- Nowhere beats Orlando for theme-park action - and you don’t have to be a kid to join in the fun.
From Transformers to Harry Potter, the Universal Orlando Resort in the south-west of the city has something for everyone. And who could resist a peek at Walt Disney World on Lake Buena Vista. A spine-tingling ride awaits at The Hollywood Tower Hotel in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This spooky former haunt of Tinseltown’s rich and famous is now a dilapidated ruin, its secret passages, dark rooms and rickety staircases yours to explore. Take a ride in its haunted elevator - which speeds up and freefalls down a 13-storey-high lift shaft. Pack your swimming trunks for Wet ‘n Wild, on International Drive, and take the plunge through The Black Hole: The Next Generation, careering down a dark tunnel to explosions of colour and sound. Or groove along to the sounds of the 70s on a high-octane raft ride at Disco H20.
One unmissable stop is SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, where one of the prize attractions is the Manta ride, a “flying rollercoaster” – you literally skim and flip around like a manta ray. There’s also the opportunity to swim with dolphins and snorkel among tropical fish at SeaWorld’s amazing Discovery Cove.
There are plenty of thrills and spills in store for visitors to Orlando beyond the roller-coaster rides. Find out what it feels like to fly through the air at iFLY, an indoor skydiving experience (pictured) that recreates true free fall conditions in vertical wind tunnels (it’s just like skydiving but not quite as scary!). Unlike real skydiving, iFLY Orlando is great for a family day out as anyone over the age of three can try it. Test drive some of the world’s top supercars at The Exotic Driving Experience on the Walt Disney World Speedway. Put the pedal to the metal in a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Porsche and take it round six laps of the one-mile-long tri-oval course. Your driving skills will be put to the ultimate test as you navigate this tricky track of fast switchbacks and hairpin bends. Fly across the lakes in Winter Park Iron-Man Style with FlyBoard. Strap on one of the special devices, propelled by a Jet Ski motor, and get ready for take off. Use your new turbo-charged power to leap up to 30 feet in the air, or bounce headfirst through the waves.
If all that sitting in roller-coasters gets you itching to stretch your legs, grab one of the many chances to get active in Orlando. Catch a wave on the FlowRider at Fantasy Surf. Resident pros are on hand to show you how to surf and bodyboard the indoor wave. Or jump into the waves at the Big Surf Shores at Aquatica - SeaWorld’s Waterpark, on International Drive, where two huge lagoons have been created, one with crashing waves, the other with gentle rollers. Try parasailing at Sammy Duvall’s Watersports Center (pictured) in the marina at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. The single and tandem flights take off and land on the deck of the centre’s cutting-edge boats - so you won’t even get wet. Bike, run or in-line skate along the paved trails set out around the local lakes and parks. Follow The West Orange Trail, a greenway that covers an old railway route for 19 miles, passing through Oakland, Winter Garden and Apopka. And get in the saddle at Horse World Riding Stables in Kissimmee, where beginners to advanced can hit the local sandy trails, or Westgate River Ranch, where wranglers lead one- and two-hour trail rides depending on your skills. While you’re here, practice your aim at the ranch’s Trap and Skeet and Archery Ranges, and go fishing on Lake Okeechobee.
Beyond the man-made attractions, Orlando has some beautiful natural landscapes to explore and plenty of ways to do so. At Florida EcoSafaris (pictured) at Forever Florida, you can pedal your way through the skies on the Cypress Canopy Cycle for an extraordinary take on the surrounding environment. Get in the saddle of the customised bicycles suspended on steel cables and head for the treetops, 25 feet above the ground, to see the homes of woodpeckers, owls and other wildlife up close and survey the forested wetlands below. A few miles from the bustle of Downtown step out into the wilderness on some of Florida’s top nature trails. The Orlando Wetlands Park, open February to November, offers some stellar birdwatching, with the chance to catch sight of species including the bald eagle, sandhill cranes and swallow-tailed kites. Go kayaking on the Silver River with Central Florida Nature Adventures spotting otters, raccoons, wild pigs, turtles and Rhesus monkeys as you go. Or take it easy on a Blue Heron River Tour, cruising the shallow backwaters in search of alligators, herons and even manatees. And take a walk through the Harry P. Leu Gardens, 50 acres of botanical treasures, including the largest collection of camellias in eastern North America.
- Get a front row seat at one of Orlando���s top sporting events. The destination is home of Orlando Magic, one of America’s top basketball teams. Watch them shooting hoops at their stadium in the Amway Center. American Football aficionados can see the Orlando Predators touchdown at the Amway Center, too, while the Orlando Solar Bears faceoff. You can get sporty yourself in this city, too. One of Orlando’s craziest diversions is WhirlyBall. Bumper cars (pictured), basketball, Jai-alai and hockey provide the tools and inspiration for one of the most unlikely team sports, played on a 4,000sq ft pitch at the WhirlyDome. Two teams of three or five power around in WhirlyBugs in pursuit of a ball, which they grab with a Jai-alai-style plastic scoop and aim at the hole in the opposing team’s backboard to score. If that sounds a little fast and furious, get on the ball at Kings Bowl Orlando, a retro-style bowling alley where you can also grab a cocktail and a jolly good meal.
There’s some serious culture on offer in Orlando, too. This city is home to the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, on display at The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. Admire work including stained glass, lamps, jewellery, pottery and paintings by the doyen of Art Nouveau decorative arts. Plus the Tiffany Chapel, designed for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, is also here to see. Other works include watercolours by the glass artist Otto Heinigke. In Downtown, the CityArts Factory showcases local and international works of art in a series of galleries around Orange Street. It’s also one of the organisations behind See Art Orlando, a collection of contemporary sculptures due to be unveiled next month in the streets of Downtown. Downtown is also where you’ll find the Mad Cow Theatre, a company performing a classic and contemporary repertoire. This autumn’s programme includes Pulitzer Prize finalist Jon Robin Baitz’s new play Other Desert Cities and Venus in Fur, David Ives comedy of the sexes. And upcoming events by the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra (pictured) include performances of The Barber of Seville, and an evening of Mendelssohn, Shostakovich and Beethoven featuring the violinist Cho-Liang Lin.
Spoil yourself with a trip to one of Orlando’s fabulous spas. At The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes (pictured) there are no less than 40 treatment rooms in which to be pampered with hot stone massages, Hydrafacials, body rituals, manicures and pedicures. There’s even a Spa Butler on hand to help you select herbs and oils, sugars and salts from the Scrub Bar for the ultimate skin polish. At the Blue Harmony Spa at the Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort therapies offered in the indoor and outdoor treatment rooms use products infused with filtered seawater for top results. Check out the couples suite with its side-by-side soak tubs. Red Rice, Jasmine Cempak and Ylang Ylang are among the exotic elements used to cleanse the body at the Mandara Spa at Universal’s Portofino Bay Hotel and Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin. Balinese healing traditions inform many of the relaxing treatments to enjoy. Go eco at the Little Green Spa in Winter Park, where “skin food” is created from organic fruits, herbs and vegetables for an array of therapies delivered in the small suite of rooms at this boutique spa.
There’s shopping to suit all budgets in Orlando, one of the five most popular destinations in the US for a little retail therapy. Head for the malls. The ritziest is The Mall at Millenia (pictured), where more than 150 shops feature luxury names such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Rolex, plus top American department stores Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. Or browse the outlet shopping centres. The Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores features bargains from the likes of Fossil, Gap and Reebok. North of downtown Orlando, Park Avenue and Hannibal Square is the place to find chic boutiques such as Thread and John Craig Clothier, and pick up some gourmet food at The Ancient Olive and Peterbrooke Chocolatier. Or go vintage in Thornton Park for rich yesteryear pickings including jewellery, footwear and handbags. And don’t forget to pop into the theme park shops if you need to pick up souvenirs for younger friends and family back home At Walt Disney World Resort’s Downtown Disney you’ll be spoilt for choice - it’s the largest character store on the planet.
From gourmet restaurants to southern-style eateries, everyone’s catered for on Orlando’s menus. Craft beers, home-cured meats and freshly shucked oysters are just some of the tempting artisanal treats on the menu of new-kid-on-the block Cask & Larder (pictured). This tavern in Winter Park styles itself as a “Southern Public House”, where you can get a flavour of the neighbourhood vibe as well as the good things rustled up on the plates. Romance is in the air at Chef’s Table at the Edgewater Hotel in Winter Garden. A favourite with the food critics, there are just 10 tables set in this intimate space for diners who like to see the culinary team at work as well as taste delectable creations, such as pan-seared foie gras with blueberry-lavender gastrique, bliss maple reduction and toasted brioche. More good old Southern hospitality is being served up at 4 Rivers Smokehouse at its restaurants in Winter Park, Winter Garden and Longwood. Chickens, turkeys, hams, racks of ribs and jalapeno peppers are given the smokehouse treatment then conjured into salads and sandwiches or served alongside Southern staples, such as fried okra, cornbread and BBQ beans.
The entertainment continues into the night in Orlando. For starters, it’s one of the homes of the Blue Man Group. Head to Universal CityWalk to see this crazy ensemble in action, fusing art, music, and technology, with a sprinkling of audience interaction, for a jaw-dropping, laughter-filled roller-coaster of a show. Catch a performance by Cirque du Soleil at Walt Disney World’s Downtown Disney. Marvel at the acrobatics and state-of-the-art special effects at its latest show, La Nouba (pictured). You’ll need to get dressed up for drinks at the ICEBAR on International Road - in thermal capes and gloves. More than 50 tons of the cold stuff has been carved into the largest permanent ice bar in the world - at -2C it’s (literally) the coolest place for a drink. And follow the in-crowd up the Amway Center to One80 Grey Goose Lounge, an audacious bar tucked beneath the building’s spire. Vodka-laced cocktails are served with mellow DJ sounds here. But the real attraction is the stunning views of the downtown skyline from the terrace.