Review: Orlando for grown-ups
It’s that time of the year when the grey drizzle in the UK becomes just a little too much to bear. After the cosiness and sparkly lights of Christmas, the first few months of the year can look a little bleak, which is why booking some winter sun should be top of your 2020 to-do list. Leave everyone else to their dry January or Veganuary or deprive-yourself-of-some-other-fun January, and rather opt for a healthy dose of vitamin D, fresh air, great food and fun. Of course, if you’re looking for winter sun, there are a number of places to consider (do check out the discussions on our travel forums for ideas) but there are few places as warm, accessible, and full of friendly people as Florida. While the most obvious attractions are the theme parks, there’s a lot more to Orlando than just Disney, as we found out on a recent press trip courtesy of Visit Orlando.
Why you should visit Orlando in January/February
Winter in Orlando is ideal. With temperatures around 20-25 degrees it’s a welcome respite to British frostbitten fingers and toes, without being oppressively hot. That said, we visited in mid-Jan and it was a very balmy 28/29 degrees most days. They’re prepped for the heat though - everywhere is very enthusiastically air-conditioned, so having a wrap or light cardigan to hand when you’re out and about is highly advised.
How to get there?
Travelling to Orlando is more affordable than you might think. We travelled on Norwegian Airlines
and were pleasantly surprised by the excellent service and tech amenities onboard. You will have to pay extra for luggage and meals onboard but even so they are quite reasonable. If you prefer an inclusive fare, Virgin
and British Airways
are usually very competitive too and have excellent deals on at the moment.
Once there you might find a car handy, although Ubers are always on hand and very affordable. Most places have free wifi so you don’t need to use expensive data to book your ride.
Where to stay in Orlando
We were put up in the absolutely lovely Grove Residences
. Our room (or rather apartment) consisted of two huge bedrooms, each with en-suite and a walk-in wardrobe. There was also a fully fitted kitchen (plus utility area with washer and dryer), a living area and a lovely balcony to watch the sun rise. Thanks to the time difference we saw a few of these before our body clocks re-adjusted. The benefit of staying somewhere like the Grove is that you have the best bits of renting an apartment combined with the amenities of a hotel, which is perfect for a multi-generational holiday if you are travelling with grandchildren. The decent sized kitchen (albeit with no kettle - but this is fairly standard for US hotels) has every other appliance you could wish for and if you wanted to prepare your own meals every day, you could easily do so. There is a Walmart supermarket a short drive away and a handy small shop in the hotel lobby for essentials. We ate a few times at Valencia, the onsite restaurant and were impressed by the mahi mahi fish tacos and the tuna salad. We’d also highly recommend the Brioche French Toast for breakfast.
The Grove also has a few pools including a great one by the water park, with slides, a Lazy River, and another more casual place to eat. If all that eating, swimming and relaxing has worn you out, they also have the most incredible spa. Ask for Melissa and the muscle ease massage and I guarantee any jet lag you may have will magically disappear.
Best places to shop
The US is well known for its outlet shopping and a trip there wouldn’t have been complete without popping in to grab a few bargains. We visited Orlando International Premium Outlets, a sprawling complex of shops and restaurants offering everything from a huge Gap factory store to Kate Spade, Elizabeth Arden and DKNY - all with impressive discounts. What was really interesting though is how many luggage shops there were - apparently it's not unusual for tourists to get a bit over-excited by the bargains and end up needing to buy extra luggage to transport all their purchases home!
What to do besides the parks in Orlando
As mentioned earlier, Orlando is not all about Disney. We had a wonderful day out at Wild Florida Airboats & Wildlife Park
, getting up close and personal with the native alligators, birds, eagles, trees and plants. The airboat tours take you through over 100,000 acres of beautiful wetlands.
We also had the opportunity to experience the very newly opened Drive-thru Safari where visitors can see more than 100 exotic animals and native Florida wildlife like white-tailed deer, bison, cracker cows, zebras, watusi, and oryx, to name a few. We also got to meet my favourite resident, Leroy the giraffe, and fed him a few pieces of iceberg lettuce - he’s a little more health conscious than us.
One of our favourite excursions during our stay was to the quaint city of Winter Park, set around tranquil lakes. It’s such a beautiful area with a lovely high street of shops and restaurants (try Prato
for unbelievably good pasta dishes, made from fresh, locally sourced ingredients). It’s also home to the incredibly impressive Charles Morse Museum of American Art
featuring the world’s most comprehensive and stunning collection of the works of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Our outing included a guided boat excursion on one of the lakes, which was a wonderful way to learn the history of the area, as well as shamelessly gawp at the opulent mansions on the waterbanks. Having got used to the incredible beauty and size of the houses, midway through we remarked on a particular house being a bit smaller than any of the others. It was then pointed out to us it was simply the neighbouring estate’s pool house! We kept quiet after that. We didn’t see any alligators but, it being Florida, you always wonder if they’re lurking just below the surface... We did see beautiful birds though and stunning flora, particularly along the little canals joining the lakes.
Which theme park in Orlando is best for adults?
So, yes, it’s perfectly possible to have a fantastic time Orlando without visiting any theme parks. BUT, if you’re just a 15 minute Uber away (or have a free shuttle as you do from the Grove) then it would be a shame not to visit at least one of them. Or you could do what I did and visit three in one day - although having racked up over 20,000 steps on that particular day, I’d advise extremely comfortable footwear, a solid plan and a Fast Pass + (I didn’t have to queue more than 5 minutes thanks to this). Here's our take on how suitable the theme parks are for grown-ups.
If you’re a movie buff, or have a Toy Story or Star Wars-mad grandchild with you, then Hollywood Studios should be top of your list. Personally, we're not the biggest thrillseekers - no upside down rollercoasters or sudden drops for us - so we were pleased to see there are plenty of less adventurous options too.
We headed to Animal Kingdom next and think this may have been our favourite of the parks. The greenery, rivers, and birds flying overhead somehow make everything feel calmer and less frenetic than the other parks. We would highly recommend the Avatar Flight of Passage
ride. Even we managed it. Just.
We finished the day at the Magic Kingdom, getting there just in time for the parade and then the unmissable fireworks later on. In our opinion, the first sighting of Cinderella’s castle is truly magical, no matter how old you are. That said, aside from a few rides, including the iconic Space Mountain that some more adventurous gransnetters may be keen to try, this park is definitely one for much younger kids.
On entering Epcot, the man checking our bags wanted to know if we knew what it stood for. He revealed that officially it's Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow - which sounded a bit flowery. He then went on to say that most people understood the real title to be Every Person Comes Out Tipsy. We soon found out why. With a beautiful lake in its centre (you can see water is a recurring theme in Florida, and obviously why so popular with alligators) Epcot is made up of 'pavilions' of countries flanking the banks. Each 'country' has a themed ride, shops and buildings, as well as a restaurant and bar area selling that country's speciality. You could (and people do) drink their way around the world, sampling margaritas from Mexico, beer from Germany, Prosecco from Italy - you get the gist. The UK is represented by a quaint cottage and bandstand area, complete with Alice in Wonderland, a pub selling pints and fish and chips, and gift shops selling plenty of Twinings tea. Although there are a few rides (including a brilliant Frozen Ever After
one in Norway) and plenty of photo opportunities with Disney characters, of all the parks, this one had the least children and we'd say was most suited to grown-ups.
Overall, we came back with noticeable tans, a new respect for alligators, some Minnie Mouse ears, and an overwhelming sense that we’ve only seen a glimpse of all that Orlando has to offer. We also may have come back with an extra piece of luggage, but we're told that’s only to be expected!