Conquering I-Drive

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For the millions of visitors to Orlando each year, International Drive is the epicenter of their travels. But with so much to do and see, I-Drive can be one daunting stretch of road. Follow this handy guide to hotels, attractions, dining and transportation to conquer one of Florida’s most famous thoroughfares.

For the millions of visitors to Orlando each year, International Drive is the epicenter of their travels.  But with so much to do and see, the I-drive can be one daunting stretch of road.  Follow this handy guide to hotels, attractions, dining and transportation to conquer one of Florida's most famous thoroughfares.

International Drive, gateway to Orlando’s theme parks. Home to larger-than-life attractions like SeaWorld, Universal Studios and, of course, Walt Disney World.

For more than44 million annual domestic and international visitors, this Sunshine State mecca may seem intimidating at first. The International Drive resort area spans 5,500 acres, where clamorous sights and sounds give way to a smorgasbord of choices: shopping, restaurants, theme parks, hotels . . . the list is endless.

Orlando was the first city I ever called home in Florida, and it’s still as familiar as an old family photo. Let me be your guide down I-Drive for an exploratory foray into Orlando’s urban wilderness. Together we’ll navigate and tame this much-loved Florida destination.

I-Drive Transportation

Airplane tires have hit the tarmac and you’re stretching your legs in the terminal. A comfortable hotel suite waits. Let’s get this show on the road!

Many I-Drive hotels provide shuttle transportation to and from Orlando International Airport. Check with your concierge for details, or visit this link for a short list of hotels offering free rides.

Budget travelers can take Lynx bus number 42 from the airport to dozens of stops along International Drive. It costs just $2 (or $4.50 for a one-day pass). The route is active from 5:40 a.m. until 10:10 p.m. every Monday through Saturday, and from 6:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. Sundays.Visit GoLynx.com and click on “Trip Planner” for the best route to your chosen hotel.

Folks traveling with large families may want to grab a cab instead. It’s easier to juggle kids and luggage (taxis often carry up to nine passengers) and fares are per carload, not per person. The ride to International Drive should cost approximately $40 one way, but fares vary.

Find your taxi on A and B sides of the Main Terminal (Ground Transportation Level 1) at Commercial Lane spaces A5-A8, A22-A25, B5-B8 and B20-B25.

If you want to charter a car in advance, check out Mears Transportation, a long-standing and reputable car service. Mears also has bus charters and taxis.

Hotels, Motels and Resorts

There are countless places to stay along International Drive. Deciding factors vary with each visitor, so do careful research to find a room that suits your specific needs. Travel budget, number and age of guests, distance to attractions and amenities all are important to consider.

Embassy Suites (8250 Jamaican Ct., 407-345-8250) is a favorite of mine for its median prices, spacious suites and free breakfast buffet. It’s a comfortable atmosphere for couples or families, and offers free daily transportation to Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, CityWalk, Sea World and Wet ‘n Wild.

La Quinta Inn (8300 Jamaican Ct., 407-351-1660) offers clean rooms at a budget-friendly price, and can accommodate visitors who travel with pets. The heated swimming pool is a great perk.

Holiday Inn Resort Orlando – The Castle (8629 International Dr., 407-345-1511) is a well-appointed option for travelers with money to spare. This modern theme hotel offers amenities like free wireless internet in the lobby, and cushy pillow-top mattresses in each room.

On Canada Avenue – which runs for a short parallel stretch between I-Drive and Universal Boulevard – hotels such as Residence Inn Orlando provide breathing room from the main strip.

Not sure where to begin? Try this index of listings to jump start your search.

Ticket to Ride

Once settled, you’ll find it surprisingly easy to get around without a car. The I-Ride Trolley Service provides cheap transport to hundreds of stops along International, running daily from 8 a.m. until about 10:30 p.m.

Single fares are $1.25 per adult, .25 cents for seniors over 65, and free for children age 12 and under when accompanied by a paying adult. Exact change is required, as drivers do not carry money, but transfers are free.

The trolley’s Red Line route runs north and south along International Drive, beginning at Orlando Premium Outlets and stopping at restaurants, hotels, theme parks and the Orange County Convention Center. Red Line trolleys arrive at stops about every 20 minutes.

The Green Line route supplements this with a loop from Major Boulevard along Universal Boulevard. Green Line trolleys arrive approximately every 30 minutes.

Travelers visiting for any length of time will want to invest in an Unlimited Ride Pass. These last from one to 14 days, and cost between $5 and $18. But don’t try to get one on the trolley – you’ve got to purchase in advance at one of more than 100 locations. Visit Iridetrolley.com for a complete list and more route details.

If you decide to travel with a rental car instead, download useful area maps here.

Sand Lake Road is a good way to get to Canada Avenue, if you’re staying off International. It also leads to nearby gas stations and Interstate 4, which in turn paves the way toward outlet malls and downtown Orlando.

Be advised that International Drive traffic is a bit touchy, which is to say that it’s on the heavy side and often populated by drivers unfamiliar with their surroundings. Consult your map before leaving the hotel parking lot, and be patient with fellow motorists.

Chow Time

Those who’ve read my travel advice already know I’m a big fan of hotel suites with kitchenettes. You can save a lot of money by dining in-room for at least one meal each day, using provisions from a nearby supermarket or farmer’s market.

For supermarkets, Gooding's is your best bet on I-Drive. This mega-market is open from 24 hours, seven days a week for all your grocery needs (12521 State Road 535, 407-827-1200).

If you’re eager to get out of the hotel, morning meal options do abound on the strip. Bargain-basement breakfast smorgasbords can be found every day atSizzler and Ponderosa

I’ve always been skeptical of these, wondering how they manage to serve quality food so cheaply, but decided to give Ponderosa (6362 International Drive, 407-352-9343) a shot during my visit. At $3.99 (plus a little extra for my drink), the price was right, and the line was almost out the door, so it seemed a popular choice.

Lately, I’ve been trying to follow a healthy diet – more fruits and grains than waffles and sausage. Ponderosa surprised me with a good selection of both. I sampled some fluffy scrambled eggs, and then move on to ripe cantaloupe. Kids buzzed around the cereal station, scooping up Fruit Loops with abandon.

The quality is good, though not gourmet by any standards. It’s simple food, and diners looking for healthier choices can eat here without overloading on empty carbs or cholesterol. Of course, those who don’t worry about waistlines can pile on the pancakes and strawberry syrup.

Sweet Tomatoes, (6877 South Kirkman Road, 407-363-1616) just off International, serves great breakfast every Sunday from 9 a.m. to noon. Their buffet includes the usual suspects (scrambled eggs, waffles) and some tasty surprises (cinnamon chip biscuits, make-your-own breakfast burritos) for under $12 per person, including drinks.

Ming Court (9188 International Drive, 407-351-9988), across the street from the Pointe Orlando Shopping Center, gets enthusiastic raves for ala carte lunch dishes, noodles and dim sum with Japanese and Chinese flair. Stick to lunch if you’re on a budget, as prices rise during dinner.

Once again, Sweet Tomatoes is one of my favorite haunts for budget dinners, serving a huge and satisfying salad, pasta and soup buffet for under $13 per person, including drinks. You’ll even get dessert out of the way with a frozen yogurt station and a variety of sweet-tooth satisfying muffins.

Main Attractions

When it comes to entertainment, theme parks are the big draw on International Drive. Six major parks are situated along the strip, with several others nearby offering everything from nature encounters to wild roller coasters.

Ticket Mania is a good resource for purchasing discount tickets online, but independent outlets can also be found about every ten feet along I-Drive. Exercise caution and read the fine print before buying tickets to avoid getting caught in a scam.

What follows is a brief run-down on the major parks, for the uninitiated. Visit each website for in-depth information.

SeaWorld
Watch dolphins dance, get up close with penguins and tackle thrilling coasters at this popular marine destination.

Aquatica
The new Aquatica opened in 2008, and it’s all about water slides, so prepare to get wet. Rent your own private cabana for an on-site home base. Note that this park closes when it gets full, so arrive early. Read VISIT FLORIDA’s Family Travel Expert blog on Aquatica for some useful tips.

Discovery Cove
Get back to nature at this reservation-only attraction, where you can swim with dolphins, explore underwater reefs and feed tropical birds. Attendance is limited to 1,000 people per day, ensuring a relaxing experience without heavy crowds.

Wet ‘n Wild
A family park with dozens of water slides, including multi-person rides that let you experience thrills as a group. Guests can even go kneeboarding or wake-skating behind a WaveRunner or try tubing on a ride called the Wild One.

Universal Studios
Go behind the scenes at this movie- and TV-based theme park. Explore television studios and enjoy coasters based on favorite film characters.

Islands of Adventure
Cartoon heroes and children’s stories come to life through rides and attractions on six islands, such as Seuss Landing, Jurassic Park and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

And let’s not forget about the Big Mouse. From the south end of International Drive, follow Highway 535 or 536 into the Walt Disney World complex. This includes The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Lake Buena Vista, Downtown Disney and Disney's Hollywood Studios.

I could fill a book with all the activities included therein. Visit the link above to explore and start planning your trip, and check out our VISIT FLORIDA’s Disney page for more suggestions.

The Fun Never Ends

Big theme parks are only the beginning. Visitors can find museums, shopping and a plethora of other amusements on or around I-Drive.

Festival Bay Mall offers fine retail shopping, as well as cool family activities like the Putting Edge glow-in-the-dark mini golf course.

Discount malls such as Orlando Premium Outlets are a magnet for bargain hunters. Click here to see a video from my personal shopping experience at Orlando Premium Outlets.

A few more of my favorite attractions include:
WonderWorks
This upside-down amusement park for the mind features more than 100 interactive exhibits, including Space Shuttle and fighter jet simulators. Little ones will love making giant bubbles in the Bubble Lab.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum
Take a self-guided tour through this strange and amusing museum housing oddities from around the globe. Open 365 days a year from 9:30 a.m. to midnight, this makes for an excellent late-night adventure.

Gatorland
Only 20 minutes from Walt Disney World, this theme park and conservatory is known as the Alligator Capital of the World. Can any visit to Florida truly be complete without it? Judge for yourself.

For your I-Drive vacation, the options are unlimited. Use my guide as a jumping-off point to plan a smart itinerary. Fun is guaranteed – choosing what to do may be the only tough part.

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