As part of a new series, Travel + Leisure is exploring America one three-day weekend at a time. Here’s what to do on a short trip to the theme park capital of the world: Orlando, Florida.
A vacation in Orlando doesn't have to be all about Mickey Mouse and turkey-leg dinners. While the theme parks are Orlando’s biggest attractions, the Central Florida city also offers plenty of more intimate (and, well, less expensive) things to do.
How do you tackle so many sights in one long weekend? Here’s an itinerary to ensure you make the most of your time.
Get the lay of the land from 400 feet above ground at the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye, which opened last year. On a clear day, you can see as far as Cape Canaveral.
After, wander around the entertainment district at the base of the wheel, known as I-Drive 360. There's a lot to do here, including stops at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum, the Sea Life Aquarium, or the Skeletons Museum. If you're hungry, grab a bite at Naru Restaurant and Sushi Bar, Shake Shack, or Tin Roof (which has live music).
Next drive up to Lake Eola, an iconic spot in the city’s downtown. Rent a giant swan paddle boat, which holds up to five guests, and float alongside real swans. From Wednesday through Saturday, the rentals run until 10 p.m., so you can catch the nightly six-minute light show set to music on the lake’s Linton E. Allen Memorial Fountain at 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.
What’s a trip to the theme park capital of the world without visiting one of the best? If you’re in a magical mood, stay at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort at Universal Orlando Resort, where you can take a boat to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, split between Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. A mugful of (non-alcoholic) Butterbeer is a must, but make sure you opt for the frozen variety.
But if it’s wildlife you’re seeking, opt for a room at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, where you’ll wake up to giraffes grazing outside your window. Since the Animal Kingdom park is now open at night, spend the day country hopping (and eating and drinking) around Epcot World Showcase’s lake.
See a different side of the area’s amusement parks by venturing to the 110-acre Gatorland, where visitors can see reptiles by way of shows and close-up encounters. For a more high-flying take, strap yourself in for the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line, which gives you a bird's-eye view (1,200 feet above ground of the park.
Or to launch even higher into the air, drive out to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral to marvel at the rocket garden and tour the Apollo 8 launch site. The Astronaut Encounter, offered several times a day, gives you the opportunity to hobnob with those who are truly out of this world. Check the schedule for favorite names.
No trip to the birthplace of boy bands would be complete without a stop at *NSYNC member Joey Fatone’s new Fat One’s hot dog stand at the Florida Mall.
Finally, fulfill your Rat Pack nostalgia by stepping back in time at the 1940s-themed Urbain 40 for their trios. Start with the oyster shooter trio with ponzu citrus, spiked bloody Mary, and cucumber gin wasabi, and end your night with the dessert trio of raspberry macaroons, chocolate and pistachio pops, and chocolate truffles.
For more long-weekend itineraries in America's best vacation destinations, click here.