I grew up in Orlando. Here are 8 surprising things about living in the tourist hot spot.

Samantha Tetrault at disney world (left), sign for downtown orlando (right)
I've lived in Florida for most of my life, and Orlando is my favorite part of the state.Samantha Tetrault; Shutterstock


Living in a popular tourist destination like Orlando is different than some people expect.

sam posing at the bubblegum pink wall at epcot
I grew up in Orlando just two miles from Disney World.Samantha Tetrault

I'm one of the rare Floridians who was born and raised in the Sunshine State, and I've been lucky enough to live in many different parts of it, from West Palm Beach to St. Augustine. But my absolute favorite part of Florida is Orlando.

Mostly known for its theme parks, Orlando is a massive city with many secrets hidden beneath its surface. So the next time you find yourself at Disney World or Universal Orlando, don't forget to explore other parts of the city, too.

Here are eight surprising things about the tourist hot spot.

The city is a landlocked metropolis, and the nearest beach is an hour away.

alligators swimming in florida waters
Don't be surprised if you spot alligators during your trip to Florida.Samantha Tetrault

When people travel to Orlando for the first time, they're usually surprised to learn that the city is landlocked.

Most tourists expect to find beaches when they come to Florida, but the closest one to Orlando is Cocoa Beach, which is about an hour away.

In reality, Orlando is flat with a lot of wetlands. Walt Disney acquired acres of swampland in Central Florida in 1964 to build a theme park, now known as Disney World, and other developers were quick to follow suit.

There's a reason many Floridians like me don't blink at alligator sightings: They were here first.

Despite Orlando's lack of access to the coast, numerous natural springs are within driving distance.

Samantha Tetrault in kayak
The natural springs are worth visiting year-round.Samantha Tetrault

Skip another day at the theme parks and take a short drive to one of Central Florida's stunning natural springs instead.

These diverse ecosystems are home to crystal-clear waters, underground diving tunnels, and endangered species, like manatees.

The springs are one of Florida's many natural wonders and are worth visiting year-round.

Many of them are within driving distance of Orlando, and I highly recommend going to Wekiwa Springs State Park and Ginnie Springs.

It's known for Universal and Disney World, but Gatorland was there before both of them.

ORLANDO, FL - APRIL 03: General views of the Walt Disney 'Partners' statue at Magic Kingdom, celebrating its 50th anniversary on April 03, 2022 in Orlando, Florida.
Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort in April 2022.AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Disney World and Universal might be the go-to theme parks nowadays, but that wasn't always the case.

Owen Godwin founded Gatorland in 1949 on former cattle land, making it one of the first theme parks in the area.

Today, Gowdin's family still owns the 110-acre theme park and wildlife preserve, which has thousands of alligators, crocodiles, birds, and more. Gatorland also has a petting zoo, a train ride, and natural trails.

With over 70 years of history, the park is one of the best places to see alligators and other wildlife up close.

Locals get discounts at a lot of the popular theme parks and tourist attractions.

Orlando Florida
Some of the attractions and activities in Orlando are very expensive.John Coletti/Getty Images

Many first-time tourists are shocked by how pricey their favorite theme parks and activities are and wonder how locals afford to flock there regularly.

Discounts are key. Most of the big theme parks, including Disney World, and local attractions offer lower prices for Florida residents.

Though locals might have to skip the peak season, they seem to outnumber tourists during other, less busy times of the year.

Orlando doesn't only have tourist-trap eateries — it has a lot of amazing restaurants and coffee shops.

lineage coffee orlando, writer holding the cup
Lineage Coffee Roasters is one of my favorite shops in town.Samantha Tetrault

Because Orlando has so many theme parks, you might assume it's full of tourist-trap restaurants. You'll find your fair share of them on International Drive, but Orlando also has an incredibly diverse dining scene.

The city is home to fine-dining restaurants and some of the country's top chefs, so you won't go hungry here.

Orlando's cultural diversity makes it a spectacular place to eat. Some local favorites include Tako Cheena, an Asian-fusion restaurant; The Ravenous Pig, a brewery and beer garden; and The Strand, a restaurant that specializes in New American cuisine.

In my opinion, Orlando also has some of the best coffee in the state. With so many local roasteries to choose from, I rarely ever stop at chains like Dunkin' or Starbucks. It's hard to pick a favorite, but Foxtail Coffee Co. and Lineage Coffee Roasting stand out.

The city has cuisines of all types, including some of the best Vietnamese food I've ever had.

mexican food from orlando
Orlando has high-quality restaurants that serve all types of cuisines.Samantha Tetrault

Orlando is, in my opinion, the best place in the US to get authentic Vietnamese food.

After the Vietnam War, hundreds of Vietnamese people came to Central Florida through refugee programs. They formed communities in Mills 50, an area near downtown Orlando.

Since the 1970s, Mills 50, nicknamed Little Saigon, has become a bustling hot spot for Asian communities. You can also find other types of Asian cuisine — like Thai, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean — there too.

Hurricanes are a part of life in Florida, but many don't reach Orlando.

lake eola in downtown orlando
Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando.Samantha Tetrault

It's hard to talk about Florida without talking about hurricanes. After living in South Florida during the historic 2004 hurricane season, when there were five landfall impacts in the span of six weeks, I've developed a warped perspective on these storms.

Though there are a lot of hurricanes in Florida, few reach Orlando thanks to its landlocked location. Most lose strength before they reach the City Beautiful.

I usually don't skip town for anything under a Category 3, but that being said, you should still listen to weather warnings and follow safety procedures.

The city hosts a lot of conventions and exhibitions, which keeps it unique.

Lake Nona glass sculpture
I appreciate the conventions and art installations, like this sculpture at Lake Nona.Samantha Tetrault

Many US cities have claimed to be weird, but I've found that few actually are. If my time in Orlando has taught me anything, it's that this city is truly one of a kind and totally weird, which makes it all the better.

In Orlando, nerds reign supreme. MegaCon Orlando, short for Mega Convention, celebrates comics, science fiction, horror, anime, and gaming. The city also has other cosplay expos and events where people can be whomever they want.

To me, Orlando will always be so much more than its theme parks.

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