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A Skeptic's Guide to Orlando

  • Sea World 7007 SeaWorld Dr.; 407/351-3600; adults $49.95, kids three to nine $40. This all-day park is mostly free of rides and lines--benefits that might themselves be worth the price of admission, even if the marine animals weren't so fascinating. Check out the Shamu Stadium show, in which fearless, toned men and women in wet suits balance on the heads of killer whales. If your children experience ride withdrawal, there's always the big, plunging splash ride Journey to Atlantis; the exciting motion-simulator experience Wild Arctic; and the terrifying new floorless roller coaster, Kraken.
  • Discovery Cove 6000 Discovery Cove Way; 877/434-7268 or 407/370-1280; $219 for snorkeling package with dolphins, $119 for basic admission; reservations required. Across the street from SeaWorld, this just-opened water park specializes in snorkeling and other wet adventures, including a 90-minute swim with bottle-nosed dolphins.
  • Gatorland 14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail; 407/855-5496; adults $17.93, kids $8.48. Slightly sleazy, decidedly old-fashioned, Gatorland is a throwback to old Florida, and as such a real find. This is no prettified Animal Kingdom approximation of the wild. The gators are everywhere, and you'll actually need to keep an eye on your kids--in most spots, only a low fence separates tourists from a spectacularly un-Kodak fate. The snakes in their cages exist on a diet of dead chicks, whose fluffy rigor mortised bodies are often visible. If you're spending a few days at the theme parks, cut out to Gatorland as a quick antidote.
  • There are at least two more swampland stalwarts: Busch Gardens (888/800-5447), part zoo, part amusement park; and Cypress Gardens (863/324-2111), part botanical garden, part amusement park, part water-skiing show. Both reportedly are impressive, but we just didn't have the time.

    ANYTHING TO EAT BESIDES MICKEY-SHAPED PASTA?

    Yes, you can also get Mickey-shaped Chilean sea bass. Actually, we had some surprisingly terrific food in Orlando. Quick, decent meals can be had at any of the cafeteria-style restaurants that abound within Disney, though it's hard to find low-fat offerings. If you're looking for something of a higher quality, call the central Disney reservations line (407/939-3463) for priority seating. This isn't a reservation, exactly; it's merely a guarantee of a table within a reasonable amount of time. Though we booked for a 7 p.m. priority seating at the excellent Flying Fish Café, on Disney's lively old-fashioned BoardWalk, we didn't actually sit down until 7:40. Still, without priority seating you're doomed to Never-Never-Land, whether you choose Cinderella's Royal Table in the Magic Kingdom, Disney-MGM Studios' Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant, thePrime Time Café (like a kitchen scene out of Leave It to Beaver), or any of the hundreds ofother choices in the park.

    You don't, of course, have to eat at Disney World. At the airport, grab a copy of Zagat's guide to Orlando restaurants, and take your pick.We liked Emeril's Restaurant Orlando (6000 Universal Blvd.; 407/224-2424; entrées from $20), the TV chef's outpost on Universal's City Walk, which has great views of the night scene. And we wish we had made it to the Orlando Ale House (5573 S. Kirkman Rd.; 407/248-0000; entrées from $11), where the town's own teen-pop heartthrobs, 'N Sync, go for the super-hot boneless chicken wings called Zingers.

    Zagat's top pick is Victoria and Albert's, a small oasis of child-free calm inside Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, where you can get an excellent prix-fixe dinner for a whopping $85 per person. This being Disney, of course, the servers will introduce themselves as "Victoria" and "Albert."

    GIMME SHELTER

    When it comes to hotels, your big decision is whether or not to stay on Disney property. For comfort and convenience, you can't go wrong rooming within the fuzzy Disney embrace (call 407/934-7639). You tend to get real quality for your money here, whether it's at the Grand Floridian (family of four with lagoon view from $440), a sprawling, Victorian-style luxury hotel; at one of the less expensive, though not charmless inns, such as the Port Orleans Resort and the Caribbean Beach Resort (family of four from $154); or even at the cheapest Disney lodgings, known as the All-Star Resorts: Music, Sports, or Movies (family of four from $92), which are essentially clean, well-run motels. (In the unlikely event you were to find bedbugs, they'd probably have long, cute eyelashes.)

    The cluster of Disney hotels around the Seven Seas Lagoon, a man-made body of water where you can water-ski or fish for bass, connects easily by monorail, water taxi, or bus to the Magic Kingdom. Other Disney resorts send buses to the parks. Most give you the option of going back to your hotel for a breather or a swim.

    Disney offers early admission to its hotel guests on a rotating basis; every day one park lets guests enter 90 minutes before the hordes arrive, which can make all the difference. Guests at Disney hotels also have the useful option of charging everything, from meals to souvenirs, on their room key. Then again, Disney prices tend to be higher than anyone else's--not just for rooms, but for meals and snacks. If you decide to stay off-site, there are plenty of hotels that, knowing what they're up against, go out of their way to make a non-Disney decision a sound one.

    Near Downtown Disney (not to be confused with downtown Orlando), Lake Buena Vista is home to several of these unaffiliated hotels--a Hyatt, a Holiday Inn, and an Embassy Suites, among others--and so is International Drive, which puts you close to Universal Studios as well as some of the area's mini-attractions. U.S. 192, in nearby Kissimmee, is another stretch crammed with places to stay.

    When making a reservation, inquire about transportation to and from the parks. If it turns out that you'll need to rent a car, you can get the best deals by bypassing the airport chains and going through local outlets. Aside from cost and convenience, escaping the Disney aesthetic is a benefit on which you can't put a price.

    The Loews Portofino Bay Hotel (5601 Universal Blvd.; 407/503-1000; doubles from $245; kids' suites from $450), a first-rate resort deep in Universal country, is a good example of the Avis Syndrome--number two trying harder. Everything at this hotel has been given a great deal of thought, from the Italianate exteriors to the 300-thread-count cotton sheets. Though there's a slight ghost-town feel to the mock piazza, with its cafés and gelateria, it's a pleasure to escape the crowds. And Portofino has one of the coolest pools around, a gorgeous "bay" with sand on the bottom that has an intense, fast-moving slide into spa-warm water.

    A WAY OUT FOR PARENTS

    Believe it or not, it's actually possible for park-visiting parents to get out on their own. You can hire a baby-sitter through Kid's Night Out, the primary server to the Disney hotels. At $15.50 an hour (!) for two kids (four-hour minimum), the sitter provides toys and distractions, but don't be surprised if she or he primly informs your children, as one did ours, "You can each choose six pictures to color." Call far ahead for reservations. A lot of hotels also have their own day and evening child-care programs.

    If, like many parents, you find yourself wondering how you wound up driving a minivan and answering to "Mom" or "Dad" when only moments ago you were dancing with abandon to Talking Heads and downing Jell-O shots, you may want to consider these Orlando alternatives for your evening out:

    Pleasure Island Set on an island in Downtown Disney, under the leering gaze of a gigantic Jessica Rabbit, this complex of restaurants, nightclubs, and stores doesn't really start hopping until past your kids' bedtime. A $21.15 fee gains you admission to all eight nightclubs, which range from the Rock 'n' Roll Beach Club to the Pleasure Island Jazz Co. to 8Trax, which, when we entered, was blaring "Play That Funky Music, White Boy." Pleasure Island tries hard to make you feel hip and happening--but James Brown himself might have trouble getting funky wearing the hospital-style wristband that comes with admission.

    City Walk Located beside the lagoon between Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida, the sleek CityWalk offers individual covers or a $8.00 admission to all of its seven clubs, where the same strained hipness and name-brand commercialism apply. (They even throw in a free movie at the Cineplex.) Still, you can dance the night away here if your feet, having walked the day away, will allow.

    Orange Avenue Beyond the theme-park gates, downtown Orlando has a genuine and, yes, funky nightlife strip. When Cinderella wants to see the band Supersuckers, she heads to Barbarella (70 N. Orange Ave.; 407/839-0457).

    IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT THAT THE KIDS NEED A BREAK

    It can be hard for tourists to remember that Orlando, like Vegas, is a city where real people live real lives. But they do, and the kids among them are on intimate terms with the Orlando Science Center (777 E. Princeton St.; 407/896-7151). The Science Center takes the idea of hands-on literally--kids here learn about torque by actually lifting up a Volkswagen.

    IN THE LIKELY EVENT THAT YOU NEED A BREAK

    Head to Winter Park, a 19th-century community just north of the city where the mansions and brick-paved streets haven't been Imagineered. Proceed to the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (445 N. Park Ave.; 407/644-8355), which houses not only one of the world's largest collections of glass designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany but also, in a new wing, the Tiffany chapel from the 1893 ColumbianExposition in Chicago. Thoroughly restored after a century of neglect, the chapel now stands as the ideal antidote to all things theme park. Tell the kids you'll reward them afterward at the marble-topped ice cream counter of the Briarpatch Restaurant, a block down Park Avenue (407/645-4566). Then pick out a pew, sink deep into the cool quiet, and, for the first time since your vacation began, hear yourself think.

    THE WHITE-GLOVE-OF-MICKEY TEST

    Is Walt Disney World's cleanliness really as thorough as legend has it?To find out, we conducted a test. On Day 1 in the Magic Kingdom, we planted two gum wrappers in inconspicuous spots, one in a flower bed near the statue of Walt Disney outside the Cinderella Castle (left; forgive us, Father Walt), the other in a patch of grass off the walkway between Frontierland and Fantasyland. The following day, both wrappers were gone. Who took them?Humans, elves, or audio-animatronic workers?We will never know.

    THREE THINGS AT MAGIC KINGDOM THAT WILL MELT A SKEPTIC'S HEART

    1. The view of London at night during Peter Pan's Flight in Fantasyland.
    2. The way the mechanical figures move restlessly and authentically onstage at the Hall of Presidents.
    3. The Main Street Electrical Parade.

    THREE THINGS THAT WILL FREEZE IT AS FAST AS YOU CAN SAY "BIBBITY-BOBBITY-BOO"

    1. Trying to leave during the Main Street Electrical Parade.
    2. The cloying "character breakfast" at the Polynesian Resort's Ohana restaurant, just outside the Kingdom.
    3. The number of rides that deposit you smack in the middle of a related gift shop.

    DID WE EVER HAVE AN ENERGY CRISIS? Watching Disney's Main Street Electrical Parade, you wouldn't think so.

    GUIDE TO THE GUIDES

    Try the encyclopedic Fodor's Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando, and Central Florida (2003); and Rita Aero's Walt Disney World: The Essential Guide to Amazing Vacations (Griffin) for detailed descriptions and ratings of attractions. Also see The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2001 by Bob Sehlinger (IDG Books Worldwide), the index of which, under "O," cites five pages devoted to "obnoxious visitors." And www.great-adventure.com has a nifty Schedule Coach, which calculates how many activities you can actually cram into a single day at Disney World.

    AND DON'T MISS

    One man's Space Mountain is another's It's a Small World, but here are some of our favorites:

     

    • The Haunted Mansion (Magic Kingdom)
    • Honey, I Shrunk the Audience (Epcot)
    • Back to the Future (Universal Studios)
    • Kali River Rapids (Animal Kingdom)
    • The Hall of Presidents (Magic Kingdom)
    • Dueling Dragons (Islands of Adventure)
    • Splash Mountain (Magic Kingdom)
    • The Cat in the Hat (Islands of Adventure)
    • Star Tours (Disney-MGM)
    • Pirates of the Caribbean (Magic Kingdom)

     

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