Doing Orlando on the Cheap
Feature image courtesy of Sheraton Orlando / Photos by Jennifer Hartley
Even though it appears Spring has finally arrived, it is never too late to head South and it is always a good time to go to Florida.
Orlando has the reputation of being the theme park capital of the world, and while it has it for good reason, there is much more going on in this eclectic city. In fact, I keep going back to Orlando because it fascinates me. Each time I visit, I focus on a different experience. Last year it was non-theme park Orlando (check it out here). This time it was doing Orlando on the cheap and it turns out you don’t need break the bank for a good time. Here are a few tips.
Getting There and Getting Around
When booking a flight to Orlando, avoid weekends and Tuesdays are a great outbound day. From Ottawa, you can get there for under $200 each way with Air Canada if you catch a break. Or fly through Syracuse. Once there, hotwire.com a car. You need one to get around. Hotwire is cheap, but you will have to be firm in your plans as you can’t change your reservation.
Orlando has it all in terms of sleeping options. Themed hotels are fun. No question about it. They offer unique experiences, but you pay for it. There are the usual, cheap brand options which are fine, of course, but they usually don’t have kitchens or amenities. Furthermore, you will spend dough on restaurants.
Stay at a resort hotel that has space, incredible pools, activities and where all suites come with a full kitchen. The Sheraton Vistana Villages Resort on International Drive is the place for this. It is a massive facility so you won’t feel hemmed in or cramped. Some Snowbirds live there over the winter which is always a good sign that is a comfortable space. The rooms are spacious and can accommodate the whole family.
As for the property, it is a beautiful, peaceful oasis. There is everything you could ever want onsite, including BBQ areas on the property. That is a treat in February.
The Sheraton Vistana Villages Resort has been designed to have that hospitable, relaxed environment that resorts have that other types of accommodation lack.
As tempting as it is to remain onsite and not get out and see sights, don’t do it. However, build some time to chill at the resort. You won’t regret it.
Eat in your suite. Cheapest way. Period. Pack lunches and snacks when you go out. Grab food at grocery stores. There is a small groceteria at the hotel, but it is a bit more expensive than grocery stores.
Cheap Stuff to Do
Why not try to combine various experiences. Enjoy the outdoors and Orlando-specific fun (orange picking, and parks), hit a theme park, indulge in food, and learn. You can do all of that in 3-4 days (to avoid weekend travel.)
You know your morning hit of OJ comes from Florida so why not visit an orchard? Showcase of Citrus is a fantastic experience. It is free to stroll through and visit. There are over 50 varieties of citrus. You can pick your own fruit and take a ride on the 4×4 Monster Truck (which, as a concept, deterred me immediately but turned out to be fascinating.)
The Monster Truck tour guide/driver teaches you about the different types of oranges and their history. It is actually a very interesting way to learn about oranges. The ride takes you around the large property and you can feed large animals, large as in a Texas longhorn, water buffalo, or a zebra. Fret not, you are safe on the 4×4. Who knew they eat less-than-fresh citrus.
On top of that, the guide will offer a hit of regional history along the way.
Worthy of a visit is donut heaven. About 15 miles down the highway lies Donut King in Clermont. Driving there you might question your sanity driving that distance for donuts. However, it is donut mecca. One bite in a glazed masterpiece makes time stand still. There are fancy donuts, massive American portioned donuts too and unique-flavoured gems. Indulge. People come from far away just to grab a dozen. Be one of them. They are also very inexpensive.
Lake Eola Park
Take your donuts and chill in Lake Eola Park back in Orlando. This 43-acre recreational area is amazing. You can picnic along the shore, enjoy a concert at the Walt Disney Amphitheater, feed the swans, rent a boat. There's also free outdoor yoga on Sunday mornings, a market on Sunday mornings and it is just a beautiful place to unwind.
Kennedy Space Center
This is an absolutely phenomenal place to experience the wonders of human curiosity. Learn about the universe we live in, feel the awe and absolute respect and reverence for human potential and human ambition to explore that universe. It is a shame they only focus on American contributions to space exploration, but it is NASA after all.
The majesty of the machines that have gone beyond our wildest dreams is inspiring and the human stories of dedication and determination even more so.
Make the time for the 2.5 hour bus tour to see launch pads. And slap on another hour for wait times. They can be long to get the buses that are obligatory. You can’t walk around.
A visit to Kennedy is a fraction of the cost of the theme parks and is in fact, the real stuff upon which dreams are made.
You will also see lots of wildlife. There are alligators and other animals everywhere, as it is a natural reserve. That was a surprise.
Close to Kennedy is Cocoa Beach. (I dream of Jeannie fame). It is an absolutely, beautiful beach. The thing with Orlando is that it is inland so there are no beaches nearby. You need to drive about an hour. However, slap on a visit to Cocoa Beach on your Kennedy visit. If there is a launch at Kennedy that day, you will have a great view without having to brave crowds. You will get your hit of sun, beach and relaxation there. Be sure to bring snacks and water.
There are places to spend your cash that are worth it. Universal is one of them. I have been there twice and each time I leave wanting more. The expensive part of Universal is the ticket in but once inside, you don’t need to hit all the concession stands or souvenir stands. Pick and choose your expenses.
One of the great things about it is a compact and easy to explore on foot and is a total thrill for everyone. Technology has dramatically changed the rollercoaster ride experience from when today’s parents were young, and it will blow your mind and that of your kids with full stereo and 3-D video effects. The Simpsons ride will have you howling and Jimmy Fallon’s Ride through New York is an absolute riot and is not to be missed. As you wait for your turn to ride, they entertain you with a quartet of live singers.
Nothing can prepare you for the magnificence of the wonders of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Take your time exploring Diagon Alley to experience the level of painstaking detail that has gone into recreating that world. The ride Escape from Gringotts is incredible.
Volcano Bay is a waterpark themed area at Universal, with a fake beach to boot, if you are into that kind of thing. It has waves and an impressive volcano for backdrop. There is a water coaster (prepare to be drenched) and you can chill there if you do need a break.
It was my first time and there are three words to describe Disney: massive, breathtaking and overwhelming. Be sure to do your homework before going to choose what you want to see otherwise you can wander around lost. There are different theme parks and you need a week just to visit Disney alone. You can also part with a lot of cash here, so be forewarned.
Lines can be long so now is a great time to go. You could also time your visit to go at the end of the day. Lines are shorter. Be sure to catch fireworks at night. They are stunning. The Star Wars ride alone is worth the trip to Disney but really, you need to plan this one out. It is not a spontaneous kind of visit.
Orlando is fabulous any time of the year. Just go. Orlando has so much going on, you need multiple visits to experience it. For example, if you like hiking, there are nature trails. There are excellent restaurants and still so much to explore. For now, I see a fitness/foodie Orlando tour in my future.