Orlando, Florida, is one of a kind. Land of theme parks and resort mini-cities, "The City Beautiful" should also be nicknamed "The City Busy." Disney, Universal, SeaWorld and even the Kennedy Space Center have made their mark on Orlando. Stimulation waits at every corner and curbside, amplifying excitement and stress levels. Covering a few details first, however, will let you enjoy your stay with Mickie, Minnie and the rest of the gang.
In this GET.com guide to Orlando, we'll let you know how to get more busy for less bucks.
Finding FlightsImage courtesy of JetBlue
Searching for round-trip nonstop fares that departed from and returned to the same airport after a week, we began at New York City. Basic economy seats ranged from $179 to $229 to start, with prices increasing Thursday through Saturday. We opted for a $183 JetBlue flight out of New York's JFK that departed before lunch and scheduled the return for 10 p.m. We couldn't do any better on JetBlue's site, but we did find that a Blue basic economy flight could have cost as much as $562, Blue Plus as much as $600 and Blue Flex nearly $800.
From Seattle-Tacoma International, fares bottomed on a Wednesday-departure, Tuesday-return, one-stop package for $369, with air time totaling 18 hours. For nonstop flights, a Wednesday-to-Wednesday fare had us in the air for $443 on Alaska Airlines. We couldn't escape a redeye departing flight, but compared to the cheapest Friday-to-Friday fare ($1,680) or anything involving a Saturday ($1,000 and up) it was a good deal. Once those discounted nonstop seats filled, our flight jumped to just under $600; a refundable coach ticket was $1,354 while first class was over $1,800.
For Texans, we checked out fares from Dallas/Fort Worth International. If we could leave on a Thursday and return on Wednesday, our fare was just $137 on Spirit Airlines. Both flights took off just a bit before lunchtime and were nonstop. Sticking to a Wednesday-to-Wednesday schedule, our best nonstop fare was $167, and flying on Fridays or Saturdays pushed costs past $250. Other than Spirit, American fares for the trip started at $177; however, we could also travel first class on that flight for as little as $435 total.
When we began our hotel search, we spotted a deal for Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground. A cabin room with bunk and Murphy beds that slept 6 was normally $359 a night, but we could reserve it for $292, bringing a week's lodgings to about $2,023. Granted, entertainment is on-site, but even the bike rental will cost you.
Orlando has hundreds (if not thousands) of hotels, so we filtered our search, looking for well-reviewed, reputable hotels offering free breakfast and free Wi-Fi. We found our choices pretty quickly, staying in that same area. Actually, because of all the resorts, many of the area hotels' prices remain competitive and affordable.
We could reserve a 2-queen-bed room at Fairfield Inn & Suites Orlando Lake Buena Vista for $105 a night, knowing that breakfast was covered and that Wi-Fi and parking were free. Total cost for the week was $830. If you were worried about free cancellation, the room would cost you $948. For a king room with a sofa bed, just add $10 a night.
Comfort Suites Maingate East in Kissimmee had excellent reviews and was offering a king room with a sofa bed or a 2-queen-bed room for $90 a night, $730 for a week. Along with the expected amenities, the hotel also provided a free theme park shuttle, solving transportation and parking issues.
Properties on Airbnb were also extremely competitive. We were searching for quarters for 4, preferably an entire home or apartment, and we found plenty, most under $100 a night. For example, a bright, 2-bedroom, 2-bath condo near SeaWorld offered resort living, including a golf course, for $110 a night, $1,067 for the week. It had a full kitchen and in-condo laundry. Others were similar, and some came with theme park discounts or other perks.
If you're looking for more luxury, the welcome offers now available when you apply for hotel credit cards can land you in a sweet little setup at no extra cost to you.
Food is everywhere in Orlando. All the resorts, theme parks and associated areas have their restaurants, cafés and sweet shops. Meanwhile, for some cheap eats that Orlando natives enjoy:
- Pom Pom's Teahouse & Sandwicheria on North Bumby Avenue puts the Eastern twist on Western standards, yielding up favorites like "Asian BBQ Pulled Pork" or "Spicy Elvis" panini, Tuscan or Olé salads, or breakfasts featuring specialty crepes and potato pancake napoleons. Find your tea, and enjoy an exceptional pastry while enjoying local artwork.
- Nearby, Se7en Bites on North Primrose Drive has Southern made-from-scratch breakfast, brunch and lunch. From shrimp and grits to the chicken-and-biscuit with pimento special, portions are generous; Se7en's bakery is in full swing with red velvet waffles, crack pie and everything in between.
- Le Gourmet Break on South Magnolia Avenue can satisfy your sweet or savory tooth for breakfast, brunch or lunch. Choosing from authentic French pastries, croissant sandwiches, quiches, salads and soup, you can taste a bit of Paris.
- On both East Colonial Drive in Orlando and South Orlando Avenue in Winter Park, Black Bean Deli serves Cuban cuisine. You can lunch on empanadas or a choripan or settle into a platter of Spanish baked chicken. You can buy soup, beans and rice by the quart or Cuban bread by the loaf. Top it off with a slice of tres leches or rum cake.
- For ⅓-pound grass-fed beef burgers, Nathan's franks or Colombian specialties like pinchos or patacon, Super Rico Colombian Bistro is on West Central Boulevard. They have a house salad, and you can add your "protein of choice." Side choices include yucca fries, empanadas and arepa de choclo for starters, and they serve breakfast until 10 a.m.
Almost all restaurants in Orlando accept credit cards, which makes a restaurant credit card an obvious choice of travel companion. Just pack it in a waterproof case (or lock it up) before getting soaked on Splash Mountain.
The most difficult decision when visiting Orlando may be in deciding which of its many attractions to visit, and the Go Orlando Card may make creating an itinerary a bit easier and save a few dollars with an All-Inclusive, Explorer or Build Your Own Pass:
- You can purchase a 2-, 3- or 5-day All-Inclusive Pass for $130 per adult or $120 per child, $225 per adult or $220 per child, or $275 per adult or $265 per child, respectively, at savings of up to 55 percent; you can visit as many of the 33 participating attractions as you choose in your allotted time period.
- The Explorer Pass provides admission to either 3 attractions for $64 per adult and $52 per child or 5 attractions for $99 per adult and $84 per child; you can choose from 16 attractions at a savings of about 35 percent.
- The last option, the Build Your Own Pass, lets you choose from 41 attractions, picking and choosing at savings of up to 20 percent. Check options carefully to ensure they include the destinations you want to visit.
Many of Orlando's largest attractions don't participate in the Go Orlando Card and instead provide their own online ticket purchase and park-to-park multiple-day discounts. For example, Universal Orlando was offering for a limited time a "third day free with the purchase of a 2-day ticket."
Likewise, Disney has its own program for number of days and access to its 4 theme and 2 water parks, so you'll want to check websites carefully.
Things To Do
Orlando has plenty of attractions to spin your head and your wallet, but slightly northwest of the city, 16 miles from downtown, Wekiwa Springs State Park waits. Admission is just $6 per car ($2 for pedestrians or bicyclists) and a pledge to leave no trace. You can camp for $24 a night with water and electricity or $5 roughing it.
The park rents canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards for close-up wildlife watching on its federally designated Wild and Scenic River. You can rent bikes for about $5 an hour, bring your own or travel the trails on foot. You can also swim in Wekiwa Springs' crystal-clear water. Pack a picnic, and make it a day.
Image courtesy of Wekiwa Springs State Park
Additional free outdoor venues include downtown's Lake Eola Park; Winter Park's Kraft Azalea Gardens, a great egret rookery February through June; the University of Central Florida Arboretum, with trails, disc golf, geocaching and tours; Big Tree Park in Longwood, a trailhead for the Cross Seminole Trail; and Fort Christmas Historical Park, marker for the Seminole Indian Wars. You can also browse the Winter Park Farmer's Market on Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m.
For art and culture lovers in search of free quality experiences, try the Cornell Fine Arts Museum on the Rollins College campus in Winter Park, the Winter Park Historical Museum, the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida in Maitland, or the CityArts Factory's Third Thursday events in downtown Orlando.
If you have a Bank of America credit card or debit card and show up (with ID) on the first full weekend of the month, you can get free entry to the Orlando Science Center, which houses impressive exhibits and interactive experiments for young and old.
The Museums On Us benefit from Bank of America also gives you free entry into the Orange County Regional History Center, The Orlando Museum Of Art, Orlando Science Center and The Mennello Museum Of American Art. You enjoy this free entry on the first full weekend every month, but only if you have a Bank of America or Merrill Lynch credit or debit card and an ID with you.
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art is free on Fridays after 4 p.m. November through April; otherwise, admission is $6 per adult, $5 for seniors, $1 for students and free for 12 and under. Also worth a visit, the Harry P. Leu Gardens posts monthly free days throughout the year on its website; otherwise, admission is $10 per adult and $3 for school-aged children through high school.
If you've never toured a winery, Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards, northwest of Orlando in Clermont, conducts free tours and winetasting every day. For the hand-crafted brew experience, Orlando Brewing on Atlanta Avenue provides free tours Monday through Saturday, excepting holidays and the 30th of each month.
The Black Hammock offers airboat ride packages, a restaurant and the Lazy Gator Bar. It's adjacent to the Black Hammock Wilderness area, and tours include circling Bird Island. Entry to The Black Hammock grounds is free, but whether you opt for the alligator photos or the 45-minute, $51 per child or adult "Airboat VIP Tour" is a decision only you can make.
In a similar vein, access to Disney's BoardWalk is also free, but you're entering "a quarter-mile promenade of exquisite dining, unique shops and exciting nightlife." The same goes for the LEGO Imagination Center; it's also known as the "LEGO Store in Disney Springs at Walt Disney World," formerly known as the Marketplace, if you catch my drift. But if you've budgeted for it, the shopping experience is great.