I’ve got a guest post today because we are skiing in France this week. I am definitely more of a warm-weather lover so my preference would have been to head somewhere sunny this half-term, like Florida. I agree with many people that Orlando is an easy family holiday option – great weather, theme parks and deluxe hotels. Now we hear that Orlando is becoming a foodie option, too. With its ever-growing theme parks, new performing arts centre and thriving food scene, Orlando is packed full of both adventure and culture.
Mickey Mouse is a figure who looms large over Orlando.
The Florida city is intrinsically linked to the cartoon character and the sprawling, 43-square mile entertainment complex he represents – and it’s easy to see why.
Built in 1971, the Walt Disney World Resort transformed the entire area: SeaWorld, Universal and Legoland followed, turning it into the Theme Park Capital of the World and most visited city in America.
Orlando welcomed a staggering 59 million visitors in 2013 – eclipsing even New York – who spent a collective total of over $33 billion while there.
While you would be wrong to assume Orlando’s charms end at the gates of its parks, the rate at which the resorts expand and evolve is quite staggering.
The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and the Festival of Fantasy Parade are just two of the latest attractions at Disney, while the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Orlando’s Mardi Gras are new to Universal.
Even the adult options are expanding: at Disney, the Four Seasons hotel, which opened in August last year, features a golf course and an adults-only pool while the Walt Disney World Dolphin hotel boasts amazing Italian food in a rustic trattoria.
Such is the pull of Disney World, the correlation in visitor data for the entire city is startling – the resort has an attendance of 52.5 million visitors annually, only just shy of 59 million for Orlando.
The Easter and summer holidays are obviously the most popular times of the year, and often unavoidable unless taking the kids out of school, so come prepared to rise early and plan your day’s fun as best as you can in advance.
For thrillseekers, the city offers watersport activities in abundance: the Orlando Watersports Complex is perhaps the pick of the bunch, which gives tourists the chance to try out the increasingly popular wakeboarding – an adrenaline rush almost as commonly seen as the rides.
Building for the future
The brilliance of the many theme parks is well documented, but what makes Orlando a fantastic pick for 2015 is the fact that it’s undergoing a period of great regeneration.
Rather than rest of on its laurels, the city is reinventing itself while expanding its already well-established theme parks. Those that have visited before can always find treasures to uncover.
Civic developments and the city’s burgeoning food scene has not only given Orlando a new lease of life but painted it in a new light.
The most impressive addition to the city’s cultural hotspots is the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in November and cost $429 million to build.
The long-delayed project includes an 1,800-seat opera house/symphony hall and
2,800-seat broadway theatre housed in a glass fronted building that is both elegant and monumental: in the first quarter of the year, there’s everything from a Disney’s Newsies play to a Motown musical and the Orlando Philharmonic playing Mozart – or, more succinctly put, something for everyone in the family.
It would take some superb fare to tempt visitors away from the hotels and theme parks with their abundance of stunning restaurants and fast-food joints.
But Orlando, which is experiencing hugely exciting developments to its food scene, has just that – particularly in its brilliant East End Market
Opened in 2013, the neighborhood market is described as a “culinary food hub inspired by Central Florida’s local farmers and food artisans” and plays host to ten independent businesses on its ground floor alone, including butchers, bakers and fishmongers.
The Txokos Basque Kitchen, a small-dish restaurant, which is next door and sources its ingredients from the market, is one of the city’s finest.
Whether you’re taking to the lakes, or indulging in pulled pork, there’s much more to Orlando than Mickey Mouse would have you believe.
Orlando International Airport is the city’s primary airport, and can be flown to directly from London Gatwick and Heathrow. You can get the best deals on direct flights, as well as hotels and resorts, with Southall Travel.