Exploring the Authentic Side of Orlando: 10 Must-Visit Spots Beyond the Theme Parks
Orlando is renowned worldwide for its theme parks, drawing millions of visitors each year in search of entertainment, magic, and thrills. However, there is much more to the city known as the “Theme Park Capital of the World” than meets the tourist’s eyes. Orlando is a dynamic, cultural, and vibrant city that locals are proud to call home, offering an array of attractions and experiences that go beyond the tourism corridor. In this article, we will take you on a journey outside the theme park boundaries to discover 10 of the best things to do in Orlando besides visiting the iconic amusement parks.
1. Wekiva Springs State Park
Covering over 7,000 acres, Wekiva Springs State Park is one of the most popular natural attractions in the Orlando area. Located minutes away from downtown Apopka, the park has been a sought-after destination since the mid-19th century, making it Orange County’s oldest continually operating tourist attraction. Visitors can indulge in a range of recreational activities, including hiking, biking, horseback riding, paddling, and swimming in the crystal-clear waters of the park’s primary attraction, Wekiva Springs. On hot days, the spring becomes the city’s largest pool party, attracting locals and tourists alike. Wekiva Springs State Park is open from 8 a.m until sunset, 365 days a year, and the entrance fee is only six dollars per vehicle, making it one of the most affordable and fun things to do in the area.
2. Lake Eola
Located in the heart of downtown Orlando, Lake Eola is a scenic urban park surrounding a sinkhole lake. The park’s main attraction is the large fountain in the middle of the lake, which changes colors in the evening. Visitors can rent pedal-powered swan boats to explore the lake or walk along the multi-use sidewalk that surrounds it. The first swans arrived at Lake Eola in 1922, and these beautiful birds still remain a fixture of the park. Visitors can also enjoy a farmer’s market every Sunday, a craft brew house, and an excellent array of food options, including gourmet popsicles and artisanal ice cream.
3. Loch Haven Cultural Park
Regarded as the cultural hub of Orlando, Loch Haven Cultural Park spans 45 acres and is home to several theaters and museums that enhance the city’s artistic scene. Admire the art collections at the Orlando Museum of Art or experience a live show at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, a world-class facility that attracts international talent. You can also marvel at the masterpieces of the Czech American sculptor and educator, Albin Polasek, at the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens. The museum features more than 200 pieces of sculpture and antiquities, many of which are religious sculptures created by the artist.
4. Harry P. Leu Gardens
Located minutes away from downtown Orlando, Harry P. Leu Gardens comprises 50 acres of botanical wonderland and is a gift to the city from Harry P. Leu and his wife, Mary Jane. The property boasts 12 different gardens, including Mary Jane’s Rose Garden, which is the largest formal rose garden in Florida. Anchoring the lush property is the historic house where the couple lived alongside early Orlando pioneers, before the public donated it to the city in the early 1960s. The gardens are open year-round and offer a spectacular variety of flowers and plants, many of which are not usually seen in Central Florida.
5. Orange County Regional History Center
The Orange County Regional History Center is a private nonprofit museum located in downtown Orlando and inside a former courthouse completed in 1927. The museum explores the region’s rich past, including the tourism industry’s early days and how Disney shaped the entire city. Visitors can experience both traveling and permanent exhibitions that take up multiple floors, including a Native American shell midden and a shotgun that sparked a deadly feud like the one between the Hatsfields and McCoys.
6. Audubon Park Neighborhood
Located in one of the best places to live in Central Florida, the Audubon Park Neighborhood houses dozens of locally-owned businesses that promote community building. East End Market is at the hub of this unique neighborhood, featuring a community market and food hall showcasing some of the area’s top entrepreneurs. Also, upstairs is a collaborative creative space called The Neighbors, while downstairs features artisans at Freehand Goods known for their small-batch handmade products like wallets and quality good smelling colognes. The Winter Park Biscuit Company is an excellent fast-casual eatery that serves vegan options, including their famous chick biscuit sandwiches. The Salty, a family-owned donut shop also sells delicious made-to-order doughnuts that are crunchy on the outside and soft and moist on the inside.
7. Winter Park
Located just north of downtown Orlando, Winter Park is a charming city that showcases the best of old and new Florida. Park Avenue is home to dozens of boutiques and eateries, along with the Morse Museum, renowned for its comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, including his masterful stained glass creations. Visitors can also take a stroll through the Venetian-style canals, lined with lush foliage and trees and connecting the Winter Park Chain of Lakes. The scenic boat tour provides historical details and interesting facts from entertaining guides, making it a must-do experience.
8. Rollins College
The beautiful campus in the heart of Winter Park has a unique claim to fame as children’s television pioneer Mr. Rogers graduated from here in the 1950s and often gave back to the institution he loved so much. Rollins College offers a free self-guided walking tour for fans who want to explore the neighborhood that shaped Mr. Rogers. The campus’s courtyard adjacent to the campus chapel is a bronze sculpture depicting Rogers with a diverse group of children, along with the endearing puppets he created.
9. Maitland Art Center
Founded as an art colony in the late 1930s, the Maitland Art Center is a collection of museums that focus on art, heritage, and history. The center is home to several unique structures, including the Mayan Courtyard and Outdoor Chapel, which is often used for weddings. While there is a charge to visit the museums, the outdoor spaces are free to enjoy.
10. Natural Springs – DeLeon Springs State Park
Located an hour’s drive from Orlando, DeLeon Springs State Park is a natural oasis that boasts clear, pristine waters where visitors can enjoy swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding. The park’s main attraction, the Spring Garden Run, features a boat tour that takes visitors through a flowing stream surrounded by lush forests and wildlife. Visitors can also enjoy a unique experience at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill & Griddle House, where they can cook their pancakes at their own table.
Orlando is undoubtedly famous for its theme parks, but there is a lot to discover beyond these attractions. This list offers a taste of the city’s authentic side, showcasing the diverse cultural and natural experiences that make Orlando a unique destination. Whether you’re a local or a tourist, exploring these hidden gems will take you on an adventure beyond your wildest dreams.