Get to know Orlando’s neighborhoods—from theme parks to historic areas.
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 The idea of remaining solely on Disney property is outdated now that Universal has proven itself. Still, there’s an awful lot to do around here, starting with four of the world’s most polished theme parks, two of the best water parks, four golf courses, two miniature golf courses, 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, leaving off the name of your hotel. Ask for your hotel’s designated area when you reserve.
East of Epcot, the sprawling Disney Springs shopping-and-dining development is popular, even with area locals who may not be attending the parks.
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 well-promoted on official Disney maps. One is Western Way, which turns past the Coronado Springs resort and skirts the back of Animal Kingdom to reach many vacation home communities southwest of Disney. Be warned that taking Hwy. 429 to U.S. 192 will cost a few bucks 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 rental homes off western U.S. 192.
It’s interesting to note that when you’re at Disney, you’re in a separate governmental zone. To enable the resort’s bizarre experiments in building methods (such as fiberglass-and-steel castles), Disney negotiated the creation of its own entity, the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which can set its own standards. You may 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), you may pass the R.C. Fire Department, a toylike engine house with an outdoor fountain that looks like a spouting fire hose.
Disney developed (and then sold) 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), it doesn’t offer visitors much to do except eat a bit in its town square. Be prepared to parallel park there.
U.S. 192 & KISSIMMEE
Best for: Lowbrow chain restaurant and motel options, downscale attractions
What you won’t find: Subtlety, luxury
Kissimmee (Kiss-im-ee) was the heart of Orlando tourism in the 1970s, but the center of tourist gravity shifted, and the town now lags further behind every year. The tatty drag of U.S. 192, known also as the Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway (after a state senator who sold Walt a bunch of land), is the stop-and-go spine of Kissimmee. U.S. 192 is mostly about chains and buffets, but on weekend nights, this low-rent Rialto fills with drivers of muscle cars who come to show off at Old Town and the Fun Spot.
The motels weren’t flashy in the ’70s, but as Disney becomes more expensive and its guests tend to be wealthier, they increasingly avoid this area. Recent hard times in the economy have only served to drag some of these motels below the line of respectability. While 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—it’s no longer possible to confidently vouch for the quality or serenity of a stay on U.S. 192.
There’s plenty of cheap food and souvenirs, though. 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, and driving it is slow going.
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 (plans are afoot for a major redevelopment of the interchange), but it’s convenient to Disney’s crowded side door and Disney Springs, which is helpful. The bottom line is that LBV is less tacky and higher rent than Kissimmee’s 192, but also touristy 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.
INTERNATIONAL DRIVE & UNIVERSAL ORLANDO
Best for: Walkability, second-tier amusements, affordable hotels and transportation, 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 around SeaWorld north to 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 U.S. 192’s can be) and plenty of crowd-pleasing things to do, such as arcades, wild mini-golf courses, family restaurants, and the Wheel (once called the Orlando Eye) at the ICON Park entertainment complex. The cheap I-Ride Trolley traverses the area on a regular schedule.
The intersection at Sand Lake Road is a dividing line for I-Drive’s personalities. South of Sand Lake, there’s a business-y (but party-ready) crowd in town for 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 restaurants busy. North of Sand Lake Road, within the orbit of Universal Orlando, midway rides and Universal’s affordable Endless Summer Resort prevail. And west on Sand Lake Road from 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.” Hotel and restaurant discounts appear on www.internationaldriveorlando.com.
Just north of I-Drive across I-4, signified by the towering steaming namesake of Volcano Bay water park, is Universal Orlando’s resort with its two theme parks, waterslide park, six on-campus hotels, and the CityWalk food-and-entertainment district.
Best for: Historic buildings, cafes, museums, wealthy residents
What you won’t find: Street life, easy commutes
As happened in so many American cities, residents fled from downtown in the 1960s through the 1980s. Spacious new condo developments have rescued the city from abandonment, and downtown Orlando is called home 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) 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, and mostly for the young. 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 are city icons, as is the central fountain from 1957—its 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 50—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. 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 banh mi for a quick $6 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, more than 100 years ago, upstart industrialists built winter homes at a time when they couldn’t gain entry into the exclusive WASP-y enclaves of Newport or Palm Beach. The town, which blends seamlessly with northern Orlando (you can drive between them in a few minutes without getting onto I-4), is still pretty full of itself and its expensive tastes, but cruising on its brick-paved streets and 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 and 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, to trawl the many antiques stores of Lake Mary, or to connect with the spirits in the hamlet of Cassadaga. Keep going on I-4 and you hit the Atlantic Coast within the hour.
SOUTH OF ORLANDO
Only in the past few years has the rural-minded swampland southwest of 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 phenomenal 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. Across largely empty swamp from there, the so-called Space Coast, of which Cape Canaveral is the metaphoric capital (see it at Kennedy Space Center), 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.