Photograph by Sean Pavone, Alamy Stock Photo
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Eola Lake is a hallmark of Orlando's iconic downtown.

Photograph by Sean Pavone, Alamy Stock Photo

Everything to Know About Orlando

This fast-growing city has more than just theme parks.

Orlando is young, upbeat and friendly, where a large percentage of the residents relocated from somewhere else. Families, urban hipsters, members of the LGBT community, middle management types and the super-wealthy, including big-name athletes, live in a patchwork of urban and suburban communities, some gated. The theme parks bring in creative types likeactors and singers who freelance after hours; as a result, Orlando offers many affordable ways to take in the arts.

When to Go

Winter is best – specifically November through February, since even the coldest mornings bloom into glorious afternoons. Orlando is offputtingly hot and humid the rest of the year, with torrential downpours and lightning daily in June and July. The theme parks are extra crowded during school vacations, so plan trips for between-times when possible. The weeks after Thanksgiving but before Christmas are ideal.

How to Celebrate

Orlando is event-happy on weekends from October through March, but the big-name draws are the 14-day Orlando Fringe festival in May, loaded with short, inexpensive and often experimental plays, and the juried Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival in March. The semi-annual Silver Spurs Rodeo, the East Coast’s largest, is a true cowboy classic. At Disney World, Epcot’s multiweek autumn International Food & Wine Festival and spring Flower & Garden Festival are destination-worthy.

What to Eat

Perhaps because its population is a mish-mosh from other markets, Orlando has never had a signature dish or even one iconic ingredient – despite the county’s name, Orange. That’s in the process of changing, as in 2017 the tourism folks and the county’s mayor teamed with local chefs to create a specialty item. The newly created staple-in-the-making will be some sort of dessert made with honey.

What to Take Home

Visitors can load up on artfully designed paper products, creative jams and crates of Honeybells raised in local groves, but, honestly, a mouse-ears hat is the single item that distinctly says Orlando. The head-toppers aren’t merely the simple black skullcaps with twin plastic Mickey ears and embroidered names that many remember from childhood days. Today Disney World’s hat shops vend a constantly updated line of wildly creative versions as well.

Sustainable Travel Tip

The Orlando metro area is spread out among several large counties, yet, other than the underused Lynx/Lymmo bus system, had little in the way of public transportation until recently. Now visitors can shuttle to and from Downtown Orlando from outer areas via a light rail system called SunRail, which debuted in 2014 and runs during peak times. Within the next few years, Florida’s new Brightline train service should offer service from Orlando International Airport to points south, and a Maglev magnetic train might link the International Drive area to the airport.

Instagram-Worthy View

A snapshot of Downtown Orlando’s Lake Eola will show friends that you’re in the heart of town. At the center is the modest green fountain, also known as the Centennial or Linton E. Allen Memorial Fountain. It was refurbished in 2011 and changes colors at night; its likeness is the crux of Orlando’s flag, introduced in 2017. Sharing the lake are swan-shaped pedal boats and plenty of live swans. The Walt Disney Amphitheater is at one end, and skyline views add panache – especially at sunset.