ORLANDO: When you think of Orlando, roller coasters, water parks and a certain Mouse spring to mind. But if you want to see a different side of the city, hang out outside the theme parks. You’ll find a bustling arts and culture scene, creative restaurants and a walkable downtown. Here’s what you can’t miss in the real Orlando.
Culture on a dime
While a ticket to Universal Studios or Magic Kingdom can set you back upwards of $100, you can tour more than a dozen museums in the Orlando area for a fraction of the price. For a visual smorgasbord, try the Orlando Museum of Art, the Mennello Museum of American Art and the fascinating Bronze Kingdom, the world’s largest gallery of African bronze. Not into art? Opt for education fun at the Orlando Science Center or a whirlwind tour of Central Florida’s past at the Orange County Regional History Center.
For more options, visit the surrounding cities. The Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, for example, which celebrates the works of this Czech sculptor, is an intriguing find just north of Orlando in Winter Park. You can tour the artist’s studio, see rotating exhibits indoors and bliss out in the backyard sculpture garden on Lake Osceola.
Wrap up your day a live show. Choose from drama, dance, music, magic and more, but if you’re looking for a true Orlando classic, get tickets to the SAK Comedy Lab. Famous for helping launch the career of Wayne Brady, this downtown improv troupe strikes the balance between “edgy and different” and reliable, won’t-fail-you fun.
They’ve been doing this for 30 years, winning awards and performing to packed audiences.
Luckily, there’s at least one show each night. Duel of Fools is an epic throwdown between two improv teams all for bargain-priced student showcases. Be prepared for impromptu dance parties, flying Tootsie Rolls and top comedic talent. Most of their shows are family-friendly (not family-friendly as in geared toward children but as in you won’t have to cover your kids’ ears), which makes for richer comedy and wilder leaps of imagination.
You’ll leave laughing and quoting zany lines performers made up on the spot. And you can go right back the next night to see something new.
If all that audience participation leaves you craving more interactive entertainment, that’s where Escapology comes in. Headquartered in Orlando and the largest escape room company in the U.S., Escapology has refined its game experience. That means detailed set design, professional game masters and clever, unusual clues that let you have fun whether or not you make it out in 60 minutes.
They have seven rooms with themes you’ve probably not encountered before, like escaping from a World War II submarine or trying to break a Halloween curse in a churchyard.
In the Budapest Express room, you’re a detective on a train where a murder has been committed and you must find whodunit.
Want a tip to beat this highly immersive room? Think like a sleuth as you consider your suspects. It’s your only hope of cracking the case.
Escapology is off International Drive near SeaWorld and Aquatica.
If you venture a little further west, past Animal Kingdom, you’ll find the Orlando Cat Cafe. For a nominal fee, you can enter the feline hangout, stocked with comfortable seats (for humans) and climbing trees and hidey-holes (for cats).
You can pet and play with them or just admire the way they lounge with absolute abandon.
Where to eat
Wake up with coffee. And pastries. The fast-moving line at Buttermilk Bakery lets you know you’ve come to the right place.
A favorite with locals, this bakery serves up sweet and savory confections to make you swoon. Enjoy danishes, doughnuts, muffins, croissants, scones, and tarts. Experiment with unexpected flavors like brie, honeycomb and passion fruit.
The sheer variety makes it hard to choose, but you’re on vacation, so you have permission to order at least three.
Variety at East End Market
For lunch or dinner, if you’re looking for something hyper-local and affordable, East End Market has you covered. Think artisan food in a casual, hip setting.
No place sums this up quite like Bird of Paradise. No more ordering “just a salad” when you want to eat healthy. Their bowls are stuffed with hearty, fresh ingredients, so you feel good eating but don’t leave hungry. The shrimp, sourced right off the Florida coast, is plentiful, and the brown rice, from Jacksonville, is creamy. It plumps up wonderfully with the absorbed sauces — like cilantro lemongrass.
In their bestseller, Florida Bowl or the pineapple-sweet meets Caribbean spice of the Island Jerk Bowl.
As a bonus, they’re fully gluten-free and low sugar. Meaning that it’s OK to splurge on dessert at one of the other food stalls in the market.
It’ll likely be one of the most unique places you’ll eat this year.
Lake Eola Park
If you can, make sure your visit to Orlando includes a Sunday for the year-round farmer’s market at Lake Eola Park.
Along with browsing dozens of vendors for snacks and souvenirs, you can enjoy live music and easy free street parking. There are also the scenic views of the Lake Eola fountain and even a beer and wine garden.
With the rainbow-hued bandshell in the background, this is a perfect place to wind down your stay in Orlando. A vibrant, diverse city awaiting your discovery.
While parts of this trip may have been subsidized, all opinions expressed are those of the author.