10 Unusual Things To Do in Orlando Besides Disney
You’ve done Disney, and the rest of the major theme parks. Is there any point in visiting Orlando again? Yes! There’s much more to Orlando than its theme parks, even if they do boast some of the best in the world. Journalist Ella Buchan stopped off in this popular Florida region on her #DriveUS1 dynamic US Route 1 road trip. In this guest post, Ella introduces some unexpected and unusual things to do in Orlando besides Disney. If you’re interested, this advertising feature for Visit Orlando is part of a #DriveUS1 campaign. Check the # for more features or read on for our post on ten unique things to do in Orlando. .
Expect the unexpected. And the surprising.
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 Florida’s centre of fun is always capable of throwing up a few surprises. Which is probably why people keep returning, year after year. This was my second visit to the ‘theme park capital of the world’, and I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. From discovering a delicious dining scene in downtown to tracking down hidden Mickeys in the theme parks, here’s my pick of the best and most unusual things for families to do in Orlando.
1. Discover Downtown’s foodie scene
From pillow like doughnuts topped with pink icing to gooey cookies the size of a child’s head, downtown has a vibrant food scene. 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 (yep, really) 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 (spoiler alert: I think he succeeded). 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 your way around the world
Autumn is a gorgeous time to visit Orlando. The weather is balmy but not oppressive, the crowds have died down (a little – it’s always busy) and you can experience a different taste of Disney at Epcot International Food & Wine Festival. This celebration of food around the world expands (like your waistband, if you visit) every year, running from August 31 until November 13 in 2017. More than 30 stalls selling bratwurst, cheese plates and falafel, plus chocolate and wine pairings, line the paths around Bay Lake. The Festival Center has tastings and chef demonstrations, while ‘Eat to the Beat’ concerts (Chaka Khan featured in 2016) encourage you to dance off all that food.
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. Marvel at acrobats
Orlando could never be accused of lacking magic, so Cirque du Soleil’s riotous La Nouba show at Disney Springs, formerly Downtown Disney fits in perfectly. This family-friendly show is as dazzling as Cirque fans would expect, so there’s no chance for anyone to get bored. Even if your kids aren’t enthralled by the gravity-defying trapeze, as two lovers play a thrilling game of catch and release, they can watch the clowns tweaking each other’s noses on the stage below.
Top tip: There are often extra discounts on kids’ tickets – check the website for offers.
4. Dine with Goofy
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? A few hotels have regular meet-and-greet opportunities. Garden Grove at the Swan has character dining every evening, with Pluto and Goofy also joining guests for weekend breakfast. You can reserve in advance but there’s often room for walk-ins.
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. Discover a green oasis
In downtown Orlando, Lake Eola Park is an immaculate green space with broad walking paths and swan-shaped pedalos, which can hold a family of five for $15 (£12) per half-hour. Look out for the real swans swimming circles around the paddle boats. Just under a mile of paths, lined with trees and flower beds, circle the water, while sculptures including a steel flock of birds and spindly bronze fella are dotted about the park. It’s particularly lovely at sunset, which gilds the glassy surface of the lake and glints from the fountain and skyline beyond.
Top tip: Head to the park on Sunday morning, when the popular farmers’ market sells street food, fresh local produce, preserves and artwork, often with live music.
6. Go topsy turvy
Billed as an ‘amusement park for the mind’, even the exterior of WonderWorks will boggle your brain. Imagined as a top-secret lab that apparently ‘landed’ upside down on Orlando’s International Drive, the topsy-turvy building contains fun, interactive exhibits including rock climbing and the chance to design and ride your own roller coaster. There’s even a bed of nails.
Top tip: If you do 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. The 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.
Top tip: If you fancy a jaunt on the water but don’t want to splash out $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
Pokémon Go! hunters will love this. 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.
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.
Ella Buchan is a freelance travel writer with 12 years of experience. Based between London and Paso Robles, California, she can usually be found seeking out local dining spots and/or drinking wine with llamas. Her time in Orlando was part of the #DriveUS1 campaign, road-tripping all the way down US Route 1 from Fort Kent, Maine to Key West, Florida.
Disclosure Note: This advertising feature was produced for us by Ella Buchan in a collaboration with Visit Orlando. Ella visited Orlando as part of the #DriveUS1 campaign to promote the route and its attractions. Her car, Harrison the Ford Fiesta, was provided by Hertz, which has more than 3,000 rental locations across the US. Her photos were taken on a Samsung s7, courtesy of Three. We were compensated for hosting this post. All story, opinions, lounging around on beds of nails and wand waving were Ella’s own.