Orlando magic outside the parks
Mention Disney, Universal or Sea World to any tourist and their thoughts will almost certainly turn to Orlando, Florida.
With more theme parks and entertainment locations than any other destination in the world it is hardly surprising. In 2018 seventy-five million people visited the city which is roughly the same as every citizen of the United Kingdom and Ireland combined. This massive expansion began in 1971 with the completion of Disney World followed twenty years later by Universal. Miami and Tampa were considered by Disney for the location of his first non-Californian base but concerns over coastal hurricanes moved the decision to inland Orlando. These massive parks are the main attraction for what is now USA’s 29th largest city. The vast majority of visitors will not stray very far away from the epicentre of entertainment and the International Drive area, but it is a destination that has much more to offer.
On a recent visit I spent some time in the downtown area some 15 minutes from theme park central and found much to occupy me. First up was lunch at the Mills 50 District which has a collection of independent bars, restaurants and bakeries with all sorts of culinary delights to tempt you. Much of the area has an Asian influence and I chose a Vietnamese two course lunch which was delicious, nutritious and all the other health benefits I could convince myself it included. The area has a much more developed and natural feel from a cultural perspective than other areas in Orlando which is born out of its commitment to community development and preservation. Strolling around one feels safe, engaged and a million miles from what one would expect.
The lunch set me up for a stroll around the Harry Leu Gardens which are just over a mile away. Fifty acres of lush gardens with many species native to the central Florida eco system supplemented by some more exotic plants from around the world. You can stroll around for hours, inspect the butterfly garden, smell the roses and inspect one of the original Orlando Houses from the 1880’s. I on the other hand had to preserve some energy for the main event of the evening – a light heavyweight contest between me and my first experience of paddle boarding.
A mile away, back past Mills 50, lay the HQ of Epic Paddle Adventures on Lake Ivanhoe (there are lakes everywhere in Orlando) and my meeting with Rich the main man who was there to seal my fate. The experience from beginning to end was one of feigned confidence leading to a sense of fulfilment. Looking like Bambi on Ice I tried, I really did, and with lots of patience and encouragement I succeeded in standing on a paddleboard on my own and traversing at least some of the lake. If you have never done it, do it and the fact that you can, just a few minutes away from where the main park action is going on, is even better. Full marks to Rich and his team who make the whole thing simple and safe plus the boards have very cool lights that make them glow in the Floridian dusk. Great fun.
Next day more nature in the form of the Great Florida Birding Wildlife Trail located in Orlando at the magnificent Tibet-Butler preserve. Here amongst the trees and hiking trails you can observe both resident and migratory birds, some very large reptiles in the form of Alligators plus tortoises, snakes and bobcats. Whilst this a regional authority park run primarily for locals it is an ideal place for tourists to visit. Abel Tovar-Torres my park guide said that the onslaught of urban development was making it ever more difficult to ensure an environment whereby wildlife as a whole can thrive in the area. I for one hope they succeed in that task.
If you are in Orlando, then it is likely that you will encounter the Disney Corporation at some point and my first occasion was when entering the new Swan Reserve Hotel which is located near to the Epcot and Hollywood Studios. I use the word encounter because I had not spoken to anybody, I was just taking my luggage to the third-floor reception to check in when a young man entered the elevator and after no more than 30 seconds said, ‘you must be Mr McKenzie welcome to Disney’.
Fame at last! However, it was achieved I was more than impressed as I was with the rest of the hotel and service. I could not fault it and from my room I even had a nightly view of the fireworks that bring the Disney day to a conclusion.
Disney were also the hosts for my regular fix of golf as I played the PGA Championship Course, Magnolia. Once host to a regular tour event the fairways and greens are in tip top condition and, depending on what tee you play from, offers a stiff challenge or from the back tees impossible. The Magnolia/Palm complex is also home to the Oak Trail Footgolf course which will be hosting massive national and international competitions later in 2022. The rapidly growing sport is not as easy as it looks but offers an opportunity for virtually all to compete – as long as you can kick you can play.
If you’re thinking of going or selling a trip to Orlando, then bear in mind that there are lots and lots of things to occupy you outside of the main theme parks.
Graham’s visit was organised by www.VisitOrlando.com
For further information go to www.orlandotravelacademy.com
Swan Reserve rates start around $300 per night
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TravelMole Editorial Team
Editor for TravelMole North America and Asia pacific regions. Ray is a highly experienced (15+ years) skilled journalist and editor predominantly in travel, hospitality and lifestyle working with a huge number of major market-leading brands. He has also cover in-depth news, interviews and features in general business, finance, tech and geopolitical issues for a select few major news outlets and publishers.