A trip to Disney is a childhood rite of passage for many – but it can also strain the pocketbooks, as well. But Orlando doesn’t have to be synonymous with Disney (or Universal Studios, for that matter). There are plenty of ways to enjoy this great city full of Florida sunshine, whether you’re taking a breather from the parks for a day or don’t plan to visit at all!
The main airport is the Orlando International Airport (MCO). Located just six miles from the center of the city, if you plan to stay in the thick of it all, the good news is that once you land there’s not much of a commute. Keep in mind this is one of the busiest airports in the country, so expect some traffic in the area.
Traveling tip: If you are staying at a Disney or Universal Studios hotel/resort, both properties offer direct transportation buses/shuttles from the airport to your destination. Disney does plan to discontinue this shuttle service in 2022 as they complete a high-speed railway from the airport to their property. In fact, many of the hotels here offer some form of shuttle service – check ahead and calculate that into your trip if you don’t plan on renting a car!
Where to stay
Going to one of the top tourist destinations in the world means you can generally find a good deal on rooms. Unfortunately, traveling with the family and children still in school will mean you’re also contending with everyone else who also is traveling during school breaks and summer vacations – times when demand and prices go up. (Depending on the age of your children and their schedules, traveling during the “off seasons” can save a lot of money alone, if you can take that time off.)
Regardless, you’re going to find a ton of hotels, resorts and rentals in convenient locations throughout the city.
Embassy Suites by Hilton (8250 Jamaican Court, Orlando) – If you’re looking to stay close to the theme parks without actually staying on campus, this is a great option. Located just minutes from Universal Studios and approximately 25 minutes from Walt Disney World, it sits across the street from ICON Park where you’ll also find plenty to keep the family entertained – including mini golf, laser tag, SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium, and a 400-foot tall observation wheel where you can see breathtaking views of Orlando and the surrounding area. There’s also plenty of dining around, from fast food to sit-down casual (and a couple of higher-end spots, too).
The hotel boasts large rooms and amenities like a free breakfast, a complimentary evening reception (which is really nice when you return to your room at the end of the day), free WiFi, an indoor and outdoor pool, and pet-friendly rooms. During the slower times of year, you can expect basic rates at around $100-$150 per night (and sneaking up to $200-$250 during the busier months).
* Traveling tip: Even on vacation, it can sometimes be tough to find things to keep kids entertained. Picking accommodations near busier locations can mean you’re trading in some quiet and fewer crowds, but it also means you’re gaining different fun activities without a long drive. When picking your spot, look beyond amenities and check out the neighborhood.
Caribe Royale Orlando (8101 World Center Drive) – This is a great spot to stay in Orlando. This is an all-suite hotel (with either one or two bedrooms) just 1.5 miles outside of Walt Disney World, boasting tropical pools, game arcades, and tennis and basketball courts. (Keep in mind that Walt Disney World is slightly outside of Orlando, so you’re less likely to encounter extra traffic or crowds in the area beyond those heading to Disney in the first place.) The resort also offers a shuttle to nearby shops and the theme parks (for a nominal fee). You will generally see rates ranging between $150-$250 per night.
This hotel is a conference center, so if you’re looking to stay close to the theme parks in a quieter environment and without encountering as many other families, this is a good option. (We get it – we love our kids, but thousands of other people’s kids can be a bit much when you are maybe just looking for some quiet!) And despite being a conference center, we think there’s enough to do here that will keep most kids occupied.
What to do
The theme parks are the obvious answer here – and we do love them! But there’s also plenty of other things to do in Orlando.
If you’d like to experience Disney but in a budget-friendly way, note that you are allowed to go on and walk through their resort properties. Many of their hotels have plenty to see and do for nonguests as well. You can even ride the monorail for free, which will take you around many of the hotels, past the Magic Kingdom gates, and actually through the Epcot park. (While the monorail is fun to ride, you may want to skip this if you don’t plan to enter the parks and fear a tantrum from the kids!) Also free and connecting four hotels is the new skyliner, another fun activity for those not afraid of heights! Be sure to check out Fort Wilderness, a secluded nature and camping spot where you’ll be constantly having to remind yourself that you’re on Disney property. We also like the Animal Kingdom lodge, with its own opportunities to see some critters up close. (Keep in mind that some activities – like the swimming pools – will be off-limits to nonguests or charge a nominal fee.)
*Traveling tip: For those who cringe at Disney prices, we recommend buying your souvenirs from Disney’s Character Warehouse at the Orlando International Premium Outlets. It can be hit-or-miss (sometimes it gets picked over) but you’ll find very inexpensive Disney toys and clothes here. This is also a good spot to find those much-needed mouse ears for $5-$10 (versus the $25+ they often are in the parks).
Orlando is just a one-hour drive from the John F. Kennedy Space Center, one of NASA’s ten field centers. Adults and kids alike are sure to find a lot to like about this spot. Plan to spend the entire day exploring – from the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame to the Shuttle Launch Experience (and plenty of other attractions in between). There’s dining on-site, though we recommend you may want to bring some of your own snacks with you. (Keep in mind this is a federal property and you will be going through security – items like coolers or glass containers are not allowed, but you can wrap sandwiches or other snacks in soft, plastic bags/containers.)
Technically a theme park but Check out Discovery Cove, where the family will get to interact with a wide range of animals – dolphins and otters being just two popular choices! At first this may not seem like the most budget friendly option (day passes start at $149 per person) but it is a true resort experience, offering unlimited food and drinks, snorkeling, up-close animal encounters (swimming with dolphins is included in select packages), access to all of their beaches and tropical lagoons, snorkel gear to explore their coral reef, and you don’t even have to worry about sunscreen or towels because they’ll provide them for you! Some other theme park tickets fall into the $89-$109 range on the low-end, and will NOT include food or some of those other luxuries, so what may initially seem like a more expensive rate upfront could end up saving you a few dollars in the long run. Online reviews rave about the “high-end resort” feel, and that it’s very easy to spend an entire day here with no boredom. We say this a great option to at least pretend you’re on a Florida beach when you’re in the middle of the state!