Thinking of heading to Orlando with the family this summer? You’re not alone! In fact, the most-visited destination in the country just topped a personal best, and became the first U.S. destination to welcome more than 70 million visitors in one year. (That’s a lotta mouse ears!) As much as we love him, Orlando offers much more than just Mickey, and is constantly rolling out new attractions for visitors of all ages. We recently headed down to check out some of the newest activities for families in Orlando — at Disney parks, Universal Studios Florida, and beyond. Here’s our report!

“Inhabitants” of “Pandora” sing songs taught to them by the native Na’Vi on “Pandora” at Disney’s Wild Kingdom

New Worlds (and Rides!)
One of the reasons Orlando and its parks continue to draw visitors for both first-time and return trips is the over-the-top immersive worlds and experiences that can be found there — and, of course, the rides that go with them.

Construction is underway on Disney’s Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge (coming to Orlando Fall 2019!), but that’s not the only thing happening in the house of mouse. In May of last year, Disney’s Animal Kingdom (the park that celebrates animals of the past, present, and those that are fictional) debuted Pandora—The World of Avatar, inspired by the James Cameron film.

An entirely new “wing” in the park, Pandora seeks to transport visitors to this fictional, future world, hallmarks of which are bioluminescence (the park glows at night!`), enormous “floating” boulders (quite striking), and the humans who have learned the traditions of the native Na’vi. (In an effort to create an truly immersive experience, you’ll hear staff speaking the occasional Na’vi word, enjoy more rustic—but tasty—food in the Pandora restaurant, and hear only nature sounds—not feel-good tunes, as in the rest of the park—from the park’s speakers.)

A view in “Avatar: Flight of Passage”/Disney

Take Your Pick: Thrill, or Chill
The ride experiences are of two extremes here. The first, “Na’vi River Journey” is a soothing, quite beautiful boat ride through caverns filled with bioluminescent flora and fauna, that ends with a greeting from a Na’vi shaman/Disney’s most advanced animatronic to date.

The second, “Avatar: Flight of Passage,” finds visitors mounting a Pandora banshee, or dragon, by way of avatar assignment — a fun pre-ride prep that ties into the movie. The ride itself is a thrilling VR experience that frankly, blew us away. After mounting a chair/banshee and donning VR goggles, riders bob, weave, plummet and soar through the gorgeous, idyllic land of Pandora, with added mist and wind effects completing the mind trick. (You really do feel like you’re taking a 90-degree dive; it’s thrilling, and for thrill-seekers.)

photo: Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Toy Story Land
Disney’s Hollywood Studios debuts Toy Story Land on June 30. Promising to “shrink visitors down to the size of a toy” the new attraction will include two news rides, the Slinky Dog Dash and Alien Swing Saucers, as well as new dining and (naturally) shopping opportunities.  Plus, lots of photo ops with Buzz, Woody, Jessie, and others.

Diagon Alley at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter/photo: Universal Studios Florida

Movie Magic at Universal Studios Florida
Yes, Universal Studios Florida and its sister park, Islands of Adventure, are home to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and no, they are not new. (The impressive Hogsmeade portion debuted at Islands in 2010, while the completely magical and mind-blowing Diagon Alley section at Universal Studios opened in 2014. The attractions are short ride on the Hogwarts Express away, with even the train ride itself being a transporting experience in more ways than one. (You can walk between them, but many people wait in line—sometimes for a quite a while—to hop the train.)

For any die-hard Potterhead (or parent of one), this is already known, but Universal’s Wizarding World is nothing short of extraordinary, a complete, immersive, interactive experience created with incredible detail and (to our eye) deep love and respect for the source material.

With wands that execute spells throughout the shops; a stocked-to-the brim wand store you’re happy to give all your money; butter beer on tap, and yes, a few fun ride experiences (Harry Potter and the Escape from the Gringots at Diagon Alley is a blast). It feels unfair to say “It’s just like being there”; it is being there. Go!

While you wait for Fast & Furious-Supercharged/photo: Universal Studios Florida

Fast Family Fun
The newest addition to Universal Studios opened in April, a ride experience inspired by the Fast & Furious mega movie franchise. Fans of the movies have plenty of opportunity to geek out as they wait in line for the ride itself: small vignettes which reference movie scenes or locales are scattered along the way, and massive garage spaces modeled after those in the film showcase cars (or replicas of cars) from the franchise. (Little Easter eggs, for movie and Universal theme park junkies are hidden here and there, as well.)

Prior to boarding the actual bus (yes, bus) that is the ride vehicle, guests are greeted by various members of the F&F “family” who help setup the narrative of the ride, which involves transporting top secret asset; actors from the films make appearances via video, with The Rock and Vin Diesel keeping it short and sweet because movie stars.

The ride itself takes guests on an off-the-chain car chase, that, thanks to side screens featuring insane stunts, antics, and explosions as seen in the Fast & Furious movies, (as well as some herky-jerky movements of the bus)  feels action packed. But at the same time, its tame enough that you don’t need to be strapped in — most of the action is on the screens next to you. In this way, it’s a nice ride that most people in the family can enjoy; you don’t need to be a daredevil to take it on, but it’s still a lot of fun.

The Edison at Disney Springs

Outside of the Parks
The parks are clearly a big draw, but they are far from the only thing to do in Orlando. For shopping and eating, Disney’s Disney Springs provides a lot of options. (The area has continually morphed over the decades, and was most recently referred to as “Downtown Disney”; in 2015, it was renamed and now also serves as an after-hours spot for park-goers and residents.)

To scratch your retail itch, Disney Springs is home to a wide array of stores including specialty Disney stores, Uniqlo, Anthropologie, Zara, Under Armour, Kate Spade, Coach, Alex and Ani and many, many more. Plus: a really cool LEGO store with spots to play and oversized LEGO sculptures, and (our unexpected favorite) the Coke store, where all things Coke and Coke-branded are for sale. Entertainment options range from bowling to House of Blues concerts to rides in boats that look like 1950s classic cars (true story).

Bacon appetizer and a craft cocktail at The Edison

Recent impressive additions from the Patina Restaurant Group include Italian restaurants Maria & Enzo’s and Enzo’s Hideaway, a family-friendly spot in what looks like an airport terminal from the golden age of travel, and subterranean speakeasy with small plates and large tables, respectively.

The standout, however, is The Edison, a cavernous, multi-leveled space serving up craft cocktails and upscale American and comfort foods — including an appetizer of bacon with strips hanging via clothespins, from a string. (Odd, but delicious!) The Edison, with 1920s industrial themed-decor, also serves as a late-night spot with cabaret, burlesque, live music, and more. It also includes lots of cozy nooks for hanging out for a bite, drinks, etc.

For oenophiles, Disney Springs will welcome Wine Bar George in late May. The estate-style wine bar will feature a wine list 100-strong, curated by Master Sommelier George Miliotes.

photo: ICON Orlando 360

Off the beaten path
Want something not in your friend’s Instagram feed? Check out ICON Orlando 360, the “London Eye”  (i.e., massive ferris wheel) of the city, which offers unparalleled views of all of Orlando. In addition to ICON, the tourist attraction on International Drive is also home to giant swing ride StarFlyer, Sea Life Orlando Aquarium, Madam Tussauds Orlando and — most intriguing to us — Skeletons: Museum of Osteology. You can eat there, too: Sugar Factory, Shake Shack, and more refined options can be found here as well.

photo: via Dragonfly Robata Facebook page

Foodie Stops in Orlando
Food snob worried about Orlando’s offerings? Relax.

For a refined, white-napkin meal with a dress code and a Victorian vibe, consider the celebrated and lauded Victoria & Alberts at the Grand Floridian. (Warning: harp music may be involved.) If this sounds like your type of thing, attempt to book now: demand is high, space is tight.

For an exquisite and modern take on Japanese pub culture mixing sushi, sashimi, and robatayaki served tapas-style (with smart cocktails) head to Dragonfly Robata, where we had a meal we’re still dreaming about. (They have tasty recs for kids, so you can bring them, but you might want to book a sitter so you can focus on how good this food is.)

And for doughnut aficionados, take note that the first Voodoo Doughnut east of the Mississippi recently opened at Universal’s own eating and nightlife destination, City Walk.

The lobby of the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort

For the Ultimate Universal Access
For some families, having access to, and being surrounded by, all-things-Disney is a priority, and we get that. If maximum princess interface (or whatever) is your priority, it’s hard to argue with that.

Our host on this visit was the Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, a Caribbean-inspired hotel, complete with the Strong Water Tavern, bar/restaurant with a expertly curated rum selection to go along with the theme. We found the hotel modern and sophisticated, but still warm and welcoming.

Staying at a Universal/Loews property (which range from the premium Portofino Bay and Hard Rock, to more affordable options such as Sapphire Falls, Cabana Bay, and the sleek Aventura, which opens August 2018) has benefits. The most crucial, in our eyes, being early access to the parks (so you don’t have to wait two hours for your favorite Harry Potter ride) and the lovely water taxi, which literally ferries you to the parks, eating/drinking/entertainment spot City Walk, and the other Universal/Loews properties.


—Mimi O’Connor


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This trip was paid for by Visit Orlando but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer.