An expert's guide to Orlando, Florida – beyond the theme parks

There’s a reason 75 million people visit Orlando annually, and it isn’t just the mouse. Don’t get us wrong. Disney World is incredible and deserves a place on any theme park lover’s bucket list, but Orlando is so much more than its theme parks. It’s an ever-evolving city with vibrant parks, public art and award-winning restaurants. And that’s before you get to amazing day trips to the Kennedy Space Center or New Smyrna Beach. 

I have family near Orlando and I’ve visited dozens of times through the years, usually for a week at a time. I’ve come to love this special place. Whether it’s your first trip to Orlando or you’re looking for something to do outside the theme parks, our expert guide to Orlando will help you make the most of your trip. 

When should I go to Orlando? 

There’s no wrong time to visit Orlando, but here are a few facts to inform your decision. First, no matter the time of year, holidays are crowded and expensive (this includes the days framing the actual holiday). There’s also the rainy season from May to October. Luckily, in a place as lovely as Florida, the rainfall is intense but mercifully brief. 

Hurricane season is from June through November. In recent years, weather systems like Hurricane Ian have caused theme parks like Disney World and Universal Studios to close for multiple days. If you’re visiting Orlando during hurricane season, it’s best to book flexible airfare, lodging, rental car reservations, etc.  

The high tourist season in Orlando is from March to April and June to August. Kids are typically out of school for spring and summer breaks, so the big attractions like theme parks are often crowded. Humidity is high, and temperatures are often in the 90s. 

The shoulder season in Orlando is in May and September through November. In May, temperatures reach the mid to high 80s, and after the sweltering summer, they drop to the upper 70s in November. During the shoulder season, you’ll usually find better deals on lodging. 

December is usually the low season (excluding Christmas through early January when the kids are on holiday break). The temperatures are cooler but exceedingly pleasant, with averages in the middle 70s. This is the time of year when you’ll usually get the best pricing as long you avoid school breaks and holidays.

A boy stands on a wet expanse of sand at New Smyrna Beach, near Orlando, Florida
Florida weather changes quickly – aim for shoulder season for the best chance for sunny skies and tolerable temps at nearby beaches like New Smyrna © Cavan Images / Getty Images

How many days do you need to see Orlando? 

Although you can easily spend longer and not regret it, the average visitor to Orlando spends 5-7 nights. A stay of this length ensures you’ll have time to visit the theme parks (if that’s on your itinerary), plus explore downtown Orlando and some Florida beaches. 

Is it easy to get around in Orlando? 

Most long-distance travelers fly into Orlando International Airport. If you’re staying at a Disney area hotel and don’t plan on spending much time outside the resort, you might find it cheaper to take the Mears Connect shuttle over an Uber or rental car, although this largely depends on your group size. The shuttle operates 24/7. 

If you’re a Florida local, the recently debuted Brightline offers fast train service connecting Orlando to cities like Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Alternatively, the Sun Rail offers train service with stops in Poinciana (about half an hour from Disney World), downtown Orlando, Kissimmee and DeBary. 

Downtown Orlando has an excellent public transportation system. LYMMO provides free Bus Rapid Transit service seven days a week to major downtown destinations like Lake Eola Park or the Bob Carr Theater. The Lymmo does not provide service to the airport or theme parks. Or, enjoy the beautiful Florida weather and utilize Orlando’s bike and scooter share program.

What are the top things to do in Orlando? 

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Orlando has theme parks. Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Legoland, etc, are all in the area. If these attractions are the reason for your visit, that’s wonderful. However, there are a lot of things to do in Orlando outside the theme parks. 

Swans swim on glassy water at Lake Eola Park, with Orlando's skyline in the background
Go for a spin in the swan boats of Lake Eola Park © aphotostory/Shutterstock

Embrace downtown Orlando 

Don’t make the mistake of skipping downtown Orlando on your visit to the Sunshine State. Lake Eola Park is the heart of the city, with a paved, wheelchair-accessible walking trail circling the lake. Colorful gardens blossom against the backdrop of the Orlando skyline while swan boats (and real swans) swim in the water. A wheelchair lift was recently installed to make it easier for people with disabilities to enter the ADA-accessible swan boats. If you’re at Lake Eloa on a Sunday, check out the Orlando Farmer’s Market, where local vendors showcase seasonal produce, arts and crafts, plants and even homemade dog treats.

A whopping 48 Orlando restaurants were honored by the Michelin Guide in 2024, so be sure to arrive hungry. For a bucket list dining experience, the intimate Natsu Omakase has just two seatings per night and flies most of its seafood in from Japan. For a casual meal, it’s hard to beat Super Rico, with Columbian dishes like Churrasco or fried green plantains topped with steak, chicken and mushrooms. 

While you’re walking around downtown, keep your eye open for public art. Orlando boasts over 900 paintings, sculptures, tapestries and mixed media displayed in its city hall, neighborhood centers, public buildings and parks. 

Visit the Harry P. Leu Gardens 

The Harry P. Leu Gardens is a 50-acre plant-life paradise. Since this is Florida, there is always something in bloom, and each trip to the gardens is different than the last. Throughout the year, roses, hibiscus, bananas, tree orchids and citrus trees fill the grounds with perfume and color. This is also home to the Historic Leu House Museum, which was originally built in 1888. Today, the mansion has been restored to offer visitors a glimpse back at the past.

Take in a Performance at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts 

The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts has been recognized as one of the world’s most acoustically sound arts venues. The building takes up two city blocks, offering multiple performance spaces, a school of the arts, event rooms and an outdoor plaza with a welcoming lawn. An ever-changing calendar of performances includes family-friendly programming, Broadway touring productions and local theater groups. 

Geek out at Kennedy Space Center

Orlando is only 50 miles from the Kennedy Space Center, and it’s worth a side trip. You can easily spend the entire day there, so don’t short yourself on time. Attractions include encounters with real astronauts, hands-on activities like astronaut training simulators, and virtual reality experiences. Kids love it, and so do adults.

Manatees float in clear water at Blue Spring State Park outside of Orlando, Florida
Spot gentle manatees at Blue Springs State Park © bkamprath / Getty Images

Explore New Smyrna Beach 

Drive an hour to New Smyrna Beach, where you’ll find 17 miles of sugar sand beaches, some of Florida’s best surfing waves, and a cute, walk-around-able downtown brimming with boutiques, art galleries and restaurants. Nearby Blue Springs State Park is a designated manatee refuge with hundreds of manatees from mid-November through mid-March that visitors can see via a wheelchair-accessible path and viewing platform.

My favorite thing to do in Orlando 

My favorite thing to do in Orlando might seem a little cheesy if you’ve never been inside, but I always recommend Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition. Yes, there are Titanic museums elsewhere, but that doesn’t make this one any less worthwhile since each exhibition holds different artifacts. This one has more than 300 artifacts recovered from the wreckage and 500 personal items from passengers. Costumed actors wander through full-scale room recreations of the Titanic’s interior, pulling you into an eerie, immersive experience. A regular roster of programs includes dinner galas, formal teas and guide tours with rotating themes. 

How much money do I need for Orlando? 

  • Basic room for two: $100 a night (and up) 
  • Basic Airbnb for two: $100 a night (and up) 
  • Ticket for Mear Connect: $32.00 roundtrip for ages 10 and up, $26.00 roundtrip for ages 3-9 years old, children under 3 are free
  • LYMMO Bus Rapid Transit service in downtown Orlando: Free
  • Theme park ticket: varies, but you usually expect to spend at least $120 per person per day
  • Cup of coffee: $3.00 
  • Price for a sandwich: $8.00 
  • Dinner for two: $60 (and up) 
  • Cocktail in downtown Orlando: $14 (and up)

Keep planning your trip to Florida:

Keep your wallet happy with the best free experiences
Figure out the best time to visit
Cruise your way around the Sunshine State with the best road trips in Florida 
Get the inside intel with the top things you should know before you go

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top