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AS I’VE WATCHED ORLANDO evolve as a city over the last decade or so, I’m always surprised to find that outsiders see it as essentially just the place that happens to be attached by an interstate to Disney World. Even for all the naysaying I’ve done about the place in the past, the fact is people in Orlando know what’s up.
1. We don’t go to theme parks.
If you live in Orlando, or any of the surrounding towns that are basically just Orlando’s suburbs (Sanford, Winter Park, Lake Mary, Oviedo, Altamonte, etc.), getting onto I-4 and taking it all the way to Kissimmee is enough of a pain in the ass to not want to go even if you have annual passes. There’s plenty to do that isn’t absurdly hot, expensive, and kid-infested.
2. We pay a lot less for the theme parks when we do go.
If we do decide to hit up Universal Studios or SeaWorld, we go on days that are free. Being a Florida resident means deep discounts at places like Disney World, where we usually pay at least $100 less than the out-of-state ticket price.
3. We go to I-Drive for things that aren’t Disney-related.
As much as it sucks to drive to International Drive, there’s still great stuff there, like restaurants (Pio-Pio International), cheap timeshare resorts (I attended a hotel party when I visited recently), dueling piano bars, and semi-rundown attractions like Wonder Works.
4. We eat at independently owned restaurants.
There’s actually a very lively food scene in Orlando, evidenced by multiple hip, upscale restaurants with rotating menus and locally sourced ingredients. Ravenous Pig is probably the best known, along with Rusty Spoon (allegedly started by a disgruntled ex-Ravenous Pig chef). There’s also Cask & Larder, Ravenous Pig’s soul-food experiment — I actually went non-vegetarian to try it.
And then you’ve got Little Vietnam’s unpronounceable restaurants, Sweet Cupcakes, 4Rivers BBQ, Lazy Moon’s 30-inch pizzas, and Prato’s seasonal Italian menu.
5. We go to farmers markets.
Anyone who thinks Orlando is all about metropolitanism and neon lights forgets that before there was Disney, there was practically nothing but mid-Florida rural boringness here. There’s still not much development to speak of around the Orlando area, so every Saturday of the entire butthole-hot year you can find local produce, plants, wares, goods, and foods riddled throughout the city. Winter Park’s is probably the best, though, and the only place I’ve ever seen a rabbit on a leash.
6. We watch soccer matches at Fiddler’s Green.
Considered to be one of the country’s top Irish pubs, Fiddler’s Green is maybe the best meetup spot in town for soccer fans. Dim and dusky with plenty of draft beer and some mean corned beef, it’s the perfect venue for a raucous World Cup viewing. Just get there an hour and a half early to claim a spot.
7. We know which downtown spots to avoid.
Downtowns are typically where some of the liveliest bar scenes are, and that can be true for Orlando if you’re into watching drunk girls stumble into the street, smoking cigars with dude-bros, grinding, sipping syrupy drinks, etc. From live music at Tanqueray’s to craft beer at Tap & Grind, rooftop Hanson’s Shoe Repair, the hipster-y BBQ and I Bars, and even to comedy at SAC, there are more good than bad ways to spend your downtime nighttime.
8. We go NoDo.
Or we’ll avoid downtown traffic altogether and just go north of downtown. Sometimes we prefer scotch and a movie at Stardust, a gin and tonic at a neo-speakeasy, having a few more in a craft furniture shop (and actually buying the chair we sat on), or a cask ale at Redlight Red Light.
9. We hang out in Winter Park.
Other than the aforementioned farmers market, downtown Winter Park is a great place to blow an afternoon, stick around for an evening date perusing the wine bars, sweets shops, fine dining, and ritzy stores, or just sit in the park. The rest of Winter Park is where about half the places I mention in this article are.
10. We do active things in nature.
Let’s not forget that all of Florida is basically a swampland, so swimming, canoeing, camping, and hiking spots (and mosquitoes) are all abundant around the Orlando area. And while Wet ’n Wild is alright, Mother Nature offers a few of her own water parks, like Wekiwa, Blue Springs, beaches within half an hour’s drive, and even some late-night kayaking with bioluminescent aquatic life.