Orlando may be best-known for its theme parks – from Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom to Universal Studios, they entertain millions of visitors a year – but there’s more to the city than Mickey Mouse. From sampling a Florida orange straight off the tree, to exploring the extraordinary Bok Tower Gardens bird sanctuary, there’s plenty to write home about.
1. Meet an astronaut
The Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral is among the most impressive but often overlooked places in Florida. There’s a huge array of historic equipment from NASA’s past on display – including the enormous Saturn V rocket that helped launch the Apollo 11 crew to the Moon. You can also explore exhibits on the Space Shuttle, the equipment used during the moonshot missions and the future of NASA.
The undoubted highlight, though, is the opportunity to meet an astronaut and hear them talk about their experiences in space – check in advance to find out who’s speaking on a particular day. Time your visit right and you can also view a rocket launch from a safe distance, just a few miles away from the launch pads.
2. Taste the ‘Citrus State’
If Florida weren’t the “Sunshine State,” it would probably be called the “Citrus State.” Ever since the early Spanish explorers planted the first orange trees on Florida soil, the state’s been famous for its citrus fruit – nowadays it produces 90% of America’s orange juice.
If you want to enjoy an orange like a true Floridian, there’s no better way than by picking it yourself, straight from the tree. Showcase of Citrus is a veritable citrus safari – you can walk through its groves and pick your own fruit for your picnic. There are over 50 kinds of citrus to choose from, depending on the time of year you’re visiting. If you’re looking for something more rugged, hop on one their tiger-striped monster trucks for an off-road ride.
3. Hear a tower sing
Bok Tower Gardens was created as a bird sanctuary in the 1920s – but the birds aren’t the only ones doing the singing. Twice a day, at 1 and 3 pm, the Singing Tower at Bok Tower Gardens erupts in a beautiful melody that might sound more at place in the "Old World” than it does Central Florida. But, a little over an hour south of Orlando, the 250-acre garden with its 205-foot tower and 60-bell carillon give visitors an experience that shouldn’t be missed. At 295 feet above sea level, the garden is one of the highest points on the relatively flat Florida peninsula and offers a unique overlook of the region’s iconic orange groves. (Image by Marianne Serra licensed under CC BY 2.0)
4. Cure your vinyl fever
For over three decades – before the recent rebirth of vinyl – Park Ave CDs has supplied Orlando with the best alternative music records around. This small, colourful record and book store is a favourite among locals, who appreciate the collection as much as the friendly staff. Check ahead and you may be able to catch one of its intimate in-store performances – artists who’ve played there include the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Silversun Pickups and Waterparks.
5. Tuck into an authentic Cuban sandwich
Legend has it the Cuban sandwich was first pressed in Ybor City cafés, where cigar rollers would stop for lunch before returning to work in the early 1900s. Lathered in lard and with layers of roasted pork, ham, salami, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles, these pressed sandwiches have become world renowned – but the Tampa area still prides itself as the originator of this delicious dish. Stop by the historic Ybor City, just over an hour from of Orlando, for an original Cuban sandwich or even indulge in a local cigar. The huge Columbia Restaurant – the self-styled "largest Spanish restaurant in the world" – has one of the best Cuban sandwiches in Ybor City. If you’re in the mood for something a little cozier, check out the smaller, less touristy La Segunda Bakery – a favourite with locals.
6. Cruise back in time
Old Town, Kissimmee is a shopping mall with a difference – it’s a recreation of an historic Florida Main Street, evoking the Americana of a world gone bye. Every Saturday, classic car collectors meet in Old Town for a drive down memory lane during the Saturday Nite Car Cruise. Beginning at 1pm, drivers arrive behind the wheels of their hot rods, street rods, and antiques, each dating back to at least 1979. After a full day of admiring each other’s rides, the drivers start their engines again and cruise down the city’s brick-paved Main Street for a final parade at 8:30pm.
7. Uncover the secrets of Walt Disney World
Anyone can see Walt Disney World on the surface – but only a handful of astute visitors ever experience its hidden treasures. Start by digging a little deeper and looking for the "Hidden Mickey” graphics scattered around the park – a designer’s easter egg from the Imagineers behind the rides.
If you’re a truly dedicated Disney fan, you can explore the park’s secret locations on a Keys to the Kingdom Tour – it takes you behind the scenes, giving you backstage access to the park’s classic attractions and the network of underground tunnels that tie Disney World together. (Image by Jeff Christiansen licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0)
8. Devour a decadent ‘Gelati’
Jeremiah’s Italian Ice is a local favorite for anyone craving a sweet treat and break from the heat. Since Jeremiah first rolled out his pushcart in the 80s, they’ve offered classic soft serve ice cream and over 40 flavours of Italian ice – from classics like chocolate to exotic ones like horchata. Be sure to try the house speciality, the “Gelati,” a decadent layering of soft serve and Italian ice that will have you saying grazie with a mouthful.
9. Visit the heart of indie cinema in Florida
Film buffs will feel right at home at Enzian, Central Florida’s only full-time alternative cinema and home of the Florida Film Festival. With only one screen, the cinema serves up a carefully curated programme of independent, foreign and classic films; the screening room’s kitted out with plush couches, while table service is available so you can wine and dine while you watch. If you don’t feel like watching a movie, the venue also plays host to the al fresco Eden Bar, a terrace with a canopy of overhanging weeping oaks.
10. Explore an ecodistrict
Minutes from downtown Orlando you’ll stumble upon the homegrown and locally-owned community of Audubon Park Garden District. This “ecodistrict” prides itself on its sustainability. Shops are small and authentic, selling handcrafted goods – everything from artisan cheeses to vintage clothing. Restaurants serve fresh food with locally-sourced ingredients. This lively community brings together citizens and businesses, setting an example for other eco-friendly neighbourhoods around the country – in 2016, it was honoured with a Great American Main Street Award. Drop in on a weekend or a Monday night and you’ll encounter community events, street parties and the Audubon Park Community Market.
11. Enjoy a social gathering in 19th-century style
If you’re in the mood for a classic cocktail experience, look no further than Mathers. Located in a three-story historic building dating back to the 1800s, the Mathers bar was once a furniture store and now sports a similar vintage style with dark wood, exposed brick, and chesterfield sofas. Billed as a “social gathering”, it aims to conjure up the atmosphere of 19th-century clubs – with butlers serving up boutique cocktails concocted from seasonal ingredients.
12. Eat from Chef Fish Morgan’s menu
You can’t go wrong with a restaurant run by a guy named Chef Fish Morgan. This food artist, sommelier, and all-round entertainer opened Yellow Dog Eats after years honing his kitchen skills at the Culinary Institute of America. Housed in a historic building just outside Orlando, the “Dog” serves a unique mix of sandwiches, salads, and BBQ, piled high with quality – and unusual – ingredients. Think pulled pork layered with blue cheese crumbles and orange Cointreau mayo, or club sandwiches drizzled with Thai chili sauce and wasabi cucumber ranch dressing.
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