Orlando: The Ultimate Guide


This trip was in collaboration with Visit Orlando.

Famed for it's abundance of water parks, theme parks and world-class attractions, Orlando is a destination synonymous with family fun.

I can recall my first ever trip to the city, aged 18, filled with excitement and a six-year-old sister in tow.

It was positioned as the 'holiday of a lifetime' and it certainly lived up to that.

We had the most unbelievable two weeks enjoying the sunshine state and all of the incredibly unique activities it has to offer.

But six years later, as an - I'd like to think - adult, I wondered whether I'd have the same experience, the same overwhelming excited anticipation and the wide-eyed amazement.

Does Orlando still have the same pull and offerings when you're not a kid anymore?

Can you enjoy it as a couple and make it into much more than just a theme park adventure?

Well, I'd like to think David and I well and truly put this hypothesis to the test.

Grab yourself a cup of tea & let me tell you all about my trip...

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What to Do

There's certainly no shortage of things to do in Orlando. In fact, I'd go as far to say that it's the destination where you could quite easily spend several weeks there and still not see all of it.

But alas, many of us do not have weeks to explore and so it's definitely worth planning ahead to determine which parks, attractions and activities are most suited to your trip.

This could range from theme parks, water parks, boat tours, watching shows, fishing experiences, driving experiences, nightlife, sports and outdoor activities, golf, spas, shopping and culture.

But if you're asking for my advice? And I'm gathering you might be since you've stuck with me until this point in the post. Then I'd recommend popping the below at the very top of your 'must-sees'.

Walt Disney World

Disney is the hub of Orlando theme parks, with an impressive seven individual sites across the city, all within close reach.

But of course, the pièce de résistance is Magic Kingdom which hosts Cinderella's castle among several other of Walt Disney's recognisable landmarks.

Regardless of your age, the very site of Mickey and Minnie waving to the crowds means you'll find yourself releasing all those 'adult stresses' and re-igniting that inner kid again.

The twinkling lights and pastel coloured shops, the streets a bustling hive of laughter and smiles, balloons and ice-creams being exchanged to very happy recipients.

It's difficult to feel anything but absolutely, incredibly happy.

And so you leave your worries and woes at the gates for a magical day of rides (if you're a wimp like me, there's plenty that don't go upside down and swirl your insides around), shows, parades, sets and food.

My personal favourite ride is 'It's a Small World' which will leave you gleefully singing the theme-tune for the rest of the day while happily bobbing your head from left to right simultaneously.

And make sure you stay for the incredible firework display, it's on every evening and it's unmissable! 

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Often referred to as the 'Disney for adults', Universal is another group of parks that offer a great deal in the way of activities.

Their new water park Volcano Bay is probably the most impressive water park you'll ever visit - complete with heated outdoor pools (no doubt heated by the life-size volcano they've built on site) and a tropical paradise setting.

City walk is a great place to spend the morning shopping, eating and exploring, with world class shows such as the Blue Man group taking centre stage.

The Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios duo can be accessed on foot as they both reside on the same site, the only trouble is where to start first?

Islands of Adventure is filled with adrenaline-inducing coasters like The Incredible Hulk, which propels brave riders along at 67 miles per hour with zero-gravity rolls and a catapult at the beginning.

Those with a weaker stomach (me included) could opt for the slower, but by no means less impressive boat and car tours and simulations, which put you slap bang in the middle of your favourite movies.

The Jurassic Park River Adventure and the new King Kong: Skull Island are definite favourites, while Harry Potter & The Forbidden Journey is located at Hogwarts, which you can reach after passing through Hogsmeade.

After finishing your shopping (stock up on sweet treats from Honeydukes) you can jump on the Hogwarts Express to take you to Universal Studios, where Potter fans can rejoice at the latest magical expansion.

Step off at Kings Cross (which I'm happy to reveal, is a very convincing replica of the real thing) and enter Grimmauld Place (knock on no.12), stop by the purple knight bus (complete with conductor and talking head) before slipping into the Leaky Cauldron, unnoticed.

Behind the facade is a very impressive (and rather breath-taking) Diagon Alley, which leaves you speechless for a few moments in the same way that Mr Harry Potter was upon his first visit.

Find your perfect wand, shop for cauldrons and robes and then make sure you stop by at Gringotts for a rather spectacular ride like you've never seen before. A mix of CGI, real-life sets, motion and coaster-technology is combined to create an experience you won't forget in a hurry. Just beware of the Hungarian Horntail on the roof. Sometimes he can get a bit... fiery.

Seeing as I'm still waiting on my letter to Hogwarts (it's 13 years late, ahem Dumbledore) I had the most magical day living in what feels like a very real magical world.

But if you're not a Potter fan, then there's plenty of other 'lands' to keep you occupied. In fact, Universal Studios is not dissimilar to one large set.

One minute, you can step in New York with brown brick buildings and stairways, the next LA with art deco theatres, palm trees and the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Then jump from reality into cartoon at the Simpsons land which takes up a large space in the centre of the park, filled with giant pink donuts, Moe's and Krusty burgers.

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"One minute, you step into New York with brown brick buildings and stairways, the next LA with art deco theatres, palm trees and the Hollywood Walk of Fame."

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Winter Park

Perhaps you're not a fan of theme parks, or maybe you prefer the quieter life?

If so, you may want to spend a day away from the hustle and bustle of central Orlando and venture to downtown, where you can really find some hidden gem activities.

Winter Park is a suburban city in the Orange County/Orlando proximity and it has an abundance of things to do and beautiful natural surroundings.

Start your day off with a Scenic Boat Tour which takes you through the series of interconnected winding canals and lakes that give the city its name.

From the comfort of an 18-seater boat - complete with blankets to shield you from any rare sunshine state wind - you'll learn about the history of the city, the private college it plays host to (one of the best in the US) and the many mansions that sit on the beds of the lakes. FYI, you'll need a cool $4million + if you spot any that take your fancy.

From there, you can take a short walk to Park Avenue - the main street in the city for shopping, dining and wining.

And then, it's up to you how you while away the afternoon.

Whether that's people-watching in the sun-soaked park - despite it being quiet, there seemed to be a whispering creative buzz about the place with people filming, photographing and presenting - or admiring the suburban side-roads, where you might even happen upon a yard sale taking place.

Where to Eat

As you all know by now, my dairy and egg intolerances can make it a little tricky to eat while abroad.

Unfortunately, as the intolerances are so severe, if I even have a tiny bite by mistake, it can leave me very poorly for several days - so I have to be extremely careful.

I don't let this affect my travel, as I'm a wanderluster at heart and love exploring new places - however in the past, some destinations have been harder than others to eat well.

And as you know, food is a HUGE part of travel - so if it's easier for me to eat, then all the better!

Orlando, I'm delighted to say, was one of the best in terms of dining out being an easy experience.

Each of the Disney parks had their own dedicated allergen menus, while individual restaurants outside of the theme parks each took their time to go through their menus with me.

In fact I'd go as far to say that finding allergen-free food was ten times easier in Orlando then it is in London, where I live.

The service was incredibly helpful, friendly and reassuring. Not once was I given a bland meal and servers went out of their way to ensure I had such as delicious and fun experience as other diners.

So where did we actually eat? Well, the short answer is EVERYWHERE. But if you're looking for a few places we'd recommend, here goes.

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blu On The Avenue, Park Avenue - Opt to dine in the open-air (and take full advantage of it's prime position for people watching) or indoors, the choice is yours - just don't skip the spicy tuna rolls to start. The menu here is an eclectic mix of American favourites, sushi and surf'n'turf dishes so you can indulge in a mix of cuisines. The salmon chips, beef filet and scallop risotto are my 'personal favourite' recommendations, however you can't go wrong with any menu offering.

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Soco, Thornton Park - A casual, warm restaurant with a 'fine dining' flair to its food. The menu is a plethora of classic Southern dishes with a modern twist - though the hanger steak is definitely top of the list to try for any meat-eaters. Vegans (and dairy-free eaters) can enjoy the black eyed pea ravioli, which has a delicious hearty, smokey flavour to it. The service here is incredible, they really go above and beyond to make your experience there as wonderful as possible.

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Earls Kitchen, Mall at the Millenia - After a busy day of shopping, head outside to Earl's Kitchen where you can relax with a glass of sparkling wine and a menu jam-packed with incredible treats. If you can't decide on steak OR sushi, you can opt for both - it's a popular choice! The chicken curry and naan is honestly the best thing you'll ever try - and if there's two or more of you, try the chicken tacos to start. Vegan's can enjoy the green dragon rolls and tofu rice bowls.

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Watch the trip:

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Where to Stay

Orlando offers an incredible array of accommodation offerings to suit ALL budgets, tastes and itineraries.

Location is key, however seeing as most people opt to hire a car (the city is so expansive, walking is almost impossible) you can afford to be a little further away if necessary, in order to max out your budget on somewhere plush.

Saying that, most of the hotels in Orlando are pretty plush and Americans certainly know how to make any guest feel welcome, with vast rooms, giant bathrooms and gorgeous breakfast spreads.

We stayed in two different hotels throughout our stay, because we wanted to get a feel for two different areas of Orlando and I feel that this was a great way to step out of our comfort zone and stretch our time as much as possible.

Hilton Orlando

I've been lucky enough to stay at quite a few hotels along my travels and very rarely do they tick ALL the boxes. But the Hilton Orlando managed to do just that.

The large details, such as the luxurious rooms, the large glitzy lobby, the friendly check-in staff, the knowledgeable concierge and the logo on the outside of the building, remain the same as others in the large chain.

However it was the tiny details that impressed me most and really left a lasting impression that continued long after we checked out.

The pack of s'mores ingredients in your hotel room, which you could carry downstairs to the outdoor fire pit and mingle with other guests as you roasted marshmallows on wooden sticks.

The breakfast spread which catered for all dietary requirements and the serving staff who went above and beyond to set you up in the best possible way for your day ahead.

The outdoor heated pool, complete with water rapids, staying open until 10pm just in case you fancy a late night swim to wind down after a hectic day.

Everything was just that little bit extra special and we throughly enjoyed our time staying there.

It's also very well located, a short drive from the restaurants at Orlando Pointe and to the parks.

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The EO Inn

Although perhaps more of a budget option, this boutique hotel is perfectly positioned right next to Lake Eola, where you can hire swan paddle boats or take a leisurely walk around the 0.9 mile path that lines the water.

The EO Inn has won numerous awards including a certificate of excellence from TripAdvisor following consistently great ratings, so it must be doing something right!

We loved the homely feel of the space, which included a sofa filled 'living room' on each floor and a 70's style 'jacuzzi spa'.

The hotel doesn't offer breakfast, so you'll have to source somewhere else to fuel up for the day ahead - but they do offer complimentary water and the use of a coffee machine in the lobby for all of their guests.

Plus there's a wonderful friendly buzz about the place, which transcends to the reception staff, who joyfully greeted us like an old friend when we returned, asked about our day and offered up recommendations for the following day's activities.

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Where to Shop

Shopping is another aspect that Orlando is renowned for, with an array of malls and outlet centres to indulge your inner shopaholic.

Whether you're planning to take an extra suitcase full of goodies home with you, or simply enjoy the American stores that we can't get anywhere else, you can be rest assured that there's plenty of places to choose from.


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Mall at the Millenia

Hosted within an expansive and contemporary glass building, the Mall at the Millenia is a two-floor avenue of stores and restaurants. On one side, you have high street brands such as Bath & Body Works, Forever 21 and Tommy Bahama. And then if you're looking to treat yourself, the other side of the building is filled to the brim with luxury powerhouses including as Tiffany & Co, Bulgari and Gucci. This place is perfect if Orlando are having a bit of rainfall and you'd rather spend the afternoon inside. Plus, the mall is anchored by Macy's - which is a must see for any tourist visiting the city!


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Orlando Premium Outlets

And for outdoor luxury shopping, you'll want to head to the Orlando Premium Outlets, which is decked out to look like a pastel-coloured Mediterranean village. In addition to a food court at the centre, there are over 160 outlets offering 25-65% off all-year round. I was so impressed by the Victoria's Secret outlet, where I found several gorgeous bras down to $19, usually $65! The Polo Ralph Lauren is also a 'must-shop' - especially for the man in your life - as the staple branded t-shirts are an absolute steal at $9.99! And if you're after a high street outlet, pop into Bath & Body Works - they do A LOT of 4 for 3 offers.

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Organising your itinerary

Sometimes planning a trip can be a daunting prospect, especially when there's SO much to see and do, as with Orlando.

So it helps to have a 'go-to' for all those tips, suggestions, recommendations and advice. A hub for your planning and a wealth of knowledge from experts who live in the city itself.

And so that's where Visit Orlando helpfully come in.

Not only does their website contain a whole host of helpful articles, information and even a free holiday planning kit, but they also have a handy Visit Orlando Destination app, which helps you to navigate the city both in the planning and visiting stages.

We wouldn't have discovered the downtown area of Orlando if it wasn't for their suggestion - and we're so glad we got the opportunity to see a slightly different, more relaxed take on the city, as well as everything it's famous for too.

Have you visited Orlando - or are you considering it? Do you have any recommendations for anyone visiting? Do you think you can enjoy it at any age?

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