Of course Orlando is known for its theme parks, but there is so much more to the city and surrounding areas than Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Having lived in the city for over 30 years, I know the best places to go to get away from the theme park tourists. From popular neighborhoods to parks, wildlife and outdoor adventures, check out these options for an off-the-beaten-theme-park-path guide to Orlando.
Located just 10 minutes from downtown Orlando, the posh Winter Park neighborhood offers plenty of upscale shopping, galleries and restaurants along Park Avenue. Central Park is the scene of the annual Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival every March – one of the nation’s oldest, largest and most prestigious outdoor art festivals.
For a peek at the local mansions, check out the Winter Park Scenic Boat Rides on Lake Osceola. The hour-long guided cruise meanders through three of the seven lakes and two narrow manmade canals on the Winter Park chain. Large cranes and lazy alligators make appearances as you cruise past opulent estates along the shores of lakes amid towering cypress trees and tropical flowers.
For a close up look at life as a local, the downtown neighborhood of College Park is the place to go. You won’t find any tourists here, but you will find moss draped trees standing at the edge of lakes and eateries offering good times and good food. Native New Yorker Kevin Fonzo settled in Orlando and opened K Restaurant and Wine Bar giving Orlando its first chef owned and operated restaurant. K showcases local ingredients and a menu that changes daily to reflect the seasons.
Just down the road RusTeak – winner of the Wine Spectator Award of Excellence in 2014 and 2015 – boasts a menu of hand crafted sandwiches, burgers, flatbreads, steaks, seafood and pasta. RusTeak also features over 150 wines from around the world, 45 different craft beers and 12 handcrafted signature cocktails that change seasonally.
Or satisfy your hot dog cravings at Doghouse with selections like the Spicy Redneck – a hot dog with jalapeño, diced onion and ranch dressing. If you’re really hungry follow the lead of Elvis with The King – a dog loaded up with bacon, mustard, ketchup, chili, cheese, diced onions and crushed Fritos. Don’t forget to add some loaded tater tots to that order!
Blue Springs State Park
About an hour east of Orlando, Blue Springs State Park, the largest spring on the St. Johns River, is a designated manatee refuge. An estimated 250 to 300 manatees dwell in this area of the St. Johns River. From November through March when the river’s temperatures drop, many of the manatees seek out the consistently warmer waters in Blue Springs for their winter home. Stroll along the boardwalk and watch manatees feed and care for their calves. Blue Springs is perfect for swimming, canoeing, kayaking, snorkeling and riverboat tours.
According to legend, Juan Ponce de Leon discovered the mythical Fountain of Youth in the area now known as DeLeon Springs, just 15 miles north of Blue Springs on U.S. 17. It’s a place rich in history and a lot of fun to visit and explore. Indian canoes dating back 5,000 to 6,000 years were found in the spring and represent some of the oldest in America. Spanish moss hangs from the trees, providing a canopy of shade for the picnic areas. The smell of charcoal grills permeates the air and children run between the picnic pavilions, the spring pool and the playground. Herons, egrets and ducks wade in the waters nearby.
For a sweet treat, make your own pancakes at the Old Spanish Mill Grill & Griddle House. Pitchers of batter and a griddle await at each table along with your favorite toppings, including pecans, blueberries, bananas, chocolate chips and apples.
Head to the Swamps
Florida is filled with natural wetlands also known as swamps that are home to all types of wildlife. An airboat ride is the ideal way to get up close to the alligators, turtles, fish and birds that call the swamps home. And with speeds reaching up to 45 miles an hour, these rides are even better than a theme park rollercoaster. Boggy Creek Airboat Rides and Wild Florida Airboats and Wildlife Park are two of the best.
Central Florida has a long history of cattle ranching dating back to the mid-1800s when early settlers discovered wild cows grazing on the plains of the Kissimmee River Valley. About an hour outside of Orlando in the rural St. Cloud community, the privately owned Forever Florida Ziplines and Adventures in the Wild, occupies thousands of acres of cattle country. This working cattle ranch offers guided tours through cattle country. And for the thrill seekers there are plenty of adventure options including ziplining, horseback riding and a Wild Coach Ride that explores nine distinct Florida ecosystems home to alligators, black bears, deer and the endangered Florida panther.
What are your favorite Orlando experiences beyond the theme parks?
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