Orlando, Florida vacation guide

Orlando claims a spot as one of the top tourist destinations in the country. According to Visit Orlando, in 2017, Orlando became the first tourist destination to surpass 70 million tourists. Warm weather, theme parks, water parks, and fun filled resorts draw people from all over the world each year. Home to Walt Disney World, the best theme park in the world, Orlando is the perfect family vacation destination.

And, the fun doesn’t stop at Disney! There are plenty of other fun amusement parks and attractions such as Sea World, Universal Studios, and 2 of the top ranked water parks in the world. Add in fun themed restaurants, wonderful shows, shopping, recreation, and you find yourself surrounded with endless exciting vacation activities. Whether you are 7 or 77, you are bound to have a fabulous time. You are never too old to visit Disney – I didn’t myself until my upper 20’s!

Top theme parks in Orlando

Below, I have highlighted the best theme parks in the Orlando area. Walt Disney World includes 4 parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios. Many people are unaware that Universal Studios is a separate park. Although Universal Studio is located in the same area as Disney, it is actually owned by NBC Universal. Regardless, both parks are a must on any visit to Orlando. While different, both parks offer a once-in-a-lifetime experience that can’t be duplicated anywhere else in the world.

Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom - Orlando, FL

Hollywood Studios

Hollywood Studios – Hollywood Studios offers a fantastic selection of thrill rides and exciting live shows. Tower of Terror and Aerosmith’s Rock N’Roller coaster are 2 of the best rides in all of the Disney parks. The newest park addition: Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is sure to please fans. I recommend at least 2 days here to experience everything in the park. One day was just not enough time!

Aerosmith Rock N' Roller coaster

Magic Kingdom

Magic Kingdom – You can’t visit Disney without at least 2 visits to the Magic Kingdom. All of your favorite Disney classics are transformed into fun rides for the whole family. Highlights include: Pirates of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion, It’s A Small World, Peter Pan, and Monsters Inc. Laugh floor. However, the real magic arrives nightly at the fabulous firework show and parade featuring all your beloved Disney characters. Take a look at my favorite Disney rides!

Big Thunder Mountain coaster at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando


Epcot – Visiting Epcot is like taking a trip around the world, minus the expensive airline tickets. The famous World Showcase features 11 pavilions, each representing a different country. In terms of rides, Soarin’ and Spaceship Earth are both very interesting. What separates Epcot apart from the other theme parks is the combination of education and fun found in every ride and attraction.

Spaceship Earth at Epcot Orlando

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom – The highlight of this Disney park is an entertaining safari ride where you will see over 30 species of animals on the 110 acre Harambe Wildlife Reserve. One of Disney’s best (and most expensive rides) is also located here. Expedition Everest, a unique roller coaster features fantastic animatronics, a great twist, and fantastic views of the park. Kail River Rapids is another must – the perfect thrilling family whitewater raft ride to enjoy on those hot, humid summer days.

Gorilla at Disney's Animal Kingdom Park in Orlando

Universal Studios

Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure – Universal Studios is almost as fun as Disney. The variety of movie themed, interactive, thrill, and water rides lead to hours and hours of fun. Although you could attempt to squeeze in all your fun in a day, I would recommend purchasing the 2 day pass. Islands of Adventure offers so many fantastic rides, however, you will be limited on time as the lines are long (make sure to purchase a fast pass). Do yourself a favor and plan for at least one day at Universal Studios and one at Islands of Adventure. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter alone warrants a one day visit.

Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida

Best theme park rides

1. Tower of Terror (Hollywood Studios)

Tower of Terror at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Orlando

2. The Simpsons Ride (Universal Studios)

The Simpson's ride at Universal Studios Orlando

3. Dudley Do Right’s Ripsaw Falls (Islands of Adventure)

Dudley Do Right's Ripsaw Falls ride at Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida

4. The Mummy Roller Coaster (Universal Studios)

Revenge of the Mummy Ride at Universal Studios Orlando

5. Aerosmith Rock N’ Roller Coaster – Hollywood Studios

Aerosmith Rock N' Roller coaster at Disney's Hollywood Studios

6. The Great Movie Ride (Hollywood Studios)

The Great Movie ride at Hollywood Studios in Orlando

Update: This great ride closed in 2017.

7. The Incredible Hulk Coaster (Islands of Adventure)

Incredible Hulk Coaster of Universal Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida

8. Expedition Everest (Animal Kingdom)

Expedition Everest ride at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida

9. Jurassic Park River Adventure (Islands of Adventure)

Jurassic Park: The Ride at Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, Florida

10. Pirates of the Caribbean (Magic Kingdom)

Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Magic Kingdom Orlando

*While all the rides mentioned above are fantastic, I have visited Universal, Islands, and Disney many times since first writing this post. I still highly recommend all the above rides, although you will want to check out my updated Best rides in Orlando, Favorite Disney rides and attractions, and Best rides at Universal posts. That being said, The Hulk, Pirates, and Expedition Everest are still the best-of-the-best!

Best shows & entertainment

1. Wishes Nighttime Spectacular Fireworks Show (Magic Kingdom)

Update: now called Happily Ever After

Spectacular fireworks show at the Magic Kingdom Orlando

2. Lights, Motor, Action! Extreme Stunt Show (Hollywood Studios)

Extreme stunt show at Hollywood Studios Orlando

Update: This fabulous show closed in 2016 to make room for the new Star Wars attraction.

3. The American Idol Experience (Hollywood Studios)

American Idol Experience at Hollywood Studios Orlando

Update: Sadly, American Idol Live also eventually ended. As a fan who grew up watching this show, I was highly disappointed!

4. Mickey’s PhilharMagic 3D show (Magic Kingdom)

Philarmagic Mickey 3D shoe at Magic Kingdom Orlando

5. Main Street Electrical Parade (Magic Kingdom)

Main Street Electric Parade at Walt Disney World Orlando

6. Animal Kingdom safari (Animal Kingdom)

Kilimanjaro safari ride at Disney's Animal Kingdom park in Orlando, Florida

7. The Hall of Presidents (Magic Kingdom)

Hall of Presidents at Magic Kingdom Orlando

8. Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor (Magic Kingdom)

Monsters Inc at Magic Kingdom Orlando

9. Spaceship Earth (Epcot)

Spaceship Earth at Epcot Orlando

10. Citizens of Main Street (Magic Kingdom)

Citizens of Main Street at Disney's Magic Kingdom Orlando

Sadly, many great shows have been cancelled over the years. As of 2022, I would add the amazing Horror Make Up Show and The Blues Brothers Show to the list. Both these lively interactive shows are found at Universal. Shows make for a great break when you tire of the rides!

Universal Horror Makeup show in Orlando, FL

Holidays at Disney

The best time to visit is perhaps during Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween event. While this special event requires an advance ticket, you will enjoy many amenities including after hours admission to the park, Halloween themed treats, shows, fireworks, and even rides, as well as trick or treat stations. This is by far the absolute best time to visit the Magic Kingdom. If you are at all a fan of Halloween, definitely put this one on your bucket list.

Halloween at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida

Best affordable lodging near Disney – Windsor Hills Resort Condo Rental

Skip all the pricey resorts and come home to a quiet condo rental. If you are like us, you will be spending all day at the parks and will not have much use for the extras at the Disney resorts. Windsor Resorts offers affordable rentals with plenty of useful amenities. The 3 bedroom condo rentals include a full size kitchen, washer and dryer, king sized beds in the master bathroom, free Wi-Fi, and free Netflix movies.

In addition, you will have access to plenty of outdoor recreation, including: a pool with water slide, a hot tub, tennis and basketball courts, and a sand volleyball court. You will only be a 5 minute drive from the Disney parks and 15-20 minutes from Universal and Sea World. Rates start at just $100-135, based on time of year and holiday season. No matter what month you decide to visit, you will be getting a fantastic deal over other Orlando hotels and resorts!

I really enjoyed my stay at Windsor Hills. I will definitely book with them again for any future Orlando vacation. For more information, visit the Windsor Hills website.

Best affordable lodging near Universal – Cabana Bay

Cabana Bay is a wonderful family-friendly resort located near Universal. This Universal Property is affordably priced and offers many enticing amenities including 2 pools and a lazy river, on-site restaurants and a Starbucks, an arcade, a spa, a shuttle to the parks, and a bowling alley. The best perk is receiving hour early admission to the parks.

Cabana bay resort in Orlando, Florida
Lazy river at Cabana Bay Universal Studios Orlando

Disney resorts

Disney is home to over 20 spectacular resorts, each with their own unique theme. If you have the funds to splurge, do so! While super pricey, these luxurious resorts offer a number of great amenities including complimentary transportation to the parks, amazing on-site restaurants, fabulous pools, complimentary merchandise delivery from the parks to your hotel, incredible decor, and over-the-top holiday decor. The best include: Animal Kingdom Lodge, Wilderness Lodge, and the Grand Floridian.

Amazing Christmas decor at the Grand Floridian in Orlando, Florida
The lobby of the Grand Floridian at Christmas

Best theme restaurant – Hard Rock Cafe

Hard Rock Cafe in Orlando, Florida

Hard Rock Cafe is my favorite US themed restaurant. I love the music, memorabilia, and touristy atmosphere. Hard Rock Orlando is situated amidst numerous bars, clubs, restaurants, and shops in Universal’s entertainment hub, CityWalk. This cafe is one of the biggest and most exciting. It is a great choice for families due to the eclectic menu, which includes everything from salads to burgers to pasta. I highly recommend the Twisted Mac and Cheese. Dining at Hard Rock will enable you to keep the fun going long after your day out at Universal Studios! View the Hard Rock Orlando Menu.

Twisted mac and cheese at the Hard Rock Cafe

Another great themed restaurant is Sanaa. This restaurant is located inside Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. Even if you are not staying at the resort, you can dine here (reservations often required due to limited parking space). As you feast on Indian and African delicacies, you can gaze out upon the resort’s lush savanna. This is definitely one of Orlando’s best restaurants and worthy of the hassle! Do order the fabulous Indian Bread service as an app! And treat yourself to the Kheer for dessert!

Indian bread service at Sanaa at Disney's Animal Kingdom

More great themed dining experiences in Orlando

Saving money on your Orlando vacation

Take a look at my handy chart below filled with some helpful tips on how you can save on your next Disney trip. Also be sure to check out my Saving Money on Your Walt Disney World Vacation post for additional tips and tricks.

Saving money on a Walt Disney World vacation

Visit the Walt Disney World website for ticketing information and hours of operation for each park. Visit the Universal Studios website for ticketing information and hours of operation.