than 45 rides, attractions, restaurants, shows, and shops.
The resort also houses a beautiful botanical garden and a water park. A hotel opened in the Summer of 2015 to provide a place for visitors to stay.
6 Places to Visit in Downtown Orlando
So many visitors to the Orlando area spend so much time at the theme parks that they miss out on all the fun things to do downtown. Orlando's downtown area is relatively small, making it easy to explore for short-term visitors or those without vehicles. There's plenty of history and culture to experience in the area's restaurants, theaters, bars, and late-night clubs. Here are six suggestions for those visiting Orlando's downtown area.
1. Church Street
At the heart of Downtown Orlando is Church Street. In addition to many of the city's best restaurants and a thriving night scene, the street also houses the historic Railroad Depot, which was built in 1889, long before the arrival of Disney World. Next door is the newly built SunRail project, which can be used to access other parts of the city.
2. The Dr. Phillips Center
Located on downtown Orlando’s Magnolia Avenue, the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is an entertainment complex where you can attend high-quality musicals, operas, dramas, and comedy shows. The impressively designed two-block complex features two theaters as well as several venues for smaller events, both private and public.
3. The SAK Comedy Lab
Everybody needs a laugh sometimes, and the SAK Comedy Lab has a reputation for delivering quality entertainment. It specializes in improvisational comedy, making every show a unique and vibrant experience. If you like the show Whose Line is it Anyway, you will love the SAK.
4. The Orlando Science Center
Located just outside the downtown area, the Orlando Science Center features an interesting mix of exhibitions and hands-on activities. The star attraction is the Nature Works, a giant space that demonstrates how the living things of Central Florida all interact and depend upon each other for their survival.
5. The Pop Parlour
This popsicle place is a personal favorite of mine and a great option for when you need to cool down on a hot day. The Pop Parlour has a well-deserved reputation for using only fresh, high-quality ingredients. Their wide array of flavors include cocktail-themed classics such as pineapple mimosa and mango rum as well as more traditional fruity popsicles.
6. The Amway Center
The Amway Center is the city's main venue for sports and live entertainment. It's built to be versatile and can transform itself into a suitable venue for live music, ice hockey, basketball, or indoor football. It's the home of three sports teams: the Orlando Magic (NBA Basketball team), the Orlando Predators (Arena Football League), and the Orlando Solar Bears (ECHL ice hockey team).
What Is the Best Time of Year to Visit Orlando?
My advice would be to avoid the summer months if you can. The weather can be oppressively hot and humid, it can get very crowded, and the tourist businesses like hotels and car rental companies tend to inflate their prices, especially during the school break.
The fall tends to be cooler, more affordable, and less busy; the only downside is that it is also hurricane season. Although Orlando is inland and very unlikely to suffer a direct hit, any hurricanes passing up the coast could still disrupt your holiday plans. That said, it is very unlikely that a hurricane will happen during your trip, but it's a possibility that you may wish to take into account.
Between late November and February, the weather is cooler, and the attractions are less crowded, but the room rates can still be high due to families traveling around during the holiday season.
My recommendation is to visit during March, April, or May. Prices are more affordable, the weather is generally sunny without the unbearable humidity of summer, and you don't have to stress out about hurricanes or tropical storms disrupting your plans. You should always try to book ahead to get maximum value though, especially if traveling around Easter or spring break.
© 2015 Paul Goodman