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There is a place in Florida where you can stay, eat, play, visit Disney and Universal, AND get more for your vacation dollars. Just 35 miles north of the entrance to Walt Disney World, Seminole County offers a luxe experience at a lower price with smaller crowds and easier access. Tourism officials call it Orlando North. We call it the best place to stay outside Orlando.
We travel to Orlando a lot. In fact, in the past 6 months, we have been to the area four times, each time staying right in Orlando. But, after our last visit to Orlando North in Seminole County, that may soon change! We found the area to be a great place to visit for real family adventure and fun and staying there is so smart when vacationing in Florida.
I was talking to a family at breakfast one morning who used the Lake Mary Marriott as their home base. They spent 3 days doing outdoor adventures in the Orlando North area and spent a day each at Busch Gardens, Universal Studios, and the beach. The trip ended with a few days at Walt Disney World. And, they did it all right from the central location of Orlando North.
7 Reasons to Stay in Orlando North
Ease of Getting There
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Getting to Orlando North is a breeze through the Orlando Sanford International Airport (airport code: SFB). There are more than 75 non-stop flights into SFB, with Allegiant Air the primary domestic carrier. A budget-friendly airline, Allegiant Air makes flying the whole family a lot less expensive. With flights from more than 75 markets, Allegiant is easily accessible and often at smaller airports in cities like Bloomington, Illinois, instead of Chicago.
That said, it is a budget airlines, so there are no frills and you pay for what you need and use. The family behind me on the flight down paid $88 per ticket round-trip from a promotion and paid for 2 checked bags with no carry-ons for a week’s vacation. For a family of 5, the entire airfare was under $700.
In contrast, on my May trip to Orlando, I paid $685 for a round-trip ticket. For that price, I got the joy of standing in a TSA Pre-check line for security for 45 minutes. The regular TSA security lines were nearly 1.5 hours. On the other hand, the lines at Orlando Sanford were so short, I had the luxury of walking right through.
To access the area and especially, if you’re headed to Disney World, you’ll really need a car. And, renting a car is so much more reasonable and convenient at the Orlando Sanford Airport, which was a pleasant surprise.
With Orlando being only 35 miles away, you can easily get to any of the parks. But, there’s so much more to Seminole County. Its central location amke it much easier to branch out and find tons of places to explore from right where you are. Plus, with the airport so close, you have the luxury of extra time for fun and not traveling to and from the airport. The location alone makes it the best place to stay outside Orlando.
Great Accommodation Options
Orlando North offers many options for places to stay at a price point and hotel type for every family and vacation budget. Choose from in-room kitchenettes, the Danville Inn, a quirky, but luxury Bed and Breakfast, cabins at Black Hammock on Lake Jesop, or traditional hotel options in Lake Mary.
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On my recent visit to Orlando North, I stayed at the centrally-located Lake Mary Marriott. It is a large Marriott with a wonderful fitness center and outdoor pool and easy access to the interstate. Dining options are both onsite and nearby. The room choices make it easy for families who want to either share rooms or use suites and adjoining rooms.
During the week, you can take advantage of the concierge floor, if you choose to use that option or have Marriott privileges. I also love that you can step out the front door and jump on a 12 mile walk/run/bike trail. I was able to get in a few solo runs when I stayed there. There is onsite parking as well.
Another great family option is the Westin. Check out the Orlando North Westin experience from our friend, VIP Traveling Mom.
Amazing Food Scene
Orlando North is like Epcot on steroids. Simply stepping into downtown Sanford, you venture into an international food heaven. The restaurants are all locally owned and inspired by the people who settled there. Take the famous Magnolia Square Market and sister restaurant Willow Tree Cafe. The Hollerbach family from Germany, who played a big role in the revitalization of Sanford, own both restaurants.
Each restaurant I had the privilege of visiting was chef-inspired and delicious. Not to mention that the prices were less than what we spent on our meals in Disney Springs. For instance, one night we ate in the Route 46 district at the Smokehouse. Dinner for seven adults with drinks was just under $100 and we took leftovers home!
My recommendation would be to head out for your adventures each day and always come back to Orlando North for dinner.
2 Must Eats in Orlando North
Willow Street Cafe
Stepping into Willow Street Cafe is like stepping into a friend’s home with all your friends and family there. With seating inside and out, I suggest a table inside to be near the Polka band. Young and old gathered on the floor dancing, enjoying the music. Groups were standing and sharing a beer from a boot and the incredible food.
Traditional and all made in-house, the recipes have been passed down for generations, but the chefs have kept them updated as needed. If you only eat at one place in Orlando North, which I do not suggest, make it Willow Street Cafe. Some of our favorite dishes were Chicken Jaeger Schnitzel, potato dumplings, and Haus-made Spatzle and Sauerbraten.
Smokehouse at Route 46
Smokehouse is part of the Route 46 complex. As the name implies, it’s a BBQ restaurant with both outdoor and indoor seating. We all had a local beer, wine, or house-made sangria. For dinner, we ordered two of the Smoked Meat Samplers for the seven of us. Served family style, it included THREE pounds of their smoked meats. My favorites were the beef brisket and pork ribs. Also included was your choice of 3 sides and their garlic bread or cornbread. We tried them all and licked the bowls clean.
We also shared the house specialties for dessert. Again, one of each was enough for all of us to fill up on. I have to admit that my favorite was the Warm Triple Chocolate Brownie with the actual Hersey Bar on top. For seven adults with drinks, our bill was under $100 and we took leftovers back to the hotel!
Be sure to also check out the Tennessee Truffle and Wondermade when in Sanford. If heading out for the day, a stop at Magnolia Square Market to pick up a lunch to go is a great idea.
A Natural Playground
Orlando North and Seminole County are a natural playground. There is so much to do right in the area, but with the added benefits of a lower price point, fewer crowds, and more beauty than some of the neighboring areas. Yes, you are just 30-40 minutes from the amusement parks in Orlando, but you are also a short drive to the beach and Busch Gardens, as well.
Here are 3 of our favorite activities
The Black Hammock Airboat Tour offers a great-for-any-age family-friendly nature tour of Lake Jesop, home to the largest alligator population. While the alligators are the stars of the airboat ride, there is so much more to see. The area is home to a large bird population and a popular migration site. The water is so clear we saw a variety of fish. Black Hammock also has restaurants and rescue gators to view.
Central Florida Zoo is a whole day in itself. The zoo is small and easy to get around with a boardwalk. It is also a botanical garden and each garden has a specific purpose to the zoo. The zoo is part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, playing a vital role in animal research and education. I enjoyed the educational aspects of the zoo, especially the new black bear exhibit, dedicated to engaging people about living and sharing the world with their natural neighbors.
Before you even enter the zoo, take a train ride and enjoy the carousel. Just down the path is the ZOOm Air Adventure Park perfect for all ages with its many different courses. And, the Wharton-Smith Tropical Splash Ground is a refreshing spot to beat the heat.
St. John’s Rivership is a great lunch or dinner cruise to explore the river. We saw alligators, birds, and even a manatee on our tour. The river cruise is good otpion if you’re looking for a day off from the theme parks. We thoroughly enjoyed the lunch cruise, complete with live music and delicious food made right on the boat. The staff is amazing and makes the experience even more fun. There are three decks allowing you to enjoy being outside exploring or inside in the air conditioning. I loved seeing all the kids dancing on the dance floor. If you want to be near the band for the kids, ask to be seated on the first floor.
Luxury of Fewer Crowds
Sometimes you just don’t want to be around the massive crowds at the parks. Orlando North and Seminole County allow you to escape all the people. There are no long lines, no worrying about where will you eat, and it’s easy to walk around. You can visit the parks during the day and then come back to a much more serene home base and have a relaxing dinner. Then, after a good night’s sleep, you’ll be ready to start your Florida adventure all over again.
Your Vacation Dollars Go Further
We found the prices to be quite reasonable in the area. They certainly didn’t make us cringe and we found they could easily work to fit any vacation budget. Besides, the best part is when everything doesn’t cost as much, you have the luxury of spending money instead on a great hotel, great food, and a longer vacation. Now, who doesn’t want that!