Travel: Why Orlando is not just for kids

Beyond the fabulous theme parks there’s a world of unexpected experiences to enjoy in and around the city, says Ruth Brindle

Terrific topiary at Epcot’s International Flower and Garden Festival (photo: Courtney Kiefer)
Terrific topiary at Epcot’s International Flower and Garden Festival (photo: Courtney Kiefer)

Winter Park

This stylish and upmarket area, known as The City of Culture and Heritage, is well-established as a place where many wealthy Floridians make their home.

It’s even got its own Park Avenue and Central Park (although not quite as big as New York) with individual shops, high-end restaurants and bars and museums.

The rooftop pool at the Alfond Inn is beautiful and inviting

It all started in the late 19th century and is Central Florida's oldest community, originally founded by wealthy Easterners in the 1800s.

Now the huge mansions around the area’s lakes house the rich, and sometimes famous. It has cobbled streets and Spanish-style buildings, including the gorgeous Alfond Inn just around the corner to all the action.

Contemporary art gives the hotel its unique atmosphere.

Just a short walk from here you can take an hour-long scenic boat ride around Lake Osceola and two other lakes.

The excitement of Wild Florida

Another favourite in Winter Park is The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Park Avenue. It has the world’s most comprehensive collection of the works of Louis Comfort Tiffany: jewellery, pottery, paintings, art glass, windows, lamps and an elaborate chapel interior created for the Chicago World's Fair in 1893.

Nearby on the same street, Italian eaterie Prato is a great place to eat. Also try The Wine Room for a tasting experience.

Near the Alfond Inn is the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens, housed in the former home of the late, renowned Czech sculptor.

Then with the culture boxes thoroughly ticked it was back to the Alfond Inn - just a two-minute walk. One of the best features of the hotel is the beautiful rooftop swimming pool. Luxury personified.

Marvel at Tiffany exhibits at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (photo: Judy Watson Tracy)

Disney parks and hotels

You can’t come to Orlando and not go to the parks, even if it’s just for a couple of days.

As Walt Disney World continues to celebrate its 50th anniversary this is a great time to visit.

Another great place to stay is the new and stylish Swan Reserve hotel, a short walk from Disney’s Epcot and Hollywood Studios.Guests can use the facilities at the other two hotels, including the fabulous Shula’s Steak House. Steaks have never looked so huge or tasted more delicious. Save your energy for the parks by picking up the boat from the hotel to be taken directly to the gates of both Epcot or Hollywood Studios.

The Swan Reserve hotel is a short distance from Epcot and Hollywood Studios’ parks (photo: Jason Dewey)

With planning made simple on the Disney Experience app, it’s so easy to reserve ride times and even book restaurants to make a day at any of the parks go well. The Disney Genie+ option for a small fee enables you to book quicker access entry times at certain rides. Disney first-timers and even veterans need help with so much on offer!

At Epcot, Walt Disney’s vision was to teach people about the world and also future possibilities in a fun way. He succeeded.

The vast site, which is under a major regeneration at the moment, is a place to learn about nature - with land and sea pavilions, discovery and celebration. There are interactive and visual experiences and rides in each. My personal favourite is Soarin’, which takes you on a breathtaking virtual flight around the world’s most iconic places.

The World Showcase is set around a central lake with an imaginative representation of 11 countries - Canada, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Morocco, Norway, the United Kingdom and America. The Yorkshire County Fish Shop in the UK area is highly rated and there’s a pub too, but you have the pick of all your favourite food types. Just make sure you book ahead if you want a sit-down meal at any of the popular restaurants.

Throughout the year there are special festivals and events, including the International Flower and Garden Festival which was in full bloom when we visited earlier in the year. Also, when at Epcot you must not miss the end-of-the-day music and light show spectacular.

With a single-day Park Hopper ticket we were able to transfer to Hollywood Studios at 2pm by boat.

Disney Genie+ helped Ruth to book Lightning Line entry at experiences and dining in advance (photo: Kent Phillips)

Everything movie-related is here, especially the immersive Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge experience.

Another favourite here is the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, an hour-long, action-packed stunt show and a great place to hide from the heat of the sun and sit down!

There are no shortage of shops or eateries. At the Hollywood Brown Derby Lounge, enjoy a cocktail or two to accompany the restaurant’s world-renowned Famous Cobb Salad, which is huge and the most amazing salad I’ve ever had. At $22 (£18) it’s pretty reasonable. You can even add chicken shrimp or lobster if you want to really dine like a movie star.

Our all-too-short venture around two of Disney’s parks brought back just how much we’d missed this world of wonder, where you can just let yourself escape everyday worries. It’s just magic!

Don’t miss…

After a short drive out of Orlando, this safari-style experience gives you a glimpse of ‘real’ Florida. There are 100 native and exotic species to see, including alligators as you take an airboat ride across the water before taking the drive-thru safari. There are also sloths, lemurs and bobcats and a chance to see giant alligators leaping from the water to compete for lunchtime meat treats.

Based in a restored 1927 courthouse in Downtown Orlando you can learn about the area’s history from prehistoric days to its present incarnation as a theme park heaven.

Sports action and entertainment

Downtown, 20 minutes from International Drive and the heart of the action, is also where you can watch a sports game or enjoy a concert.

All the facts

A night’s stay at the Alfond Inn is from £200 per room.

Standard rooms at the Swan Reserve start at around £250.

Find out all you need to know about Orlando at www.visitorlando.com

The Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Gardens are just steps from the Alfond Inn
The drive thru safari at Wild Florida is a great day out (photo: Eva Snider Photography)
Enjoy a fab Italian meal at Prato in Winter Park (photo: Daniel Kuykendall)
The Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour shows off how the rich live
Ruth at Epcot