Most visitors to Orlando come and go without ever seeing the downtown district. That's because they spend all their time in the tourist zones, which were built apart from downtown but have since been swallowed by sprawl. Walt Disney World, 20 miles southwest of Orlando proper, is a private 27,000-acre campus of hotels, theme parks, water parks, and entertainment zones. The two are linked by the crucial Interstate 4 and the International Drive area, noted for its chain hotels, convention center, and three other major parks: Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and SeaWorld. The Orlando airport is 11 miles east of I-4 and the convention center. Everything is tied together by highways, and signage to major attractions is clear.
WHEN TO GO
It's never a quiet day at Disney World, but crowds are heaviest during Spring Break, summer, and over Christmas and New Year's—and any other time kids are out of school. June to October is the rainy season, when isolated thunderstorms routinely blow through in mid-afternoon. The winter can be cool, with temperatures usually around 50° F. Crowds are lightest from mid-January to mid-March, and again in September when school resumes.
HOW TO GET THERE
Because the city welcomes some 50 million tourists a year, Orlando International Airport (MCO), nine miles south of downtown, has plenty of flights from the major domestic carriers, international airlines, and discounters such as Southwest (southwest.com), JetBlue (jetblue.com), and AirTran (airtran.com). Shuttle buses charge a flat rate of $16 from the airport to the Universal area or downtown Orlando and $18 to the Disney area (407-423-5566, www.mearstransportation.com). Visitors booked into Disney-run hotels may qualify for the resort's free shuttle-bus service. If you're visiting the area as part of a Florida road trip, you're about 1 hour from Tampa, 90 minutes from Daytona Beach, and four hours from Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Amtrak also serves downtown Orlando.
Because of the great distances involved, lack of walking paths, and infrequent public transport, it's wisest to rent a car. Drive with a little ready cash, since the city's primary tourist avenues are peppered with tollbooths asking $1 a pop, and parking is often only available at a surcharge. If you're staying in a Disney-run hotel, the resort's slow-as-molasses shuttle buses will tote you around the resort for free. The I-Ride trolley service (407-248-9590, www.iridetrolley.com) operates every 15 minutes daily between Universal Studios and SeaWorld, with many stops along International Drive in between; single fares are 75 cents, and a day pass costs $3. You can also call a taxi (Star Taxi, 407-857-9999; Town & Country, 407-828-3035; Yellow Cab, 407-699-9999).
Although coupons and tourist magazines are strewn just about everywhere in the city, the most complete source of information and brochures is Orlando's Official Visitor Center (8723 International Dr., 407-363-5872, www.orlandoinfo.com). Its free Magicard discount program, unlike other cities' bargain cards, actually delivers some savings.