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In the beginning, Orlando may have been a sleepy little Southern town filled with farmland as far as the eye could see, orange groves galore, and only two attractions to its name (a water-ski show and some great big gators). Then came the Mouse. More specifically, a mouse named Mickey and his creator, a man of fantastic imagination and vision named Walt Disney. Life in Orlando would never be the same. Since the opening of Walt Disney World back in 1971, Orlando has grown to become one of the world's top vacation destinations. Almost 45 million people from all parts of the world make their way to this city each year to sample its unending array of exciting, unique, and diverse activities. Those of us who continue to return year after year can count on each visit to provide a host of new experiences and memories.

When Disney World first opened its gates to the public, I doubt if anyone but Walt Disney, the original Imagineer, could have predicted what lay ahead. Disney, searching for an East Coast location for his second theme park, decided Orlando was just the place he was looking for. In 1964, in a covert operation that would have made James Bond proud, Walt Disney began quietly purchasing large quantities of land in and around the Orlando area, and within months he had acquired property nearly twice the size of Manhattan. In 1965, Walt announced to the public his plans to bring to Orlando the world's most spectacular theme park. Fashioned after Disneyland in California, construction soon began on Disney's Magic Kingdom. Unfortunately, Walt Disney was never able to see his dream come to life, as he passed away in 1966, just 5 years shy of the opening of what, to this day, is still the world's most spectacular theme park -- Walt Disney World.

Disney's legacy, while commercialized over the years, has practically become a rite of passage, not to mention a national shrine to which visitors flock by the millions. And if you have kids, a visit here is almost a requirement. The opening of Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom started a tourist boom in Central Florida the likes of which has never been seen elsewhere. Today, the Kingdom That Walt Built entices visitors with four theme parks; a dozen smaller attractions; a shopping, dining, and entertainment district; tens of thousands of hotel rooms; a vacation club (otherwise known as timeshares); scores of restaurants; and even three cruise ships (soon to be four). Universal Orlando adds to the dizzying array with two theme parks, three luxury resorts, and an entertainment complex that's home to several unique restaurants, clubs, shops, and entertainment venues. SeaWorld tosses in three theme parks and a small entertainment, dining, and shopping district of its own. And those are just the major players. All in all, there are just shy of 100 attractions, both large and small, that will keep you coming back for more. There are also plenty of restaurants, ranging from fine dining to on-the-fly fast food; many of the more casual restaurants are as themed as the parks themselves. And the city doesn't lack for hotels and resorts either, with roughly 119,000 rooms, villas, and suites to go around by the end of 2012. If you can believe it, the landscape is still changing, evolving, growing, and expanding to ensure your experiences will do the same each and every time you stay and play in Orlando.

Beyond the fast-paced excitement, glitz, and glitter of Orlando's theme parks, you'll find Central Florida's more natural side, with hidden treasures just waiting to be discovered. More than 300 lakes, springs, and rivers are here to be explored and enjoyed. There are numerous parks and gardens, many with trails for walking and hiking, and the area's wildlife sanctuaries and zoos showcase Florida's animal inhabitants. The number of recreational opportunities -- picnics in parks, boating along waterways, fishing, biking, and hiking, to name a few -- is almost limitless. And Orlando's rich history and culture come to life through its many museums, galleries, and theaters.

Where to go, what to do, when to do it . . . with so many decisions to make, you may very well find your head spinning. Because of the vast quantity of offerings, a vacation to Orlando necessitates a reasonable amount of planning, not to mention budgeting. The sheer number of attractions and available activities requires that you narrow down your choices to fit both your schedule and your budget. Entrance fees can be daunting (a 1-day ticket to one of the major parks averages around $85 for adults and $79 for kids 3-9), and when you add in the costs of dining, accommodations, and souvenirs, sticker shock at the high price tag is not out of the question. A typical family of four could easily end up spending several hundred dollars a day! Some parks have begun offering deals to bring down the average daily price of your ticket if you buy multiday passes, but don't give them too much credit -- the parks are wagering they'll generate additional revenue with all of the money you'll spend on extra hotel nights and meals. But even if you do have deep pockets, Orlando offers so much to experience that to take it all in properly would require far more time than the average vacation would allow. I doubt if even two or three vacations could do the trick.

By the Numbers

While attendance levels continue to remain relatively steady at Disney, and attendance at Universal Orlando has increased exponentially (thanks to the addition of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter), SeaWorld hasn't been so lucky. Across the board, Orlando's theme parks (including Disney, and even Universal to some extent) continue to feel the effects of the economic downturn. Though predictions state that attendance levels will continue to rise over the next few years, they will likely do so at a much slower pace (with Universal's wildly high attendance figures likely to drop as the newness of the Wizarding World begins to wear off). The parks, however, continue to entice visitors to return and to stay longer by offering special deals, discounts, and the addition of wild and wonderfully new attractions. Here are the 2010 attendance estimates (and their national rankings) for all of the major Orlando parks according to TEA, Inc., and Economic Research Associates:

  • No. 1: Magic Kingdom, 17 million (-1.5%)
  • No. 3: Epcot, 11 million (-1.5%)
  • No. 4: Disney's Animal Kingdom, 9.7 million (+1%)
  • No. 5: Disney's Hollywood Studios, 9.6 million (-.1%)
  • No. 7: Islands of Adventure, 5.9 million (+30.2%)
  • No. 8: Universal Studios Florida, 5.9 million (+6.1%)
  • No. 9: SeaWorld, 5.1 million (-12%)

(Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure rank 2nd and 6th, respectively.)

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.