29 JUL 2018: If Florida is Canada’s 11th province, as long-time Visit Florida exec Eileen Forrow once suggested, then Orlando is its capital.  Indeed, Canadians are intimately familiar with the city, not least for its trio of high profile theme park attractions – Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, and SeaWorld. In fact, Orlando boasts seven of the world’s top 10 theme parks and is the most visited destination in the US.

But for all the familiarity, there are few destinations in the world that are so constantly changing. From new hotels (there are now 450 of them, the latest being the Margaritaville Resort Orlando) to waterparks and attractions like the ICON Orlando observation wheel – not to mention an ever-evolving collection of rides and mega attractions at the parks – there is always something new.

Perceptions of the city are also constantly changing, with the likes of dining, shopping and outdoor activity occasionally grabbing a share of the spotlight away from the theme parks – even if a Stars Wars, Avatar or Harry Potter eventually comes along to recalibrate the city’s image back to its original moorings.

It’s a bit of a misperception that Orlando is solely a winter destination. Sure, the weather is better than in the Great White North and the city (and Florida as a whole) is an iconic getaway during March Break, reading weeks, and the December holidays. But, as anyone with kids knows, summer often offers more flexibility for travel (including driving), even if it does mean trading off a week of Canada’s short good weather season.

Summer, in fact, counts as peak season in the central Florida city, and, as such, openings, activities and events are in full swing. With this in mind, here’s a quick look at some highlights guaranteed to put a little more sizzle into a summer visit in 2018:

1. Disney’s Hollywood Studios opened Toy Story Land featuring two new attractions, along with new dining and merchandise locations. The rides Slinky Dog Dash and Alien Swirling Saucers take visitors right into Andy’s imagination as they join beloved characters in their adventures.  

2. Universal Studios Florida puts visitors in the middle of the action with the new Fast & Furious – Supercharged ride, based on the popular film franchise, where an after-race party turns into a high-speed race to escape a criminal cartel.

3. SeaWorld Orlando is set to debut Infinity Falls, a whitewater rapid adventure raft ride through a lost jungle. Meanwhile, at neighbouring Aquatica, SeaWorld’s Waterpark, Ray Rush is now open. The new attraction features three ways to get soaked: First, water jets launch the raft in a burst of speed; riders then spin through a water sphere before swooping across giant manta wings.

4. The Orlando Starflyer, which opened June 1, is 137 metres tall, offering open-air views of the destination for up to 24 guests at once, swinging them through the air at up to 100 kph at top speed.

5. Orlando Watersports Complex debuted Central Florida's first Aquapark, featuring a modular series of inflatable, interlocking climbing obstacles, pathways and slides for hours of watery fun.

6. Madame Tussauds Orlando's “Justice League: A Call for Heroes” allows guests to jump in on the action as a loyal sidekick to Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, Henry Cavill's Superman and Ben Affleck's Batman. Replica props and costumes related to each superhero character's wax figure provides an added dimension of authenticity and realism to the immersive experience.  

7. LEGOLAND Florida Resort put the pedal to the plastic when The Great LEGO RACE opened on March 23. The thrill ride experience is the first VR roller coaster experience designed for kids, and features Lego mini figures, a rocket-powered surfboard and an espresso-fueled scooter.

On the food front, Orlando’s popular restaurant month, Visit Orlando’s Magical Dining Month, returns Aug. 24-Sept. 30, and this year will have 19 new participating restaurants including numerous diverse cuisines, plus vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free menu options. The programme was designed by Visit Orlando to showcase the wide variety of upscale and diverse dining throughout the destination, while also helping children in need, through the donation of one dollar per meal served to a local charity.

More than 100 restaurants across the destination participate, with each offering a three-course, prix fixe dinner menu for just US $35 p.p.

The wide range of venues spans areas from Disney Springs to Restaurant Row near the convention centre, as well as burgeoning neighborhood districts in downtown Orlando, Winter Park and beyond.

Other popular dining events in Orlando this summer/fall include the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, Aug. 30-Nov. 18.

Of course, Orlando’s never-ending story won’t stop when the new school year kicks in. Already on the books for a fall opening is the Nona Adventure Park, which will appeal to thrill seekers and outdoor adventurers with rock climbing towers, an inflatable water park and the world's first solar-powered water ski and wakeboard cable park.

And in 2019, Disney’s next big thing, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, is slated to open at Hollywood Studios, featuring two new attractions and the chance for guests to meet popular characters including Chewbacca, Rey and Kylo Ren.

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Michael Baginski

Editor at Large, Mike Baginski is well known and well respected within the industry across Canada, the US, in the Caribbean, Mexico and numerous other destinations outside North America.

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