Elder Price from the Book of Mormon musical comedically describes everyone’s thoughts on Orlando, Florida when he sings the line, “Orlando! I love you, Orlando. Seaworld and Disney and Putt-Putt Golfing!” While one could certainly make the argument that these types of attractions are the bloodline of the city, Orlando is much more than its many theme parks.
As a Florida native, I got my fill of theme parks pretty fast growing up and instead, turned to alternative attractions. Don’t get me wrong. I love Disney and Universal Studios as much as the next person, but I am a teacher, turned stay-at-home dad so I try to find a little more kid-friendly things as well. Here are my favorite things to do and eat in Orlando.
Tibby’s New Orleans Kitchen
I can’t overstate how good this place is. It is located in a little strip mall next to a grocery store but when you walk in, your world is transformed into New Orleans. It has a full bar and menu complete with generous kid’s options. Their most popular dish is the shrimp po’ boy, but my favorite is the 12-Napkin Fried Roast Beef Po’ Boy. It’s basically a roast beef sandwich with lettuce, pickles, tomato and the most delicious gravy you’ve ever tasted all squeezed between a hoagie roll. I’m not proud of myself for finishing it . . . okay, yes, I am. A close second is Rita’s Chicken. Panko-crusted chicken breasts, topped with house lemon butter sauce served over dirty rice. The portions are extremely generous, so come hungry and be ready to obliterate whatever diet you’ve been working on.
Another favorite to take our visiting friends is Tako Cheena. Located close to downtown, it’s a relief to the common fast food chains on every corner. The small eating area can get cramped, but it is so worth it. The food is an Asian inspired spin on the taco. Favorites include Panko Crusted Cod Tako, Thai Peanut Chicken Tako, Indian Yellow Curry Dusted Tako, and the Pulled Pork Tako. Vegetarian options are also available.
Ceviche – Tapas Bar & Restaurant
If you’re looking for a special night out downtown, Ceviche is your one-stop shop. It can be a bit pricey, but often during the week and on weekends there is live music and even a live show featuring flamenco dancing. Beautiful restaurant right in the middle of downtown Orlando on historic Church Street, which used to be a working train station many years ago. And if you find yourself here on New Year’s Eve, you can even watch the orange drop – Orlando’s version of Times Square’s ball drop. Only, if I am being honest, the orange drop is much less eventful. Nevertheless, a fantastic area to enjoy the heart of downtown Orlando.
Where Nature, Science and Art Combine
Lake Eola Park
This was the first established public park in Orlando, dating back to 1883 and for many, it has become the most widely recognized symbol of Orlando. Many events are held here, including a large farmer’s market every Sunday, music concerts, trade shows and it is the most coveted spot to enjoy the City of Orlando’s 4th of July fireworks show. Every visit you can expect to find numerous friendly swans and not-so-friendly geese (feeding encouraged), music and street performers, runners, and picnickers. Our family especially loves it for the swan paddle boat rides. We love this park and it is the perfect compliment to Orlando’s downtown area.
Harry P. Leu Gardens
This is an impressive 50-acre botanical garden just minutes from downtown. The gardens, the grounds, and a historical home were all donated to the city in 1961 by the Leu family. This is definitely worth a visit if you enjoy pretty things. There is a tour of the original home, a butterfly garden, and thousands of plants and flowers. Most of the walk is shaded, which you will appreciate if you are here from April-September. Serene, peaceful and simply stunning.
The Orlando Science Center
Like any good science center, the Orlando Science Center has a variety of hands-on exhibits that attract all ages. There are four floors filled with everything from Dinosaurs and mind bender puzzles, to live alligators and two movie theaters. We especially love the designated kids area where the kids can play dress up and explore their imagination while experimenting with physics and science. We bought a family annual pass and come at least once a month. With the rotating exhibits, it always stays fresh and exciting.
Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
No downtown metropolitan area is complete without a snazzy performing arts center. My wife and I saw both The Book of Mormon Musical and Kinky Boots here as well as a special children’s showing of Daniel Tiger. They all were wonderful! There seems to always be something great going on and all the big shows typically find their way to the Dr. Phillips Center. Wicked is even coming in a few months! If you’re into shows, hit this place up while in town; you’re sure to find something memorable.
Theme Parks, Sports, and Shopping
About a bazillion others have written in-depth reviews of Orlando’s spectacular theme parks so I will refer you to those for the meat and potatoes info of each place. I’d like to just mention a few of the overlooked aspects of some of those parks – the small gems that are often ignored if you will.
Disney World During Halloween
If you find yourself here during Halloween, you should definitely consider going to Disney’s late-night Halloween party. We went in 2015 and it was so much fun! Especially if you have younger kids. There were tons of characters out and about, trick-or-treating, decorations and fun Halloween music. They even had some exclusive characters like Jack and Sally from The Nightmare Before Christmas, which also coincided with our costumes that year. Our 2 ½-year-old daughter loved it!
Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney)
This is a part of the Disney experience that you can enjoy free of charge. There is a boardwalk area, restaurants, a splash pad and other fun things to do with beautiful vistas. Not to mention lots of shops to pick up your favorite Disney souvenirs.
The Disney Resorts
Something we were clued in on was the fact that you don’t have to stay at the Disney resorts to participate in many of their amenities. One in particular that we had fun with was Disney’s Wilderness Lodge to do the Hidden Mickeys Scavenger Hunt. It’s a fun hunt that is harder than it seems and they let anyone do it even if you aren’t staying at the hotel. There is also a highly-rated restaurant in the lobby and a lounge for alcohol on the main floor. Free parking and even free shuttles to other parts of Disney. I would recommend seeing what interests you at/around Disney and see what you are able to do for free. It might surprise you how much you can experience without having to pay a dime.
Having grown up playing baseball, I really love the Atlanta Braves’ spring training baseball games at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex. However, if you fancy a different sport you could always check out the NBA’s Orlando Magic, Orlando City’s soccer team, University of Central Florida’s sports, and even a Miami Dolphins’ preseason NFL game if you catch it just right. No matter what time of year you visit Orlando, there is sure to be some type of sporting event for you to enjoy.
Orlando’s Premium Outlets and Shopping Malls
I suppose this list really wouldn’t be complete without including the amazing shopping malls. There are two main outlet malls, which are both outdoors so prepare to sweat in the summer time, but it may be worth it to score great prices at stores like Lululemon, J.Crew, Nike, Bebe, Polo Ralph Lauren, The North Face, Aldo, Bose and almost 200 more. If retail mall shopping is more up your alley, then a trip to Orlando’s upscale, contemporary mall is really a treat. It’s called The Mall at Millenia and includes stores like Apple, Bloomingdales, Gucci, Pottery Barn, Tiffany & Co., Versace, along with the staples like the Banana Republic, Victoria’s Secret, J.Crew, etc. We can’t ever leave without stopping in at LUSH Cosmetics to pick up a couple of bath bombs to enjoy in the tub after an exhausting day of shopping.
I hope I was able to impart a few words of wisdom and introduce a complete view of Orlando. It is certainly more than Disney, Sea World, and Putt-Putt Golfing.