Once upon a time, Orlando was just a small town in central Florida – part housing and part citrus groves surrounded by cattle ranges and more citrus groves. But that all changed in 1965 when Walt Disney announced the first Disney World park. By the time it was completed in 1971, Orlando had already undergone a huge transformation into a booming tourist town. Today, between the theme parks and enormous hospitality industry, the city has become a mecca for vacationers and conference goers alike. In fact, it’s the single most visited city in the country, servicing about 48 million tourists from around the country and all over the world each year.
Part of Orlando’s appeal lies in the sheer density of attractions that’s completely unique to this city. Disney World’s first park, The Magic Kingdom, is just one in what is now a massive resort complex comprised of six parks, numerous outdoor shopping areas, and even more hotels and restaurants. On top of that, the Universal Studios and Sea World parks and resort/hotels are just minutes away. If you’re staying anywhere in Orlando or nearby Kissimmee, you can travel between the parks effortlessly, and the centralized location of the city puts you in range of plenty of great day trips, too, like Busch Gardens.
But Orlando isn’t called The City Beautiful for its sprawling theme parks or high rise hotels. Built atop lake-dotted wetlands, the city proper is a beautiful mesh of tall skyscrapers, tree lined streets, and beautiful natural waterways that let you stay a little closer to nature even in a thriving metropolis. Lake Eola is right in the middle of the downtown area, and has a huge man-made fountain in the center that turns into a spectacular water and light show every night. This merging of nature and architecture extends throughout the city, and through many of the famous parks. Disney’s Animal Kingdom or SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove especially blur the line between the real world and something a little more wild, with animals from all of the world in recreations of their native habitats that are able to roam (or swim!) freely year round because of Orlando’s near equatorial climate.
And that climate is no small factor in the city’s popularity as a destination vacation spot – or in Walt Disney’s decision to put a park there. With 236 days of sunshine, an annual average daily temperature of 82, and lows no lower than 50 even in the dead of winter, Orlando’s weather can pass the Goldilocks test just about any day of the year. And because Orlando is located a fair ways inland, even during the rest of the Gulf coast’s hurricane season, Orlando is largely protected. That means water parks that are open year round, and that you’re more likely to get caught in a warm summer rain than a winter chill. For those that live in the northern states, Orlando is a great January getaway and a good way to soak up some Vitamin D – especially at discounted “off season” prices.
Of course, while Orlando has resorts, hotels, and theme parks coming out its mouse ears, the city’s appeal doesn’t end there. The huge number of lakes in and around the city make for excellent sport and recreational fishing, boating, and water sports – some of the parks, like Wet’n'Wild offer water skiing and wakeboarding, but you can also rent your own skidoo or speed boat on many of the larger bodies of water.
As well, if you’re looking to go shopping for something other than theme park merchandise, Orlando has some of the largest malls in the state, including the Florida Mall, which has over 250 stores, and the Mall At Millenia, which has several upscale department stores and an adjacent Ikea. And while the theme park resorts do have something of a monopoly on the five star restaurants and hotels, these high end establishments and less exspensive vacation rentals can increasingly be found elsewhere in the city as it expands its hospitality efforts beyond the parks. The sheer number of hotels needed to support their tourism industry, and the conference rooms and ballrooms that come with them, make Orlando the perfect spot for conferences and weddings, too. For the latter, you might even end up spending your honeymoon in the area…especially if you enjoy a good roller coaster.
From its tropical climate to its laundry list of attractions, Orlando really has something for everyone. Even if you stick close to one of the three major park resorts, you’ll be able to find plenty of things to do. Whether you’re looking to have some fun with your family or enjoy a grown up spa retreat, Orlando really does have what you’re looking for.