We’re not suggesting you go to Orlando without visiting Disney World, but once you’ve seen the parks or had your fill of long lines and sunburn, Central Florida offers a ton of appeal that’s often overlooked. From day trips on the coasts to the other Orlando attractions, here are our top picks for exploring the whole region with its major city as hub.
The Main Attraction
While families simply can’t miss Disney, especially during Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival through November, there’s plenty of art, shopping and additional attractions to experience as well. For starters, Universal’s Islands of Adventure is a must-see with roller coasters for thrill-seekers and the famously enchanted Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Orlando’s newest attraction and pride of locals is the Amway Center where visitors can catch a Magic, Predators or Solar Bears game, major concerts, or local events in a newly designed and far bigger arena. Upcoming months draw big names like the Zac Brown Band, Carrie Underwood and Justin Bieber, to name a few.
Once you’ve had enough action, plan for shopping at the Premium Outlets or the Mall at Millenia, both attractions in themselves with high-end retailers and wide arrays of restaurants. Perhaps most underrated are Orlando’s Science Center and Museum of Art, both with impressive exhibits and events like OSC’s Star Wars exhibit through April.
Florida’s Second City
Orlando provides the perfect central location for a day trip in any direction, and Tampa—only an hour and a half drive southwest—tops the list. The next best Florida destination offers highly acclaimed dining, a widely renowned aquarium, and a variety of athletics and entertainment.
Sports lovers can take in a Buccaneers game at Raymond James Stadium where the University of South Florida also plays and the Outback Bowl is hosted on the first day of the year. The stadium additionally hosts concerts and events, or look for traveling Broadway at the Straz Center, where The Book of Mormon will run next year.
One of the top aquariums in the country, The Florida Aquarium is home to over 20,000 species and rousing exhibits from diving in the shark tank to the outdoor water zone for kids. The aquarium is located in the Channelside district, a popular dining, shopping and nightlife destination. Families can enjoy even more animals at the Lowry Park Zoo and Busch Gardens Theme Park.
Find authentic Cuban food and cigars in Ybor City, charming boutiques and dining in Hyde Park, and distinct restaurants downtown. Local favorites include Bern’s Steak House, Donatello and The Columbia. Tampa’s biggest annual attraction is the Gasparilla Pirate Festival, a Mardi Gras-like parade and event with food, music, beads, pirates and pirate ships in January or February.
Beaches Within Reach
Day trips to the coasts run an hour and a half in either direction on I-4. Head east for Daytona Beach, New Smyrna, or Cocoa; west for Sarasota; or turn to St. Petersburg or Clearwater from Tampa.
Daytona’s known for Bike Week, but the beach town hosts every kind of event year round including art, music, film and cultural festivals. For fewer crowds and more parking, exit early at New Smyrna Beach, Central Florida’s surfing destination, which also offers a variety of events. Cocoa Beach, a popular Spring Break spot, plays host to heavier traffic from larger and younger crowds with eclectic shops and a vibrant nightlife. Here near Cocoa, find Kennedy Space Center, the home of NASA and a fascinating day trip full of history, space shuttles, exhibits and a launch if you plan ahead.
Westward, Sarasota brings a more family-friendly atmosphere linking to Siesta, Longboat, Lido and Venice over the John Ringling Causeway. These shores offer stunning views and clear waters on the Gulf of Mexico. Just North, Clearwater and St. Pete beaches are increasingly popular destinations famous for their white sand and offering more local attractions.
While hundreds of tourist traps provide entertainment along Orlando’s International Drive, the surrounding region’s cultural and diverse offerings make for a well-rounded and fulfilling trip to the Sunshine State and perhaps most importantly, get you to the beach. Tell us your favorite Florida discoveries with Best of the Road reviews!