Think this theme park destination is just for those on holiday with children? Think again, this city has a wealth of upmarket experiences .
High-end restaurants and shops, luxury hotels and a world-class museum of Tiffany treasures are among the many reasons that Orlando, Florida is not just for the kids.
I’ve been traveling to this central Florida destination since my own children were youngsters, now with families of their own, and it is always exciting, fun with new things to discover every time.
My latest trip to the ‘theme park capital of the world’ earlier this year proved to be a true eye-opener of what the city has to offer beyond the parks. That is not to say that Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and SeaWorld as well as other attractions are not high on any grown-up’s agenda for their stay here, but luxury, relaxing Orlando beckons too.
In just a few days my husband and I had a chance to sample what many never see, but should definitely explore on their next trip.
Walt Disney World Swan Reserve, Epcot and Hollywood Studios
While neither of us are fans of big rides, we both love being in the parks and soaking up the atmosphere, especially as Walt Disney World celebrates its 50th anniversary. I’ll admit to almost shedding a tear (of joy) on a return earlier this year to Walt’s wonderland after the misery of the pandemic kept us all from traveling for so long.
We stayed in a new and stylish hotel – the Swan Reserve – a mere walk from both Epcot and Hollywood Studios. The Reserve brings a third offering to the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin collection of hotels, part of the Marriott Autograph Collection. As guests at the Reserve we could also use the facilities at the other two hotels, including the fabulous Shula’s Steak House. From our stylish room we looked down on the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in Hollywood Studios and the swimming pool.
Very conveniently, you can be picked up by boat just steps from the hotel to be taken to the entry gates of both Epcot or Hollywood Studios.
The former was our first adventure. If there is one park that is more ‘grown up’ this is it. We set out early to beat the crowds and, thanks to our fantastic Disney Experience app were able to reserve ride times and even book restaurants to make our day go smoothly. I was immensely impressed with the app and opted for the Disney Genie+ option for a small fee with the chance to book Lightning Lane (quicker access) entry times at certain rides. For those who have never been to Walt Disney World, I can advise that the sheer avalanche of choices to make can be daunting and mind-boggling. This app made it so much easier, anticipating our needs and preferences, previewing wait times at each ride and much more. My tip, however, is to get everything sorted as early as you can – to, as they say – avoid disappointment. You are, after all, competing with the world to try those experiences!
We’d booked a ride on Soarin’ which is a virtual reality ‘flyover’ of some of the world’s beauty spots and one of my favourite experiences. My watery eyes were testament to how much I loved it.
Epcot is all about connecting with the world with sections on the Land and Sea and through the ages, into the future and into space. The World Showcase is set around a central lake with an imaginative representation of 11 countries – Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Norway, the United Kingdom and America.
There are representative experiences, places to eat and shops in each. The Yorkshire County Fish Shop in the UK area is highly rated and there’s a pub too, but we also loved the food in ‘Japan’ at Teppan Edo, where you can watch chefs freshly prepare and cook your food in front of you. Try to time your (booked) meal to catch a spectacular Taiko drumming exhibition outside.
At the time we visited, the International Flower and Garden Festival was in full bloom. Topiary art displays across Epcot showcase all the Disney characters and there are special floral touches everywhere as well as pop-up food outlets as you wander around the park. Ending the day is always spectacular here with fantastic music and light shows. We had experienced the world and the universe in microcosm in just a day.
Our single-day Park Hopper tickets then allowed us to transfer to Hollywood Studios at 2pm by boat, where we could indulge in everything Star Wars and movie-related. A favourite here is the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, an hour-long action-packed stunt show and a great place to hide from the heat of the sun and sit down! The shop near the park entrance is awesome and I couldn’t resist buying a Frozen-themed gift for my youngest granddaughter. It’s hard not to break the bank with all the goodies on sale.
Exhausting, yes, amazing, certainly. We just touched the edges of everything on offer here, in fact, you could write a book about Walt Disney World delights, and many have, (more of that later), but it had been totally MAGIC to be back!
Standard rooms at the Swan Reserve start at around £250.
After an approximately 45-minute drive out of Orlando, this safari-style experience is fun and also gives you a glimpse of the real Florida, its lakes and wildlife. There are 100 native and exotic species to see, including alligators as you take an airboat ride across the water before taking the drive-thru safari. We only managed a glimpse of a baby gator during our airboat ride, but in the Gator Park at feeding time you can watch huge creatures leap from the water to grab their meat meals and watch the handlers get up close to these monsters. Also see sloths, lemurs, bobcats and other creatures on a leisurely walk around before taking the Drive Thru Safari. We felt this attraction was extremely well set out with a lot to see and do, and my particular highlight was feeding a giraffe at the end of the trail. Excellent and recommended.
Winter Park and the Alfond Inn
Winter Park, known as The City of Culture and Heritage, is where many wealthy Floridians came to make their home in the late 19th century and still do today.
The charming neighbourhood with cobbled streets, main street Park Avenue and even its own Central Park has a refined feel with Spanish-style architecture.
For visitors the best place to lay your head is the Alfond Inn just off the trendy Park Avenue where you’ll find all the top-notch shops and eateries.
The profits from this superb boutique hotel help to endow Alfond Scholars at local Rollins College and its collection of contemporary art gives the hotel its unique atmosphere.
Just a short walk from here you can take an hour-long scenic boat ride around Lake Osceola and two other lakes.
Winter Park is Central Florida’s oldest community, originally founded by wealthy Easterners in the 1800s. Now the huge mansions around the lakes house the rich, and sometimes famous (Tiger Woods once lived here). Sweeping lawns reach down to the water as our captain navigated the narrow canals between lakes that once were used to transport timber. It was like traversing little jungle areas as the familiar Spanish moss drooped down from the tree branches above us.
Following this treat, another highlight for me was a return visit to The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Park Avenue. This houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of the works of Louis Comfort Tiffany. There is much more than lamps here. It is fascinating to learn about his life and work. The museum was founded by the granddaughter of Chicago industrialist and Winter Park philanthropist Charles Hosmer Morse – Jeannette Genius McKean. She and her husband Hugh added to the collection over many years. It includes Tiffany jewelry, pottery, paintings, art glass, windows, lamps and an elaborate chapel interior created for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.
A recent expansion has galleries that feature the fully restored Daffodil Terrace from Tiffany’s Long Island home, Laurelton Hall, and leaded-glass windows and iconic Tiffany lamps as well as art glass and custom furnishings. A treat for the eyes.
Step out of the museum to any one of a number of beautiful restaurants along Park Avenue for lunch or dinner. We chose Prato, a stylish Italian eaterie. It has a great rustic look and, as always in the US, attentive service. Also try The Wine Room for a tasting experience.
Then it was on to the second of our fascinating museum tours at the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens. This was the lovely, although quirky, home of the renowned Czech sculptor. The house is on the National Register of Historic Places. Our guided tour was fun and informative and a wander around the three-acre gardens that go down to the lake was restful.
It was just a two-minute walk back to the Alfond Inn and the welcome cool of a dip in the stunning rooftop swimming pool followed by a meal at the hotel’s Hamiltons restaurant.
Who needs LA when you have luxury Orlando fit for the most discerning adult outing!
A night’s stay at the Alfond Inn is from £200 per room.
The Orange County Regional History Center based in a restored 1927 courthouse in Downtown Orlando. Again, we found this well set-out space easy to follow and very informative from prehistoric days, through to Indian lifestyle, pioneering days of the ranching cowmen (not cowboys, that’s for Texas) and its present incarnation as a theme park heaven.
Orlando’s historic downtown has dining, nightlife, arts and entertainment, all within 20 minutes from the heart of International Drive.
On a previous visit we chanted and cheered our way through a basketball game at the Amway Center home to the NBA’s Orlando Magic. A great experience. ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears
Exploria Stadium hosts MLS’ Orlando City Soccer Club and NWSL’s Orlando Pride
Camping World Stadium is the source for hard-hitting NCAA football action and national concert tours. You can also catch shows and concerts at the Dr. Phillips Center.
Find out everything you need to know about a visit to Orlando at www.visitorlando.com
Call our Silver Travel Advisors to get further information, receive a quote and book a trip: call 0800 412 5678.
Wonderful article Ruth. Would love to introduce you to Hannibal Square, our gem and also a historical area in Winter Park. Please do look us up when next visiting Orlando.
Thank you for your message. I will certainly research on my next visit.
Rollins was one of the best decisions I ever made! Park Ave is the perfect compliment… I’d do it again in a minute …