More than 65 million visitors descended upon Orlando in 2016, drawn to its myriad pleasures and miles of boulevards and shopping. There are high-profile theme parks, dozens of world-class golf courses, beautiful resorts and some of the best upscale and outlet shopping in the country. But the greater Orlando area also offers under-the-radar delights for anyone willing to hop in a car and explore.
Rollercoaster fans will find plenty to please them in Orlando's famous theme parks © Miami2you / Shutterstock
Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando
To get your head wrapped around the size of Walt Disney World, consider this: it would be a $40 cab ride just to get from one end to the other! There are four separate theme parks here (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios), two water parks, four golf courses, two entertainment districts, more than 25 hotels and hundreds of restaurants. It’s all connected by Disney monorail, boat and bus (free) and intersected by highways and roads. Minimize lines with Disney's FastPass+, which allows 30-day advance reservations for three attractions at one theme park per day. Disney's newest extravaganza, Pandora: The World of Avatar, opened in Animal Kingdom in May 2017, but for iconic Disney parades and shows and nostalgic charm, head to Magic Kingdom.
At pedestrian-friendly Universal Orlando, home to theme parks Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, technology and creativity combine to create some of the most incredible simulator rides, adrenalin-pumped thrills and themed environments you'll see anywhere. Inside the parks (and linked with the Hogwarts Express) are the enchanting Wizarding World of Harry Potter's Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. In June 2017 Universal opened Volcano Bay, Orlando's newest water park.
Sand Dunes at Clearwater Beach © Clayton Townsend / Shutterstock
Beachy day trips
Mass transit isn’t widely developed across Florida, but grab yourself some wheels and you can transport yourself to the marvelously undeveloped Canaveral National Seashore. This peaceful retreat only about an hour's drive east of the city stretches 24 miles along a thin ribbon of barrier island. Multiple boardwalks pass over dunes to white sand beaches, offering Atlantic surf and miles of solitude and silence. Whales migrate past December to March, and the park is one of the country's most important sea turtle-nesting beaches. On the inland side of the Seashore is Mosquito Lagoon, with islands and mangroves teeming with wildlife, and the nearby Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge offers several scenic drives and easy hiking trails. Throughout the area, keep an eye out for armadillos and alligators.
Though further away and more populated than Canaveral, the postcard-perfect Saint Petersburg/Clearwater Beaches are some of the best in the area, developed in a relaxed resort atmosphere. Dolphins and manatee frequent the warm and calm waters, the Gulf is ideal for swimming, and it's easy enough to find a spot to pitch your umbrella. The beaches are just under two hours’ drive west of Orlando.
American Alligator on Merritt Island © Karen Brodie / Getty Images
World-class art in small-town Florida
Shops, wine bars and sidewalk cafes line the shaded streets of bucolic lakeside Winter Park, an upscale college town founded in mid-19th century and nestled amongst the north Orlando sprawl. Allow plenty of time at the stunning Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, home to the world's most comprehensive collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany arts, and meander over to Lake Osceola for the one-hour Scenic Boat Tour. The 18-passenger pontoon cruises through the village's canals and lakes, past mansions, Rollins College and other sites.
Another great way to explore the area is by bike – rent one from Breakaway Bikes and ask for their Scenic Bike Ride map. End the day at the Enzian Theater, two miles northwest of town. It screens independent and classic films, and the excellent Eden Bar features primarily local and organic fare to enjoy outside under the giant Cypress tree or in the theater. From downtown Orlando, it’s an easy drive on I-4 five miles to Fairbanks Ave and head east two miles to Park Ave.
Built in 1949, Gatorland offers Old Florida kitsch and plenty of gators. In this down-home park just a bit north of Kissimmee on 441, you can buy hot dogs to feed them, and the rather tongue-in-cheek shows include the Jumparoo Show, where alligators leap almost entirely out of the water to grab whole chickens, Gator Wrestling, and the interactive Up Close Encounters. Despite the recently added bells and whistles like the Stompin' Gator Off Road Adventure and the Screaming Gator Zip Line, Gatorland retains its quirky charm. Afterwards, head across the street to the family-owned Private Island Ice Cream, where each ice-cream order is custom-made by shooting liquid nitrogen into a bowl of cream and the flat rate of $5.50 includes as many toppings and mix-ins as you'd like (try the home-made cookie-dough).
Rock Springs Run north of Wekiva Springs State Park © Phillip Simmons / 500px
A breezy 20-mile drive north of downtown Orlando, Wekiwa Springs State Park (I-4, Exit 94) offers the tranquil waters of the Wekiva River, one of only two National Wild and Scenic Rivers in Florida. You can rent a canoe or kayak to explore. Though the park can be packed on weekends, it's often quiet on the weekdays and in the winter. You don't need to commit a huge amount of time or trouble to enjoy the Wekiva – even just a two-hour paddle gives a good taste of wild Florida.
The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey, housed in a quirky old building and set in a lovely spot with wetlands and a gazebo jutting onto the lake, rescues and rehabilitates hurt birds. Multiple enclosures house Bald Eagles, Screech Owls and Hawks, among other talon-toed feathered friends, and there are plenty of opportunities to see the critters up close, just hanging on their trainer's arm.
Prato © Juan Menjivar / 500px
Local foodie favorites
In a city that has built a reputation as gallery of national chains, fast food and theme-park fare, it is surprisingly easy to find locally sourced and creatively inspired food. Inside the Boho East End Market are several Florida-centric spots, including Local Roots Farm Store, specializing in 'All Florida, All Year' and offering flights of Florida beer and wine at the tiny bar. For a laid-back night in eclectic surrounds, head six miles northwest of Universal Orlando to Yellow Dog Eats. Housed in what was once a general store, with a tin roof and courtyard dining, Yellow Dog serves up classic and quirky barbecue well beyond the tourist hub of the I-4 corridor. Perennial Orlando area favorites include Ravenous Pig and the excellent Prato in Winter Park, and the field-to-fork superstar K Restaurant, with an inviting wraparound porch and a little on-site garden.