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Orlando is the boom town that Walt Disney built. This sun-splashed former citrus hub catapulted to global fame with the opening of Walt Disney World® Resort in 1971. Today, with the addition of Universal Florida® Resort, SeaWorld Orlando, LEGOLAND® and more, it’s little wonder that the “Theme Park Capital of the World” has become the country’s top tourist destination and a magnet for fun-loving families. Spend days on exhilarating rides like Universal’s Harry Potter & the Forbidden Journey or SeaWorld’s new Mako rollercoaster. At night, hop aboard the Orlando Eye ferris wheel to survey the moonlit lakes below. But theme parks aren’t the only game in town. The city’s glittering downtown, which curves around the glassy waters of Lake Eola, is home to art galleries, cafes serving global cuisines, and vibrant nightlife.
REASONS TO GO:
Big-Time Ball: The NBA's Orlando Magic hoop it up at the Amway Center arena from late October through May. Visitors can also cheer on the Orlando City Soccer Club, the city’s Major League Soccer team, playing to capacity crowds since 2013.
Water Recreation: Spot gators, manatees and marsh birds on a breezy airboat ride on the St. Johns River, or cascade down vertical flumes at Wet 'n Wild, the city’s pioneering waterpark. At Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon, surfers can test eight-foot swells created by a wave machine.
Museums & Performing Arts: The collection at the Menello Museum of American Art includes the works of the self-taught artist Earl Cunningham. Prefer a live performance? See world-class ballet, theater and music in the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando.
ORLANDO’S THEME PARKS & FAMILY ATTRACTIONS:
Walt Disney World® Resort: The “House the Mouse Built” covers some 27,000 acres of Florida flatlands. Over a 50-year span, this resort behemoth has grown into four theme parks and two water parks. The Force is here in force, with not one but two megawatt Star Wars attractions. “Frozen Ever After,” a boat journey to the icy kingdom of Arendelle, is also a family favorite.
Universal Florida® Resort: The movie-themed attractions range from the “Jurassic Park River Adventure” to the new “Skull Island: Reign of Kong” 3D ride. But it's the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” that shatters attendance records.
Legoland® Florida Resort: This theme-park homage to the popular kids’ toys features what it calls “pink-knuckle” (gentler) thrill rides and attractions.
SeaWorld® Orlando and Gatorland: SeaWorld® built its fame on training orcas, but these days the big draws are interactive dolphin pools, penguins and thrill-a-minute rides. Open since 1949, the 110-acre Gatorland offers up entertainment with a dollop of danger. Exhibit A: the Screamin' Gator Zipline, where you zoom over the breeding marsh while some 130 alligators watch from below.
OFF THE BEATEN PATH: Experience Old Florida with a tour of the city’s historic 19th- and 20th-century landmarks, including the Jack Kerouac House, a simple shack where the writer retreated after writing On the Road. Swan around beneath the moss-draped oaks in Leu Gardens, or take a Huck Finn–style leap into the fresh springs at De Leon Springs State Park.
WHEN TO GO: Temperate weather practically year-round makes Orlando a fine destination in any season. Summers can be sultry, but pools are hotel mainstays and water parks are ubiquitous. Summer is also peak tourist season. In fall and spring, weather is generally optimal, with warm days and cool nights.
TRAVEL TIP: About an hour's drive east of Orlando, the Kennedy Space Center is well worth the trip. You can climb inside a Gemini space capsule, stroll a garden of rockets—maybe even meet an astronaut. A number of tour companies offer KSC tours with roundtrip transportation from Orlando.