A Guide to Orlando

Welcome to Orlando, a topsy-turvy, Mad Hatter world, where ducks quack jokes, whales kiss, mice are nice, and elephants fly! Here life is carefree, ceaseless childhood, a journey out of reality and into your imagination….a magic kingdom indeed.

By the numbers

Population: 270,934 (city); 2,387,138 (metropolitan)

Elevation: 82 feet / 25 meters

Time Zone: GMT -5; Eastern Standard Time (EST)

Weather

Average Annual Rainfall: 53.2 inches / 135 centimeters

Average January temperature: 60.3°F / 15.7°C

Average July temperature: 83°F / 28.3°C

Did you know?

Orlando ranks only behind San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Miami as the most visited United States city by foreign travellers.

Orlando ranks only behind Las Vegas for most number of hotel rooms.

District Guide

Once upon a time, Orlando was a small town surrounded by cow pastures and citrus fields. With the development of Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando and a host of smaller attractions, those cow pastures turned into planned communities that now house a wide range of residents, from Disney’s 55,000 cast members to sports celebrities and millionaires.

Downtown Orlando
Often overlooked in favour of the theme parks nearby, Downtown Orlando offers a wealth of entertainment and charm. A bustling central business district by day, each evening, the sunset casts a magic spell on Downtown transforming it into a booming nightlife destination. There’s a plethora of nightclubs, bars and restaurants to explore, most of which are clustered around the stretch of Orange Avenue that runs between Washington and Church Streets.

Man enjoying the view in Orlando

Centered around the CityArts Factory is Orlando’s Downtown Arts District. Public art and street sculptures abound around every corner, often tucked away in unexpected places. The galleries at CityArts itself and the many that surround it boast an ever-changing array of exhibitions of regional, national and international artwork.

Nearby, Lake Eola and its park are an oasis amid the urban landscape, where visitors thong to enjoy a boat ride across the water, shop at the weekly farmers market or to simply join locals as they stroll along the lakefront.

Those with a taste for live entertainment are sure to relish the diverse programming showcased at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The Amway Center nearby doubles up as a sports arena and a concert venue for large-scale events. Nearby, the Bob Carr Theater hosts ballets, musicals, symphonies and film screenings, while in the heart of Downtown, the Social caters to those with a penchant for indie music.

Just Beyond Downtown
To the north, the neighbourhoods of Loch Haven Park and Ivanhoe Village are known for their antique shops, museums and vegan restaurants. In a cluster to the south of Lake Estelle, you’ll find the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, the Orlando Repertory Theater, the Museum of Art, the Fire Museum and the Science Center.

Saint James Catholic Cathedral, Orlando, Florida, United States

To the east lies the Mills 50 district where a proliferation of Asian restaurants, primarily Vietnamese and Thai, draw foodies to its streets. This neighbourhood stretches north from the intersection of Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue. Nearby, Northeast Orlando and the Colonial Town Center are home to the Colonial Plaza Mall and the Orlando Fashion Square; a one-stop destination for shopping, dining, and entertainment near the Orlando Executive Airport. Look further east to find Baldwin Park. This leafy neighbourhood is best known for its miles of trails and verdant parklands.

Winter Garden, Winter Park and the University
Winter Garden is one of the city’s more quaint suburbs where brick-lined streets are lit by faux gaslamps that inspire nostalgia. There are restaurants, cafes and bars aplenty as well as a weekly farmers market that is a great place to shop for fresh produce, artisan goods and crafts.

Orlando, Florida, city street view

Winter Park is a more upscale enclave, settled in the 1800s by wealthy northerners craving a reprieve from the harsh winter chill. Park Avenue forms the lifeline of this suburban neighbourhood, speckled with independent boutiques, al fresco cafes and art galleries. Winter Park is also home to Rollins College and the Morse Museum of American Art, renown for its exhaustive collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s stained glass.

To the extreme east of Downtown is the University of Central Florida and its many attractions.

Kissimmee
Kissimmee is a nice city along the U.S. 192, which is a long strip of highway along an east-west route from the small but sprawling towns of Kissimmee and St. Cloud to Walt Disney World and beyond. You can find nice discounts in the city as well as interesting attractions, such as Green Meadows Petting Farm. There are also inexpensive restaurants including Golden China.

Lakefront Park overlooking Lake "Toho" in Kissimmee, Florida

Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World is so large that it can be considered its own district. You will find everything from hotels to shopping, restaurants, sports and nightlife within this huge park. There are also thousands of hotel rooms to fit a wide range of budgets, and all provide shuttle transportation that gets you to its many theme parks. Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot are all here. Visit the nearby Magic Kingdom. A monorail zips passengers to many destinations; boats and buses serve all the others, and the wait is rarely more than a few minutes for transportation.

Roller Coaster

Universal Orlando
Universal Orlando is a fantastic area that includes Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Universal Studios is a family-friendly theme park has rides based on your favorite films as well as entertaining shows. Universal Orlando also features restaurants and a great nightlife. Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, Emeril’s Restaurant and the Universal CityWalk attract visitors year-round.You can also have a magical time at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Mother and son in bumper car

Dining and drinking

At first glance, Orlando would appear to be the world nucleus of the fast food industry. On seemingly every thoroughfare, in and around every theme park, mall and neon neighbourhood, they are there. However there is a lot more than fast food, including fine cuisine and theme restaurants.

Hispanic couple hugging at table outdoors

Walt Disney World
There are many options within the park to satisfy your appetite. Casual American options include Hemingway’s, while Italian can be found at Citricos. Try tropical Polynesian at ‘Ohana, and some of the best sushi at Dragon Court, which features an all you can eat option. For something equally as exotic, try Maya Grill, which has contemporary South American dishes on its menu.

Universal Studios
Universal Studios’ response to Disney’s entertainment center is Citywalk, which packs ’em in every night. Sprawling across 30 acres, CityWalk is a lively cluster of dining, shops, cinemas and entertainment options ranging from the popular Hard Rock Cafe/Live. Famed chef Emeril Lagasse’s dining spot, Emeril’s Orlando, whisks up a roux to create Creole cuisine straight from the Louisiana bayous. Margaritas and “Cheeseburgers in Paradise” pour from the bar and kitchen at singer Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, and everybody gets into the groove at a club called, well, The Groove.

Downtown Orlando
Although not as visited as the amusement parks, downtown Orlando has much to offer those staying in the area. The menu at Lac-Viêt Bistro features colourful Vietnamese cocktails and traditional noodle dishes. While the Celt Irish Pub serves delicious pub fare and a wide variety of beer on tap. The Ceviche Tapas Orlando is a downtown gem that offers small plates and features colourful flamenco shows.

Entertainment

If you’re looking for amusement in Orlando, the fun doesn’t stop at the parks. Orlando’s nights are just as jam-packed as its days. Orlando definitely has something for everyone, from comedy clubs to a Texas two-steppin’ rodeo bar with live bull riding, from Polynesian luaus to cartoon character dinners. Families can check out fireworks and parades, themed dining events and high-stepping Lippizaner stallions. Music-wise, local and national talent runs the gamut from rock ‘n roll, disco and blues to jazz, country and DJ music.

Portrait Of Cheerful Man Standing At Amusement Park During Night

Nightlife
Much of Orlando’s nightlife is centered around Downtown and International Drive, with its many bars, restaurants and nightclubs. Live music can be had at the Social, the Independent Bar and the SAK Comedy Club, while Ono is among the top choices for dancing in Downtown Orlando.

You’ll find plenty of nighttime entertainment at Downtown Disney, Disney’s Pleasure Island, and the Universal Studios CityWalk as well.

Museums and Galleries
History buffs will find much to their liking at the Orange County Regional History Center, one of Orlando’s very few museums dedicated to history. A visit to the Orlando Fire Museum, on the other hand, offers insight into a niche aspect of local history.

The Orlando Science Center thrills both young and old with its hands-on exhibits, while the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art dazzles with its collection of Tiffany glass. Arts enthusiasts should head straight to the galleries at the CityArt Factory and take time to also explore the smaller establishments that are scattered throughout Orlando’s Arts District.

Amusement Parks
There are obvious entertainment diversions to be found at the massive Walt Disney World and equally-impressive Universal Studios Florida. There are rides, restaurants and shopping abound in these two places. It’s enough to keep you entertained for the whole weekend, if not longer.

SeaWorld was one of the very first amusement parks opened in Florida. Beyond the rides, it offers an educational look at marine life. Navigate through the swamps and trails at Gatorland, where visitors get the chance to get up close and personal with the alligators themselves.

Shopping
Downtown Disney Marketplace, a cluster of restaurants are joined by a host of shops and a games center filled with virtual reality machines and video challenges, plus lots of purveyors of Disney memorabilia. Pointe Orlando is a large shopping mall where you can find several stores, restaurants and entertainment options. You’ll also find smaller boutiques, such as Bijou’s Boutique, selling stylish, unique creations.

Top shopping destinations within Orlando include the Mall at Millenia, The Florida Mall, and the Orlando International Premium Outlets.

Performing Arts
Outside of the fabulous shows that dazzle audiences of every age at Disney World and Universal Orlando, much of the city’s performing arts scene is centered around Downtown Orlando. The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is the city’s premier destination for live entertainment, hosting everything from ballets, musicals and plays to symphonies and dance recitals. More intimate venues like the Mad Cow Theater are also quite entertaining and make for a nice contract to mammoth alternatives like the Amway Center. The Bob Carr Theater is also much-acclaimed with its diverse array of live performances.

Unquestionably, the entertainment crown of Downtown Disney is the massive circular theatre that houses Cirque du Soleil – La Nouba, a fantastic show that gives a whole new meaning to the circus concept. A study in colour, lighting and special effects, Cirque du Soleil is imaginative, graceful, death-defying and awe-inspiring. The Central Florida Ballet company performs at various venues throughout the year. The Ormond Beach Performing Arts Center is a community theatre dedicated to bringing quality live theatre to the Central Florida area.

Recommended tours

Orlando is best known for its status as one of America’s best theme-park destinations; however many visitors are surprised to find that there’s more to the city than Disney.

Walt Disney World
Exploring all that Walt Disney World has to offer takes at least a weekend. With the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, the Animal Kingdom and Cirque du Soleil, plus tons of fantastic restaurants, you’re sure to be kept entertained.

Orlando Science Center
Visit the Orlando Science Center, which contains several interactive exhibits and a planetarium. The Harry P. Leu Gardens is filled with hundreds of trees and large, lush rose gardens, while the nearby Howell Branch Nature Preserve, a quiet sanctuary for birds, is worth exploring. Admire the architecture of the Calvary Assembly Of God, then grab a burger at 310 Park South.

Universal Studios
Visit Universal Studios, with its two parks, and the nearby Citywalk. Also in this area, you’ll find SeaWorld. There are also many good restaurants to choose from, such as the classy Morton’s of Chicago.

Orlando Museum of Art
Downtown, the Orlando Museum of Art and the Mennello Museum of American Folk Art both house substantial collections. Admire the architecture at the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando.

Orange County Regional History Center
Adjacent to the Heritage Square Courtyard is the Orange County Regional History Center, which contains pieces dating as far back as the Seminole Wars. The nearby Lake Eola Park provides picturesque trails. When you’re through, walk over to the bustling Wall Street Plaza.

If you want to take a guided tour there are a lot of options. Glide along in an airboat, relax on the deck of a boat, or fly high in a balloon. There are many different ways to see Orlando.

Walking Tours

The Green Barn On The Lake ( +1 407 847 3559 )

Disney Wilderness Preserve ( +1 407 935 0002 / http://www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/florida/preserves/art5523.html )

Half Day & Day Tours

Kennedy Space Center Grayline Tour (+1 800 537 0917 / http://www.grayline.com)

Grayline Orlando Clearwater Beach & Lunch Tour (+1 800 537 0917 / http://www.grayline.com)

Grayline Everglades & Miami Tour (+1 800 537 0917 / http://www.grayline.com)

Balloon Tours

Blue Water Balloons ( +1 407 894 5040 / http://www.bluewaterballoons.com )

SkyScapes Balloon Tours ( +1 407 421 9322 / http://www.skyscapesballoontours.com ) Orlando Balloon Rides ( +1 800 586 1884 / http://www.orlandoballoonrides.com/ )

Boat Tours

Aquatic Wonders Boat Tours ( +1 407 846 2814 / http://www.Florida-Nature.com/ )

Heritage Lake Tours ( +1 352 343 4337 )

Airboat Tours

Boggy Creek Airboat Rides ( +1 407 344 9550 / http://www.bcairboats.com )

History

Florida’s history stretches back to the 1500s. On Easter Day in 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon came ashore at what is now St. Augustine in the northeast corner of the state. What Ponce de Leon and the early settlers found in the Sunshine State—mosquitoes, swamps and native tribes with little interest in sharing the land—was sufficiently daunting to discourage the growth of other settlements.

As so often happened in the Americas, the Seminoles who settled in Florida weren’t thrilled with the bands of newcomers. In the early 1800s, the Seminoles fought two bitter wars to retain their land. When the second of those ended in 1842, Orlando’s history began. Settlers followed soldiers into Central Florida, and a settlement grew around an old Army post known as Fort Gatlin, located at what is now Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando. Originally named Jernigan after an early settler, Orlando changed its name in 1857 to honour soldier Orlando Reeves, who, while on sentinel duty at the fort, was felled in 1835 by an Indian arrow as he raced to warn of an oncoming raid. .

In Orlando’s early days, the three C’s drove commerce in the city: cattle, cotton and citrus. As Cuban demand for Florida beef grew, cattle ranches spread across the flatlands, cattle rustlers fought gunfights in the streets, and little Orlando became a rough-and-tumble town.

Soon, tired settlers turned to cotton, a considerably less threatening crop, and the town became the center of a thriving cotton industry. When the U.S. Civil War began, however, workers moved away to pick cotton throughout the South to replace soldiers away at war.

Until air conditioning was invented life in the Sunshine State was no picnic. Summer heat, sandy soil and sporadic torrential rainfall made for tough living, but it also proved to be the perfect conditions for citrus crops. Orange, grapefruit, tangerines and limes all thrived in the sandy soil. By 1870, orange fever had struck Central Florida, and the citrus industry grew rapidly.

When Henry Flagler and, later, Henry Plante pounded spikes into railroad tracks that extended down the east and west coasts of Florida, orange fever reached its peak. Although stymied for a decade or so by the Great Freeze of 1894-1895, which destroyed nearly all the citrus crop in the region, by the 1950s Florida had more than 80,000 acres of citrus trees spread across the flatlands and rolling hills, stretching to the horizon.

Orlando’s fascination with entertainment stretches as far back as 1895. Proving that it really is possible for a little creative thinking to turn lemons into lemonade, (or, oranges into orange juice) citrus grower John B. Steinmentz watched the freeze turn his crop into worthless mush and started working on a comeback. He turned his packing house into a skating rink, set up some picnic tables and a bathhouse, and built a toboggan slide that whooshed visitors into a cool spring. Voila—Orlando’s first entertainment center!

Central Florida acquired electricity in 1900, then telephones and, in 1903, cars that chugged around at the terrifying speed of 5 mph. In 1922, the first airport opened as a cargo center; in 1928, the Orlando Municipal Airport opened. Today, that facility is the Orlando International Airport, welcoming hundreds of thousands of travellers each year.

A major economic force in the region, the Martin Marietta missile factory—now known as Lockheed Martin—arrived in 1922 with its facilities spread over 10.6 miles of Central Florida and staffed with thousands (it’s the area’s largest employer).

But 1971 was the seminal year in Orlando. After looking at many Florida sites, including Miami, Walt Disney and company decided that the vast acreage and accommodating local leaders were just what they needed to build the company’s first theme park outside California. Thus was born Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, which welcomed its first visitors in 1971.

As the Mouse’s fame grew, others saw the possibilities inherent in thousands of tourists. SeaWorld was the next to arrive, bringing whales and its leaping dolphins to Orlando in 1973. That touched off a flurry of other new attractions as the visitor numbers grew each year.

In 1990, Universal Studios arrived to add still more competition, more visitors and more entertainment. In 1999, it grew again with the addition of Islands of Adventure, featuring a host of thrill rides guaranteed to knock your socks off. Meanwhile, Orlando just keeps on growing, there are over 90 attractions, 3,800 restaurants and 99,000 rooms, topping 100,000 even as you read this.

You will still see citrus groves, although many have been usurped by sprawling housing developments. A host of other entertainment facilities and high-tech industries continue to play a major role in the region’s economy, but it is tourism that is the pile-driving force of Orlando’s finances, contributing more than USD17 billion to the economy annually. Today’s Orlando is unquestionably the epicenter of the state’s tourism industry, a place where billions of dollars change hands every day amid a fantasy land of neon and nightlife.

Getting there and getting around

Getting There

From the Airport
Car Rental:

Avis (+1 800 230 4898 / http://www.avis.com/)
Budget (+1 800 527 0700 / https://rent.drivebudget.com/)
Alamo (+1 800 327 9633 / https://www.alamo.com)
Enterprise (+1 800 325 8007 / http://www.enterprise.com/)
Hertz (+1 800 654 3131 / https://www.hertz.com)

Shuttles: Numerous other rental car companies have courtesy shuttles to take you to off site locations. Lynx (+1 407 841 2279 / http://www.golynx.com/), buses 11, 41, 42, and 51 can be found on side A of the Main Terminal, commercial lanes 38-41. They operate daily from 5:30a-11:30p and depart every 30-60 minutes for downtown, SeaWorld, and International Drive. Rides, depending on traffic, last approximately 40 minutes to downtown and 60 minutes to International Drive.

Taxi: Various taxi companies operate from sides A and B: A5-8, B5-8, A22-25, and B30-34 on the Commercial Lane. Mears (+1 407 423 5566 / http://www.mearstransportation.com/) runs shuttle service from A9-10, B9-10, A36-37, and B40-41 of the commercial lane.

Limo: Orlando Florida Limousine provides professional limousine service around the city (+1 888 660 9220 / http://www.orlandofloridalimousine.com/)

By Bus
Greyhound (+1 407 292 3424 / http://www.greyhound.com/) arrives from all points of the compass to the main terminal at 555 North John Young Parkway.

By Train
Amtrak (+1 800 872 7245 / http://www.amtrak.com/) provides daily service to Orlando’s train station just south of downtown (1400 Sligh Boulevard).

By Car
Interstate 4 (I-4), central Florida’s main car chute, zooms through Orlando in a northeast/southwest direction. The 408 Expressway, a toll road, intersects I-4 at Orlando’s southern end. Downtown’s grid is easy to negotiate once you become familiar with its network of one-way thoroughfares. Because of Orlando’s dramatic population surge, however, traffic, especially during morning and afternoon rush hours, borders on horrific.

Getting Around

Public Transit
Because of Orlando’s grim traffic situation Orlando’s bus system, Lynx (+1 407 841 2279 / http://www.golynx.com/), serves as a best bet alternative. Its brightly painted buses serve Orange, Seminole and Oseola counties and operate daily from 4:15a-12:15a. During peak frequency hours buses on the busiest routes pass every 15 minutes. All buses can offer wheel chair access and contain bike racks. Rates: Standard one-way ticket USD2; single day pass USD4.50; seven day pass USD16.

Bus
Lymmo (http://www.golynx.com/riding-lynx/lymmo.stml) is the transportation of choice for downtown travellers. This free bus service covers a circuit through the downtown area. During office hours (8a-5p) buses pass every five minutes.

Trolley
The I-Trolley (+1 407 248 9590 / http://www.iridetrolley.com/) runs year round transport in the International Drive (I-Drive) Resort Area. Two lines cover the area (Red Line and Green Line) stopping at dozens of points. Trolleys arrive/depart approximately every 20 from 8a-10:30p daily.

Walt Disney World has an all inclusive transit system that utilizes ferries, monorails, and buses to cart tourists from point to point around the massive resort.

Taxi
Taxis are a relatively easy way to maneuver about the city if you are without a car or in a group. But due to distances involved from point to point fares can get expensive. Local cab companies include Yellow Cab, City Cab, and Checker Cab all under the wing of the Mears Transportation Group (+1 407 423 5566 / http://www.mearstransportation.com/).

For a unique mode of transportation hop into a Rydes Pedicab (+1 813 841 8067). These bike taxis are free and service the downtown area Tuesday through Saturday. Each pedicab holds up to four passengers.

Bike
In 1990, Bicycling Magazine named Orlando as the second worst city for bicycling in the United States. Local government responded to this charge by adding 148 miles (238 kilometers) of bike paths now making it, according to the League of American Cyclists, a “Bicycle Friendly Community.” Most paths provide convenient access downtown.

Traffic Information
To find out city traffic information go to http://www.traffic.com/

If traveling overseas, take the safety precaution of registering your trip at https://travelregistration.state.gov/ and for helpful, practical advice about traveling technicalities and safety standards check out http://travel.state.gov/