Things to do
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Visit animal friends at Sea World Orlando
Penguins, polar bears, walruses, sharks and other animated sea life make SeaWorld Orlando an attraction not to miss. The most memorable part of the day may be getting splashed by Shamu, a killer whale weighing in at 3,600 kilograms. (Beware: The “splash zone” in Shamu Stadium is more of a “soak zone,” so choose your seats carefully.)
There are also thrill rides here, including the Kraken, Orlando’s tallest, fastest and only floorless steel coaster. For little ones, this park also has plenty of pint-sized attractions, including Shamu’s Happy Harbor.
Visit Mickey at Walt Disney World Resort
If you haven’t been to Walt Disney World in a while, you’re in for a surprise. What debuted in 1971 with the Magic Kingdom has evolved into an enormous resort destination with four theme parks, two water parks, 20 resort hotels and more than 300 places to dine.
With so many choices, be sure to plan your visit to make the most of your options. The Magic Kingdom is the most-visited park. Epcot has cultural attractions geared more to grown-ups (but kids will love them too). Disney’s Animal Kingdom features a savannah trek with wild animals, while Hollywood Studios has a little something for everyone, from roller coasters to Broadway-calibre entertainment. It takes at least a half a day to experience each of the theme parks.
Find something magical at Universal Orlando
Universal Orlando’s two theme parks – Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure – have everything from The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, to the mild Cat in the Hat ride, Shrek 4-D and Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast. Both parks offer Universal Express, a separate line with a shorter wait time at popular attractions. You can experience both parks in one day and it’s an easy walk between the two.
Busch Gardens Tampa
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is the ultimate family adventure park offering an array of fascinating attractions based on exotic encounters with the African continent. A unique blend of thrilling rides, one of the country's premier zoos featuring more than 2,000 animals, live shows, restaurants, shops and games, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay provides unrivaled excitement for guests of every age.
Get the Richard Petty Driving Experience
Speed demons love this exhilarating ride. Choose to suit up and get behind the wheel of a NASCAR-style stock car, or ride as a passenger while a pro reaches speeds up to 265 km/h. You can choose eight, 18 or 30 laps in this ultimate test of race car skills. The whole experience lasts about three hours.
Take a Black Hammock Airboat Ride
For a glimpse of old Florida, take an airboat ride on Lake Jessup, said to be one of the most alligator-populated lakes in the state. You’ll see gators, turtles, birds and other wildlife. Captains are all U.S. Coast Guard-licensed and boats depart every 30 minutes throughout the day. The Black Hammock gator exhibit features an up-close look at gators, including Hammy, who is more than 3.5 metres long and weighs more than 300 kilograms! You can even get your photo taken with a live gator.
Get a taste of historic Orlando in Winter Park
Take a break from the crowds and spend a day in historic, tree-capped Winter Park. If you like Tiffany lamps and stained glass works, be sure to stop in at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. Then, browse through unique boutiques and galleries that line the street and enjoy stylish cuisine at one of the many upscale restaurants or sidewalk cafes. For a different view, take the Scenic Boat Tour for a cruise past the multi-million-dollar homes.
Feed the birds at Discovery Cove
Enjoy the best of the surf and sand at this tropical water park. All you need to bring is a swim suit and towel. Breakfast, lunch, unlimited snacks and drinks, and even sunscreen are included in the admission price. Float down the Wind-Away River, beneath a waterfall and through an underwater cave. Or just relax on the sandy beach. It’s worth devoting an entire day to this water park and aviary.
Dive in at a water park
Forget the beach and cool off at one of the area’s amazing water parks. Disney’s Blizzard Beach boasts the world’s longest, fastest speed slide, Summit Plummet. It starts 36 metres in the air and zips you down at 89 km/h along this 100-metre slide.
Wet ’n Wild water park (part of Universal Orlando Resort) features six thrill rides including Brain Wash, a 15-metre vertical drop into a domed funnel.
The Aquatica water park at SeaWorld Orlando features exotic fish and a chance to plunge through a tube at exciting speeds. All three parks have areas for younger children as well.
Take in a show at Amway Center
Orlando’s beautiful downtown arena is home to the NBA’s Orlando Magic and Arena Football’s Orlando Predators, seating more than 20,000 fans. As one of the most high-tech arenas in the U.S., there’s always something going on here, from sporting events to live entertainment. And with eight lounges and restaurants – plus a wide range of seat prices – there’s something for every budget.
Experience Cirque du Soleil’s La Nouba
Since 1998, Cirque du Soleil has presented its wildly dreamlike production, La Nouba, at the Downtown Disney West Side theatre, which was built exclusively for the Quebec-based company. This 90-minute show features a stellar cast of musicians, dancers, acrobats, jugglers and other talents that continues to wow audiences.
While most visitors to Orlando go home with a theme park souvenir (mouse ears or a plush Shamu replica, anyone?) but Orlando’s retail claim to fame has got to be outlet shopping.
A favourite one-stop-shop is Premium Outlets on International Drive, the area’s largest outlet centre with over 180 stores. These include Neiman Marcus Last Call, Saks Fifth Avenue Off Fifth, Kate Spade, Juicy Couture, J. Crew, Coach, DKNY, Lacoste, Michael Kors, Betsey Johnson and dozens of others.
A second Premium Outlets location on Vineland Road has 150 stores, including Fendi, Georgio Armani, Salvatore Ferragamo, Ralph Lauren, Nike, Barney’s New York Outlet and Burberry. There’s also a Disney Store outlet for discounted souvenirs with plenty of T-shirts and sweatshirts.
Florida Mall and The Mall at Millenia
Beyond outlets, Florida Mall is the largest traditional mall in Central Florida, with more than 260 stores including Macy’s, Nordstrom and Sak’s Fifth Avenue. But for luxury shopping, head to The Mall at Millennia, where Gucci, Tiffany, Cartier, Jimmy Choo, St. John and the Apple Store are among the top retailers in this 1.2 million square foot complex that also includes Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s. The mall also offers a foreign currency exchange, multilingual staff, valet parking and a full-service concierge.
If you prefer strolling tree-lined city blocks, Winter Park’s Park Avenue is an ideal shopping destination. It offers everything from high-end footwear and designer dresses to fine wines and baked treats for dogs. National retailers like Williams-Sonoma, Restoration Hardware, Talbots and Pottery Barn share sidewalk space with locally owned boutiques. Beautiful Central Park offers a spot for relaxing or an impromptu picnic and three blocks west, historic Hannibal Square offers its own collection of shops and restaurants.
A taste of Central Florida can be found at the Saturday morning Winter Park Farmer’s Market, a terrific spot to pick up goodies to take home - especially local honey, cheese, artisan breads, jams and jellies.
For offbeat finds, Orange Avenue, just north of downtown, has a strip of eclectic shops known as Ivanhoe Row. Here, vintage clothing stores, antique shops and imported furniture boutiques are spread over 5 km. It’s best to go midday as shop hours vary.
World of Disney
For Disney souvenirs, one-stop shopping is found at World of Disney at Downtown Disney, the largest Disney store in the world. From princess costumes to Mickey Mouse cocktail glasses, you’ll find just about all things Disney here. (Next door, the Lego Imagination Center is nirvana for the little ones, with bins upon bins of the plastic blocks to keep them occupied.)
Though most of the shopping is Disney-centric, Downtown Disney stretches along the waterfront and is an enjoyable stroll, with restaurants including House of Blues, Wolfgang Puck and Planet Hollywood as well as more than two dozen stores. If you’re staying in a Disney resort, take advantage of free package delivery to your hotel room.
Ravenous Pig (American, $$$)
As one of the hottest restaurants in town, locals flock here for the inventive creations of husband and wife chefs James and Julie Petrakis. If you don’t have a reservation, arrive early and ask for a seat at the bar. The menu changes seasonally, but favourites like steamed mussels with truffle French fries, crispy lobster tacos and some of the best burgers in town (with oven-roasted tomatoes and blue cheese) are always good choices. There are also house-produced micro-brews and a diverse cocktail list.
Luma on Park (New American, $$$)
At this upscale restaurant on Park Avenue in Winter Park, you can have fun watching the team of energetic chefs in the open kitchen. Many of the dishes feature Florida-sourced seafood and produce, such as Daytona Beach soft-shell crab and Key West swordfish. Ask about the daily specials, since dishes are created based on what’s freshest. The crisp pizzas are great for sharing as an appetizer. An impressive wine list has choices available by the glass, half or full bottle.
Columbia Restaurant (Spanish, $$)
This local favourite has been a tradition in Florida since 1905. Head to the Central Florida location of this Spanish-Cuban restaurant for authentic tapas, cold sangria and generous plates of expertly created cuisine. Start with the 1905 Salad, a mix of ham, Swiss cheese, lettuce, olives, tomatoes and freshly grated Romano cheese, tossed with a secret dressing. Pair it with a bowl of Spanish bean soup with chorizo and ham, or go for a hearty, classic paella made with roast chicken or pork, seafood or beef. For vegetarians, try the combo plate of yucca, black beans, rice, plantanos, tostones and sauteed fresh vegetables. Save room for flan or guava cheesecake.
Hue Restaurant (American, $$$)
In trendy Thornton Park, Hue is the place to see and be seen, especially at happy hour. It is the sort of place where you can sit on the patio, sip cocktails and nibble on ceviche, crispy fried oysters or a thick burger. The popular Sunday brunch features a Bloody Mary bar.
Restaurant K (New American, $$)
The “K” is for Chef Kevin Fonzo, who heads up the kitchen in this friendly eatery in College Park. Fonzo’s fried green tomatoes and house-made chips with blue cheese dressing never leave the menu. Dinner can be as casual as mac ’n cheese parmesan, or as upscale as New Zealand rack of lamb. Lagers and ales are on tap and there’s also a diverse wine list.
Beefy King (American, $)
Beefy King has been in the same location since the 1960s. Here, it’s all about the steamed roast beef sandwich, piled high on a bun and topped off with horseradish or barbecue sauce. With a side of crisp tater tots, it takes you back to a time when calories didn’t matter.
California Grill (New American, $$$)
Pair award-winning cuisine with a prized bird’s-eye view of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, and you’ve got a dining room that buzzes nightly. From sushi to grilled pork tenderloin with goat cheese polenta, the kitchen here doesn’t disappoint. While favourites like the oak-fired filet of beef remain constant on the menu, the chefs also offer delicious seasonal creations. Its extensive wine list features mostly vintage California.
When there is a fireworks show happening at the Magic Kingdom, the restaurant dims the lights and pipes in the music for a memorable dinner show.
4 Rivers Smokehouse (Barbecue, $)
Sometimes, the line snakes out the door at this roadside eatery where pit master John River’s tender, rich beef brisket (smoked for 20 hours!) is the star. Stack it on a bun with slaw and dill pickles, and pair it with a side of fried okra. There’s also pulled pork, ribs, chicken, baked beans, corn relish, Texas cornbread and mac ’n cheese.
Pho 88 (Vietnamese, $)
In the heart of Orlando’s Little Vietnam in Colonialtown, most of the clientele are Vietnamese families gathered around big tables for steaming noodle bowls, topped with fresh basil, jalapenos and sprouts. The menu offers plenty of other Asian dishes such as stir-fries and delicious vegetarian creations, but the phos, or soups, are inexpensive and filling.
Victoria & Albert’s (Continental, $$$$)
Central Florida’s only AAA Five Diamond restaurant is tucked away on the second floor at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. With just 50 seats, you have a choice of three dining experiences here: the main dining room; the more private and formal Queen Victoria room which seats just eight; or the coveted chef’s table in the kitchen. The Chef’s Table is recommended for a front-row seat view of the talented kitchen crew.
The menu changes nightly, but expect about 10 petite courses with everything from locally sourced seafood and vegetables to Australian Kobe beef, paired beautifully with wines.
Golf and spa
Waldorf Astoria Spa by Guerlain ($$$-$$$$)
Time stops and your heart rate drops as you relax at this all-inclusive European-style spa (no tipping necessary). If your face is begging for a boost, try the two-hour Exceptional Orchidee Imperiale Treatment facial. Two masks are customized for you and a personalized eye-contour treatment soothes the eyes. Meanwhile, your hands get a paraffin lift, while your feet are massaged and moisturized.
Prolong the pampering by reclining on a chaise lounge by the whirlpool and let the spa valet dote on you.
Buena Vista Palace Hotel & Spa ($$-$$$)
Your tropical spa fantasy begins with the 50-minute Coconut Bliss Scalp and Foot Treatment. Let your therapist pamper your hair with warm coconut oil. The accompanying reflexology treatment for hands and feet leaves you soothed from head to toe.
Does your skin feel parched by the sun? Soak up vanilla and tropical-fruit aromatherapy with the Tropicale Escape Wrap, then gather with friends for martinis and canapes by the secluded outdoor pool. Extend your nirvana at the spa’s saunas, steam rooms and whirlpools.
Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa ($$$)
This spa offers Victorian charm and gold-standard treatment. The holistic Aurum Manus (Hands of Gold) treatment is worth its weight in jade, crystal and sodalite. The semiprecious stone spheres are used to massage organic oils into your pores. There are also separate sauna and whirlpool facilities for men and women.
Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge
A fully public facility, Orange County National (OCN) offers top-shelf facilities, an expansive pro shop and the largest driving range in the U.S., plus two 18-hole layouts challenging enough to host the PGA Tour's annual Qualifying School every fall.
Five sets of tees on OCN's two full-size layouts, Panther Lake and Crooked Cat, ensure a suitable challenge to golfers of every skill level. And there's a nine-hole short course to hone your game, not to mention a large 360-degree driving range.
It's also a teaching Mecca that offers advice from some of the best golf-swing minds in the business for accomplished players and beginners alike. It is the summer home of Sean Foley, the Canadian coach to famed pros like Tiger Woods and Hunter Mahan.
OCN’s green fees top out at US$109, including cart and range balls, but there's a wide assortment of seasonal discounts and replay package rates available all year long.
Bay Hill Club and Lodge
One of the most famous golf courses in the United States, Bay Hill Club and Lodge is the winter home of the king himself, Arnold Palmer. It’s also the home of the annual PGA Tour Bay Hill Invitational.
The 70-room property features 27 holes of golf, the Arnold Palmer Golf Academy, six tennis courts, a full service spa, salon and fitness centre and four restaurants.
Bay Hill's golf course, a commanding presence each year on the PGA Tour, is no stranger to golf fans and is a staple of every serious golfer's Orlando must-play list.
The course collects numerous media accolades each year. GolfWeek magazine anointed it one of the best tour courses in the U.S. as well as one of the world's best resort courses. Golf World listed its well-appointed pro shop as one of the top 100 in the world.
Bay Hill's fees range from US$225 to US$300 depending on the time of year, but there's always a bargain to be had if you're staying at the lodge.
Have a close encounter at Gatorland (all ages)
Florida’s most famous reptiles star at this attraction on the border between Orlando and Kissimmee. Florida alligators, with their bone-crushing bite, jump to great heights for a whole-chicken dinner at the attraction’s Gator Jumparoo show. The park’s supporting cast includes snakes and rare crocodiles. The breeding marsh is a great place to spot wading birds and turtles during a train ride through the natural swamp.
Kids can cool down at the Gator Gulley Splash Park, where statues spout water from their beaks and duelling gator water guns provide interactive fun. A new park ticket to big adventure, the Screamin’ Gator Zipline ride sends you flying across the swamp for a bird’s-eye-view of gators and crocs in their natural habitats.
Discover the stars at Orlando Science Center (all ages)
Who can resist exploring a real cypress swamp that’s air conditioned for comfort? Live turtles, snakes and gators bring the outdoors inside at this hands-on science centre located at Orlando’s scenic Loch Haven Park. The centre’s domed Crosby Observatory boasts the largest public refractor telescope in Florida and the planetarium shows first-rate adventure films on a mammoth screen.
Young children love KidsTown where they can pick and sort fake oranges, build dams and safely explore the nooks and crannies of a giant man-made tree. Older kids can guide a Mars Rover or manipulate stars and planets along a 2-D universe at the Our Planet, Our Universe exhibit.
Cool off at Blizzard Beach Water Park (age 10 and older)
If the heat is on, cool off at the slopes of this ski resort-themed water park at Walt Disney World. Feel the chill on the Slush Gusher, a wild, hilly ride past fake snow banks. The park’s Ski Patrol Training Camp is a pre-teen paradise with a small zipline drop and a baby iceberg obstacle course.
The ultimate thrill? Try Summit Plummet, featuring the world’s tallest, fastest free-fall speed slide. If you have younger kids along for the ride, take them to Tike’s Peak kiddie play area while the tweens and teens hit the racing slides and rapids. You can set up camp at one of the park’s many shady spots. And if you really want to spoil the family, rent your own private Polar Patio (reserve ahead) with comfy lounge chairs and a table with an umbrella.
Pet a llama at Green Meadows Farm (age 2-10)
For nearly 50 years, children have been learning to milk cows, watch baby chicks play and ride ponies at this 16-hectare Kissimmee petting farm. Step into the pigpen, where the piglets like to sniff your shoelaces. Pose with a duck or chicken for a memorable photo.
A seasoned farm hand leads several families at a time to visit the farm’s menagerie of goats, llamas, geese and other critters. There are 300 animals in all. There’s enough time at each stop to mingle with the star attractions. Just watch out for the goats – they like all that glitters, including T-shirts with sequins and belt buckles!
Amusements here are simple but sweet. They include a tractor-drawn hayride, a pony-ride around a small track and a train ride that circles the oak-shaded farm. Autumn is an ideal time to visit when the pumpkin patch overflows with the plump orange gourds.
Let your imagination guide you at Downtown Disney (all ages)
Geysers are bubbling and animated life-sized dinosaurs are stalking your lunch. Anything’s possible at T-Rex: A Prehistoric Family Adventure, a Cretaceous-era dining experience at Downtown Disney Marketplace.
After you’ve downed your Triassic Tortellini, the adventure continues at this spacious waterfront shopping, dining and entertainment wonderland. Start with the newly renovated LEGO Imagination Center. Fun LEGO statues of Buzz Lightyear and Woody, Snow White and a sea serpent rising from the lake hint at the brick-building possibilities. An outdoor play area and a smaller indoor building station invite kids to create while parents take a break or play along.
Grab a treat at Ghirardelli Ice Cream & Chocolate Shop, then stroll to the West Side, where kids love to spend hours at DisneyQuest – a five-storey indoor interactive theme park packed with virtual rides and games. Wrap up your visit with a tethered balloon ride at Characters in Flight, where you climb more than 120 metres for a sweeping view of the Disney kingdom.
Peacock Room (Lounge,$$)
In Downtown Orlando, the Peacock Room offers live music and DJ-driven late nights for a young crowd. There’s not much of a view outside, but it is a great place for people-watching inside around the pool tables, dance floor and bar. The popular pineapple upside-down cake martini satisfies the sweet tooth.
World of Beer (Pub, $)
With more than 500 draft and bottled beers (and cider), WOB could be your new alehouse away from home. The combination of multi-screen sports programs, live folk music and takeout menus from nearby restaurants that deliver right to your table makes this place truly unique. The servers are very generous with samples and Last Call Wednesdays offer select drafts at half-price all day.
Rocks (The Peabody, Orlando) (Lounge, $$)
Part of the Peabody's massive renovation, the 6,000 square foot Rocks has become a popular local hotspot. There's enough comfy lounge areas and outdoor patio space to make Rocks relaxed, even on a busy Saturday night. Live jazz and blues, handcrafted martinis and a bar menu from the hotel's remarkable Napa restaurant kitchen add just the right touches to your pre- or post-dinner evening.
Mizner's Bar (Lounge, $$$)
When you’re tired of busy nightspots, the refined and sophisticated hideaway called Mizner's might be a perfect option. You can step off of Disney’s monorail and right into this quiet little gem inside Disney’s Grand Floridian resort, where tasty martinis or a sip of a 150-year-old cognac make for a relaxing break.
Orlando Florida Improv (Comedy club, $$)
Movie and comedy club stars appear nightly here and comics from the Last Comic Standing TV series regularly stop in. Keep in mind that if you sit at one of the front tables, you’re bound to become part of the show. That said, the southern-themed menu of salads, sandwiches and entrees is no joke.
Parliament House (Gay bar, $)
For more than 35 years, the Parliament House complex (locally known as “the P-House”) has been a landmark of the gay community, offering film festivals, live theatre and a multi-level bar. Parliament House is most famous for the entertaining, Vegas-style drag shows that attract bachelorette parties and couples out for an evening of entertainment, alongside the thriving local gay community.
One80 Grey Goose Lounge (Amway Center, Orlando) (Sports bar, $$$)
Just down the road from the bar-saturated Church Street complex, on the sixth floor of the new Amway Center, the indoor-outdoor One80 offers a big-city feel and hand-crafted, Grey Goose-based drinks. There’s no cover charge here and the bar is less expensive on non-event nights, but you don't need a ticket to get to the lounge even while a game is on. If you get there early, you can enjoy great sunset views of Orlando.
Icebar (Lounge, $$$)
Where else in Orlando can you don a coat and gloves and drink very chilly highballs in a -2°C bar? Icebar may have the most straightforward name in town. Everything is so cold, even the furniture and drinks glasses are made of ice. Filled with ever-changing multicoloured lights, ice sculptures and go-go dancers, Icebar is one cool place. If it gets too chilly, you can escape for a warming round of martinis in the appropriately named Fire Lounge.
Bongos Cuban Café, Inc (Dance Club, $$)
This is superstar Gloria Estefan’s ode to her native Cuba, complete with an award-winning menu and two-storey Old Havana decor. The high-energy dance floor fills on weekend nights with lights, sounds and dancers. You can join in for an evening in Cuba without leaving Orlando. Look for the giant pineapple and order the best mojito in town.
Baby Grand’s Dueling Piano Bar (Karaoke, $$)
Duelling pianos, fast bar service and very adult singalongs make for a rollicking evening of live music. You’re not only encouraged, but expected to participate as the two piano players, accompanying dancers and singers and whoever else is required, put on a show that changes every night.
Orlando has so much to do that you can’t possibly see everything in just one trip. With something for every taste, here are some ideas for making the most of your time beyond the world-famous attractions.
Just for grown-ups
Whether your passion is golf, shopping or great food, Orlando has an adventure you’ll love.
Orlando is home to 176 golf courses (five at Walt Disney World alone), so booking a round of golf here is easy. Avoid the hottest part of the day in summer by booking a tee time early in the morning or later in the day.
If a spa day is your calling, you’ll love spending hours at Orlando’s top-tier spas, where you’ll be buffed, polished and massaged. Afterwards, relax poolside with lunch or dinner and a good book. Waldorf Astoria Spa by Guerlain, the Mandara Spa at the Portofino Bay Hotel, the Ritz-Carlton Spa and Relâche Spa at Gaylord Palms Resort all offer something a little different. Pick and choose from the incredible menus full of indulgences to complete your perfect spa escape.
Foodies looking for culinary immersion can head to Little Vietnam, a neighbourhood of small Asian restaurants and grocery stores in Orlando’s Colonialtown district. Here, you can find authentic foods such as steaming bowls of Vietnamese pho, or noodle soup, banh mi subs and Korean kimchi stew.
For haute cuisine, Orlando’s only AAA Five-Diamond dining can be found at Victoria & Albert’s at Disney’s Grand Floridian resort. The best table in the house is the Chef’s Table, where the ambience is more casual and the chef personally delivers each course. (Note: Kids under the age of 13 aren’t permitted in the dining room.)
Nearby, restaurants by chefs such as Emeril Lagasse at Universal CityWalk, Todd English at the Walt Disney World Dolphin Resort’s Bluezoo and Norman Van Aken at the Ritz-Carlton are worth visiting as well.
After dark, Universal CityWalk has a fun collection of nightclubs with live music and dancing, from Bob Marley’s for reggae to karaoke at Rising Star. For a quirkier club scene, head downtown Orlando, where nightlife includes Orlando Improv and live shows at The Beacham.
For sun, sand and some solitude, head to Canaveral National Seashore on the Atlantic coast with its 38 km of undeveloped Florida coastline where you can spread out a beach towel and relax. It’s about an hour’s drive to the coast.
If you’re hungry, stop at Dixie Crossroads for an old-fashioned Florida experience – hush puppies and broiled rock shrimp with sweet tea. This spot has its own fleet of boats, so whatever seafood you choose, it’s sure to be fresh. Foodies Jane and Michael Stern recommend the rock shrimp in their book, 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late: And the Very Best Places to Eat Them.
Cultural gems for museum-goers
Start your morning with a light breakfast on Park Avenue in historic Winter Park. Try the delightful Croissant Gourmet, which features freshly baked French pastries and strong coffee, or the equally nice Palmano’s – a coffee shop where locals head for their morning caffeine fix.
Then begin your museum stroll by heading to the north end of the avenue past beautiful Central Park. Stop and smell the roses in the bounteous garden, then head to the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art.
The Morse features two must-sees: the stunning chapel interior created for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and the recently restored Daffodil Terrace. It’s also home to 250 art and architectural objects from Laurelton Hall, the Long Island estate of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Allow at least an hour to tour the museum.
As you stroll back heading south on Park Avenue, make a stop just past Central Park at the Winter Park Historical Museum on West New England Avenue (a block off Park Avenue). Or keep walking to the end of Park Avenue for about 15 minutes, to Rollins College. There, you’ll find the Cornell Fine Arts Museum showcasing one of the oldest and most distinguished collections of American and European paintings in Florida. This pretty museum sits right on Lake Virginia, a picturesque spot for relaxing.
Walk another 15 minutes to the nearby Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens, another lakeside beauty featuring Polasek’s paintings, sculptures and a lovely garden. Located in the artist’s one-time home, this museum is a tribute to the artist recognized as one of America’s foremost sculptors of the 20th century.
End your Winter Park getaway on the relaxing and fun Scenic Boat Tour, an hour-long cruise on a pontoon boat through the city’s chain of lakes. Take in the views of opulent mansions and try spotting birds, alligators and turtles. The tour has been running since 1938 and the senior guides have many great tales to share. Be sure to bring a hat and sunscreen since there’s no shade on these boats.
If you’ve got time, drive to Orlando’s Loch Haven Park, where the Mennello Museum of American Art has a fantastic collection of American folk art and the Orlando Museum of Art features contemporary American art. It’s an easy stroll between the two.
Some of the best park-hopping tips focus on saving time and money. For instance, if you walk through the park gates the instant they open, you can hit three attractions before the lines build. Pack snacks and share restaurant meals. You won’t want a full belly when your next stop is a roller coaster.
Look beyond Central Florida’s themed fantasy worlds for new adventures and local favourites.
Foodies should save time to explore one of the area’s bustling farmers markets. Artisan breads and cheeses, local honey, orchids and fresh-picked citrus lure aficionados every Saturday to the famous Winter Park Farmers’ Market by the historic town’s railroad tracks. You can also visit downtown Orlando’s Lake Eola Park to taste Sunday market goods and peddle a swan boat for two onto the lake, where a bevy of live black and white swans make their home.
Gardens and parks
Explore Central Florida’s natural beauty at the scenic, lakeside Leu Gardens, home to an enormous collection of camellia flowers and a popular site of countless weddings. Leu’s abundance also includes Florida’s largest formal rose garden, a National Historic Home dating to the 19th century and multiple native and tropical gardens.
Take a walk on the wild side about 19 km north of Orlando at Wekiwa Springs State Park, where trails wind through native flora and through the park’s Wekiva River – which was named by the Creek Indians. (Wekiwa means “spring of water” and Wekiva means “flowing water.”) Launch a canoe for a peaceful cruise past turtles, otters and wading birds. You might even spot an alligator sunning on a rock.
If you’re a sports buff, you’re in the right place, no matter what time of year you visit. Orlando Magic basketball fans are passionate about their championship team and the gleaming new Amway Center arena scores big points with the beer and chili dog crowd. When golf fans aren’t busy following the pros in tournaments like the Arnold Palmer Invitational, they’re hitting the links at Palmer’s own Bay Hill Club or another of the area’s more than 176 courses.
You can also play tennis, fly across a zipline or go water skiing, wakeboarding, boating, horseback riding, bass fishing, biking and hiking. How about a ride in a hot air balloon? Climb into one of Bob’s Balloons in Lake Buena Vista to float above the landscape of wetlands, farms and forest. You can’t miss Disney’s iconic Spaceship Earth sitting like a colossal golf ball on a tee overlooking Epcot.
If floating with the birds isn’t enough of a thrill, you can fly like one at Sammy Duvall’s Water Sports Centre by Bay Lake at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Wing it solo, or go tandem with a friend up to 180 metres of line from your boat, then celebrate your flight with organic ales and cocktails at the resort’s Wave Lounge.
For a memorable dining experience (and one where Orlando locals often host vacationing families and friends) reserve weeks ahead at Boma – Flavors of Africa at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. Arrive early to see giraffes, zebras and other exotic creatures roaming among trees, brush and rock formations on the resort’s savanna. The resort’s cultural ambassadors will tell you about native African lands and the animals you’re viewing.
Inside the breathtaking lobby, authentic African artwork is on display. Pause at the Victoria Falls lounge for a signature South African margarita. Boma’s African marketplace-style restaurant includes wines and beers from a stellar South African list, and you can feast on roasted fish and meats served with tamarind sauce, plus hummus, quinoa and coconut curried veggies with tofu, just for starters. Take your coffee or brandy by the resort’s pool. Kids can burn off dinner on the small playground.
Ultra-casual Thornton Park is another fun stop after a stroll around Lake Eola. Sit beneath an umbrella on the WildSide B-B-Q Bar & Grill patio with a beer and the best pulled-pork in town. Or, grab a streetside table at Hue, a popular urban bistro and bar with progressive American cuisine. The daily fresh fish menu at CityFish Restaurant is swimming with favourites, including wild striped bass, barramundi, monkfish and red snapper.
Lunch or dinner, you can’t go wrong wining and dining with the locals in chic Winter Park. Try the small plates of frito misto alla ligure and gnocchi pomodoro at Rocco’s Italian Grille. The Turkish fare at Bosphorus gets rave reviews and the quail with raspberry sauce at Chez Vincent plays a starring role on the menu.
Calendar of events
Walt Disney World Marathon (January)
Start the New Year off right by hitting the marathon track at Disney’s vacation kingdom the first weekend in January. After a pixie-dusted run through the Magic Kingdom and a red-carpet welcome at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, you’ll celebrate victory with – what else – your own Goofy medal!
Mardi Gras at Universal Studios (February to April)
Let the good times roll each February through April for this Big Easy celebration on Saturdays and other select nights at Universal Studios. Cajun food, pop bands, colourful parade floats and beads by the bucketful create a great atmosphere for the whole family.
Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival (March to mid-May)
Mickey Mouse, Cinderella and other Disney characters are featured alongside more than 30 million bright blooms during this springtime garden party. Celebrity gardeners and designers share their know-how and Disney experts conduct horticulture workshops. The screened butterfly house and kids’ play gardens are also very popular.
Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival (late March)
More than 200 top artists from across the country display their work at this best-in-show juried festival along Park Avenue and Central Park the third weekend in March. The family-friendly fest invites children to create their own masterpieces. Live music and clusters of food booths keep the crowds happy and well fed.
Florida Film Festival (Spring, dates vary)
The star lineup shines brighter than ever during this annual celebration of American independent and foreign film at the Enzian Theater in Maitland, FL. John Waters, Oliver Stone, William H. Macy, Gena Rowlands and Virginia Madsen have headlined this spring event that’s popular among film buffs and filmmakers.
Epcot International Food & Wine Festival (October to mid-November)
Locals flock to the park and travellers often book their visits around this yearly six-week taste of the world. Disney creates a recipe for festival success with savoury and sweet tastes complete with wine, beer and spirit pairings at ethnic marketplaces. You’ll also find celebrity chef appearances, culinary demos, beverage seminars and grand ticketed events like the weekly Party for the Senses.
Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios (September to October)
Your worst nightmare is dead ahead and each ghoul is scarier than the last during this fall fright fest. On select nights, you’ll face mutants, monsters and maniacs in elaborate haunted houses and fright zones.
Epcot Candlelight Processional (December)
Orlando-area holiday happenings are everywhere, from theme-park light spectacles to fake-snow events. A sentimental favourite of locals and travellers is the Candlelight Processional at Epcot, with celebrity narrators telling the Christmas story to sweet tunes from a holiday choir and orchestra.