ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando is the most visited destination in the United States for a fun-damental reason: It’s a blast, definitely for kids, but also for adults, and the list of activities runs as long as some of the lines at popular theme parks.
But like the rides, Orlando is worth the wait.
A destination built on tourism knows how to handle visitors, who numbered a record 68 million in 2016, according to statistics from Visit Orlando.
Those visitors – whether in town for vacation or for business or education at the Orange County Convention Center, the second largest in the U.S. at 7 million square feet – accounted for an economic impact of $64 billion in 2016.
Orlando, of course, is known for Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort and SeaWorld, the “Big Three,” as some say. Those three comprise multiple parks.
Disney includes Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney Hollywood Studios; Universal includes Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Universal’s Volcano Bay; and SeaWorld includes SeaWorld, Aquatica and Discovery Cove.
Within the theme parks are myriad brand-name attractions such as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal and Star Wars experiences at Disney Hollywood Studios.
“Your typical group that’s going to come in and spend a couple of days in Orlando, they’re definitely going to do two things: They’re going to go to a theme park and they’re going to go shopping,” said Brian Scott, president of Largo, Fla.-based Escot Bus Lines, which operates about 45 motorcoaches among about 80 revenue-producing vehicles, providing charters as well as contract service for theme parks.
“Those are the two things you can guarantee are going to happen,” Scott said.
But there also are golf courses galore – Visit Orlando reports more than 170 – and plenty of good food, whether at the world-renowned resorts or elsewhere throughout this sprawling city, part of a metro area of about 2.4 million people.
“There’s a ton of good restaurants,” Scott said. “My, God, if you go hungry in Orlando, you’re just not looking.”
When visiting any of the theme parks, remember comfortable walking shoes – there’s a lot of walking and standing – and be prepared for what can be hot and muggy conditions, depending on time of year.
While lines are a fact of life at some attractions, the parks move people efficiently and their employees are some of the most customer-aware and helpful around when it comes to answering questions.
While Disney, Universal and SeaWorld are huge draws, they’re not the only ones, said C.W. Newman, vice president of Orlando-based Express Transportation, which operates 15 motorcoaches and one van.
“We want to make sure that we don’t make the mistake of putting it out there that that’s the only thing we have to offer,” Newman said.
He noted that other regional attractions include Kennedy Space Center, about 45 minutes east of Orlando International Airport; Legoland Florida Resort in Winter Haven, about an hour southwest of the airport; and glass-bottom boat tours at Silver Springs State Park, where “Tarzan” and “Sea Hunt” were filmed. Silver Springs is about 90 minutes northwest of the airport.
Mimi Vielhauer, who works in sales and marketing at Express Transportation, said Kennedy Space Center is especially popular among the company’s international guests.
Orlando is the No. 4 destination for international visitors in the U.S., according to Visit Orlando.
Other area attractions are the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye, an observation wheel reaching 400 feet above ground that affords views as far as Kennedy Space Center, Vielhauer said.
The Eye is on International Drive in Orlando, a strip that also includes Madame Tussauds and Sea Life Orlando Aquarium.
The observation wheel is billed as the tallest on the East Coast.
For wildlife adventures, guests enjoy viewing manatees at Blue Spring State Park, a designated manatee refuge about an hour north of the airport, or at Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge nearly two hours northwest of the airport, or visiting places like Gatorland in Orlando, she said.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom offers guided safaris through an outdoor preserve of exotic animals and an up-close, behind-the-scenes elevated view of hippos and crocodiles while harnessed to a safety cable.
SeaWorld offers plenty of aquatic creature experiences, including swimming with dolphins at Discovery Cove.
“A lot of people also come for our sports,” Vielhauer said, including professional teams like the NBA’s Orlando Magic, Major League Soccer team the Orlando City Soccer Club, and the Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League.
Both soccer teams play in the new 25,500-seat Orlando City Stadium a block from the Amway Center that hosts the Magic.
The NFL’s Pro Bowl returns to Orlando on Jan. 28 at Camping World Stadium.
Also, the U.S. Tennis Association has a new headquarters facility in Orlando featuring more than 100 courts.
Escape games or rooms are popular, too, Vielhauer said.
Scott of Escot Bus Lines stressed Orlando’s energy.
“There’s a ton of stuff happening,” he said. “Orlando is just going to continue to grow and grow and grow … It’s an exciting place to do business, it’s a good place to be.
“It’s a very, very, very competitive market. Nothing comes free, there are no free lunches to be had, but it’s also a good place to do business. The positives outweigh the negatives.”