While known to many as the ‘Theme Park Capital of the World’, Orlando’s proper nickname is ‘The City Beautiful’- a moniker adopted during the early 1900’s urban planning movement- and there is much more to see and do here than the realms of Walt Disney, Sea World, and Universal Studios.
Originally the land of the Timucua and Seminole peoples, the U.S. Army built 1838’s Fort Gatlin in the midst of the Seminole Wars a bit south of the present day city as protection against tribal attacks. A settlement known as Jernigan grew up around the Fort and in the 1850’s, the community adopted the name Orlando. There are four differing stories behind the name, with a commonly cited version attributing the name to an army sentry named Orlando Reeves but another saying it might derive from Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. Orlando incorporated in 1875 with 85 inhabitants and began two decades of a golden Citrus Era, replacing a pre-Civil War base of cotton plantations and cattle ranching.
In 1894, an especially cold winter disrupted Orlando’s role as an industry hub with the groves becoming consolidated in the hands of a wealthy few. The Southern Florida Railroad arrived in 1880 and Orlando prospered as a resort area through the 1920’s Florida Land Boom, benefiting from a subtropical climate yet lying sheltered somewhat from hurricanes by being located a hundred miles from any shore.
The opening of Cape Canaveral as a player in the space race fifty miles east in the 1950’s brought a new industry to the greater Orlando region, but of course the biggest change would happen starting in 1964. Having opened California’s Disneyland in 1955, Walt Disney started secretly buying parcels of Central Florida farmland; in 1965, he announced plans to build the world’s largest and most spectacular theme park twenty miles southwest of Orlando, a $400 million construction project that lasted two years and employed 9,000 people. Walt Disney World opened in 1971 and today, Orlando is home to seven of the top ten most visited theme parks in North America while also serving as ‘Hollywood East’, being home to a large number of movie studios.
Walt Disney World encompasses 47 square miles and four theme parks: the classic Magic Kingdom, international and futuristic EPCOT, the expansive and refreshing Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, plus the 150 venue outdoor shopping, entertainment, and dining district, Disney Springs. Visiting Walt Disney World is for many a multi-day adventure with extensive advance planning and various deals exist to bundle attractions and avoid long lines.
The other big player theme park in the Orlando area is movie and television based Universal Orlando Resort, home of both the Universal Studios theme park and Islands of Adventure, which features the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and also contains the lively dining, shopping, and entertainment strip of CityWalk. 145 acre Legoland Florida Resort delivers exactly what it’s name suggests- an immersive experience based entirely on the concept of Lego building blocks.
Another old timer is SeaWorld Orlando, which opened in 1973; the park originally featured primarily marine animal shows but rides have been opened over the years and some attractions combine both a ride and a show into one experience. An adjacent sister park, Discovery Cove, was opened in 2000 and has become known for up close and personal animal encounters such as swimming with dolphins. In addition to the rides and shows, each of the above parks also has an associated waterpark next door (Disney even has two!), enticing visitors to stay longer at their location.
Orlando isn’t just home to the big names, having long had home grown amusement parks of its own accord. Founded in 1949 and family owned, thousands of alligators and crocodiles live and perform at Gatorland, which operates as a wildlife preserve but also contains novel activities such as ziplines and a miniature riding railroad. Exotic Animal Experience is just what its name indicates- private and unique encounters with select zoo animals.
The Chocolate Kingdom Interactive Factory Tour follows the transformation of cacao beans into your own personalized candy bar while the hands-on Crayola Experience offers 27 activities including naming and wrapping your own crayon. Many of Orlando’s hotspots are along International Drive (often shortened to I-Drive) which stretches ten miles out of the city. Family owned FunSpot America features carnival style rides for all ages plus go karts and an arcade while the Wheel at ICON Park is a 400 feet tall ferris-styled ‘observation’ wheel. You’ll find the SeaLife Aquarium on I-Drive, pirate-themed mini-golf, an outlet of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, indoor skydiving, an escape room, over a hundred science-inspired fun activities plus lasertag tag at WonderWorks, Nascar and Andretti branded karting tracks, and shopping at the Orlando Premium Outlets.
With fifty high rises and a true city skyline, downtown Orlando is the largest urban center in Central Florida. The core of Old Orlando is still intact containing six Historic Preservation districts and a dozen city buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, many constructed between 1885 and 1947.
Church Street contains several intriguing architectural examples and leads to the 1889 Old Orlando Railroad Depot, which doubles today as a commuter rail station and retail and entertainment nexus. The central city is lively with locally beloved venues such as Wall Street Plaza- a complex of eight nightclubs with nonstop action- and East End Market- a foodie marketplace with artisanal vendors, eateries, and events.
The residential European styled Thornton Park neighborhood is worth a visit for designer and boho-chic boutiques, art galleries, eateries with patio seating and live music, classic bungalow homes, and large mossy oak trees along cobblestone streets. The centerpiece of downtown may be Lake Eola Park, which centers around a small lake of the same name. Lake Eola is a giant sinkhole which is over twenty feet deep; Florida’s porous limestone bedroom makes sinkholes a common occurrence and the city contains over a hundred lakes. The park has a pagoda from Shanghai, rentable paddleboats, and both black and white swans in residence but is most known for the photogenic Linton E. Allen Memorial Fountain with a nightly light show.