CENTRAL FLORIDA:
Miles of Non-Stop Delight

BY KRISTEN MANIERI

Central Florida - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Encasing one of the Sunshine State's most beloved destinations—Orlando—Central Florida's borders boast more attractions and adventures than could ever be crammed into a week-long vacation. Thrill seekers return again and again to the area's theme parks, zoos and aquariums.

Central Florida's seasons welcome visitors year-round; warm springs and hot summers drive families to the beaches, while the temperate fall and winter climates are ideal for theme-park hopping and exploring endless outdoor adventures and tranquil state parks.

Once a national hub for agriculture, cattle, and citrus, Central Florida's history dates back to the 1800s, but its relatively recent boom can be attributed to one particular historical event: the opening of Walt Disney World. Unveiled in 1971, the sprawling vacation resort ushered in a new era of economic development in Central Florida, resulting not only in population growth, but also in an explosion in tourism. These days, more than 50 million tourists visit the area every year, making it one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world.

WHAT'S NEW

With already so much to see and do in Central Florida, it's hard to imagine adding anything new. However, to keep visitors coming, the area is constantly changing and evolving with the addition of new attractions and experiences.

In spring 2013, SeaWorld Orlando unveils Antarctica—Empire of the Penguin, a journey to the world's coldest continent and home to the world's most resilient wildlife.

While visitors will have to wait until 2014 to preview the complete $425-million expansion to Walt Disney World's Fantasyland, and even longer to check out Animal Kingdom's AVATAR-themed-land expansion, families visiting in early 2013 will be among the first to experience the new princess-themed Enchanted Forest, which will include a Little Mermaid ride, and a 550-seat Beauty and the Beast-themed restaurant called "Be Our Guest."

Several new hotels will open this year in Central Florida, including Aloft in downtown Orlando, B Hotels in the Downtown Disney area, and Streamsong Resort, which will be built on 16,000 acres of land between Orlando and Tampa and will open to overnight guests in the fall of 2013. Finally, the much-anticipated arrival of a Four Seasons Hotel at Walt Disney World Resort is planned for early 2014, as well as the opening of the new Cabana Beach Resort at Universal Studios.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

Take a stroll through Central Florida's many museums and art corridors and it becomes clear that culture is an important part of the area's identity.

In Orlando, the 45-acre Loch Haven Park provides a home for the Orlando Museum of Art, the Orlando Science Center, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, and Mennello Museum of American Art—all excellent ways to bide the day.

Downtown Orlando boasts the Downtown Arts District, a hip little neighborhood housing a handful of art galleries, public art installations and shops. The nearby Orange County Regional History Center provides a glimpse into the area's colorful past.

In Winter Park, a trip to The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art is a must. Not only does the site house the world's most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, but the museum also features a major collection of American art pottery, painting, graphics and decorative art.

While in the area, pay a visit to the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, a lovely lakeside historical site featuring the work of Czech sculptor Albin Polasek, as well as a small collection of art in the gallery inside Polasek's former home.

MUST SEE, MUST DO

Even if there were no theme parks in Central Florida (don't worry, there are nearly a dozen) Central Florida would have no trouble keeping visitors occupied.

At Forever Florida, a nature preserve about 40 minutes outside Kissimmee, visitors can zip line, round up cattle by horseback or go on a safari.

Folks can also zip line at the newly installed course at Gatorland, which sends fearless flyers over some of the 6,000 gators that call this kitschy 110-acre animal attraction home.

With a recently opened river otter exhibit, the Central Florida Zoo continues its commitment to showcasing and preserving local wildlife. This smallish zoo and botanical garden, which features a fabulous kids' playground and splash park, has plans for a 16-acre safari expansion set to open in the next few years.

Spend a few hours strolling around Lake Eola, downtown Orlando's pristine green space where you can rent a swan paddleboat, feed ducks, and dine at a handful of great lakeside eateries.

TOWN AND COUNTRY

While it may be tempting to stick to Central Florida's major tourist zones, the area's small towns offer plenty of intrigue and charm. About 40 minutes northwest of Orlando, Mount Dora welcomes visitors for weekend getaways at several quaint bed and breakfasts. Boutiques, teashops, scenic boat trips on Lake Dora, nature Segway tours, historic carriage rides and excellent dining options make this a popular destination for couples and families alike.

A visit to Celebration, Disney's residential creation located about 20 minutes from Walt Disney World, is definitely a memorable stop. This Pleasantville-esque community boasts hundreds of picturesque homes, as well as a sweet little downtown with restaurants and shops.

Take a trip to Lake Wales, a quintessential Old Florida town just 60 minutes south of Orlando. Housing commercial and residential historic districts, the not-to-be-missed Bok Tower Gardens, as well as the renowned Chalet Suzanne Restaurant and Country Inn, this old turpentine town is a lovely little jaunt.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

Fueling up for all the fun to be had in Central Florida is actually one of the best parts of visiting the area; the foodie scene here is on fire. With a multitude of independent eateries in eclectic dining districts, as well as all the national favorites, the options for breakfast, lunch and dinner are never-ending.

Greater Orlando has more than 5,000 restaurants, including dinner theaters with themes ranging from buccaneers at Pirate's Dinner Adventure and Treasure Tavern, Orlando's hottest nighttime show and dining experience, to comedy at WonderWorks, jousting at Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament, and gangsters at Capone's Dinner & Show.

Outside the theme-park zone, locals love Sand Lake's Restaurant Row offering a mix of national chains, such as Morton's Steakhouse, along with a multitude of award-winning independents. And in nearby Celebration, the Columbia Restaurant is a popular choice.

Just north of the city, Park Avenue in Winter Park features a collection of upscale eateries, most with patio seating and views of the swanky, brick-lined street. Once a hub for antique shopping, the newly rebranded Ivanhoe Village is emerging as one of Orlando's best dining destinations thanks to a handful of boutique but unfussy eateries, such as White Wolf Café, which is renowned for its homemade breakfast cinnamon rolls.

Lovers of the farm-to-fork movement are flocking to restaurants such as PRIMO at the JW Marriott Orlando, which sources some of its ingredients from its on-site organic garden. Others known to jump on the sustainable-food bandwagon with delicious results are Napa at the Peabody, as well as The Ravenous Pig in Winter Park.

Nothing is more casual than grabbing something from a local food truck. The mobile meal scene has become increasingly popular in Orlando where weekly and monthly food truck events across each city offer a wide variety of eclectic yet gourmet delights. Visit dailycity.com for a full listing.

Outside of Orlando, several popular restaurants await in Mount Dora, including the award-winning Goblin Market, as well as Pisces Rising, which provides wonderful lake views of Lake Dora.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Central Florida is paradise for outdoor lovers thanks to an endless array of adventures. Wander through a tranquil state park, such as Wekiva Springs where a pristine spring-fed swimming hole and excellent hiking trails await. Rent a canoe or kayak to float down the river where sightings of river otters or white-tail deer are possible.

Water ski or wakeboard at Orlando Watersports Complex, where beginners and experts alike can hit the waters via cableway or behind boats.

For a glimpse of alligators in their natural setting, book a trip on an airboat. These loud and speedy jaunts, offered by several outfitters throughout Central Florida, provide a glimpse into the area's abundant swamplands.

With more than 150 golf courses in the area, hitting the links is a viable option as well. Courses for all levels and budgets, including many designed by some of the PGA's legends, abound.

Early birds will appreciate the breathtaking views from a hot-air balloon taking flight daily a few miles from Walt Disney World Resort. Rising before the sun, these colorful balloons float into the morning sky for an hour-long ride over the Central Florida landscape before heading back to earth to allow riders to enjoy a champagne breakfast.

BEST PLACES TO SHOP

Miles and miles of boutique-lined streets and bargain-packed outlets make Central Florida one of the Sunshine State's favorite shopping destinations.

In Orlando, fashionistas ought to set aside two days for the Premium Outlets International Drive and Premium Outlets Vineland Avenue, which together house approximately 330 stores offering incredible discounts.

Park Avenue, Winter Park's swanky brick-lined boulevard, boasts an upscale shopping scene of one-off boutiques such as Charyli, as well as some of the area's best restaurants. Winter Park Village, about a mile away, is where shoppers find national chain favorites such as Ann Taylor Loft and Coldwater Creek.

When it comes to malls, Florida Mall reigns as the biggest thanks to its 1.9 million square feet of space and more than 250 stores. However, visitors tend to gravitate to the Mall at Millenia, a luxury spot home to haute haunts such as Tiffany & Co., Chanel and Jimmy Choo.

SCENIC DRIVE

Take a break from Central Florida's main highways, such as the always-congested Interstate 4, and venture into the more picturesque scenic routes that often go unnoticed. In Lakes Wales, the Ridge Scenic Highway extends 38.7 miles to Haines City and gives travelers a glimpse of Central Florida's rural communities and pastoral vistas. While in Lake Wales, be sure to pay a visit to Spook Hill, a natural phenomenon that gives the illusion that cars are coasting up hill.

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

There is a reason Central Florida is often considered the world's No. 1 vacation destination for families; the family-focused activities and adventures are truly endless.

No doubt, Orlando reigns supreme thanks to its theme parks, but it's also home to the Orlando Science Center where interactive permanent and traveling exhibits delight the imagination. Favorite features include the Dr. Phillips CineDome, a 310-seat theater showing films in a format that is 10 times larger than a conventional film theater, as well as NatureWorks, a hands-on exhibit hall showcasing Central Florida's diverse array of insects, plants and animals.

Visitors enjoy hands-on experiences at Green Meadows Farm where folks are encouraged to mingle with animal inhabitants, such as goats and pigs. Other memorable moments include riding a pony or milking a cow.

International Drive, the area's kitschy tourist esplanade, offers dozens of delightful diversions including a Wet 'n Wild water park; Ripley's Believe It Or Not! Odditorium; a few mini-golf spots; an indoor skydiving facility; and the new CSI: The Experience, a must-see for fans of the criminal forensic television show. International Drive's I-Ride Trolley, which has dozens of stops along International Drive, makes it easy to visit several of the area's attractions without having to continually find parking.

INSIDER'S TIPS

There's much to see and do in Central Florida, which means some of the lesser-known attractions often go undiscovered. Veer slightly off the well-beaten path and those seeking the area's secret gems will not be disappointed.

Get your palms read at the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp, a tiny town said to have mystical powers. Travel by elevator 226 feet to the observation deck of Clermont's Citrus Tower and take in panoramic views of hundreds of acres of citrus trees and scenic rolling hills. Stroll through Harry P. Leu Gardens, an unforgettable 50-acre botanical oasis just minutes from downtown Orlando. Those visiting around the first Friday of the month will be treated to an outdoor screening of a film on the garden's giant alfresco screen. Films typically start at dusk.

Finally, pay a visit to the Monument to the States in Kissimmee, a 50-foot assortment of more than 1,500 fossils and rocks from every state, as well as more than 20 countries.

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