We don’t think we need to tell you that Orlando, Florida is one of (if not the most) popular vacation destination in the country. It’s easy to see why. Not only is the city home to popular theme parks like Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida, it’s constantly evolving, rolling out new attractions, rides and events both in the parks and beyond. Which is why we headed south to the Sunshine State to see what’s new for families in Orlando’s parks and further afield. (Anyone like Star Wars, Harry Potter or Toy Story? Good news ahead!) For even more ideas on what to do outside the parks, head here!

photo: Mimi O'Connor

Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge

It's not uncommon for families to have parents and kids who are equally gaga over Star Wars. (Continually debuting and reviving movies over five decades will do that.) After much anticipation, the new Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge opened in August at Disney's Hollywood Studios, and we saw happy visitors of all ages marveling at the 14-acre land.

Set on the remote planet Batuu, Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge has many of the series' icons in the mix. Those include a to-scale Millennium Falcon, the hopping cantina (where both alcoholic, and non-alcoholic libations are served at all times) blue and green milk on tap and even bad buys like Kylo Ren, stormtroopers, and yes, Darth Vader on the scene.

At first, it felt a little weird to have totalitarian "police" walking around, and the idea of a "meet and greet" with Darth Vader sounded a bit off, but when we happened upon kids engaged in lightsaber sparring with both Vader and Ren, we were completely sold. Seriously the best. Of course, there are many opportunities to build and purchase your own saber here. You can also custom-build a droid if you want.

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photo: Mimi O'Connor

Far Out Rides

Just walking around "Batuu" is pretty fun. There's a marketplace bazaar with lots of planet-appropriate merchandise like "pets", gear, and clothing; Docking Bay Food and Cargo, where you can fill up on "galactic grub", and plenty of Instagram-worthy expanses—but there are in fact two rides, or "attractions" here.

The first, which opened late August, is Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, which has a group of six visitors (you guessed it) piloting the great ship herself on an illicit mission. Each person is assigned a role on the ship—pilot, engineer, etc.—and you do your part to make the trip successful. Some roles are admittedly more fun than others (gunner, exciting; engineer? less so) but it's a wild, interactive ride no matter what, and you do, of course, make the leap to hyperspace. Even waiting to enter the cockpit is fun, as you're staged inside the Falcon (major geekout), near the couch, iconic Dejarik chess table, etc.

Coming soon, is Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which opens December 5. It promises the thrill of escaping The First Order and an all-out (virtual) battle.

While not located inside Galaxy's Edge, Hollywood Studios is also home to The Star Tours, another Star Wars-themed experience that we highly recommend. It's another flying around, interactive attraction, which pulls heavily from the trio of movies originally released in the 70s and 80s. It's funny, too, with an "in-flight" safety video for interstellar travel, etc.

photo: Mimi O'Connor

Toy Story Land

While not as "hot off the presses" as Galaxy's Edge, Toy Story Land is one of the newer draws at Disney's Hollywood Studios. It opened in June of last year, and is very well done, capturing both the playful, friendly energy of the movies and cleverly recreating the POV of its characters.

Giant statues of Woody and Buzz Lightyear greet visitors, and oversized toys like Tinker Toys, dice and Viewmaster slides found throughout the Land remind you what it's like to be small. Characters like Buzz and Jessie appear for meet and greets, and you can hop some fun rides here, too. The showpiece of Toy Story Land is the kid-friendly-with-a-kick coaster the Slinky Dog Dash; you can take a spin on Alien Swirling Saucers, and we highly recommend Toy Story Mania!, a 4D ride through a virtual midway with contestants competing against each other to shoot as many targets as possible. (You actually get a score to see how well you did compare to your companion.)

Also New in the World of Disney

Other recent debuts in the House of Mouse include the NBA Experience and brand new people movers. The first, which opened mid-August is located in shopping, eating and entertainment destination Disney Springs and may be an air-conditioned break the family needs on an off-park day. The experience gives visitors the chance to spend the day working and playing as members of the NBA and WNBA with 13 basketball-themed areas.

There's lots of opportunities to make baskets, from layups, free-throws and dunks (and even via slingshot, shown here). You can enter the arena to the sound of cheering fans, participate in the draft and pose with a smiling mannequin of commissioner Adam Silver, make the call as a referee, and test your knowledge of the game with trivia. And if you need a Michael Jordan-signed basketball or other high-priced memorabilia, they have that there, too. 

Tickets: $34/adults; $29/kids ages 3-9, free/kids three and under
Disney Springs
1486 E. Buena Vista Dr. 
Lake Buena Vista, FL
407-939-6244
Online: disneyworld.disney.go.com

Additionally, in late September Disney World introduced the Disney Skyliner, new way to get to and from several of its resorts, Disney Hollywood Studios and the Epcot International Gateway. These colorful, roomy gondola cars glide above the parks offering nice views and a free way to from point a to point b. There was a bit of a hiccup in the early days of operation, leaving some guests stuck in mid air for a couple of hours, but the system is back up and running. 

photo: Disney

Another Fantastical World at Animal Kingdom

If you haven't been to Disney's Animal Kingdom in a while, there's a new fictional place to visit there as well. The park celebrates animals of the past, present, the imagination, and in spring of 2017 it 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.)

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. 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.

photo: Universal Islands of Adventure

More Harry Potter Thrills with Universal

If you've been to Universal Studios Florida's The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you know how incredible it is. (If you haven't and you have a Potterhead in the house, get on that. Also: save your pennies for all the merch—which only just begins with the acquisition of a wand that can be used to activate spells around the perfectly recreated Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade.) 

But even if you have been, you may want to return, as Universal's Islands of Adventure, USF's sister park connected by the charming Hogwart's Express, just introduced a new, thrilling ride. Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure puts you and a companion in the driver's seat or sidecar of the friendly giant's motorcycle, and you're off—on an innovative, high-speed ride with surprises and character appearances along the way. In addition to being like no other coaster we've experienced, it's also long in duration, so it's not one of those rides that's over before it starts. (A letdown if you've waited a long time.) 

photo: Universal Studios Florida

Not New, But Still Amazing

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. It feels unfair to say "It's just like being there"; it is being there. Go!

photo: Mimi O'Connor

In the Halloween Spirit

While not an event for young kids (recommended age is 13 and up), this is also when Universal Studios Florida gets spooky after hours, with Halloween Horror Nights. This is the park's biggest Halloween event ever, with 10 themed haunted houses and five "scare zones", the former of which is when you must navigate a stretch of walk filled with zombies, ghouls, etc. This year's theme is all things 80s, and haunted houses are dedicated to pop culture mainstays such as Stranger Things and Ghostbusters, as well as creepy movie Us, and high-energy live shows add to the night time fun. HHN is so popular, it's been running since September 6, and goes right through Halloween weekend to November 2. 

Tickets are $52
Online: orlando.halloweenhorrornights.com

Other Fresh Finds at Universal

Also new at Universal is Bigfire, an open and airy restaurant designed to feel like a lakeside summer house located in CityWalk, a dining and entertainment complex connected to the parks that's open to the public. The restaurant cooks meals over open wood fires (on display for all to see), using pecan, oak and cherry. There's a kid's menu with reliable choices (chicken fingers, burger, mac and cheese) and we had some delicious scallops. The high point for the kids will likely be the make-at-your-table s'mores, which in addition to standard fixings, come with homemade marshmallow and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.

If doughnuts are more your family's style, take note that the first Voodoo Doughnut east of the Mississippi can be found at Universal's  CityWalk.

Universal Orlando
CityWalk
Online: universalorlando.com

photo: Mimi O'Connor

Further Afield: Instagrammer's Paradise, Wall Crawl

If you're looking for something completely different to throw into your Orlando itinerary (that ironically, will probably not be in your fellow FLA-bound friend's Instagram feed) head to the brand new Wall Crawl, located in the northwest neighborhood of Parramore. (About a 20 minute drive from Disney et. al.) Opened this summer by a photographer/self-proclaimed "Instagram husband" and his blogger wife, this Insta-bait photo studio is filled with more than 20 well-lit photo-ready backgrounds perfect for striking a pose solo or as a group.

Mural styles range from bold, colorful and minimalistic, to boho, glam, beachy, kiddie cute and beyond, and even have props like cupcakes, seasonal items and oversized inflated creatures. Bookings of 60-minute sessions are timed so it doesn't get too crowded, and they even have roaming "Instagram husbands" (pro photogs) taking snaps that you can buy as prints on your way out if you like.) Alert: Amazing holiday card photo shoot opportunity. 

Tickets: $25/adults; $12.50/kids 3-12, free/kids two and under 
Wall Crawl
1016 W. Church St., Suite C
Orlando, FL
321-209-0432
Online: wallcrawl.com

photo: La Luce

Food, Food & More Food!

If you think you're going to dine on only cheeseburgers and giant pretzels in Orlando, think again. This city is home to many top-notch chefs from the around the world, working both in and outside of the parks. We give all of these spots a thumbs-up, with most having food the kids will enjoy as well. 

La Luce (pictured above): Located in the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, this upscale modern Italian restaurant prides itself on excellent service and incredible food made with fresh and simple ingredients. Highly recommended. 

Bull & Bear: Like its counterpart in New York City, this is a real old school steakhouse located in the Waldorf Astoria (think rich, moody colors and dim lights), and is worth a date night if that's your speed. Another spot with stellar service and delectable dishes, sides and desserts perfectly prepared. Much is served tableside; if a cut of meat isn't for you, try the celebrated fried chicken  (trust us) and order "The Lemon" for dessert. 

Disney Springs is also home to many restaurants worth a trip, including the tucked away Enzo's Hideaway, a subterranean cozy speakeasy with small plates and large tables; The Edison, a cavernous, multi-leveled space serving up craft cocktails and upscale American and comfort foods; and Frontera Cocina from seven-time James Beard Award-winner Rick Bayless, where delicious Mexican is served—the Queso Fundido appetizer is a must here. 

For a place locals do brunch and lunch, make your way (and bring your sweet tooth and appetite) to Se7en Bites Bake Shop in the city's northeast Milk District. Expect decadent southern comfort food that mixes savory and sweet in a sinful way in this ultra casual spot that serves breakfast all day. (For example: its 7th Trimester is a biscuit topped with an egg, applewood smoked bacon, mac and cheese, and potato chip bacon crumble.) They also have baked goods galore.   

For Asian, we recommend the homegrown Dragonfly Robata, where they serve their exquisite and modern sushi, sashimi, and robatayaki tapas-style. (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.)

photo: Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek

For Disney Access, Fine Food & a Giant Lazy River

If you want to go to Disney, want the perks of staying in a Disney hotel (early access with Extra Magic Hours and FastPass+, free transportation to the parks), but don't need to be immersed in the Disney experience at all times, the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek is a great choice.

Located on more than 480 peaceful acres, the hotel is home to six restaurants ranging from fine dining to casual, and guests have access to the amenities shared with partner hotel the Waldorf Astoria Orlando such as its spa and 18-hole Rees Jones-designed golf course. The kids will love the pool area, which includes a massive lazy river and a small waterslide. You'll enjoy the poolside service, cabanas and hot tubs. Bonus: kids eat dinner free at on-site restaurant Harvest Bistro, and get 50 percent off breakfast too! 

Online: hiltonbonnetcreek.com

photo: Mimi O'Connor

For the Ultimate Universal Access

If your priority is early access to Universal Parks, you have numerous options.

Our host 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 opened 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.