If you're looking for a family-friendly destination that adults will love as much as kids, then look no further than Orlando. Orlando is called "The City Beautiful" and with all its theme parks and attractions, combined with it's location in the Sun Belt, this destination promises a trip to remember for the entire family. We've put together a guide to the best attractions, best places to stay, and best places to eat, so read on and start planning your next vacation for Orlando.
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ORLANDO GUIDE FOR FAMILIES
What Florida vacation would be complete without a visit to Orlando, the land of magic for kids and adults alike? With the plethora of options for entertainment, it is easy to get overwhelmed or go down the beaten "safe" path. However, even if you're looking to visit good ol' Disney, there are plenty of hidden places within that only locals know about. This guide will help you navigate the expansive world of Orlando, direct you to fun places to stay and great places to eat, so that your vacation is as dramatic and different as the Harry Potter Ride at Islands of Adventure that we hope you don't forget to visit.
WHERE TO STAY
There are a multitude of hotels and resorts all over Orlando. It wouldn't be the most popular and magic destination in Florida without gorgeous resorts to spend time relaxing in after exhausting days at the parks. We have toured some of the best hotels in Orlando to give you an idea of where to stay and what to expect. When deciding which hotel to book, you have to consider multiple factors, like family size, budget, preferences, car availability, and proximity to entertainment.
STAYING ON DISNEY PROPERTY
If travelling to visit Disney World, it is often a good idea to stay on Disney property. However, a few things should be considered:
- Disney resorts are significantly more expensive for the quality that they deliver.
- A value room ( LaQuinta quality) will run upwards of $100 for a standard room depending on the reason. It offers no restaurants on site, except for a food court with mediocre food and pizza delivery. The rooms are old and cheap, however the resort grounds are fun and colorful, especially for the under 10 crowd, featuring larger than life Disney characters and beautiful pools.
- A slightly better option, moderate resorts, will be $150-200 for a standard room and while the grounds are gorgeous and themed well, the rooms themselves are pretty old and lackluster. The food options are usually mediocre, featuring one sit down restaurant per resort. Our personal favorite is Port Orleans - French Quarter with its neat buildings, quiet pace and french themed colors and details.
- Deluxe Disney resorts are much better for those looking for a comfortable place to stay while experiencing the magic of Disney. The resorts and the grounds are breath taking and have a separate theme running through the whole area. Food options are excellent, usually featuring 3 great restaurants per resort. The rooms are somewhat subpar, considering the price you pay ( $200-$500 for a standard room), but the experience of staying at the resort usually makes up for it. Deluxe resorts are the only ones offering the monorail and boats as a form of transportation.
- Resort perks: All Disney resorts offer transportation service to the parks which can be a good way of getting around, as long as you don't travel with the park opening and closing crowds. Extra Magic Hours, special hours before and after park closing, allow resort guests to enjoy the parks with smaller crowds.
Something to note: If you have a large family with smaller kids, it can prove difficult to travel to the parks via Disney transportation. All buses require that you fold your stroller before getting on, which is challenging when you have to lug a folded stroller, diaper bags, snacks and kids all by yourself on and off the bus. For that reason we recommend, renting a car for your visit to Orlando. This will also allow you to experience other attractions off Disney property.
All in all, if you're looking for the ultimate Disney experience, maybe somewhat uncomfortable and overpriced at times, staying on Disney property can be a good option. If it's your first trip to the parks and you want to maximize the magic of Disney, and don't mind paying a premium for sometimes average lodging, you won't be disappointed.
STAYING OFF DISNEY PROPERTY
This often lesser known and under appreciated option has a lot of benefits, especially for seasoned travelers and those looking to enjoy other attractions Orlando has to offer. We are going to outline three resorts, each different in its category and location that constitute some great options for staying off Disney property while offering exceptional value and experience. Families with smaller kids will especially appreciate the large rooms, great food and kitchen/washer dryer in some of the resorts. A mode of transportation, like a rental car, is usually a must, and is a better options for families with more than two small kids for reasons outlined in the above section. Make sure not to miss an in-depth tour of each one of these resorts in the coming days.
RESORT: Marriott Grande Vista
WHO: Large families or families with smaller kids
We love it because it truly feels like home: you can make your own food, wash your clothes in suite, get your toddler in a high chair while you eat dinner, prepare healthy snacks for the parks, take a relaxing soak in a huge whirlpool bath and lead a normal restful life on vacation while enjoying the amenities of this child friendly resort. You can find out more information about what your stay could be like, as well as amenities, prices and photos, if you look forward to our upcoming Marriott Grande Vista tour. Want to see more? Read our feature on Grande Vista.
RESORT: Reunion Resort
WHO: Large families looking for a luxury stay or families with smaller kids
WHY: A preferred family certified Reunion Resort transforms you into a world of luxury and service.
With impeccably furnished and designed rooms, villas and houses, Reunion is a true community in every sense of the word. In a family sized suite, you can enjoy a full kitchen with granite countertops, washer and dryer, marble and title floors, expansive balconies, sparkling bathrooms and gorgeous furniture. Located 6 miles from Disney, it is the perfect option for those who desire luxury and convenience without having to pay double the price at Disney for subpar accommodations. Preferred Family certified for kids of all ages means your stay will be as stress-free as possible. Want to see more? Read our feature on Reunion Resort!
RESORT: Renaissance Sea World
WHO: Anyone visiting Sea World and Universal looking for affordable beautiful family friendly resort.
WHY: If Sea World is one of your main goals, there is no better place to stay than the Renaissance which is literally located across from the park and offers perks like front-of-the-line passes to Sea World, as well as complimentary tours.
Everyone else will love the resort for its proximity to Universal, as well as Disney, and affordable prices for the level of quality offered in the hotel. Beautiful multi-story lobby with massive screens showcasing deep sea fish, breakfast with Shamu, tropical pool, and a fun waterpark for children and toddler makes this resort a must for anyone looking for a great vacation with the family. And if that's not enough, a glass of champagne or sparkling cider upon check in will make you a fan for life. (It's really good apple cider, trust us!). Want to see more? Read our feature on the Renaissance Sea World!
WHAT TO PACK
Useful items to consider for vising Orlando and area's attraction could be:
- Narrow lightweight stroller Babyhome Emotion stroller is very lightweight, narrow and folds easily while still extremely comfortable, which helps with maneuvering around the parks
- A portable fan O2 Cool is a great battery powered clip on fan that will last for years and can be a life saver for little ones in the stroller.
- Sun protection- the sun is extremely hot in Florida whether in winter or summer, so it's important to make sure that everyone is protected.
- Lots of loose light clothes- even evenings are incredibly warm and humid in Orlando, so shorts/skirts , short sleeved tops and summer dresses are the only items you'll need.
- A pair of jeans and a light hoodie- while summers are hot outdoors, indoors will feel cold due to air conditioning. If you plan on eating at restaurants, you'll need to make sure that you don't get too cold inside, especially with small kids. Since Orlando is accustomed to tourists and people stopping by after a day at the parks, most restaurants do not require any special attire.
- A cooling pad for the stroller - Geleeo is a new cooling pad that stays a few degrees cooler than the air and is a great way to keep kids from overheating in the summer
- Lunchboxes - if you plan of visiting parks, the chances are you won't be able to find healthy food on the spot unless you prepare prior to leaving for the park. Packing some snacks is always a great option.
- Umbrella/rain cover - it rains every afternoon in the summer so unless you wait out the rain ( which usually lasts 20 minutes to a couple hours), you might want to have these handy.
- Cool weather clothes - Yes, it's Florida, but it can occasionally get pretty cold for a few days between November and March in Orlando, so to be on the safe side, a sweater and a few pairs of pants is advisable. During some weeks the temperatures can dip into the 40s, during others it will be in high 80s.
- Swimsuit - it might be winter, but most of the time the water is still comfortable, and let's not forget those water parks.
WHERE TO EAT
Orlando offers an amazing array of gourmet and themed restaurants that will become your favorites for years to come. While it is impossible to list them all, we'll try to give you a low down on some of our favorites. These are what we call "Experience Dining":
If you're adventurous with your food, this is not a place to miss. Don't let the word "buffet" scare you, because this is top quality. African dishes and American favorites spiced with African spices, plus yummy deserts make this buffet a must visit. Don't forget their curry pasta salad! The restaurant is located inside the Animal Kingdom Lodge resort, which is a great way to experience the hotel and the animals after dinner, as well. (This restaurant is at a Disney resort, you don't need a ticket, just show your ID at the guard booth for entry)
Another Disney resort restaurant that offer delicious breakfast options with a Hawaiian theme (heavy on coconut and mango). It's located in the Polynesian resort at Disney and most of the time requires advanced reservations.
Located in Epcot, Biergarten is another buffet that offers an authentic German experience. Cuisine featuring bratwurst, potatoes, cold salads, meat cuts and deserts accompanied by a band of German musicians, playing folk songs and performing in front of your eyes, while you enjoy a liter of German beer in a traditional glass beer mug. (A park ticket is required for entry. Musicians performances are scheduled at certain times of day, please contact the restaurants for details.)
Located at the fancy Grand Floridian, Garden Tea Room is an upscale way to enjoy English tea with tea sandwiches and deserts by the gorgeous windows overlooking a garden. You can book a spot in the Princess Tea party located there and have your children drink tea with Princesses and Disney Characters.
For sushi lovers, Seito Sushi offers several locations in Orlando and serves countless rolls that any sushi aficionado will appreciate. Their take out options has long been our favorite for quick dinners after a day at the parks.
ORLANDO BY AGE
DISNEY WITH INFANTS
If there was one place that catered to families most, it is Orlando, so if you're considering taking an infant to Disney World parks, know that you're not alone. There are plenty of facilities all throughout the parks that facilitate nursing, rocking, changing, feeding and naps. Each one of the four parks has a BABY CENTER equipped for any need that may arise when caring for a baby. You can quietly nurse in a dim environment of the nursing room set up with rocking chairs and soft lights. You can use one of several changing tables to change your baby, or high chairs to feed them. There are microwaves to heat up bottles, a TV/playroom for dads and older children to hang out in while the mom is busy nursing or rocking. Baby Centers are not always located in the most convenient parts of the parks, so we recommend looking them up on a Disney map and planning accordingly.
If your infant is older, he will benefit from taking in sights and sounds of the parks, so make sure to get a good seat for mid-day parade at Magic Kingdom or late night Electric Parade that is full of lights and music and is sure to delights babies of all ages.
A lot of rides at Magic Kingdom are designed to allow babies on lap, so checking out the height requirement and ride descriptions beforehand is often useful. Some of the rides that would be ideal for infants include:
It's a Small World | Prince Charming Regal Carousel | Peter Pan Flight | Dumbo the Elephant | Carpets of Aladdin | Jungle Cruise | Pirates of the Caribbean (loud noises and darkness) | and more
ORLANDO WITH TODDLERS
Toddlers are a completely different breed when it comes to traveling. It's the age where many more activities open up to them but also new fears arise, so judge based on your toddler's reaction when taking them to attractions. Here are some of the rides and activities that would be great for toddlers.
The two best parks for toddlers are Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom ( though there are certainly a handful of age appropriate rides at the other two Disney parks). Character experiences are a great way of introducing toddlers to Mickey and friends and are available all throughout parks often with limited lines depending on the season.
The following are our favorite toddler attractions in order of mildness:
- Magic Kingdom: Casey Jr Splash Station | Liberty Square Riverboat | It's a Small World | Prince Charming Regal Carrousel | Under the Sea | Jungle Cruise | Dumbo, the Flying Elephant | The Magic Carpets of Aladdin | Peter Pan's Flight | Mad Tea Party (fast spinning) | Mickey's Philharmagic (loud noises) | Pirates of the Caribbean (darkness/loud noises) | Many adventures of Winnie the Pooh (fast spinning, darkness, loud noises)| Haunted Mansion (darkness/scary noises and images)
- Animal Kingdom: Affection Section(petting zoo) | The Boneyard (playground) | Kilimanjaro Safaris | Jungle Trek | Triceratop Spin |It's tough to be a bug (darkness/loud noises/scary images)
- Islands of Adventure
Universal doesn't have much to offer for toddlers but the few attractions available will surely be a huge hit with the under 3 crowd. If your little one is a fan of Dr Seuss rhymes, be sure to check out the Cat in the Hat ride (spinning/loud noises), Caro-seus-elle ( a Dr Seuss's version of a traditional Carousel), One Fish, Two Fish water fun ride, a beautiful extensive playground and an hourly Dr. Seuss show with stories and music and meeting of their favorite characters (Cat in the Hat, Thing 1 and Thing 2, Sam I am, the Grinch and the Lorax).
- Universal Studios: Universal Studios park has a pretty big playground/show area for toddlers. A Day in the Park with Barney and Animal Actors on Location are the two shows that take place in the area and Curious George Splash town and a Fievel's Playland will sure entertain your 2 year old for a while. Attractions like Shrek 4D and ET Adventure may interest your toddler as well.
- Waterparks: There are several waterparks available in Orlando and all are great for the toddler crowd. Please read about them in the family section below.
FAMILY ATTRACTIONS FOR ALL AGES
- Blizzard Beach, one of the two Disney waterparks, is themed after a ski resort, with snow capped rides and toboggan slides. Typhoon Lagoon, on the other hand, is a "deserted tropical park after a typhoon swept past". Both have many rides for all ages, as well as groups and family rides and each - a wonderful toddler play area with 6 different slides and a shallow pool area.
- Aquatica, a waterpark by Sea World is a great place for family fun and has toddler friendly areas to splash in.
- Wet n Wild Orlando, Universal's waterpark is has been more adult and teen friendly until recently when they opened their new Blastaway Beach, largest family water play area in Florida.
- Discovery Cove - Check out Discovery Cove for the best snorkeling experience in Florida. Swim with dolphins, snorkel tropical reefs, and explore underwater shipwrecks.
FUN FOR EVERYONE
- Gatorland features 3,000 gators and 89 crocodiles, as well as a number of bird and snake exhibits
- Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum will gross out your kids and surprise the adults.
- Chip 'N Dale's Campfire Sing a Long - Join nutty friends Chip ‘n Dale for a nightly campfire celebration, followed by a classic Disney movie under the stars.
- Blue Man Group - Experience a show like you've never seen before. Drums, paint, music, comedy, theatrics, party and of course, the three blue men making the impossible seem possible in this highly visual, highly interactive music show.
FUN FOR SCHOOL AGED KIDS and UP
- Florida Springs - Gorgeous Fresh water springs are sure to bring lots of fun to your family. Crystal clear waters, caves, rivers, tube rides, snorkeling, swimming, scuba diving, and other water activities are available at different springs at virtually no cost.
- Orlando Space Center - Four floors of exciting exhibits, amazing giant screen movies and engaging live programming, the Science Center is the perfect family destination
- Midieval Times - Take a trip back in time with Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament, where you and your family will be assigned a certain knight that you'll cheer on as he jousts
- DisneyQuest Indoor Interactive Theme Park - Discover 5 floors of fun including virtual worlds, 3D encounters and classic video games.
- Cirque du Soleil - Be mesmerized by this extraordinary avant-garde spectacle as it makes the impossible, possible!
- Lake Eola Park - Home to a majestic fountain and graceful swan boats, Lake Eola Park is a bit of serenity and Old Florida in the heart of Orlando.
- Congo River Adventure Golf - Experience tranquil waterfalls, mysterious caves, tropical rain forests, challenging golf holes and more as you follow in the footsteps of Stanley and Livingstone on an unforgettable African adventure.
- Orlando Shakespeare Theater - Bold productions of Shakespeare, exciting new works, popular stories for children of all ages.
- John F. Kennedy Space Center - The John F. Kennedy Space Center has been the home of every manned space flight from the United States since 1968.
- Splitsville allows you to relax with your family while bowling on these colorful lanes and enjoying music and food from this Disney bowling center.
- Disney Miniature Golf - Disney has two miniature golf locations, Fantasia Gardens and Fairways and Winter Summerland
- Fort Wilderness Archery Experience - Guests 7 years of age and up can learn how to hold and fire a compound bow in this 90-minute archery program.
FUN FOR TEENS
- Amway Center - Check out upcoming concerts and events for your teen to enjoy. Orlando is a frequent destination for popular bands and artists.
- iFly Orlando - iFLY Orlando is the best way to experience indoor skydiving experience. True free-fall conditions, just like skydiving, without having to jump out of an airplane.
- Orlando Grand Prix - Orlando indoor go kart racing track
- The Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner Show - A dinner show unlike no other with only 125 seats per show. Expect to be impressed at this interactive, entertaining and hilariously funny dinner show.
- Playstation Pavillion - Get your game on at this exciting play area, home to 17 fully loaded PlayStation® 3 consoles and the latest video games.
FUN for PARENTS WHILE THE KIDS ARE AT PLAY
- Leisure stroll through Epcot - There is nothing more relaxing than taking an adult only trip around the world courtesy of Epcot. Epcot often offers little interest to kids or teenagers depending on their personalities. So take your time exploring all the countries Epcot showcases, dine in Mexico, have dessert in France, grab some pizza in Italy, watch the fireworks show, shop for crystals in Germany, then go over to ride the Soaring and Test Track.
- Shopping - Outlet malls abound, you can surely find a great deal on designer apparel. Or go to the beautiful Mall at Millenia where you can shop more traditional mall stores, as well as grab a bite to eat.
- Golfing - There are numerous golf courses throughout Orlando. Both Marriott's Grande Vista resort and Reunion resort mentioned above have beautiful golf courses that you can play if you're staying at either one of the resorts. Grande Vista Golf Club has great practice facilities for beginners and avid golfers. Reunion resort boasts three different golf courses on property, all three highly rated.
- Day at the Spa - You can also indulge in some couple treatments sans the kids and finally truly relax mind and body. Our favorite treatments are Grande Vista Experience at the Spa at Grande Vista, Ashiatsu at the Reunion Resort and Journey of Discovery for Two at Neu Lotus Spa at Renaissance Sea World
- Fun times at City Walk - If you're into bar and club scene, remind yourself what it was like to be young and careless but visiting City Walk at night. Numerous bars and clubs, live performances and great food and drinks await you next to Universal Parks.
- Visit Celebration, Fl - A town originally planned by The Wald Disney Company to be a Disney master planned residential community with its quaint streets, local shops and restaurants, perfect Stepford houses. You will feel like you walked onto a set of a movie with the perfection of the town. During the Christmas holidays Celebration holds wonderful celebrations of winter complete with "snow falling" and festive music while attendees and children dance in the streets.