Where to Stay
Ask for a room facing the pool at Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort (from $379) for nightly views of three different fireworks shows in the distance. The year-and-a-half-old, 400-room resort is the only five-diamond hotel in Orlando and sits on Disney property, which means perks like Disney employees manning the concierge desk and a character breakfast in the restaurant. Grown-ups escape to the adults-only infinity pool, but even the tropically landscaped lazy river, water park built around faux stone ruins, family pool, and kids’-play areas (there’s a giant chess board), remain low-key and relaxing. And rest easy: Resort property is checked daily for alligators.
Reserve a bungalow so you can swing from a rattan hanging chair or take a dip in a personal plunge pool on a private deck at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. You’ll pay for the luxe comfort, but if you’re splurging, it’s worth it (rooms from $470; bungalows, which house eight people comfortably, from $2,455). Situated on the edge of resort property for maximum peacefulness, over the Seven Seas Lagoon, the bungalows continue the classic Disney South Pacific playfulness with surfboard headboards and bamboo furniture. Adjust the volume dial on the deck to tune in to the music that accompanies the Magic Kingdom nightly fireworks show and order up some tiki drinks from room service, or drop the kids off at Lilo’s Playhouse, an on-site “children’s activity center,” to enjoy a night out alone. In the morning, board a water taxi or jump on the nearby monorail for a quick ride to the park.
De-emphasize Disney with a stay at the Alfond Inn (from $299) in nearby Winter Park. Don’t be surprised if you see professors conducting classes in the lobby: The 119-room luxury boutique hotel is owned by Rollins College and serves as a showplace for work from its Cornell Fine Arts Museum, with a new exhibition each April. Join the curator-led Sunday tours of the exhibition, then walk down Winter Park’s main street, Park Avenue, to the newly expanded Morse Museum, which boasts the largest collection of works from Louis Comfort Tiffany in the country.
Where to Eat
Try a West Coast oyster shooter with sake, dashi, and tobiko ($4) and the signature caramelized-onion soup with oxtail ($13) at DoveCote. Former French Laundry chef Clayton Miller paired with local James Beard nominees James and Julie Petrakis for this modern brasserie. Try the chicken-and-sausage cassoulet ($14) or the fried-chicken sandwich with honey hot sauce ($9) during the newly launched Sunday brunch.
Head to Disney’s reinvented nightlife center, which opened as Disney Springs a year and a half ago, for upscale shopping and dining (including restaurants by five James Beard Award–winning chefs) set on a pedestrian-only island. Try Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s first Pan-Asian restaurant, Morimoto Asia, which has a 36-foot-tall dining room, grand staircase, and glass-enclosed exhibition kitchen. Kids can order hot dogs on a bao bun with boba tea ($12) from an origami menu; parents should try Morimoto’s whole Peking duck ($27). After dinner, don’t miss the Disney Springs entertainment like the hilarious, family-friendly freestyle rappers Signal Flow, who battle it out daily at the waterfront amphitheater outside the Boathouse. End your night with Amphicar, a vintage convertible turned boat that literally drives guests into the water, then motors around Lake Buena Vista on a tour of Disney Springs ($125 per car).
On the 17th floor of the Four Seasons Orlando is Capa, a Spanish steakhouse with a breathtaking view of the various Disney parks in the distance. Start with a Capa Gin Tonic ($17), with colorful floating flowers, in the sultry Capa bar, then move to the terrace for an aged-steak dinner under the stars. With your steak, try a few tapas like shishito peppers with chorizo ($10). Time it right to see the nightly fireworks shows from the terrace.
Get treated like royalty at Cinderella’s Royal Table (from $38.36 for kids; $62.95 adults), an elaborate meal inside the Magic Kingdom’s Cinderella Castle, with primo photo opps with the princesses (the only characters who speak). At breakfast opt for the shrimp and grits, and kids will love the Mickey-shaped waffle while they get to know Ariel, Snow White, and the other princesses who circulate to each table and never break character. Parents will enjoy the gothic décor, relative calm, and bottomless coffee.
What to Do
Skip the lines — all of them — when you (and up to ten friends) take a Disney VIP Tour (starts at $400 an hour; 407-560-4033) through your choice of Walt Disney World Resort parks. Don’t worry about transportation: Your guide picks you up and takes you through the employee entrance, where you’re greeted with snacks and water bottles. Tell your guide which parks or rides you’re interested in, or let them tailor the tour based on interests and ages. You’ll sit front row at shows (and get more attention from entertainers), and you’ll be “fast passed” onto rides like Space Mountain. First timers should opt for the Ultimate Disney Classics Tour ($199; 407-939-7529) to knock off all the Magic Kingdom staples, plus a meeting with Mickey, in four hours.
Go on the three-hour, behind-the-scenes tour of the newly renovated Harambe Wildlife Reserve at Disney’s Animal Kingdom park on its Wild Africa Trek (from $189 per person; ages 8 and up). Clip into a harness and stick with your guide as you cross the elevated rope bridge over the Safi River, a hippo and alligator habitat. Be sure to ask your guide about the park’s extensive conservation efforts and animal-reintroduction programs when you stop to eat from your camp tin of snacks like smoked salmon rolls. And leave the selfie stick at home: A photographer will be documenting the trip, and access to photos is included. Starting May 27, 2017, you can also hit Pandora, a new 12-acre land inspired by Avatar; it will include a bioluminescent rain forest.
Get a bird’s-eye view of Orlando from a glass capsule 400 feet up on the new Coca-Cola Orlando Eye ($20). The Ferris wheel, modeled after the London Eye, opened last spring in the I-Drive 360 complex, one of the city’s non-Disney tourist zones. Book a private capsule for up to 15 guests (from $275) for the 20-minute ride, with optional Champagne, and choose how many rotations your glass capsule makes on its way around.
Get sporty and book a court ($12 per hour) or lesson ($15 per hour) or catch a free pro circuit or collegiate match at the new United States Tennis Association National Campus headquarters, which opened in January. It’s the largest tennis campus in the country, with 64 acres and 100 courts. Cheer on Orlando’s Major League Soccer teams, the Orlando City Lions and Orlando Pride, at the new Orlando City Stadium (from $85), which was designed to maximize crowd noise, when it opens this spring. Or catch performances from the Orlando Ballet, Dionne Warwick, or the Upright Citizen’s Brigade at the two-year-old Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts (from $17.50) downtown.
From Kristen Manieri, the founder and editor of OrlandoDateNight.com and author of the book Great Dates Orlando.
Recharge your batteries and soak up the sun at The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes spa, a hot spot for locals seeking a luxe refuge. There’s a gorgeous outdoor (adults-only) pool area and indoor co-ed relaxation room, plus the spa’s lunch bento boxes and cocktails.
Hand your palate over to the chef at Luma on Park, where a kitchenside chef’s table gives guests the chance to swoon over nine or more courses showcasing Florida’s seasonal and local fare.
For craft cocktails, visitors should definitely stop into The Courtesy Bar, one of Orlando’s first bars celebrated for its “culinary take” on cocktails.
Locavores will want to make a stop at East End Market, a food hub that pays homage to places like Chelsea Market. Inside, you’ll find freshly made bread, artisanal cheeses, local beer, freshly pressed juice, and locally roasted coffee. It’s a superb munch-and-stroll spot. Stop by P Is for Pie for its legendary hand pies in sweet or savory options.
Tasty Chomps is a food and restaurant blog written by Ricky Ly, the resident expert of Orlando’s food scene.
My Disney Experience is the official Disney planning site where you can book reservations and the all-important fast passes.