WALT DISNEY WORLD RESORT
Best for: Space, theme parks, a sense of place, proximity to His Mouseness
What you won’t find: Inexpensive food or lodging, a central location for anything except Disney attractions, the “real” Florida or Orlando
Walt Disney World is at the southern end of Orlando’s chain of big parks, so to see Universal, SeaWorld, and Orlando itself, you’ll always head north on I-4.
When Walt Disney ordered the purchase of these 27,000 acres mostly just west of Interstate 4, he was righting a wrong he committed in the building of Anaheim’s Disneyland. In commandeering as much land as he did, he ensured that visitors would not be troubled by the clatter of motel signs and cheap restaurants that abut his original playground. “Here in Florida,” he said in a promotional film shot months before his death, “we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland . . . the blessing of size. There’s enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine.” You could spend your entire vacation without leaving the greenery of the resort, and lots of people do, although they’re missing a lot. The idea to remain solely on Disney property is outdated now that Universal has proven itself. Still, there’s an awful lot to do spread around here, starting with four of the world’s most polished theme parks (54 million visits in 2015), two of the best water parks, four golf courses, two miniature golf courses, a racecar track, a sports pavilion, and a huge shopping-and-entertainment district.
First-time visitors aren’t usually prepared for quite how large the area is: 47 (roughly rectangular) square miles. Only a third of that land is truly developed, and another third has been set aside as a permanent reserve for swampland. Major elements are easily a 10-minute drive away from each other, with nothing but trees or Disney hotels between them. The Magic Kingdom is buried deep in the back of the park—which is to say, the north of it, requiring the most driving time to reach. Epcot and Hollywood Studios are in the center, while Disney’s Animal Kingdom is at the southwest of the property, closest to the real world.
For its convenience, Disney signposts hotels and attractions according to the major theme park they’re near. If you are staying on property, you’ll need to know which area your hotel is in. For example, the All-Star resorts are considered to be in the Animal Kingdom area, and so some signs may simply read Animal Kingdom Resort Area and leave off the name of your hotel. Ask for your hotel’s designated area when you reserve.
Getting in is easy. Every artery in town is naggingly signposted for Disney World. Exits are marked, but it helps to know the name of the main road that feeds your hotel. A few useful secret exits are not marked on official Disney maps. One is Western Way, which turns past Coronado Springs resort and skirts the back of Animal Kingdom to reach many vacation home communities southwest of Disney. Be warned that taking 429 to U.S. 192 will cost more than a buck in tolls.
There’s a second useful shortcut out of the resort: Sherberth Road, by the entrance to Animal Kingdom Lodge, about a mile west of the entrance to Animal Kingdom, leads to cheap eats on western U.S. 192.
It’s interesting to note that when you’re at Disney, you’re in a separate governmental zone. The resort’s bizarre experiments in building methods (such as fiberglass-and-steel castles) are partly enabled by the fact that Disney negotiated the creation of its own entity, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which can set its own standards. When you see vehicles marked RCID, those are the civic services for the resort. Not far down the road by Disney Springs Marketplace—a route not used by many guests—pass by the R.C. Fire Department, a toy-like engine house with an outdoor fountain that looks like a spouting fire hose.
Disney developed a bit of land east of I-4 into the New Urbanism unincorporated town of Celebration. As a Stepford-like residential center with upscale aspirations (golf, boutiques), there’s not much to do there except eat a bit in its town square. Be prepared to parallel park there.
U.S. 192 & KISSIMMEE
Best for: Value, chain restaurant and motel options, downscale attractions
What you won’t find: Subtlety, luxury
No matter how Orlando changes, it’s Kissimmee (Kiss-im-ee), the ridiculed little sister, that lags behind. Where the southern edge of the Disney resort property touches U.S. 192, the clamor begins, stretching 10 miles west and a good 10 miles east. This tatty drag, known also as the Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway (after the state senator who sold Walt a lot of land), is the spine of Kissimmee, and it’s your Budget Rialto for food and beds, so plug the K-word into the location box of your Web searches. It’s also the best place to find that all-American kitsch you might be looking for—nowhere else in town will you find a souvenir store shaped like a giant orange half, and isn’t that a shame?
In the early 1970s, Kissimmee was the prime place to stay. The motels weren’t flashy then, and they still aren’t, but they’re ever affordable—$50 to $80 is the norm, and some shabby places go down to $39 for a single or $45 for a double. Kissimmee’s downtown, about 10 miles east of Disney, is a typical Florida burg with a main street by a lake, and its quickly growing subdivisions have become popular among Hispanic families, although that doesn’t translate into accessible restaurants serving ethnic cuisine. U.S. 192 is mostly about chains and buffets.
The best way to get your bearings on U.S. 192 is using its clearly signposted mile marker system. U.S. 192 hits Disney’s southern entrance (the most expedient avenue to the major theme parks) at Mile Marker 7, while I-4’s exit 65 connects with it around Mile Marker 8. Numbers go down to the west, and they go up to the east. Western 192, where the bulk of the vacation home developments are found, is much more upscale than the tacky wilds of eastern 192, but neither stretch could be termed swanky or well planned. Although Osceola County has strived to beautify the tourist corridor, it’s been inept in the effort; once, the county cut down stands of myrtle trees in the median of U.S. 192 because they blocked the view of the billboards. That should tell you all you need to know about the standards in Kissimmee.
LAKE BUENA VISTA
Best for: Access to Disney, I-4, and chain restaurants, some elbow room
What you won’t find: The lowest prices, a sense of place
Lake Buena Vista, a hotel enclave east of Disney Springs, clusters on the eastern fringe of Walt Disney World. LBV is technically a town, but it doesn’t look like one. It’s mostly hotels and mid-priced chain restaurants with some schlocky souvenir stores thrown in. The proximity of I-4 exit 68 can back traffic up, but it’s convenient to Disney’s crowded side door, which is helpful. The bottom line is that LBV is less tacky and higher rent than Kissimmee’s 192, but it’s also still a Disney-centric area and not really part of Orlando’s fabric.
If you stay in LBV, you can also (if you’re hardy) walk to the Disney Springs development, where you can then pick up Disney’s free DTS bus system. That could save you the cost of a rental car.
Best for: Walkability, second-tier amusements, cheap transportation, sit-down chain food, proximity to Universal and SeaWorld
What you won’t find: Space, style
Although a developing stretch of this street winds all the way south to U.S. 192, when people refer to International Drive, they usually mean the segment between SeaWorld and Universal Orlando, just east of I-4 between exits 71 and 75. I-Drive, as it’s called, is probably the only district where you might comfortably stay without a car and still be able to see the non-Disney attractions, because it’s chockablock with affordable hotels (not as ratty as some on U.S. 192 can be) and plenty of crowd-pleasing things to see, such as arcades, T-shirt shops, buffets, and the Orlando Eye (p. ###). The cheap I-Ride Trolley (p. ###) traverses the area on a regular schedule.
The intersection at Sand Lake Road is a dividing line for I-Drive’s personalities. North of Sand Lake Road, within the orbit of Universal Orlando, midway rides and the ice-cream shops prevail. South of Sand Lake, closer to SeaWorld, there’s a business-y crowd at the mighty Orange County Convention Center, located on both sides of I-Drive at the Bee Line Expressway/528. It keeps the surrounding hotels (and streets) full. On this part of I-Drive, bars and midscale restaurants rule. West on Sand Lake Road past I-4, you’ll find a mile-long procession of mid- to upper-level places to eat that the city dubiously calls its “Restaurant Row.”
I-Drive does an east-west dogleg where it runs into I-4, and north of I-4 at Universal Boulevard, you’ll find Universal Orlando’s resort, which after dark is more popular with locals than Disney’s.
Hotel and restaurant discounts may be posted on the area’s business association and promotional website, www.internationaldriveorlando.com.
Best for: Historic buildings, cafes, museums, fine art, wealthy residents
What you won’t find: Theme parks, easy commutes
Like in so many American cities, residents fled from downtown in the 1960s through the 1980s, although spacious new condo developments have rescued the city from abandonment. Downtown Orlando is gradually being rediscovered by young, upscale residents. Here are the highlights:
DOWNTOWN: Beneath the city’s collection of modest skyscrapers (mostly banking offices), you’ll find municipal buildings (the main library, historic museums), a few upscale hotels (the Grand Bohemian, Courtyard at Lake Lucerne), and some attractive lakes, but little shopping. Orange Avenue, once a street of proud stone buildings and department stores, now comes alive mostly at night, when its former vaudeville halls and warehouses essay their new roles as nightclubs, especially around Church Street. The 43-acre Lake Eola Park, just east, is often cited as an area attraction, but in truth it’s just your average city park, although the .9-mile path around its 23-acre sinkhole lake is good for joggers. Its swan boats (rent one for $15 for 30 min.) are city icons, as is the central fountain from 1957; its unique Plexiglas skin is illuminated with a 6-minute light-and-water musical show nightly at 9:30pm. Just east of that, the streets turn to red brick and big trees shelter Thornton Park (along Washington St., Summerlin Ave., and Central Blvd.). It’s noted for its alfresco European-style cafes, none especially inexpensive, but all pleasing, where waiters wear black and hip locals spend evenings and weekend brunches. West of downtown over I-4, the area called Parramore is a longtime neighborhood for African Americans (sadly, the interstate was built, in part, as a barrier). A mile north of downtown, Loch Haven Park basks in a wealth of museums.
MILLS FIFTY: Some old-timers call this area Colonial Town and new-timers may use Mills 50, but it’s also the Vietnamese District at Mills, or ViMi. Just north of downtown, at Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue, there’s a midcentury neighborhood with the whiff of a faded 1950s strip mall (parking lots are hidden behind buildings). There, you can spend a top afternoon strolling through several omnibus Asian supermarkets stocked with exotic groceries and unique baked goods and parking yourself at one of the excellent mom-and-pop-style eateries (advertised by cheap stick-on letters and neon) serving food far more delicious than their limited budgets would suggest. Several stores whip up addictive, meat-stuffed baguette sandwiches called bánh mi for a quick $4 meal. You’ll also find hobby and art-supply shops patronized by a burgeoning bohemian community. The two marginalized groups collaborate beautifully together.
Best for: Fine art, cafes, strolls, galleries, lakes
What you won’t find: Inexpensive shopping, easy theme-park access
One of the city’s most interesting areas, and one of the few that hasn’t taken pains to erase its history, Winter Park was where, 100 years ago, upstart industrialists built winter homes at a time when they couldn’t gain entree into the more exclusive, more WASP-y enclaves of Newport or Palm Beach. The town blends seamlessly with northern Orlando (you can drive between them in a few minutes without getting onto I-4) and is still pretty full of itself and its expensive tastes, but cruising on its brick-paved streets, gawking at mansions built on its chain of lakes, will remind you of the good life. Newspapers and magazines write about Winter Park like it’s the hottest thing going, but in all honesty, it’s just a nice place to pass an afternoon or evening. In the shops on Park Avenue, you’ll find mostly jewelry, art, and south of it, stroll the country-club campus of Rollins College. The town’s long-running boat tour is the best way to sample the opulence. The best art museum around, the Morse, holds the most inspiring collection of Tiffany glass you will ever see. West of Winter Park, over I-4, the district of College Park, centering around Princeton Street and Edgewater Drive, hosts restaurants and boutiques that bring the area favor.
NORTH OF ORLANDO
Most visitors who venture into the suburban towns north of Winter Park do so to visit some of the area’s natural springs or state parks or to connect with the spirits in the hamlet of Cassadaga. After you’ve seen these places, there is little to engage you until you hit the Atlantic Coast on I-4.
SOUTH OF ORLANDO
Only in the past few years has the rural-minded swampland southwest of the resort and Kissimmee begun to be built upon in earnest, and the 65-mile run along I-4 to Tampa is quickly filling in with developments and golf courses. This patch of the Green Swamp, in which the two cities will one day merge into a megalopolis, is now casually dubbed “Orlampa.” In Tampa, you’ll find the excellent Busch Gardens, a worthy addition to an amusement-park itinerary, and an hour straight south of Orlando, in the town of Winter Haven, is Legoland Florida, a super kiddie park built on the tranquil remains of Florida’s most historic amusement park.
EAST OF ORLANDO
The entrance to Orlando International Airport is 11 miles east of I-4, webbed into the city network by toll highways and surrounded by golfing developments. Across empty swamp from there, the so-called Space Coast, of which Cape Canaveral is the metaphoric capital, is a 45-minute drive east of Orlando’s tourist corridor via 528, also known as the Bee Line Expressway.
WEST OF ORLANDO
Because the Green Swamp commands the area, there simply isn’t much west of the tourist corridor save a few small towns and some state parks, such as Lake Louisa.
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.