The statistics are clear: in Orlando, there are more amusement parks per square kilometer than anywhere else in the world. In half a century, the city has made it its livelihood: some 66 million visitors were recorded in 2015, a record for the USA, ahead of New York!
While everyone is familiar with Disneyworld and the Universal Orlando Resort, other (much) more surprising attractions have appeared over time… And each year, new mega-projects are born.
Follow the guide, then embark on a dive into Floridian nostalgia, neighborhoods with striking contrasts and (almost) virgin nature. Often overlooked facets of Orlando, which do not lack character.
Cows and amusement parks
Formerly, there was only a savannah dotted with lakes and palmettos, those pretty palm trees not too tall with bushy bouquets. The settlers who came down from the north in the 19th century added cows, ranches, and then orange trees by the thousands. The sector earned its name: Orange County.
The first citrus boom was followed by a second, much more explosive one: the land boom of the 1920s saw the landing of its first Yankees wagons, attracted by this advertising "paradise on earth" with a soothing climate.
Patatras: in 1926, the speculative bubble imploded, the Great Depression followed and everything collapsed. Orlando returns to his cows and his orange trees. Despite a few nudges from the post-war American army, it was only in 1965 that the revolution took place: that year, Walt Disney secretly scoop 30 acres (500 km123) of land at a floor rate of $ 2 per acre. Nice deal. Soon, the announcement is official: Mickey's dad is embarking on the construction of the greatest attraction in the history of Florida.
The rest is only pure capitalist logic. Real estate prices are skyrocketing, the population is increasing tenfold, and today Orlando finds itself at the head of a agglomeration of 2,7 million inhabitants !
Americans have a perfect phrase to describe the situation: boom town, as the mushroom towns that grew in the wake of the gold diggers were once called. The only difference: here, the vein does not seem about to dry up.
The head is spinning. Disney arrogates to itself three exits on the I-4 motorway to serve its 4 main parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood studios), where the wallet is constantly bordering on a heart attack ... The Universal Orlando Resort, more modest, is satisfied with one for Universal Studios, Islands of adventure and the water park Volcano bay.
Major axis of fun, I'Drive (International Drive), parallel to I-4, stretches its 18 km between 23 major shopping centers, dozens of hotels and motels, hundreds of restaurants and fast food outlets. The magic formula here is the all-U-can-eat buffet: Chinese, Brazilian, Japanese and Italian (operetta), lobster, everything is at will - even the shots in the Capone's Dinner & Show and the jousting between knights at Medieval Times… From tourist strip (the tourist axis) to tourist trap (tourist trap), there is often only one step!
To start off cool, there's no shortage of choice. A go-kart ride, vroum vroum. A family minigolf at Congo River Adventure, with monkey bridges and real alligators as crocodiles. The house upside down Wonderworks. Skeleton museum, with its two-headed calves, its various malformations, its dwarf and its… centaur. The 2 m140 of Golf Superstore, Halloween Megastore and Port of Entry Christmas Shoppe to prepare for the holidays (but Marge's does even better, further on, on the Orange Blossom Trail).
The empire of superlatives
To attract customers, there is only one solution: add more. The Fun Spot America unrolls the highest skycoaster in the world (almost free fall of 91 m)… Broutille.
SeaWorld, in decline since activists set out to free its orcas, has invested in the increased thrill with the roller coaster Mako, a hypercoaster reaching 117 km / h - on which the star-spangled banner proudly flies. Fastest, longest, tallest… superlatives rain down while waiting for the inauguration of the Skyplex, roller coasters even faster, madly anchored to the sides of a tower.
Exit 78, the heart swings. On the left, shopping galore. To the right, Holy Land Experience, in his fantasized palace of King David with golden columns… From the parking lot, an XXL crib with an obese baby sets the tone: kitsch and colorful. Inside: an "authentic" copy of the Ark of the Covenant, cardboard Jesuses, Roman soldiers not at all credible, Jonah in the company of an animated octopus in the whale's bowels… and the son of God reincarnated, who baptizes live on stage, before finding himself duly crucified and dripping with tomato juice. But at the exit, the trimmed bushes strike the message: he is risen - he is risen!
Exit 64, Machine Gun America brings the crowning touch (final touch). Children can learn to use the submachine gun ($ 100) there from 13 years old to cool the effigies of Bin Laden. Too expensive ? Cut out the Enjoy Florida Magazine coupon for a free gun rental at the Orlando Gun Club (3721 Vineland Rd)…
The mega-structures haven't quite succeeded in killing the retro Florida that smells of swamps yet. The proof with theAlligator Park Wild Florida and its competitor Gatorland, founded in 1949 at the dawn of the leisure society. So as not to end up out, the house now offers to pose as close as possible to crocodiles and even to let toddlers ride young saurians (the beak discreetly attached by an invisible band).
The jai-alai, the Latin version of the Basque pelota, which made the heyday of the Florida of the years 1960-80 and its punters, has bowed out. In Longwood, the Sanford Orlando Kennel Club, inaugurated in 1935, where white Cuban grandparents and grandmothers meet 5 afternoons a week to attend greyhound racing. 12 of the last 19 dog tracks in the country are in Florida, all threatened by declining revenue and animal NGOs.
In the freshness of an air-conditioned room with an airport look, dozens of TV screens broadcast live canine and horse races - you have to live. Place your bets: win (winner), place (placed 1 or 2), show (placed in the first 3), quiniela (coupled), trifecta (tiercé) or superfecta (quarté). Outside, laps are linked around a ¼ mile ring.
With the swing distance, Born to do it, Champagne Flute, Stack of cash and their congeners cover 550 yards (503 m) in… 31 seconds! As soon as you finish, head to the mini-pool to cool off. How about adopting a retired greyhound?
Those who knew the city in the years 1980-90 do not find their Latin there. While America is changing fast, Orlando seems to be constantly getting a facelift. The bar complex of Church Street Station, which revolved around the iconic Rosie O'Grady's saloon and its dancers waving their legs to New Orleans tunes, gave way to a somewhat dead ensemble revamped around the old station - renovated for the arrival of the SunRail .
Now we look west, across I-4, where theAmway center, HQ of Orlando Magics basketball players (who had Shaquille N'Neal in their ranks) and Solar Bears hockey players, stands next to what will soon be the city's new football stadium.
On the east side, the eye of the lake Eola, surrounded by sculptures, flashes in the night to the rhythm of the luminous flashes of its fountain, symbol of the city. The joggers go around it assiduously, before letting themselves be swallowed up by the shady streets lined with beautiful wooden huts, some very old, with roofs licked by the garlands of Spanish moss.
A few blocks to the northeast, another world opens up: here is Little saigon, wedged between Shine and Mills, on Colonial Drive, where you devour a steaming phở (soup), before going to stock up on dragon fruits (pitayas) at the nearby Saigon Market.
Winter Park, an unrealistic parenthesis
“Anybody who's somebody lives in Winter Park”. Born at the turn of the 20th century, the district, founded by wealthy northerners who came to warm up in the Florida sun, is made up of a multitude of lakes around which often cobbled streets and alleys weave their web. Tropical vegetation echoes noble houses affirming a neoclassical or Spanish revival style - inspired by the architecture of Latin American colonial cities.
Here reside businessmen, surgeons and various heirs. We find them in the morning on Park Avenue, behind the wheel of their convertible Rolls, or sipping a latte at Panera while tapping on their keyboard.
This is at Winter Park, in 1885, that the first university in Florida was inaugurated: the Rollins College, holding a universal education based on the classical arts. A century and a few later, artists, poets, musicians and other planetary anthropologists come to give lectures there for the happiness of some 3 students (it takes nearly $ 200 in tuition fees per year!). We visit the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, a museum of art and ethnography largely endowed with the donations of the wealthy residents of Winter Park.
At 445 North Park Avenue, a stone's throw from the Filthy Rich jewelry store (rich as Croesus), the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of Art houses the most beautiful collection of Tiffany in the world, including the chapel created by the master for the Chicago World Expo in 1893. Gallé, Lalique, Majorelle are there too, alongside a collection of American paintings.
Wekiva Springs, nature side
Less than 15 minutes from downtown Orlando, stretches the green suburb ofApopka. Where the last houses of the American way of life are lost in the stridences of insects, the Wekiva Springs State Park draws a large parenthesis of nature bringing back to the original Florida, stripped of its air conditioning.
Many come for the spring, which feeds a vast basin of cool emerald-colored waters, and to explore the crevices of its underwater labyrinth. But there is much more: a river meandering in its own maze of meanders, flooded meadows, tangled trunks, palm trees and bald cypress trees.
During the week, the place is almost deserted. The canoe, gliding gently through the green cathedral, surprises a blue heron posted on its branch, then others. Turtles line up on the stumps. In the dry season, the level of the river drops in places until it becomes stranded. A good opportunity to wade through.
In places, open banks invite to stopover, picnic. Others have to fight against the colonizing carpet of water hyacinths, from which emerges the discreet periscope of an alligator with black eyes circled in yellow.
A cloud passes: three, four white ibis with long curved orange beaks. They land a little further, let themselves approach a few meters and redeploy their wings. Further ahead, it is a fish eagle that is bombing, perched just above the Wekiva, in defiance of the stand-up paddles and canoes.
Find all the useful information, addresses and tips for Orlando in the Florida Routard.
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How to get there ?
No direct flights between Europe and Orlando, but you can easily reach the city via Miami or any of the country's major airports (depending on the company). On site, car rental is required to be able to move around freely. On the other hand, on International Drive, you can use the trolleys ($ 2 per trip or $ 5 per day; www.iridetrolley.com).
When to go
The best season to visit Florida is winter: the weather is nice, warm but not too hot, and the many migrating birds and alligators are easier to spot. In summer, it rains heavily and the temperature can be sweltering. What's more, hurricanes regularly threaten the region during this time - and until at least October.
Between the rise of the dollar against the euro and the general rise in prices, finding accommodation in the United States has become expensive.
Small budgets, forget the hostels, now almost all reserved for homeless people, and prefer camping: there are superb ones all over Florida - including a very pleasant one at Wekiva Springs State Park.
Motels are still there, but fewer in number than before - at rates rarely dropping below $ 60 a double on a lean day (prices rise disproportionately with demand).
Most of the accommodation is concentrated in the (expensive) downtown area and around the amusement parks, where the Disney and Universal hotels have prices that could put you off ...