Orlando, Florida, is one place I look forward to visiting every few years. It’s where Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Orlando are, plus it’s home to some of the very best fine dining, shopping, and hotels in all of Florida, making it the perfect place for travelers who are looking for something a bit different. I hope this guide helps you fall in love with the Orlando area, just like I have.
How to Get to Orlando
We flew to Orlando to the Orlando International Airport (MCO), as it was much shorter to fly (about 2.5 hours) than driving, which would have taken us around 17 hours, not accounting for stops. The downside to flying was that we didn’t have a car when we arrived, but it wasn’t nearly as much of a problem as I would have thought it would be, which I will get to later.
If you plan to drive to Orlando, I-75 runs North & South through the United States from Michigan straight into Orlando, meaning it’s easy to hop onto from wherever you’re traveling from and follow it south.
When to Visit Orlando
Orlando is a popular spot for travelers, particularly from the Midwest, during the winter months because the mid-70s temperatures are reminiscent of our summertime weather. It’s a much-needed respite from the cold, dark days that cause many in the Midwest, particularly in my home state of Michigan, where we can go weeks without seeing the sun, to develop seasonal depression.
That being said, Orlando is gorgeous all year long. Readers told me to avoid Orlando from July to early September because the temperatures can soar well above 100ºF/38ºC. Combine those temperatures with sky-high humidity, near-constant direct sunshine, and massive summer break crowds. Those two months are the hottest, busiest, and potentially most dangerous times to visit if you aren’t accustomed to high temperatures, non-stop sunshine, and claustrophobic levels of humidity.
We enjoy visiting Orlando, and the rest of Florida, from the fall until early spring. From October until early March, the lines at theme parks are much shorter, and there is much greater availability of hotels, rentals, restaurant reservations, and even theme park reservations.
I’ll also let you in on a bit of secret by visiting at the end of February or early March when kids are still in school. Still, just before spring break travel begins, we can walk onto many of the Universal Studios and Walt Disney World rides. Don’t believe me? Download the Disney World app and keep an eye on average wait times, particularly early in the morning and after 2 pm when guests park hop. I’ll talk more about this in my Walt Disney World guides, coming soon!
Traveling Around Orlando
As I mentioned, we didn’t drive, so we didn’t have a car during our stay. We decided to rely on rideshare services and the hotel shuttle at Waldorf Astoria Orlando, which took us back and forth between the parks during our stay, and I’m glad we did. It was so convenient not to worry about driving during our visit, and we didn’t have to worry about gas, finding parking, or any of the usual downsides to driving. Are you worried about using rideshare services? Read my guide to Ride Share Safety for all of my best safety tips and tricks.
As the global health situation and local health mandates change, so too will the availability of the shuttles at the hotel, so be sure to ask each day about pick up and drop off times so you can plan accordingly.
What to Do in & Around Orlando
There are many things to see and do in and around Orlando that I know people who have lived there for years and still haven’t seen and done it all. With that in mind, I’ll tell you what we did during our time in Orlando, and I’ll add to this list with subsequent visits. If you have any things you can’t visit Orlando without doing, let me know in the comments!
Disney Springs is a Disney-themed shopping, dining, and entertainment district that sits around actual springs in the center of the area. This is where we found the Paddlefish restaurant. We didn’t have any time to shop during our most recent visit, but hopefully, we will be able to go back and see what else this area has to offer.
Walt Disney World
Perhaps the world’s most famous amusement park, Walt Disney World, which is related to Disneyland, Tokyo DisneySea, and other Disney parks around the world, is a place for thrill-seekers, foodies, and fans of Disney movies. Plus, anyone with love for architecture, gardening, or branding should go and enjoy a day at one of their four distinct parks. I’ll be creating a travel guide to all of Disney World, along with each of its parks, soon, which I will link here once I finish it.
Universal Studios is a Hollywood movie-themed amusement park, featuring rides from major Universal Entertainment productions like Jurassic Park, Transformers, and most famously, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Themed food & beverages, entertainment, rides, character interactions, and more await guests of Universal Studios.
Fine Dining & Delicious Spots in Orlando
This poolside restaurant has delicious seafood and salads and phenomenal signature drinks at an indoor/outdoor café at Waldorf Astoria Orlando. Of course, you can grab a lounge chair and have your food brought out to you as you lounge by the pool too.
Voted Orlando’s #1 restaurant by Trip Advisor reviewers, this luxurious seafood restaurant & steakhouse is home to some of the freshest seafood in all of Florida.
Epcot is, of course, one of the four Walt Disney World parks, but it’s still a fantastic place to sample food and drinks from around the world at each of the 11 countries represented in the World Showcase. Keep an eye out for my favorite things to eat at Epcot.
A sushi & sake bar in downtown Orlando offers highly curated, daily caught, multi-course tasting menus that emphasize the beauty, diversity, and simplicity of Japanese cuisine. All of their chefs have trained in Michelin Starred restaurants. Don’t know what Michelin Star restaurants are? Read this post!
Located inside a steamboat moored on Lake Buena Vista, this seafood restaurant located inside Disney Springs is where we had one of the best meals of our trip. Fresh Alaska King Crab, whole Maine lobsters, and just about every seafood and fish imaginable are served in this beautiful steamboat turned fine dining restaurant.
This Mexican restaurant is set inside of the pyramid in the Mexico section of Epcot. Once inside, diners are treated to a view of a starry night sky, twinkling lanterns around the faux hacienda, and the sounds of running water from the adjacent ride (one of only 2 rides at Epcot), all at the base of a Mayan pyramid off in the distance. You have to see it to believe it!
We took our friends to this elevated sushi restaurant to celebrate their engagement, and I couldn’t think of a better place to have had a celebratory dinner. Everything was so fresh, so flavorful, and so thoughtfully presented that it’s going to be one of the things I miss most about Orlando.
Too Much Sauce
This dedicated gluten-free restaurant collaborates with Orlando locals to create custom dishes suitable for everyone from vegans to the most aggressive carnivores, all without the worry of cross-contamination with gluten.
Luxury Hotels in Orlando
We stayed at the 5-Star Waldorf Astoria Orlando, and I couldn’t think of a better place in the city to have spent our week in Orlando. Our hotel room was spacious and had a fantastic view of Walt Disney World. Their spa was top-notch, and their restaurants, Bull & Bear and Aquamarine, were both phenomenal.
Even the hotel’s golf course, Waldorf Astoria Orlando Golf Club, was phenomenal. We had an extraordinary stay, and I wouldn’t have wanted to stay anywhere else in Orlando.
As I mentioned, we didn’t have a rental car, so we relied on shuttles and rideshare services like Lyft and Uber to get us back and forth between Disney Springs, various restaurants around Orlando, and the Orlando International Airport, which was extremely convenient.
Staying Safe in Orlando
Orlando is a relatively safe city. Use common sense, just as you would traveling to any large city. Leave expensive items and jewelry at home or in a hotel safe, and keep your wallet and other valuables in a difficult reach spot. One of the biggest issues at the Disney Parks and Universal Studios is people losing valuables, like their wallets, passports, watches, sunglasses, etc. When they fall out of rides or are left in lockers or other places and forgotten due to distractions, keep an eye on your belongings at all times, and you shouldn’t have any issues.
Day Trips & Weekend Trips from Orlando
90 Minute Drive
If you’ve dreamt of seeing precious manatees swimming freely on your visit to Florida, head to Crystal River. There are even tours where you can snorkel next to these gentle, 1,500-pound giants and admire their beauty from a respectful distance.
Everglades National Park
4 Hour Drive
Take an airboat across what’s widely considered to be the most beautiful part of Florida and marvel at this National Park’s incredible natural beauty. You might even spot some alligators, manatees, or flamingos along the way. Whatever you do, don’t dangle your hands or feet over the boats!
3.5 Hour Drive
Miami is one of the nation’s most popular spring break destinations because of its beautiful beaches, fun nightlife, great food, and abundance of live entertainment options. I recommend avoiding peak season and enjoying the beaches, and sailing around the Miami Beach area at a slower pace.
2.5 Hour Drive
Palm Beach, Florida, is one of the prettiest cities in the country. Shop Worth Avenue, visit the original Lilly Pulitzer store, and stay at the Breakers Hotel for incredible views, food, and fun!
1.75 Hour Drive
The nation’s oldest city, St. Augustine, FL, is full of Spanish Colonial architecture and beautiful beaches, plus the sunsets visible from here are beautiful.
1.25 Hour Drive
The Tampa Museum of Art, Bon Tower Gardens, and the Florida Aquarium are all major draws in Tampa, Florida.
Definitely needed this post! My husband has been dying to go to Disneyworld (we’ve never been) but I definitely don’t want to go in the summer haha! The Everglades would be super cool too!
Carrington Barfield says
I loveeeee Orlando, Florida! We go all the time for Disney of course, but I would love to try out some of the other things around there that you recommended here! Xx.
Louella Reese says
I haven’t been to Orlando in forever! You’re making me crave a trip – and really want to explore a lot more. Thank you for sharing this guide and so many yummy places to eat!
xo Laura Leigh
The only time I’ve ever been to Orlando was when I was 16 and I went to Disney World with my family over Christmas – talk about magical! I hope to visit again one day. My husband is from right outside of Miami, so we tend to visit Florida regularly (or we did, pre-pandemic) but we never took the trek down to Orlando, for whatever reason! I might have to convince him to do a 1-2 day trip with me just for one of the parks. I still wanna go to Universal too! This was such a great guide. I want to do it all!
Sarah Lindner says
I literally just got back from a trip to Disney. Great recs…wish I would’ve seen this post before I left, I missed some of these! xoxo, Sarah
This is a great guide! I’ve never been to Orlando but I’m hoping to go next year for my oldest 5th bday! Would be fun to go to Disney world!
There truly are so many hidden gems in Orlando! I love trying out new places every time I visit.
I’m not a huge disney person so I never really wanted to go to Orlando but it looks like so much fun! I need to schedule a trip!
Megan Rushing says
Yes! There’s so much more than just Disney! Love it.