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Contrary to what most 8-year-olds believe, Orlando is much more than Harry Potter and Disney World. Don’t get me wrong, I love Disney– and I just bought yet another multi-day pass, so I’m not knocking Mickey or Universal. I just can only handle them in small, once-a-quarter doses. If you’re not one for crowds, and by crowds I mean more screaming children per square mile than you thought mathematically possible, there is a plethora of non-touristy gems scattered secretly throughout Central Florida– all you need is the right Orlando travel guide. I’m a native Orlandoan with over 27 years of residence in Central Florida, so I literally know the region inside and out. Orlando’s hidden treasures give true insight into the Floridian lifestyle. We love nature, we love the sun, and our cultural melting pot has made us far more sophisticated than most realize.
So if you’re planning a visit and are looking to stay far off Orlando’s tourist-beaten path, here are 18 of Central Florida’s non-touristy treasures:
1. Leu Gardens
Florida certainly isn’t devoid of lush tropical landscaping, but you wouldn’t think you’d find a botanical oasis just minutes from downtown Orlando. Leu Gardens is a stunning 50-acre garden designed to inspire visitors to appreciate and understand plants. Daytime admission, which costs $10 per adult (with the exception of the first Monday of every month when admission is free), includes full access to the gardens and the Leu House Museum. Photography is permitted, so this is the perfect place to take family photos, clear your mind, and enjoy some of Orlando’s most beautiful displays of nature all in one trip.
2. Wekiva Springs
You’ll notice I didn’t include any beaches on this Orlando travel guide, and my reasoning is two-fold: 1. I consider beaches to be on the same page as theme parks as far as the tourist population is concerned, and 2. Florida’s freshwater springs are so much more fun, relaxing, and less crowded than any nearby ocean. Wekiva Springs, also known as Wekiwa Springs State Park and Rock Springs Run, is my all-time favorite place for swimming (beware of the refreshing yet ice cold spring water), camping, canoeing, and kayaking. 13 miles of trails provide additional opportunities for hiking, bicycling, and horseback riding, as well.
Although the springs will always be less crowded than any of our beaches, I should mention that this is still a popular spot on summer weekends. Arrive early to ensure you can reserve your canoe or kayak and pick a prime time tanning spot.
3. Winter Park Boat Tours
If you want an activity that’s far, far off Orlando’s tourist-beaten path, hop on this pontoon boat. Winter Park’s Scenic Boat Tour offers hour-long, guided cruises through 3 of the 7 lakes and 2 narrow manmade canals on the tranquil Winter Park chain. Known for housing some of Central Florida’s wealthiest businessmen and athletes, I can guarantee you’ll leave with some serious real estate envy.
Please note that groups of 10 or more should make reservations in advance, and the Scenic Boat Tours company only accepts cash and checks.
4. Kennedy Space Center
As a Central Florida resident, I must’ve gone on at least 6 or 7 school field trips to the Kennedy Space Center, and it never… and I mean never… got old, even with those obnoxious scavenger hunt assignments our teachers would make us do. The Kennedy Space Center Complex is where you can see the largest rocket ever flown, touch a moon rock, meet an astronaut, and stand right next to shuttle Atlantis all in the same day. Also, be sure to check the website for upcoming rocket launches, where you can actually witness and feel the power of a real rocket as it lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
5. Black Hammock Airboat Rides
When S drove down from DC for a few days, I wanted to surprise her and do something adventurous and new, so I gave Black Hammock Airboat Rides a try. We’re both so glad I did. Their affordable airboat rides will take you on a 30-minute or hour-long exploration of Lake Jesup, which has the largest alligator population in all of Florida. Their airboats are U.S. Coast Guard approved and driven by Master Captains, all of which have hysterical personalities and a wealth of swamp knowledge. After your ride, you can take a picture with an adorable baby alligator and receive 10% off at the Black Hammock Restaurant, which has amazing (you guessed it) gator bites, using your ride ticket stub.
6. The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art
Most people don’t think of the word culture when Orlando comes to mind, but we’re far more sophisticated than we seem. The Morse Museum, located on Winter Park’s adorable Park Avenue, houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, including the artist and well-known designer’s jewelry, pottery, paintings, art glass, leaded-glass lamps and windows. The Museum’s holdings also include American pottery, late 19th- and early 20th-century American painting, graphics, and decorative art.
7. Orlando Science Center
For sixty years, the Orlando Science Center has been a place that inspires curiosity and exploration. I still have pictures of my brothers and me playing in their “water room” when we were 4 or 5. Truly one of the great activities for Orlando families, the Science Center encourages learning in a fun, Bill Nye the Science Guy kind of way. Oh, and they just revealed a brand new Mummies of the World exhibit, which is obviously awesome.
Even if science doesn’t interested you in the slightest bit, you need to at least go see the Orlando Science Center building. Its stunning architecture has made it a frequent venue for wedding receptions and upscale galas and benefits.
8. Orlando Solar Bears Ice Hockey
Yes, Orlando has an ice hockey team, and yes, the Orlando Solar Bears are really really bad… but if you don’t have a good time at the game, I will personally give you your money back (in hugs… cause you need an attitude adjustment). Their home games are held at the Amway Arena, which is where the Orlando Magic also play, and my friends and I are always shocked and disappointed when the games are over. You can find tickets for as low as $7, and (insider tip) because the Amway is so huge, you’re guaranteed to be able to move to a much closet seat. I’ve actually sang the National Anthem for them twice, so I can personally say that the team is also a bunch of sweethearts. Support these guys and watch some ice hockey!
9. Winter Park Farmers Market
Various cities throughout greater Orlando conduct their own farmers’ markets, but the Winter Park Farmers’ Market is the #1 plant and produce market all of Central Florida. It’s held every Saturday morning from 7AM-1PM at an old train depot that has been restored into a historical landmark on New England Avenue. It’s an extremely popular spot for finding fresh and inexpensive produce, plants, unique odds and ends, and amazingly delicious local food, drinks, and baked goods.
10. Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets
Shop more than 160 outlet designer and name-brand outlet stores including Armani Outlet, Fendi, Prada, and Saks Fifth Avenue OFF 5TH at the Mediterranean-inspired outdoor shopping village known as the Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets. Enjoy highly-coveted brands with massive savings of 25-65% for an entire day of indulgent shopping.
Insider Tip: They’re open til 11PM Monday-Saturday, so go later in the evening to avoid large crowds and international tourist groups.
11. Lake Eola Park Swan Boating
Swan boat riding on Lake Eola, located in the heart of Downtown Orlando, is a right of passage for every true Orlandoan. From the hours of 10AM to 7PM Sunday-Tuesday and 10AM to 10PM Wednesday-Saturday (weather permitting), you can rent paddle boats, which hold up to 5 people, for $15 per half hour. No reservations are needed, and you’ll find the boats docked by Relax Grill. If you decide to go at night, be sure to check out the original Linton E. Allen Memorial Fountain, ie the official icon of the City of Orlando, which literally comes alive in the evening with a choreographed show set to music.
In addition to renting a swan-shaped paddle boat, there is no shortage of thing to do in Lake Eola Park. It’s a popular spot for local festivals, concerts, fundraising events, and even weddings. You can feed the live swans, watch a concert or play in the Walt Disney amphitheater, grab food on the outdoor patio at Relax Grill, or just take a stroll down the sidewalk that circles the lake in .9 miles in length.
12. Baterby’s Art Gallery
Voted Orlando’s Best Art Gallery multiple years in a row, Baterby’s Art Gallery is one of my favorite lesser known cultural spots– and the largest full service art gallery– in all of Orlando. The gallery is home to over 1.7 million pieces of artwork, produced by local artists, upcoming artists, and both established and contemporary Masters. The collection includes well-known names like Pablo Picasso, Peter Max, Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Marc Chagall, and more modern recognized artists like Elena Bond, Duaiv, William Kirkpatrick, and Thomas Kinkade. The gallery is open 9AM to 5PM Monday-Friday and Saturday by appointment only.
13. Park Avenue
No Orlando travel guide would be complete without mentioning Winter Park’s charming Park Avenue. Park Avenue is virtually everyone’s favorite shopping and dining experience for a multitude of reasons. Bordered by Central Park, which plays host to frequent concerts and art festivals, Park Avenue is home to both one-of-a-kind boutiques and popular shops like Lilly Pulitzer, GAP, and Pottery Barn, as well as delicious sidewalk cafes, fine dining restaurants, and world-renowned art collections in the area’s museums, like the aforementioned Morse Museum of American Art. Although you’ll find many more shops at the outlet malls, the relaxing atmosphere and plethora of rose gardens and lush landscaping make Park Avenue a resident hot spot for social gatherings, celebrations, and cultural experiences.
Accordingly, there is virtually always something fun happening on the Avenue. Signature events like Park Avenue Fashion Week, Park Avenue Sip and Stroll, the Hannibal Square Wine Tasting, Taste of Winter Park, Spring and Autumn Art Festivals, Sidewalk Art Festivals, and the Winter Park Concours D’Elegance exotic car show entertain both residents and visitors alike. During the holidays, Winter Parkers can enjoy an annual Tree Lighting ceremony in Central Park, Christmas parades, and the lighting of the Tiffany Windows hosted by the Morse Museum– in addition to viewing a stunning display of Christmas lights and decor all along the Avenue.
14. SAK Comedy Lab
Central Florida certainly isn’t known for producing comics, but after a single visit to SAK Comedy Lab in downtown Orlando, you’ll be shocked you’ve never heard of them (side note: Wayne Brady and a handful of Saturday Night Live writers credit SAK with jump starting their improv and writing careers). Modeled after hilarious shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway?, SAK features an insanely talented ensemble of improv actors with a unique brand of live improvised comedy. They take audience suggestions and create characters and scenarios on the spot– including honorary birthday mentions or celebratory shoutouts. The comedy is tactfully edgy enough for adults yet appropriate for younger teens, so it’s quite literally fun for the whole family.
15. Rising Star Karaoke
You haven’t experienced karaoke until you’ve sang on the Rising Star stage. Located at Universal’s City Walk, singers perform with a live band, complete with real backup singers, and can choose from an impressive number of song titles, ranging from country ballads to rock hits. Karaoke is enjoyed nightly, and cover is only $7 with no additional charge to sing.
16. Enzian Theater
To watch both esoteric film festival jewels and cult classics, the Enzian Theater is Central Florida’s only full-time alternative cinema. It’s also home of the Eden Bar and the Florida Film Festival. The Enzian is a non-profit cultural organization, supported only by membership fees, ticket sales, and food and beverage profits, which go towards supporting its mission of connecting the community through film.
17. The Wine Room
We unfortunately don’t have vineyards down here in Florida, so The Wine Room is our next best thing. Featuring Italian-made, Enomatic wine dispensing machines which are equipped with wine-preservation systems to guarantee that you get a fresh sample every time, vino lovers can sample over 125 hand-selected wines. The most highly rated and sought after wines are conveniently located on their Critic’s Choice machine, so if you’re a connoisseur, you know what to taste first. They’re constantly changing wines, too, to allow customers to try as many new and different wines as possible, and their wine tasting card system, where you load a specific amount onto a card and then insert your card to choose from 1oz, 2.5oz, or 5oz pour sizes, makes it easy to stay within your budget.
18. Strawberry Picking at Pappy’s Patch
Indulge in rural Oviedo’s warm winter weather with a trip to Pappy’s Patch for some strawberry picking. From the estimated months of December through April, you can pick your own strawberries for 2.75 per pound. You can also pick your own blueberries from April through June for 3.75 per pound. Note that they take cash and checks only, and they’re never open on Mondays. Since Central Florida is no stranger to inclement and/or unpredictable weather, as a best practice, it’s best to call and make sure that their U-Pick service is being offered before making the trip to the farm.
Feel free to let me know if I left any worthy additions off my Orlando travel guide; I’m happy to supplement! Happy exploring!