Spring Break: Orlando

Find your own escape in the most magical place on earth.

Theme parks are where it's at during the day, but when the sun goes down the nightlife action moves downtown.

Orlando is the ideal spring break spot for 20-somethings. In addition to being a mecca of theme parks and thrill rides, the city is home to the University of Central Florida, and its student population of nearly 60,000 has carved out a thriving young adult community. While the typical tourist stops can eat up your budget, Orlando provides plenty of alternative adventures, non-stop nightlife, and the ultimate warm-weather getaway.

With accommodations to fit every wallet, Orlando is a city of hospitality. Most hotels include pools and volleyball courts, the perfect way to spend an afternoon. The city sprawls across 100 square miles but lacks easy public transportation, so you’ll want to rent a car to hit the best spots.

Orlando is also centrally located, about 90 minutes from beaches on both coasts. Be sure to schedule a day trip to the Atlantic coast’s Cocoa Beach or Clearwater on the Gulf. No matter where you go, you’ll always find an ice-cold daiquiri and a good round of beach volleyball.

Where to Stay

Get your surf on at Fantasy World Resorts, located just three miles from Disney. The condo-style villas are big enough to share with a few friends and include access to the resort’s water oasis: three pools, three hot tubs, two five-story water slides, and a lazy river. The highlight of this hotel is its access to an indoor surfing simulator, Fantasy Surf. Called “flow riding” by the pros, the experience provides a padded surface with a three-inch sheet of water for bruise-free wipeouts. Tickets are discounted for resort guests, but non-guests can catch a wave for $20 per session.

If you can swing the price, Hard Rock Hotel will give you the ultimate rock star experience. The resort boasts over one million dollars worth of music memorabilia, a massive swimming pool, two Jacuzzis, a full spa, and a sand volleyball court. In addition to its ideal location near Universal Studios and CityWalk, the resort houses several on-site restaurants like the chic Velvet Bar.

For a more affordable stay, EO Inn & Spa is a charming, intimate option close to the best downtown nightlife. Tucked between two beautiful parks, the hotel offers spa treatments and a Jacuzzi soak on its rooftop terrace.

Where to Eat

Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant, nestled on the cobblestone Church Street, serves more than 100 small plate dishes to share with friends. With authentic ingredients imported directly from Spain, every menu item will make your mouth water. Try the jamon serrano with a glass of sangria. On the weekends the restaurant also has live music with flamenco dancers.

If you have a big appetite, grab a gourmet burger and a laugh at Hamburger Mary’s on Church Street. You can’t go wrong with a burger topped with mac and cheese or smothered in spicy Cajun mayo. Many of the servers dress in drag and always bring a side of sass with the order. The restaurant also serves Sunday brunch – be sure to try the Church Street Skillet.

CityWalk, located on the brim of Universal Studios, is a playground of themed restaurants with menus to satisfy every palate. Pat O’Brien's serves Cajun dishes and to-die-for signature drinks like the classic hurricane and rainstorm. Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. has a full menu of favorite seafood dishes inspired by the film Forrest Gump, and Latin Quarter serves authentic South American cuisine with live music and salsa dancing.

For something more low key, the Dandelion Communitea Café on North Thornton Avenue has organic vegetarian dishes with a chill 1960s vibe. Their menu is filled with surprising yet delicious combinations like the Polynesian Banana Fantasy Wrap and Machos Libre Nachos with homemade chili and vegan queso. Order a “tea of the day” to enjoy unlimited free refills while you unwind.

Where to Enjoy Yourself

If you’re looking for a wild ride without the theme park price, hit up the Orlando Watersports Complex for a couple hours of wakeboarding, kneeboarding, or waterskiing. Whether you’re a beginner or water sport pro, the OWC offers a network of cableways, jumps, and obstacles to test your skills. The complex is located about ten minutes from the airport, and passes start at $25 an hour.

Take a stroll around Lake Eola in the heart of downtown Orlando. The park provides a panoramic view of the city’s skyline, and at night the lake’s fountain lights up with color. Rent a boat and paddle alongside the many swans that call the park home. On Sunday mornings, local vendors gather at the farmer’s market with artwork, fresh food, and homemade goods. The area is also surrounded by plenty of shops and places to eat. Stop by Eola Wine Company for lunch and choose from one of their 70 different wines and craft beers.

Pointe Orlando on International Drive is bulging with fantastic shows, entertainment, shops, and restaurants. Cuba Libre serves up a full rum bar paired with authentic Cuban cuisine. On the weekends, salsa and bachata dancers crowd the floor with live music and DJs. You can’t miss WonderWorks, the upside down building filled with mind-bending exhibits like a 4D theater and a gravity-defying inversion tunnel. Nearby, Taverna Opa features Zorba dancing shows and serves authentic Greek cuisine. The best part: diners are encouraged to hop on the tables and dance.

After a day at the parks or on the courts, downtown Orlando has a feast of nightlife to suit any taste. A walk down Church Street, Wall Street, and North Orange Avenue offers everything from swanky nightclubs to laid back dive bars. Enjoy a cool mountain vibe at The Lodge or dance to indie rock at Eye Spy. Top off the night at Latitudes, a rooftop bar perfect for those warm Florida nights.

No matter where you go in Orlando, you’ll feel the pulse of this youthful community. So be prepared to relax, play and uncover magic in “The City Beautiful.”

Originally published in March/April 2013

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