Up your social game by taking the most magical grams during your Disney World vacation.
If you’re traveling to Walt Disney World, odds are you’ve nailed the organization game. You drove yourself crazy getting a reservation at Be Our Guest six months before leaving town, wove an intricate web of FastPass+ booking reservations, and yes, admit it: you’ve configured a spreadsheet schedule for the entire week.
It only makes sense, then, that you’d put a little pre-planning into your photographic vacation game, and aim to take incredible Instagrams beyond your usual selfies with Snow White and midnight shots of Cinderella’s Castle. From a snap-happy ride you never expected to a secret private photo shoot (for free!), here’s how to get the best-ever photos at Walt Disney World, no filters necessary.
Hop A Bus To Disney’s Newest Themed Resort
Heading back for a mid-day break? Instead of taking Disney Resort Transportation to your hotel, swing by Art of Animation instead, which is essentially a gigantic Instagram playground. The Big Blue Pool is surrounded by jumbo-sized favorites from Finding Nemo, The Lion King section is packed with beloved characters, and The Little Mermaid area completely brings the movie to life, which will easily earn you plenty of double-taps. The highlight of the pit-stop is the resort’s Cars section, which fully recreates Radiator Springs and all of its famed automobiles and sights, right down to a swimming pool inside of the Cozy Cone Motel.
Get As High Up As You Possibly Can
The Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover gets slack for being a snooze, but what it lacks in excitement it makes up for in doubling as a moving, Instagrammable tour. Hop on board and utilize your iPhone’s burst mode to capture all the kinetic energy flying in and out of Tomorrowland, as well as some unexpectedly clear shots of Cinderella Castle. At Blizzard Beach, The Chairlift offers incredible views over Mount Gushmore, and the entrance platform for the Magic Kingdom’s Walt Disney World Railroad will let you snap a straight shot over Main Street. Rides like Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad have great perspectives, too, but taking a picture could mean saying goodbye to your phone. Instead, opt for a mid-ride photo while ascending to the top of Expedition Everest, which offers vast views and a gradual dip, giving you just enough time to stash your cell. Ask to sit in the front row, too, and you’ll get a clear shot of those famed twisted tracks, not to mention an avalanche of likes.
Look A Little Deeper At EPCOT
The Eiffel Tower in France or Japan’s massive pagoda may seem like photographic home-runs, but the best shots of EPCOT are actually in its details. The intricate tilework and murals throughout Morocco’s pavilion were painstakingly pieced together by the king’s personal artisans, making it all too easy to snap a picture while stacking up those tiny hearts. It’s a home-run for Insta-novices too—simply step inside the oft-ignored Moroccan Style museum and perfect your jaw-dropping ceiling shots in peace. Every building, store, and restaurant throughout the World Showcase has immaculate details, too, including China’s hand-painted ceilings, the United Kingdom’s centuries-old architecture, or Disney’s take on the famed Butchart Gardens in Canada, which are fully replanted each season.
Keep An Eye Out For Anything Oversized
Everyone’s seen a photo of Animal Kingdom’s Tree of Life, but your followers probably aren’t privy to the true mega-madness that is a smiling yellow Cementosaurus inside the park’s Dinoland U.S.A. Disney Imagineers are massively skilled at blowing things up to out-of-this-world proportions, whether it’s a bug-sized trek through the grass in Honey, I Shrunk The Kids Movie Set Adventure or the 50-foot waterfall built into a Lost City-style pyramid at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort, all of which make crazy-good Instagram posts. The bigger-is-better theory applies the best at All Star Movies, Sports and Music resorts, where jumbo footballs, enormous cowboy boots and a gigantic remake of Andy’s bedroom from Toy Story will make you feel toy-sized in comparison to a towering Woody and Buzz Lightyear.
Take Magic Kingdom Photos Without Other Guests
Believe it or not, it’s possible to take dreamy pictures in front of Cinderella Castle without having to Photoshop out fellow visitors. A well-kept secret is that some restaurants, like Crystal Palace and Cinderella’s Royal Table, will serve breakfast a full hour before the park’s famed rope drop, allowing only diners into the park. Disney PhotoPass photographers are on hand, too, meaning your french toast and Mickey waffles could essentially come with a private photo shoot. Set yourself up for success by holding reservations on two different days, and check the calendar as your trip approaches—Extra Magic Hours, which can start as early as 8am, are the only thing that could spoil your shot.
Never, Ever Skip The Details
When you’re running from ride to ride or joining the mad dash to grab seats for Fantasmic! in time, it’s all too easy to miss the little things. Disney Parks are obsessive with their focus on details, right down to minute colors, signs, and artwork that most visitors will completely gaze over. Animal Kingdom’s Harambe Village is one of such places, where the graffiti and fliers are full of insider-y nods to all things Disney, like lacquered ads for actual shows inside the park and bootleg Mickey artwork on multiple distressed walls. The Guest Relations office in Hollywood Studios is tucked inside an Antiques and Curios storefront, housing enough golden shots to fill your feed for weeks, and the small details in the benches of Adventureland alone will give you plenty of snaps that your followers will love. No matter where you are on Disney property, immense thought was put into everything from the ceiling to the carpet, so look a little closer and you’re bound to discover something special.*
The shark-themed thrill ride reaches a height of 200 feet and a speed of 73 mph. It also lasts nearly three minutes as riders hurtle along nearly a mile of track that takes them over water and within close range of pedestrian pathways.
According to SeaWorld, Mako’s steep drops create a sense of weightlessness for riders.
“As the sleek coaster cars crest each hill, riders, secured only at their laps, float out of their seats,” the park said.
Mako is the fifth roller coaster at SeaWorld Orlando, joining Kraken, Manta, Journey to Atlantis and the kiddie-size metal coaster Shamu Express, located in Shamu’s Happy Harbor.
Mako, the tallest and fastest roller coaster in Orlando, opened on June 10 at SeaWorld Orlando.
ORLANDO — Guests at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure are beginning to experience the new “Skull Island: Reign of Kong” attraction.
The ride, which takes visitors into King Kong’s island home on a trackless, self-navigating 17-ton truck, has been in soft opening for approximately two weeks, Universal representatives said during a media preview of ride Thursday. As such, park goers have had sporadic chances to try it out, but not on a regular schedule. Universal hasn’t revealed a date for a full opening, saying only that it will be sometime this summer.
The ride is likely to make waves when it does open. It starts with a brief drive outside before riders arrive on Skull Island through a 72-foot-tall gate.
The gate is impressive enough that as I stood outside “Reign of Kong” on Thursday afternoon I overheard a passerby make reference to it while noting how “awesome” the entire exterior of the attraction is.
Once inside that gate, riders are treated to a horseshoe-shaped 3D screen that is the largest at Universal Orlando. Immediately, they are immersed into the 6-minute ride’s storyline, in which they are on Skull Island to help with a 1931 expedition.
But this being a King Kong ride, that expedition doesn’t go smoothly. Suddenly, prehistoric animals surround the expedition truck. Ancient raptors, giant crustaceans, enormous bugs and, of course, dinosaurs, descend from all sides. In brilliant 3D they reach for the vehicle. Behind them unfold wide shots of the tropical green mountains of Skull Island.
The film’s special effects are good enough that in a post-ride question-and-answer session between the media and Reign of Kong producer Adam Rivest, one reporter asked if the human characters who are part of the expedition were played by actual people. Rivest’s answer was no.
As Reign of Kong unfolds, the truck bounces and jerks while it drives along the road. At one point, water droplets spray into the vehicle, making the attraction four-dimensional. Throughout, the action is immersive enough that it’s impossible to see all that is happening. Action plays out to the right and to the left of the vehicle, meaning that riders can go through Skull Island several times without having the same experience.
Eventually, the misunderstood hero, King Kong himself, appears to take on and beat back the attacking dinosaurs.
His job complete, the ride ends with King Kong standing near the truck while its driver (a character rather than an actual driver) tells passengers not to look the ape in the eye. Rivest said his team worked diligently on the King Kong graphic to make sure its details would portray the ape’s emotions.
Both Rivest and Mike West, designer of the Skull Island ride, also said the Universal team put as much effort into the lengthy ride queue as they put into the ride itself.
Among its highlights are 150,000 square feet of hand-carved stonework, which took 70,000 man-hours to make. While waiting, guests will encounter an aging Skull Island native speaking its local tongue, but in ominous tones. Though most of the words aren’t recognizable, one is.
“Kong,” she intones.
Last week, the Margaritaville Orlando’s promotional team released the first renderings of the project; they depict the hotel as well as what appears to be retail and conference space surrounding a network of swimming lagoons, beaches and wooden piers. Not surprisingly, considering that this is the Margaritaville brand, one rendering also depicts a shallow, lagoon-like swimming area fronted by a tiki bar.
The hotel at Margaritaville Resort Orlando will actually be of modest size: just 175 rooms. But the overall resort is on a grand scale, encompassing 320 acres, including a lake that McBride said is approximately 50 acres on its own. That’s a whole lot larger than the mere 7 acres that the Margaritaville team had to work with for their recently opened Hollywood, Fla., resort.
In Orlando, 200,000 square feet of retail space, a dining and entertainment district, a 12-acre waterpark and miles of wooded trails will augment the Margaritaville hotel, the development team said. Perhaps more notable still, the property will contain 1,000 vacation homes and 300 timeshares.
At its core, the Margaritaville brand beckons to those in search of an idealized tropical nirvana replete with rum bars and plenty of neatly shaded hammocks.
But McBride said that the space at Margaritaville Orlando is enabling that concept to be stretched further. Guests will be able to while away the day on a fishing dock, make their way around the property in a water taxi or spend an evening barbecuing.
“The goal is to really give people the sense of escapism, to define that living vacation,” McBride said. “If they are staying at the hotel, they are getting several days of soaking in that lifestyle. If they are staying at the residences, they can do it for a few weeks.”
The expansive Margaritaville Resort Orlando will serve as an alternative of sorts to Central Florida’s many theme parks, according to the project’s brand coordinator, Pat McBride.
“I think of it as an extension of theme parks,” said McBride, CEO of the McBride Co., a Vermont-based creative design firm. “But you also want those moments to escape from it all and not fight the crowds. So it’s a great antidote, as well.”
Preliminary site work and grading is already underway at Margaritaville Orlando, which is to be located in Osceola County, within sight of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The five-story hotel should start rising within a couple months, McBride said, and developers expect the first phase of the project, including the hotel, to open before the end of 2017.
Whether you’re a Disney World die-hard or new to how it all works, you probably know the basics: there are a system of tunnels underneath the Magic Kingdom called Utilidors, plenty of hidden Mickeys throughout the property, and the windows lining Main Street are insider dedications to those whom made Walt Disney World possible.
As interesting as those are, there are plenty more mysteries, tricks, and no-way-that’s-true! tidbits lurking in the shadows of the four parks that comprise Walt Disney World. From little-known facts about your favorite rides to construction secrets, and more, here is a bit of insider knowledge straight from house of mouse:
1. Have you heard the one about Magic Kingdom piping in the scent of freshly baked cookies onto Main Street? It’s true—the system still exists in the utilidors to prove it. The park did away with the practice, deeming the odor too artificial, but one thing is still piped in over at Disney’s Hollywood Studios: the screams for The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Riders are screaming like crazy throughout drop sequence, but what you hear from the ground is primarily pre-recorded. Listen closely enough and you’ll notice how identical each run sounds.
2. Tinker Bell flying over the Magic Kingdom is one of the most iconic parts of the Wishes Nighttime Spectacular, but it doesn’t happen with magic alone. Tink is given a hefty push from the window of Cinderella’s Castle, but if she’s not shoved hard enough, she won’t have enough momentum and will need to hand-over-hand her way towards the end. Cast members who audition for this part are said to need major upper body strength—turns out, they really do have to fly!
3. The most harrowing part of putting on EPCOT’s nightly show, IllumiNATIONS: Reflections of Earth, is actually getting the globe to the center of the World Showcase Lagoon. When it’s transported from backstage through the canal, there are only six inches on each side for the LED-covered orb to pass through—which explains the dark scratch lines on the walls!
4. Even with its replica Liberty Bell and Liberty Tree, Magic Kingdom’s Liberty Square is much more authentic than you may have realized. Because there were no modernized bathrooms in the colonial days, it’s said that there technically aren’t any within this land either. Been to the ones in Liberty Tree Tavern or Columbia Harbor House? Well, those are so far back in the restaurant that they’re technically in other lands, keeping it truly authentic to the time period.
5. Be Our Guest is Walt Disney World’s toughest restaurant reservation, but if you’re lucky enough to end up inside, don’t miss the artwork throughout the ballroom. The snow outside the ornate windows was created from original movie animation cells, and the lifelike cherubs lining the ceiling mural bear the faces of children of the Imagineers working on the project—as well as the Imagineers’ baby faces themselves!
6. Magic Kingdom’s Main Street is lined with our nation’s flags—only they’re not technically American. Because regulations require traditional flags be raised, lowered, and flown at half-mast, each is missing a star or a stripe In order to be left up permanently. They serve double duty, too, as the flagpoles are actually lightning rods in disguise protecting guests below from inclement weather.
7. Supposedly, the Imagineers working on The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror liked to play pranks on each other, many of which involved a certain jar of pickled sausages. They hid and surprised one another with the jar, until an Imagineer mistakenly left it behind one night, which just so happened to be when every prop was being glued down. The jar still sits behind the photo pickup area today as an insider nod to Disney’s geniuses having fun while on the job.
8. The Jungle Cruise is one of WDW’s most iconic rides, so it’s fitting that it would quietly feature a handful of props recycled from across the property. The spiders inside the temple are leftovers from Haunted Mansion and the monkeys foraging for gold are actually repurposed from Living With The Land at EPCOT. Trader Sam sports a bit of Disneyana as well, as his striped loincloth is an homage to the original fabric lining the top of Jungle Cruise boats. The most surprising duplication, though, is the face of the explorer on the bottom of the totem pole. On this ride, he’s being poked in the rear by a rhino horn, but the same character can be seen in The Haunted Mansion’s graveyard scene, complete with shaking knees and a pouty old pup nearby.
9. The turbulent prehistoric thriller Dinosaur! at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland aren’t just similar—they feature the same ride track. And, if you think Animal Kingdom’s turbulent trip backwards through time is scary now, just know that Dinosaur in its original form, Countdown to Extinction, was so terrifying that its original soundtrack, motion and interaction had to be toned down.
10. Disney pays incredible attention to detail, right down to the sidewalk you step on. On Main Street, the differing colors help to subconsciously guide guests and keep them from tripping at night and at Liberty Square, well, the brown wavy path down the center of the road is said to represent how colonial-era residents would dispose of their waste back in the day. (Kind of ruins the craving for fried fish, doesn’t it?)
11. Though the true reason varies between Disney experts, the current monorail stop at EPCOT is not originally where it was intended to be. Sinkholes made building so challenging that the monorail had to be rerouted, which is why it now travels completely around EPCOT before stopping. Some say there were actually supposed to be two monorail stops—one at Future World and one at World Showcase, so they could function as separate parks—so we may have Floridian swampland to thank for saving us the cost of a second ticket.
12. You can buy nearly anything you can think of with Mickey Mouse on it, but there’s one thing you can’t get—the color of his shorts. The exact hue of the famed character’s bottoms is proprietary and will never be shared publicly!
13. The exotic species on Animal Kingdom’s Kilimanjaro Safari are treated exceptionally well, but naturalists do use exercise and feeding to their advantage. Staff shoot raisins out of cannons to get the gorillas to move out and about by the safari vehicles and put elephants to work for honey, their treat of choice, by smearing it on their roof so they need to use their trunks to earn it. If you see the lions out on your next trip, know that there is behind-the-scenes magic happening for that one, too—the top rock is actually air conditioned to entice them to spend time there!
Morse Museum Shop
Set inside a museum that has one of the country’s finest, most complete collections of Louis Comfort Tiffany glass, this gift shop is stocked with a tasteful selection of vases, art glass, jewelry, and valentine-ready paper goods.
Disney's Hollywood Studios®
An Indiana Jones stunt show and a retelling of The Little Mermaid top the long list of kid-oriented shows at this park, called Disney-MGM Studios until 2008.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
Some of humankind’s greatest adventures began here at NASA’s launch headquarters, an easy hour east of Orlando on the Atlantic coast. Time your visit right, and you may see a space shuttle streak into the sky on liftoff (visible all around the state but much better from up close).
Orlando's parks can make for a whirlwind vacation, but Discovery Cove offers a pleasing blend of adventure and relaxation.
Disney Cruise Line
Disney is the best cruise line for families. What may surprise you is that the 1,760-passenger Disney Magic and Disney Wonder are gorgeous ships, even without Disney touches like character appearances and first-run movies.
Universal's Islands of Adventure®
The city’s most thrill-filled coaster-and-flume park is also one of the most spectacularly designed; rides are all located in lavish, themed “islands,” most based on movies or TV shows.
A 30-acre collection of bars, restaurants, and dance-till-two nightspots wedged between the Universal theme parks, CityWalk outweighs Pleasure Island, Disney’s much squarer rival.
Slightly more adult-oriented than the other Disney theme parks, Epcot doesn’t have as many hair-raising thrill rides as its neighbors do. But its exhilarating hang-gliding simulator, Soarin’, and its gardens and wide-open spaces make for a great day out.
Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour
An education in the eccentricities of Old Florida, this hour-long pontoon-boat excursion winds 12 miles through a system of conjoined lakes, past glorious homes and the country-club atmosphere of the tidy Rollins College campus, as it has done for more than 50 years.
World of Disney Store
Part of the Downtown Disney Marketplace, this 50,000-square-foot landmark is the largest Disney character store in the world.
Holy Land Experience
Nothing against religious reenactments, but when a blood-smeared Jesus sings into his head-mike from the cross, things start to get creepy.
Universal Studios Florida ®
The thrill factor is in full effect at this park—with attractions like Disaster (which simulates an 8.0-scale earthquake), Revenge of the Mummy (an indoor coaster that wheels past grasping monsters), and Jaws (a boat ride interrupted by the relentless attacks of…well, you know).
SAK Comedy Lab
Around since 1991, the SAK Comedy Lab improve venue has been the launching pad for several nationally known stars, including The Price Is Right host Wayne Brady.
The busiest theme park in the world (with somewhere around 17 million annual visitors), the Magic Kingdom is home base to the most famous rides in the Disney pantheon, including Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, the Jungle Cruise, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Splash Mountain.
Backstage Magic Tour
Behind-the-scenes Disney secrets are divulged on this daylong walking tour (lunch included), which takes in some dauntingly complex operations at work in the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, among others.
This delightfully tacky roadside stall topped by a 60-foot orange dome has been a landmark of Americana since the early 70’s. It remains the prototypical Florida souvenir shop, selling lime jelly, shellacked gator heads, monogrammed mugs, and oranges and grapefruits by the bushel.
Disney's Animal Kingdom® Park
Wild animals of every stripe can be seen here, in regionally themed habitats that are scattered across the park. There’s the Pangani Forest habitat, for instance, home to gorillas, hippos, and African birds; and a Maharajah Jungle habitat with tigers, bats, and Komodo dragons.
With its striped cabanas, potted palms, and a view of downtown Orlando, SKYSIXTY the vibe is reminiscent of Miami’s South Beach. Grab a booth, or sip a mojito or mimosa on the gray-cushioned couches and chairs.
Tour Guide Mike
Mike Hewell, more commonly known as Tour Guide Mike, uses his years of experience as a tour planner for the rich and famous to help families enjoy a stress-free Disney World vacation. Hewell’s philosophy is based on monitoring crowd behavior and zigging when the crowd zags.
Mellower than other Orlando theme parks—though it has several rides, including Kraken, a thrilling, floorless coaster—SeaWorld is noted for its roster of elaborate stadium shows starring whales, dolphins, and the odd rescued puppy.
La Nouba by Cirque du Soleil
Located in a striking theater on the edge of Downtown Disney, this Cirque du Soleil spectacular is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue
This popular dinner experience at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground is a rip-roaring good time.
Beauty and the Beast—Live on Stage
Essentially a condensed version of both the popular film Beauty and the Beastand the Broadway musical of the same name, this Broadway-style show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios uses creative costuming, sets and music to bring alive the world of Belle and the Beast.
Festival of the Lion King
Also at Animal Kingdom you’ll find this show, which is just as spectacular in a completely different way. Enjoy live songs from The Lion King in a dramatic celebration of the film’s main character, Simba.
Finding Nemo—The Musical
One of my favorite attractions on Disney property, this 40-minute Animal Kingdom show follows the story of the popular Finding Nemo film.
Late November through mid-December
There's a brief lull between the Monday after Thanksgiving and the beginning of the school holiday breaks around the country, making this festive season the perfect time to visit Orlando. You'll avoid major crowds, but you'll get to see the theme parks all dressed up for the holidays.
Mid-October through Halloween
Although this overlaps with the post-Labor Day period previously mentioned, the weeks leading up to Halloween are certainly worthy of their own category.
Mid-September through Mid-November
Soon after Labor Day, the blistering summer temperatures begin to fade, and the nights start to get cooler. With kids just back to school, the theme parks tend to be quieter too.
April through late May
There's another uncrowded period between spring break and summer vacation, with the exception of the week before and after Easter. Plus, spring in Orlando is usually temperate and sunny, making it a great time to visit.
Mid-January through Mid-February
For roughly a month between Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Washington’s birthday (also known as Presidents’ Day), Orlando's tourist scene is at its quietest. If you live in a cold climate, this could be the perfect time for a warm-weather getaway.
Wall Street Plaza
If it’s crowds you’re craving, head downtown to this collection of restaurants and bars. For big games such as the World Cup, the Super Bowl, or big local rivalries, the plaza is often closed off to create one big drinking-in-the-streets party.
Although this CityWalk spot is (obviously) basketball-themed, you can catch all your favorite sports here. A 33-foot statue of the NBA’s “Logoman” guards the front entrance, and inside, you’ll find the parquet floors and baskets of an old-time basketball court.
Disney’s Character Warehouse
Let’s face it, if you’re visiting Orlando, there’s probably someone at home who expects you to bring a Disney souvenir back. Instead of spending big bucks at the parks, consider stopping at this sizable store—with locations at both Premium outlet malls (see above).
Just a short drive (or even a walk) away from Orlando International Premium Outlets, this small outdoor marketplace offers a handful of additional well-stocked stores, including my favorite Nine West outlet in Orlando, which always seems to carry a bigger, better variety than its sister stores.
Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores
Its web site touts it as Orlando’s best-kept secret for outlet deals, and I can’t argue with that. It’s off the beaten path, and locals don’t often think of this as an option, so it’s easy to score really great deals here.
Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets
This is the sister property to the outlet mall on International Drive and it’s closer to Disney World; you can reach it easily via State Roads 536 or 535, both of which take you to Disney property. Parking tends to be a bit tougher here, but it’s worth it.
Orlando International Premium Outlets
On the far north end of International Drive sits my favorite outlet mall in Orlando. It features outlets of Victoria’s Secret, Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Lacoste, BCBG Max Azria, Ted Baker, J. Crew, Kate Spade, Banana Republic, Coach, and 170 others.
A Pygmy Puff
If you’ve read the Harry Potter books, you’ll know that Pygmy Puffs are small pets bred in the back of the Weasleys’ shop. Pick up a plush version of your own—in purple or pink—or under $15 at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes in Diagon Alley.
A wizard’s scarf
Need a less expensive – or more practical – way to show your support for one of the four houses of Hogwarts? Go for a Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff scarf.
A wizard’s robe
No wardrobe of wizardwear is complete without an authentic wizard’s robe, available in your choice of Hogwarts houses. Choose from Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff, each lined in the house’s main color and adorned with a patch of the house’s crest.
A magic broomstick
You may not be a competitive Quidditch player just yet, but you can get started by picking up a riding broomstick, an essential element in any Quidditch match.
A wizard’s wand
Step into Ollivanders—with locations in both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley—and find yourself immersed in a world where the magic of a wizard’s wand actually feels real. A shopkeeper will demonstrate how a wand chooses a wizard, and then you’ll emerge into a store stacked sky-high with boxed wands.
Flight of the Hippogriff
Perfect for younger visitors (36 inches and up) with a daring streak, this family-friendly coaster is surprisingly fun for adult riders too. It provides great views of the castle and the rooftops of Hogsmeade and elicits shrieks of delight from visitors young and old.
These two dueling coasters are old-school theme park wizardry at its best. Pick one side or the other—the Chinese Fireball dragon or the Hungarian Horntail dragon—and set off on high-speed coaster chase on intertwining tracks.
Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
Walk through the gates of Hogwarts and join Harry, Hermione and Ron in an exciting Quidditch match—which unravels into a high-speed chase.
The Hogwarts Express
Technically, it serves a purpose: to take visitors with two-park passes between Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. But this train, which is a replica of the iconic train from the books and films, is so much more than just a means of transportation.
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
Located in Diagon Alley, the ride theoretically takes place in the deep underground vaults below Gringotts, the goblin-run bank.
Sadly, the beloved Maelstrom ride has closed, but an attraction themed after the popular Disney movie “Frozen” will soon take its place.
The American Adventure
Whether you’re American or just visiting our country, this pavilion celebrates the magic of the United States in a way that will make your heart swell.
The sprawling store in China is filled with every trinket you can imagine; I loved visiting when I was a kid!
On the outside, the Mexican pavilion is a big, squat pyramid. But when you climb the stairs and step inside, you’re immediately thrust into a whole new world. The inside looks like a Mexican street market at twilight and is truly magical and immersive.
It’s no surprise that after having lived briefly in Paris, I remain a bit obsessed with France.
Sure, Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain classics, and the brand-new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is currently one of Disney World’s most popular rides.
Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
If you’re a music fan, you’ll love this Universal Studios coaster, which includes the world’s first non-inverting loop and allows you to pick your soundtrack. Make sure to search the internet for “Rip Ride Rockit Hidden Songs” before you go if you want a wider selection of musical tracks.
The Incredible Hulk Coaster
Themed after the comic book character of the same name, this Islands of Adventure coaster accelerates from 0 to 40 miles per hour in the first two hair-raising seconds of the ride before sending you whipping down a track with seven inversions and two subterranean trenches.
Also at SeaWorld Orlando, find this floorless coaster. Your feet will dangle as you hurtle through the air at up to 65 miles per hour. The idea of the coaster is that a mythological underwater beast is sending you looping, diving and corkscrewing.
The idea of this SeaWorld Orlando coaster, opened in 2009, is that you’re a giant stingray, gliding, spinning, and flying headfirst through the air. But this coaster—the only one of its kind in the world— is so much more than that.
More than just an attraction, this is a theme park unto itself—but it’s like nothing you’ve ever experienced. For one all-inclusive price, feed tropical birds, wade with rays, snorkel with fish, or kick back on the beach.
Toy Story Midway Mania
This enormously popular ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is essentially a four-dimensional shooting gallery filled with all your favorite characters from the popular Disney-Pixar film franchise. Don a pair of 3D glasses and zip through a bright, colorful world of carnival games.
Revenge of the Mummy Roller Coaster
This Universal Studios attraction is so much more than just a coaster.
This breathtaking, panoramic ride at Epcot takes guests on a hang-gliding style ride over the beauty of California.
Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
Words can’t begin to describe how very cool I think this ride is. Located in Universal Studios’ Diagon Alley (the newer section of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter), this Harry Potter adventure begins innocently enough: with a visit to Gringotts bank.
Canaveral National Seashore
This public park features a gorgeous beach as well as opportunities to fish or take nature hikes. You’ll see tons of wildlife here, including 14 species of threatened or endangered animals.
Just as famous for its NASCAR speedway as its seashore, Daytona Beach nonetheless offers a great Atlantic oceanside environment. It’s easily accessible from Orlando via I-4, and it features plenty of hotels, restaurants and bars.
If it’s the Gulf coast you’re craving, venture southwest to Clearwater Beach, where the sand is powdery white and the sunsets are dazzling. See Winter the dolphin, of Dolphin Tale fame, at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, or enjoy the nightly Sunset at Pier 60 festival with music, food and fun.
New Smyrna Beach
Quieter and more residential than the Cocoa Beach waterfront, New Smyrna Beach is further north on the east coast, but it’s also an easy drive from Orlando.
One of the beaches that Orlandoans consider “ours,” Cocoa Beach sits just east of Orlando, a straight shot down the State Road 528 toll road. It’s incredibly easy to reach—you just get on the expressway and continue until you pass the cruise ship port and hit the beach.
This popular SeaWorld show features Shamu—the park’s signature orca whale—and emphasizes the idea that we’re all part of the same world, above and beneath the waves. Orcas not your thing?
Not far from the better-known theme parks, you’ll find this family-owned 110-acre park that calls itself the Alligator Capital of the World.
Antarctica: Empire of the Penguins
This unique SeaWorld attraction is part ride, part animal encounter, which adds up to an incredible, immersive experience.
One of my favorite Walt Disney World attractions overall, this Animal Kingdom experience is a must-see for any animal lover.
This SeaWorld park is simply stunning. Your ticket buys you an unlimited day of snorkeling with tropical fish and stingrays, feeding exotic birds, and interacting with otters and marmosets—plus breakfast and lunch, and all the snacks and drinks you want.
Florida Film Festival
Granted, this may not draw you to Orlando unless you’re already a major film buff.
Star Wars Weekends
Typically running Friday through Sunday from mid-May through mid-June, this event at Disney’s Hollywood Studios draws Star Wars fans from all around the galaxy. You’ll meet Star Wars characters and celebrities in live shows, presentations, autograph sessions and more.
Halloween Horror Nights
On the opposite end of the festival spectrum, find Universal Studios’ enormously popular Halloween Horror Nights, an annual scare-tacular taking place select nights from mid-September through Halloween weekend.
Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival
This one is also a favorite among Disney guests.
Epcot International Food and Wine Festival
My favorite festival of the year, this multi-week annual event, which typically runs from mid-September through early November, offers so much that you could come every day without getting tired.
One of downtown Orlando's most popular live music venues, The Social is a jewel in the indie music scene. It hosts concerts most nights of the week. Ticket prices are usually cheap, and you'll be surrounded by local music lovers.
America Gardens Theater
In Epcot's World Showcase, this large outdoor theater hosts several annual concert series, including Flower Power (March through May, featuring artists such as Chubby Checker & the Wildcats, The Village People and The Guess Who) and Eat to the Beat (September through November).
Hard Rock Live Orlando
At Universal's CityWalk, this popular concert venue, steeped in the tradition of the Hard Rock Cafe (just a short stroll away), features interesting art and music memorabilia and lots of great viewing areas.
House of Blues Orlando
The Orlando outpost of this popular concert venue chain is based at Downtown Disney, so it's easy to park and grab a bite before the show. The acoustics are great, the cocktails are ample, and the venue offers both VIP balcony seats and standing room up front.
Hard Rock's Velvet Sessions
My favorite musical event in town is the monthly Velvet Sessions, which takes place in the lobby of the Hard Rock Hotel at Universal Orlando.
This stop is the perfect place for last-minute souvenirs on the way out of the park. My aunt comes down to visit twice a year, and this is where she always chooses to do the bulk of her souvenir shopping, because the selection is vast, and the location is convenient.
Popular with convention-goers thanks to its proximity to the Orange County Convention Center, this sprawling compound offers a movie theater, a comedy club, and lots of shopping, dining and imbibing options.
Disney’s entertainment district is in the midst of a major renovation, but it’s still a thriving center of fun.
The nightlife district at Universal Studios is a little touristy, but locals love it too. Park in the Universal garage and ride the moving sidewalk in for a huge variety of restaurants, bars and nightclubs. It’s also the home of a movie theater, Hard Rock Live and Blue Man Group.
Just north of Orlando, the suburb of Winter Park boasts a popular and upscale nightlife scene centered around both Park Avenue and nearby Hannibal Square.
This is one of the areas that locals flock to for a night out. Catch an Orlando Magic game at the Amway Center or a live show at the Social. Enjoy a meal at one of dozens of restaurants or a drink at one of a huge variety of nightclubs and bars.
The Contemporary Hotel
Stretching across a portion of the Contemporary Hotel's fourth floor, you'll find a string of shops with an open-air market feel, nestled beneath the Monorail track.
This sprawling area outside the theme parks includes the world’s largest Disney character store as well as specialty stores such as The Art of Disney, Build-A-Dino, Disney’s Days of Christmas, Sosa Family Cigars, Orlando Harley-Davidson and The LEGO Store.
Main Street, U.S.A.
Take a stroll down the Magic Kingdom's iconic Main Street, U.S.A. toward Cinderella Castle, and you'll find yourself wrapped in nostalgia and surrounded on all sides by retail shops.
Epcot's World Showcase
The eleven pavilions around the World Showcase Lagoon offer some of the best shopping on property.
The Tampa Bay area -- including Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater -- is a popular vacation destination unto itself, so if you're in Orlando, it's worth the 80-minute drive if you have a bit of extra time.
Less than forty minutes away, step back in time in this charming lakefront town, a favorite among antique hunters. The downtown area features an array of antique dealers, and thousands flock each weekend to the huge Renninger’s Flea and Farmer’s Market.
Blue Springs State Park
Fifty minutes north of downtown Orlando, find this 2,600-acre park, which includes the largest spring on the 310-mile St. Johns River.
Just a bit too far away to be considered an Orlando theme park, LEGOLAND is, nonetheless, a destination you should consider if you have kids under 12. Forty-five minutes from the tourist strip of Orlando, this 150-acre property boasts plenty of rides and shows, and even a botanical garden.*