Florida's fourth-largest city has an outsized reputation when it comes to one thing: theme parks. And while the parks' reputation as iconic tourist destinations is more than justified, there's plenty to explore just outside their gates in "The City Beautiful."
Blue Spring State Park has Orlando’s best mix of nature’s gifts in one place. The spring itself, sending out 104 million gallons of water a day, is a natural swimming hole, where the crystalline water is a steady 72°F. From mid-November through March, the park is ideal for seeing West Indian manatees, which populate the 2,643-acre park’s waters in abundance.
Kennedy Space Center has been sending astronauts toward the stars since the 1960s Space Race era. The Visitor Center provides tours to behind-the-scenes areas such as the Vehicle Assembly Building and the Launch Control Center. Even the most basic ticket provides access to an interactive Atlantis shuttle attraction, a shuttle simulator, space suit displays and artifacts from the Apollo rockets.
Canaveral National Seashore is nearly untouched Atlantic shoreline along a thin barrier island stretching for 24 miles. Playalinda Beach, closest to Orlando, is a series of 14 parking lots with rest room facilities. More than 1,000 types of plants and 310 species of birds reside here, including 15 threatened or endangered birds, reptiles and mammals.
Most Iconic Attraction
Orlando may be best known for Disney World—specifically the Magic Kingdom theme park with its towering gold-and-blue Cinderella Castle. Disney World has three additional theme parks (Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom), two water parks, the megamall Disney Springs, a sports complex, three dozen hotels and four golf courses, plus water sports, spas and a wedding pavilion.
Once the dinner hour ends, Millennials and Gen Yers descend upon the Central Business District’s Orange Avenue and its neighboring roads. Sixty or so nightlife establishments cater to every crowd. The Beacham is a concert and DJ venue within a 1921 movie theater. Craft cocktails, rooftop panache, dancing, small-batch beers and multiple TV screens define other spots.
Orlando’s chains of lakescan be seen via leisurely educational tours through pretty scenery. Scenic Boat Tour takes guests on an hour-long pontoon tour of the Winter Park Chain of Lakes, Orlando Lake Tours through the Butler chain and Premier Boat Tours around the Harris chain. Cat Boat Tours of Mount Dora uses two-seater CraigCat power boats instead.
Neighborhood to Explore
A dowdy community defined by aged strip malls a decade ago, today the Audubon Park Garden District is a hipster-filled center for green living with artisan bakers, organic grocers and craft brewers plus a food hall with an organic garden and Monarch waystations. Song Bird Park is home to 200 native plants plus an Urban Bird Sanctuary with hand-painted birdhouses.
Sitting at a sidewalk table with a meal, coffee or cocktail and people-watching is what folks do along Winter Park’s Park Avenue, all year long. Among the common passersby are country club matrons with coiffed blonde hair; families who bring kids a run on grassy Central Park; and wild-haired professors and jeans-clad students from the Rollins College.
Orlando’s museum scene is quirky. Fans of literature and African-American history head to the Zora Neale Hurston Museum. The Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens is an indoor-outdoor enterprise with the namesake artist’s sculptures. Louis Comfort Tiffany’s glass art is on display at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. Bronze Kingdom has bronze African tribal art.
Best Day Trip
St. Augustine, founded by the Spanish in 1565, is said to be the oldest continuously lived-in community in the United States. Today the city’s heart is a quaint and pedestrian-friendly area heavy on Spanish-colonial architecture, and many of the 60 historical sites within it and nearby are open for tours.