It’s no coincidence that Orlando is the only city hosting three college football bowl games this month: the AutoNation Cure Bowl (December 17), the Russell Athletic Bowl (December 28) and the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl (December 31). The destination’s winning combination of world-class attractions and high-end accommodations makes it easy for schools and their fans to flock to Central Florida this time of year.
It seems like everybody wants a part of the city. Even though Mickey and Minnie are putting on their sweaters for the frigid 70-degree forecast, Orlando is red hot with seasonal events, new restaurants and dynamic hotels. Never ones to be left out of the loop, our Forbes Travel Guide editors recently went down to Central Florida to see just what sports teams and Tinker Bell are so excited about.
Teeming with hundreds of hotel options, the City Beautiful can say with relative ease that it has something for everyone. Orlando World Center Marriott turns heads not just because of its sheer size (200-plus acres), but because of its well-rounded nature as well.
Go ahead, try to stump the hotel with a type of traveler who wouldn’t like the place. What about the aforementioned savvy golfer, you say? The property’s Robert Cupp III-designed Hawk’s Landing Golf Club is an underrated layout with gorgeous greens, plenty of water hazards and able teachers like Terry Reed to assist with those choppy swings.
How about those hard-to-please tweens? If the arcade and petting zoo don’t hold their attention, 200-foot waterslides and a 90-foot speed slide more impressive than rides you’d find at a place charging an admission certainly will.
And we can’t forget about overworked parents in need of some R&R. The collection of suites provides more than 680 square feet of recently renovated touches. Should any other category of guest check in, the all-encompassing spa, a nightly light spectacle and volleyball courts should put smiles on their faces.
Through March 31, 2017, find your fun at the property with its Seek the Weekend package, a promotion offering 25 percent off nightly rates and a daily $25 resort credit.
We failed to mention the always-hungry guest in that last section. That type is in good shape here as well. At Orlando World Center Marriott, for instance, you’ll find six restaurants, a mini food court and a Starbucks. The eateries range from the fan-centric High Velocity to the hibachi-style Mikado Japanese Steakhouse. But no matter where you decide to go for dinner, do everyone in your group a favor and insist upon dessert at Siro Urban Italian Kitchen. The tiramisu, apple tart and pistachio gelato are sublime finishes.
One thing locals have known that’s only now starting to earn national headlines is the fact that Central Florida is the home to some really fantastic cuisine. Delightful aromas tempt from almost every direction.
Less than three miles from SeaWorld is The Ritz-Carlton, Orlando, Grande Lakes, a Four-Star property with 11 dining options. We’re still salivating over Highball & Harvest, an establishment that opened in fall 2014 with a masculine, industrial-chic air and a menu filled with African-blue-basil-topped grouper, duck and dumpling, and other fare that tips a hat to Florida’s agricultural past. H&H gets into the holiday spirit this year with a Thanksgiving Day dinner stuffed with thyme-crusted prime rib, sage butter roasted turkey, a raw bar and all the traditional sides.
Sweet smells are also coming from Disney World’s direction. What started out as a trend where marquee culinary names like Todd English and Wolfgang Puck began setting up shop in Mickey’s various kitchens has turned into an all-out movement at the popular Disney Springs entertainment complex.
Just this past summer, gourmet giants Art Smith and Rick Bayless joined the attraction’s foodie fray, opening Chef Art Smith’s Homecoming (Southern favorites) and Frontera Cocina (modern Mexican), respectively.
Over in Mount Dora, a small city about 45 minutes from Orlando, you’ll find the August-launched 1921 by Norman Van Aken. The newest project from Van Aken — the James Beard-winning chef’s other popular restaurant, Norman’s, sits at the aforementioned Ritz-Carlton — feels like an art gallery (Dale Chihuly’s glass work and Modernist paintings dot the space). Thankfully, exhibit-worthy pieces like the 14-ounce rib eye and coconut-curry-drizzled mahi can be photographed and touched all you want.
Contrary to what spring breakers and summer vacationers may think, Disney World doesn’t take autumn off. (“The Happiest Place on Earth” is open 365 days a year, so technically, it doesn’t take any days off.) If anything, Donald Duck and company put extra effort into making December special for you.
The holiday season kicks off around these parts well before the first slice of turkey is cut. Through December 22, in fact, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party sprinkles yuletide cheer around the parks through stage productions, light shows and holiday parades. But at this point, we don’t even know if the sight of Scrooge McDuck singing “Jingle Bells” will be enough to contain people’s excitement over the opening of Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s long-anticipated Pandora — The World of Avatar themed land in 2017.
Buzz is building over at SeaWorld right now as well. As any roller coaster fanatic knows, the theme park made a huge splash this summer with the debut of Mako, the self-proclaimed tallest, fastest and longest coaster in Florida. You can still get your thrills on it — like Disney World, SeaWorld is also open every day of the year —but through January 1, you can mix in some caroling with the roller-coaster screaming during the Christmas Celebration, a time when the park is flooded with festive lights and reindeer appearances.
Of course, breakfast with Shamu and Santa sparks a completely different kind of exhilaration than, say, watching LSU and Louisville fight it out on the field. But we’d argue that both sound like a good time in Orlando this season.