With as many over-the-top attractions as there are mouse ears, Orlando can be overwhelming. Start with size: The theme parks are big — really big. Animal Kingdom alone is 500 acres — about the size of the Principality of Monaco! Visitors to Disney World walk 10 to 15 miles a day, on average. Theme park touring means you’ll be on your feet a lot, sometimes in high heat and humidity. Be sure to take air-conditioned breaks and drink plenty of water.
The good news is that Disney World offers complimentary buses, boats and monorails to transport you around. Universal and SeaWorld offer some free park-to-park shuttles. Plus, all the parks have plenty of benches and are very accommodating to visitors with mobility challenges (see Getting Around section).
Strenuousness aside, the parks are a blast, whether you’re 4 or 94 — or a multigenerational family with both extremes! Here’s the lowdown on how to pick your park.
Walt Disney World Resort
There are four separate theme parks under the WDW umbrella — Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom — and two water parks — Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon — sprawling over nearly 40 miles. Not to mention 36 resort hotels, 63 holes of golf on four courses, two full-service spas, Disney’s Wedding Pavilion, ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and Disney Springs, a massive entertainment, shopping and dining district. Whew!
At Disney parks you can safari your way through a 110-acre wildlife reserve to find lions, giraffes, warthogs and more. Visit Pandora — The World of Avatar after dark when the bioluminescent rainforest lights up. (Caution: Street bands spark spontaneous dancing.) Conjure childhood memories at classics such as It’s a Small World or Peter Pan’s Flight.
Cool off at Splash Mountain, a water flume ride, or — arrr! —enjoy the iconic Pirates of the Caribbean. Learn fascinating behind-the-scenes tidbits at the popular Keys to the Kingdom tour, which unveils the famous utilidor (utility corridor) tunnels below the park. And watch the nightly IllumiNations fireworks, guaranteed to knock your Mickey socks off.
Universal Orlando Resort
Universal has two theme parks, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, both known for adrenaline-pumping roller coasters — winners if the grandkids are in tow. Not up for stomach-churning? Be sure to swing by the Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley in Universal Studios, where you can sample butter beer ice cream and be wowed by spellbinding scenery (Potter fan or not). Or stop for one of the movie- or TV-related shows (Lassie and Mr. Ed re-enactors, anyone?). For R&R, snag a private thatched-roof cabana at Volcano Bay, a 30-acre waterpark with a 200-foot-high faux volcano. Afterward, enjoydining, shopping and entertainment in CityWalk, a 30-acre complex.
SeaWorld is a marine-based zoological park where you can get splashed by Shamu and delighted by encounters with dolphins, penguins, manatees and mantas. Aquatica is a sprawling water park, home to high-speed water slides (calling all grandkids!) as well as a lazy river and tranquil beaches. For an immersive experience, swim with dolphins, feed tropical birds and snorkel among tropical fish at the all-inclusive Discovery Cove park.
Adult activities at theme parks
Sure, the parks are geared to kids and families, but there’s plenty of grownup-only fun. After all that heavy-duty walking, indulge in some very adult pampering at a spa. Visit Senses – a Disney Spa at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa or the Mandara Spa located in both the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel at Universal Orlando and the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort. No better way to soothe tired muscles.
For a grownup evening, visit Disney Springs. Shop your way through more than 110 options — from Lilly Pulitzer to Sperry to Coach — or dine in one of 56 eateries. Up for some toe-tapping beats? Free performances at 10 venues each evening range from saxophone players to Latin music to Irish step dancers. At Universal’s CityWalk, catch a Blue Man Group performance (an entertaining combo of art, technology, music and comedy) or sing karaoke at Rising Star with your own live band to back you up.
Ways to save: Florida state residents get ticket discounts at all the parks. Otherwise, here are park-by-park ways to save:
For Disney World, a single-day park hopper pass is $174.66 to $195.96, depending on the season, and saves you $40 on same-day admission to any of the four parks. If you buy tickets for four days, you get the fifth day free.
For Universal, a single-day park-to-park pass is $170 to $179, depending on the season, a savings of $55 on single-park admission. If you crave some nightlife at Universal CityWalk, go after 6 p.m., when parking is free.
For SeaWorld, a single-day, three-park ticket is $199.99, a savings of $100 over a single-day, single-park visit. Unlimited visits at all the parks for 14 consecutive days cost $169.99, including free parking.
Downtown and nearby neighborhoods
There will come a time when you’re all theme-parked out. Downtown Orlando, and its nearby neighborhoods, is the answer. About 11 miles from Walt Disney World, it’s worth a day trip or two.
Urban Orlando is known for its museums, green spaces and performing arts center. Right in the center of downtown, 43-acre Lake Eola Park is a magnet for people watching. On Saturdays it’s packed for the weekly farmers market, but it’s lovely anytime for a leisurely almost-mile-long, round-the-lake walk or to catch a concert or play in the Walt Disney Amphitheater. Sidewalks are easy to navigate with a wheelchair or walker, and even the swan paddleboats are wheelchair accessible. And there are plenty of shaded benches, too. Nearby in Thornton Park, boutique shops, neighborhood bars and Craftsman-style bungalows reign supreme.
It’s easy to while away an afternoon in bucolic Winter Park, one of Central Florida’s swankiest zip codes, just north of Orlando. Head to Park Avenue to shop, sup and stroll among its 140 luxury retailers, upscale restaurants and museums.
Loch Haven Cultural Park, near downtown Orlando, is a great place to spend the day. Start out with the eclectic Orlando Museum of Art, which got its start in 1924. Afterward, walk across the street to visit the Mennello Museum of American Art for traditional and contemporary American art or a yoga session in the sculpture garden. Pack a picnic: Just outside is “The Mayor,” a majestic oak tree that has been around for 200 years. The Smithsonian-affiliated Orange County Regional History Center, in the heart of downtown, offers a surprisingly fascinating look at 12,000 years of Florida’s heritage. The Museum of Art and Mennello offer complimentary wheelchairs, and the History Center is ADA compliant.
Tantalized by Tiffany? You won’t want to miss the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park for the world’s largest collection of works by the master glass and jewelry designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. The museum makes wheelchairs available.
Ways to save: Orlando Museum of Art offers those 65-plus tickets for $8, a savings of $7. Visitors 60 and up pay $4 at Mennello, $1 off. The History Center offers those 55 and up $1 off the regular $8 ticket. Visitors 60-plus save $1 on the $6 admission. Also, all of the outdoor sculptures at Mennello can be enjoyed for free.
Go highbrow at the multitheater, glass-walled Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, in the heart of downtown, which presents everything from opera and ballet to Broadway shows and outdoor festivals. Wheelchair-accessible seats are available.
Ways to save: One of the coolest free events is the Creative City Project, held the third week of October in downtown Orlando. More than 1,000 artists perform, including ballerinas, rappers and street artists. Plus, there are large-scale art installations.
Want to follow your passion and delve a little deeper? Orlando has walking tours for everything from American Ghost Adventures to a Crafty Cocktail Tour, from a Downtown Food Tour to a Downtown Historic District Tour. Yes, even Orlando has history worth exploring.