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Orlando is now about a great deal more than just Walt Disney World and fun times for the kids.

These days there are plenty of adult entertainments and activities, and catering for all standards of traveler from budget conscious to luxury seekers.

 
 
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Upmarket Orlando for the Deluxe Traveler

More than Mickey Mouse for more than children
 

Fine dining in a sophisticated setting combined with splendid service sets Victoria and Albert's in Disney's Grand Floridian Resort apart.

You're served a sumptuous seven-course meal on white linen set with Royal Doulton china and sparkling crystal in this AAA Five-Diamond awarded restaurant .

 

 

It is true that the Walt Disney World complex kickstarted the Orlando area as a tourist mecca.  But since WDW opened in 1971, the Orlando area has becoming increasingly more diverse in terms of things to do and vacation experiences offered.

It is still a wonderful playground for the young and the young at heart, but it is now also possible for more sophisticated travelers to stay in hotels that don't have packs of noisy children running up and down the hallways at all hours, and to similarly dine and enjoy themselves in luxury.

Whether you want to shop, dine, relax, or experience activities and adventures, you'll find the Orlando area has lots to enjoy, and a wonderful variety of hotels in Orlando Florida, almost as many and varied as even in Vegas.

The History of Orlando

The history of Orlando can be traced back to 1838 and the establishment of an Army fort just south of today's city limits.

A small settlement grew up around the fort, and in 1856 changed its name to Orlando.  The town was incorporated in 1875 (with 85 inhabitants, 22 of whom were qualified voters), and reincorporated as a city in 1885.

But for all intents and purposes, the story of Orlando really starts in 1965.  Until that time, it was notable primarily for growing oranges, an Air Force Base (McCoy Air Force Base --  now closed and converted to Orlando international Airport, which is why the airport code is MCO) and being reasonably close to Cape Canaveral.  In 1965, Orlando's future took a sharp turn upwards when Walt Disney announced his decision to locate is Walt Disney World complex in the Orlando area.  He had also considered areas around Tampa and Miami, but settled on Orlando, in particular due to it being less susceptible to hurricanes.

These days the Metro area has a population of approximately 1.4 million, and it is the fourth largest metropolis in the Southeast United States.

Orlando hosts over 50 million tourists every year, and has the largest inventory of hotel rooms of any city in the nation outside of Las Vegas.

Historically, accommodation has been targeted at the budget and middle-of-the-road type traveler, but subsequent to the opening of the Orange County convention Center in the early 2000s, five star hotels started to open up.  In 2010, there are now more than 10 five star hotels located outside of the Walt Disney World complex.  The most recent luxury hotel to open is the Waldorf Astoria Orlando, being the first Waldorf Astoria hotel custom-built since its best known New York city hotel was opened in 1931.

The importance of Disney to the Orlando area cannot be overstated, but these days the area has become so large that it has achieved 'critical mass' and continues to grow not just because of Disney, but as a result of all the other attractions in the area as well.  Depending on how you define and count them, there are over 100 different tourist attractions in the greater Orlando area.

This reduced reliance on Disney has also allowed for branching out into more upmarket type tourist attractions and activities (although it should also be wryly noted that a visit to Disney World itself is not for the financially faint of heart).

Where to Enjoy Luxury Stays in Orlando

Three of Orlando's finest hotels would include the Reunion Resort and Club, south of the Disney area, the Waldorf Astoria, very close to the Disney area, and the Ritz Carlton, close to Seaworld.

Actually inside the Disney Complex is their Grand Floridian Resort and Span, and at Universal Studios there is Loews Portofino Bay Hotel.

A downtown Orlando hotel would be the Grand Bohemian.  Another highly regarded hotel, close to Disney, and which has been around for longer than most is the Peabody, renowned (like other Peabody properties) for their ducks.

The Best Places to Dine in Orlando

Although there are some excellent free-standing restaurants in the greater Orlando area, many of the best places to eat can be found inside some of the better hotels.  Perhaps the most notable of such locations would be Victoria and Albert's, Orlando’s only AAA Five-Diamond restaurant, and located in Disney's Grand Floridian Resort.

Also in the Disney complex is Todd English's Bluezoo at the Dolphin Resort.

At the Universal Studios complex, two of the best restaurants have a New Orleans theme, with well known chef Emeril Lagasse operating two restaurants - Emeril's Orlando at Universal CityWalk, and Emeril's Tchoup Chop at Loew's Royal Pacific Resort.

Even Seaworld has an upmarket restaurant - Atlantis.

If you are looking for good but not quite so extraordinarily great dining, there is a 'Restaurant Row' on Sand Lake Rd in Orlando with over 20 reasonably upscale restaurants to choose from (in particular, Roy's and Timpano Italian Chophouse), as well as entertainment venues.

Other names to look out for include Christini's Ristorante Italiano, Del Frisco's Steak House, Flying Fish Cafe, Jiko - The Cooking Place, Le Coq au Vin, MoonFish, California Grill, and Norman's.

Upmarket Shopping

Orlando isn't just factory outlet malls, although it sure has a lot of those.  Belz Festival Bay Mall on International Drive, with 1,000,000 sq ft of retail space is probably the largest, and there is even an upmarket outlet mall - Orlando Premium Outlets.

The Florida Mall, with 270 stores in 1.85 million sq ft of space is one of the largest one level malls in the US.

The Mall at Millenia has 150 stores, including Neiman Marcus, Macy's and Bloomingdales as anchor stores, and luxury stores such as Chanel, Gucci, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Burberry, Salvatore Ferragamo, Jimmy Choo, Zara, Tiffany & Co., Apple, Abercrombie & Fitch, Tommy Bahama's, Juicy Couture, Coach and David Yurman (this is just a sampling, there are many more such as Swarovski).  And if you can't find anything to suit there, you can always do just over the road to the adjacent IKEA store.

Both the Florida Mall and The Mall at Millenia's department stores offer personal shoppers, but it is necessary to make an appointment in advance so as to be sure of having your personal shopper available.

Orlando Fashion Square is another notable mall.

If you'd prefer something other than an enclosed mall, consider the area that styles itself as 'Rodeo Drive East' - Park Avenue in Winter Park.

Orlando also has the country's largest flea market - Sanford Flea World.  This features over 1,700 vendors, and is open Friday-Sunday on Hwy 17/92 in Sanford.

VIP Touring and Sightseeing in Orlando

Disney itself offers VIP touring these days, with the opportunity to enjoy a 'behind the scenes' tour.

For a special time, take a VIP tour at one of Orlando’s famed theme parks for a unique glimpse behind the scenes. Be a trainer for the day at Gatorland or interact with marine life at SeaWorld Orlando, swimming with sharks at Sharks Deep Dive or a private group experience with an Elite Adventure Express Tour.

More adventurous types can hop aboard an airboat for a tour of Florida’s wetlands or frolic with dolphins at Florida Dolphin Tours & Transportation.

You could consider a balloon ride - the early morning rides are very early in the morning, but generally preferable to the later in the afternoon rides (calmer cleaner air).

Perhaps you'd prefer to be in a powered plane.  How about a vintage open cockpit biplane ride at the Fantasy of Flight Museum?  Helicopter rides and even hang gliding is also available.

If you'd prefer to stay closer to the ground, consider going for an airboat ride through the Everglades.  You'll probably see an alligator or two, and maybe even a Bald Eagle.

And talking about speed, there is the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Walt Disney World that sees you behind the wheel of a 600+ hp racing car at speeds of up to 165 mph.

Spas

Since it’s first destination spa opened in 1995, Orlando’s many resorts and hotels have expanded to include special spa treatments for kids and teens as well as families, expectant mothers, men, couples and more. No matter how you like to bask in luxury, Orlando has a way for you to indulge.

Whether you're traveling with kids, the guys or the gal pals, Orlando offers a luxurious spa for you. Choose from the healing hands at The Spa at the Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate, Spa at Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort, Grande Lakes Orlando, or the Mandara Spas at both Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Walt Disney's Dolphin Hotel.

The region's largest spa is also one of the better ones.  This is the 40,000 sq ft Ritz Carlton Spa.

Resources

The official Orlando and Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau website is a good place to start.

For more information on upscale Disney World experiences in Orlando, see the other articles on our own website.

Our thanks to JustLuxe.com for the inspiration and background resource for this story.

 

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Originally published 18 May 2010, last update 19 Dec 2013

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
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