It’s a crisp January morning in Florida, and I’m headed down the aptly named Crystal River in a pontoon boat, mentally steeling myself for the task ahead. In just a few minutes, I’ll put on my snorkel and mask, ease into the spring-fed waters, float face-down like a dead woman and wait for a curious manatee to come calling. This is the only place in the United States where swimming with manatees is allowed and on our latest visit to Orlando, we’ve opted to make the two-hour drive to Kings Bay in order to try it out for ourselves.
But while it seemed like a fun adventure back when we made the reservations for one of Captain Mike’s manatee tours, I’m now feeling a little nervous. Before getting on the boat, we watched a safety video instructing us to never swim between a manatee calf and its mother, never come between a manatee and the rest of its herd, and never approach a sleeping manatee. The narrator doesn’t tell us what will happen if we make one of these mistakes, but my imagination tells me the results would be dire. Although manatees’ docile natures have earned them the title of “sea cows,” it would be just my luck to come across the lone ornery manatee in the 600 or so that winter each year in these 72-degree waters. I grimace as I imagine getting tossed into the air like a doll by a cranky and possibly rabid manatee while my children scream in horror and Captain Mike’s first mate captures the whole thing on his iPhone 7. I’ll become known as “Manatee Mom” on CNN and MSNBC. The Lifetime movie detailing my final hours will be called A Manatee Killed My Mother, and Tori Spelling will star as me and dye her hair a mousy shade of brown and wear outfits I wouldn’t be caught dead in, and everyone I’ve ever known will watch the movie and cry during Tori’s stunt double’s reenactment of my pointless and highly embarrassing death.
“Are you coming?” my husband Dennis asks. I look up. The small group of wetsuit-clad tourists on our boat are already headed one after another down the ladder and into the water. I take a deep breath and hug both my kids, who’ve opted to watch from the boat. “If you hear me scream, cover your eyes,” I tell them before heading out to meet my destiny.
We are given pool noodles before getting in the water, which we’ve been instructed to place under our arms and hips to help us float without making too much movement. Very slowly, we dog paddle a short distance over to the manatee sanctuary, a large roped-off area off to one side of the river. Humans aren’t permitted inside the ropes, but we can float face-down nearby and hope the manatees come to us. We wait this way for several minutes — and nothing happens. The water here is choppy, and visibility isn’t great; I start to worry our entire manatee experience will consist of watching shadowy figures lumber in and out of view a good 20 feet away.
And then it happens. A baby manatee approaches, wanting to play. He brushes up against me, nosing curiously at my wetsuit, then turns over on his belly. Beside me, Captain Dave gently taps my shoulder and I lift my face out of the water. “He wants a belly rub,” he whispers. I put my head back down and tentatively reach out and touch the manatee. The water creates a sort of vacuum, erasing all sound and obliterating the swimmers around me from view. The manatee gazes at me with its wise, elephantine eyes, and I feel as if we’re both suspended in time and space for one eternal moment.
Later, when it’s all over and we’re swimming back to the boat, I’m breathless with the knowledge that I’ve just had the kind of once-in-a-lifetime experience serious travelers pursue like a holy grail. Looking back now, my manatee encounter is a fitting image for the Orlando I’ve come to know — a destination filled with unexpected magic that has nothing to do with pixie dust or sorting hats.
I don’t say this lightly; we are hardcore Disney and Universal fans, and I’ve written plenty on the ins and outs of Orlando’s amusement parks. But after spending a week in the Orlando area without once paying an admission fee, riding a monorail or having my backpack searched for counterfeit mouse ears, I’ve discovered a vibrant city rich with culture that’s worth venturing outside the parks to explore. Whether you’re looking for an ethnic food adventure, a world-famous brewery, a supernatural experience or a locally owned fast food joint so awesome that Jimmy Fallon headed straight there when he came to town, Orlando and the surrounding area has it all … and then some! Here are some of our favorite places to put on your to-do list the next time you visit.
I’ve never met an Orlandoan who hasn’t recommended this colorful, casual bistro, housed in a 1910 structure that’s seen use both as a boarding house and general store over the years. Today, the whimsical decor (much of which is covered in graffiti) gives the place a decidedly lighthearted feel — a vibe shared by garrulous owner “Fish” Morgan. He’s likely to strike up a conversation if you run into him during your visit.
As for the menu, locals rave about the Florida Cracker, a pulled pork sandwich topped with coleslaw, gouda cheese, bacon, pickles, fried onions and BBQ Sauce. Or you might opt instead for the Holy Crap, a sandwich named for the words a patron uttered after tasting it for the first time. It combines mesquite turkey, avocado, goat cheese, bacon, red onion and basil mayo for guaranteed expletive-uttering delight. Yellow Dog Eats is located in Gotha, Florida, just six miles from Universal Studios.
The charm of this suburban town 10 minutes from Orlando lies in its rich history — literally. Winter Park was established in the late 1800s as a resort community for wealthy northerners drawn in by its picturesque chain of lakes and nearby railroad line. In 1888, President Chester A. Arthur visited Winter Park and proclaimed it to be the prettiest place he’d ever seen in Florida. Today, the town’s picturesque Park Avenue is lined with upscale boutiques and eateries, making for an excellent afternoon of shopping; it’s known locally as the Rodeo Drive of the South. Try Violet Clover for gorgeous designer finds, and enjoy craft beers and a tantalizing locally sourced menu at The Ravenous Pig.
But while shopping and eating are always a pleasure, my favorite reason for a day trip to Winter Park is for one of its Scenic Boat Tours, which have been in operation here since 1938. Board a pontoon boat for a breathtaking hour-long ride around Lake Osceola, where you’ll get a look at the manicured homes and backyards of Winter Park’s wealthiest, including the former home of everyone’s favorite neighbor: Mr. Rogers. The lake views are magnificent, especially if you choose the last tour of the day at sunset, but what truly makes the ride unique is traveling down the impossibly narrow canals that connect the lakes. Bring a bottle of wine along if you’d like, as well as your squad — the boat seats up to 18 people. Oh, and don’t forget cash or a check — Scenic Boat Tours does not accept credit cards.
Who would guess one of the world’s coolest bars could be found in Orlando? You’ll need a password to gain entrance into Hanson’s Shoe Repair, housed on the top floor of Orlando’s oldest building, but the hassle of obtaining it is well worth the experience. The bar, named for the first business to hang its sign here, has just 35 seats, and cell phones and photography are prohibited. Once you’re allowed through the massive second-floor door, climb the stairs and travel back to a time when alcohol was prohibited and speakeasies served the sophisticated in backrooms and basements. Kick back at the cozy bar or head outside to the rooftop to listen to live music. Head bartender Rene Nguyen has crafted a cocktail list here that’s getting national attention. Taste one of his concoctions, and you’ll understand the hype. What about that password, you ask? Call (407) 476-9446 between the hours of 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. on the day you’re planning to visit — you’ll receive a text with the password.
Instagram opportunities abound at Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando, where lush manicured paths wind around an impossibly blue lake that boasts Orlando’s downtown as its backdrop. Take a .9-mile stroll around the lake or rent a swan-shaped paddleboat and take to the waters. Whatever you decide, don’t forget your camera — you’ll definitely want to remember this view forever.
Orlando has the largest Puerto Rican population in the continental United States, which makes an Orlando vacation the perfect time to try out some of the island’s standout dishes. For a memorable experience, check out the Unidos Supermarket in nearby Kissimmee, where lines often extend out the door for the delicious, ready-to-eat selections at the deli counter. You’ll find plenty of interesting options to choose from, like churrasco (marinated skirt steak), goat stew and blood sausage, but whatever you do, don’t miss the flavorful mofongo — delicious fried plantains mashed with garlic and olive oil. It’s the top seller there for a reason, and it makes Unidos a must-visit whenever we’re in town. With most plates coming in at under $7, Unidos ranks high on our list as both an adventure and a bargain.
While you’re in Kissimmee, save room for dessert at nearby Melao Bakery (a six-minute drive from Unidos); the cases of Puerto Rican breads, pastries and flans here will make you wish for a second stomach. We love Melao’s sugared donuts and vanilla flan, but for a real culinary adventure, try the sweet cornbread. It might not look like much to a clueless mainlander, but it’s soaked in sugary condensed milk and filled with a secret-recipe syrup that makes this dessert truly delicioso.
Church Street Historic District
Looking for a big night out? Downtown Orlando’s Church Street District is filled with restaurants, bars and nightclubs that will satisfy every taste. Have drinks and listen to live jazz at the Grand Bohemian Hotel’s Bösendorfer Lounge, named for its Imperial Bösendorfer piano, which is one of only a few in the world. Dine at award-winning restaurant The Rusty Spoon, which features a locally sourced menu that includes such wonders as slow-braised lamb, handmade farfalle, and the admittedly giggle-inducing “Shittinonion Soup.” (For your information, it’s divine.) Brave the crowds at The Courtesy, an uber-popular bar that introduced Orlando to hand-crafted cocktails. Opt for an adventure with a visit to Stigma, a bar/tattoo parlor/pole dancing studio. Dance the night away at Independent Bar, a local favorite with two different dance floors, or whoop it up with beer-guzzling 20-somethings at Wall Street Plaza, a locally owned complex of bars and restaurants that center around an outdoor courtyard strung with twinkling lights. If you’re lucky, you just might see our favorite Orlando magician, Richard the Adequate, delighting the crowds outside.
With the advent of the interstate, most of America’s kitschy roadside attractions have fallen into ruin — fortunately, Jungle Adventures still thrives. Take a photo with Swampy, the 200-foot-long “World’s Largest Alligator,” then head inside for live wildlife shows and a boat ride through an alligator-filled swamp. The only thing that could make this old-school attraction better is a chauffeured ride there in the way back of a woody station wagon.
Patti Schmidt is Orlando’s Dessert Lady, a talented baker known not just for her mouth-watering cakes, but also for her refusal to use that glue-like fondant icing that makes most wedding cakes all but inedible. Try a slice of the six-layer chocolate cake or Patti’s signature carrot cake. It will set you back $9, but her legions of fans say Patti’s cakes are worth every penny, and I have to agree — everything we tried was both decadent and delicious. You’ll find The Dessert Lady in The Marketplace at Dr. Phillips, an upscale outdoor shopping center with plenty of parking.
With its carefully curated selection of clothing and accessories that are both stylish and affordable, this boutique in Orlando’s Audubon Park neighborhood is a true local favorite. To make things even more exciting, Dear Prudence has a sizable bead collection — pay a visit and a store associate will help you make your own one-of-a-kind necklace.
When Jimmy Fallon was in Orlando, he took to Twitter to ask his followers where to eat. Beefy King in Orlando’s Milk District was where they sent him. This locally owned fast food joint has been around since 1967, and it’s the first place we hit on our annual trips to Disney World. We love it for its steamed rare roast beef sandwiches served on fresh-baked kaiser rolls, crunchy tater tots and dreamy cherry shakes.
After a visit to Beefy King, we head right next door to the Drunken Monkey Coffee Bar. It’s a great place to go for a cup of joe and some friendly conversation, but we’re really crazy about its famous Anzac cookies. Made with oatmeal and coconut, Anzac biscuits were originally baked by Australian wives for soldiers during World War I, because they tended not to spoil in the men’s packs. The bakers at Drunken Monkey have taken the traditional Anzac recipe and run with it, offering several delicious varieties each day that are a true treat for cookie lovers. Buy a bagful and snack on them for the next day or two of your Orlando vacation.
If you find yourself in that special hell of long lines and crappy rides known as Orlando’s Legoland, weep not, my friend. Hidden deep inside this park of plastic pieces is a rare and wondrous treat: Cypress Gardens. Although Legoland replaced Cypress Gardens’ amusement park with its own questionable “amusements,” the stunning botanical gardens of yesteryear were preserved. They’re not easy to find, but trust me when I tell you they’re totally worth a walk through, even with whining children in tow. Once you arrive at the spectacular banyan tree, the kids will stop their complaining. Planted as a seedling in 1939, this tree has grown into a massive showstopper that looks like it came straight out of a Tolkien-esque storybook, delighting children and adults alike.
Beer enthusiasts won’t want to miss this large craft beer pub in Orlando’s Audubon Park. With 26 rotating drafts, 250 bottles and one of the best sour beer selections in the southeast, Redlight Redlight has been named one of the top 100 beer bars in the world by Draft Magazine. Don’t worry if you’re a novice when it comes to lagers, IPAs, and stouts — the staff are happy to help you find your perfect brew.
When Orlando locals want to celebrate, they head to nearby Sanford, where Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe offers a rollicking good time. At this boisterous German restaurant, musicians play lively polkas on stage while enormous plates of Jäger Schnitzel, potato pancakes, Bratwurst and Eisbein are passed among Hollerbach’s many loyal patrons. No need to worry about the authenticity of these dishes — purists consider Hollerbach’s to have the most traditional German menu in all of Florida.
Come wearing your fat pants and ready to sing, dance and drink from Das Boot, a 3-liter glass boot full of beer. Tradition dictates the party ordering it can’t sit until it’s emptied. And don’t fret over whether to bring the kids along — Hollerbach’s is large and bustling and frequented by a diverse crowd ranging from families to frat boys.
Of course, no great vacation is complete without a little soul-searching. I spend most of my trips making new friends and swearing over drinks that I’ll see them again soon. (Rene? Richard? I’m looking at you.) I make notes on my phone of where we’ll go the next time we visit. Often — and please don’t tell anyone this — I even look at listings of area homes for sale. I mean, I can totally see myself in that historic fixer-upper within easy walking distance of the charming Whatever District. Am I the only one who does this? Don’t answer that.
But in the cold light of the airport terminal waiting area, we must all ask ourselves, ‘Will I really ever come back here again?’ It’s a sobering thought, because as much as we love a destination, there are so many more out there to discover, and not enough time or money to visit them all. Fortunately on your Orlando vacation, there’s a place you can go for answers, both to this question and a whole lot more.
It’s called Cassadaga, and it’s a sleepy Southern neighborhood about 40 minutes from Orlando. Drive here and you’ll be struck by the quaint homes and community buildings and the cozy, small-town feel. And then you’ll be struck by something else — there are a damn lot of “psychic reading” signs on the sides of the road.
Traveler, you’ve just entered a place known as the “Psychic Capital of the World.” The Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp broke ground here 122 years ago, and it’s been going strong(ish) ever since. Today, about 25 psychic mediums are permanent Cassadaga residents, and they totally run this town. Spend a few hours or an entire day here, but only if you’re willing to take these spiritualists seriously. In other words, Cassadaga is definitely not a good stop for Krystall Leigh’s Bachelorette Party Bus.
Cassadaga has all kinds of family-friendly events each week that are open to the public, from historic tours to healing services and psychic development classes. When you arrive, it’s best to head straight to the Cassadaga Bookstore, where you’ll find all the information you need about the camp and its activities, including a whiteboard containing a list of mediums currently available for private readings. (Don’t worry about disturbing them; they knew you were coming.) You can also visit the Cassadaga website ahead of time and schedule a reading before you arrive.
I will warn you that the readings can be intense; during mine, the medium burst into tears, telling me that the spirit who showed up on my behalf had a very strong and positive presence. Of course, this was no surprise to me — I’m often told I have a very intense spirit, but it was nice to hear it from an expert.
If I’m honest, I have to admit that I don’t really believe in ghosts, but I do believe in the kind of magic that happens when you go somewhere with people you love and try new things together. It’s the kind of magic that can happen anywhere, really — in a tent along the Appalachian Trail. In a small-town Nebraska diner. On a ferry to the San Juan Islands. Or in a city whose many delights hide in the shadow of Cinderella’s Castle, waiting to be discovered.
Keep up with Lindsay’s travels by following her on Facebook.
All images, unless otherwise noted, are by Juan Pont Lezica of www.cycstudio.com.
Keep up with all of our latest travel adventures — click here and start planning your next getaway.