Orlando’s Other Parks

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Published in the 2009 Where Guestbook Orlando, By Sarah Sekula

If you relish a bit of spontaneity, fiddle with your plans and add a few of these stops to your vacation agenda. Beyond Orlando’s theme parks and attractions there is much to discover.

Life here is about strolling among hundred-year-old oak groves, gazing at majestic native birds or taking a boat ride past mega mansions and grand landscapes. Here’s a nook by nook look at ways to capture the authentic spirit of Central Florida.

Scenic Route: Winter Park

First up: Winter Park, one of Central Florida’s priciest zip codes and home to “Orlando’s Rodeo Drive.” A visit to this captivating place, just north of The City Beautiful, provides a lesson in living well. One glimpse of locals sauntering by the flowerboxes and fountains, dining alfresco or sampling wine and you’ll understand why.

To observe the city’s bustle, spend some time on Park Avenue, where luxury retailers abound. To tune it out, hit the city’s postcard-perfect shores for the Winter Park Scenic Boat Ride (312 E. Morse Blvd., Winter Park, 407-644-4056). You’ll float by towering cypress trees, tropical birds and even the residence of a former world-champion whistler. Which is to say, this place is serene to the nth degree. “Where else can you peek into the backyard of lakeside mansions and not risk arrest?” says Winter Park resident Eric Michael. “You never know what you’ll see.”

Add to this the exuberance of the Farmers Market (312 E. Morse Blvd., Winter Park, 407-644-4056) each Saturday morning at the city’s restored train depot. Not only does the gathering spot channel the city’s heritage, it is also “the perfect place to explore your culinary or green-thumb interests,” says Orlando resident Ann Perez. “Plus, the cream cheese bagel and lox sandwich is one-of-a-kind.”

Nearby is The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (445 N. Park Ave., Winter Park, 407-645-5311), which boasts the world’s most comprehensive collection of Tiffany jewelry, pottery, paintings and lamps. Plus: There’s the chapel interior Charles Tiffany — one of Winter Park’s first residents — designed for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Extend the relaxation mode by catching a heart-stopping performance by the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park at Rollins College (1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park, 407-646-2000), the state’s oldest college. The 160-person choir and orchestra has entertained crowds for nearly 75 years and has been compared to the London Symphony Orchestra. Plus, there’s nothing more wonderful than hearing live music in the Knowles Memorial Chapel, with its stunning stained glass windows and stately architecture. “It’s like being in a surround-sound theater,” says John Sinclair, artistic director and conductor of the Bach Festival Society.

Cultural Fix: Loch Haven Park

Every city should have an alcove like Loch Haven where community involvement and savoir-faire reign supreme. One of its highlights: The Orlando Museum of Art (2416 N. Mills Ave., Orlando, 407-896-4231). It began with a group of artists in the 1920s displaying their work. Today, it’s known as one of the best museums in the South. “Loch Haven Park is the cultural corridor of Orlando,” says Jeff Stanford of the Orlando Science Center. “Nestled within this tranquil green space are some of the organizations that make up the heart of Orlando’s cultural scene.” Plus, the area plays host to a selection of events including the Festival of Trees, Antiques Show and Sale, Orlando International Fringe Festival, PlayFest, Pet Fair and VegFest.

For another dose of ingenuity, walk across the street to the Mennello Museum of American Art (900 E. Princeton St., Orlando, 407-246-4278). Inside, a treasure trove of works is on display by folk artist Earl Cunningham. Outside, the lawn areas offers gorgeous views and majestic trees. One in particular is known as “The Mayor,” one of Central Florida’s oldest and largest oaks. It’s dozens of massive limbs that rest on the ground are a sight to see.

Kids and adults alike love the Orlando Science Center (777 E. Princeton St., Orlando, 407-514-2000). It’s four floors of pure fun. Check out simulators at Science Park and DinoDigs, where a fossil display is the main attraction. To top it off, the giant refractor telescope at the top of the observatory offers stellar star-gazing.

Next, queue up for whatever’s playing at Orlando Repertory Theatre (1001 E. Princeton St., Orlando, 407-896-7365), which specializes in dazzling young audiences. Classics like “The Neverending Story” and “Junie B. Jones” show throughout the year. By day’s end you will have had hands-on thrills and a few good laughs. Fun stuff, but that’s nothing compared to a sherbet-colored sunset over nearby Lake Formosa.

Hipster Hideaway: Thornton Park

If there’s a song in the air in this urban setting, it’s probably coming from petite Gabriela Aparicio. The songstress entertains crowds at some of Thornton Park’s most popular hangouts. “It’s relaxed, hip and urban,” says Aparicio. “There’s always something beautiful to look at whether it’s the people or the architecture. The best part is the proximity of all the culture and food spots within walking distance.”

Beyond the strum of her guitar, you’ll find sidewalk shops and Craftsman-style bungalows, all just a few blocks from the heart of downtown. Walk the cobblestone streets to independent book store UrbanThink! (625 E. Central Blvd., Orlando, 407-650-8004) for open mic night or to sip a frothy crème brulee latte. Jim Crescitelli is the owner of this tiny, charming spot, which attracts a diverse crowd of lively folks. Dedicated to “feeding the neighborhood with knowledge” he brings in world-renowned authors and artists for intimate gatherings.

If that doesn’t entice you, wander over to Keila Glassworks (29 S. Orange Ave., Orlando, 407-590-3902), just a few blocks away where you’ll find dreadlocked, free-spirited Charles Keila at work. He makes the finicky process of glassblowing look as easy as sharpening a pencil. Stare in awe, or try it yourself at a mini-workshop.

With all that said, the real draw here is a massive body of water smack dab in the city’s center. Lake Eola, the area’s ultimate landmark is a peaceful retreat. Joggers trot the nearly milelong loop around the lake. Yoga gurus practice contortion-like stretches. Toddlers toss bread crumbs to the swans. On Sundays the place buzzes with the popular farmers market. With so much to do in this section of town, it’s impossible to get bored.

Lakeside Luxe: Baldwin Park

From 1940 to 1968, this trendy neighborhood served as an Army Air Corps and Air Force base and later as the Orlando Naval Training Center, sort of a college campus for sailors. Today, it has been completely renovated and is home to 6,000 residents. Our favorite result of the transformation: Fifty miles of paths and trails and 200 acres of parks.

If you’re looking to burn a calorie or two, rent a ride at Loco Motion bicycle shop (1776 Jake St., Orlando, 407-898-6411) and pedal down the 3.5-mile Cady Way Trail that weaves past tree canopies, bougainvillea vines and hyper-manicured lawns. (Note: call ahead to reserve a bike). For an even easier trek, take a two-hour, guided Segway tour starting at Sweet Glides of Florida (915 Outer Road, Orlando, 407-0948). You’ll pass lakes, pause for a snack at Blue Jacket Park and likely spot local wildlife (alligators, otters, bald eagles and wild turkeys roam the area).

Next, trot over to The Village Center on New Broad Street (signs point the way). The fashion set will enjoy boutiques such as Merrigan’s (4832 New Broad St., Orlando, 407-898-6864) stocked with trendy labels like Rock & Republic, Ella Moss and SuperLuckyCat, stylish attire made completely of recycled vintage pieces. Foodies will revel in a mix of restaurants, from crowded Seito Sushi (4898 New Broad St., Orlando, 407-898-8801) to Mexican eatery Colibri (4963 New Broad St., Orlando, 407-629-6601). Right brainers are also in luck. My Art Studio (4833 New Broad St., Orlando, 407-894-5950) houses a pottery loft, a “splat” zone where kids scurry around with paints, a small theater and computer area for digital design. Equally entertaining is Vibe Performing Arts Studio where you can shake it with a quick dance class. Pick from hip-hop, break dancing or zumba, a mix of merengue, salsa and flamenco. Never fear: dance experience is not necessary.