Now that school is in session, that usually signals low season for Orlando, one of the most visited vacation destinations on earth. But with kids doing virtual schooling, mom and dad working remotely and deals abounding, this might be the best time to take a vacation in the Theme Park Capital of the World. And it seems like Americans agree: Orlando recently scored the top spot in Hotwire’s “Best Cities for a Quickie List” in 2020, making it the top destination of small-town favorites for the second year running. And according to Priceline, Orlando is the #2 most searched domestic destination for this year’s shoulder season.
In addition, the surge in Covid-19 cases that was anticipated when the theme parks started to reopen this summer never happened, so it’s clear that the destination’s “Safer, Stronger, Together” Covid-19 safety campaign has been paying off.
“We are a community that has a sense of togetherness and this challenge has brought us even closer,” said Orange County mayor Jerry L. Demings, who points out that local businesses and residents are committed to slowing the spread of the virus and making tourism as safe as possible. The airport even has a PPE vending machine.
A guest stops to take a selfie at Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort. (Photo by Olga … [+] Thompson/Walt Disney World Resort via Getty Images)
Walt Disney World Resort via Getty Images
Many of Orlando’s hotels and attractions are offering special deals, including rooms starting at $75 at the Wyndham Garden Lake Buena Vista Disney Springs Resort Area and 25% off at hotels like the Lake Buena Vista Resort Village & Spa. Walt Disney World Resort has a special offer through December 25, with savings of up to $500 on a four-night room and ticket package at select hotels, including Disney’s Riviera Resort, a new property that was inspired by Europe and is connected to the park by the Skyliner gondola. Residents of states near Florida (Alabama, Georgia and so on) can also get up to 30% off rooms at various Disney resort properties.
And what’s a trip to Orlando without a stop at one of the world-famous theme parks? Fortunately, since reopening at limited capacity over the summer, they’ve largely been free from Covid-19 outbreaks. According to Dr. Raul Pino from the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, the fact that guests are primarily outdoors when they visit places like Walt Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld makes it harder for the respiratory illness to be transmitted. Plus, all theme parks have strict safety measures, like mandatory face coverings, safety checks and enhanced cleaning protocols.
Safety precautions at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images,)
“The parks are taking great measures and they have gone to great lengths to be able to open and to prevent the transmission, but it’s also the whole thing of an open space I think is what’s making the difference,” says Pino. “And also, the parks are not full. They are operating on less than 50% capacity and that may be a contributing factor.”
Theme park regular Megan DuBois has seen firsthand how the safety measures are working. “I’ve been to all four Disney theme parks, stayed at multiple hotels, eaten at a variety of restaurants and visited Disney Springs since everything reopened and feel relatively safe,” says DuBois. “I also appreciate that Disney has taken a strong stance on health and safety, not just for me and other guests, but for cast members. There are hand washing and sanitizing stations everywhere, the capacity at the parks are lower than normal and contactless payment is highly encouraged.”
A Disney cast member welcomes guests (safely) to the Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort. … [+] (Photo by Kent Phillips/Walt Disney World Resort via Getty Images)
Walt Disney World Resort via Getty Images
The theme parks are also leading the charge when it comes to making safety protocols more fun. The newly opened Disney Springs has Star Wars Stormtroopers encouraging visitors to wear masks and social distance. Walt Disney World introduced the “Social Distancing Squad” to politely remind guests about the social distancing and safety measures. Universal Orlando has mask-wearing stilt walkers greeting guests at the entrance to Universal Orlando’s CityWalk, and Gatorland has a new “Social Distancing Skunk Ape” (Florida’s version of Bigfoot) who uses his six-foot arm span to help visitors visualize proper distancing.
Beyond the theme parks, Orlando is abuzz with other clever ways to (safely) lure visitors. The Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort has launched “Schoolcation,” with supervised schoolwork sessions for virtual learners while parents enjoy a (much-needed) break at the pool, spa, golf course or tennis courts. Spacious event rooms have been transformed into classrooms, where each student will have a physically distanced desk area and high-speed premium WiFi. Plus, students will have the best recess playground of all—the five-acre Explorer Island. “We thought providing a supervised schoolwork setting could be enticing to parents and kids who may relish the opportunity to have a break from the monotony, especially in a family-friendly vacation setting,” says resort spokeswoman Dana Berry. “By providing a dedicated learning space for kids, it makes it easier for parents to go on vacation whenever is most convenient for them.”
Poolside at the Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, which now offers a virtual … [+] learning package.
Don Riddle Images 2013 All Rights Reserved
In addition, Four Seasons Resort Orlando is offering an Experience More Resort Credit package, giving a $200 nightly resort credit for a room or a $500 nightly resort credit for a suite. This credit can be used toward the supervised school program or toward dining, spa, golf and more. The resort also has an Advance Purchase package, with a 20% savings when your room is booked and fully prepaid at least seven days in advance.
Similarly, Club Wyndham Bonnet Creek Resort has dreamed up a “Back to School, Back to Your Bucket List” vacation package to attract remote learners and remote workers. Look for upgraded Wi-Fi, an extra power strip to ensure everyone has a place to plug in and other back-to-school essentials. While the kids tackle their schoolwork, parents will receive noise-canceling headphones and a complimentary bottle of wine. Rates at the all-suite property are also discounted by 30%. “We know that families have been cooped up for months,” says Lori Gustafson, senior vice president of global brands at Club Wyndham. “We hope this package will help families find the silver lining in their ‘new normal’ by taking advantage of a unique chance to explore a new destination without worrying about kids missing school.”
It’s not often that we hear good news about business openings these days. But one Orlando company that is actually growing during the pandemic is Gideon’s Bakehouse, which is opening a long-anticipated second location at Disney Springs, where it will serve its cult-like small-batch cookies that weigh in at nearly half a pound each. Another new opening: Knife and Spoon at the Grande Lakes Orlando, helmed by celebrity chef John Tesar. Orlando is also home to a new JW Marriott at Bonnet Creek, which has family suites as well as a rooftop bar with perfect views of the Disney parks (and nightly fireworks during non-Covid times).
Orlando is also so much more than the mega-theme parks. The destination has a number of open-air activities that are more attractive than ever right now due to their Covid-friendly nature. For instance, you can experience the thrill of a socially distanced safari at Wild Florida’s Drive-Thru Safari Park. From the comfort of your own car, you’ll spot more than 100 native and exotic animals roaming across 85 acres of untouched landscape. Another great in-your-car experience: The free Lake Apopka Wildlife Drive, a one-way, 11-mile drive where visitors can spot alligators, bobcats, otters, bears, coyotes and birds.
Wild Florida’s Drive-Thru Safari Park.
Seeking a quiet escape? Stroll through the 50-acre botanical oasis at Harry P. Leu Gardens. Don’t miss the butterfly garden or the largest camellia collection outside California. Mead Botanical Garden’s 48-acre garden in Winter Park features several different ecosystems and a boardwalk and bike trail that wind through the park.
It’s also enjoyable to explore the Orlando area by water. Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour on Lake Osceola, sends visitors on guided cruises through three of the seven lakes and two man-made canals on the Winter Park chain. Get Up & Go Kayaking offers 100% clear kayaks for the best marine life sighting while BK Adventure is known for its eco-adventures and bioluminescence tours.
Or see the area by bicycle: Cyclists can explore the West Orange Trail, a 22-mile, paved trail passing through downtown Oakland, Winter Garden and Apopka, with most of its length built on old railroad alignments. Bicycles and rollerblades are available for rent.
Manatees at Blue Springs State Park.
You can also take advantage of central Florida’s incredible state parks and nature preserves. Blue Springs State Park is a designated refuge for the manatee population. The spring’s warm waters make it a popular spot for swimmers, snorkelers and scuba divers. De Leon Springs State Park offers hiking trails, narrated boat tours, swimming, canoeing and bird-watching. Wekiwa Springs State Park in Apopka has a natural spring for swimming, picnicking and trails showcasing the natural environment of the area’s Timacuan Indians. The Oakland Nature Preserve features a boardwalk trail and the Tibet-Butler Nature Preserve has a butterfly garden, picnic area and hiking trails.
Another only-in-Florida experience: Pick oranges in a citrus orchard at Showcase of Citrus. This 2,500-acre working citrus and cattle ranch produces more than 50 varieties of citrus, ripe for the picking during its typical November to May season. It’s just another example of how the Orlando area is making orange juice out of oranges.
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