With as many over-the-top attractions as there are mouse ears, Orlando can be overwhelming. 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, often in high heat and humidity. Be sure to take air-conditioned breaks and drink plenty of water along the way.
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.
Strenuousness aside, the parks are a blast, for all ages. Here’s the lowdown on how to pick your park.
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) that sprawl over nearly 40 miles. They also encompass more than 25 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, dining district and more. Whew!
Some highlights at the Disney parks include the popular Keys to the Kingdom tour, where you'll learn fascinating behind-the-scenes tidbits and see the famous utilidor (utility corridor) tunnels below the park, and the nightly Enchantment fireworks, guaranteed to knock your Mickey socks off during 15 minutes of pyrotechnic glory. Visit Pandora – The World of Avatar after dark when the bioluminescent rain forest lights up, and conjure childhood memories at classics such as It’s a Small World or Peter Pan’s Flight.
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. At the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley in Universal Studios you can sample butterbeer 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 reenactors, 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, enjoy dining, shopping and entertainment in CityWalk, a 30-acre complex with shopping, restaurants and nightlife.
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 its sprawling water park, home to high-speed water slides, 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, which will make you feel like you’ve escaped to a Caribbean resort for the day.
Legoland Florida Resort
If you have grandkids of the Peppa Pig-loving age, they’ll surely put this Lego-themed theme park in nearby Winter Haven on your radar. In addition to the new Peppa Pig Theme Park that recently opened here, Legoland Florida Resort has more than 50 rides, shows and attractions that include roller coasters, a water park with a lazy river and gorgeous lakefront botanical gardens. There are even onsite hotels, including one that’s pirate-themed.
Adult activities at theme parks
Shoppers love Disney Springs, which is free to enter and home to more than 110 stores — from Everything but Water, Jo Malone London and Lily Pulitzer to more casual outposts like Columbia Sportswear and Havaianas, in case you need more flip-flops. You'll also find more than 56 eateries here, including food trucks and fast food to higher-end restaurants like Jaleo by José Andrés, and free performances at 10 venues each evening (sometimes saxophone players, Latin music, Irish step dancers, you name it). 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 to $224, 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 starts at $164, a savings of $54 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, two-park ticket is $124.99, a savings of around $55 off two single-day, single-park visits. Unlimited visits at all Seaworld’s Florida parks for 14 consecutive days cost $219.99, 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 18 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 and has a wonderful path circling the waterway where you can get some exercise while observing the resident swans and ducks. On Saturdays, the park is packed for the weekly farmers market (complete with a lively beer garden), 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 that you can rent to venture out into the water for a closer view of the towering fountain are wheelchair accessible. The park has plenty of shaded benches and a Chinese pagoda for escaping the sun, too. Nearby in Thornton Park, boutique shops, neighborhood bars and Craftsman-style bungalows reign supreme.
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. You’ll need to hop back in your car to get to the Smithsonian-affiliated Orange County Regional History Center, in the heart of downtown, which offers a surprisingly fascinating look at 12,000 years of Florida’s heritage. Both art museums 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. And just out the door is beautiful Park Avenue, a café- and park-lined street that might make you feel like you’re in Europe for a spell. Nearby, the Albin Polask Museum & Sculpture Gardens houses works by the famous Czech sculptor and has beautiful lakefront grounds to stroll.
Ways to save: Orlando Museum of Art offers those 60-plus tickets for $12, a savings of $8. Visitors 60 and up pay $4 at Mennello, $1 off. The History Center offers those 55 and up $1 off the regular $8 ticket. If you visit The History Center on the third Thursday of the month admission is free from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. for everyone. Also, all of the outdoor sculptures at Mennello can be enjoyed for free anytime.
The multitheater, glass-walled Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, in the heart of downtown, 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.