Orlando Travel Guide – Top 10 Vacation Highlights

The theme park, amusement and attraction capital of the world, Orlando attracts millions of people every year with its unique mix of attractions, entertainment, shopping and dining opportunities, not to mention the beautiful year-round weather. But even with the endless list of things to see and do in Orlando, there are those few that stand out from the rest.
Orlando Travel Guide
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Cirque du Soleil: La Nouba is a creative and unique blend of acrobatics, theater and art. “La Nouba” means “The Party” and this show certainly lives up to its name. The spectacle features an international cast of talented performers who showcase incredible feats of agility, beauty and strength, as they soar several stories above ground with exact precision, within a dream-like entertainment atmosphere.

Experience Orlando from a different perspective by taking a hot air balloon ride that will enable you to soar high over the city and its surrounding areas. Soak up the warm sunshine and amazing bird’s eye views of the city below. Flights typically launch at daybreak, rising to one thousand feet. Take a half-day adventure that will last you 3 hours and include a champagne brunch.

Walt Disney World is one of the reasons why many people decide to visit Central Florida in the first place. Disney World is the largest and most frequented recreational resort in the world. Situated in Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake, the resort is home to theme parks, themed hotels, and dining, recreation, shopping and amusement venues, as well as a host of exciting events.

The first true water park in the United States, Wet ‘N Wild was founded in 1972 and offers rides, spills, thrills and a host of other fun water-related activities. Lounge in the rays, hang out in the Wave Pool or relax on the Lazy River. There are also thrills such as The Strom that will leave you feeling as if you are riding a cyclone.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not features strange collections, bizarre artifacts, unusual hobbies, weird art, photographs and a variety of interactive exhibits. The amazing 10,000 square foot “Odditorium” houses hundreds of outrageous and fascinating exhibits that are certain to entertain. Explore the variety of unbelievable displays and artifacts in unique galleries that pay tribute to the strange and the odd.

No visit to Orlando is complete without a tour of the Orlando Museum of Art. One of the finest art museums in Florida, this museum exhibits local, national, regional and international works of art, including portraits and landscapes, and impressionist art works.

Central Florida attractions have plenty of thrills and one-of-a-kind experiences to offer. Its destinations are packed with theme-park action, shows, rides, parades and museums that you can only expect to find in magical Orlando. From the thrilling Cirque du Soleil to the intriguing Kennedy Space Center, visitors to Orlando will suffer an embarrassment of riches when it comes to escapist options.

1. Kennedy Space Center

Named after John F. Kennedy, the president who in 1962 committed the United States to “race to the moon”, the Kennedy Space Center offers visitors numerous exhibits, experiences and tours designed to inspire and thrill with the vision of space exploration and the history of the space program. While the moon race was over by 1969, space exploration continues today at the Kennedy Space Center.

There are 2 aspects to the Kennedy Space Center which takes up 200 square miles on Florida’s Space Coast. The first is the chance to witness the real-life spot from which the Apollo moon missions were launched, as well as where space shuttles and other missions are today launched. The second is the great science-museum type of experience.

Exhibits are not only designed to entertain but also to educate through hands-on experiences, a number of simulator rides and film presentations. But of course, the ultimate experience would be to view an actual shuttle launch, different types of which occur every couple of months.

For anticipated launch dates, call ahead or check the Kennedy Space Center sites. However, you should note that launch dates often get changed at the very last minute.

Allow a whole day to visit the vast Kennedy Space Center, which is situated 35 miles east of Orlando. Most of your time will be occupied with a two and a half hour guided bus Tour of Restricted Areas that NASA uses for space launches.

This tour will take you past 2 giant launch pads; the Vehicle Assembly Building, which is the largest building in the world; the three and a half mile crushed-rock crawler-way along which the Space Shuttle gets hauled onto the launch pad; the gargantuan crawlers that take care of the hauling by crawling about one mile per hour, traveling only 35 feet per gallon of gas.

The Tour also includes a stop at Launch Complex 30 Observation Gantry, as well as the Apollo/ Saturn V Center. Get off the bus and spend a couple of hours in the Apollo/ Saturn V Center which has a cafeteria on site.

At this Center you can marvel at a fully restored 363-foot Saturn moon rocket. You will be left wondering whether the giant rocket is real, and the answer is yes – it is authentic, having been made up of stages for Apollo missions that were eventually canceled.

Also at the Apollo/ Saturn V Center are the Firing Room Theater and the Lunar Surface Theater that bring to life dramatic milestones of the Apollo moon landing series.

There’s plenty to see and do at the Visitor Complex as well with its 2 IMAX Theaters; the Rocket Garden; the Shuttle Launch Experience; a replica of a NASA shuttle orbiter whose insides you can tour; and a giant gift store with space-themed souvenirs and gift items.

During the Shuttle Launch Experience, you will be strapped in as a crew member and given a vertical all-too-real simulation of the sights, sounds and feelings of a space shuttle launch.

Six miles north of the Visitor Complex is the Astronaut Hall of Fame which offers brief simulator training rides including a simulated mission to Mars.

The Astronaut Hall of Fame is also dedicated to telling the stories of American astronauts. The museum features the largest collection of personal astronaut memorabilia in the world, as well as historic spacecrafts and training simulators. Visitors here get to sit at the mission control console, and even take a virtual moonwalk.

Don’t miss out on the Astronaut Training Experience, an interactive program that enables guests to have a true taste of the experience of space flight. The hands-on half-day program includes mission briefing and orientation by a member of the United States Astronaut Corps, as well as a true-to-training simulator exercise.

The training culminates in a team-oriented space shuttle mission from launch to landing, in a full-scale space shuttle mock-up and Mission Control Center. At the Land the Shuttle Simulator exhibit, you can try your hand at guiding the space shuttle to a smooth landing.

Come face-to-face with a real astronaut at the Astronaut Encounter in an interactive question and answer session that lasts half an hour. You can also have Lunch with an Astronaut in a thrilling once-in-a-lifetime experience that enables you to enjoy a delicious lunch in the company of an actual astronaut who provides interesting anecdotes of space exploration.

2. Orlando Hot Air Balloons

Traveling in central Florida around dawn, you are likely to see colorful hot air balloons floating across the morning sky, glistening against a spectacular Orlando sunrise, in a graceful and beautiful scene. Hot air balloon rides offer a unique sightseeing adventure with a fabulous birds-eye view of the Orlando landscape, so take one.

You will need to report for your hot air balloon adventure very early in the morning, typically an hour or so before sunrise. This is because Orlando winds are the calmest around sunrise, gradually increasing as the sun rises. It is for this reason that pilots prefer to fly as early as possible in the day.

The balloon launch area is typically a large empty field. Once you arrive, it will take about half an hour to unload, unpack, inflate and begin your ascent. Hot air balloons may travel from tree top heights to several thousand feet in a flight that lasts about one hour.

Customized just for you, the hot air balloon ride will enable you to see Orlando wildlife and scenery, while peacefully drifting across the treetops. Visitors can enjoy panoramic views of the lakes and skylines of Florida’s cities and attractions.

If you’re in Orlando during the Kissimmee International Balloon Festival of Festivals, don’t miss out. The 3-day event held at Kissimmee is filled with hot air balloon rides, races, arts, crafts, live music, food and drink vendors and fun with skydiving and helicopter rides. Go early in the morning for a chance to view the mass ascension of more than 60 hot air balloons of all shapes and sizes that fill the Florida skies.

This breathtaking display of hot air balloons makes for a great photo opportunity so be sure to bring your camera along. The balloon launches during this festival are some of the most photographed scenes in the world, and are a remarkable sight to witness.

3. Cirque du Soleil: La Nouba

Cirque du Soleil was founded in 1984 in Quebec by a group of street performers, jugglers, unicyclists, contortionists, stilt-walkers and fire-breathers who decided to pool their talents and reinvent the circus. The performers organized their own festivals where other local street performers could come together to exchange techniques and ideas. Their first show was titled “Cirque du Soleil” or “Circus of the Sun”.

Since the opening of Cirque du Soleil, which ran from 1984-85, the company has performed in various cities across the globe. New shows are being added continuously, both on a temporary and permanent basis.

The far end of Downtown Disney’s West Side hosts a grand sculpted white circus tent theater, which is the permanent home of La Nouba. Visitors to La Nouba can enjoy Cirque du Soleil performances five days a week at its permanent theater, which is an imaginative structure.

La Nouba, which means “The Party”, is an international party with a cast of more than 70 extraordinary performers from 10 different countries, including circus performers, dancers, cyclists, mimes, trapeze artists, musicians, athletes and actors.

Since inception, La Nouba has attracted both tourists and locals alike, thrilling them with its dreamlike essence, borrowing from the surrealism you would expect to find in a Salvador Dali painting, where dreams mix with reality, where illusions and stunts leave viewers dazzled and amazed.

A circus but without the ringmaster, elephants, tigers or lions, La Nouba is truly a party for your imagination. Go here for the blend of original musical score, energetic choreography, surreal sets and colorful costumes that culminates into an unforgettable 90-minute production. Visitors can experience daring feats in a show of acrobatics from this phenomenal international troupe.

True to its origins as a festival of street performers, the Cirque du Soleil performance features magical elements in a creation of street entertainment and circus arts, with feats of movement and wildly imaginative costumes that will take your breath away. Animal lovers will be relieved to know that there is no animal included, but instead plenty of fantastic characters and creatures.

Cirque du Soleil reinvented the circus as a celebration of human involvement in stylized old and new circus arts. Today they offer a completely unique type of performance, one that’s not easy to describe or even get a sense of when others describe it. But once you see it, words will fail you. You simply have to see the performance to understand the majesty of Cirque du Soleil.

4. Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

The Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Odditorium in Orlando is located off International Drive. This museum features 16 unique galleries that contain artifacts from across the globe. The Odditorium comprises 10,000 square feet of space and is packed with all sorts of oddities. To add to the oddities, the building has been designed to look like it is falling into a giant sinkhole.

The origin of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! can be traced back to Robert Ripley, the man who began the strangest collection on the planet. A collector of all things odd, Ripley worked as a sketch artist for a cartoon called “Believe It or Not!”

After his cartoon became popular, Ripley set out to uncover bizarre stories to share with the public in cartoon form. His travels took him all over the world and the souvenirs he collected during these trips formed the basis of what would later become an extensive collection of oddities and stories.

Some of the items you can expect to find on display include: numerous realistic wax figures; a balloon-powered chair that once flew over the Rockies; a variety of optical illusions and puzzles; a “Wall-E” robot replica created from car parts; miniatures for viewing through a magnifying glass; and a dog sculpture made of clothes pins.

Unlike any museum you’ve ever visited, Ripley’s in Orlando has both permanent and temporary exhibits. Explore the museum at your own leisurely pace, and spend as much time as you want fully appreciating the unusual and rare relics found there. Plan to spend at least one hour inside the museum on a self-guided tour. There is also a gift shop on the museum grounds from which you can purchase souvenirs.

5. Lake Eola Park

A popular destination spot in downtown Orlando for locals and tourists alike, Lake Eola Park is famous for its signature fountain and great views of the dynamic Orlando skyline. Situated on Rosalind Avenue, Lake Eola Park was first established in 1892 and today has so much to offer the erstwhile traveler.

The lighted Lake Eola Fountain is one of Orlando’s most recognizable landmarks. Also known as the Centennial Fountain, the landmark is centered in the middle of the 23 acre lake. The current fountain was installed in 1957 to replace the original established in 1912. During the evenings, the fountain’s kaleidoscopic fountain lights, coupled with Orlando’s city lights give the park a softly focused ambiance.

The Park also has a jogging path that’s popular with joggers and dog walkers. The many benches situated along the walking path make for a great spot to relax, read a book or have a picnic lunch. Visitors can also rent a swan-shaped paddle boat, watch a concert or play at the Walt Disney Amphitheater located at the west side of the park.

The park is also a popular location for numerous special events including the Sunday Farmer’s Market, Fireworks over the Fountain and Fiesta in the Park, the annual spring and autumn arts and crafts show. There is also a beer and wine garden offering bloody Mary’s and live music.

The Orlando Farmers’ Market is a downtown tradition that has provided Orlando residents with a Sunday morning market since inception in 1987. The market is a great spot to find fresh produce, decadent treats, handmade items, jewelry and plants. This also makes for a great stroll on Sunday morning while enjoying a delicious pastry with a cup of coffee, specialty tea or freshly squeezed juice.

6. Orlando Museum of Art

Orlando Museum of Art is a fascinating museum situated inside the picturesque Orlando Loch Haven Park. Permanent exhibits at the museum include Aztec to Zapotec: Selections from the Ancient Americas Collection, which features over 150 works made during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, prior to the arrival of Columbus and the Europeans in America.

Representing a time frame of over 3,000 years, the exhibition is drawn from OMA’s Art of the Ancient Americas Collection, which offers a rare glimpse into the culture and life of many civilizations from the North, South and Central American regions, including the Maya, Aztec, Inca, Zapotec, Nazca and Moche, with significant ancient works in silver, gold, jade, shell, ceramic and wood.

Previous special temporary exhibits at the museum included Aesop’s Fables and Other Tales, which featured over 65 original watercolor illustrations focused on delightful portrayals of animals from well-known Aesop’s fables such as The Ugly Duckling, The Tortoise and the Hare, and The Goose and the Golden Egg.

Orlando Museum of Art also hosts special events. On the first Thursday of every month, visitors can celebrate themed art, food and music at a party organized to encourage the appreciation of the visual arts.

If you’re in Orlando in November, don’t miss out on the Annual Festival of Trees, Orlando’s premier holiday event. Celebrate the season over 9 magical days at the Orlando Museum of Art which is transformed into a glittering holiday wonderland with trees, wreaths and gingerbread houses to ignite the holiday spirit.

At the heart of this enchanting festival is a collection of exquisite trees, full-scale holiday vignettes and gingerbread creations, all decorated by local designers.

Certain to delight every visitor, the festival features decorated wreaths and smaller trees which are displayed within the Deck the Halls area. Local culinary artists also showcase their talents at the Gingerbread Village. Visit the Art on the Wall showcase of original artworks by artists from central Florida. The items on display at this festival are also available for purchase.

Visitors can buy decorative accessories and holiday gifts at the Holiday Boutique, or grab a bite to eat at the Festival Café. There is also daily entertainment that features a wide spectrum of talent and holiday spirit, ranging from appearances by Santa Claus, choir performances and other special events. Don’t miss out on the all-popular Holiday Jazz Stroll which takes place on the last Friday of the event.

7. Wet ‘N Wild

Orlando’s most exciting water park and one of the biggest and best water parks in the United States, Wet ‘N Wild offers an impressive collection of world-class rides and signature slides, with pools that are heated seasonally during cooler weather.

Situated on International Drive, Wet ‘N Wild opened in 1977 and has a wide collection of intense rides and slides including bowl rides, tube slides, body slides, speed slides, lazy river, wave pool, interactive water play structure and activity pool.

True to its name, the park places emphasis on wild thrills, the most intense ride being The Bomb Bay. This ride allows you to enter into a bomb-like capsule and feel the floor drop from underneath you as you embark on a heart-stopping plunge down a 76-foot high, almost vertical slide.

While other water parks have since copied the concept, Wet ‘N Wild was among the first to place riders inside a capsule with a trap door that releases them into a water slide. The anticipation helps spike your adrenalin to frenetic levels, and once the Bomb Bay opens the 76-foot almost 90 degree freefall makes for a very explosive ride.

Der Stuka is another speed slide that also ranks high on the thrill scale with its almost vertical drop of 60 feet. Der Stuka is a 6-story speed slide which allows you to free-fall down a 250-foot slide, gliding to a stop along the water runway of 115-feet.

In The Storm, passengers are sent swirling around before they flush you out the bottom. A single rider enters the open bowl of The Storm without a raft or tube. After navigating a few revolutions, they are unceremoniously dumped 3 feet down into a splash pool. The ride lets you attain maximum speed as you drop from an elevated chute into a giant open bowl in which you spin in circles before a splash landing.

Disco H20 propels 4-person cloverleaf tubes into a closed bowl that incorporates disco-era music and dancing lights. Enjoy the groovy sound of the 70s accompanying you on the thrilling ride.

Other notable thrill rides include the Brain Wash, an enclosed funnel ride that is decked out in trippy colors, and The Black Hole, a long 2-person raft ride in a dark, enclosed tube which includes bursts of color and sound. Brain Wash takes you to the extreme and all you have to do is hold on to your 2-4 person tube for a wild ride into a 65-foot domed funnel with a 53-foot vertical drop.

The Black Hole: The Next Generation offers an experience with its explosion of pulsating lights, cosmic energy and dynamic effects. Hold on as your 2-person hydra capsule is blasted off to new thrills that are out of this world. The space adventure is programmed especially for you, thereby enabling you to enjoy different and unique experiences with every journey.

Mach 5 lets you choose from 3 different flumes that total 1,700 feet, and which twist and turn over different thrilling courses only to end up in a sudden splash. The Flyer is a 4-passenger, adventure ride through 450-feet of exciting, banked curves. The Surge lets you experience an exhilarating, 5-passenger tube ride down 5 stories through nearly 600 feet of twisting and turning banked curves.

Wet ‘N Wild also features the Wake Zone, a unique area that opens from May to September. The Wake Zone features Knee Ski, a cable-operated ski that allows you to kneeboard like a pro around a half-mile long lake. In the Wild One, 2 people are simultaneously towed around the lake on big, bouncy tubes for a wild ride.

Wet ‘N Wild isn’t only for children. Adults can also visit the water park and be a kid again, if only for a day. Try out The Surf Lagoon wave pool, which is one of the park’s most popular adult rides.

But don’t worry if slippery flume rides and water adventure is not your style. You can instead enjoy a leisurely trip under the sun down the Lazy River, a gently flowing stream that takes you on a nostalgic leisurely trip past enchanting waterfalls, rustic billboards and replicas of old Florida boat docks.

Alternatively, you can simply lounge under an umbrella sipping on a cold drink as you watch other visitors get wet and go wild. This is because Wet ‘N Wild also offers a wide selection of food and beverages. There is also a gift shop on the grounds with a selection of sun care, souvenirs and gift items.

8. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

The best place in Florida to see manatees, the fascinating shy creatures also known as sea cows, is at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is a small reserve situated near the town of Crystal River. The refuge has 20 islands in the Kings Bay area that provide a critically important habitat for 25% of the endangered Florida manatee population.

Manatees are water-dwelling, but air-breathing mammals related to the elephant that can grow up to twelve feet long, and weigh up to 3500 pounds. They require an undisturbed habitat and are extremely vulnerable to injuries sustained by motorboats. Manatees need warm water as they are unable to survive in temperatures below 68 degrees.

Once common throughout Florida, their numbers dropped in the Sixties due to the construction boom. Crystal River NWR is today the only refuge specifically created for the protection of the endangered Florida manatee.

The best time to see the manatees at the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge is from December to March when the weather is coolest and the manatees seek the warm water springs of Kings Bay.

To see the manatees, you will need to book a guided manatee snorkel tour at one of the numerous dive shops in Crystal River town. The refuge can only be accessed via boat. Visitors can even get into the water and swim with the manatees.

9. Clearwater Beach

Situated two hours from Orlando, the Clearwater Beach boasts miles of beaches, fun boat outings and sightseeing opportunities. Voted the best beach in Florida, Clearwater offers a mile of white, soft sand with plenty of recreational opportunities.

Lay back and enjoy the beach and the waves from the Gulf of Mexico. Quietly absorb the warm sand, gentle breeze and tranquil sounds of the waves. Fly kites or play volleyball. Visitors to Clearwater Beach can also go on a boat outing to a quiet island. Also visit the Sun coast Seabird Sanctuary, a fun outing that features the viewing of hundreds of rescued birds.

Then at sunset, listen out for the sounds of the crafters who blow conch shells as part of a Florida tradition.

One of the main draws of Clearwater Beach is its stunning sunset that can be enjoyed at Pier 60. Pier 60 is a concrete pier jutting into the Gulf, which is also the centerpiece of Clearwater Beach. The Pier offers a beautiful sweep of the sand, and a long pier to walk out on, not to mention the fun Sunset Festival complete with street performers, musicians, clowns, jugglers, face painting and artisans.

Browse the stands set up by 60 craft vendors selling a range of locally made items such as watercolor paintings and photos of beach scenes, candles, soap, jewelry, and other goods made from beads, leather, stamps, metal and more. Close to the Pier entrance, artists etch portraits of customers in charcoal as well as offer tattoos.

Adding to the appeal of Pier 60 are the adjacent beach front park and its amenities of pavilions and winding walkways among others. To add to the festive atmosphere, live bands play popular music underneath the pavilions, while a massive sand sculpture of a turtle draws a steady crowd. Join in on this daily celebration with several hundred other people who stroll along Pier 60 every night.

Held every night from two hours before to two hours after sunset, the Sunset Festival is a celebration for everyone which provides the perfect end to a busy day of sightseeing. Experience the Sunset Festival just once and you will want to return night after night for the irresistible beautiful sunset and fun festival all rolled into one.

While at Clearwater Beach, take a detour to St. Pete which offers several sightseeing museums, including the waterfront Salvador Dali Museum which houses the collection of one of the most unusual and best-known artists of the 20th century.

This is a great opportunity to see Salvador Dali’s giant surrealist canvases which are certain to impress. Dali’s masterworks include Hallucinogenic Toreador, which was inspired by a box of Venus de Milo colored pencils. The repeated figures of the goddess Venus are also repeated faces of a toreador.

Visitors can also enjoy his double-image visual tricks: look at a picture one way and you will see 2 ladies in long dresses; blink and you will instead see the head of a philosopher! His surreal melted watches, a signature Dali image, are also certain to impress. Because Dali’s canvases have visual tricks all over, you may want to take a guided tour in order to learn what to discover and look for in the giant paintings.

The museum houses the world’s best collection of the works of Dali, and the largest Dali collection outside of Spain. Also visit the unique museum gift shop where you can purchase souvenirs and gift items.

10. Walt Disney World

Visitors constantly marvel at the incredible size of Disney World. Situated on a property of approximately 40 square miles, Disney offers world-class entertainment and recreation center that incorporates 4 theme parks, 2 water adventure parks, 34 resort hotels, 81 holes of golf on 5 courses, a Wedding Pavilion, the Wide World of Sports Complex and Downtown Disney’s entertainment-shopping-dining complex.

Situated in Lake Buena Vista, Disney World was opened in Orlando in 1971.

When most adults think of Disney World, the first thing that comes to mind are Mickey Mouse, screaming kids, long waiting lines, thrilling rollercoaster rides and crazy theme park fun. But there’s more to Disney World than its theme parks.

The Walt Disney center also hosts the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. Here you can expect to witness a riot of color from the manicured shapes of famous Disney characters in the backdrop of pink geraniums, violet petunias, white poppies, blue delphiniums and pansies.

Thirty million blooms; 700 container gardens of flowers, vegetables, herbs and other plants; 240 floating mini-gardens on 2 ponds; 30 flower towers of impatiens and sweeping beds of original floral designs create a tapestry of brilliant color.

The festival lasts 75 days and involves the changing of flowers depending on the season. Visitors can also get into daily workshops and create projects that they can take home at the end of the day.

Stop and smell the roses at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. Here you can admire hundreds of different rose varieties that showcase an array of vibrant colors and sweet aromas. Throughout the beds of roses, there are signs detailing the history of roses throughout the centuries.

Take a stroll along Rose Walk which overflows with gorgeous roses of all varieties. Visitors are guaranteed the best blooms and the biggest splashes of color with the 10,000 plus rose plants on display.

While at Disney World, also visit the annual Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. One of the nation’s top food and wine events, the festival features over 25 regional and ethnic marketplaces, all of which offer new flavors and aromas in a showcase representing the world.

Highlights include vegan cuisine, and gourmet chocolate by Ghirardelli, as well as culinary demonstrations by renowned chefs, who also host dinners and tasting events.

Also attend the Festival of the Masters, an event in which over 150 artisans converge to display their original creations. Here you can indulge your senses in paintings, photography, digital art, sculpture, jewelry and glass. Street painters also decorate large sections of the sidewalk in unique drawings. There is also live music.

Every November in the lakeside setting of Downtown Disney, the annual event features artists who have earned a primary award at a juried art festival within the previous 3 years. This ensures that visitors will be treated to one of the nation’s finest collections of art.