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The 11 best things to do in Orlando

walt disney world - Blaine Harrington III
walt disney world - Blaine Harrington III

If you think Orlando is only about theme parks, then think again. There is fresh, vibrant urban and rural landscapes that exist almost side by side and provide plenty of outdoor activities to go with some serious history, art and culture. From alligators to alley-oops (memorable basketball plays, as performed by the Orlando Magic team) and high-tech attractions to graceful gardens, 'The City Beautiful', is studded with surprising experiences that are both eminently Floridian and totally 21st century, providing a well-rounded and compelling modern metropolis that appeals to a wide range of visitors – not just families.

For further inspiration for the perfect Orlando holiday,  see our guides to the city's best hotelsrestaurants and nightlife.


Downtown

Get the historic lowdown on O-town


Any visit to Orlando should start with the Orange County Regional History Center [sic], a Smithsonian affiliate in the 1927 courthouse building in the heart of the city. Here, visitors can soak up 12,000 years of Central Florida heritage, from the indigenous first peoples to the eras of the citrus industry, Space Race and Walt Disney World, as well as tragedies like the 2016 Pulse shooting.

Insider tip: You don’t need to pay the admission fee to browse through The Emporium, the Center’s superbly eclectic gift shop, which features all locally sourced items and gifts, including a range of rare vintage photographs highlighting 19th century Orlando.

Contact: thehistorycenter.org

Orange County Regional History Center
Orange County Regional History Center

Mess about on the river at Wekiva Island


When you need to kick back and get a lungful of pure, natural Florida, head for this rustic gem in north Orlando, where they not only provide an excellent experience along the Wekiva River but they do it all in a true environmentally-friendly and sustainable manner. The big draw is the opportunity to kayak, canoe or paddle-board along the crystal-clear waters that bubble up from one of Florida’s many underground springs. All equipment is available for rent on a daily basis (from $35), accompanied by the fun Tooting Otter Bar and resident food truck, the Without A Paddle Cafe. Live music and friendly games enliven most evenings, along with local art exhibits.

Insider tip: To get maximum enjoyment from your day on the river, rent a private cabana for the duration and enjoy your own personal space and loungers.

Contact: wekivaisland.com

Get the kids into an acting role

Orlando’s theatrical arts have mushroomed in recent years, notably with the new, high-tech Dr Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, but families are still drawn to the old faithful of The Orlando REP – dating back to 1926 – where children can take part in classes, camps and workshops, as well as be inspired by the small-scale – but high-quality – performances throughout the year.

Insider tip: If your child is keen to get some serious theatrical experience under their belt, there are five-day classes at The REP for ages six to 16 every June and July that give everyone a chance to act on the main stage.

Contact: orlandorep.com

orlando rep
orlando rep

Winter Park

Go totally tropical in a botanical wonderland


Orlando’s ritzy northern suburb is home to much of the wealth of the city – and its eye-catching 50-acre botanical highlight. Leu Gardens was donated to the city in 1961 by local philanthropist Harry P. Leu, including the restored 1858 colonial mansion, and is now one of Florida’s best gardens, bursting each year with azaleas, bromeliads, tropical philodendrons and majestic flowering trees.

Insider tip: While Leu Gardens is well worth the admission price, it is free to all-comers on the first Monday every month. Complimentary wheelchairs are also available at the Garden House Welcome Center on a first-come, first-served basis.

Contact: leugardens.org

leu gardens, orlando - JEFF GREENBERG
leu gardens, orlando - JEFF GREENBERG

See how the top one per cent live


Winter Park is packed with museums and architectural curiosities, but the one attraction everyone enjoys is the one-hour Scenic Boat Tour. This gentle meander in an 18-passenger pontoon boat around the series of interconnected lakes and canals provides a close-up of the lush tropical flora and birdlife of the area, as well as the many lavish mansions and estates that dot the landscape.

Insider tip: While tours run throughout the day, it is better to take the boat ride in the morning during the summer months, both for the cooler weather and to avoid the fierce thunderstorms that often happen in the afternoon. Tours run every hour from 10am-4pm and are first come first serve.

Contact: scenicboattours.com

scenic boat tours
scenic boat tours

South Orlando/Kissimmee

Get up closed with an alligator

Florida’s oldest inhabitants remain among its most fascinating, and Gatorland showcases the variety of alligators and crocodiles better than anywhere else on the planet. This extensive animal encounter – which includes the chance to feed them, pose with them and even zipline over them – is a primal Sunshine State experience of truly visceral proportions but is also highly educational for children.

Insider tip: An extremely worthwhile extra programme is the Gator Night Shine tour, which offers a trek around the wooden walkways ringing the main breeding marsh at night – to discover that gator eyes glow red in the dark.

Contact: gatorland.com

gatorland, orlando
gatorland, orlando

Tour the town that Disney built


When the Walt Disney company decided to go into the town-building business, they came up with Celebration, a beautiful community of shops, restaurants and elegant homes set around a series of lakes. The design is a distinctly 1950s Norman Rockwell image of small-town America, but it’s still immensely appealing, with its walking paths, cafés, original boutiques and periodic festivals, especially at Halloween and Christmas.

Insider tip: Celebration stages one of Florida’s best Independence Day fireworks shows, but it draws a crowd and parking can be problematic. Instead, park at the nearby Water Tower Shoppes on Blake Boulevard and use the free shuttle service.

Contact: celebrationtowncenter.com

celebration, florida - VIAVAL
celebration, florida - VIAVAL

Go wild in the Florida countryside


You’ve come all the way to Florida, but to actually see the state you should drive out into the countryside – or ‘The Middle of Nowhere’ if you head south to Wild Florida. This combination of animal attraction and airboat ride provides a totally authentic experience, with a breathtaking whizz around tranquil Cypress Lake and a chance to see alligators and other local denizens in their natural habitat.

Insider tip: Wild Florida is a certified breeding centre for the endangered Central American two-toed sloth, and they have a VIP Sloth Experience – you can meet and cuddle a sloth – that helps to fund the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica.

Contact: wildfloridairboats.com

wild florida airboat tours
wild florida airboat tours

An insider guide to New York

International Drive

Take a ride for a 'wheely' great view

When you’re ready for a literal overview of Orlando, head for busy International Drive. This 14-mile stretch of attractions, hotels, shops and restaurants features the unmissable 400ft The Wheel of ICON Park, an aerial spectacle with views to the Kennedy Space Center, 50 miles away, on a clear day. The 25-minute ‘flight’ is especially compelling in early evening as I-Drive lights up.

Insider tip: Want to propose in style? You can make your ICON flight extra-special with a ‘Romance’ package, including rose petals, candles, chocolates and drinks for two, or add the Sky Bar feature that provides drinks for groups of up to five.

Contact: iconparkorlando.com

the wheel, icon park, orlando
the wheel, icon park, orlando

The Theme Parks

Walt Disney World


Walt Disney knew what he was doing when he scouted 47 square miles of undeveloped central Florida fields and swamp in 1965. This unwanted land is now America’s biggest tourist attraction, Walt Disney World, with four theme parks, two water parks, five golf courses and its Disney Springs complex of shops, dining and nightlife. If you have two weeks to visit, you might just see most of it.

Insider tip:  Unless you want just a one or two-day visit to any of Walt Disney World’s parks, the seven and 14-Day Ultimate Tickets sold exclusively in the UK are much better value than anything available in Orlando.

Contact: waltdisneyworld.com

walt disney world - TODD ANDERSON
walt disney world - TODD ANDERSON

The ‘Harry Potter’ parks


When Universal Orlando opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter area in its Islands of Adventure park in 2010, followed by one in Universal Studios in 2014, this bustling theme park-opolis – which also includes a water park, hotels and an entertainment district – became synonymous with JK Rowling’s boy wizard, but there’s way more to it, including Jurassic Park, Marvel’s Super Heroes, The Simpsons and Transformers.

Insider tip: The best perk when staying at one of Universal’s three premier hotels is the free unlimited Universal Express pass, which provides front-of-the-line access to most rides and attractions, saving hours of queuing time.

Contact: universalorlando.com

wizarding world of harry potter, orlando - John Raoux
wizarding world of harry potter, orlando - John Raoux