I often hear people saying, “I’m going to Disney” and not “I’m going to Orlando.” What people don’t seem to realize is that there is SO MUCH to do in Orlando other than Disney!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big Disney girl. I’m 20 years old and I asked my parents for princess DVDs for Christmas. But there’s so much more to Orlando that I’m about to show you.
I’ll include a bit about my experience at Disney World and Universal’s Orlando (mostly The Wizarding World of Harry Potter), but the point of this blog is to show you what else that wonderful section of this amazing country has to offer.
For starters, it’s the same as any other town in that you can find nearby zoos, aquariums, and museums that have absolutely no affiliation with Disney or Universal.
I highly recommend renting a car if you fly to Orlando because it’s not that expensive and you’ll be able to see so much more than if you used Disney transportation and cabs during your whole trip.
For instance, we drove to Winter Park, FL (home of Rollins College) when my family and I were there this past December.
Maybe it was the “Winter” in the title that made us want to go there when it was over 80 degrees in December, but it was even more than we bargained for. We took a scenic boat tour (and several people were out on the lake, hello Florida weather) and walked through the village and around the Rollins campus.
Winter Park is definitely a more expensive residential area. The houses are BEAUTIFUL, which you’ll see if you take the scenic boat tour that we did. It’s very reasonably priced. I’m not a big boat person but it was a very smooth ride and the tour guide was great. If there is inclement weather, they will give you a rain check ticket but I suggest you plan your trip to Winter Park around the weather forecast. If it rains at Disney World, you can duck into a store until it passes.
When I was younger, one of my favorite things to do in Orlando was visit this nearby farm/petting zoo. I have memories of my parents milking cows, something I was terrified to try. I have pictures of myself holding baby chickens and posing near a train with my younger brother. I also remember seeing the pigs and then buying my own little stuffed version, but then leaving it behind in the hotel and crying for weeks afterwards. The next time we visited Orlando, I bought myself a new one even though I was probably too old to have a little stuffed pig.
Animal Kingdom and Disney’s Boardwalk
In my recent trip to Orlando, we spent most of our days with Harry Potter and not with the princesses. I enjoyed my time at Hogwarts, but I was a little sad that we didn’t get to Disney. My brother and I wanted to spend a day at Magic Kingdom, but they reached capacity and our parents weren’t feeling it anyway. Instead, we had lunch and spent the afternoon at Disney’s Boardwalk. Be forewarned – if you don’t have reservations (with a reservation number), you have to vallet. This might have been a holiday thing because it was so crowded, I’m not sure.
We walked around the hotels along the boardwalk and admired the Gingerbread creations and Christmas trees. Then we headed over to the Animal Kingdom Lodge a few hours early for our 5:30 dinner reservations at Sanaa. The lodge’s backyard consists of giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, ostriches, cattle, and more. It was incredible, and we were very close to them.
The idea is that while eating at Sanaa, you can look out the windows and feel like you’re in Africa while you’re eating African cuisine. It worked. However, it got dark soon after we sat down, and then we couldn’t see the animals. I recommend doing lunch instead of dinner there so you can get that experience. It was so cool, guys.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Oh my dear Lord.
I have to be honest here…I didn’t read Harry Poter until about a year ago. I fell in love with it all right away, obviously. As soon as I finished reading, I watched all the movies. Then I read them again. So don’t yell at me for waiting so long 😉.
The second I walked into this place my face started to hurt from smiling so hard. You should go as soon as the park opens to avoid lines, especially if it’s a holiday week because they sometimes reach capacity.
I recommend starting with Hogsmeade so you can get on the Hogwarts ride before the lines get long. And I definitely recommend waiting for it because WOW is that a cool ride. My dad and my brother, who have never read HP rode with me and they thought it was really cool too. I couldn’t stop smiling. I screamed out loud at a dementor and oh gosh I wish I could show you the picture, but you know how it is…they charge you like $30 for one 4X6.
Make sure you check out every last store because they are all SO COOL. From Honydukes to Ollivander’s, they’re all there. Wait on line to have Ollivander let your wand choose you (though he will only pick one from each group that goes in). Ride the dragon themed roller coaster, which once had nothing to do with Harry Potter but now represents the first task in the tri-wizard tournament from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Don’t forget to get fitted for your school robes before you go to Diagon Alley.
Take the train from Kings Cross Station to Diagon Alley (and back from platform 9 3/4, where you’ll walk through the wall). Watch the streets of London pass by out the window, and see the silhouettes of Harry, Ron, and Hermione walking through the train.
Before you walk into Diagon Alley, you’ll find yourself in front of #12, Grimmauld Place and you can take pictures with Stan Shunpike in front of the Night Bus. You can also enter a telephone booth and dial up the Ministry of Magic.
Diagon Alley is where the real magic begins. Upon entering, you’ll see the dragon on top of the Gringotts building (the Gringotts ride simulates the escape from Gringotts in Harry Potter and the Dealthy Hallows part 2, and it’s really cool). Grab some ice cream from Florean Fortescue’s, eat at the Hogs Head, use your interactive wand in the store windows to make magic happen, check out the quidditch store, even find yourself in Knockturn Alley.
It’s spooky in there. I had a weird experience with an employee who played his part a little too well. I was trying to unlock a door using “Alohamara” with my model of Hermione’s wand while wearing my Gryffindor robe. A man dressed much like a death eater walked up to me and told me I was doing it wrong. I kept trying and exclaimed, “I’m not Hermione, ok?” He responded, “Obviously not. Must be a Hufflepuff.” I shouted, “I’m a Gryffindor!” and unlocked the door. He then instructed me to open the door and I backed away, to which he questioned whether I was actually a Gryffindor.
It was a fantastic experience.
By the way, I AM a Gryffindor. Pottermore said so.
Of course there’s also the rest of Universal – Suess Landing, Jurassic Park, all the things on City Walk, and so much more. There’s Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios. There’s Downtown Disney, there’s endless shopping and mini golf/regular golf. There’s swimming with Dolphins at Discovery Cove, and in the summertime there are waterparks and beaches.
There’s so much to do. Like I said before, there’s nothing wrong with spending your entire week at Disney World and/or Universal. But know that there’s a lot more around you.