48 Hours in Orlando

Your definitive guide to making the most of central Florida’s multi-dimensional city

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Tuesday 11 January 2022 07:34 GMT
48 Hours In Orlando Hd

It’s time to head back in Florida – and make up for lost thrills. While you have been away, all manner of new attractions have appeared – such as Universal Orlando’s new VelociCoaster. The makers of the ride, which opened in June 2021, call it “the apex predator of roller coasters”.

But there is much more to Orlando besides its role as the world capital of theme parks. So join me for 48 hours of fun, sophistication and adventure beneath the Florida sun.

Touch down

Orlando International Airport has direct flights from London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airports, Manchester and other UK cities. There’s also a multiplicity of connections via the big American hubs. It’s a friendly and efficient gateway to central Florida.

You can also arrive by rail, aboard Amtrak’s Silver Star and Silver Meteor trains from New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC. The journey from New York takes less than 24 hours, with sleeper accommodation available.

Get your bearings

Orlando is at the heart of the Florida peninsula – with the Atlantic Ocean just an hour to the east, the Gulf of Mexico 90 minutes west.

Downtown Orlando is in the middle of a spectacular, newly expanded network of freeways. Within 20 minutes you can be pretty much anywhere in the greater Orlando area. International Drive, southwest of downtown, has plenty of accommodation and entertainment, with easy access to the Universal theme parks.

Seaworld is five minutes south, and the Disney complex around 15 minutes to the south west.

Check in

For easy access to the theme parks and International Drive, one of Orlando’s newest properties – Endless Summer – is well located and attractively priced.

If you prefer to be based in downtown Orlando, top choice is the Grand Bohemian. The location is excellent; there’s a strong art theme running through it; and, uniquely, the piano lounge featuring a Bösendorfer piano partly gilded with 23-carat gold and boasting an extended keyboard. The outdoor pool on the sixth floor is an added treat.

Just a block away in downtown is high-rise heaven, in the shape of the AC Hotel. How high? Well, the lobby is on the 18th floor and the guest rooms go even higher. The outdoor bar is ideal for a sundowner. For the best deals, either book direct or organise a package with flights and accommodation combined.

Day One

Take a hike

A rewarding walk through Downtown begins where the eight-lane freeway, Interstate 4, ends: on Church Street, which is lined by buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Unusually for what is effectively a High Street, the main railway line from New York to Miami runs right through the middle of Church Street.

The Seminole Indians had lived undisturbed in present-day Florida for centuries until the Spanish arrived on the coast at St Augustine in 1565; 300 years later Orlando was hardly a bustling metropolis, with just a few dozen permanent residents. But when the railway arrived in 1880, the city began to thrive.

The key Downtown intersection is where Church Street meets Orange Avenue: the main north-south thoroughfare, lined with handsome buildings with Art Deco flourishes, as well as plenty of more modern street sculptures that decorate the sidewalk.

In Orlando, it’s always worth looking up – with gems such as the Angebilt Hotel. Now hidden among the high-rises on Orange Avenue, this was the city’s first million-dollar hotel when it opened in 1923.

Orlando is at the heart of Orange County, and host to the Regional History Center in the old Orange County Courthouse, a neoclassical mansion dating from 1927.

The courthouse shares Heritage Square with some more sculpture – this time a tribute to Florida’s celebrated alligator, the largest reptile in North America.

Central Orlando is dotted with small, one-block parks. But on the eastern edge of downtown there’s a much grander one, complete with a large lake – Eola – that gives the city an impressive sense of space.

In 1873, Jacob Summerlin – known as the “Cattle King of Florida” – arrived in 1873 to purchase 200 acres of land in what is now Downtown Orlando. Soon afterwards a “sink hole” started to form on the edge of his property – and it filled with storm water and a natural spring, creating a beautiful lake, originally known as Sandy Beach.

The Sperry Fountain in the middle of the lake was created in 1956, with the power to blast 5,000 gallons of water into the air every minute.

In 1922 the first swans arrived at Lake Eola, and since then the birds have become mainstays – there’s currently around 60 of them, cared for by the city authorities, and best fed on lettuce. Don’t just gaze at the serene avian life – you can channel your inner swan too, with Swan Boats to rent for $15 for half-an-hour.

Water world: Lake Eola in the centre of Orlando
Water world: Lake Eola in the centre of Orlando (Charlotte Hindle)

Lunch on the run

Right on the water’s edge of Lake Eola, beside the Swan Boat Harbour, is the Relax Grill for a speedy, al fresco lunch.

For something more exotic: Mills 50 is less than a mile away. This is one of Orlando’s blossoming neighbourhoods, decorated with plenty of street art and home to a vibrant Vietnamese community, which means vibrant Vietnamese restaurants, such as Little Saigon at 1106 East Colonial Drive.

The signature dish is Pho Tai: Vietnamese soup, with rare beef and a veritable garden of vegetables.

Window shopping

From Mills to the Mall at Millenia. There’s more to Orlando than hiking, eating and thrillseeking: the shopping is world-class. The Mall at Millenia has plenty of familiar names, including Abercrombie & Fitch, Apple and H&M.

There is also one retailer you have certainly heard of – but possibly haven’t seen in a mall before – Amazon. The brand has moved from online to real retail life, offering all the hottest selling items and even giving a discount if you’re signed up to Amazon Prime.

Other malls are available, and at the open-air Vineland Premium Outlets you can find a couple of dozen seriously upmarket stores, including Armani, Gucci and Jimmy Choo. Consider investing $10 in a VIP Coupon Book, for a wide range of discounts.

For guaranteed one-offs, try Washburn Imports at 1800 North Orange Avenue in the Lake Ivanhoe district of Orlando. The proprietor, John Washburn, goes off on great expeditions to India and beyond, and comes back with all kinds of treasures.

The stock is sourced from across Asia, with a weird and wonderful selection of beautifully and ingeniously crafted furniture and art.

An aperitif

It gets better. Washburn Imports is also host to the Imperial Bar. This is where the Antiques Roadshow meets Cheers – a bar where you can literally take away anything that isn’t nailed down. Happy hour is 5-7pm every day. Jenna Pierce, the manager, says: “It’s a locals thing. It’s nice to get away from the hustle and bustle of touristy areas.”

Dining with the locals

After an aperitif with panache you should dine in style. Fortunately, Russell’s on Lake Ivanhoe is a few steps away at 1414 North Orange Avenue. Your host is Philippe Villain, a global restaurateur who boldly took over the property at the height of the Covid pandemic. Since then, Russell’s has won a string of awards including Best Burger at the Orlando Sentinel Foodie Awards.

At the other end of town and the dining spectrum, Boxi Park is a collection of repurposed shipping containers. It opened in the Lake Nona area on Valentine’s Day, 2019. The containers have become takeaways offering a wide range of options from lobster to crispy honey chicken (just $9).

While you are here: driverless urban transport has arrived in Lake Nona, where the local bus service uses a fleet of autonomous electric shuttles that will take you on free rides around town and into the future.

Day Two

Sunday morning drive

Go back to the future at the Orlando Auto Museum in Dezerland at 5232 International Drive. Dezerland is the creation of billionaire property developer and car connoisseur Michael Dezer. He has a collection of around 2,000 vehicles, including many that appeared in films such as Back to the Future (though the De Lorean on display is a replica). There’s an entire area dedicated to James Bond, including the Aston Martin DB5 from the 1964 film Goldfinger.

Take a ride

Orlando has decent public transport, with frequent buses usually charging $2 a trip – except the excellent network of free downtown bus services branded as Lymmo.

The city also has its own one-line metro system: Sunrail, which uses the tracks of the Miami-New York line to shuttle north-south through the city. Weekdays only, every half-hour, fares typically $2 (£1.50) from the on-station machines. Remember to validate your ticket.

Hop off at the city’s poshest suburb: Winter Park. The district was established in the late 19th century as a kind of New England-in-the-South. Today it’s full of antique shops, jewellers and art galleries … plus lakeside mansions belonging to Hollywood legends, Nashville icons and ultra-achieving sports stars, best observed from a voyage with the Scenic Boat Tour company.

In the course of an hour, you get a tranquil journey through Orlando’s Lake District, gazing at the homes of the rich and famous.

Scale model: Simon Calder (small) with Marc Tipton (large) of the Museum of Illusions
Scale model: Simon Calder (small) with Marc Tipton (large) of the Museum of Illusions (Douglas Bolton)

Out to brunch

Back on dry land, Park Avenue has some of the most sophisticated places to eat in Orlando, with menus as imaginative as they are expensive. Bring a robust credit card.

Or head back towards Downtown Orlando. Shortly before the centre, stop at Maxine’s On Shine at 337 North Shine Avenue, where superb brunch dishes are served in characterful surroundings at appealing prices; 10am to 3pm, Friday to Sunday.

Cultural afternoon

One good reason to stay in Winter Park is for a cultural experience you won’t find anywhere else. The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art has a magnificent collection of art nouveau design. The museum celebrates Louis Comfort Tiffany, a visionary designer whose work brought fine art into the home. On Friday between 4pm and 8pm, admission to this world of beauty and brilliance is free.

For a different view of the world, try the new Museum of Illusions in Icon Park on International Drive. Exhibits such as the Bouchette chair, where one person can appear in miniature relative to another, take your mind into a different dimension.

Icing on the cake

To round off a fabulous 48 hours in Orlando, try Illume: a slice of Japan transposed to central Florida, and specifically to the JW Marriott Orlando Bonnet Creek.

The Sunshine State has given sushi its own twist, with the tastiest morsels the sea can offer – with a cameo role for tenderloin beef.

The cocktails are on another level, such as the firebird: made with green tea syrup, cantaloupe, a touch of ginger, sake and Japanese vodka. Just want you need when you step from the restaurant onto a deck for a spectacular view of the evening fireworks at Walt Disney World.

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