Orlando - Off The Beaten Path

Believe it or not, there's more to Orlando than what Disney and the other theme parks put into commercials. Granted, the city would probably still be mostly swampland were it not for those guys. Still, many that come to Orlando only see the prepackaged, highly commercialized version of the city that the mega-resorts have come to represent. As with most destinations, the key to discovering the real Orlando lies off the beaten path, far from killer whales, super heroes, and famous mice.

Getting Here and Getting Around

Little known fact: Orlando actually has two airports. The Sanford-Orlando airport is not as convenient as its much larger counterpart, but those seeking value can find many flights for less to both domestic and international destinations. If you're willing to brave one of the worst on-time rankings in the industry, Allegiant Air offers non-stop service from multiple cities across the U.S. There's even frequent service to Reykjavik and the U.K. by IcelandAir and Monarch Airlines - a fact that still boggles my mind given there's absolutely no reason any person should ever visit Sanford.

Yep...there's a gift shop in the airport...

The vast majority of visitors to the City Beautiful will begin their vacation at Orlando International, where the brainwashing - I mean, fun - quickly begins. Many of those heading to Disney will board the Magical Express shuttle, too hoodwinked by excitement and the fact that the Mouse is giving them a free ride to see the true intention of the service. They'll climb aboard the comfortable charter bus, beaming from ear to ear, all the while oblivious that they're being driven the long way to their destination, far from the alluring sites of Universal Studios and Sea World. Yes, the Mouse has a devious side - unless you plan on being spoon fed by him all week, rent a car.

Where To Stay

Although there are some definite benefits to staying at one of Disney's resorts, value is certainly not one of them. Assuming you took the first piece of advice, your rental car will open up many opportunities to get more bang for your buck by venturing outside of the Mouse's realm. For example, just a short drive away is the Reunion Resort, where one and two bedroom condos can be found for less than a standard room at many of Disney's resorts. Or you can go further off the worn path and head downtown to the Grand Bohemian Hotel - a museum which doubles as a luxury hotel thanks to its million dollar art collection.  In my opinion, it's the best hotel in Orlando, but probably not worth the daily commute down I-4 to the theme parks.

Reunion Resort Water Park
Reunion's water park - well worth getting off the path.

Good Eats

Orlando probably isn't the first city that comes to mind when you think of culinary powerhouses, but over the last decade the city has come a long way. The first step to scoring good eats during your vacation is to say no to the dining plans offered at the resorts. With very few exceptions, if quality dining is what you're after, they're just about the last place you'll find it. Like just about every destination on the planet, when it comes to good food, do as the locals do.

No one will blame you if you actually become a Ravenous Pig.

Start by paying a visit to Winter Park, where The Ravenous Pig and 4 Rivers Smokehouse serve as two of the most popular and highly acclaimed restaurants in Orlando. Back toward Downtown you'll find a few of my personal favorites likeThe Boheme, HUE, and Hamburger Marys. There isn't much that these restaurants have in common, except for their location: they're far removed from the theme park bubble.

Stuff To Do

If there's anything that Orlando was built on, it's entertainment. After a while, however, theme parks all start to look alike. As with many metropolitan areas, Orlando is home to a host of museums and parks for those that tire of passing through turnstiles. But for the best overlooked attraction in Orlando, you'll have to go well off the beaten path. While not technically a part of the city, Kennedy Space Center is just a 45 minute drive down the "Beachline" expressway. No matter how much they try, when it comes to space travel, theme parks are a lousy substitute for the real thing. At Kennedy Space Center, you can walk in the footsteps of history, and come face to face with some of the most awe inspiring moments in our history. Not to mention that the only people you'll see in costume are actually astronauts - no big deal.

Don't get your hopes up. Sadly, they don't do this anymore.

Orlando owes much of its very existence to the theme parks, but the side effect is a city that very few get to truly discover. If you're planning a vacation to Orlando, schedule some time off the beaten paths - there is much to discover, and you'll probably be glad you did.

Enjoy Your Stay

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