Planning a visit to Orlando, the destination on many a bucket list? For some, Orlando is the dream trip of a lifetime, so it can be hard to decide where to begin when planning your agenda.
Whether you want to hop from theme park to theme park during your stay or stick to Orlando’s lesser-visited outskirts, check out our guide to visiting Orlando, on and off the parks. Beware that park safety protocols have evolved in light of the pandemic, so expect measures like social distancing, reduced capacity, temperature checks, and mandatory masks.
Stay Somewhere Close to the Park
A fun Orlando vacation starts with picking the right hotel, especially if you’re going for the parks. To maximize your vacation, book a stay in close proximity to the parks. Staying at a Disney-sanctioned hotel that connects to the parks via free shuttle is highly recommended—some even offer a direct connection via buses, boats, the Monorail, or Skyliner gondolas, which is all the more convenient.
Guests of Official Walt Disney World Hotels also get access to Extra Magic Hours, which is extra time outside of normal operating hours at the parks that isn’t available to the general public (either an extra hour in the morning pre-opening or an extra hour after the park closes).
We stayed at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, which offers the Extra Magic Hours benefit, as well as a free all-day shuttle to all four Walt Disney World parks and Disney Springs. As an official Walt Disney World hotel, Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek also gives guests access to Disney FastPass+ Service up to 60 days before arrival. Some rooms even come with views of the nightly Disney fireworks.
Plus, Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek is connected to Waldorf Astoria Orlando, and guests of each hotel receive access to both sets of amenities, such as the restaurants and pools. When your feet are tired from walking the parks, the Hilton’s lazy river will be calling your name.
In and Around the Parks
Though Orlando is packed with theme parks and attractions, the main (and most famous) ones are the Walt Disney World parks and the Universal Orlando Resort parks. The four Disney parks are Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios; Universal includes Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios, and Volcano Bay, a water park.
Disney Springs is another attraction—it’s a restaurant and entertainment complex located on Disney property but not within the gates of a theme park, so it’s open to the public. CityWalk, located between Universal Studios and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, is a similar concept.
At Disney Springs, wine lovers will find a “theme park” of their own at Wine Bar George.
“We are the only place in North America where you can choose from 160 wines, all available by the glass, bottle, and ounce,” explains George Miliotes, master sommelier and proprietor of Wine Bar George. “When you pair the wine with executive chef Ron Rupert’s menu, I think we have a pretty special experience for guests pairing wine and food together.”
The staff of Wine Bar George consists of certified and introductory sommeliers, and yet the vibe is unpretentious: whether you’re coming in for a frozen wine drink or a flight of the greatest Cabernets in the world, you’re welcomed all the same.
BigFire at CityWalk is another fun spot for dinner; the menu is campfire-inspired and, accordingly, many items come flame-grilled. From steaks to seafood to a round of s’mores you get to cook at your table, everyone can find something to enjoy.
Doing the Parks Right
Having fun at the parks starts by choosing what time of year to go: in the winter, spring, and early summer, you can expect pleasantly warm temperatures, but the heat of mid- to late summer in Florida can be excruciating. Wear a hat, plan shade breaks, and hydrate regularly.
Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom are reopening on July 11; Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios are reopening on July 15. You must book park reservations—even if you’re an annual pass holder. Face coverings are required for visitors ages 2 and up. There will be temperature screenings; anyone with a temperature of 100.4 F and above won’t be allowed to enter—and neither will their accompanying party. In addition, park-hopping isn’t allowed anymore, and there won’t be fireworks shows or parades.
Visitors to Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando are subject to similar rules.
Across all parks, fast-pass options don’t eliminate lines altogether, but they dramatically cut down on the amount of time you’ll spend in them. The popularity of Orlando’s parks means that millions of people from around the world also want to visit; long wait times are part of the experience, even with fast-pass entry, although current procedures like operating at reduced capacity and implementing socially distant lines may make things easier.
Disney’s FastPass+ allows you to make ride reservations up to 30 days in advance. You can pre-plan up to three FastPass+ experiences for each day of your visit, then use the app to make additional same-day bookings once you arrive at the parks. Universal’s Express Pass works in a similar fashion but with a couple of key differences: it’s a priority boarding lane that typically shaves one-half to two-thirds off the wait time you see displayed at the ride.
If there’s one ride you definitely don’t want to miss on your visit, schedule it in advance using the FastPass+ book-ahead option or find out what you need to do for your best chances of riding.
For example, even now, months after its December 2019 debut, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is impossible to ride without planning ahead. There’s no FastPass+ or standby line, so sauntering up to the entrance and expecting to ride the same-day will end in disappointment. The ride is organized by boarding group via virtual queue, which you join via the My Disney Experience app; when the ride reaches capacity for the day, no new boarding groups are assigned. If you do score a boarding group—which fill up within seconds of park opening time every day—the app will send a push notification when it’s time to return.
In Hogsmeade at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, one of the two Wizarding World of Harry Potter parks, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure—which opened June 2019—is in similarly high demand. The two Harry Potter-themed lands—Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure and Diagon Alley at Universal Studios—are linked via the Hogwarts Express train, as long as you have Park-to-Park admission.
Other rides you won’t want to miss include Avatar Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey (similar to It’s a Small World) in Animal Kingdom’s enchanting Pandora: The World of Avatar. Inspired by James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi sensation “Avatar,” the themed area debuted in 2017. Even years later, Avatar Flight of Passage sees one- to two-hour wait times daily. Another popular ride at Animal Kingdom, Kilimanjaro Safaris, also has a long wait time, but the chance to spot real exotic animals as you enjoy a mini safari experience is hard to pass up.
Expect similar fanfare at other new openings, including Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, the first-ever Mickey-themed ride-through attraction, and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure at Epcot.
Luckily, theme parks are just as much about the food as the rides. If you can’t book a time onto Rise of the Resistance, drown your sorrows in sweet-and-spicy Outpost Mix popcorn from Kat Saka’s Kettle, or blue or green “milk” from the stand around the corner. In the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, people come for the Butterbeer as much as the rides; one sip of this famously frosty, foam-topped butterscotchy beverage and you’ll understand.
Another tip: pack very lightly for Universal. Before queueing for most of the rides, you’ll have to store your belongings in a free temporary locker rental outside of the ride; these lockers are extremely inconvenient to get in and out of and also very small, so only bring the bare minimum with you. The rent-and-stow process takes a lot of time, so if you can get away with only having a small wallet and phone with you, that would be best, although some rides will make you take all items out of your pockets, even your phone.
There are also some water rides at Universal, so pack accordingly (or just double-check that you won’t get wet on your ride before boarding, if you don’t wish to).
And, of course, for any theme park, wearing sneakers or walking shoes is non-negotiable.
Off the Parks
If the chaos, crowds, and long lines that come part and parcel with theme parks don’t appeal to you, I don’t blame you. Fortunately, Orlando has a lot to offer outside the parks, too. It might be hard to fathom doing anything other than visiting theme parks in a city considered the Theme Park Capital of the World, but missing Orlando’s off-park attractions is missing out on some of its best.
However, the true highlight is Domu, a restaurant attached to East End Market. The food is worth a trip in itself, but be advised that they don’t take reservations (and always fill up). Your best bet is to be there when they open and get on the list; you can browse East End Market for a bit or enjoy a drink at the bar. When a restaurant can make even non-bone broth vegan ramen drink-to-the-last-drop-able, you know it’s good. Order the crispy quinoa shishito peppers, the Cheezus, the famous wings, and the soft-serve of the day (if you get lucky, it’ll be ube).
Another fun food-hall-style spot in the greater Orlando region is Plant Street Market, where onsite Crooked Can Brewery is a locals’ haunt. Located in Winter Garden, a small town in Orlando’s outskirts similar to charming Winter Park, Plant Street Market sits directly on the scenic West Orange Trail, a walking and biking route that showcases some of the best of central Florida’s natural world. Rent a bicycle from Bikes and Blades and pedal the five miles to Plant Street Market through canopies of live oaks draped in Spanish moss for a perfectly enjoyable activity with no lines or crowds.
Want to stick closer to the action in Orlando but still get the benefits of an off-park experience? Bottomless brunch at Mia’s Italian Kitchen, located just off of International Drive, was an unexpected find: it costs $26 to order all the food you want, including access to a DIY waffle bar, bruschetta bar, Bloody Mary bar, and mimosa bar.
Skye Sherman is a freelance travel writer based in West Palm Beach, Fla. She covers news, transit, and international destinations for a variety of outlets. You can follow her adventures on Instagram and Twitter @skyesherman
The author’s trip was assisted by Visit Orlando.