10 Unusual Things To Do in Orlando
Orlando is so much more than Disney. Yes really! If you are planning a Florida trip then it’s worth sticking around beyond the parks to explore the quirky Orlando experiences on offer. From alligators to flying simulators, check out some of the favourite activities suggested here by Orlando regulars…
Orlando beyond Disney
Plan to visit Orlando? For those who go regularly and even those still considering a first trip, it’s one of those places that seems so familiar. We think we know what to expect. But it takes a regular visitor to know some of the quirkier places. And there’s always new and surprising things on offer in this centre of fun and adventure. Which is probably why people keep returning to the theme park capital of the world. From discovering the new dining scene in downtown to tracking down hidden Mickeys, here’s a pick of the best and most unusual things for families to do in Orlando.
1. Discover Downtown food tours
From pillow like doughnuts topped with pink icing to gooey cookies the size of a child’s head, downtown has a vibrant food scene says journalist Ella Buchan. “Pack your appetite for a morning of grazing with Orlando Foodie Tours, which offers a family-friendly jaunt around the best brunch spots. The vegan doughnuts come from Valhalla Bakery in the hip Milk District, and queues regularly snake out the door. And those cookies, from Gideon’s Bakehouse in East End Market, are the result of owner Steve Lewis’ quest for the perfect recipe. It isn’t all for sweet teeth. Stops can include Swine & Sons for avocado toast with coffee-smoked bacon, ending at Osprey Tavern for a sit-down meal, if you have room.
Top tip: For a self-guided taster, make a beeline for East End Market. The bright, light indoor space has those giant cookies, cheese and prosecco at La Femme Du Fromage, topped toasts by Farm & Haus and craft coffee from Lineage.
2. Eat the world at Epcot Food and Wine Festival
If you a confirmed foodie then Epcot International Food & Wine Festival is a must. This celebration of food around the world happens every year in the autumn. Stalls round the lake sell goodies like bratwurst, cheese plates, and falafel. The Festival Center has tastings and chef demonstrations, and there are Eat to the Beat concerts and dining packages. And the most enticing part for me; cheese seminars. Whats not to love?.
Top tip: The Swan & Dolphin Hotel holds its own Food & Wine Classic at the end of October, with samples from top chefs and seminars on pasta making, sushi and craft beer.
3. Get soaring at iFly Orlando
When you think of Orlando you probably think of being turned inside out and upside down. Therefore it only seems logical to send you to iFly Orlando after the coasters. This simulated flying experience is a treat for all ages, and we have done it on several continents. They provide all the kit. You just turn up and relax. I said RELAX!
4. Dine with characters at Garden Grove
Ticking off the Disney ‘Big 5’ – that’s Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto and Goofy – is high on many Orlando wish lists but, just like a real safari, can be as expensive and time-consuming. Often, if you haven’t booked in advance, queuing can dominate your time in the park. And character dining experiences often have a six-month waiting list. So how do you avoid sad faces? Ella Buchan suggests finding a hotel that offers a quick hello over breakfast. “A few hotels have regular meet-and-greet opportunities. Garden Grove at the Swan has character dining every evening, with characters also joining guests for weekend breakfast. You can reserve in advance but there’s often room for walk-ins.”
Ella’s Top tip: Spot Mickey everywhere. The original mouse’s image was dotted cleverly around the parks when the rides were first built, from a lock with ‘ears’ to a shadow in the shape of Mickey’s head. New Mickeys still pop up today – search online for fan sites that obsessively list sightings.
5. Ride swan boats at Lake Eola Park
Who wouldn’t want to take to the lake in a swan? In downtown Orlando, Lake Eola Park has wide walking paths and swan-shaped pedalos. You can pack your family of five in for just for $15 (£12) for a half-hour. As you pootle around you can check out the real swans swimming circles around you. On land, there’s around a mile of pretty paths. There are lots of bird sculptures too. It’s a great way to see some Orlando nature, particularly lovely at sunset, where the fountain is in full flow.
Top tip: Head to the park on Sunday morning, when the popular farmer’s market sells street food, fresh local produce, preserves and artwork, often with live music.
6. Go topsy turvy at Wonderworks
From its exterior onwards WonderWorks will confuse your brain. That’s what it is designed for. A top-secret lab that apparently ‘landed’ upside down on Orlando’s International Drive, the fun building has lots of activities for all ages. You can design and ride your own roller coaster and lie on a bed of nails. But not at the same time. My son was seven when we visited and could have spent all day there.
Top tip from Ella Buchan: If you hit a rainy day, drive the short distance from WonderWorks to I-Drive 360, which houses Madame Tussauds (without the crowds of the London equivalent), SEA Life Aquarium and the Orlando Eye, for views over Disney and beyond.
7. Float in a vintage car
The Boathouse restaurant in Disney Springs boasts the largest collection of vintage Amphicars in the world says Ella Buchan. T”he amphibious autos drive on land before splashing into the water for a 20-minute captain’s guided tour around Village Lake. The pristine vehicles, in aqua, scarlet and spearmint, look brand new – but these are the real deal. Less than 4,000 Amphicars were made in the 1960s, and the Boathouse has 10 of the few remaining today.”
Ella’s Top tip: If you fancy a jaunt on the water but don’t want to splash out over $125 (around £100) for the tour, many Disney World Resort hotels offer free water taxi rides to guests. The Walt Disney World Resort website has a guide to free transportation.
8. Be a wizard at Universal
Buy an interactive wand at Universal’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter to perform magic ‘spells’ around the cobbles of Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. The translucent tip reflects and glows so it can be picked up by receptors at each spell-casting location, marked by medallions set into the pavements. There are some hidden spots, too. The wands are sold at Ollivander’s Wand Shop.
Ella’s top tip: Part of the Wizarding World map has illustrations of the spells and hidden magic locations in invisible ink, revealed in the black light of Knockturn Alley.
9. See the world’s largest Tiffany collection
In Winter Park, one of the swankiest downtown neighbourhoods, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art features the world’s largest collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, including jewel-encrusted keepsake boxes, paintings, leaded lamps and dreamy glasswork. There’s even a chapel, lovingly moved and restored from his Long Island home.
Top tip: Go on Friday evening (4-8pm) between November and April for free admission. Entry is always complimentary for under-12s.
10. Cruise through canals
A short walk from the boutique shops and chichi cafes of Winter Park is a bold blue chain of lakes and a world of hidden canals overhung with Spanish moss. Winter Park Scenic Boat Tours run on the hour from Lake Osceola for guided cruises past sprawling estates, palm trees, ‘snake birds’ and the occasional sunbathing alligator. Thousand-year-old cypress trees seem to float on Lake Maitland, the biggest of the three lakes on the tour. At Christmas, some of the boat captains decorate the branches with baubles.
Top tip: The ticket office only accepts cash or cheques, and get there at least 15 minutes early – they will leave without you.
Find more inspiration at visitorlando.com.
More reading: Interested in the quirky US? Check out our post on the characterful Charleston Festival of Houses and Gardens.