Theme Park Fun & Florida Sun: An Insiders’ Guide to Kissimmee
Kissimmee isn’t just fun to say, it’s fun to visit. The world knows this -- in 2018 more than 8.6 million people came to experience its unique blend of theme parks, attractions and family-friendly accommodations.
And yet, it’s not without its secrets. Even veterans will admit that they haven’t uncovered every hidden gem or secret strategy to make the most of everything the destination has to offer. We haven’t either -- but here are a few insider tips to get you started.
There are 19 major theme parks within a short drive of Kissimmee, making it a logical home base for anyone coming to Florida to experience them. Despite the great location, you'll never have enough time to do everything in one trip. Part of visiting Kissimmee is accepting that there are choices to be made, and it helps to have an idea of what you want out of your vacation.
For instance, you could focus on the new. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the new land at Disney's Hollywood Studios, is the park's most buzzed-about expansion in years. SeaWorld Orlando now has a life-size recreation of Sesame Street including a parade starring Elmo, Big Bird and all their friends. Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, a sprawling monument to mankind’s giant leap, has been partially revamped to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landings.
Some visitors come purely to experience special events. Universal Orlando Resort transforms for Halloween (this year’s highlight is a Stranger Things-themed haunted house) and the holidays (when The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogwarts Castle is decked out in lights). Epcot hosts a flower and garden festival every spring featuring living sculptures of Disney characters. Theme parks host events year round, so it's worth researching to see what's on during your visit.
Others prefer to focus on smaller parks, which have the benefit of reduced cost and less time spent waiting in lines. Fun Spot America Kissimmee has more than 20 rides, including the first inverting wooden roller coaster in Florida, and a full-day pass is a reasonable $60 (US$45).
Regardless of your strategy, chances are some items on your list will be left undone. Don't worry about it too much -- this is why many first-time visitors to Kissimmee wind up coming back.
Choose your accommodations wisely
Stays are generally affordable in Kissimmee, particularly if you opt for vacation home rentals. Often these are priced similarly to a hotel but offer considerably more space. Options range from single-family villas to 12-bedroom mansions, so you can pick the best fit for your group size and budget. Some of them are pet-friendly too.
Hotels have their own perks though, especially ones officially affiliated with theme parks. Properties such as Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort, Disney’s All-Star Music Resort and Disney's All-Star Sports Resort not only offer good value, but allow you early-morning access to Walt Disney World, complimentary shuttle service and other benefits.
Regardless of your accommodation type, you’ll save even more if you’re able to visit outside of traditional school breaks and busy periods such as late December. If coming over a long weekend, aim for one that’s not a holiday in the U.S., such as Canadian Thanksgiving, Remembrance Day, or Family Day.
Go beyond the theme parks
As fun as theme park hopping may be, there’s more to Kissimmee than getting a selfie with Mickey Mouse. Venturing beyond the big resorts opens up off-the-beaten track opportunities for fun and exploration.
Case in point, the headwaters to the Florida Everglades, home to a 100-million-year-old lineage of American alligators, are arguably more spectacular than any human-made attraction. An airboat ride with a company such as Spirit of the Swamp lets you see wildlife up close (but not too close) in its natural habitat. Tours can be as short as an hour, but it’s worth paying extra for a 90-minute or two-hour tour so you can get deeper into nature.
Or you could get a bird's-eye view: At Stallion 51, you can take the controls of a World War II era plane under the guidance of a professional instructor. Their 3-hour beginners' program includes pre- and post-flight briefings, plus video of your flight from inside and outside the cockpit.
For those who prefer something more laid back, Pioneer Village at Shingle Creek is like stepping back in time to the 1800s. It features historic buildings carefully relocated from across Osceola County, including a blacksmith shop, a general store and other curiosities. At just $9.50 (US$7) per adult and $4 (US$3) per child, it’s also one of the lowest-priced attractions in the Kissimmee area.
Have some grown-up time
As family friendly as Kissimmee is, adults deserve some downtime too. Fortunately, there’s plenty to do if you’re on a couples escape or leaving the kids with a babysitter.
In the daytime, Kissimmee’s Main Street is good place to start -- it’s a charming collection of small boutiques and eateries interspersed with public sculptures and murals that give it an artsy vibe. From there, you can walk to the town’s lakefront and Big Toho Marina, a popular starting point for fishing excursions.
A short drive away, Old Town Kissimmee is a recreation of a classic Florida town and a fun, casual spot for a date. Its many eclectic shopping options include a rock ‘n’ roll emporium, a 1960’s clothing store and a boutique devoted entirely to beef jerky. There’s also a giant Ferris wheel, regular live music and exotic car displays every weekend.
After the sun goes down, Disney Springs and Universal CityWalk both have solid options for the over-21 crowd. The former has seen an influx of celebrity chefs in recent years, such as seven-time James Beard Foundation Award-winner Rick Bayless at the Mexican-inspired Frontera Cocina. The latter has a wide array of entertainment choices, including a duelling piano bar, the ever-popular Blue Man Group and Hard Rock Live Orlando.
Hunt for deals
Kissimmee has so many tourist-friendly attractions, competition is fierce among them. That means there are great bargains to be had if you do your research. You came to Travelzoo, so you’re off to a great start. But there are other places to look (just don’t let our editors know we told you).
Experience Kissimmee’s website has a substantial list of discounts and perks available at hotels, attractions, car rentals and more. Theme park websites are also worth checking out – often, you’ll find special rates for combo tickets or multi-day passes, plus occasional hotel discounts and dining perks.