Orlando, Florida, is one of the fastest-growing cities in the U.S., thanks to its status as one of the world's premier leisure destinations. Orlando's cleanliness, friendliness, temperate climate and diverse offerings make it a popular getaway for families, honeymooners, seniors and corporate travelers, many of whom immerse themselves in area theme parks, such as Walt Disney World Resorts, SeaWorld Orlando and Universal Studios Florida.
Disney and friends aside, Orlando is magical in its own right, with vast cultural offerings, a melting pot of dining establishments, high-end golf courses and some of Florida's most popular freshwater fishing locales. It feels young, both in terms of its energy level and its many new or restored neighborhoods. Downtown Orlando continues to grow in popularity.
There's a difference between Orlando the city and Greater Orlando, which encompasses Orange, Osceola, Seminole, Brevard and Lake counties. Many attractions and facilities associated with Orlando are actually outside or on the edge of the city proper but still within the area popularly thought of as Orlando.
Walt Disney World Resort is some 30 minutes southwest of downtown Orlando, in Lake Buena Vista. SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Orlando Resort and the Orange County Convention Center are also southwest of downtown. These areas, along with Kissimmee, east of Disney, are chockablock with hotels and fast-food restaurants. The downtown area's offerings include art, culture, history, dining and nightlife.
North of the city is Historic Eatonville, Winter Park and Maitland followed by Seminole County, which includes bedroom communities of Altamonte Springs, Casselberry, Longwood, Lake Mary and Winter Springs, where you'll find lots of shopping and sightseeing. Hotels, motels and an array of dining opportunities are offered throughout suburban Seminole County.
To the west of downtown, Lake County boasts more than 1,000 lakes (including part of the Butler chain) and more of the wall-to-wall residential and commercial development that is rapidly changing central Florida. To the north is the 450,000-acre/180,000-hectare Ocala National Forest.
Orlando's location in the middle of the state places it within easy driving distance of the Tampa-St. Petersburg area along the Gulf of Mexico, as well as Daytona Beach, the Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach area, and St. Augustine to the east.
The Sunshine State's theme-park city had humble beginnings. In 1838, U.S. Army volunteers built Fort Gatlin, south of what is now downtown, to protect area settlers from attack during the Second Seminole War. By the time the war ended in 1842, the small community had become known as Jernigan, after the pioneering Jernigan family from Georgia.
In 1857, the city's name was changed to Orlando. The most widely accepted of at least four stories behind the name credits soldier Orlando Reeves, who was killed by Seminole Indians while serving sentinel duty at what is now his place of burial and a downtown centerpiece: Lake Eola Park.
Many Orlando pioneers earned a living in cattle ranching and supplied beef to soldiers during the Civil War. Travel to the swampy wilds of central Florida was difficult until the early 1880s, when Henry Plant's Atlantic Coastline Railroad provided access to the region. It also gave rise to the area's citrus industry, as the fruit could be exported north via refrigerated railroad cars.
One of the area's earliest settlers was Elias Disney, a Canadian who tried his luck as a hotelier and a farmer. He failed at both pursuits and moved to Chicago in 1889. In 1936, Dick Pope opened a central Florida theme park known as Cypress Gardens and became known as the state's "Father of Tourism." But Cypress Gardens would never approach the magnitude of a park Elias's son, Walt, eventually brought to the area. Some three decades after Cypress Gardens opened, Walt Disney purchased more than 43 sq mi/111 sq km of Orlando's pristine land for his Magic Kingdom.
Walt Disney died of lung cancer five years before Walt Disney World's 1971 opening. His brother Roy saw to the park's completion and named it in honor of him. The grand plan included more than the Magic Kingdom amusement park, which opened as phase one of the project with its hotels, campgrounds, golf courses and restaurants. Walt Disney had also envisioned building an air-conditioned futuristic community named Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). It finally premiered in 1982 but was more of a theme park than Disney may have originally intended.
Large-scale attractions, amusement parks, and film and television production complexes continue to dominate Orlando, but the region is also gaining recognition as a high-tech center, as well as a world-class meeting destination. Convention centers abound and include the Orange County Convention Center, which offers more than 2 million sq ft/185,000 sq m of space, making it the second-largest facility of its type in the U.S.
The theme parks that draw most visitors to Orlando are getting larger all the time: Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Studios, Universal's Islands of Adventure and SeaWorld Orlando seem to be in a mad dash to out-build one another, regularly adding multimillion-dollar rides and attractions to lure more guests.
There are countless other hot spots in and around Orlando, too. The epicenter of downtown is Lake Eola Park, a scenic oasis surrounded by upscale condo developments, shops, restaurants, cultural venues and nightlife. The lake's fountain is lit at night with a rainbow of lights, and just a few blocks to the east is the revitalized Thornton Park neighborhood, marked by Craftsman-style houses, brick roads, shady oaks, trendy shops and smart eateries.
A few miles/kilometers north of downtown, a cultural district surrounds Loch Haven Park. Its focal point is the striking aluminum-domed observatory of the Orlando Science Center, housing interactive exhibits that appeal to children of all ages. Also in Loch Haven are the world-class Orlando Museum of Art and the Mennello Museum of American Art. Nearby, enjoy peace and quiet as you admire roses and camellias at the Harry P. Leu Gardens.
Some of Orlando's best shops, restaurants and attractions are in Winter Park, an affluent town where oak and cypress trees laden with Spanish moss line brick-paved streets. Winter Park also is known for its upscale boutique-style shopping and outdoor dining along picturesque Park Avenue. You can take a boat tour past opulent estates and landmarks through the canals that connect Winter Park's chain of lakes and experience what vacationing northerners found so wonderful about old Florida.
In line with its affluence and artistic nature, Winter Park is home to The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens, and the Cornell Fine Arts Museum on the beautiful campus of Rollins College. With its tree-lined walking paths and Spanish-style buildings, it's a serene way to enjoy an evening stroll after a day spent enjoying the sights and activities offered along the Park Avenue strand.
Adding to Park Avenue's popularity in recent years is nearby Winter Park Village, a 500,000-sq-ft/46,500-sq-m urban lifestyle project where visitors can view films, dine at a variety of restaurants or shop at several well-known high-end stores.
Orlando's choices for evening entertainment are plentiful, but neither the nightclubs nor the comedy clubs are confined to any particular neighborhood, nor do they tend to stay in favor for more than a year or two.
Universal's CityWalk is a lively place to go for music, drinks and dancing. Downtown Orlando is a must-see for the twenty- and thirtysomething crowd. Winter Park and nearby Winter Park Village are home to pubs, bars and restaurant lounges popular among all age groups.
Generally, nightclubs open around 7-9 pm, but comedy clubs and other places that serve food often open earlier (around 11 am). Closing time is 2-3 am.
Orlando's restaurant scene has grown up along with its diverse clientele, who flock to the theme parks, shops, and the Orange County Convention Center. With 5,300 restaurants in the area, the pickings are big. Catfish, alligator, grits, barbecue, seafood and longtime Florida specialties remain menu staples at a few Orlando restaurants. But these days, you'll find that international cuisines are more the norm—from Mexican and Cuban to French and Vietnamese.
Restaurants can come and go rather quickly in Orlando, but those that reach the top tend to remain there. Restaurant Row, one of the more popular dining scenes located along Sand Lake Road just off International Drive, is a culinary theme park of sorts. The area is lined with dozens of upscale eateries that satisfy a world of palates.
Orlando has embraced food truck culture with unique and interesting chefs peddling their wares at a variety of locations, including at bars, planned events, most farmers markets and at designated areas in downtown Orlando.
If you're too tired to leave the theme parks, there are plenty of outstanding options close at hand. Gone are the days when a hot dog and cotton candy were considered a decent meal at an amusement park. Today, several restaurants in Disney World and at Universal rank among the best in Orlando and the state. Reserve at least a couple of evenings to dine at the authentically appointed restaurants located in the World Showcase section of Epcot, featuring food and personnel native to such countries as France, Italy, Germany and Morocco. Truly superb restaurants are also found in resort hotels, such as the Rosen hotels, the Hyatt Regency, the Ritz-Carlton, the Hilton, and the better Walt Disney World Resort and Universal hotels.
Most Disney World restaurants—with exceptions at Disney Springs and at Victoria & Albert's—have priority seating, meaning you don't get a confirmed reservation when you call in advance, but, once you arrive, you are immediately seated or seated in line behind others with priority seating ahead of you. Expect a delay of five to 10 minutes. Your best bet is to make priority-seating reservations as soon as you have confirmed your travel plans. Also ask about the restaurants' hours, which may change seasonally.
You might want to call for specific requirements, but dress at virtually all restaurants is casual or business casual. Victoria & Albert's is the only restaurant in town that requires a jacket for men.
Meal times are similar to those in the rest of the U.S.: Breakfast is generally 7-10 am, lunch 11 am-2:30 pm, dinner 6-10 pm.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$15; $$ = US$15-$25; $$$ = US$26-$60; $$$$ = more than US$60.
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