Our picks for 2019's best spring festivals happening in Orlando
Florida Strawberry Festival
Spring in Florida is for three things: enjoying freshwater swimming holes before the tourists take over, picnicking in the sun and the Florida Strawberry Festival. This annual 11-day event in Plant City celebrates the red berry with more than 500,000 visitors. There's always, of course, crops of fresh strawberries and the world-famous strawberry shortcake, but there's also strawberry pizza, strawberry kettle corn and strawberry hamburgers for the adventurous foodie. Aside from youth livestock shows and carnival attractions, the Florida Strawberry Festival also boasts a strong concert lineup, this year including Willie Nelson, Alabama, Old Dominion, For King and Country, the Drifters and many more.
10 a.m.-10 p.m. | Florida Strawberry Festival, 303 N. Lemon St., Plant City | flstrawberryfestival.com | $10-$45
Feb. 28-March 17
Central Florida Fair
In the century-long existence of the Central Florida Fair, the focus has shifted from a primarily agricultural event to one focused on risk-taking, whether that comes in the form of loading yourself into what feels like a rickety deathtrap that someone sarcastically decided was a ride, or taking a gamble on eating deep-fried butter. But with all-day ride wristbands available for $25 and fair food prices still remaining a nudge south of the prices at the big parks, one risk you don't have to worry about is whether you're getting enough fun for your buck. And hey, the livestock, shows and live music are still there if you need to take a break to get your stomach settled.
Central Florida Fairgrounds, 4603 W. Colonial Drive | 407-295-3247 | centralfloridafair.com | $8-$25
Friday-Sunday, March 22-24
The long-running local horror convention definitely had some logistical growing pains at last October's event (whoa, Nelly), but one can't help but root for Spooky Empire's organizers, especially when scoping out the lineup for their satellite spring event. So far they've confirmed big-ticket talent like Christina Ricci (Buffalo 66, The Addams Family) and Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit); cult favorites like Fairuza Balk (The Craft) and Florida's own Ricou Browning (The Creature From the Black Lagoon); and intriguing up-and-comers like David Howard Thornton and Damien Leone from the unrelentingly dark Terrifier. And of course, expect the usual cavalcade of vendors, panels, film screenings, musical entertainment and cosplay-o-rama.
1 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. Saturday-Sunday | Wyndham Orlando Resort, 8001 International Drive | 954-258-7852 | spookyempire.com | $30-$65
Saturday, March 23
United We Brunch
The concept of brunch – not quite breakfast, not quite lunch – goes back to 1895, when it was first named by English writer Guy Beringer in his essay Brunch: A Plea. In it, Beringer advocated for the hybrid meal as a way for heavy Saturday night drinkers, such as himself, to make Sundays a little less painful. Not much has changed in modern times, except for the fact that a post-brunch hangover is a bit more standard than a pre-existing one. To help with that, we gather together some of the best brunch restaurants in the area under one roof and have them bring along their best bites for you to try. We combine that with unlimited mimosas, Bloody Marys and beer for the ultimate brunch experience. And this time, we're even covering the after-party for our VIP ticketholders. Plus, it's on a Saturday, so you won't even have to call out from work the next day.
11 a.m.-3 p.m. | Orchid Garden & Ballroom, 126 W. Church St. | unitedwebrunch.com | $45-$80
UCF Celebrates the Arts
When UCF decides to celebrate, they go all in. This festival will have the Dr. Phillips Center overflowing with intriguing experiences for a full 10 days, to the point that attendees may just want to bring a sleeping bag and camp out on the Seneff Arts Plaza so as not to miss anything. (Except, whoops, even the Seneff is being activated with immersive installations and interactive art-making.) This fest really does fulfill that tired cliché, "something for everyone": book-lovers can meet Station Eleven author Emily St. John Mandel; Broadway fans can attend a performance of Titanic: The Musical; opera lovers get a production of Aaron Copland's The Tender Land; jazz fans can snap fingers to the Flying Horse Big Band's tribute to Ray Charles. And that barely scratches the surface of the myriad concerts, exhibitions and happenings taking place. Admission to many events is free, but all events require a ticket; some performances add a surcharge to reserve seats.
5:30 p.m. Friday, April 5, through 5 p.m. Sunday, April 14 | Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, 445 S. Magnolia Ave. | 407-823-1500 | arts.cah.ucf.edu | free-$50
Florida Film Festival
We won't have the schedule of films playing at this year's 28th annual Florida Film Festival until mid-March, but there's always plenty worth seeing. The area's only Oscar-accredited film festival screens more than 180 films this year at Maitland's Enzian and the Winter Park Village Regal Cinemas. That includes shorts, features, documentaries, animation ... something for every cinematic taste. Last year's investment in a mobile app made finding the movies you want to see and snagging tickets for them a breeze, so we're happy to see that's returning. Keep an eye out for announcements about films, celebrities, parties and more in the next few weeks.
Enzian Theater, 1300 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland; Regal Cinemas Winter Park Village, 510 Orlando Ave., Winter Park | floridafilmfestival.com | $12-$1,500
Friday, April 26
Whether we're talking bourbon or scotch, Irish or Canadian, whiskey/whisky is the star at our annual Whiskey Business party. Enjoy samples of dozens of varieties from some of the area's most dedicated brown liquor providers, including brands like Jack Daniel's, Woodford Reserve and Whistle Pig. To keep it classy, though, we also make sure there are plenty of booze-absorbing bites from several different restaurants on hand, along with live music and burlesque interludes to feast your ears and eyes upon. The beautiful wooden architecture of the Cheyenne Saloon complements this event perfectly.
6-10 p.m. | Cheyenne Saloon, 120 W. Church St. | whiskeybusinessorlando.com | $20-$80
Top 5 Favorite Overlooked Attractions In Orlando
1. Wild Florida
Wild Florida is my top pick for many reasons! They have air boat rides which gives visitors to see Florida in its natural habitat, allow you to see a ton of wild and exotic animals at the wild animal park and of course the opportunity to interact with a sloth!!!
So, there you have it! That is my top picks for my favorite attractions that are overlooked here in Orlando! What did you think of the list? What are your top 5 picks? Comment below and let me know!
Escape rooms have been popping up left and right around Orlando. My choice for them is Escapology! I love how realistic this escape room is comparison to some of the others. The basis is this. You are locked into a room and have to solve puzzles, hints and more to figure out how to escape! They are opening their 7th room this week!
3. Attractions at I-Drive 360!
I-Drive 360 has revitalized what International Drive is for both locals as well as returning travelers. There is so much to see and do for families! From a trip around The Orlando Eye, watching fish at Sea Life Aquarium, rubbing elbows with celebrities at Madame Tussauds, or looking at the skeletons of some of the most rare species on the planet! There is an awesome courtyard also where families will gather for ice cream in the evening as well!
What happens when you mix sex appeal, paint, rock music and dancers? Well DRIP would love to show you! This expressive showcase of music, dancing and paint rocks most nights on I Drive! When I saw this show I had an absolute blast! The audience is also not safe from sand, water, paint and more!
5. Orlando Balloon Rides
My number 5 gives you a perspective that many do not see ever here in Orlando. Imagine floating over Walt Disney World, spotting your favorite attractions on a hot air balloon! You meet early in the morning, help assemble the balloon, fly for over an hour, then head back to a free breakfast buffet after a champagne toast!
9 Best Florida Beach Vacation Destinations for Families
Where to Play: Though not known as a beach destination, this historical city of St. Augustine is a must-visit with the family. St. Augustine beaches are both secluded and unspoiled with more than 40 miles of scenic coastline where Spanish explorers first set foot hundreds of years ago. Spend the days at the beach and the nights among the cobblestone streets of the historic district. My kids loved the Pirate and Treasure Museum, Old Jail, and Alligator Farm among other city attractions.
Where to Stay: The Hilton Garden Inn at St. Augustine Beach is my go-to hotel for a great location at a budget-friendly rate.
RELATED: Dolphins and 30 Other Great Things to Do in Key West with Kids
Where to Play: Part of The Palm Beaches, Singer Island feels like a private oasis. The wide beaches, turquoise water, and breezy air will leave you feeling relaxed and sun-kissed. Though not a lot of attractions on the island, there are a number of kid-friendly sites to see within a quick drive. Head to Loggerhead Marine Life Center to meet recently rescued sea turtles and catch classes and storytimes during the week. At nearby John D. MacArthur State Park also lies the urban estuary of Lake Worth Lagoon and the Intracoastal Waterway, where you can kayak, canoe, and hike short trails and visit the Nature Center.
Where to Stay: The all-suite Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort and Spa is a great beachfront hotel for families with a very child-friendly pool and a kids club.
RELATED: 50 Things To Do in Orlando with Kids Other Than Theme Parks
Where to Play: Small beach town, big personality: Delray Beach was voted Most Fun Small Town in America by USA Today. When not enjoying the white-sand beaches and delicious local restaurants, check out the unique Morikami Japanese Gardens. Take your fun indoors at the Silverball Museum for some unique family entertainment with modern and old-school arcade games or drive to Boca Raton to visit the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center.
Where to Stay: Delray Sands is a great beachfront boutique hotel with the perfect combination of upscale and coziness. For a larger hotel with all the amenities you could ask for, stay at the Delray Beach Marriott.
Where to Play: This family-friendly South Florida beach destination provides a wide beach with a great broadwalk to bike, rollerblade, or just take an evening stroll before stopping in at one of the many local beachfront restaurants. Hop on the FREE Hollywood Trolley and head south to John U. Lloyd State Park, where you can take a kayak tour of Whiskey Creek.
Where to Stay: My favorite family-friendly hotel on Hollywood Beach is the Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort, which offers complimentary chairs and umbrellas on prime beach space in front of the hotel. There are three pools, a Flow Rider, and a hut to rent kayaks and paddle boards for exploring the mangroves of the intercoastal waterways. For a more luxurious family stay, The Diplomat will not disappoint.
Where to Play: Yes, it may sound surprising but I enjoy South Beach with my kids. Avoid wilder crowds by going during winter (as opposed to spring break). If rain arrives or the kids need a break from the waves, take some time to explore the Miami Children's Museum, located just over the bridge from Miami Beach.The Miami Seaquarium is an amusement park, museum, educational program, and rescue center all in one and a must visit with kids who love sealife.
Where to Stay: Hotel Victor is a beautiful boutique hotel in the heart of South Beach. Though swanky, it's great for families because of its walkable location, beach playground across the street, shallow heated pool, and Sugar Factory restaurant located right off the hotel lobby. Another great accommodation option is Casa Victoria Orchid, a boutique hotel located on the historic Espanola Way.
Where to Play: Often known for its golf courses and plentiful high-end shopping, Naples, Florida is also perfect family vacation destination. Located on the Gulf of Mexico, in the Southwest region of Florida, the beaches of Naples offer miles of gentle waves, soft white sand, and beautiful warm weather year-round. Besides the abundance of beaches, we never get bored in Naples with its family-friendly attractions and activities! The Naples Zoo and Caribbean Gardens is a fantastic way to spend half a day exploring nature. If you have younger children, you won't want to skip the Golisano’s Children’s Museum of Naples. For waterside activities, the area offers great shelling, calm kayaking, and good fishing off the Naples Pier.
Where to Stay: My favorite beachfront hotel in Naples is the Edgewater: It’s an all-suite, boutique hotel in a convenient location. The Ritz Carlton Naples is also a great family-friendly beachfront hotel that offers kids club activities.
RELATED: 12 Hotels Around the World That Will Blow Your Kids' Minds
Sanibel and Captiva Islands
Where To Play: There are so many beaches that feel private and secluded on Sanibel and Captiva Islands, located right outside of Fort Myers. My favorite spot to take the kids is near the Sanibel Lighthouse where the waves are calm and the shells are plentiful. Rent bikes for a day to explore the entire island, making sure to stop at the J.N. Ding Darling Wildlife Center. Our family’s favorite beach to watch the sunset is at the Mucky Duck in Captiva. The Sanibel Sea School is an interactive way to get the kids involved in marine ecosystems while having fun.
Where To Stay: The South Seas Island Resort will be the luxurious island escape of your dreams. This expansive resort has everything you need on property for the entire family to have an excellent beach vacation.
Where To Play: One of the eight barrier islands of Sarasota, Siesta Key beach is continually voted as one of the best beaches in the U.S. The sand is 99% pure quartz, which makes it sugar-fine, uber soft, and cool on the feet. It's easy to spend a day here with the FREE parking, calm waves, beach volleyball courts, large playground, picnic tables, and nice outdoor showers. Take a day to explore the nearby family-friendly attractions like the Ringling Museum and the Children’s Rainforest Garden at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.
Where To Stay: To take advantage of this beautiful, relaxing beach destination, I suggest condo-style accommodations on the beach. Hyatt Residence Club is a great place for the entire family to spread out or consider renting one of the many rental homes available in the area.
Where To Play: A great add-on to an Orlando vacation, Clearwater Beach is beautiful and family-friendly. When taking a break from the sunshine and sand, plan a few hours at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. When evening rolls around, head to Pier 60 for a wonderful sunset celebration with artisans, crafters, street performers and more. To see the Gulf from a different perspective, go on an adventure with Captain Memo's Pirate Cruise.
Where To Stay: The Hilton Clearwater Beach hotel is next to Pier 60, making it an excellent location for evening activities with the kids. This comfortable and modern hotel makes it easy to have a car-free vacation.
Top photo courtesy of South Seas Island Resort
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A Travel Guide for How to Visit Orlando on a Budget
When to Visit
There is no sure way to avoid crowds in Orlando, but certain times of the year are less crowded than others. After late August and the start of school in most places, Disney World has a history of offering discount packages to keep the trams full of visitors. Summer is the most popular and therefore worst time to visit the theme parks. Pack sunscreen and patience in equal doses. If you can avoid times when school is out, you'll see shorter lines. Find a flight to Orlando.
Where to Eat
Most major U.S. restaurant chains have at least a few locations in the Orlando area. Most food budgets go haywire at the theme parks, where captive audiences will pay very high prices for generally ordinary food. Some of these purchases can't be avoided, but plan larger meals away from the parks. For example, eat a large breakfast and a large dinner, but make lunch a snack. It can do wonders for your budget.
Where to Stay
On-site resorts save time, but not necessarily money. And it's possible to stay at a budget-friendly hotel even during peak season. Disney even recognizes the need for lower room rates and offers on-site rooms at discounted prices after school starts each August. Four-star hotel for under $100/night: Monumental Hotel on International Drive. Key question: How far is your "bargain" room from the attractions you will visit? Don't stay in Apopka if you're planning to visit Universal or WDW each day.
Find hotels in greater Orlando if you don't mind being a bit farther out.
Remember that the region has three fairly busy airports: Orlando, Daytona Beach, and Sanford. Some travelers find it easier or cheaper to use Tampa's airport, too. You'll need an Orlando car rental to visit major attractions, and it definitely pays to shop for a rental. Competition here is fierce. Beware of the booth: Greater Orlando is Florida's toll road capital.
Walt Disney World is 30 minutes southwest of downtown Orlando. Planners envisioned it as a place where construction would never "finish," a destination where people would have to come back to see the latest and greatest. Universal Studios Orlando is part of a massive entertainment complex where you can see working film sets, sample the work of world famous chefs, and ride attractions that put you in the movies. Take a look at a step by step approach to saving money at Disney World.
Beyond the Theme Parks
One reason for Orlando's phenomenal growth is its central Florida location. Gulf and Atlantic beaches are within 60 miles, as is the Kennedy Space Center, Ocala's horse farm country and some wonderful bass fishing.
More Orlando Tips
Get a GO Orlando Card
This is a card you buy prior to your trip and then activate on first use. You can buy from one- to seven-day cards good for free admission at dozens of local attractions. Design your itinerary before you consider a Go Orlando purchase, to determine if the investment will save you money on admissions.
Prepare Yourself for Admission Prices
People who don't do their homework experience "sticker shock" when they find out how much admission will cost. Check Web sites and find discounts before you go.
Be Skeptical of the word "Discount"
There is no shortage of offers for "deep discounts" and "cheap rooms." Sometimes the offers will save you money, but many have strings attached. Don't be duped.
Save Time for Central Florida
Cape Canaveral's Kennedy Space Center is unique and should not be missed. Budget a day to see it. Orlando's trendy, upscale Winter Park area is a nice alternative to a day at the theme parks, too.
Sunburn can ruin your trip
It might be obvious advice, but scores of people plan and save for a Florida vacation and then lose most of the enjoyment to sunburn. Buy a good sunblock and use it. Consider it cheap travel insurance.
Try to Blend In
Criminals target people who advertise their status as tourists. Don't stack luggage in your car so it can be seen through the windows. Keep big bills tucked away safely in a money belt.
Watch Your Speed on Interstate 4
This main highway that connects Tampa, Disney, Orlando, and Daytona is well-patrolled, especially in the area near Disney. Warnings are few and tickets are expensive. You'll find other areas where radar-enforced tickets are common, but I-4 is probably the place where speeders get ticketed most frequently.
Annual Orlando events you don't want to miss
Great Orlando Mixer
The swinging-est party in town, featuring 1920s-themed costumes and music, and drinks from the best mixologists in Orlando.
March 26, Cheyenne Saloon, 128 W. Church St., thegreatorlandomixer.com
Florida Film Festival
Whether you're a fan of dramas, comedies, documentaries or shorts, the Florida Film Festival has it all.
April 10-19, Enzian Theater, 1300 S. Orlando Ave., Maitland, 407-629-1088, floridafilmfestival.com
Fiesta in the Park
Wander around Lake Eola and check out food, live music, and arts and crafts from tons of vendors.
April 11-12, Lake Eola Park, North Eola Drive and East Washington Street, fiestainthepark.com
Florida Music Festival
A downtown music festival geared toward artists looking to break into the major-label industry.
April 16-18, downtown Orlando, multiple venues, floridamusicfestival.com
Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival
Thespians from all over the world descend on the theater complex at Loch Haven for two weeks of performances.
May 13-26, Loch Haven Park, 777 E. Princeton St., orlandofringe.org
A monthlong celebration of the best food Orlando has to offer, with special prix fixe menus at each participating restaurant.
June 1-30, multiple locations, bite30.com
Organized trips to Walt Disney World Resort during the day, themed parties every night.
June 2-8, multiple locations, gaydays.com
Fireworks at the Fountain
Nothing says patriotism like the "oohs" and "ahhs" elicited by this annual firework and light show at Lake Eola.
July 4, Lake Eola Park, North Eola Drive and East Robinson Street, cityoforlando.net
Best of Orlando
Annual party in honor of our Best of Orlando winners. If you snag a ticket to this exclusive party, congratulations: We like you.
July 30, The Beacham, 46 N. Orange Ave., orlandoweekly.com
Orlando Nerd Fest
This event brings in video game music composers and nerdcore luminaries like Nobuo Uematsu and MC Frontalot.
Aug. 7-10, venue TBA, orlandonerdfest.com
A day in the park that features all kinds of art, from choirs to puppets to painting to dance and everything in between.
September (date TBA), Loch Haven Park, 777 E. Princeton St., artlando.com
Halloween Horror Nights
Over a month of special haunted houses and scare zones. Bring your heart medication.
Sept. 18-Nov. 1, Universal Studios, 6000 Universal Blvd., halloweenhorrornights.com
Orlando Indie Comedy Fest
Check out some of the country's best underground comedians at intimate venues like Bull & Bush and Will's Pub.
October 2015 (date TBA), multiple locations, orlandoindiecomedyfest.com
Come Out With Pride
A week of LGBT events and our favorite downtown parade party.
Oct. 5-11, multiple locations, comeoutwithpride.com
Winter Park Harvest Festival
A festival that focuses on local agriculture and sustainable harvests.
November 2015 (date TBA), Central Park, North Park Avenue and West Morse Boulevard, Winter Park, alocalfolkus.com/wphf
Florida Blue Florida Classic
Annual football game between Bethune Cookman University and Florida A&M.
November 2015 (date TBA), Orlando Citrus Bowl, 1 Citrus Bowl Place, floridaclassic.org
Christmas in the Park
The Morse Museum decorates Central Park with stained glass windows and the Bach Festival Choir performs a Christmas concert.
December 2015 (date TBA), Central Park, North Park Avenue and West Morse Boulevard, Winter Park, morsemuseum.org
Handmade crafts from local artisans and live music from local bands make this our favorite stop for holiday shopping.
December 2015 (date TBA), Stardust Video & Coffee, 1842 E. Winter Park Road, stardustie.com
Eatonville's most famous writer gets a festival in her honor every year featuring live music, arts and educational activities.
January 2016 (date TBA), downtown Eatonville, zorafestival.org
Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl
The Citrus Bowl plays host to one of the BCS games every New Year's Day.
Jan. 1, 2016, Orlando Citrus Bowl, 1 Citrus Bowl Place, buffalowildwingscitrusbowl.com
This annual tribute to man's best friends (hosted by yours truly) has treats and games, live music and all the butt your pooch can sniff.
February 2016 (date TBA), location TBA, puppylovefestival.com
This DIY festival pays tribute to slain Orlando musician Ralph Ameduri and tends to reunite some of Orlando's bygone bands for special sets.
February 2016 (date TBA), multiple locations, ralphameduri.com
Lunar New Year Dragon Parade
Formerly taking place in Mills 50, this Lunar New Year celebration got so big that it had to move to the Fashion Square Mall in 2015.
February 2016 (date TBA), Fashion Square Mall, 3201 E. Colonial Drive, centralfloridadragonparade.com