January 2012: It’s official. Forbes – the financial guru that analyzes money in all its forms – released its first-ever list of bargain shopping in America, and Orlando secured the top spot. According to Susan Lomax, VP of publicity for Orlando, shopping is now the No. 1 activity for international tourists, which must come as a blow to the theme parks that consider themselves the biggest tourist draw.
But shopping appeals to more than just international guests. Throughout the U.S., shoppers take buses and drive hours to spend a day picking through factory seconds, discontinued fashions, and overstocks. In Orlando, however, the options boggle the mind, with enough retail space to fill 900 football fields.
According to Forbes, Orlando has over 300 factory outlet stores, 12 Wal-Marts, and a “combined sales tax” of only 6.5 percent. That makes it the best.
For those with shopping at the top of their Orlando to-do list, consider the following:
• Top bargain site: North International Drive. While at least five or six other locations have enough outlet and bargain stores for a full day of shopping, north International Drive (exit 75 off Interstate 4, head east, take the first left) has multiple shopping centers and hundreds of stores. It’s also the only location for discount Disney merchandise that once appeared inside the parks – and some of which still does. Disney’s store – The Character Warehouse – is located inside the last huge mall on the left, Orlando Premium Outlets, where International Drive dead-ends at its northern point.
• Top tip: Wear good shoes. Individual malls are big, and in some cases, it’s easier to walk a half block to the next one than get back into your car and drive. Visitors without a car who choose a taxi or bus will appreciate a good pair of sneakers.
• Tip No. 2: If you plan to purchase a lot of stuff, consider buying a second suitcase at your first stop. You not only get a way to cart all those new possessions home, but it gives you a place to cram the stuff you’ll buy later in the day.
• Top cheap Florida souvenir site: The shops along US 192 between Disney World and Kissimmee. While there is no “souvenir mall,” a lot of Mom and Pop shops specialize in “4 T-shirts for $10” and other bargain basement trinkets. “Old Town” on US 192 has a number of shops and some rides in a single location.
• For upscale shopping: Visit Mall at Millennia, located off exit 78 of Interstate 4 between Universal Studios and Disney World.
• Top kitschy site: Flea World. While about 45 minutes north of the tourist areas on 17/92 in Sanford (exit 98 off Interstate 4, east on Lake Mary Blvd., right a short distance on 17/92), Flea World has hundreds of vendors. It’s not made for tourists so much as locals looking to save money, and the booths – which vendors rent individually – offer haircuts, tattoos, legal advice, fortunes told, used books, live animals, jewelry, perfume, and much, much more. On the weekends, it often offers a free show near its miniature golf course and amusement rides.
• Trendiest shopping: Downtown Winter Park, Fla. Park Ave. (exit 87 off Interstate 4, east on 426, left on Park Ave. by Rollins College) has the feel of an upscale Florida town frequented mainly by locals. For the full experience, plan on lunch and a visit to the Morse Museum.
• Top Disney store: The World of Disney at Downtown Disney. The “world” part is accurate – it’s the biggest in the world and has the most merchandise.