Orlando Beyond the Theme Parks travel feature

Orlando – More than Theme Parks
by Jeff Louderback

Since Walt Disney waved his his magic wand and created what today is the most recognizable theme park in the early 1970s, Orlando has not been the same. Once a sleepy town nestled amid orange groves and lakes, this Central Florida tourist mecca is the theme park capital of the world. Yet there is more to Orlando than Disney World and Universal Studios alone.

Twice the size of Manhattan with its 47 square miles, Orlando challenges visitors who prefer a well-planned vacation. After all, how can you see the seemingly endless stream of attractions when there is so much inside Disney World and Universal alone? The key is knowing the details behind the well-known destinations, and the hidden gems, in Central Florida.

Major Attractions

Disney World, of course, is the starting point for many Orlando visitors. This haven for children and adults alike is not a theme park alone. Instead, it’s a sprawling complex of assorted diversions, including several theme parks, resorts, golf courses, and water parks. There are even two shopping and entertainment complexes, Downtown Disney and Disney’s Boardwalk.

Epcot, which is a amusement park and world’s fair in one; The Magic Kingdom, the center of Mickey Mouse mania and the most popular theme park in the nation; Disney-MGM Studios, which is Disney’s recreation of Hollywood with the addition of dramatic rollercoasters; and Animal Kingdom, the lushly landscaped theme park with rides and up-close safari encounters with exotic animals on 100 acres; compose Disney World’s empire in Orlando. Water parks Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach bustle with activity during the sweltering months.

North of Disney World-yet just a few exits away-Universal Orlando adds to the dizzying array of tourist attractions with two theme parks, three luxury resorts, and an entertainment complex called CityWalk, which is home to several unique restaurants, clubs, shops, and entertainment venues. Universal Studios features exhilarating rides like Back to the Future, the ultimate simulator ride; and the longtime special-effects star among theme-park rides, Terminator 2 3-D, which combines a spectacular 3-D film, live Arnold look-alikes whizzing around on bruising Harley-Davidsons, and bone-chilling fog among other features. Islands of Adventure is home to the Incredible Hulk Coaster and the double coaster, Dueling Dragons. Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls was the first flume ride with an underwater excursion. Children flock to Seuss Landing, where they enter the world of The Cat in the Hat.

At SeaWorld Orlando, the animals are the featured attractions. The world’s largest zoological park, SeaWorld is a sanctuary for mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles that live in the oceans and their tributaries. The highlight is Shamu Stadium, where you can see Shamu and his sidekicks perform like gymnasts. Discovery Cove, a separate attraction, allows guests to personally interact with a dolphin, splash around an artificial reef, snorkel in an artificial river, and wade amid real stingrays.

Natural Wonders

Beyond the major attractions, Orlando is home is a multitude of hidden gems, natural wonders and nostalgic destinations. More than 300 lakes, springs, and rivers dot the Central Florida landscape. There are numerous parks and gardens, many with trails for walking and hiking, and the area’s wildlife sanctuaries and zoos showcase Florida’s animal inhabitants.

One of Central Florida’s most famous nostalgic attractions is Gatorland, which is located between Orlando and Kissimmee. Ideal for a half-day side trip and less than half the price of the major theme parks, Gatorland opened in 1949 with a handful of alligators living in huts and pens. The destination now houses thousands of alligators and crocodiles on its 70-acre environment. Guests meander along a 2,000-foot boardwalk that winds through a cypress swamp and breeding marsh.

The Gator Jumparoo is a crowd-pleasing show where the massive reptiles lunge as high as five feet out of the water to snatch and then devour a hunk of meat from a trainer’s hand – not the trainer’s hand itself. Up Close Encounters, which features a variety of wildlife, including some venomous snakes. A train ride through the park; Lilly’s Pad, a wet and dry play area; and Allie’s Barnyard, a small petting zoo; are among the kid-friendly activities. Gatorland’s Trainer for a Day program allows guests to have a close encounter with gators.

Gators are a predominant part of natural Florida. At the 4,700-acre Crescent J Ranch, Forever Florida has maintained the way most of the state once was in a nature preserve that features native wildlife, Florida flora, and a working cattle ranch. Guided tour options include horseback riding and Safari coach, a funky buggy that puts riders on a perch 10 feet above sea level. The preserve also includes a pony riding ring, hiking trails, and a petting zoo.

The Central Florida Zoological Park in Sanford boasts a 115-acre forest of palm, cypress and oak trees teeming with exhibits of gators and crocs, native and exotic birds, primates, felines and reptiles. The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland, is the premiere rehabilitation facility for raptors (birds of prey) in the Southeast. The center rescues more than 700 birds each year, rehabilitates them and releases 40 percent back into the wild. Some of those that cannot be released become residents of the center, which has more than 20 species in outdoor aviaries. The center also has a wetland area, a boardwalk gazebo and a viewing window.

Cosmopolitan Culture

Minutes from the heart of Orlando, Winter Park is an elegant and cosmopolitan suburb that is rich in culture, history, art, nature, fine dining, and shopping. Along Park Avenue, a restored red-brick street lined with decorative wrought-iron lampposts and lush greenery exudes old-world charm.

Winter Park is the opposite of Orlando’s theme park district. The town’s residents relish the serenity of giant oaks draped in Spanish moss, tropical plants, 70 parks, and 17 lakes. Gardenias grow next to pine trees, ospreys nest in tall cypress, and cranes and water lilies fringe the endless shorelines of its lakes.

Culture is the main attraction here. The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art houses one of the finest collections of Louis Comfort Tiffany glassware, ceramics, furnishings, pottery, mosaics, and lamps in the world. Located right next to Central Park in downtown Winter Park, the museum is highlighted by the breathtaking chapel that Tiffany created for the 1893 Chicago Exposition.

Winter Park is also a town of immaculate mansions situated on pristine lakes. Today, the best way to see these estates – which include an array of architectural styles including Georgian, Mediterranean, and modern – is from the lakes around them. The Scenic Boat Tour of Winter Park provides a glimpse. The hour-long journey covers 12 miles of water on three major lakes and through the canals that connect them.

Winter Park also offers the Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Orlando Museum of Art, the Mennello Museum of American Folk Art, and the Holocaust Museum. The Cornell Museum on the campus of Rollins College is the largest public museum in Florida.

Winter Park’s gardens are its other cultural focus. The Henry P. Leu Gardens are manicured over 50 acres, and from October to March, camellias bloom like colored grass. There are also 10 demonstration gardens. More than 150,000 visitors walk the Leu Estate each year.

The Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens showcase the namesake’s classical sculptures inside and outside his Winter Park residence on Lake Osceola. Kraft Azalea Gardens, a lush forest of cypress and azaleas along Lake Maitland, and Mead Botanical Gardens with trails and birds and plants from around the world, are other frequently visited.

Family Restaurants and Fine Dining

Though Orlando is most known for its theme parks, the city is also a haven for foodies and restaurant enthusiasts. Orlando is the birthplace of nationally renowned chains like Red Lobster and Olive Garden, but the area is also a place where exceptional independent restaurants thrive.

When acclaimed chef Neil Connolly opened an upscale eatery in December, the former Kennedy family chef breathed new life into a stretch of downtown Orlando dominated by physicians’ offices, x-ray laboratories and diagnostic centers.

At Doc’s, many dishes are prepared using the same recipes Connolly developed when he was the Kennedy family chef. Cape Cod clam chowder and lobster stew are examples. So are dishes like grilled filet mignon and Maine lobster tail, clams, mussels and halibut; and desserts such as soufflés.

A distinguished chef with more than three dozen culinary medals and awards to his credit, Neil Connolly served as the personal chef to Senator Edward Kennedy and his mother from 1984-1994. The charismatic Connolly shares a passion for entertaining stories and preparing creative cuisine. From his time at the Kennedy estate, he has a plethora of intriguing tales of festive family gatherings and grand galas for a who’s who list of politicians, athletes and entertainers. The Boston native implements his New England influence with Florida’s bounty of fresh ingredients at the sophisticated dining destination across the street from the Orlando Regional Medical Center.

Talk of the Town Restaurants-which owns venerable Orlando dining destinations like Charley’s Steakhouse, FishBones, and Vito’s Chophouse- also owns Moonfish along Sand Lake Road’s Restaurant Row. Amid a sophisticated setting, Moonfish serves upscale selections from land and sea in an ambience highlighted by stunning art glass enlivened with watery hues and plasma television screens depicting aquarium scenes through a veil of running water. The menu includes a variety of fresh seafood and shellfish, and a rainbow of sashimi (raw, sushi-grade fish).

If you crave theme restaurants, Orlando has them as well. At the Pirate’s Dinner Adventure along International Drive, guests are treated to a welcome hors d’oeuvres buffet, but it’s not long before pirates invade the party. They plunder the island and take the guests prisoner, but the punishment is inviting-a meal fit for a king while the marooning and marauding goes on in your midst. The dining area is situated amid a maritime ambience, where guests dine on Buccaneer Beef while marveling at a sword fight conducted by finely trained actors. The special effects are spectacular. The menu features traditional American foods with pirate-theme names. After dinner, guests mingle with the cast at the pirate’s disco party, complete with a dessert buffet.

From themed dinners and theme parks to charming towns like Winter Park and nature preserves teeming with visions of the way Florida was a century ago, Orlando is a haven for a multitude of notable sights and attractions. Perhaps the best way to experience Central Florida is to plan one vacation around the theme parks, and another trip centered on Orlando beyond the glitz and glitter and Disney World and Universal. After all, even the most detailed planner will discover that seven days is just not enough.


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