Once a sleepy little backwater town with charm to spare, Orlando was transformed into a world-famous tourist destination when Mickey Mouse established his Magic Kingdom in the area. Restaurants, hotels, museums and attractions of all kinds then followed in its wake, catering to the whims of an ever-growing horde of visitors (some 4 million every year).
Downtown Orlando is an interesting blend of 19th-century Victorian buildings, modern high-rises and green spaces surrounding myriad lakes. It features two centres of attraction: the Downtown Arts District and Loch Haven Park, respectively located at the south and north ends of the Cultural Corridor. First on the itinerary is the Orlando City Hall Terrace Gallery, which showcases works by local artists inside-as its name suggests-city hall itself. Heading north up Magnolia Avenue, you can check out art galleries, shops, restaurants and bars, a well as the Orange County Regional Historic Center (65 E. Central Blvd., tel. 407-836-8500, www.thehistorycenter.org), which is set up in a former courthouse that was built in 1920.
Strolling along North Orange Avenue, you will soon come across the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts (1111 N. Orange Ave.), which is home to the Orlando Opera and the Southern Ballet Theater
Lined with countless hotels, restaurants, shopping centres and attractions, International Drive consists of a long corridor that links the major theme parks in the Orlando area.
Orlando is home to several water parks, but the most popular is undoubtedly Wet 'n Wild (6200 International Dr., tel. 407-351-1800 or 800-992-9453, www.wetnwildorlando.com), which was established in 1977. The park boasts a number of water slides, including the 118m-high The Blast tube ride.
WonderWorks (9067 International Dr., tel. 407-351-8800, www.wonderworksonline.com)features a multitude of science-related interactive exhibits and several virtual-reality activities.
A tribute to ancient Jerusalem, The Holy Land Experience (4655 Vineland Rd., tel. 407-529-9770, www.holyland-orlando.com) offers a series of re-enactments of various events described in the Old and New Testaments.
Also of note in the International Drive Resort Area is the Orlando/Orange County Convention Center (9800 International Dr., tel. 407-685-9800, www.orlandoconvention.com), with its 195,000m2 of exhibition space.
Walt Disney World
The Walt Disney World tourist complex stretches over 122km2 and is now ranked as one of the most-visited sites in North America. Opened in 1971, this one-of-a-kind metropolis-unto-itself was the brainchild of its namesake, Walt Disney, unquestionably one of the greatest American creators of the 20th century. It includes the Magic Kingdom park, a revised and improved replica of California's Disneyland, with Cinderella's Castle, Mickey's and Minnie's Country Houses and other attractions; Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), which features two themed areas known as Future World and World Showcase; Disney's Hollywood Studios, a tribute to the worlds of cinema and television; and Disney's Animal Kingdom, a sprawling 200ha theme park with a spectacular production that brings to life the wilderness areas of Africa and Asia through a series of shows, 3D movies and thrill rides.
Universal Studios set up shop in Central Florida in the early 1990s. Universal's first movie theme park was such a rousing success that it was soon followed by another, Islands of Adventure, whose exceptional design revolutionized the genre. Hotels and the City Walk "entertainment complex" for night owls then followed to make the resort an all-around destination after the manner of Walt Disney World.
SeaWorld Adventure Park
Another major theme park in the Orlando area, SeaWorld Adventure Park focuses on marine life and is home to some 20,000 sea creatures. This sprawling 80ha park offers shows and exhibits featuring killer whales, dolphins, sea lions and more, as well as its fair share of roller-coasters and thrill rides. But SeaWorld is also a research centre devoted to the study of marine life and to educating the public.