Family travel: The best of Orlando

From the Mickey Mouse focused fun of Disney's Magic Kingdom, to the high-octane rides of Universal Studios and beyond, Orlando is home to a near-countless number of theme parks, best enjoyed in a trip bookended by a tranquil beach and lake break

By Sarah Barrell
Published 2 Jan 2017, 08:00 GMT, Updated 8 Jul 2021, 10:54 BST
Clearwater Beach, Florida

Clearwater Beach, Florida.

Photograph by Alamy

"Welcome to the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique," sings out a grown woman in a princess dress. "No photos please." Ella and I peek into The Magic Kingdom's makeover salon, where tiny girl patrons are getting locks and frocks attended to, seated in throne-like chairs. "Woah," says Ella. "That is weird… but amazing."

I'd been worried that at the grand old age of 10, Ella would be too grown-up to enjoy Magic Kingdom's fairytale schmaltz. But from its buffed, polished castles and cobbles, to its manically in-character costumed staff, this place delivers pure Disney charm. My somewhat self-conscious tween dances with everyone from Goofy to the Incredibles family, and goes gaga for the Electrical Parade, the nightly cavalcade of brightly lit floats that's been entertaining families since the '70s (sadly soon to be decommissioned).

By contrast, Universal Studios seems brash and hungry to cash in on any film franchise going. But there's no doubt that for high-octane virtual reality (VR) rides — including the truly impressive, if ludicrously packed Harry Potter World — Universal has Magic Kingdom beat. Beat is what we all find ourselves, running the gamut of the parks in 90-degree heat — even allowing for an essential cool-down day at the Aquatica waterpark (probably Ella's most cherished memory from the trip). This was our reasoning for book-ending our holiday with a lake and beach break.

If you don't want fried small fry, this is the smartest choice a family can make.

Winter Park, an old Floridian neighbourhood of stately mansions and Spanish moss draped oak trees, is set around a chain of lakes offering boat tours and stand-up paddle-boarding. Away from the theme parks and malls of International Drive, this offers a taste of the real Orlando, including a happening food scene around the Mills 50 area. Here, we eat ribs that Ella dubs the "biggest, bestest" we've ever tasted, at Pig Floyds Urban Barbakoa; and go candy crazy at Rocket Fizz, a cavernous shop selling soda pop and fudge in flavours from PB&J to pumpkin pie.

The white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast is where we park our weary bodies at the end of the trip, the perfect natural compliment to central Orlando's man-made fun. We go alligator and manatee spotting in the mangroves of Caladesi Island
nature reserve, and Ella cartwheels around the dunes of Clearwater beach, tropical storm Colin fast building over the ocean. Who needs thrill rides?

Our pick of the parks

Magic Kingdom

The Disney granddaddy park with parades, fireworks, character meets and classic rides: Thunder Mountain and Space Mountain.

The Kennedy Space Center
NASA's Florida HQ, set within a nature reserve along the east coast at Cape Canaveral, where Apollo moon missions launched.

Disney's futuristic theme park has its best VI thrill rides, plus the fun, educational and blissfully air-conditioned World Showcase area.

Universal Studios
Movie-focused VR rides include Minions, Shrek and several in Harry Potter World. Find hidden Diagon Alley, ride Hogwarts Express, and score in a Quidditch Match.

SeaWorld Aquatica
A new waterpark with one of the country's highest, near vertical waterslides (utterly terrifying), plus flumes, lazy rivers, and private beach cabanas for rent.


Sarah Barrell and daughter Ella (10).

Where to stay
At the theme parks: A good-value resort with an oceanic pool, a 10-minute free shuttle from the gates of the Disney parks, within eyeballing distance of Magic Kingdom's nightly fireworks. Family/double rooms from $139 (£98).

In Winter Park: Classy Floridian hotel set in lush gardens, with super comfy beds, a sceney restaurant, and pretty rooftop pool. Family rooms from $189 (£133).

On the beach: A new hotel backed by the dunes of Clearwater Beach. Family rooms ($479/£383) have sweeping ocean views towards Caladesi Island nature reserve.
Sister hotel, south along the coast at Treasure Island Beach, has roomy family suites ($473/£378), with kitchenettes and ocean-view balconies.

Published in the 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family



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