The Fodor's Five

The five things you need to know before traveling to Orlando

# 1

Venturing beyond the theme parks? You’ll want to rent a car.

    If you’re planning to check out Orlando beyond its famous theme parks–which we definitely recommend doing since the city is full of surprises that have nothing to do with one particular mouse–you’re going to want to book a rental car to make it easy and efficient to get around. Downtown Orlando, with its boutique shopping and international restaurant scene, is a solid 20-mile drive from the Magic Kingdom. And the beaches are even farther afield. Having your own car is hands down the best way to set out exploring in this diverse part of the state.

    # 2

    There’s more to eat than Turkey Legs and Butter Beer.

    The theme parks might be to thank for originally attracting some of the biggest names in the restaurant world to Orlando. But today, the city’s dining scene–which includes four Michelin-starred restaurants as of 2023–is making waves in every culinary category, from fine dining spots at glitzy hotels to hole-in-the-wall gourmet neighborhood pizzerias and incredible omakase and southeast Asian options.

    # 3

    Downtown Orlando and the surrounding neighborhoods are a world apart from the parks

    It might come as a shock that regular people actually live and move to Orlando while having nothing to do with Disney, Universal, or SeaWorld. But a tour of Orlando’s buzzy and youthful neighborhoods–Thornton Park, Winter Park, and College Park, for starters–will have you basking in pedestrian-friendly shopping restaurants, lively brunch scenes, European-style cafes, and glorious city parks ideal for picnicking or browsing a weekend market.

    # 4

    It’s worth driving to the beach for surf and rocket launches.

    Orlando can make all kinds of vacation dreams come true–but basking on an Atlantic Ocean or Gulf of Mexico beach is not one of them, considering the Central Florida city is a waypoint between the two coasts. That said, it’s just a 45-minute drive east of Orlando to reach the nearest stretch of golden sand at Cocoa Beach, where surfing-pro Kelly Slater came up riding mellow waves and you can often spot commercial rockets launching into the sky from launch sites at nearby Cape Canaveral.

    # 5

    The city’s surrounding nature is a real surprise.

    For all the fantasy fun that awaits at Orlando’s theme parks, the city offers some surprisingly accessible ways to get out and enjoy Florida’s great outdoors. You can ogle manatees at a crystal clear natural spring; paddle a kayak or canoe in a river home to alligators, turtles, and prehistoric-looking alligator gar fish; or hit the beach to see bioluminescence and nesting sea turtles lumber ashore to lay their eggs during guided ranger walks in the summer months.

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