With winter breaks coming up, I know lots of our readers will be planning Orlando vacations. Because, family! And…Orlando!
Let me just say, our family is good at vacation. We trained on our first trip to Disney back when I was pregnant, and our sons were four and seven (perfect Disney ages, for the record). It taught us when to go, go, go and when to chill; when to split up for alone time with each kid and when to hang as a group. Thanks to hotel childcare, we even had a date night. (Also a great reason to travel with grandparents or a loving aunt or uncle, by the way.)
Our night out helped us refuel and enjoy the rest of our mostly kid-centered trip making the entire adventure that much more wonderful.
A night in Orlando without the kids is totally worth it
When you have young kids, it really does feel indulgent and wonderful to have great meal, see a show, or just wait in line for a few rides free from snack requests, strollers, and endless rounds of “how much longer?” And having recently spent a little kid-free time in Orlando myself, thanks to the folks from Visit Orlando, it gave me so many idea!
So if you can indulge — and I highly recommend it — here are 6 super cool ideas for kid-free things to do if you’re able to work in a little adult time on an Orlando vacation.
Pro tip: Don’t stay out too late, because you know the kids will want to hit the pool first thing or take advantage of those early-access park hours. Then you’ll be the one who’s tired and grumpy the next day, and we can’t be having that.
Related: 7 smart tips and hotel tricks that make travel with toddlers so much safer and easier
1. When you’re craving some theme park action followed by a bar crawl…
Wizarding World + Fast & Furious Supercharged | Photos © Universal Orlando
After a day at Universal Orlando with the whole family, grab a sitter through the hotel — they’re vetted and in the experience of our writers here who have used them, pretty terrific. Then head back to the park at night for the attractions you missed, because your kids were too young or too short.
At Disney, Epcot’s Future World and World Showcase stay open until 10 p.m. (9 p.m. on weeknights), while Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom close at 8 p.m. — those hours may be even later during peak vacation days.
At Universal Orlando, both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure close as late as 9 or 10 p.m. on peak weekends, with IoA generally open later than Studios — until 8 p.m., even on a random Tuesday night in October.
So what to ride?
Confession: I love a good movie car chase, and Universal’s new Fast & Furious – Supercharged (above), which puts you on a party bus that suddenly becomes part of a high-speed car chase, is pretty much made for me.
The Hogswarts Express | © Universal Orlando
And we know adults love Harry Potter as much as the kids, if not more! So while you’re there, be sure to revisit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Hogsmeade, which have a decidedly different vibe at night. Plus, you can take your time to explore all the tiny details you missed with the kids — and even grab a little something stronger than non-alcoholic butterbeer. Plus the Nighttime Lights at Hogswarts are terrific, if you have little ones who can’t make it up for that.
Roller coaster fan? Ride The Incredible Hulk Coaster or Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit at night because, wow.
Then, after the parks close, make your way to Universal CityWalk, where lots of places stay open until 2 a.m. Enjoy hot spots like Pat O’Brien’s, pretty much an exact replica of the bar by the same name in New Orleans. There’s also Bob Marley’s, A Tribute to Freedom which is perfect for grabbing a Red Stripe and hearing some live reggae. If a night of dancing is more up your alley, the multi-room The Groove is such an Orlando hot spot, you’re likely to find more locals than tourists.
(However for the record, I do NOT recommend staying out until 2 a.m. because the kids won’t care how tired you are in the next morning.)
Oh, and if you’re staying at one of the Universal hotels? The water taxi runs until 2:15 a.m. I love a water taxi!
Related: Parents share their most helpful family travel tips and they’re brilliant
2. When you want to catch a show or concert…
Velvet Sessions at the Hard Rock Hotel | Photo © Universal Orlando
No, not every Orlando show features a Disney Princess. Blue Man Group Orlando on Universal CityWalk is as good as the original New York show, or check the concert listings at the Hard Rock Live, a 3000-seat arena featuring major acts.
For something more intimate, the Velvet Sessions at the Hard Rock Hotel hosts groups from The Wallflowers to Joan Jett to Foreigner. You may even be able to nab VIP tickets for a private bar area, or get a meet-and-greet with the band. And bonus for an Orlando night without kids: it’s 21+ meaning no little ones in sight — a nice break from the parks, for sure.
At Disney Springs, House of Blues is always good fun, or spend a night at the gothic-style Edison Live which has tons of cool cabaret style entertainment (more on that below). Either way, it’s unlikely that anyone will be dancing in a mermaid costume.
If you’re a Cirque de Soleil fan, you’ll want to look into Luzia, which is coming to Orlando spring of 2019. So cool!
And there are of course tons of movie screens at both parks, seeing as how they’re both owned by movie studios. Even a night spent holding hands, sharing popcorn, watching something R-rated and not at all animated, can be a delicious break you need to help refuel for the next day.
3. When you want a delicious meal at the parks without having to cut someone else’s food…
Rum ingredients for a rum tasting at Strong Water Tavern | Photo: © Loews Hotels
If you’re a little nervous about sitters and want to stay close to “home” at night I get it. Fortunately, you have lots of great dining options right at the parks.
Strong Water Tavern at Loews Sapphire Falls has a ceviche bar and can also hook you up with your very own rum specialist for a tasting. Awesome, right?
Compare different rums and learn something — even if it’s just that you really like rum. Or have dinner outside by the lagoon and pretend you’re on a Caribbean vacation.
After you eat, I suggest you take a stroll along the walking paths that lead to the Universal theme parks. Even if you don’t want to visit again, a walk along the water is a great way to relax, especially if you aren’t pushing a stroller or waiting for everyone to catch up.
There are some other top-rated restaurants at both theme parks, including The Palm (Hard Rock Hotel), Bice (Portofino Bay Hotel), California Grill (Disney’s Contemporary Resort), Citrico’s (Grand Floridian Resort), Todd English’s Bluezoo (WDW Dolphin Hotel), and Jiko (Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge), which our editor Liz swears is one of the best meals she’s had anywhere.
And she lives in New York City!
Related: 14 sexy at-home date-night ideas for parents…after the kids have gone to bed
4. When you want to shop a little, sip a little, walk a little, eat a little…
The Boathouse at Disney Springs | © Anne Wolfe Postic for Cool Mom Picks
For a leisurely night of shopping and strolling and eating, Disney Springs is the place to be. While CityWalk offers similar activities, the shops at Disney Springs may be more your speed, ranging from the souvenir-type shops you’d expect, to shops like Coach, Free People, Havaianas, Kiel’s, and Kate Spade NY.
As for me, I picked up a few souvenirs then took a break at The Boathouse with oysters and an aperitif. Then I did some more walking and popped into Zara (because it wasn’t crowded and I love kid-free shopping!) before enjoying a multi-course Italian feast at Maria & Enzo’s Ristorante.
Tip: If you’re having a kid-free night, you can skip the carefully crafted Disney backstory about the restaurant and just savor the linguini and clams which are darned authentic, not too expensive, and totally worth getting a sitter and making a reservation.
The Edison at Disney Springs | © Anne Wolfe Postic for Cool Mom Picks
If you aren’t ready to call it a night, head to The Edison for a fancy cocktail. They also offer a late-night menu with fun dishes like a “Bacon Clothesline.” After 10 p.m. the Edison is just for the 21 and up crowd, and you might find live musicians, flapper-style dancers, aerialists or a DJ for dancing. Maybe all of the above.
Pro tip: Schedule a Disney character breakfast for the morning after, so you can bury your face in coffee while the kids are entertained by Goofy and Donald Duck.
Related: Pro tips for saving a ton of money on family travel
5. When you want to nerd out on nature, theme park style…
Pandora – The World of Avatar | © Anne Wolfe Postic for Cool Mom Picks
Okay, so it’s not quite the Audobon Center in Maitland or the Harry P. Leu Botanical Gardens (and those are cool too), but we are talking a theme park vacation here.
Have you even been to Disney’s Animal Kingdom since they opened Pandora – The World of Avatar? I don’t care if you aren’t a fan of the cult favorite movie. Pandora is just soooo very cool!
(Besides, the next four installments of Avatar will be released starting in 2020, so start getting pumped.)
Stay until sunset and you’ll get to see bioluminescent plants and walkways powered by daytime sunlight. Bonus activity: Guess which plants are real and which were created by Disney. In many cases, if a particular plant won’t grow in the region, they find a lookalike that does grow there to take its place. If you’re a plant lover and you have time for a VIP tour, ask lots of questions. You’ll definitely learn some new trivia.
As far as rides, take a spin on Avatar Flight of Passage – trust me, you’ll want to talk yourself into it even if you’re scared, like I was. (You’re not technically moving very far, and it’s all special effects and 3-D glasses, but still.) I sure was glad I went for it.
Flying over this moon on the back of a mountain banshee – even if you really aren’t – is exhilarating. I even cried a little. Not because I was scared, just because it was so beautiful.
For a peaceful boat excursion through a bioluminescent rainforest and a little hand-holding with your sweetheart, try the Na’vi River Journey.
6. When you just want to get out of the parks for a night…
Sushi! | Photo © Dragonfly Robata Grill
When you need a break from movies, characters, and branded everything, if you can swing the ride off the property and you have a trusted caregiver with the kiddos, it’s so worth it to explore the rest of Orlando. It’s easy to forget there’s a whole city out there! And there are tons of fabulous Orlando restaurants in every price range, featuring every cuisine, for a fun, adults-only Orlando date night.
There’s steak, there’s Mexican, there’s Italian, there’s seafood, there’s barbecue.
As for me, my pick is Dragonfly Robata, a short drive from Universal Orlando and a slightly longer drive from Disney World. Might I recommend the Smokey Dragon Roll? Salmon, snow crab, tempura flakes, cucumber, avocado, torched tuna, lemon zest, kobachi, and eel sauce. Enough said.
I also know they make an excellent French 75, if that’s your thing. (It’s definitely mine.)
Thanks to the team from Visit Orlando for hosting me on a press trip, and covering my flight and some of my expenses. I was so happy to see how much more there is to do in Orlando since I was last there with my kids!