Orlando isn’t an overly large city but its attractions are spread out enough to make it feel fairly big, and while its theme parks, set well out of downtown, see the most traffic there’s good reason to enjoy at least a short detour around the other hot spots to see what else makes this Sunshine State city tick (besides Snow White and Mickey Mouse).
In fact, Orlando doesn’t have any white-knuckle rides or cartoon characters to get chummy with, but it does have some pleasant parks and a respectable little clutch of cultural sights. Attractions of note include the Orlando Art Museum, which houses a collection of American and African art as well as artifacts from the Ancient Americas, the Menello Museum of American Folk Art and the Orlando Science Center, all of which are situated between several lakes located slightly north of downtown but a hop-skip from Harry P Leu Gardens. Get your fill, food-wise, at centrally located cafes and restaurants scattered along a stretch of streets branching out from Central Boulevard and Orange Avenue, then plot a day truly away to see what’s to be had for venturing beyond the beaten track.
Northwest of Orlando, an easy hour’s drive distant, find Wekiwa Springs State Park, a popular place to hike, paddle and swim - without waiting in line. Also more nature-oriented are sights like Historic Bok Sanctuary, south of Orlando, and Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve, which is home to real animals and very few people in animal suits, which might be reason enough to put a stop here on the schedule. If it’s the beach rather that beckons, pack your person away from the hotel pool and hit the road for a quick trip east to the Space Coast, which boasts long strips of sand, a smattering of cultural attractions and the odd rocket launch.
Winter Park, a college town northeast of downtown, is endowed with grand estates, peaceful lakes and breezy parks. Take a stroll around Central Park and along pedestrian friendly streets to get a feel for the area before setting off on a short boat tour of sprawling mansions and college buildings visible from the canals penetrating affluent neighborhoods. Cultural attractions locally include the noteworthy Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, a small facility that houses an impressive collection of American art and design, including a number of intricate glass pieces by Tiffany; the Cornell Fine Arts Museum; the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts and the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens. Those with young ones in tow will find both educational and entertaining a detour to the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey by Lake Sybelia where injured birds are conscientiously rehabilitated.
Most of the theme parks that draw Orlando’s serious tourist numbers are located southwest of the city and northwest of Kissimmee (which provides overflow accommodation for those who choose not to stay in the big park resorts). Closest to Orlando and just off Interstate 4 find Universal Studios Florida and the associated Universal Studios Island of Adventure, which can in theory be seen together in a day or two provided the crowds are minimal. Catch a live show or two and some hair-raising loops on a big coaster before retreating to nearby restaurants for a few drinks and some dinner.
All the big Disney attractions are clustered together a short drive away southwest on I-4 including Animal Kingdom, MGM Studios, Epcot, DisneyQuest, Magic Kingdom and the Walt Disney World Resort Golf Complex (which has five different courses). It should go without saying that it would be quite easy to spend a week here and still not see it all. Importantly here, as with the other big area theme parks, a little advance planning and an early start make it easier to in time on the more popular rides before the crowds reach their peak. Sea World Adventure Park, Sea World’s Discovery Cove and Aquatica are nearby, the preferred place to catch a dolphin show and even dive with some of the chosen ones if you’ve managed to get reservations. These ocean-oriented parks are on the east side of I-4, due west of Orlando International Airport and roughly 20 minutes (12 miles) by car from downtown Kissimmee.