Metro Orlando and Central Florida
Theme parks are a big part of Orlando’s reputation among travelers, but not everyone who comes to the “City Beautiful” is interested in roller coasters and character breakfasts.
Before there was Walt Disney World, Orlando was a growing city beginning to make a name for itself as a center for aeronautical and military technology. Had the Mouse not planted its oversized shoes a few miles south of Orlando, it’s likely the city would have continued on its steady path of growth and would today be a respectable midsize burg in the heart of Central Florida.
However, that’s not what happened, and today, Orlando is immediately associated with theme parks and family fun with little thought given to the impressive slate of sights, attractions, and cultural activities that have nothing whatsoever to do with roller coasters or animated creatures.
While the city’s leaders have long been content to let tourism run the economic engine here, residents and adventurous travelers have learned that even without those theme parks to the south, the city is well-deserving of vacationers’ attention.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the proximity of the resorts and theme parks, the city of Orlando has a distinct flavor that combines the urban flair of a growing midsize city and the ticky-tacky anonymity of sprawling indistinct suburbs. The downtown area is compact, serving as a business hub during the day and a drinking destination at night; although considerable efforts have been made to give the city’s core a high-density residential feel, it nonetheless feels as if it’s constantly hosting guests.
Immediately outside the core, however, is where the city shines, with diverse neighborhoods housing everything from a bustling Vietnamese American district to art galleries, craft-beer bars, and a wide range of dining options.
Although functionally suburbs of Orlando, the scenic towns of Winter Park and Maitland have distinct identities from the “big” city, combining tree-lined streets, high-end shopping, historic buildings, and stunning museums.
Just beyond metropolitan Orlando is a wide array of outdoor activities, and several of the state’s most accessible and beautiful natural springs are within a 45-minute drive of downtown. Also nearby are quaint towns like DeLand and Mount Dora, which give the visitor insight into Old Florida charm. And for something completely different, a stroll through the spiritualist community of Cassadaga could result in you leaving Florida with a balanced aura to complement your sunburned skin.
A few days in the Orlando and Central Florida area is all one needs to get a taste for this part of the state. Make a home base in central Orlando, and devote a day to seeing the sights there; another day can be devoted to exploring [Winter Park and Maitland, and a third day could be spent in Cassadaga and nearby DeLand or trolling the antique malls of Mount Dora.
Getting to Metro Orlando and Central Florida
There are two airports that service the greater Orlando area, Orlando International Airport (MCO, One Airport Blvd., Orlando, 407/825-2001, www.orlandoairports.net) and Orlando-Sanford International Airport (SFB, 1200 Red Cleveland Blvd., Sanford, 407/585-4000, www.orlandosanfordairport.com). The former is one of the busiest airports in the United States and is served by major American and international carriers. The airport in Sanford is used primarily for charter flights, although one low-cost carrier, Allegiant Air, has regularly scheduled year-round service from several U.S. destinations; additionally, Icelandair as well as Scottish low-cost carrier Flyglobespan offer a few international options.
The only major interstate in the Orlando area is I-4, which connects Daytona Beach (and I-95) and Tampa (and I-75). Orlando is approximately 52 miles (45 minutes’ drive) from Daytona and about 86 miles (75 minutes) from Tampa.
There are several toll roads in the area, including State Road 528, a.k.a. the “Beach Line Expressway” that connects Orlando and Cocoa Beach; State Road 417, which is a bypass route that connects Sanford in the north to Disney World in the south; and State Road 408, which bisects central Orlando running east to west.
© Jason Ferguson from Moon Florida, 1st Edition