Photo: Sunset over Epcot | Cory Disbrow
Stepping off the airplane or driving in, you'll see a big smiles on the faces of every kid and Disney fan. There are probably more smiles here per capita than any place on Earth (should be included in our GDP). Between the magic of Disney World, the jaw-dropping thrill rides of Universal, and the hundreds of other attractions, there's a whole lot to be excited about.
But, planning an Orlando family vacation can sometimes seem overwhelming — especially for the first timers. There’s so much to do, restaurants and shows that need be booked far in advance, and over 800 different resorts to choose from. So where do you start? How to find the right place to stay in Orlando with your family. And how do you go about prioritizing what to do in Orlando that will satisfy everyone in your group. This vacation guide is your starting point. It'll give you the lay of the land, show you some of the best family condo resorts, and help you find all the best Orlando activities.
Where to Stay in Orlando
Here are the five most important questions this Orlando vacation guide will help you answer when researching where to stay in Orlando:
- How important is Disney?
- Do you want to do lots of coasters and thrill rides?
- Do you like being in the action or a peaceful retreat?
- What size accommodations do you need?
- And most importantly, what’s your price range?
Looking through the five main areas to stay in Orlando, you’ll start to find answers to these big questions.
Inside Disney World – Staying on Disney property gives you the distinct advantage of being very close to the parks and feeling immersed in the magic. But, it does come with a higher price tag.
West of Disney World – It’s less crowded on the far side of Orlando, and you’re also close to Disney World, especially Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios.
Photo: Lighthouse Key Resort
- Lighthouse Key Resort: Calm resort with gorgeous pool
- Westgate Town Center: A mini city with lots to do
- Orange Lake Resort: Waterpark at the resort
East of Disney World – You’re closest to Epcot, with Disney right at your doorstep. At the same time, SeaWorld and the attractions of International Drive, are a quick drive away.
Photo: Lake Buena Vista Resort
- Caribe Royale: Luxury, dining, and spa
- Marriott’s Sabal Palms: Relaxing family retreat
- Lake Buena Vista Resort: Huge pirate ship playground
SeaWorld I-Drive – This is where you stay if you want to be near all three parks, and next to Orlando’s famous I-Drive, which has lots of great restaurants, smaller attractions, and outlet malls.
Photo: Marriott's Cypress Harbour
- Marriott’s Cypress Harbour: Southern-style retreat, with fun pools
- Westgate Lakes Resort: Ride speed boats on the lake
- Hilton SeaWorld: Island-style paradise next to SeaWorld
Universal I-Drive – The nearby thrill rides of Universal Studios are perfect for older kids and roller coaster junkies alike. You’re also close to SeaWorld and two waterparks: Wet n’ Wild and Aquatica.
Photo: Westgate Palace Resort
- Westgate Palace Resort: Next door to Wet n’ Wild waterpark
- Sonesta ES Suites: Across the street from Orlando Eye
- The Point Orlando Resort: Low-key relaxation
What to Do in Orlando
1. Disney World – It’s almost the size of San Francisco, and “it all started with a mouse.” Disney’s four theme parks bring fairytales to life, take you on a journey around the world, show you inside movie magic, and place you on a safari. Together the impeccable theming and attention to detail, transports you to another time and place.
Photo: Cinderella's Castle in Magic Kingdom | Cory Disbrow
2. Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure – With hard-hitting thrill rides and the brand new Harry Potter World, Universal and its sister park, Islands of Adventure bring the suspense and fun of the movies to life.
Photo: Chad Sparkes via Flickr
3. SeaWorld – It’s a mix of aquarium, Broadway-production (starring animals), and theme park all in one. You can watch dolphins do crazy tricks, seals impersonating high school students, and trainers riding orcas. There are dozens of fun attractions that will teach you and the kids all about the sea.
Photo: Shamu's show at SeaWorld | Jeff Kraus via Flickr
4. Do the Smaller Theme Parks – Beyond the big three, there are several smaller parks throughout Orlando. Fun Spot America features classic roller coasters, Gatorland is a nature preserve with hundreds of alligators, and several waterparks let you cool off on a hot summer’s day.
Photo: Fun Spot America | Trevor Cohen
5. Head Downtown – Even though most people come for the theme parks, Orlando has a downtown that rivals any major city. Built around the gorgeous Lake Eola, it’s got waterfront restaurants, free concerts, a Sunday farmer’s market, and a brand new opera house.
Photo: Downtown Orlando | Shutterstock
6. Take a Beach Day – Orlando is about an hour from both the east and west coast of Florida. You can head out to the beaches of Cape Canaveral near NASA or St. Pete on the rim of Tampa Bay.
Photo: Jetty Beach Park | Bradley Buhro via Flickr
7. Swim in Natural Springs – Though you wouldn’t want to swim in many of Orlando’s lakes (due to gators) there are amazing natural springs, filled with fresh, clear water that makes for a cooling dip on a hot day. If you’re feeling really adventurous, head out to Crystal River on the coast where you can swim with the manatees.
Photo: Ponce de Leon Springs | S G via Flickr
8. Kayak in the Everglades – Before Disney came to town, Orlando was part of the Everglades – a dense collection of lakes, rivers, and swamp forest. If you head south just a bit, you can see what it once looked like. Take a kayak trip and explore the headwaters.
Photo: Headwaters of the Everglades | The Paddling Center
9. Find Unbelievable Bargains – Orlando is also a hub for outlet shopping. You can find deals of up to 80-90% on designer brands and other merchandise at various factory and outlet malls.
Photo: Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores
10. Explore Winter Park – Just north of Orlando, is the hip town of Winter Park. It’s filled with delicious restaurants, sidewalk cafes, chic bars, and art galleries. Built around three beautiful lakes, you can take a boat ride through the canals that connect them, passing sculpture gardens and lush greenery.
Photo: Cafes in downtown Winter Park | Joe Flood via Flickr
Photo: Marriott's Grande Vista
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