We’ve all heard the conventional wisdom about our city’s world-famous attractions: Nobody goes there because it’s too crowded. Certainly, there are longtime Orlando residents who only venture into the tourism district in search of a paycheck, or when family visits from out of state. But ignoring all that Orlando’s theme parks and their surrounding strips offer would be as senseless a New Yorker refusing to patronize Broadway, or a New Orleans native never setting foot in the French Quarter. Learn to navigate the hellish traffic (Palm Parkway and Universal Boulevard are your best bets for avoiding gridlock on I-4 and I-Drive), take advantage of discounts for residents, and you too can enjoy what millions of visitors travel from around the globe to see, for a fraction of what they’re spending per day.
Walt Disney World
Lake Buena Vista, 407-939-5277, disneyworld.disney.go.com
Mickey radically revamped the park-going experience with FastPass+; book reservations 30 days in advance or you'll wait hours for popular rides. Disney debuts Pandora, the long-awaited Avatar land, at Animal Kingdom in May, and Magic Kingdom's fireworks are getting a major makeover, while Epcot now hosts seasonal food and booze festivals year-round; skip Hollywood Studios until the Star Wars land opens in 2019 and visit the refreshed Disney Springs shopping district instead.
Universal Orlando Resort
6000 Universal Blvd., 407-363-8000, universalorlando.com
Orlando's No. 2 theme park destination continues to expand at a rapid rate; Islands of Adventure (home to the recent Kong ride and revamped Hulk coaster) and Universal Studios Florida (site of Jimmy Fallon's new simulator), will be joined in May by Volcano Bay, billed as Universal's first "water theme park." Universal's most popular attraction is the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but beware: You can't ride the Hogwarts Express train without paying extra for a park-hopper pass.
7007 Sea World Drive, 407-545-5550, seaworldparks.com
Despite animal rights controversy and declining attendance, SeaWorld still offers quality live entertainment and killer roller coasters at a lower cost than the other big resorts; their new Mako coaster delivers extreme seat-raising airtime, and their new seasonal festivals are a better value than Epcot's. If you've got the dough, don't overlook the all-inclusive Discovery Cove, where you can swim with dolphins and fish, or just drink like one.
Fun Spot America
5700 Fun Spot Way, 407-363-3867; also 2850 Florida Plaza Blvd., Kissimmee, 407-397-2509; fun-spot.com
Closer to a cleaned-up carnival than a true theme park, the two Fun Spots – one near Universal, the other next to Old Town – feature a mix of thrill rides, kiddie rides and multi-level outdoor go-kart tracks for half the daily price of the major attractions. Orlando's location is currently superior, thanks to a great wooden coaster and the area's first Virtual Reality coaster, but that may change when Kissimmee opens its new Mine Blower woodie this summer.
8375 International Drive, 407-601-7907, i-drive360.com
It's hard to miss International Drive's newest entertainment complex, thanks to the huge honkin' observation wheel – dubbed the Coca Cola Orlando Eye – that serves as I-Drive 360's centerpiece. If dangling in a glass capsule 400 feet high doesn't appeal, a Madame Tussauds wax museum and SeaLife aquarium occupy the wheel's base, with a skeleton museum and several restaurants (unrelated, we hope) adjoining.
Sleuths Mystery Dinner Shows
8267 International Drive, 407-363-1985, sleuths.com
Lots of legitimate local actors work at the attractions, but many of Orlando's very best stride the boards at Sleuths, which has been serving up slyly silly whodunits alongside surprisingly good prime rib for over 25 years. If you're apprehensive about interacting, fear not; the beer and wine is bottomless.
Nile Ethiopian Restaurant
7048 International Drive, 407-354-0026, nile07.com
Ethiopian food is fantastic, and this cozy restaurant in the heart of the tourist strip is the best (only?) place it town to try it. Order a combo platter (meat or veggie) and scoop it with spongy injera bread instead of utensils. First-timers may want to go easy on the kitfo, a spicy steak tartare.
5689 Vineland Road, 407-930-3396, facebook.com/soupasaiyan1
This Dragon Ball Z-themed noodle house near Universal makes an animated argument for uninhibited slurping, and has become a destination restaurant for anime fans and cosplayers.
8255 International Drive, 407-363-7200, hanamizuki.us
If you want sushi rolls stuffed with cream cheese and hamburger, go to Cowfish at Universal's CityWalk; Hanamizuki upholds the traditions of authentic Japanese cuisine, from tempura and tataki to donburi and ishiyaki. Their unctuous tonkotsu ramen is only available at lunch and on Mondays.
Gods and Monsters
5421 International Drive, 407-270-6273, godmonsters.com
This massive comics and collectibles shop survived the untimely demise of Artegon Marketplace and moved across the street into Orlando Crossings strip mall. It doesn't have quite the cavernous space for events anymore, but you'll still find plenty of four-color fantasies to fill your longboxes. Visit their neighbor R&R Records for vintage vinyl.
Orlando Premium Outlets
4951 International Drive, 407-352-9600; also 8200 Vineland Ave., 407-238-7787; premiumoutlets.com
Tourists throng to the two Orlando Premium Outlet Malls in search of bargains on big brand names, but read the price tags carefully; unless it's truly a closeout item, it may cost the same as at the Mall at Millenia.
Player 1 Video Game Bar
8562 Palm Parkway, 407-504-7521, player1orlando.com
This arcade's cozy confines offer up late-'80s/early-'90s nostalgia alongside the latest and greatest in modern gaming, all washed down with A-list craft bottles and drafts.
8371 International Drive, 407-270-7926, tinrooforlando.com
Located in the shadow of the Orlando Eye, this bar offers a simulacrum of a legit live music venue with a great bar staff, a decent drinks selection and good food. A solid option in the tourist district.
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