From eerily beautiful bioluminescent waters to the world’s largest collection of Tiffany glass, explore Orlando's lesser-known attractions by taking the road less travelled.
1. Discover Orlando’s hidden Vietnamese district
Miles away from the Epcot World Showcase, Orlando is home to Little Saigon, where refugees from the Vietnam War relocated and established their own unique community near downtown in the Mills/50 District. Here you’ll find restaurant, shops, and markets offering authentic Asian food and goods, from live eels to lychee trees. Pop into Vietnam Cuisine for tasty bánh cuốn, rice pancakes stuffed with pork, pickled radish and mushrooms, before washing it down with a bubble tea from the colourful Chewy Boba. (Photo by TastyChomps)
2. Drive a car into a lake
The Amphicar is one of the oddities of automotive history – a 1960s amphibious car that was as happy travelling on the river as on the road. In its day, the Amphicar was considered a bit of a joke. “At one time, they were considered the worst car and the worst boat in the world,” says Steven Schussler, creator of The Boathouse restaurant at Disney Springs, where you can book an Amphicar tour of the lake. Fortunately, Schussler’s team have re-engineered the cars from the ground up, while retaining their cute ‘60s bodywork – so you don’t have to bring a wetsuit.
3. Travel back in time to old Florida
With development eating into Osceola County’s cattle ranches, their historic buildings were in danger of being torn down. So the local historical society came up with a clever solution: put the buildings on trucks and relocate them to a new site. The Pioneer Village at Shingle Creek is the result: an open-air museum housing a permanent collection of authentic vintage buildings, set alongside period-appropriate replicas. As well as a 19th-century “cracker house”, there’s a blacksmith’s shop, a citrus-packing house and a Seminole village. Visitors can discover how homesteaders and the Seminole tribes adapted their buildings to the harsh climate, and explore the adjoining nature reserve, which highlights flora and fauna from the time of Florida’s Native American tribes and early pioneers.
4. Paddle through a bioluminescent wonderland
Bioluminescence – the natural process by which animals and plants generate light – is an almost magical phenomenon, and in Florida you can see it up close. From June to October, bioluminescent sea creatures appear in the lagoons on Florida’s east coast in one of the state’s most impressive natural displays. Nighttime kayak tours around the Space Coast provide an appropriately out-of-this-world experience, as every splash of a paddle creates a glowing wake that looks like something from Avatar’s Pandora.
5. Discover one man’s monument to eccentricity
In 1972, artist Howard Solomon began work on a castle – made not out of stone and mortar, but discarded aluminium newspaper press plates. Over 30 years later, Solomon’s Castle – just under two hours southwest of Orlando – is a monument to his oddball ingenuity. Packed with wacky sculptures and gizmos created by Solomon himself, the castle even has its own moat – with a 60-foot galleon housing the Boat on the Moat restaurant. Sadly, Solomon passed away in 2016 but his family has kept his vision and humour alive. (Photo by Richard Elsey licensed under CC BY 2.0)
6. Visit the most peaceful place in Florida
A short drive east from the bustle of Orlando in the small town of Mims, the White Sands Buddhist Center offers visitors a truly tranquil scene. The site’s most arresting feature is the statuary; three massive granite statues of Siddhārtha stand on the 30-acre site, depicting the original Buddha at different stages of his life. A designated meditation area is set aside for those seeking peace and quiet, while every Sunday services are announced by a monk who rings a 2,200-pound bell for half an hour.
7. Discover a wonderland of stained glass
19th-century designer Louis Comfort Tiffany pioneered new glassmaking techniques to create his Art Nouveau masterpieces. Orlando’s Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art showcases the world’s largest collection of Tiffany glass, ranging from leaded-glass windows and lamps to a monumental chapel interior created for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Featuring five pieces from each medium and stage in Tiffany's illustrious career – as well as paintings and sculpture from artists including John Singer Sargent and William Morris – the museum makes for an authentic and grown-up contrast to Orlando’s theme parks and tourist attractions.
8. See the lakes from above – and land on them
The seaplane is uniquely suited to Central Florida’s clear skies and long string of lakes – so much so that the city of Tavares, under an hour northwest of Orlando, bills itself as “Seaplane City”. The city’s seaplane pilots offer a range of unique “flightseeing” activities – from short hops to lengthier excursions taking in kayaking along the Dora Canal, picnics on the beach and even alligator-spotting trips.
9. Visit a museum dedicated to Tupperware
Many families have a Tupperware collection stuffed somewhere in their kitchen – but nowhere else in the world takes the stackable storage containers as seriously as Orlando. The home of the brand’s global headquarters, Orlando’s curiously-named Tupperware Brands Confidence Center also plays host to a museum that takes visitors on a self-guided visual journey highlighting the company’s innovative products. Small but perfectly formed – like the products themselves – the museum's colourful displays showcase the brand’s history, from company founder Earl Tupper’s original idea, including the first mold machine that formed the renowned "burping bowls", to the modern-day products that can be found across the globe. And yes, they do sell the containers, too. Next door at the Tupperware Gallery is one of few places in the world where the products can be purchased from a store.
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