Aside from world-famous theme parks, Orlando is home to beautiful parks, interesting museums, tons of under the radar attractions and much more. All too often, visitors fail to explore The City Beautiful outside of the theme park district. Whether you’re a tourist looking for local adventures or a native working on a bucket list, here are the 13 best things to do in Orlando!
1. Ride The Wheel and StarFlyer at ICON Park for thrilling views.
The first Ferris wheel debuted at the Chicago World’s Fair over 100 years ago. Since then, some of the most iconic cities around the globe have altered their skyline to encompass a towering Ferris wheel of their own. From Singapore to London, these rotating rides boast unprecedented views and, now in Orlando, sights of The City Beautiful are, well, beyond beautiful. The aptly named ICON Park on International Drive has The Wheel, a 400-foot tall helm, ranking as the sixth tallest Ferris wheel in the world. Guests dare for 22 minutes while marveling at the endless Florida landscape. Perhaps the best observations can be had after dark when area theme parks ignite nightly fireworks. The Wheel grants firsthand views of the colorful displays erupting over Cinderella’s Castle and Diagon Alley. Also at ICON Park, thrill-seekers can take a seat on the Orlando StarFlyer, a dizzying 60-mph spin with the same commanding sights and sounds.
2. Dive with dolphins at Discovery Cove.
Live out your Flipper fantasy at Discovery Cove, SeaWorld’s exclusive theme park making a splash with up-close aquatic animal encounters. Unlike other attractions, Discovery Cove caps entries to ensure your underwater adventures with bottlenose dolphins and tropical fish remain intimately enjoyable. Other activities encourage tranquil relaxation, like swimming in Serenity Bay, or splashing around in the Wind-Away River. Whether you’re an animal aficionado or just looking to bask on the sandy beach, Discovery Cove’s interactive aquarium will leave you longing to live under the sea.
3. Bite into Florida’s wild side at Gatorland.
Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando may be household names but another theme park, Gatorland, is home to the marvelous prehistoric reptiles native to our lands. Open since 1949, “The Alligator Capital of the World” started as a backyard attraction and has wildly developed into an educational and entertaining destination not far from the land of Mickey Mouse. The iconic gaping gator mouth at the entrance still beckons visitors into its swampy grounds where tons of alligators and crocodiles of all sizes (including a monstrous 14-footer) reside, alongside native wildlife like snakes, iguanas, turtles and birds. For those with an iron stomach, try the Screamin’ Gator zip-line which soars directly over the chomping creatures.
4. Shop ‘til you drop at Orlando’s best malls.
Visitors, here’s an insider tip: Check an empty suitcase on your flight because Orlando boasts can’t-miss retail therapy sessions at high-end stores and factory outlets. One of the largest indoor shopping venues, The Florida Mall, is just minutes from the theme park district. Plus, it actually houses a popular attraction, The Crayola Experience, within. Extravagance takes center stage at The Mall at Millenia with Florida’s natural sun beaming in to illuminate the hallways. If bargain hunting is your way, stellar deals on name brands await at both the open-air Orlando International Premium Outlets and the Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets. The newly revamped Disney Springs offers magical shopping amid a throng of entertainment like street artists, music concerts and hot air balloon rides.
5. Coast on the Chain of Lakes.
Home to over 100 lakes, Orlando is far from land-locked. These placid waters present an invitation for recreation a plenty, such as stand-up paddleboarding. Book a rental through Paddleboard Orlando and set out for an extraordinary day soaking up the sun while peacefully floating about the scenic chain of lakes in Winter Park. Cypress trees speckle the shores, along with stunning historic homes, sandy beaches and the Mediterranean grounds of Rollins College.
6. Plant a memory wandering around Harry P. Leu Gardens.
Known simply as “Leu Gardens” to locals, this urban jungle is home to over 50 acres of temperate and tropical plants. The botanical oasis is truly a theme park of floras, showcasing the brilliant organisms that thrive in Florida’s unique climate. What once started as a backyard garden has grown into a highly-coveted network of azalea gardens, bamboo forests, oak-lined trails and more with pristine lakefront views. The lush property is perfect for a slow amble amid its various gardens and greenhouses.
7. Hit the museum trifecta (and more)!
Central Florida has its own mall of museums ─ a clustered collection of fine art on display in North Orlando. The Orlando Museum of Art (OMA) is at the helm, showcasing resident collections of African, American and contemporary works of art. Rotating exhibits of international regard make OMA an excellent recurring visit. Just across the street, the Mennello Museum of American Art offers visitors a glimpse at a permanent collection of paintings by Earl Cunningham. And, in the nearby Orlando suburb of Winter Park, the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College is a space to be studied by all ages. Also in Winter Park, stop into the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens to appreciate statutes and more throughout the artfully-landscaped lakefront property; and the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, home to the breathtaking glass works of Louise Comfort Tiffany.
8. Get entertained at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.
In 2014, Orlando welcomed a new addition to its bustling downtown: The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. This grand theater house put The City Beautiful on the map as a destination that celebrates and promotes diverse arts and culture. From Broadway shows to top comedians, an array of notable entertainment rotates through the venues stunning glass doors. To offer a standing ovation to local talent, take in a production by the Orlando Ballet Company. Fans of foot-tapping music may find it hard to remain seated during the energetic performance of The Jazz Orchestra. Tickets sell out in a snap so plan ahead for your seasonal admittance.
9. Pave your way down the brick-lined Park Avenue and its surroundings.
You won’t find uncomfortable hustle and bustle on the main drag in Winter Park. Rather, the mossy brick-lined Park Avenue and its surroundings set the stage for inviting boutiques, bistros and bars. Indicative of its name, Winter Park was once a haven for snowbirds flocking south to revel in milder winters. To this day, Park Avenue’s walkable promenade will have you strolling back in time into hidden allies and hole-in-the-wall bookstores that you might typically discover in a Paris arrondissement. Cafe culture thrives here, and you won’t have to look far to find a good croissant and fine cup of coffee. Take time to feel the sunshine in grassy Central Park; then head two blocks down to Morse Boulevard to arrive at the docks of the Winter Park Boat Tour. This peaceful pontoon journey takes you through the Venetian-style canals of the Winter Park Chain of Lakes with a narrator steering the way with historic tidbits.
10. Catch an indie flick at Orlando’s premiere dinner movie theater.
The art of cinema is celebrated at Orlando’s charming independent theater, Enzian. Nestled in the neighborhood of Maitland, movie-goers often pit-stop at Eden Bar before hitting the box office. This outdoor patio space is kept cool beneath the shade of ancient oaks and elms, presenting the first act of entertainment with a drink and snack. Once inside, snag a seat on a vintage loveseat or velvet chair without worry of navigating snack booth lines. Wait-staff serve a full menu, including artisan flatbreads and truffle parmesan fries. Each spring, the Enzian hosts the Florida Film Fest, an Oscar qualifying showcase premiering films small and large, local and international. Schmooze with celebrities and sample locally-inspired food at this well-respected event.
11. Get a taste of worldly travels at Epcot’s World Showcase.
Walt Disney World may attract visitors from all over the globe but, to many, Epcot is the “local’s park.” Known for its silver sphere, this park is simply golden for strolling around the World Showcase while taking in – literally and figuratively – each country’s culture along the way. Wander from England over to Norway and end in Morocco, all while sampling signature dishes and drinks native to the region. Have a mango margarita in Mexico and Tuscan wine in Italy. While imbibing, drink up the conversation with employees as many cast members are, indeed, from the country of origin.
12. Flock to the iconic lake for a swan ride.
Though the city is home to over 100 lakes, iconic Lake Eola is the most renown. Downtown Orlando sprawls out from this sinkhole-formed central body of water. Locals gather here to enjoy scenic sunsets and gaze at the roost of beautiful swans gliding along Lake Eola thanks to pedaling patrons. Start with a leisure walk around the paved promenade and, then, board a swan boat for a different kind of bird’s eye view. In the evening hours, the fountain lights up with a rainbow of colors accompanied by vibrant jazz music.
13. Drink up the craft beer scene with a brew tour.
Orlando’s warm weather and open-air patios can make just about anyone crave a crisp and refreshing beer. The city is home to a wealth of microbreweries, all putting their own fresh spin on this medieval beverage. For true brew aficionados, take a swing at the Central Florida Ale Trail, an outline of 26 breweries across Central Florida that have perfected the workings of yeast, water, hops and wheat. Better yet, rally a group of fellow beer drinkers and cook up a good time on a Hop On! Brew Tour.