Summer days spent with my toes in the sand, grade-school field trips to see world-renowned performers, weekend visits to see Mickey Mouse, my childhood was filled with incredible, fun memories I consider myself lucky to have. Although I’ve since left Orlando and taken root in The Big Apple, I still have a strong appreciation for my hometown, and when I visit, I’m reminded of the variety of things the city has to offer.
While Orlando may be synonymous with Disney (and of course, that’s a huge part of it — and was a big part of my childhood), it’s actually true there are oodles of other things to do. For instance, why not sit in the splash zone at Orlando’s SeaWorld, or swim with sea critters and slide down an awesome water slide at one of Disney’s water parks? Theme parks not your thing? Shop at one of Orlando’s outlet malls, or dine and see a show in downtown Orlando instead. Click through to find out why this may be the Sunshine State’s most family-friendly city ever.
Even though Orlando is in Central Florida, the coastline's a mere hour or so away. Take a family road trip, and dip your toes into the Atlantic Ocean at Cocoa Beach (be sure to stop by the original Ron Jon Surf Shop) or at Daytona Beach (famous for the Daytona 500)! For calmer waves and clearer water, head to the Gulf! My all-time favorite spot is Siesta Key, which seems to always make the top 10 beach lists for its soft sand and serene vibe, or the equally popular beach next door, Clearwater. Of course, there are tons of other beaches you can access from Orlando, but these are some of my favorites.
One of Orlando's most popular tourist spots is International Drive — and it's no surprise why. Oodles of fun, kid-friendly attractions are packed onto this vibrant and bustling street. Test your kids' senses of fact versus fiction at Ripley's Believe it or Not, and then pop over next door to WonderWorks (an upside-down building your kids will go gaga over) for laser tag and other fun activities. When you're done, give your feet a rest while treating your eyes to a flick at Regal Pointe Orlando 20 & IMAX. Next, grab a bite at Taverna Opa for some yummy Greek food, or enjoy some mouth-watering BBQ at B.B. King's Blues Club, both of which are in the same pavilion.
Having access to top-notch water parks is one of the best things about Orlando. (If you didn't know, Florida's hot, folks!) Slide on down Summit Plummet, a breathtaking 120-foot water slide, at Disney's Blizzard Beach, or float around the lazy river at Disney's Typhoon Lagoon. (You can also go snorkeling with sea critters at the latter!) On International Drive there's also Wet 'n Wild, for which you can nab a ticket for $55 max. Have a marine life lover in the family? Check out Sea World's Aquatica, where they can slide through a water tube that doubles as an aquarium. I haven't been myself, but I've heard it's amazing!
Just like beaches, there are a handful of springs within miles of Orlando. If you're not from Florida, you likely haven't been to one, so if you travel to Orlando definitely take advantage of the opportunity to go! On a hot summer day, taking a dip in a spring is just about the most refreshing thing you can do. Float downstream with your tush in an inflatable tube at Blue Springs State Park (where you can also see manatees — a must!) or at Kelly Park and State Reserve, or go canoeing or kayaking at Wekiwa Springs State Park.
If your kids are animal or ocean lovers to any extent, be sure to swing by SeaWorld, which has rides, shows, and marine animals galore. Sit in the Splash Zone at the famous Shamu "Believe" show, feed dolphins and pet stingrays (and sharks!), or, if your kids like roller coasters, hop onto one of the park's two options, Manta and Kraken. If your kids really want to get up close and personal with marine life, pop over to one of SeaWorld's sister parks, Discovery Cove, where they can swim with dolphins!
Universal Studios and Universal Studios' Islands of Adventure are super-fun spots for kids and adults of all ages. If you're a roller-coaster junkie, the latter's for you. Ride on the park's famous Hulk, which takes off from a tunnel at 60 mph in just over 2 seconds flat (read: amazing), and, of course, if you're a Harry Potter lover, check out the new Wizarding World. Make sure you get a butter beer (which are kid-friendly as they aren't alcoholic), and check out Ollivanders Wand Shop. Just as much fun is Universal Studios, which has the awesome Twister ride as well as the newly added Simpsons Ride, which is a simulated roller coaster. Afterward, relax after a day on your feet, and grab a bite to eat at Universal Hard Rock Cafe or Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville at Universal CityWalk.
Build Something Awesome at LEGOLAND Orlando 8 of 13
Although I haven't been myself, LEGOLAND's got to be one of the most buzzed-about (and, from the looks of it, coolest) theme parks in Central Florida. I mean, come on, there's a roller coaster made of LEGOs, for Pete's sake. The entire park's made of this kid-favorite toy! Even though the park is about an hour-long drive from Orlando, in Winter Haven, I'd say if your little guy or gal is a fan of the classic toy, it's a must-see.
Believe it or not, downtown Orlando has a bunch of fun, kid-friendly things to do! Have a picnic, take a walk, or hop into a swan paddleboat at Lake Eola. If you're more of a foodie, pop on over to Thornton Park, where you can nosh at top-rated restaurants. For some of the city's cultural happenings, check out the Bob Carr for the Performing Arts, where the Orlando Philharmonic play and off-Broadway touring companies often stop by to perform. And, if you're into comedy, catch a stand-up act at the SAK Comedy Lab, located on Orange Avenue, downtown's main street.
I know, I know, dinner shows are cheesy. But this one's cool, I promise! Take a trip back in time with Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament, where you and your family will be assigned a certain knight that you'll cheer on as he jousts. The best part of all? While you're sitting ringside for this awesome tournament, you get to chow down on a full-course meal. (Yum.) Everyone in the family will love it, trust me.
Put the Pedal to the Metal at Fun Spot Orlando 11 of 13
Tell me: WHO doesn't love go-kart racing? I don't care what age you are — a little friendly competition in the form of a high-speed race is always fun. In Orlando, you can do just that at Fun Spot, which basically is like a carnival in theme-park form, complete with four go-kart tracks (all based on levels of expertise), a Ferris Wheel, bumper cars, and all the greasy-good food you can find at the county fair. Fun fact: The Orlando location just opened a new roller coaster, too!
OK, so this may not be unique to Orlando, but let me tell you: There are deals to be snagged at this city's outlet malls. For Michael Kors, J. Crew, and more, head to Orlando Premium Outlets, and for the Nike Factory Outlet and The North Face, among other stores, pop over to Prime Outlets International. Also near the Prime Outlets is the Festival Bay mall, which has Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World and a Ron Jon Surf Shop location. When all is said and done, what's a vacation without some swag to show for it?
No Orlando vacation can be complete without a trip to Walt Disney World. When I was a kid, my family had park-hopper passes, but that was before Animal Kingdom opened and the Magic Kingdom's new Fantasyland had even been put in the works. Some must-dos? See the fireworks above Cinderella's castle at the Magic Kingdom (I'm 23, and I still get chills), give your kids a taste of international culture by visiting the different country pavilions at Epcot, go on a safari at Animal Kingdom, and make 'em feel like stars at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Afterward, head to Downtown Disney to catch a movie at AMC Downtown Disney 24, dine and bowl at Splitsville, stimulate your senses at Cirque du Soleil's La Nouba, or grab a bite to eat at the House of Blues. No matter which attractions you indulge, a visit to Disney should truly put the finishing touches on a totally magical family vacation.