For Fun Things To Do In Orlando, Here's Where to Start
Theme park capital of the world. A place where your strangest fantasies and youthful hangups take center stage. A place were every adult can be turned into a kid.
A rather quick sprint through the annals of time before we get this jalopy moving. Before the advent of the railroad and Henry Flagler’s pioneering into the state, Florida was the sort of place that gave the Wild West nightmares. The first European to actually step onto its land was none other than Ponce De Leon. A chap that by all accounts wasn’t exactly playing with a full deck of cards. No sooner had he landed on the sunshine state that old Ponce made a quick dash into the swamps in search of the mythical fountain of youth.
Up until Flagler started exploiting the place, Florida was basically a death trap. Vermin-filled swamps, scorching heat, lizards with toothy dispositions, venomous snakes of all types, and tarantulas and bugs that could actually run away with your newborn. If you tried to leave by water, whack, the Gulf Stream would place a school of sharks between you and safety. Stay during the summer, and your only hope of surviving hurricane season back in those heydays was to dig a hole, stick your neck in, and pray. Oh, and if that wasn’t enough, you had a legion of rather bitter and irate Indians with a bone to pick. For a period, those impassioned Seminoles had such a series of conflicts to resolve with the local constabulary that the United States Army had no other choice but to move in. Their battles were so fierce that they had to actually had to be divided into parts. In other words, the level of intense massacres going about, of wanton slaughter and wholesale destruction was so vast, that, like “The Lord Of The Rings,” one movie wasn’t enough to capture the narrative.
During an epoch, all Florida had to offer were oranges, army forts, and the rather large possibility of a scalping. Then, Henry Flagler tossed a couple of tracks onto land and introduced the state to the industrial revolution. The renegades were quickly gentrified and Manifest Destiny was pitched onto the back burner as casino rights were handed liberally to the disenfranchised.
A new era hit Florida like a sledgehammer. It quickly became, at least by the coast, the snowbird capital for the USA. Every winter, everyone up by New York bought a ticket and sunscreen.
For a couple of years, the status quo was maintained. The Mad Max-like attitude was left tied up to a stump in the past while the 80s cocaine wars were but a twinkle in the future. Up from Tallahassee, the governmental pokeys looked out and proclaimed: “All is good. Now, let’s have some ice-tea and settle down for a dry spell. I see nothing but tranquil times ahead.”
What no one could foresee, what the Force Of Be had not even contemplated, was a rumbling taking place down by weary Orlando. Under the cover of the night, in a midnight run, a man stepped out of a Cessna airplane. Sleek black hair, combed mustache, a gaggle of lackeys kissing the very ground he moved over. All around him, on every distant horizon, past every low-hanging tree, nothing but mud-caked dirt, wild shrubbery, and mosquitoes the size of Volkswagens.
Gazing out with the concentrated intensity of a futurist, this visionary took off his shades, wiped his forehead, and smiled. Then he made a simple proclamation. One word, just one word changed the state forever and flipped Orlando's fortunes on its head.
“Perfect,” Walt Disney had found his Shangri-La.
In the biggest real estate buyout of that century, Mickey Mouse’s dad transformed a tranquil, laid-back hillbilly community into a Fort Knox enterprise that could buy and sell God before lunch.
Down in Miami, the chamber of commerce blew a gasket at the possibility of grabbing the tail end of that comet. The economic upsurge to come was a tsunami wave they happily welcomed.
Since that day, Orlando has grown to become the largest city in the whole state, home to the 13th busiest airport in the world, the second largest university campus in the USA, and in 2010, the World Cities Study Group declared it a Gamma level world city.
All of this on account of a pair of L.A. loafers kicking a rock as if testing out a car’s tire pressure, and hailing the place "perfect!”
Orlando For Insiders: Before being called Orlando, also nicknamed "The City Beautiful" or “Theme Park Capital Of the World,” the place was known as Jernigan, on account of the first settler, Aaron Jernigan. It acquired its current label, if local legends are to be believed, when high-command decided to honor a valiant soldier’s ultimate sacrifice during the Second Seminole Wars. The boy was named Orlando Reeves. To this day, historians argue and gripe on the credibility of this tale.
Downtown Disney is gratis, at least looking around and taking photos, everything else is a hose into your savings account.
Disney Theme Parks:
Single Day Tickets: $105
Water Park Tickets:
Tip for the newbie: There are hundreds of ways to get that number way down. First of all, never buy at the turnstile, secondly, shop online from a reliable source. Disney also offers vacation packages. It is a big draw, given that once inside, you get certain fringe benefits (free ride on the monorails and park transport between places; free parking everywhere; after-hours events and VIP access; gifts and freebies). These packages consist of a hotel stay at a Disney Resort (cost varies), an optional meals regimen (price waivers between whether you want fast-food or to go to a restaurant) and park tickets.
Lake Buena Vista
If you do your research and look at Google Map, you'll instantly discover that Lake Buena Vista is a humungous hamlet in Orlando, that seems to swallow up on a yearly basis more and more land. In a way, it's a silent invasion that no-one can perceive and those that are well aware of its expanding boundaries, welcome their new Overlord with open arms and a cry for health insurance with an adequate dental plan.
Internationally known as the mailing address for Walt Disney World, Lake Buena Vista is the heart, the blood-pumping muscle, of Orlando's jackpot. Disney being the trailblazer that set this town of fire.
Orlando For Insiders: Part of the Orlando–Kissimmee–Sanford Metropolitan Statistical Area, Lake Buena Vista is one of two municipalities privately owned by the Disney Corporation. Bay Lake, just right around the corner, is the second. Lake Buena Vista is the most popular merely because it holds Goofy's headquarters in Florida. Bay Lake hosts all the resorts and theme parks. For this article's sake, we'll approach both in this section.
The Magic Kingdom is a two-sided medley of emotions. One is entrenched in the past, with attractions so outdated that they make your Christmas animatronics look positively modern as if built by the folks at Apple. The other side is constantly renewing itself by building new rides and giving the Twitter-sphere bang for their bucks. For every “Jungle Cruise,” you are met with a “Buzz Lightyear,” or some new section breaking ground that has blokes in hazmat suits coming and going.
The reality of the situation is, that, unlike other parks, Disney has the strongest link to our past, it holds those memories in a sacred position. The Magic Kingdom is a nostalgic town, designed at first to amaze us, but as time passed and the rust settled in the Haunted Mansion, we too phased through life. The swell of sappy sentimentality an adult gets, as he stares blindingly at Cinderella's Castle, is the equivalent of smelling the perfume that wafts from a peach pie. An aroma that reminds you of your mom long after you've attended her funeral. It is an outburst of raw emotion. For the native Floridian, who constantly visits the parks like they were nothing but a Walmart, this spring of melancholy has been jaded by repeated viewings, but for the outsider, it is a strong and atavistic pull.
Once, on my many trips, I decided to go with a few buddies of mine. Three of them Navy hotshots that had seen more action than John McClane. At the end of the night, during the fireworks show, as Jiminy Cricket narrated and Tinkerbell swooped into the castle on a zip-line, the very second the music swelled, all three of them burst into tears and bawled like a couple of babies. I looked around, eyes as dry as the desert, and discovered a symphony of heart strings being pulled in the audience. Each tear filling up a bucket in honor of better days.
EPCOT Center is a reminder that tells us a part of Walt Disney’s views. It cements the truth of the man, hard. We, in this reality, were fortunate enough to have a real-life Tony Stark. Had you given Walt a decade or two more of longevity, I have no doubt Iron Man would be flying about disrupting foreign airspace.
EPCOT, or Experimental Prototype City Of Tomorrow, is dedicated to celebrating human achievement. Out of all of Disney's theme parks, this one walks a fine knife's edge between exciting and dull. It is a permanent World's Fair, mainly there to inspire others by remarking on humanity's power to break down borders and fly into the unknown. The geodesic sphere (Spaceship Earth), EPCOT's hallmark, is in reality, a passive ride that takes you from the dawn of time all the way to a hypothetical future, underscoring mankind's progress and innovations.
Perhaps Disney's second theme park in Orlando is mostly cherished on account of its utopian vision. A vision clearly demonstrated in an integrated landscape of grassy slopes, trees and a 1.4 billion dollar investment of technological do-dads.
EPCOT, like all theme parks, is sliced into different areas, each with a prevailing motif and amazing pavilions designed to celebrate their iconic message: Universe of Energy, Test Track, Mission: Space, Innoventions East and West, The Seas, and Imagination Land.
Finally, perhaps EPCOT's most desired area is a 1.2-mile perimeter that borders a man-made lake, known as World Showcase. Eleven vast cultural representations (complete with streetscapes, attractions, restaurants, shops, and architecture) of some of planet Earth's most influential countries, pot mark this semicircle. Each wigwam tabernacle and lifelike structure commemorating that area's culture and cuisine. Each pavilion's entrance is marked by an admired symbol of its real-life mirror duplicate. Japan has a huge pagoda, Mexico marvels with an Aztec pyramid, Germany with a Biergarten, France with an Eiffel Tower, and, well, you get the gist.
Orlando For Insiders: Unlike the rest of Disney's theme parks -- which refused to serve alcoholic beverages up until 2012 -- EPCOT has a rather open-house policy to booze hounds. Each pavilion in the World Showcase handsomely sells its country's darling neuron killer. Beers, wines, and spirits reflecting that area's blotto soul. The park is universally known for its International Food & Wine Festival (in October), basically, a Roman debauchery sort of function where more than a few visitors have been known to lose consciousness, take a dip inside the lagoon, wake up on the other side of the county, and have the sort of time generally reserved for Vegas trips.
One of Disney's last theme parks, or at the very least the newest, Animal Kingdom, is a huge theme park, focused primarily on Walt's philosophy of animal conservation that looks like a Jurassic Park job waiting to happen. This place is huge, and by huge, I mean HUUUUGE.
The park is represented by a sculpted 145-foot-tall artificial shrub known as The Tree Of Life. The monolith not only houses a 3D theater, but if you look closely you'll see thousands of carved faces and animals on its trunk. It is a marvel of modern woodwork and the power of the mighty dollar.
Each of the park's areas are divided in a series of pens for different exotic critters as well as a primary thrill-ride. The best of the best, those you simply can't miss, are Expedition Everest (a heartstopper of a rollercoaster), Dinosaur, a jungle buggy that takes you back to the late Cretaceous period, and the Kali River Rapids.
Soon, Pandora -- the World of Avatar will open its gates inside the Animal Kingdom. The James Cameron inspired titan will likely draw in large crowds and thrust Disney back on top of the thrill-ride heap. So far, two rides have been confirmed: Flight of Passage, a flying simulator on top of a mountain banshee, and a boat cruise showcasing the native fauna and flora of this out-of-worldly place.
Formally MGM studios, this is Disney's answer to Universal Studios. A theme park devoted to the golden era of Hollywood. A sort of mish-mash park that took some time to actually find its voice. Hollywood Studios has always been the awkward celeb, or black sheep, of Disney's prodigal sons. When it first opened its doors, Hollywood Studios' landmark, its EPCOT Sphere or Cinderella Castle, was a life-like reproduction of Los Angeles's Famous Chinese Theater. Unfortunately, the massive structure, with a historical tram ride through the best films Metro Goldwin Mayer had produced, didn't exactly capture the public's imagination. From that day on, the former MGM has been in search of a monumental beacon to salute as its lampost. As of now, that honor has been reserved to the old spooky hotel that make up the Twilight Zone's Tower Of Terror.
Many facelifts have gone into Hollywood Studios, perhaps one of Disney's only theme park that actually catches up to the times. For example, the Star Wars ride, one of the park's most jam-packed and favorite areas, an Ewok Village with Imperial AT-ATs has been retrofitted to include different adventures each time you ride the simulator. Sometimes you'll storm the icy field of Hoth, other times you'll join the Rebellion's strike on the first Death Star, or, slip into an asteroid belt and try to evade capture by Boba Fett.
Best rides: Twilight Zone Tower Of Terror, Star Wars, Aerosmith indoor Rollercoaster, and Toy Story's shoot out.
The first of Disney's water parks. Typhoon Lagoon lays claim to having the world's biggest wave pool. The majority of this summer park is built around and on top of a man-made mountain called "Mount Mayday."
The structure not only serves to hide the park's pipeworks and inner workings, but it is also the main launchpad for most of the park's water slides and attractions. The main engineering was finalized in 1989, and to this day, its computer-generated framework is constantly studied at various universities around the world.
Typhoon Lagoon has multiple tube slides, flumes, rough rapids, pools, body slides, and speed cannons. A special, hidden area of the park, its latest addition is Hideaway Bay. Off to the side, just behind the locker rooms, this out of the way sandy beach features the newest add-on to Typhoon Lagoon: Crush 'n' Gusher, a water coaster where a three-person raft is propelled by water jets through hairpin turns and drop-offs.
Orlando For Insiders: Typhoon Lagoon offers guests the possibility to snorkel through a saltwater reef populated by various Caribbean sea creatures including stingrays and sharks.
According to Disney propaganda pamphlets, a freak snow storm hit Orlando during the 1990s. Wanting to cash in on the incident, the crew from Disney instantly built a mountain and allowed the frost to accumulate on top of it. They imagined, on top of that slope, Florida's only ski-resort. For a year, the blizzard lasted. When, finally, the strange meteorological oddity subsided, shifts of hundreds started constructing the necessary accoutrements of a snow resort. As you can imagine, and any two-year-old will tell you, the snow started to melt. Every inch of the Aspen-inspired village instantly became waterlogged, millions of dollars started swirling the drain. The idea was nixed.
Workers started to demolish everything, clear away the rubble, and hang their heads in shame. Then, before they pushed the deadman's switch and TNT the boondoggle to kingdom come, they heard a voice yell "Stop!" They veered up, and standing outside, in the balmy atmosphere, a blue alligator with a red scarf and a gold innertube, swooshed down the mountain on skis. He did a triple somersault, cannoned off a wooden slope, and dove headlong into a melted pond. The park operators, desperate to keep their jobs, instantly saw potential. They turned to an irate Mouse, who was eternally harassing them with quarterly reports, and said: "how about another water park?"
"Hmm," went Mickey, pondering the possibilities. "We are going to need slopes, dips, springs, gushers, tubes, and everything in between. And make it as heart-stopping as humanly possible, I'm talking speed here." He slapped his palms together. "Shoot the guests out of tubes like bats out of hell. Oh, and while you are at it, given that this snow somehow seems to magically regenerate itself, line the whole place up with heated pools. We'll give it a hot-spring motif."
Said a smiling lackey, "That is why you win the big bucks."
And Blizzard Beach was born.
An open-air shopping mall, in the style of Disney. That style being grand excess and plucking your dreams out of your head and turning them into hoover buck-hungry realities. Restaurants abound, from high-end cuisine to the normal fare that simply looks good but is only so-so. Each dining experience and structure, a nuclear version of itself. Planet Hollywood looks as if a classroom globe started sucking on a plutonium rod early in its adolescence, the House Of Blues seems like a New Orleans French Mansion conceived for Goliath, and Bongo's Cuban Cafe, Gloria Estefan's child, is nothing short of a better-looking Cuban embassy.
Everything in Downtown Disney is blown out of proportion, you feel like an ant as you traverse the streets. This is the place you'll come to to spend your last paycheck. If it isn't cemented to the floor, then it's for sale.
The jewel on top: The mammoth Disney Store in the middle.
Orlando For Insiders: Fantasy Island, part of Downtown Disney, is the hip go-to place for every hormone-drenched desperado and gal who are sick-and-tired of all the family-friendly hoopla. This place goes postal at night and rings in every moonrise with a wolf's cry for anybody in the market hungry for some steady partying and active R-rated clubbing.
Universal, on International Drive, is nothing short of the ever-sneaky and scheming pilot fish. A galloping run to the underbelly of the biggest white shark Florida had ever seen. Universal saw an opportunity in Disney's leftovers and instantly latched on to it. Over the years, Universal has gotten pretty bulky and fat out of Disney's castaways. The theme park is easily matching Disney's pace, and, little by little, with a far more adult target in mind, Universal has built up its reputation and is easily becoming a white shark on its own. Disney, meanwhile, has skipped that bothersome edict of extinction and reverted to the apex predator of the deep, a Megalodon. Still, Universal has an amazing lineup and hardcore fans that line its stockholders' pockets.
Island Of Adventures
By the end of the 90s, Universal Studios was growing out of proportion. CityWalk had just premiered and new resorts were breaking ground. The money was flowing in so fast that bank vaults had to be constructed just for Universal's capital. Still, the spigot, execs' were well aware, was only partly opened. They had in their grasp three hot properties just begging to be exploited. A king's ransom in copyrights. In their grasp they held: Marvel Comics, before the Disney Corporation bought it, Jurassic Park, and Dr. Seuss. They simply couldn't fit them into Universal proper, plus, why strike once when you can charge twice. Hence, Islands Of Adventures was conceived.
Each island is a world unto itself. From an inlet with superhero galleries, and two of the park's favorite rides (The Spider-Man 3D simulacrum and The Gama radiated Hulk Coaster), past cartoon heaven, skipping the gates of Jurassic Park, all the way to Dr. Seuss's nutty pavilion.
Since its inception, Islands Of Adventures has simply upped the ante. How? "The... Wizarding... World... Of... Harry... Potter." This last one, even has a real-life Hogwarts, with perhaps one of the most technologically-advanced rides in the whole state.
Universal Studios Theme Park
The fact that during some years one of Universal's most iconic buildings was Norman Bate's house on top a dreary hill instantly tells you the type of people Universal caters to. This is not your mild, run-of-the-mill, "oh look, honey isn't that cute?" theme park. Universal has always had a soft spot for the truly ghastly and exciting. Sure, it's always had its kid-friendly zones, but for every Woody Woodpecker, there was a street gang of ruffians composed of King Kong, Jaws, and Beetlejuice. Over the years, it has remade its structure to satisfy the times. "Back to The Future" became "The Simpsons' Ride," "King Kong" turned into "The Mummy," and "Jaws" was fished out of its pond while Optimus Prime propped up its feet on chief Brody's mantle. Universal does not let the passage of time hammer it down, long gone are the days Nickelodeon sported a pavilion, in its place is one of the raddest rollercoasters in Orlando. Hannah Barbera has slinked off into the past, a stable of a different world. Running around Yogi's simulator are a wild pack of yellow Minions to enchant tourists.
Universal constantly reinvents itself, and every few years attracts huge crowds with its next showstopper.
Orlando For Insiders: Every Halloween, Universal hosts "Halloween Horror Nights." While Disney encourages its visitors to trick-or-treat with their characters, Universal opens its gate to truly terrifying vistas. Zombie hordes attacking out of nowhere, frightening ghouls reaching out from under the floor boards, apocalyptic landscapes, and nightmare-inducing haunted houses. The theme and houses change on a yearly basis, previous incarnations have included the likes of The Walking Dead, Rob Zombie, Silent Hill, and Paranormal Activity. "Halloween Horror Nights" has become Florida's premier pumpkin destination come October. A truly spooky and creepy destination for making you wet your pants.
This is Orlando's sun-drenched, casino-less, tropical facsimile of the Las Vegas strip. Blocks upon blocks mired with the obligatory gift shops devoted to catering to all walks of life. A kaleidoscope of possibilities as diverse and contrasting as humanly possible. Swanky restaurants and down-to-earth diners. High-end resorts and traditional mom-and-pop motels. Gaudy tourist traps and legitimate entertainment that could give Disney a run for its money. Top-of-the-line shopping and bargain basement budget buddies.
International Drive does not shy away from anything. There's a mini-golf course every few corners, an odd kitsch museum, some strange dinner show, and to top each of its ends off, two outlet malls. Oh, and a Wet-and-Wild water park as well as a SeaWorld.
Places to visit while you are in town: Wet & Wild, SeaWorld, Ripley's Believe it or Not, Pirate's Cove Adventure Golf, Margaritaville, Joe's Stone Crab, Señor Frog, Titanic Museum, Medieval Times, and Twin Peaks restaurant, wink (the image above is from their Facebook page).
Orlando For Insiders: Standing almost at each end of International Drive, like stalwart paladin guardians, lies perhaps the final frontier in shopping emporiums, Orlando Premium Outlets. All the fashionable boutiques and classy brands that you could think of, waiting for the willing customer. Two buildings cap off each exit of International Drive, the north and south edifice. Here's the big tip, discounts and savings can be accumulated. Baby steps first, head off to their website or customer service stand and ask for a free coupon book, after that, paint the town red. The tricky shopper will stack up savings, on top of rebates, plus a coupon or two, and syrup the whole mess with a credit card benefit. Once you hit the cash register with your purchase, you might be delighted to discover that the bill comes up in your favor. "Sir," goes the awestruck clerk. "It came up negative. We owe you 20 bucks."
Well, like Porky says, "that's all folks!" Hope you survive the experience and the final piece of advice that I might cast your way is: Be practical.
Sneakers, light clothing, and fanny packs are highly recommended, wear shorts, maybe the type that dry off quickly and never carry undo weight, and finally, if you manage to find refillable soft drink combos in the parks, don't hesitate. Each top off may whisk away a dollar, but at the end of the day you will thank me.
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