Leave Your Kids at Home: Orlando Grows Up

“This is my first flight. And I’m going to Disney World!” The voice of the excited little girl wafted pleasantly through the cabin of the plane I was boarding to Orlando. The girl, who looked to be about 5 or 6, was boarding with her family and telling everyone — pilots, flight attendants, fellow passengers — about her upcoming adventure. For the grownups on the plane, it was a cute moment that brought back warm and fuzzy memories of our own childhood trips to Disney. It was such a nice bit of Disney-led nostalgia, you could almost hear “The Circle of Life” well up in the cabin.

And in the midst of all that “When You Wish Upon a Star” nostalgia, I had just one thought: “As soon as this plane lands, I’m getting as far away from these people as possible.”

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Disney is awesome but there’s so much more to Orlando. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Let me clarify: I have nothing against kids and families. And I definitely have nothing against Walt Disney World,  Universal Orlando Resort or any of the legions of kid-friendly attractions for which Orlando is known.But I had decided to make this trip a child-free, theme-park-free exploration of the real Orlando — which, as I was about to discover, is a great place for a quick, adults-only getaway.

Related: Bar Crawl: How to Successfully Drink Your Way Through Disney’s Magic Kingdom

If you circumvent Disney and those other attractions that line Orlando’s famed International Drive and instead stick with downtown Orlando and the nearby city of Winter Park, you can have a fun and grown-up time in Orlando. With nary a mouse ear in sight!

Winter Park

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The relaxed, cool vibe of Winter Park is a great change of pace from crowded, touristy areas. (Photo: Visit Orlando)

Winter Park is the best-kept secret in the Orlando region. This city, about 20 miles northeast of Orlando, started as a winter resort for wealthy Northeasterners in the late 19th century. Today it has the pleasant, comfortable feel of a really cool college town — which, by the way, it is; Rollins College, which Newsweek recently named one of the country’s Most Beautiful Colleges, resides here. With lots of cool bars, restaurants, and shops, Winter Park is a good place to hang out, eat, drink, shop, and people-watch. And you can dog watch; this is a very dog-friendly town, with doggie water dishes placed outside many of the storefronts. Goofy would love it here!

Related: Brand-New Theme Park Attractions You Must See in 2015

Where to stay: The Alfond Inn, a AAA-Four Diamond Rated boutique hotel owned by Rollins College, is a lovely choice. The $30 million, 112-room hotel, which opened in 2013, sports a comfortable, airy feel accented by its Spanish-Mediterranean decor. Throughout the lobby and hallways, you’ll find art from the college’s collection. From its awesome skylight to its tasteful decor, the Alfond Inn sports a relaxed, grown-up vibe that sets it apart from some of the chain hotels that house the bulk of Orlando vacationers. And its best feature: It’s just steps away from Winter Park’s main drag, Park Avenue.

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The Alfond Inn (Photo: Visit Orlando)

What to eat: The trendy emphasis on locally sourced, humanely raised food has hit central Florida’s restaurants. One of the best is Luma. Located on South Park Avenue, Luma has racked up a number of awards for its elegant Southern-inspired American cuisine.

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Swordfish (with black-eyed peas and collards in the background) at Luma (Photo Sid Lipsey)

About five minutes away from Park Avenue, you can find a more casual dining experience at Cask & Larder. One of their most popular dishes is the Nashville Hot Chicken, a huge piece of deliciously smoked bird with broccoli mac & cheese, white barbecue, and cornbread. I was ordered not to walk into Cask & Larder without trying this dish; ironically, after finishing the huge portion, I was barely able to walk out.

If you want to venture a little ways outside of Winter Park, you can explore Orlando’s Mills 50 district and sample the authentic Vietnamese restaurants there, including the aptly named Vietnam Cuisine. Also near Winter Park is the East End Market, an Orlando neighborhood food hub with 10 independently owned shops and eateries in an indoor farmers’ market setting.

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I had a unique eating experience at Kappo. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)

At one of those eateries, the Japanese-flavored Kappo, guests sit around a bar as the chef prepares your sushi and serves it to you. Because of the intimate setting, the chef was able to guide me through my first experience with uni, which, he explained to me, is Japanese sea urchin. But he warned me that “it’s an acquired taste.” I ordered, and enjoyed, two of them. It wasn’t until I got home that I learned that uni is actually just a part of a sea urchin — namely the gonads. Betcha you were never secretly served gonads last time you went to Disney World! (Tip: Make sure you get to Kappo before or after the weekday lunch rush; it’s incredibly small and fills up quickly).   

Where to drink: You can easily do a mini-bar crawl up Park Avenue. The Wine Room is a comfy spot that houses 150 varieties of wine that are yours for the tasting: You buy a smart card and use it to access their Enomatic wine-serving system, which serves up your vino in a size of your choosing at the push of a button.

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The comfy, retro vibe of Park Social. (Photo: Facebook/Park Social)

If you want a more substantial cocktail outing, check out Park Social, which has the funky, psychedelic look of a 1970s speakeasy bar. Its colorful vibe is a lot of fun and more than a little sexy, as evidenced by the nearby couple who were making out on one of the couches near me (you won’t see THAT on Magic Mountain, kids). Park Social also features a menu full of original craft cocktails: I went with an Easy Rider (Bulleit Rye, Amaro Averna, liqueur, mint and egg whites).

Related: Around the World in 11 Drinks at Walt Disney World’s Epcot

A trip here requires a little bit of advanced planning. You need to call ahead (407-636-7020) and get a code. When you arrive, look for a phone booth. For some of our younger readers who may not know what a phone booth looks like, a photo is below:

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This is a phone booth. (Photo: Facebook/Park Social)

Here you’ll dial your code, which gains you entry to the bar. Of course, you could just have the door guy let you in, but what fun is that? Just because you’re not at Disney doesn’t mean you shouldn’t engage in make-believe. 

What to do: The eating, drinking, and shopping opportunities in Winter Park are more than enough to keep you busy during your visit here. But if you want to do even more exploring, take the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour. It’s a pleasant one-hour boat trip through Lakes Osceola, Virginia, and Mizell (which are connected by two man-made canals). If you’re a fan of house porn, you will love seeing the sprawling estates that surround these lakes. And if you’re into bird watching, this is the place, too; on my trip we saw osprey, pelicans, cormorants, stork, egrets, seagulls, and even one bald eagle — who was kind enough to pose for what I now call “The Greatest Photo I Will Ever Take.” 

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A rare bald eagle sighting was the highlight of my Winter Park trip. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)

Back on Park Avenue, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art has a large collection of works by 19th-century artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany (his dad, jeweler Charles Lewis Tiffany, was the founder of Tiffany & Co.). Lots of fun and fascinating eye candy to be found here, from stained-glass to interesting pottery collections, plus a few Tiffany lamps that even Aladdin would envy.

Orlando

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Downtown Orlando (Photo: Sid Lipsey)

Once you get into Orlando proper, it’s very easy to avoid the theme park madness, especially if you venture to downtown Orlando. With its gleaming new performing arts center, massive sports and entertainment arena, and the growing restaurant/bar scene on historic Church Street, downtown Orlando is making a big push to be a tourist destination on its own.

Where to stay: The Grand Bohemian, a boutique hotel located downtown directly across the street from the newly opened Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, just screams “trendy” — from the plush red decor to the more than 150 pieces of artwork that adorn the hotel (there’s an on-site gallery right next to the hotel’s Starbucks). It even has a rooftop pool where you can get a good look at downtown Orlando. Despite how much I squinted, I wasn’t quite able to see Mickey’s house from there.  

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The lobby at the Grand Bohemian (Photo Visit Orlando)

What to do: A walk through the Harry P. Leu Gardens gives you a nice dose of pretty. These 50 acres of gardens and three miles of walkways allow you to take a leisurely, calm stroll amid the bright and colorful scenery, which includes a formal rose garden, an 1880s house museum, and a butterfly garden. Once you get more into downtown Orlando, Lake Eola Park is a good place to spend some outdoor time on a nice day. You can lounge around in the restaurant/bars that ring the park, go paddleboating on the lake, and/or feed the ducks — not one of whom, it turns out, is named Donald.

Also take some time to stop by the focal point of Orlando’s downtown expansion plans: The new  Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. The ultramodern $488 million facility, which opened last November, houses the 2,700-seat Broadway-style Walt Disney Theater (the national tour of The Book of Mormon stopped here recently; Newsies opens this week). There’s also a 1,700-seat acoustic theater and a more intimate 300-seat venue — all designed in an open, uniform facility where tuxedo-clad opera-goers mingle freely with casually dressed soft rock fans.

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The Dr. Phillips Center brings Broadway to Orlando (Photo: Visit Orlando)

Where to eat: Just a few short blocks away from the Grand Bohemian Hotel and the Dr. Phillips Center is Artisan’s Table, another Orlando restaurant devoted to fresh and local ingredients. It’s a terrific brunch spot. Must-haves: the Artisan’s Burger — a burger made with ground short rib and brisket and garnished with bacon marmalade (a great palate cleanser after the uni); and the Tequilaccino, an ice coffee mixed with banana and the house-made café tequila, which is infused in-house. Dan tells us how In the video below:

Two other restaurants, Thornton Park’s Soco and downtown Orlando’s The Rusty Spoon, are two other great choices for trendy (and fresh) Southern-inspired cuisine. And if you’re a whiskey lover, both restaurants offer delicious bourbon cocktails (the Rusty Spoon offers a small-batch bourbon made specifically for them). Speaking of drinks …

Where to drink: You may not think the words “winery” and “Orlando” would go together, but Quantum Leap Winery in the Lake Ivanhoe district is a wonderful stop for wine lovers. Their staff of knowledgeable wine experts will take you on a tasting tour of various reds and whites — all sustainably grown wine that’s transported there to be finished, blended, and packaged. It hosts tours and wine-tasting events (a particular favorite: a “wine and foot massage” party).

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The wine flows freely at Quantum Leap Winery. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)

If you’re lucky, one of the staff dogs will curl up next to you as you enjoy your wine. Wow, just like home! And then there’s Hanson’s Shoe Repair, which is now one of my favorite bars anywhere. A popular highlight of Orlando’s speakeasy-style bar scene, Hanson’s also requires you to call ahead of time for a password to enter (and they are serious about it, too). Once you work your way inside, the impossibly cool bartenders (one was wearing a full arm tattoo of the old TV show Lost) create craft cocktails that can only be described as art in a glass. 

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They are serious about their cocktails at Hanson’s Shoe Repair. (Photo: Facebook/Hanson’s Shoe Repair)

The Final Verdict

Sure, Orlando will always be best known for its theme parks, and no one in the city is complaining. But as someone who used to write off Orlando as just a child haven for the minivan set, I was pleasantly surprised. Turns out it is possible for singles and child-free couples to have a blast here, a fact you will have fun discovering — especially if, like me, you have already done the Orlando theme park thing numerous times. Like the little girl on my flight who was excited to see Disney World for the first time, I flew home excited to have seen the real Orlando for the first time.  

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