- Places to Explore
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Away from the Theme Parks
If you're like most visitors to Orlando, you've come for a theme park (or two or three). But if you need a break from them, have people in your group who aren't interested in them, or have an extra day or two, know that it's easy to get out and explore Central Florida. A stay in Orlando puts you an hour from the eastern coast and 90 minutes from the Gulf of Mexico.
If you're visiting the gulf just for the beaches or fishing, check the state's environmental protection site (www.dep.state.fl.us/deepwaterhorizon) to see how/whether the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has affected the coast.
1 Day: Central Orlando Highlights
Head out midmorning. If it's rainy or hot and humid, visit the Mennello Museum of Folk Art northeast of Downtown in Loch Haven Park. If it's a nice day, however, explore the 50-acre Harry P. Leu Gardens, also northeast of Downtown Orlando. Arrive for one of the day's first guided tours (they start at 10) of the Leu House Museum.
LYNX Bus 50 runs directly from Disney and I-Drive to Downtown Orlando.
Head southwest to Downtown's Lake Eola Park. Have a late lunch in the park's Relax Grill or at one of the many eateries nearby—maybe HUE, a contemporary restaurant. Work off some calories in a swan-shape pedal boat. At this point, happy hour and the bars and clubs of Orange Avenue aren't far off. If you feel like dancing later, Firestone Live is a couple of blocks north; Antigua is south and around the corner.
The Orlando Science Center, in Loch Haven, is a kid-friendly alternative to the museum or gardens, and Johnny's Filling Station (locals love the burgers) or CityFish are good Downtown dinner bets.
1 Day: Shopping Highlights
If it's Saturday, head out early so you can start your spree at the Winter Park Farmers' Market, where there's free valet parking. There are also stalls that sell locally sourced foods—including breakfast—and crafts. Winter Park is just north of Downtown, at Exit 87 off Interstate 4.
There's no need to rent a car if you're planning to visit only Winter Park; instead hop a LYNX bus from the main Orlando terminal.
Regardless of the day, Winter Park's shopping-and-dining drag, Park Avenue, beckons. Boutiques and galleries—including Ten Thousand Villages and Timothy's—line the east side, opposite an oak-shaded lawn. An alfresco lunch at a restaurant here will carry you through an afternoon of still more shopping.
Hop on Interstate 4 at the Fairbanks entrance, and head west about 8 miles to Exit 78 (Conroy Road) and the upscale Mall at Millenia. If you'd rather hunt for bargains, take Millenia Boulevard to Oak Ridge Road (at the intersection of International Drive) and its outlet malls—Festival Bay and Orlando Premium Outlets International Drive. Farther south, on International Drive at Vineland Avenue, is Orlando Premium Outlets Vineland Avenue.
Nonshopping alternatives in Winter Park are the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art and the town's scenic boat tour. On I-Drive, you'll find Fun Spot, WonderWorks, and Ripley's.
You've spent the day shopping like a local, so you should spend the evening dining like one. Head to Sand Lake Road for a pick of places and cuisines—from Italian and Mediterranean to Thai and Hawaiian fusion. Splurge on a steak at Morton's The Steakhouse or go lighter—in terms of both your budget and the food—with seasonal fare at Seasons 52.
1 to 2 Days: The Space Coast
From Orlando, you can be at the Kennedy Space Center in a little over an hour on SR528 (the Beachline Expressway, a toll road), which makes it a good day trip. Several Orlando tour companies have trips for about $100 per person. Exhibits on American space travel here have enthralled visitors since 1968.
An overlooked space-center alternative is the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum. Check out the military-aircraft memorabilia, and then buy a bomber jacket.
With an overnight stay, you can lounge on the blissful beaches of Canaveral National Seashore, catch a wave like surfing legend (and local hero) Kelly Slater, or explore the adjacent 140,000-acre Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
There are also opportunities for horseback riding, hiking, bird-watching, and fishing. Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach make great bases, thanks to their coastal locations and selection of hotels, restaurants, outfitters, and other amenities.
1 to 3 Days: Tampa and St. Pete
Shamu enthusiasts can include a visit to Busch Gardens Tampa with their SeaWorld Orlando combo ticket (they're owned by the same company). The city is only about 90 minutes southwest on Interstate 4, so you can take in the theme park on a day trip. But many attractions make Tampa, St. Petersburg, and other coastal towns worthy of a car rental, exploration, and an overnight stay.
If you stay, spend an evening in Ybor City, Tampa's Cuban enclave and a nightlife mecca, particularly along 7th Avenue. In the morning, head to a beach in St. Pete or Clearwater. Spend the day sunbathing or make an afternoon visit to St. Pete's Salvador Dalí Museum.
Dalí Museum docents conduct free tours and can explain how works by the Spanish surrealist ended up in Florida.
Alternatively (or in addition), you can take a Segway tour of St. Petersburg, catch a spring training or Buccaneers game, bike along Tampa's Bayshore Boulevard Trail or Clearwater's Pinellas Trail, or hunt for shells at Caladesi Island State Park.
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