|Once upon a time, Orlando was a small town
surrounded by cow pastures and citrus fields. When you went
"downtown," you knew exactly where that was. No more.
Orlando's urban sprawl, spawned by the phenomenal success and expansion of Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, Sea World and a host of smaller attractions, has turned those cow pastures into planned communities that house a wide range of residents, from Disney's 55,000 "cast members" to sports celebrities and millionaires. Now, virtually all of Central Florida defines itself by its distance from Orlando, while Orlando defines its own mega-sprawl by its distance from Disney World. Towns that once had identities of their own now fight to retain that identity, succeeding in varying degrees. None, however, tries to avoid that inevitable relationship with the Mouse that has turned Orlando into a megalopolis and many of the meek into millionaires.
Getting there and getting around
Every major commercial airline and many charter aircraft fly into burgeoning Orlando International Airport or the much smaller Sanford International Airport. Amtrak trains connect the city with cities along the U.S. east coast with stops in Kissimmee, Winter Park and Orlando, while Amtrak's Auto Train boards both passengers and their cars for the trip between Lorton, Virginia near Washington D.C. to Sanford, a small town just north of Orlando. Greyhound buses bring people here from every corner of the nation.
Above all things, you need to know that if you expect to get around this vast Central Florida area with any degree of comfort, you will need a car. You will also need to allow more travel time than the distance would suggest. Even Central Florida's main interstate artery, I-4, is gridlocked at peak traffic hours from 7am-9am and from 4pm-6pm and very busy at almost any other time.
Every national rental car chain operates here, along with some smaller car rental operations. They're used to tourists renting a car in one Florida city and dropping it off here or vice versa, although they charge you an additional fee to do that. Get as current a map as you can find. Roads are being built even as you read this, and highway signs often assume you know much more than you do. There is good news, however. Because Central Florida was once sparsely populated and there are vast amounts of acreage up this way, there was plenty of room to build roads, so even the most remote routes are four- or six-lane highways, easy to negotiate.
Sadly, the downside of that is that once you're on a highway, you don't have much time to make decisions on what exit you need and where exactly you're going. Allow plenty of time to drive slowly enough to make your way across multiple lanes when you find the exit you're seeking. If you rent a car in Orlando or elsewhere, you might consider renting a mobile phone as well. It can be a big help in getting instructions if you get lost. Don't be shy about asking for directional help at your hotel, a gas station or an attraction. Driving is, of course, on the right hand side of the road. Seat belts are mandatory, and right turns can be made on a red light, as you will discover from the blaring horns you'll hear if you don't take advantage of the opportunity. U-turns are permitted unless there are signs prohibiting them.
A look at Orlando's "neighborhoods"
Walt Disney World
If you're planning to settle into this huge theme park and spend all of your time there, you'll find everything from hotels to shopping, restaurants, sports and nightlife within the park. You can settle into a hotel and use Disney's bus, boat and monorail transportation to get anywhere you want to go inside the park. Often that's the easiest path to take, as it eliminates parking problems. Within the park are thousands of hotel rooms to fit a wide range of budgets, and all provide shuttle transportation that gets you to WDW's four theme parks, three water parks and sundry other diversions. A monorail zips passengers to many destinations; boats and buses serve all the others, and the wait is rarely more than a few minutes.
That U.S. 192 refers to a long strip of multi-laned highway that streaks along an east-west route from the small but sprawling towns of Kissimmee and St. Cloud to Walt Disney World and beyond. This busy artery isn't much to look at, but it is the epicenter of moderately priced accommodations located outside the Walt Disney World park grounds.
On this highway, which is usually under construction and sports more traffic lights than one would prefer, are dozens of budget- to moderate-price hotels, locked in competition so fierce that you'll often see signs advertising room rates in the $30-$40 range, even less in really slow seasons. Here, too, are dozens of inexpensive restaurants ranging from fast food to ethnic options, grocery stores, discount shopping malls, and dinner show entertainment.
U.S. 192, also called Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway, stretches from downtown Kissimmee past the main entry gate to Walt Disney World and to U.S. 27, which is roughly the western edge of Orlando. Heading north from a point about midway along the main stretch of U.S. 192 is S.R. 535, which also leads to I-4 and International Drive. This was once all cow country, and you can still attend top ridin' and ropin' rodeos in Kissimmee Rodeo and Sports Arena.
This big interstate highway connects Tampa on the west and Daytona Beach in the east, streaking past exits leading to Orlando's theme park and hotel districts. It is vital to remember that although the road is actually heading north at many points, everything along it is keyed to the "west" direction of Tampa and the "east" direction of Daytona Beach. All the theme parks and hundreds of hotels are accessible from this interstate highway. Avoid rush hour from 7am-9am and 4pm-6pm if you can.
This long byway was once the way to Orlando's Convention Center, a few hotels and precious little else. Today, you can barely find the street sign, so jammed is this byway with shopping malls, attractions, towering hotels and restaurants. An intriguing site here is the giant teddy bear and huge pair of pink high heels, they're Barbie's, at FAO Schwartz, plunked down by a huge classical Greek temple structure...turned upside-down with its palm trees hanging, trunk-up, branches down. Whew!
Nevertheless, the Orlando Convention Center, which is about to double in size, lures a constant round of meetings, large and small, so for conventioneers, particularly, this boulevard is a vital cog in the Orlando machine. For everyone else, there are some very nice hotels here, and you can often find some very attractive rates on weekends and between conventions.
When Universal Studios moved in to compete ear-to-ears with the Mouse, a community of hotels, restaurants and all the rest grew up around it. While Universal's two parks do not yet begin to rival WDW in size, the surrounding area is growing fast. You'll find a Universal Studios exit off I-4.
Yes, there is a downtown Orlando, although few who come to Orlando ever see much of it. Downtown Orlando is, in fact, one of the prettiest parts of the city, blessed with tree-lined neighborhoods, attractive older homes and its fair share of, but not too many'shops, restaurants, lounges and entertainment areas.
Church Street Station, a cluster of themed dining, dancing and imbibing spots crowned by a steam-driven calliope, is the best known diversion in the downtown area and is, in fact, one of the most popular evening entertainment areas in Orlando. A number of other entertainment and shopping facilities have grown up around it.
This small but rapidly growing town was created, lock, stock and barrel-shaped water tower by the Disney corporation, intent on creating a picture-perfect community, using the latest views on neighborhood socialization. Rimmed by white fencing, Celebration is a cluster of Victorian-style homes on neat streets, with townhouses on a crescent-shaped street, courtesy of Olde England. Celebration's homes, many of which are in the $350,000-$700,000 range, circle a central shopping, dining and entertainment area with attractive shops and cafes. It now has a pleasant, small hotel as well.
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