If you're from Orlando, you know to stay away from Osceola Parkway and International Drive almost the entire year. I-4 is a never-ending nightmare, and you're well aware if you work anywhere in the downtown area, expect standstill traffic before heading into your office's parking garage. Orlando may seem like a theme park heaven for tourists, but for residents it's just another day in "paradise." However, if you are a local and still find the joy in wearing Minnie Mouse ears, drinking frozen Butter Beer, riding one of the world's tallest Ferris wheels, and eating delicious food (we all do), keep reading to see how you can make the most out of the city you and stray alligators call home.
I will admit, this post is pretty long, so if you want to keep skip through to a specific section, just click on the links below to jump to it. No, don't worry, you won't hurt my feelings if you don't want to read the entire thing.
One of the most asked questions Orlando locals get asked is, "do you go to such and such theme park every weekend?" More likely than not, the answer is no. It doesn't mean, however, that we don't like to drink around the world in matching t-shirts and ride a tall, red rollercoaster while listening to a song we chose on an outdated playlist from 2007. As a local, one must know how to maneuver their way through the year-round crowds. There are classified files on this, and once deemed a true Orlando native, access will be granted. Luckily for you, I will grant you access without seeing such credentials.
Before I bestow my wisdom upon the world, or at least upon readers of this article, let's go over all of the theme parks and waterparks Orlando has to offer:
It's a decent-sized list, and this doesn't even include what resorts themselves have to offer. Even as a local, choosing a theme park to enjoy with friends and family can be overwhelming, but once you learn about the tricks, it'll be easier than sitting on a boat and singing along to "It's a Small World." FYI, when it comes to theme park tips, I'll mainly be using the two giants as examples. However, these tips work for all of Orlando's theme parks across the board.
The top three secrets of enjoying Orlando's theme parks are knowing when to go, how to map out the park, and what to bring to save money. I know these all sound like no-brainers, but there's more to it than just faith, trust, and pixie dust.
Out of the top three secrets, this one is probably the most obvious, but it's definitely the most important. Whether it's going to theme parks or planning any other vacation, the best times to go are during off or low seasons. For Orlando theme parks, off or low seasons are the:
- - second week of January-early March
- - late August-September
- - weekdays in October
- - weekdays in November with the exception of the week of Thanksgiving
- - first two weeks of December
January-early March is the beginning of the year and children are back in school after a holiday break. Late August-September is also a good time because children are starting a new school year, and weekdays in October and November aren't so bad because travelers and tourists are either waiting for Thanksgiving and the December holidays to arrive. Keep in mind, however, these theme parks know how to reel us in and offer amazing Florida resident discount prices during peak travel times. For example, Disney World offers 3 and 4-day Discover Disney tickets from January until the end of June. Each theme park admission ticket comes out to either less than $49 or $59 per day and some Walt Disney World resort hotels are 25% off. Universal Orlando Resort offers 2 days free with a 2-day ticket purchase and hotel discounts as well.
Another aspect to keep in mind is Mother Nature. We all know Florida is notorious for inconsistent weather patterns and erroneous forecasts, so it's always best to come prepared for either rain or sunshine. In regard to the off-season months, the rainy ones include August through October. Aside from these minor setbacks, visiting theme parks during low or off-seasons will make the experience that much more enjoyable.
How to Map Out a Park
Out of the three tips, this one right here is the secret sauce. Theme parks are wonderous places with many attractions, live entertainment, parades, shows, endless food and snack options, and characters we've grown fond of since we were children. There's so much to do and so much to see, that sometimes we miss out on some of our favorite things when we visit a theme park. So many factors can play into this: crowds and long lines, bad weather, a ride closed for renovations, and the list could go on. To try to make the most of these circumstances or to avoid them altogether, the best recommendation is definitely to map out the park and prioritize your favorite things to do.
As a kid, I remember the first thing I would do as soon as I scanned my ticket and passed through the turnstiles was run to a greeter, grab a map, open it and see all the colorful lands and numbered rides. It was a lot to take in and I would just want to bolt to the closest ride possible; it didn't matter what ride it was as long as I was on one within two minutes of my arrival. However, now that I'm an adult and with the technological advancements since my childhood, maneuvering around a park is much easier and time saving. Both Disney World and Universal Orlando have apps that provide interactive maps, live updated wait times for rides, show times, and much more.
On Disney World's app, you can even order food ahead of time, reserve a table at the finer dining restaurants, and choose three fast passes per each park visit. So my first piece of advice when it comes to mapping out the park is to plan the rest of your day around your fast passes. If you have a fast pass at 11:30am in one corner of the park (remember that you have exactly one hour from your start time to use your fast pass), try to stay in the same area and enjoy all the attractions you want there before moving on to another section. And speaking of Disney World fast passes, BOOK THEM EARLY. They will run out of time slots and you will be upset. Trust me, I've been there many times, especially when it comes to the newer rides (aka the updated Soarin' at Epcot, goodbye to those two and a half hours I'll never get back). As for Universal Orlando Resort, these fast passes are sold separately, in either a one-time use per ride pass or unlimited uses per ride pass, and both passes apply to almost all of the rides throughout the entire resort. In short, if you're a frequent theme park visiting local, it's definitely worth it to get fast passes, especially if you're an annual pass holder.
Another piece of advice when it comes to mapping out the parks: get there right when the park opens and run to the newest ride(s). There's a 50/50 chance most people will have this idea but it's much better to get there early and get the newest attractions out of the way. You won't wait long, and you'll have almost the entire day to enjoy the rest of the park. Sounds like a no-brainer to me!
I'll leave you with two more quick tips on how to maneuver the parks. The first: go during parade times. Do this especially at Magic Kingdom and take advantage of Fantasy Land. A lot of children will want to watch the parade and Fantasy Land has the most rides in a condensed area. The same concept applies at night during the fireworks shows. The last but definitely not least tip: use the single rider line, especially on rides such as Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit Roller Coaster, the Hulk, and Test Track. You'll thank me later.
What to Bring to Save Money
Now I know this seems like another obvious suggestion, but you'd be surprised at how many items you can bring with you inside the park to save yourself some money. Even as locals, saving money while going to theme parks is just as important. What a lot of people don't know is that the list of items you can bring inside with you is pretty extensive. Below are items allowed at both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando resorts:
- - Bottled water
- - Snacks
- - Food that doesn't require heating
- - Food required for special dietary needs or medical reasons
- - Baby food/formula
Bringing your own water and snacks can easily save you around $20-$30 depending on how much you eat throughout the day. I'm a huge foodie, so I'm constantly buying snacks such as Mickey pretzels, churros, and we can't forget about the turkey legs. I know bringing your own snacks isn't the same experience as eating theme park-tailored treats, but if you're looking to cut corners and save some money, this is the surefire way to do so. To learn more about what you can and can't bring to either resort, click here for Disney and here for Universal.
If you've made it this far, congratulations! You can now call yourself a theme park pro and conquer the lands. On a serious note, I hope these tips help and you can enjoy the most out of all the theme parks.
Other Fun Things to Do in Orlando
Now aside from theme parks, Orlando has many other fun things to do. As a local in any city, it's always exciting to explore and discover new forms of entertainment. So, if you want to learn more about that, keep reading and hopefully I can provide some enlightening information.
1. For the Competitive Friend: Mini Golf
If you weren't aware, Florida is the golf capital of the world. There are over 1,250 golf courses around Florida, including 26 in Orlando and another 44 within 20 miles of the city. Golf is really popular here because of the overall year-round good climate and flatlands. It's a game of skill and focus, but a long time ago, someone who perhaps wasn't too fond of giant golf courses but liked the idea of hitting a ball with a club created mini golf. Thanks to them, there are over 15 mini golf courses in Orlando, all with their unique themes and quirky add-ons. Some of the top mini-golf courses include: Pirate's Cove, Congo River Adventure Golf, and Hollywood Drive-In Golf. Mini-golf is fun, inexpensive, and since there are so many options to choose from, the crowds aren't that bad.
2. For the Nature Lover: Hiking, Going Green, Farmers Markets, and Rivers
Believe it or not, Orlando is very outdoorsy. There is so much to do to enjoy the outdoors, including nature preserves and trails, botanical gardens, springs and rivers, and farmers markets. One of the largest nature preserves is the Tibet-Butler Nature Preserve. Consisting of 440 acres, this preserve has six trails ranging from half a mile to four miles, local wildlife, and picnic area. To learn more about Tibet-Butler Nature Preserve,click here.
There's also the Harry P. Leu Botanical Garden. This place is absolutely beautiful and a perfect spot to take a nice stroll with your beau after a nice Sunday brunch. Open all year round, the garden is 50 acres and has more than 1,000 rose bushes, a museum, and geocaching. The garden can also be rented out for weddings. To learn more about this magical garden, click here.
Orlando's also known for its abundance in rivers, creeks, ponds, and springs. The top springs around Orlando and Central Florida include: Rainbow Springs, Silver Glen Springs, Alexander Spring, and Wekiwa Springs. Most springs include kayaking, snorkeling, and hiking trails. Click here to see a list of 27 springs within driving distance of Orlando.
3. For the Party Animal: Downtown Orlando, Bar Hopping, and Breweries
If you're in the mood to party and dance all night, then downtown Orlando is the way to go. There are tons of bars all walking distance from each other. In between Washington and Church St and Magnolia and Orange Ave, there is a plethora of bars and nightclubs to choose from, including Bullitt Bar, Downtown PourHouse, Bar B, Magnolia, Chillers, and Tier Nightclub. Wall Street Plaza is also really popular among us locals because it is a pedestrian-friendly block in which there are seven bars right next to each other. They are all different but somehow manage to work in perfect harmony. Downtown Orlando has something for everybody which is what makes it so fun and exciting.
Where to Eat: Orlando's Restaurant Guide
I am truly impressed and flattered if you've made it this far. And if you used the link to skip ahead, that's okay too because honestly, I saved the best part for last. This part is for locals who are tired of seeing chain restaurants all down I-Drive and off the expressway exits. This list is for true foodies who want to try something new, fresh, and different. I will break this list down by cuisine and try to name my favorite dish from there:
Italian: Il Pescatore and Prato
I couldn't pick just one for my favorite cuisine, so I'll enlighten you with two completely different Italian themed restaurants. When I think of an Italian restaurant, I think of an old school mom n' pop Italian joint with red vinyl seats, paper menus, and a mural of Venice painted somewhere on the wall and has been in business for over 20 years. Il Pescatore is exactly that. This family-owned establishment has stolen the hearts and bellies of locals for 35 years. Do yourself a favor and get the lasagna. Traditional, hearty, and extra cheesy. What more can you ask for?
If you want something more on the modern side, Prato is the way to go. It's the perfect mix of upscale and casual, and their dishes are classic Italian with a contemporary twist. My go-to here is definitely the roasted garlic campanelle. A simple Italian dish yet so delicious. Prato is my go-to date night spot when I'm in the mood for Italian. Exposed brick walls, dim recess lighting, and a large hanging center bar gives the place a Brooklyn vibe.
Sushi: Wave Asian Bistro & Sushi
Ever heard of sushi burritos, sushi pizza, and sushi burgers? Well, now you have. Wave has come up with ways to twist some of our favorite foods and create them with sushi ingredients. They've even made a sushi hotdog. Yes, a sushi hotdog. Aside from these creative dishes, Wave also has classic rolls and poke bowls. My best suggestion is to go here with a group of friends and order one of each because everything is worth trying. Words don't do this place justice so here's their Instagram account so you can take a look for yourself. Have a napkin ready to clean your drool.
I like to think of Domu as the perfect GNO restaurant. With tons of small plates to share and a modern, chic ambiance, Domu is a great place for a group of friends to start the night off. I would order anything and everything from the plates section of the menu, and my favorite drunk is the Tikked Mule. However, Domu has been recognized numerous times for their ramen. Don't sleep on their ramen.
Indian, Thai, and Chinese: Tabla
I know I said I wanted to stay away from I-Drive and all its tourists, but Tabla is definitely worth the hassle. Tabla is my go-to spot because it has the most authentic Indian, Chinese, and Thai cuisine all under one roof. It's a great spot because there is literally something on the menu for everybody. So whether you go with friends, family, your significant other, or just want to pig out by yourself at their $9.99 lunch buffet, Tabla's got options for days. If I were you, I would go three separate times just to try each cuisine on its own. Find your eclectic cuisine buddy and go!
Mexican: El Pueblo
Ah, good old Mexican food. This cuisine is tough to nail because there's the constant battle of whether Tex-Mex cuisine should be considered traditional Mexican, and the truth is, most Mexican restaurants are Tex-Mex, and since most of us has been raised by this our whole lives, we haven't yet encountered a truly authentic Mexican restaurant. Well, I've come to tell you that I've embarked on a long journey filled with tacos and margaritas and I've finally found the holy grail of Mexican food. El Pueblo Mexican Restaurant is as authentic as it gets. As you might have guessed, I 100% recommend getting a sampler of tacos, you won't regret it.
American: Ravenous Pig
Sometimes, the heart wants what it wants and that's American gastropub cuisine. With over 1,000 reviews on Yelp, Ravenous Pig definitely goes unnoticed as one of Orlando's best American restaurants. If you like short rib brisket, get the ravenous pub burger. If you're a true Floridian, get the smoked gator ribs. So. Good. Their happy hour is also a must go-to with $4 beers, $5 cocktails, and delicious bar bites.
Steakhouse: Christner's Prime Steak & Lobster
If you're looking for a delicious steakhouse to celebrate a job promotion, an anniversary, a birthday, or if you're just in the mood to eat a delicious steak, then Christner's is the way to go. With over 4,500 bottles to choose from to pair with your meal, Christner's has mastered the art of grilling steak with 25 years of expertise under their belt.
Seafood: Winter Park Fish Co.
Winter Park Fish Co. has all the seafood classics, from fried jumbo shrimp to lumpy crab cakes to po boys. It's a dedicated seafood joint and will leave you full and ready to come back for more. My go-to here: the shrimp and grits. Might have to order myself a plate right now.
Vegan: Dandelion Community Cafe
I'm not vegan but I do enjoy a delicious plant-based meal from time to time. Dandelion Community Cafe is a cute and quaint beach cottage transformed into a restaurant and 100% plant-based. The outdoor patio seating is perfect for those sunny and 75 Orlando days, and their menu is very extensive. I usually like to make my own wrap or bowl and pair it with a cup of soup of the day.
Last but definitely not least, brunch. Who doesn't love brunch? Even if you don't like waking up early, you can still enjoy breakfast food at lunch time. Sounds like a win-win to me. Briarpatch offers an extensive breakfast and lunch menu, ranging from raspberry lemon pancakes (yes, please) to a three cheese bacon grill and tomato sandwich (double yes). I will say this one time and one time only: come hungry.
I Bid Thee Farewell
Well, there you have it. This is probably the longest Orlando Locals Guide ever written (yes, I'm self-proclaiming this), but if you enjoyed reading what I had to say then I'm very glad and I hope you took some helpful information away with you. If you have any more suggestions or would like to tell me about your experiences, email me at @. I'd love to hear from you!