Why Orlando is the best domestic destination of the year
To many travelers, Orlando is the place to go for family vacations full of sunny weather and theme park visits to see beloved characters like Mickey and Minnie, or Harry Potter and Hagrid.
But there's so much more to The City Beautiful these days.
Now home to new additions like a world-class theater space in its main performing arts center, a high-tech airport terminal and a soon-to-open high-speed train service that connects the city to South Florida, Orlando is investing in itself to attract even more visitors.
Best of all, Orlando's location in Central Florida places it within an hour's drive of all that's happening on the Space Coast, such as the new Gateway: The Deep Space Launch Complex, an interactive, 50,000-square-foot addition to the Kennedy Space Center. Plus, you'll find Port Canaveral nearby, where you can step on board Royal Caribbean's new Wonder of the Seas and Disney Wish, Disney Cruise Line's newest vessel — and winner of best new cruise ship in TPG's Editors' Choice Awards in the TPG Awards this year.
With so many new things to do and experience in Orlando, it's no wonder the city is TPG's pick for the top domestic destination of 2022.
Related: Everything you need to know about visiting Walt Disney World Resort
An improved airport experience
Many trips to Orlando start and end at Orlando International Airport (MCO). So, we'll start there, too.
In late 2022, the Orlando airport unveiled its shiny, new Terminal C, which now services foreign airlines flying to the city, along with JetBlue.
With this new terminal, crowding should be less noticeable throughout the airport, which saw an 87% jump in passenger traffic last year, making it one of the busiest airports in the world, according to Airports Council International.
The new space features a bright, airy design that's bound to help minimize any stress you feel during your travels. Amenities include a whopping 23 dining venues and 11 retailers, including Starbucks, Shake Shack, a wine bar and Disney and Universal stores. There's even an immersive art installation and a state-of-the-art luggage facility that uses radio frequency identification so bags are dropped into containers as opposed to directly on conveyer belts; this helps speed up processing times and reduce the number of lost or misplaced bags.
Terminal C is also home to an all-new Plaza Premium Lounge that's a step above other lounges at the airport.
But the updates to the Orlando airport aren't limited to its new terminal. A gas station and convenience store that charges regular (not inflated rental agency) prices for fuel is also available on-site — a welcome addition for travelers renting a car to get around the spread-out city.
Performing arts take center stage
Many people who are familiar with Orlando may not first associate it with the performing arts, but now that Steinmetz Hall at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts has opened, there's a whole new reason to visit the city.
This venue, which opened in 2022, is a huge deal for travelers who enjoy music, as it's considered one of the world’s most acoustically perfect spaces. Joining Steinmetz Hall next year is a cabaret-style space that sits right behind the hall.
And because Steinmetz Hall can adjust its shape, seating arrangements and sound to meet the needs of various performances, you can catch everything from "Moulin Rouge The Ballet" to a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra here in 2023.
Beyond Steinmetz Hall are a couple of additional performing arts features that have made Orlando a dream destination for a whole new set of travelers. Fine arts fans, for example, can take in an all-new Cirque du Soleil show titled "Drawn to Life," which is now showing at Disney Springs, while downtown's new Art2 urban pocket park is the perfect place for food truck fare and live performances.
An out-of-this-world year for Disney
Of course, no mention of Orlando would be complete without Disney World, which began celebrating its 50th anniversary in late 2021 with events all throughout 2022. The year was marked with new nighttime spectaculars, the arrival of Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind and the debut of the next-generation MagicBand+, among other developments.
One of the most exciting was the debut of the groundbreaking Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser two-night immersive hotel experience, which welcomed its first guests in February of 2022.
But there's still so much more to come.
Perhaps the most anticipated addition to Disney World expected for 2023 is Tron: Lightcycle Run, a thrill ride set to open in the Magic Kingdom in the spring of 2023.
"It's one of the fastest coasters at any Disney theme park in the world," Disney World's senior vice president of operations, Jason Kirk, said when asked what guests can get excited about at the park next year.
Kirk went on to point out that 2023 is also the conclusion of a multiyear transformation of Epcot, where visitors can already find new experiences, like the aforementioned Cosmic Rewind and Remy's Ratatouille Adventure (which opened in 2020).
Once completed, all the ubiquitous construction walls will finally come down, plus guests will be able to enjoy the new walk-through Journey of Water area. This "Moana"-inspired addition should serve as a nice spot to enjoy some respite from the Florida sun and a dose of nature away from the rest of the mostly concrete theme park.
Those who love Disney's nighttime fireworks shows will also be happy to learn that "Happily Ever After" is triumphantly returning to the Magic Kingdom in 2023.
Cruisers have new reasons to visit
Orlando isn't TPG's top domestic destination solely because of what's happening within city limits. Its proximity to Port Canaveral on Florida's east coast makes it a convenient add-on to a cruise on some of the hottest new cruise ships in the industry. Two of the year's most notable new cruise ships started up service out of Port Canaveral: Disney Wish and Wonder of the Seas.
Disney Wish, Disney Cruise Line's first new ship in a decade, has an elevated style and approach to dining, staterooms, bars and entertainment that make it appealing to everyone (even non-cruisers) while still appeasing Disney fans with its integration of classic Disney characters, storytelling and signature fireworks show at sea.
Among the highlights of this ship are the adults-only, infinity-edge pool on the ship's aft (which is best enjoyed with one of the housemade boozy popsicle drinks served nearby) and the leisurely and indulgent fine dining restaurant, Palo. It'll be tough, but be sure to save room for dessert, as Palo's chocolate souffle is exceptional.
Joining Disney Wish at Port Canaveral is Royal Caribbean's Wonder of the Seas — the newest vessel to hold the title of world's largest cruise ship — which was just christened in the port this week and will begin sailing from there year-round.
Wonder of the Seas is more than three football fields long and about 4% bigger than the previous size leader in the industry, its sister ship, Symphony of the Seas. Though they're similar in design, Wonder has a few fun new features including a dedicated suite area with a private lounge, restaurant and sun deck.
More excitement in the years to come
Though 2022 was a big year for Orlando, it was also clearly just the beginning for this Central Florida city.
Odds are many travelers will find Florida's new Brightline train network incredibly appealing. This multiyear project has endured a number of delays and changes in plans (such as the now-canceled station at Disney Springs) but is said to be on track for completion in the spring of 2023.
Once finished, Brightline will make it possible for passengers to zip between Miami and Orlando in about three hours, making the journey much quicker than driving. Best of all, tickets are expected to cost around $100 one-way, so you won't have to drop a ton of cash to ride the rails.
And though it isn't often that we get to welcome an entirely new theme park land, one is coming to Univeral Orlando in the form of Epic Universe as early as 2025. Its four themed lands — one of which has been confirmed to be a Super Nintendo World — will join the three existing Universal theme parks (Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay).
Until then, Universal Orlando is offering a couple of new and exciting experiences for 2023.
The just-opened Universal's Great Movie Escape at Universal CityWalk gives visitors the chance to partake in an escape room-inspired adventure with either a "Jurassic World" or "Back to the Future" theme. And in the summer of 2023, a new Minions-themed land and attraction, along with a Minions-themed cafe, will open inside Universal Studios. The land's featured attraction (Illumination's Villain-Con Minion Blast), will be a "first-of-its-kind interactive, blaster game experience," according to a Universal Orlando spokesperson who spoke with TPG.
Related: These are the best hotels at Universal Orlando
It's easy to see why 2022 was such a big year for Orlando, which has invested in its infrastructure, diversified its attractions and, above all, continued to innovate.
“Orlando is an ever-growing destination offering incredible new experiences, unique places to stay and diverse dining for travelers,” said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando.
Based on the city's latest additions, it's hard to argue with Matej. After all, Orlando is not only home to the classic attractions and fun in the sun you may already know and love, but it has also developed a whole new side full of culture, convenience and high-tech innovations.
And the city isn't slowing down. Whether you want to arrive by high-speed train or strap in to a new, fast coaster at the Magic Kingdom, 2023 may be the year to finally take that trip to Orlando.