48 Hours In: Orlando

Jump on board for a rollercoaster ride through Florida's theme park capital. Chris Leadbeater swings by rope courses, laser games and adventure golf

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The Independent Travel

Travel Essentials

Why go now?

Florida's theme-park capital is preparing for another high summer of speedy ups and downs – but there is more to this sometimes unappreciated city than rollercoasters.

Its excellent Museum of Art (1) at 2416 North Mills Avenue (001 407 896 4231; omart.org) has collections of modern American painting, African art and contemporary graphics, with an exhibition entitled "Geolocation: Tributes to the Data Stream" running until 1 September. Open noon to 4pm at weekends, 10am to 4pm weekdays (except Monday), $8 (£5.25).

Touch down

Orlando Airport (2) (001 407 825 2001; orlandoairports.net) lies six miles south-east of Downtown. I flew with Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7777; virgin-atlantic.com), which has daily flights from Gatwick and Manchester, and twice-weekly services from Glasgow. A week's stay at the International Palms Resort (3) in August costs £5,716 for a family of four (two children under 18), room only, with flights from Gatwick and car hire – via Virgin Holidays (0844 557 4321; virginholidays.co.uk).

British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Orlando daily from Gatwick. Buses 11 and 51 head to Downtown in 40 minutes, and 42 runs to International Drive in an hour for $2 (£1.30).

Orlando Airport Van (001 866 204 4000; orlandoairportvan.us) offers transfers to International Drive for $10 (£6.70) per person each way. Cabs to the same destination cost about $40 (£26), and take 20 minutes.

Orlando is sizeable and a car is useful for seeing the theme parks. A week's rental in July (pick up and drop off at the airport), costs £135 through Alamo (0871 384 1086; alamo.co.uk).

Get your bearings

Orlando sits almost at the geographic heart of Florida, surrounded by lakes in an area of wetland lushness. It fans out around central Downtown, with the major theme parks and International Drive to the west, and the intriguing area of Winter Park to the north-east. Lynx buses (001 407 841 5969; golynx.com) are the key public transport option, with some 60 routes crossing the city. A one-day pass costs $6.50 (£4.30). The Official Visitor Center (4) stands at 8723 International Drive (001 407 363 5872; visitorlando.com), open daily 8.30am to 6.30pm. It dispenses the free "Magicard", which offers discounts on some 40 attractions. For more information, go to visitflorida.com.

Check in

A three-star family option with pool at 6515 International Drive, the International Palms Resort (3) (001 800 354 8332; internationalpalms.com) has doubles for $100 (£66), room only.

Nearby, at 9801 International Drive, the Peabody Orlando (5) (001 407 352 4000; peabodyorlando.com) is a five-star, with doubles from $460 (£307), room only.

The Park Plaza Hotel (6) is a chic boutique option at 307 South Park Avenue in Winter Park (001 407 647 1072; parkplazahotel.com) – doubles from $225 (£150), room only.


Day One

Take a hike

International Drive stretches for 12 miles, but the tourist heartland is the two-mile strip north from the Peabody (5). The giant Orange County Convention Center (7), at No 9899, is hard to miss, but business turns to pleasure at 9101 with the Pointe Orlando (8) complex of fashion stores and restaurants (001 407 248 2838; pointeorlando.com). Continue to Wonderworks (9) (001 407 351 8800; wonderworksonline.com), an indoor theme park at 9067, with rope courses and laser games (open daily 9am to midnight, adults $25/£16.70, children $20/£13).

At 8969, Hawaiian Rumble Adventure Golf (10) (001 407 351 7733; hawaiianrumbleorlando.com) has water-themed putting (daily 9am-11.30pm (midnight Friday and Saturday); $10 (£6.70), under 4s free.

Take a ride

Orlando's two core resort areas need little introduction. Walt Disney World resort (11) (0800 16 90 730; disneyworld.disney.go.com) is laid out around World Drive, 20 miles from Downtown. Its four parks include the Magic Kingdom, with its fairytale castle. There is a huge range of tickets, but a basic one-day pass to one theme park costs $95 (£63) per adult, $88 (£58) for three to nine year-olds. Hours vary.

Closer to the centre at 6000 Universal Boulevard, Universal Orlando (12) (0800 408 4834; universalorlando.com) has two parks: Universal Studios Florida; and Islands Of Adventure, with its Hogwarts recreation at The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter. One-day, one-park passes cost $100 (£67) per adult, $94 (£63) per child (3-9). Open daily in July 9am to 10pm.

Lunch on the run

Both resorts have food and retail areas open without entrance fee. Downtown Disney has the Earl Of Sandwich (13) (001 407 938 1762; earlofsandwichusa.com) at 1750 East Buena Vista Drive – where The Earl's Club (turkey, bacon, cheese) costs $6 (£4).

Universal Citywalk at 6000 Universal Boulevard has Nascar Sports Grille (14) (001 407 224 7223; nascarsportsgrilleorlando.com). A Pit Road Burger (beef, pork, cheese) is $14 (£9.30).

Walk in the park

If you like a bit more bite, Gatorland (15) at 14501 South Orange Blossom Trail (001 407 855 5496; gatorland.com), with its snap-jawed beasts, is open 10am- 5pm; adults $25 (£16.70); three-12 $17 (£11). At SeaWorld (16) on 7007 Sea World Drive (001 888 8005447; seaworldparks.com), there are dolphins and sharks (daily 9am- 10pm in July). One-day passes $79 (£53) adults, $71 (£47) three-nine year-olds.

An aperitif

Brick House Tavern + Tap (17) is a classic sports bar at 8440 International Drive. An Orange Blossom Pilsner costs $5 (£3) (001 407 3550321; brickhousetavernandtap.com).

Dining with the locals

The Peabody's (5) fine in-house restaurant, Napa, has cioppino (fish stew) that's nicely spicy for $35 (£23). At the Pointe Orlando complex (8), The Oceanaire Seafood Room (001 407 363 4801; theoceanaire.com) has pan-seared triggerfish for $33 (£22). Also, "Restaurant Row", is a mile chunk of West Sand Lake Road. Chatham's Place (18) does black grouper with spring onion for $33 (£22) at 7575 Dr Philips Boulevard (001 407 345 2992; chathamsplace.com).


Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

Downtown offers a glimpse of local Orlando – not least in the calm form of St James Cathedral (19) at 215 North Orange Avenue (001 407 422 2005; stjamesorlando.org). This Catholic bastion, which dates to 1887, is a mixture of styles: plain and pale on its exterior, a colourful cocktail of murals within. Sunday mass is at 7.30am, 9am and 10.30am.

Window shopping

Orlando specialises in gargantuan shopping temples such as The Florida Mall (20), which has Macy's and Sears among its 200 outlets at 8001 South Orange Blossom Trail (001 407 851 7234; simon.com).

Winter Park is the city's "secret" pocket, where residents meet for coffee. Enticing stores here include The Ancient Olive (21) (001 321 972 1899; theancientolive.com), which sells olive oils at 324 North Park Avenue. Adjacent at 318 North Park Avenue, Tugboat & The Bird (22) (001 407 647 5437; tugboatandthebird.com) has toys and children's clothes.

Out to brunch

Winter Park lunch options include Prato (23) at 124 North Park Avenue (001 407 262 0050; prato-wp.com), a popular Italian eatery with epic fresh pasta, such as buckwheat tagliatelle with pork ragu and spinach for $16 (£10.70).

Cultural afternoon

Morse Museum of American Art (24), at 445 North Park Avenue, is famed for its Tiffany glass (Tuesday-Saturday 9.30am-4pm, Sunday 1-4pm, closed Monday; 001 407 645 5311; morsemuseum.org; $5/£3.30).

In Downtown, the Orange County Regional History Center (25) tells the story of central Florida from Native Americans to the Spanish arrival (Courthouse, at 65 East Central Boulevard; 001 407 836 8500; thehistorycenter.org). Open daily 10am-5pm, Sunday noon-5pm, $9 (£6).

Icing on the cake

For quiet serenity, try a one-hour cruise around three of Orlando's lakes via Scenic Boat Tour (26) (001 407 644 4056; scenicboattours.com), which operates from a jetty at 312 East Morse Boulevard in Winter Park. Sailings depart on the hour from 10am until 4pm; costing $12 (£8).

If you prefer an adrenalin rush, iFly (27), off International Drive at 6805 Visitors Circle (001 407 903 1150; iflyorlando.com), deals in "indoor skydiving". Customers take to the air on gusts of up to 100mph in a vertical wind tunnel. A package of two one-minute flights costs from $60 (£40), with the facility open daily 10am to 10pm.