How to Create a Disney-Free Central Florida Itinerary
According to the destination’s tourism association, nearly 76 million people visited the Orlando area in 2019, which includes Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. They had a lot to see: about 480 hotels with 130,000 rooms, more than 6,000 restaurants, several amusement parks, several shopping centers and endless tourist traps. Hotel or vacation rental deals are often easy to score, but just entering a Disney or Universal park can set you back more than $150 per person.
Admittedly, this is not everyone’s bag. It might even sound like your version of hell on earth – and such a price tag! But Orlando has so much to offer beyond Space Mountain, discount souvenir shops and an extremely large McDonald’s.
“Orlando is very youthful, it’s very new and it’s growing, and there’s so much to do outside of theme parks,” said David Plowden, an Orlando-based influencer (and theme park fan) who moved to the area 10 years ago. “It kind of makes me — I don’t want to say sad — but it’s unfortunate that the theme parks kind of take over the reputation.”
There are vibrant art and music spaces, a robust coffee shop culture, thriving local food scenes, bungalow neighborhoods, plenty of lakes, and nearby jaunts to springs and beaches. Oh, and extremely enthusiastic residents.
“Orlando, I see it as an underdog city because it’s a city that people underestimate as a theme park city and don’t really take the time to know her spirit,” said Ida Eskamani, a lifelong resident and progressive advocate. “It’s a home of quirky, cool people who are always used to being underestimated and always rise to the occasion.”
For most of my life, my trips to Orlando were limited to Disney World and Universal: drop by for a day or two, wear out the rides and butterbeers, and head back south. Guided by local recommendations, I recently returned for another whirlwind trip, this time without spending a dime at a theme park.
My stay was short, my agenda long – and the list of proposals even longer.
For the reluctant convention-goers, family vacation tagalongs, or tourists eager to catch a glimpse of lesser-known Orlando, these were my highlights.
Choose from independent hotel gems
Over the years I have stayed at all levels of theme park properties; name-your-price Priceline finder; giant conference hotels and Mickey-accented Airbnbs. But for this visit I was looking for something unique and independent amongst the carnival of chains. There weren’t many options.
Just about everyone I spoke to recommended the Alfond Inn in neighboring Winter Park, an artsy boutique hotel owned by the liberal arts school Rollins College. But the room rates were a bit high for my purpose and I wanted to stay in the city of Orlando.
I chose Wellborn, an Instagram paradise of historic buildings, a “Floribian” restaurant and bar, chic thrift stores and spacious, affordable rooms. I paid about $172 total, including a $25 early check-in fee, for a suite that immediately won me over with its built-in bookshelves.
Ana Carolina Salazar, CEO and founder of Bold Digital Marketing Studio, Wellborn called “truly magical” and said the outdoor area is her “favorite place in Orlando.” Campus is a popular hangout for locals for weekend brunch, happy hour bites or late-night cocktails.
Try a new wave of Asian-American restaurants
After food blogger Ricky Ly, a 20-year Orlando resident, texted me nearly a dozen restaurant recommendations in a row, I replied, “I have to stay clear for a week.”
Sometime between eating at the Michelin-starred ramen place, the Filipino-inspired ice cream shop, and the Korean-style coffee house, I realized how rich the Asian food scene is here. You can add the quick-service bao place and the vegan Vietnamese cuisine to that list, too.
“Truly a new wave underway of third-generation Asian-American-owned businesses,” Ly wrote to me after also recommending a Japanese gastropub, noodle house and Taiwanese dessert shop.
A significant number of these restaurants are clustered in the Mills 50 area, where refugees from Vietnam settled in the 1970s. The area has expanded to include a broader representation of Asian-American offerings.
My first stop for a bite to eat in Orlando was in Mills 50 at King Bao – both a vegan option with crispy tofu in a traditional soft bun and the decidedly non-vegan “Hogzilla.” (I noticed this trend throughout my visit: lots of vegan options, and lots of pork too.) A few hours later, at the East End Market food court in the Audubon Park area, I enjoyed the spicy tonkotsu ramen at Domu, which last year served a Michelin Bib Gourmand indicates good value and quality. The East End is also home to the original location of Gideon’s Bakehouse, a gothic-themed bakery that generates Instagram influence with its giant cookies (and huge lines at its newer location on the Disney campus).
Back in Mills 50 later that evening, I stopped by the just-opened super-packaged Sampaguita Ice Cream for Filipino flavors like a light purple ube latte, pineapple cake, and the titular sampaguita, an almond vanilla base with jasmine and lychee jelly.
The next day I found myself in the same vein, this time meeting Ly at Haan Coffee – originally a roastery but now serving things like a “strong, creamy and sweet” Seoul iced coffee made popular in early Korean coffeehouses and elderflower tonic espresso on a newly opened shop – and then have lunch in a Vietnamese vegetable garden.
I topped off my visit with a breakfast stop at Black Bean Deli, a Cuban cafe with locations in Mills 50 and Winter Park that offered some of my Miami favorites, toasted Cuban bread for dipping in cafe con leche.
Before a road trip down to South Florida, I wanted to experience more of the coffee shop culture that so many people raved about. I popped into Robinson Coffee Room downtown, which balances caffeine with an upstairs cocktail bar, and got a cereal milk latte with a guava pop tart and chai banana bread.
See black art, Tiffany glass and a shrine to Mister Rogers
I knew that pioneering author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston lived in Florida, but didn’t realize that she grew up just north of Orlando in Eatonville, the nation’s first Black incorporated municipality. Eskamani, 32, included the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts on a long list of must-sees, and it became my first stop on a mini arts and culture tour.
The museum is dedicated to showcasing works by artists of African ancestry, and the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community offers tours of the museum and grounds. I browsed the just-opened exhibit featuring Arizona artist Granville Carroll, whose work focuses on Afrofuturism, and picked up a Hurston paperback for my home collection.
Next, I went to the Enzian Theatre, a single-screen arthouse movie theater with an outdoor cafe and bar nestled under giant oak trees in Maitland, another town on the outskirts of Orlando. Gabrielle Russon, a freelance writer who covers news, politics and theme parks, talked up the relaxed atmosphere of a bar “that feels romantic and fairy garden-like.” The sofas inside provide cozy seating for watching independent or retro films.
Eskamani also writes about local music and shows for Orlando Weekly and loves venues like Will’s Pub, Henao Contemporary Center and the Renaissance Theater Company, which opened in 2021 and hosts nightly music and performances. One benefit of the proximity to theme parks, residents told me, was that the creative energy of the employees often flows into the local community’s arts and culinary scene.
I had hoped to make it to the Renaissance Theater the night I was in town, but the doors didn’t open until 10:30 p.m., and I had an appointment with Mister Rogers—or at least his cardigan—the next morning.
Before Russon mentioned the connection, I had no idea the children’s television icon had ties in the Orlando area. But he is immortalized on the campus of Rollins College, his alma mater.
Rollins celebrates Fred Rogers, its most famous alumnus, with a stone marker near his residence, a plaque, a portrait, a 3,000-plus-pound sculpture, and clothing and papers that have been donated to the archives.
Anyone can explore the campus and request to see the archived material, and until March 20 the college will display an exhibit featuring a sky blue cardigan knit by Roger’s mother, a pair of sneakers, handwritten letters and other items in the library lobby. The college offers a downloadable map for the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood Walking Tour.
In Winter Park, just up the road from Rollins, is the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, which showcases what it describes as “the world’s most comprehensive collection of works” by artist Louis Comfort Tiffany. There are plenty of leaded glass lamps and windows, jewelry, paintings and a wonderful chapel interior that dates back to the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
For people who appreciate – or create – art, there’s a lot going on. Jordan Jones, 32, who is known as JJ the Artist, called local artist events at the Orlando Museum of Art, the downtown CityArts gallery, monthly wine and art walks and painting nights at his local coffee shop, Bynx.
“Whether it’s at the club, at the bar, by a lake, at a little coffee shop, there are a lot of art opportunities,” he said.
Explore the “Venice of Orlando”
As I criss-crossed the area in my rental car, I wished I had time to stop at the lakes that serve as the center of so many neighborhoods. Several people spoke fondly of downtown Lake Eola, which Russon described as “our little Central Park” where swan boats float and locals gather for a Sunday farmers market.
“Lake Eola truly feels like the heart of Orlando,” Russon said in an email.
Another top recommendation: the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour, a one-hour pontoon boat cruise along canals and lakes, featuring private estates, Florida flora and the possibility of an alligator.
“It’s so sweet,” said Ly, a civil engineer who founded the Tasty Chomps blog. “It’s like Orlando in Venice.”
So many lakes, so little time.
I made it to Harry P. Leu Gardens, a tranquil 50-acre getaway just down the street from East End Market. On a sunny afternoon in January, I finally got the urge to wander through the palm trees and live oaks, and it couldn’t have been more perfect.
Wekiwa Springs State Park, just 16 miles outside of downtown Orlando, is a popular close-to-home retreat for canoeing, kayaking and swimming in 72-degree waters.
If the beach is more your thing, Orlando may be landlocked, but you can get to East Coast beaches like Cocoa Beach, New Smyrna Beach, and Daytona Beach in just over an hour.
Get a (free) theme park experience
Curious about the tourism magnet that attracts Disney adults and Hogwarts-clad wizard wannabes? There is a way to dip a toe in that water without losing $100 plus a person.
At Disney’s Polynesian Hotel, about 40 minutes from downtown, you can park for free and wander back to a beach area to watch the distant Magic Kingdom fireworks. Judging by the cups and aromas around me, there were plenty of adults playing in advance of the 18-minute pyrotechnic show. Children danced along to songs from “Frozen 2” and shouted with joy: “Mommy, it’s Moana!”
Another free option, Russon said in an email, is parks next door. Both Disney and Universal have their own versions of outdoor malls with shops, restaurants, bars and entertainment; Parking is free at Disney Springs, and free after 6pm at Universal CityWalk. How much you want to spend from there is up to you.
“You can go out to dinner or buy a Disney or Universal souvenir there too,” she wrote. “Or hell, don’t go at all. There are many other things to do in Orlando.”