CENTRAL FLORIDA:
A Mecca of Merriment

BY KRISTEN MANIERI

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Whether it’s due to the year-round sunshine or the central proximity to some of Florida’s best attractions and beaches, there’s no denying Central Florida is one of the Sunshine State’s most popular destinations. Even during the warm springs and hot summers, families can’t resist the area’s theme parks, zoos and aquariums. Besides, the beach is typically just an hour away.

While Central Florida gets most of its notoriety from Orlando, the memorable places and experiences to discover reach far beyond the borders of the City Beautiful—far too many to cram into a weeklong vacation. Perhaps that’s why so many visitors return again and again.

Once a national hub for agriculture, cattle and citrus, 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 in an explosion in tourism. Today, 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

To keep visitors coming, the area is constantly changing and introducing new attractions and experiences.

Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is the single largest attraction expansion ever at SeaWorld Orlando and the coldest theme park attraction in Orlando. A combination of innovative technology and up-close encounters with penguins in their 30 F world makes Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin an all-new realm and a thrilling, chilling adventure of a lifetime.

Magic Kingdom recently debuted the first wave of its $425-million expansion to Walt Disney World’s Fantasyland including the new princess-themed Enchanted Forest, a Little Mermaid ride and a 550-seat Beauty and the Beast-themed restaurant called “Be Our Guest.” The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a roller coaster with mine cars that swing independently as the coaster zips around the track, will open in 2014.

In 2012, Disney announced plans to update and rebrand Downtown Disney, which will be called Disney Springs and will double the size of the existing entertainment complex. In the meantime, newcomer Splitsville Luxury Lanes, a 50,000-square-foot bowling, billiards and entertainment space, has been a welcome addition. Another luxury bowling concept, Kings Bowl Orlando, also opened on International Drive in 2013 boasting a chef-created menu and creative list of cocktails.

Still on deck is Animal Kingdom’s new AVATAR-themed-land expansion, which broke ground in 2013; however, the opening date has yet to be announced.

In June 2013, a new 10-acre expansion opened at Fun Spot America, complete with White Lightning, Orlando’s first (and only) wooden roller coaster, Freedom Flyer, a suspended family coaster, and a 250-foot SkyCoaster, the world’s second-largest sky coaster.

In June 2013, Universal Orlando Resort debuted TRANSFORMERS: The Ride—3D, an attraction that combines larger-than-life TRANSFORMERS characters and an exciting storyline with life-like HD CGI media, state-of-the-art 3D technology and amazing special effects to place riders right in the middle of an epic battle between the Autobots and the Decepticons.

Besides unveiling its new water park, LEGOLAND Florida also opened World of Chima, an interactive water ride based on the Cartoon Network animated TV series and new LEGO product line.

In early 2014, the new 95,000-square-foot dining, shopping and entertainment complex, I-Drive Live, will open with more than 75 shops, restaurants and attractions, as well as a 25,000-square-foot Madame Tussauds wax museum and a 25,000-square-foot Sea Life Aquarium.

On the hotel scene, Disney just opened a new “value” lodging option called the Art of Animation Resort. This contemporary hotel features lavishly decorated cartoon-themed rooms, as well as a gigantic Nemo-themed swimming pool with an underwater audio system that plays a combination of island music and occasional familiar character voices from Finding Nemo.

On deck for 2014 is the much-anticipated Four Seasons Resort Orlando, a palatial Walt Disney World resort with luxurious amenities such as a rooftop restaurant with fireworks views. Finally, Universal Orlando will open a new hotel in 2014 as well. The Cabana Bay Beach Resort will offer 900 family suites, capable of sleeping six, and 900 standard guest rooms offering both moderate- and value-priced accommodation.

HERITAGE AND CULTURE

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’s Arts District is a hip little neighborhood housing a handful of art galleries, public art installations and shops. The Third Thursday Gallery Hop is an ideal time to wander through the district.

The nearby Orange County Regional History Center provides a glimpse into the area’s colorful past.

In Winter Park, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art showcases the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, as well as a major collection of American art, pottery, painting, graphics and decorative art.

Mad Cow Theatre, which has been one of Orlando’s best professional theater companies for more than a decade, recently moved to its new home in the Church Street District, making it all the more appealing for a night out on the town.

While in the area, visit the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Garden, 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 weren’t any theme parks, Central Florida would have no trouble keeping visitors occupied.

At Forever Florida, a nature preserve 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 newly opened river otter exhibit and the addition of the two new rhinos, Jahi and PJ, the Central Florida Zoo continues its commitment to showcasing and preserving local wildlife. This small zoo and botanical garden features a fabulous kids’ playground and splash park and has plans for a 16-acre safari expansion set to open in the next few years.

Spend 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

Central Florida’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, tea shops, scenic boat trips on Lake Dora, nature Segway tours, historic carriage rides and excellent dining options make this a popular destination.

A visit to Celebration, Disney’s residential creation 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. The not-to-be-missed Bok Tower Gardens, as well as the renowned Chalet Suzanne Restaurant and Country Inn, make this old turpentine town a lovely little jaunt.

DINING AND NIGHTLIFE

The foodie scene in Central Florida is on fire. 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 and jousting tournaments at Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament. Titanic the Experience on International Drive recently debuted a dinner show, which takes guests along for the ride with the Titanic’s most notable passengers.

Outside the theme-park zone, locals love Sand Lake’s Restaurant Row with its mix of national chains, such as Morton’s Steakhouse, along with a multitude of award-winning independents. In nearby Celebration, the Columbia Restaurant remains 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, 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 and honey from its on-site organic garden and apiary. Others jumping on the sustainable-food bandwagon with delicious results are Napa at the Peabody and The Ravenous Pig in Winter Park.

Downtown Orlando’s Church Street District has experienced quite a revival in recent years and now houses several great restaurants, including Ceviche, a colorful tapas bar featuring a live Flamenco show on the weekends.

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 the 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 with its wonderful 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 Wekiwa 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 an airboat trip. 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 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 for a champagne breakfast.

BEST PLACES TO SHOP

Miles and miles of boutique-lined streets and bargain-packed outlets make Central Florida a favorite shopping destination.

In Orlando, 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 boutiques such as Tuni, Gap and Lilly Pulitzer. About a mile away in Winter Park Village, shoppers find national chain favorites such as Ann Taylor Loft and Coldwater Creek.

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

SCENIC DRIVE

Ignore Central Florida’s main highways led by 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 giving travelers a glimpse of Florida’s rural communities and pastoral vistas. While in Lake Wales, be sure to visit Spook Hill, a natural phenomenon that gives the illusion that cars are coasting up hill.

FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT

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 young imaginations. Favorites 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. The OSC recently debuted the Digital Adventure Theater, which shows documentary and blockbuster films in 2D and 3D digital formats.

Visitors enjoy hands-on experiences at Green Meadows Farm where folks can mingle with animal inhabitants. 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. The I-Ride Trolley, which has dozens of stops along International Drive, makes it easy to visit several of the area’s attractions without continually having to find parking.

At Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, guests can see the largest privately owned collection of vintage aircraft in the world, as well as fly on biplane flights, soar in a hot-air balloon or traverse the new zip line course. About 20 minutes away in Lakeland, Safari Wilderness Ranch gives guests unforgettable animal encounters via safari vehicles traversing the 260-acre site, home to more than 400 species of African, Asian and American animals.

While in Orlando, book your accommodation at the CoCo Key Orlando Resort, which features Orlando’s largest outdoor canopy-covered water park. The resort also offers guests free scheduled shuttle service to a number of theme parks in the area.

INSIDER’S TIPS

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 and more than 20 countries.

Renting a car? Check out Drive Electric Orlando, the first-of-its-kind, cost-effective, fun and easy electric rental car initiative.

Columbia County
Brickell City Centre
SeaWorld
Florida Southern College
Sunny Isles Beach
Orlando Sanford International Airport
Royal Shell
Navarre Beach
Orange Lake
Crystal River