Loving Orlando: One super-fun, high energy adventure at a time
For many visitors to the Orlando area, the closest they get to the city is through the airport on their way to Walt Disney World.
Well Disney fans, it's time to take off the Mickey Mouse ears and listen up: The next time you're booking a trip to the Magic Kingdom, you may want to think twice -- O-Town has vast charm of its own.
The "City Beautiful" as it's rightly called, has a wide-range of entertainment, arts and culinary options that are an exciting and affordable add on -- or alternative -- to the Happiest Place on Earth.
So the next time you're in the vicinity, we suggest you not limit yourself by picking up your luggage and leaving before checking out some of the city's attractions.
Here are some highlights of a recent jaunt down to Orlando with colleagues:
Get your adventure on with a wild ride through the Florida Everglades, where you'll come face-to-face with swampy wildlife such as exotic birds, turtles and the feature attraction -- alligators. Tip: Book an hour-long ride either earlier in the morning or later in the day for the best chance to see gators -- as we did on a few occasions. See bcairboats.com.
The brand new waterfront entertainment complex on the edge of the Walt Disney World Resort is full of restaurants (moderately priced to high end), live music and tons of retail stores for those who want to empty their wallets. The best part: It's a short drive from downtown Orlando -- and there's no admission. Highlights include the Boathouse restaurant, which serves up a tasty array of seafood, steaks and American fare. There is a bonus attraction just outside the doors: The eatery runs a fleet of Amphicars that look like they are straight out of an old James Bond film. These vintage cars drive on land and sail into the water with a splash, taking passengers on a guided 20-minute tour of area landmarks.
ORLANDO FAST FACTS
-- City population: 254,000. Greater metropolitan area: 2,130,000 (stats as of 2014)
-- Orlando has the second largest number of hotel rooms in the United States behind Las Vegas.
-- Orlando welcomes more than 51 million tourists every year -- almost 4 million of these from outside of the U.S.
-- Officials say the city is named after soldier Orlando Reeves who died in 1835 during the Second Seminole War, although no historic documents back up this claim.
An Amphicar ride costs $125 per group (three adult passengers fit in the car). It may seem steep, but trust us -- it's well worth it.
We also took in the new, high-end Morimoto Asia restaurant, which seemed like a chance for rich folks to be seen and drop endless amounts of money. The food, by the way, was average. See theboathouseorlando.com/amphicar.
Another new addition along the city's popular International Dr. is this mega-entertainment complex with a variety of restaurants and attractions. Its central focus is a 122-metre-tall observation wheel, The Orlando Eye. The mammoth structure provides a bird's eye view of the city, although disappointingly, routine maintenance grounded the ride on the day of our visit.
In addition to the Eye, I-Drive 360 also has some underwater adventures at SEA LIFE Aquarium, where you can see sharks, turtles and 5,000 other sea creatures in an impressive 360-degree ocean tunnel.
Across the hall from the aquarium is Madame Tussauds wax museum, where you can take in likenesses of A-listers Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Channing Tatum, Will Smith, Johnny Depp and historical figures such as U.S. president Barack Obama, Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein. You can even have a wax figure made of your own hand -- in a gesture of your choice.
UNIVERSAL ORLANDO RESORT
If you want a theme park fix apart from Disney World, this is your best bet. Reserve at least a day for the attraction, which includes a waterpark, entertainment complex, thrill rides and a must-see for fans of Hogwarts -- the expansive Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
The themed area has various exhilarating rides, a replica of the Hogwarts Express, which takes people between the two vast areas of Potter-land (be prepared for a long lineup), and the new Diagon Alley, where you can sip on a Butterbeer and watch a giant dragon breathe fire every 10 minutes while surrounded by thousands of Potter disciples dressed up in character. Heavenly for Hogwarts fans. A bit bizarre for those who don't follow the wizarding world. See universalorlando.com.
EAST END MARKET
One of our favourite spots (popular with locals and tourists) was this quaint community market in Audobon Park, a short distance from downtown Orlando. It features independently owned food shops where you can dine on farm fresh foods and produce, eat baked goods and drink natural juices from the raw bar. We opted, naturally, for the beer tasting at Local Roots, one of the market's most popular vendors. See eastendmkt.com.
Another trendy yet charming area in a downtown neighbourhood, Thornton Park features the culinary one-two punch of Soco and Baoery, two restaurants with their own unique foodie features. Soco served up a delicious sampling of Southern contemporary cuisine while Baoery showed off some delicious Asian fare, including mouth-watering slow-braised pork ribs and edamame wontons. See baoery.com and socothorntonpark.com.
NEED TO KNOW
For more information on Orlando including upcoming events, visitor guides, etc., see VisitOrlando.com.