25 Reasons We Love Orlando

You'd have to work hard to have a bad time: Here's where to eat, sleep, and scream your lungs out in America's funnest city.

By Carolina A. Miranda, Tuesday, Apr 22, 2008, 1:36 PM

1. For your amusement
Of the theme parks, none beats easy-to-navigate Universal Orlando. On one side is Universal Studios Florida, featuring the hilarious Shrek 4-D attraction and the brand-new Simpsons Ride. On the other side is Universal's Islands of Adventure, which caters to bigger kids with thrill rides like Dueling Dragons. In between is CityWalk, home to restaurants, live music, and shows (including the Blue Man Group). The best part? It's all within walking distance. 6000 Universal Blvd., 407/363-8000, universalorlando.com, one-day two-park pass $83, $73 for kids 39.

2. This little piggy...
Turkish-style mezes and fresh pasta dishes are among the pan-Mediterranean offerings at Harmoni Market. But it's the crisp flatbread appetizers that we really crave. 2305 Edgewater Dr., 407/206-0033, harmonimarket.com, flatbread from $9.

3. Art appreciation
In a sleek structure on the city's north end, the airy halls of the Orlando Museum of Art house a varied collection of paintings and sculptures, with a focus on American art from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Highlights include a richly detailed John James Audubon engraving of a great blue heron and a 1997 collage by Robert Rauschenberg. Most dramatic, however, is the installation by glass designer Dale Chihuly in the atrium, which is composed of 434 pieces of handblown glass. 2416 N. Mills Ave., 407/896-4231, omart.org, $8, $5 for kids 618.

4. A spot of tea
More than six dozen varieties of tea make Infusion Tea in College Park the ideal place for a healthy pick-me-up. The vegetarian menu includes an organic PB&J on whole wheat. 1600 Edgewater Dr., 407/999-5255, infusionorlando.com, PB&J $4.

5. Fit for a Mayan king
If there's one thing teenagers hate, it's being lumped in with younger kids—a good reason to consider Disney's Coronado Springs. The resort has a mellow, grown-up setting—Spanish-colonial-style structures and a Mayan-themed pool complex border a 15-acre lake—without sacrificing proximity to Walt Disney World. 407/939-1000, disneyworld.com, from $165.

6. Dive right in
Orlando isn't all cartoons and cotton candy. Since 1954, Wally's Mills Avenue Liquors has attracted a cross section of locals looking for hearty chitchat and generous pours. "You'll find politicians and attorneys, but also the working man," says co-owner Martin Snellgrove. 1001 N. Mills Ave., 407/896-6975, Jack and Coke $5.

7. Swan lake
On pleasant afternoons, couples, families, and joggers make their way around the 0.9-mile loop encircling Lake Eola (it's walking distance from much of downtown). Rent a swan-shaped pedal boat, inspired by the real swans in the area, for a leisurely ride on the water. 195 N. Rosalind Ave., 30-minute boat rental $12.

8. Slime-time entertainment
Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob SquarePants, and Diego all make appearances at the Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn. The resort also has cartoon murals in every room, two pool areas, a kids' spa (for temporary tattoos), a basketball court, and mini golf. And every afternoon, there's a public sliming. 14500 Continental Gateway, 866/462-6425, nickhotel.com, from $189.

9. Fresh oyster cult
Lee & Rick's Oyster Bar looks as if it hasn't changed much since it opened in 1950. Behind the ship-shaped façade is a wood-paneled dining room that draws locals of all stripes for buckets of oysters so fresh you can almost hear the crashing surf. At the concrete bar, shuckers pry open Apalachicola oysters as fast as you can eat them. 5621 Old Winter Garden Rd., 407/293-3587, bucket $17.

10. And that's no croc
Gatorland is a 110-acre park that's been devoted since 1949 to all things alligator. There's a breeding marsh, a snack shop selling gator nuggets (chewy!), and lots of alligator wrestling. Watch as a brave young man sends an eight-foot gator into a slumber. "We turn them on their backs," says Bret Chism, a Gatorland wrestler for more than 20 years. "It's called tonic immobility, and it's an unnatural position for a gator to be in. You can do it to chickens, toads, even sharks." After the pros are done, if you pay an extra $10 you'll get to sit on the gator yourself. 14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail, 800/393-5297, gatorland.com, $23, $15 for kids 312.

11. Guess who's coming to dinner
Parents can turn an average meal into an unforgettable event by booking a character dining experience at Walt Disney World. More than a dozen spots within the various Disney parks and resorts offer breakfast, lunch, or dinner with Mickey, Minnie, and the rest of the gang. But if you have little girls, make a reservation well in advance for the daily banquet with Disney princesses at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall inside Epcot Center. 407/939-3463, disneyworld.com, from $11.

12. Isn't she sweet?
The Dessert Lady Cafe has a long list of chocolate concoctions, but you'll also be tempted by the carrot cake, bourbon pecan pie, and a daily selection of bread pudding—all in shareable portions. Indecisive types will like the four-item sampler. Kirkman Shoppes, 4900 S. Kirkman Rd., 407/822-8881, dessertlady.com, desserts $9.

13. Super sandwich
Don't let the unassuming location in a downtown strip mall fool you: Pom Moongauklang, owner of Pom Pom's Teahouse and Sandwicheria, has taken the pressed sandwich to a new level. Favorites include the Fu Man Chu (Asian pulled pork with goat cheese, watercress, onion, and ginger-cranberry chutney) and a delectable curried chicken salad. 67 N. Bumby Ave., 407/894-0865, myspace.com/pompomsteahouse, curried chicken sandwich $7.

14. Gently down the spring
At Wekiwa Springs State Park, 20 minutes north of downtown, you can rent a canoe at the Wekiva Marina, paddle the beginner-friendly route to the springs, and then jump in for a swim. Along the river, keep your eyes peeled for turtles, egrets, and gators. (Don't worry, the latter avoid the springs.) Get an early start to avoid weekend crowds. 1014 Miami Springs Rd., Longwood, 407/862-1500, wekiva-marina.com, full-day rental $20, state park admission $1.

15. A store with spine
It's easy to spend hours scanning the shelves at UrbanThink!, the downtown independent bookseller known for its selection of Florida-themed titles. These include everything from coffee-table books on regional architecture to fiction by Zora Neale Hurston, who was raised in nearby Eatonville. 625 E. Central Blvd., 407/650-8004, urbanthinkorlando.com.

16. Splish splash
The new park by SeaWorld, Aquatica, has the requisite lazy rivers and gut-churning waterslides, but what's unique are the attractions built around animal habitats: The Dolphin Plunge propels riders down a 300-foot tube slide right through a lagoon where Commerson's dolphins swim. 5800 Water Play Way, 800/327-2424, aquaticabyseaworld.com, $39, $33 for kids 39.

17. Nosh around the clock
The food at the 24-hour B-Line Diner, located inside the Peabody Orlando hotel, is as '50s-style as the decor, which means you'll find burgers and shakes, as well as the signature chicken pot pie and big-enough-for-two wedges of tasty Key lime pie. 9801 International Dr., 407/352-4000, peabodyorlando.com, pot pie $13.

18. Light fantastic
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art showcases a comprehensive collection of 19th-century designer Louis Comfort Tiffany's work. Most resplendent is a chapel he designed for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Until the museum finished reassembling it in 1999, the room hadn't been seen by the public in its entirety for more than 100 years. 445 N. Park Ave., Winter Park, 407/645-5311, morsemuseum.org, $3, kids under 12 free.

19. Good evening, Vietnam
Well-known for its flavorful tamarind-cured beef salad, Lac Viet Bistro is a standout in Little Saigon. The servers will guide you through the many traditional specialties, but you can't go wrong with the Com Bo Luc Lac ($8), a tender, wok-seared steak with garlic, pepper, and butter. 2021 E. Colonial Dr., 407/228-4000.

20. Do look back
A trove of artifacts relating to Florida—including an annotated manuscript of The Dharma Bums, which Jack Kerouac wrote in Orlando—is on display at the Orange County Regional History Center, in the heart of downtown. It's housed in a pristinely refurbished 1927 courthouse. 65 E. Central Blvd., 407/836-8500, thehistorycenter.org, $10, $4 for kids 312.

21. Havana good time
"I have one client who has been driving in from St. Augustine every single Saturday for 11 years," says Bob Castro, owner of Cuban Sandwiches to Go! "He buys 10 sandwiches and then takes them back to his family." No wonder: Fresh Cuban bread is layered with thin-sliced ham, moist roast pork, imported Swiss cheese, pickles, and mustard, and then it's pressed—with butter—to finger-licking perfection. Enjoy yours while sitting on the unpretentious patio. 1605 Lee Rd., 407/578-8888, $4.

22. Just call us socialites
The Social, located downtown, is one of the top spots for live music in Orlando. A brick-walled space with a well-tended bar, it has a low stage that makes you feel as if you're hanging out with the band. Sorry, kids: Concerts at the Social are mostly 18 and over. 54 N. Orange Ave., 407/246-1419, thesocial.org, cover varies.

23. Eat your heart out
The ambience is next to nonexistent, but that's not why people jam into Johnson's Diner. The fried catfish and succulent meat loaf have kept this family-run soul-food institution hopping for a quarter century. (Celeb patrons include Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley.) Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served—but on most nights, Johnson's closes by 7 p.m. 595 W. Church St., 407/841-0717, johnsonsdiner.com, catfish with three sides and corn bread $8.

24. The state lobby
If you don't have time to get to other parts of Florida on your trip, no worries. At Gaylord Palms Resort, guest rooms surround a giant atrium containing replicas of Key West, St. Augustine, and the Everglades (complete with steam and live gators). It sounds theme-parky, but the grown-up amenities—a sushi bar, a steakhouse, and an outpost of the Canyon Ranch SpaClub—keep the place buzzing with couples and business travelers. 6000 W. Osceola Pkwy., Kissimmee, 407/586-0000, gaylordpalms.com, from $159.

25. Take five
Every visitor to Orlando has a favorite ride. Our top five are the Hulk (at Universal's Islands of Adventure); the Kraken (SeaWorld); Jimmy Neutron's Nicktoon Blast (Universal Studios); Soarin', a majestic simulated flight over California (Epcot); and the campy Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, which hurls you around to tunes such as "Dude Looks Like a Lady" (Disney's Hollywood Studios).

AMERICA'S FUNNEST CITY


INTERACTIVE MAP!
Explore these Orlando locations
Launch the map