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Luxury Travel

All About Orlando

Thrills beyond the theme parks - Tamara Hinson takes us on a tour of Florida's foremost city of fun to discover a world beyond Disney...

This is a feature from Issue 23 of Charitable Traveller Magazine.

Orlando has long been known as the theme park capital of the world, but there’s so much more to this Floridian city than rollercoasters and character parades. For starters, it has one of the Sunshine State’s most diverse food scenes, but also, thanks to the new Brightline train service, it’s easy to combine Orlando with destinations such as Fort Lauderdale and Miami. Although when a city’s for this much to offer, we’re fully in favour of staying put…

Go Downtown

Buzzing downtown Orlando is a destination in its own right. This is where you’ll find West Church Street and South Magnolia Avenue with some of the city’s hippest bars, including Mathers Social Gathering, a speakeasy-inspired cocktail bar inside a building that dates back to the 1800s. 
Downtown Orlando is also home to the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Since 2022, this huge arts venue has been home to one of the world’s most hi-tech concert halls – the Steinmetz Hall. It’s effectively a concert hall inside a concert hall – a soundproofed space built on top of a rubber membrane that shields it from outside noise. It’s said that if you were to sit in the venue when it’s empty, you’d be able to hear your own heart beating. 

Whether you’d want to or not remains to be seen, but trust us, you’d struggle to find another venue with better acoustics. It always has a packed calendar of concerts, and Jennifer Hudson, London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chinese pianist Yuja Wang are just some of the acts who’ve performed here.

Hip 'Hoods

Venture beyond Orlando’s theme parks and you’ll be richly rewarded with colourful neighbourhoods. Mills 50 is a case in point – it’s a district just to the north of central downtown and is famous for its enormous rainbow-hued murals, although the artwork isn’t just confined to the walls. Here, everything from manholes to telegraph poles has been given a lick of (very bright) paint, and it’s home to the city’s Asian-American and Pacific communities.
College Park, meanwhile is known for its independent boutiques (including numerous fantastic thrift stores), while Lake Nona is one of Orlando’s most up-and-coming neighbourhoods.

This is where you’ll find the brilliant Boxi Park, with its live music, delicious street food and volleyball courts, and it’s just a short walk from one of the city’s coolest crash-pads the Lake Nona Wave Hotel. Here, you’ll find a public 50,000-square-foot outdoor sculpture garden that’s free to access. Its pièce de résistance is one of Arturo Di Modica’s Charging Bull sculptures (you’ll find its most famous sibling in New York City’s Financial District).
Lastly, don’t miss the Milk District, a foodies’ paradise with four Michelin-guide listed restaurants. Our favourites include Se7en Bites Bakery for southern-style comfort food and the Milkhouse, a slick food hall serving up delicious dishes from around the world.

It's a myth that Orlando's food scene revolves around Mickey Mouse-shaped cupcakes and supersized burgers, proof of which is the city's growing number of Michelin-starred restaurants.

Making a difference

International Drive is a popular base for theme park fans because of its proximity to parks such as Universal Studios Florida and Universal Volcano Bay Water Park, both of which are served by free shuttle services offered by many International Drive hotels. But there are other reasons to base yourself here, including Dezerland, and International Drive institution which is Florida’s largest indoor attraction. Here, kids will love the Pinball Palace, which has over 90 machines, while speed demons flock to the indoor go-karting track. Other Dezerland attractions include glow-in-the-dark mini golf, an ice-skating rink, and the Orlando Auto Museum, which has over 2,000 vehicles (don’t miss the world’s largest collection of screen-used James Bond cars).

Heading to International Drive’s Dezerland? Don’t miss the Torino used in Starsky and Hutch, the Batmobile, or the Scooby Doo Mystery Machine. We’re also huge fans of International Drive’s Icon Park. Its most popular attractions include the Orlando Eye (book your ride at sunset for the best views over this part of the Sunshine State), Madame Tussauds Orlando, and (for the brave) Slingshot Orlando, which involved being strapped into a seat and catapulted 137 metres into the air, reaching speeds of 100mph in under two seconds.

Partial to a good old-fashioned hoedown? Head over to Ole Red, a live music venue owned by country music star Blake Shelton. Highlights include the regular line-dancing masterclasses, live performances every night, and the mechanical bull (best avoided if you’ve overdone the vodka-based Hillbilly Seltzers, one of Ole Red’s most popular tipples).

Posh Nosh

It’s a myth that Orlando’s food scene revolves around Mickey Mouse-shaped cupcakes and supersized burgers, proof of which is the city’s growing number of Michelin-starred restaurants. These include Kadence, an omakase-style place in Audubon Park Garden District, where guests place their trust in the sushi chef to create them a personal meal; Papa Llama, in the curry Ford West district, which specialises in Peruvian cuisine; and Capa Steakhouse at the Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort.

The best bit? Some of America’s top chefs are clamouring to open restaurants here. Recent examples include Puerto Rican chef Mario Pagan, the star of the hit American TV series, Next Iron Chef. In late 2023, Pagan opened Chayote Barrio Kitchen in Winter Park. Hispanic cuisine is the focus here – we recommend the panko-dusted Chilean sea bass with truffle-buttered yucca mouse.
Or there’s Chef Peter Song, founder of New York’s legendary KungFu Kitchen. Fans of his xiao long bao can now get their fix at Song’s new restaurant in Lake Buena Vista.

The interconnected lakes out ar Winter Park can be explored on guided boat tours designed provide an insight into the history of the area and the stroies behind its grandest properties

Shop Until you Drop

The Orlando International Premium Outlets and Orlando Vineyard Premium Outlets are both great spots to grab a bargain – you’ll find all your favourite brands here, with huge discounts on offer. A top tip? Sign up for the VIP Shopper Club – both outlet malls are owned by Simon Premium Outlets and by doing so you’ll access further fantastic discounts.
Alternatively, head to the vibrant neighbourhood of College Park to explore some of Orlando’s best independent boutiques. Our favourites include Freehand Goods where almost everything – ranging from the beautiful soaps to the children’s clothing – is made in Florida. 

Ivanhoe Village is known for its vintage and thrift stores, while the East End Market in Audubon Park Garden District is another great place for some Florida-themed retail therapy. Our favourite stores here include Carla Poma Jewellery and The Owl’s Attic (famous for its vintage t-shirts), and there’s no shortage of cafes and bars when energy levels start to flag. Try Cochi for the delicious Japanese mochi doughnuts. 

Park Life

Winter Park is technically a separate town, but it’s just a 25-minute drive from Orlando’s International Drive, and certainly worthy of being on your radar. Highlights include its impossibly quaint high street, the spectacular architecture and its interconnected lakes. The latter can be explored on guided boat tours designed to provide an insight into the history of the area and the stories behind its grandest properties.
Architectural treasures on the lakes’ shores include the revival-style Edward Hill Brewer House, built in the 1800s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Brewer, an industrialist, was keen to escape New York’s brutal winters but his wife wasn’t as enthusiastic.

She agreed only after her husband promised to kit out their new Winter Park mansion with a ballroom that was an exact replica of the one at their New York home.
There’s also the lakeside Rollins College, a prestigious liberal arts college. The brilliant guides on the boat tour love reeling off fascinating anecdotes, including one about the Rollins College student unable to fit his beloved piano into his student accommodation, and whose wealthy father gifted his son one of Winter Park’s lakeside mansions as a solution. 

Make sure you explore Winter Park’s high street. It’s lined with cafés, boutiques and galleries, although for many the biggest draw is the
Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, which has the world’s largest collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the late American artist famous for his leaded glass lamps and stained glass windows.

Themed Fun

There’s always something new to get excited about in the theme park capital of the world. If you’ve got little ones in tow, consider Universal Orlando Resort’s new DreamWorks Land, which opened in June 2024 and pays tribute to characters such as Shrek and Kung Fu Panda with themed rides, interactive play areas and character meet-and-greet zones.
Over at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom Park, new rides include the music-themed Tiana’s Bayou Adventure, unveiled in late June while water babies will love Aquatica Orlando’s latest offering – in March 2024 the water park opened Tassie’s Underwater Twist, a digital immersive water slide.

Planning ahead? Upcoming openings include Universal Orlando Resort’s fourth theme park, Universal Epic Universe, which will open in 2025. This is where you’ll find Super Nintendo World, the all-new The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Ministry of Magic, and How to Train Your Dragon – Isle of Berk. There’s no shortage of places to stay, either – hot hotel openings for 2025 include the Universal Stella Nova Resort, which opens in January, and Universal Terra Luna Resort, due to open its doors a month later.

Feeling inspired?

Reach out to our team of expert travel agents and plan your Orlando escape today! Remember – every time you book a holiday with you can donate 5% of the price to the charity of your choice for free!

This is a feature from Issue 23 of Charitable Traveller.