Orlando, Florida, is a very well-known family oriented holiday destination for us Brits. It’s somewhere that mum’s and dad’s save up for years to take their kids while they are still into fairies, princesses, superheroes and singing cartoon characters.
I didn’t go to Orlando until I was 24 years old, and when I went I was the youngest member of our family group. We’d all wanted to go but had never been, and decided we didn’t need young children to enjoy a holiday in the “sunshine State”. When we boarded the plane in London I was definitely as excited as I would have been if I was seven years old, looking forward to the bright colours, warm sunshine, large meals (you know I love my food!) and of course roller coasters.
I have now been to Orlando four times, and love it there. Yes, I have fairly recently discovered “proper” travel, enjoying road trips, adventure and off-the-beaten-track type stuff. But there is something quite wonderful about allowing yourself to enjoy a couple of weeks somewhere nice and warm, with a swimming pool and a ticket for Disney World. I would go back tomorrow if I wasn’t saving up for my big summer road trip, and absolutely love “getting involved” in other people’s Orlando holiday planning.
As someone who has never been to Orlando with actual kids (just big kids), I have teamed up with Thomson to offer up a few of my top tips for enjoying the city and all its touristy goodness as an adult (and it’s a great excuse to look over all my old holiday photos!).
It’s a loooooong way to Orlando from the UK and if you don’t want to be stuck next to someone else’s restless child for eight or nine hours I would definitely recommend upgrading to premium economy. I have no problem with families taking their kids on these flights of course, what an adventure for a toddler, but it’s SO difficult to keep the little ones quiet and entertained for that length of time, so removing yourself from the equation is not a bad idea. The extra legroom, extra baggage allowance and better inflight entertainment will also come in handy. I’ve done it once in economy class thanks to the tour operator we were originally booked with going bust, and it wasn’t exactly the nicest flight. You’re probably spending loads on this trip already, it’s worth every extra penny.
As much as the Disney and Universal hotels look amazing, I would definitely recommend finding your own place as a base to explore the area. Booking a villa is very wise, especially if you’re a group of adults and like the idea of having your own space but also somewhere to eat together in the evenings. You’ll also get your own pool too (assuming you choose your villa with one), where you can splash about and play volleyball as much as you like without risking other people’s children in the hotel pool! We like the Davenport area, close to Kissimmee, which is around 20 minutes’ drive to Disney, a little bit further to Universal, and very close to some great places to eat. I don’t think I’d ever book a hotel in Orlando, they might offer some luxury, but you just don’t have the freedom.
Disney World and Universal Studios
Let’s face it, one of the main draws of Orlando are the theme parks. There’s Disney World and Universal Studios, amongst others, offering days (and days) of fun and plenty of time on your feet. They might seem a bit cartoony with their characters and parades and coloured tarmac, but there is plenty more going on that will keep any roller coaster loving adult happy.
There are of course some awesome rides that will get your heart pumping, your voice screaming and your sunglasses falling off your face. My personal favourites are Sheekra, The Incredible Hulk, Revenge of the Mummy, Harry Potter Escape from Gringott’s (just superb!), The Simpsons, Mission: Space (not for the motion sick – make sure you follow the instructions to the letter!), Soarin’ (beautiful), Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the Aerosmith Rock n Roller Coaster (for the music). My advice if you really don’t want to be around crowds of children is to avoid Magic Kingdom, although everyone needs a photo in front of the castle, but the other parks are more spread out and less busy. The best park for rides in my opinion is Universal Islands of Adventure, and the best for stuff to see as well as do is Universal Studios thanks to the “studio” side of things. Disney’s Hollywood Studios offers an opportunity to join in, too!
Yes that’s LincsGeek and me. If you get a chance to take part in one of the shows, say yes, you’ll have a proper giggle!
I think Epcot should get a special mention. Definitely my favourite of all the parks. I think that definitely means I’m an adult and not a child!! If you like your street food then make sure you set aside a day to explore this one, my favourite of the Disney parks. Take a full wallet and an empty stomach and work your way around the lake and the world, there is typical cuisine in each “country”, and some great entertainment to offer somewhere to rest your legs while you eat. You might even learn something cultural, but don’t forget it’s all very Disney-fied so take some of it with a pinch of salt (especially the accents!). Soarin’ and Mission: Space are both here and worth getting a fast pass for, and there’s the laser show in the evening, too.
Sheekra at Busch Gardens. Think Oblivion, but bigger. Much bigger.
As you might imagine, there is a lot of choice when it comes to eating out in Orlando. If you want to give a chain or two a try then I would definitely make an evening for Texas Roadhouse, a steak and rib house that currently boasts my “best steak I’ve ever eaten” title – so tender and juicy mmmmm. For a more traditional Southern style meal go to Cracker Barrel and order the southern fried steak with cream gravy followed by the caramel apple pie – let me know who wins at the table game. And if you want something cheap with a varied menu, you can’t go wrong with Applebees, a national chain that has a sports bar feel and will definitely curb the hunger. Finally, an honourable mention to The Cheesecake Factory, which you’ll find in the Mall of Millennia – a menu with thousands of choices, and that’s just dessert!
The East Coast
There is lots to do around Orlando in your hire car, and as an adult there are some places I would definitely recommend getting up early to visit. Although I don’t recommend heading into the city itself for a wander around – Orlando proper is basically a financial district and we found absolutely nothing to look at! But there are some lovely places around if you’re willing to travel.
Head over to the coast twice. The first time head to Daytona – both for the beautiful long sandy beach (you can park on the beach) and for the Daytona International Speedway. If you’re a speed demon you can have a play in one of the cars on the track with the Richard Petty Indy Experience, but even without that it’s a great place to find out about the iconic Daytona 500 and car racing in the US. The second reason to head East is for the rather spectacular Kennedy Space Centre, although I haven’t been since just before the last shuttle mission and so can’t comment on whether there is now more or less romance to the place these days. Watching as technicians prepared bits of the actual Space Station that are now orbiting around the Earth is definitely one of my best holiday memories.
Building the space station.
I have never really been a fan of Animal Kingdom, it seems small and busy. If you like animals and don’t want them too kiddyfied, head to Busch Gardens. A mix of theme park and zoo, there are a couple of great rides as well as plenty of big animals to see. The main animal exhibit is an open area where various creatures appear to roam free. I like to think that’s better than cages.
Ever petted an Emu? Busch Gardens.
I have been to Seaworld and have enjoyed it, but I’m going to struggle to recommend it since watching Blackfish and other documentaries, and even more so since California has now banned breeding Orcas in captivity (not currently the case in Florida). Not wanting to feed controversy, I will simply suggest that there is lots to think about, so do your research and make up your own mind. I admit that I had the most wonderful day when I went to Discovery Cove a few years ago, especially snorkelling with the fish. Being limited to 1,000 people a day makes it a quiet and relaxed day without any queueing (and your food and drink is included, too). Again there are particular issues surrounding keeping dolphins in captivity to consider when choosing to visit, something for me to think about carefully when we return to Florida.
Quick Tips and Ideas
Not enough adrenaline at the theme parks for you? There’s a sky coaster at Kissimmee Old Town – seriously good fun and well worth doing. There are also weekly bike nights and hot rod nights perfect for a wander before dinner.
If you fancy a night out then I wholeheartedly recommend the Blue Man Group. Such a good show. Go ready to shake your booty, joining in is not optional! Oh and watch out for flying paint. There’s also a resident Cirque du Soleil in Orlando, which I’ll be going to next time.
To experience some American sport head into Orlando to the Amway Centre, home to The Orlando Magic basketball team. It was busy and loud and bright and a great experience that involved the bucket of popcorn I’ve ever seen!
If you want the chance to see alligators in the wild, go to Boggy Creek and go on one of their air boat rides. You’ll need a map to find it and there are no guarantees you’ll have a close encounter, but even if you don’t spot one the air boat itself is a great experience.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the potential shopping days you can have in Orlando. To be honest the last time we went the bargains were not as good as the first time, but they are still to be found in the various malls and outlet centres.
The best place for Disney and other souvenirs is Walmart. They have official merchandise and it’s a fraction of the price compared with inside the parks. You’ll also be blown away by the size of the tomatoes!
A day at a theme park involves A LOT of walking. We like to alternate days at theme parks with other things such as Boggy Creek or shopping.
Other than at Epcot, finding healthy food in the Theme Parks is not easy. Chips, chips and more chips (sorry, fries) seems to be the name of the game. If you want salad for lunch carry it with you.
There are water fountains everywhere, meaning there is no need to rely on single use plastic bottles of water. Take a refillable bottle and use that to keep hydrated for free.
We have used the Brit Guide to Orlando to help us plan each of our trips. It’s an independent guide with lots more than just park info, with some great tips that’ll help you make the most of your holiday.
Tower of Terror. Anyone afraid of lifts?!