This year marked my third annual trip down to Orlando, Florida for Thanksgiving with my family. In recent years, my grandparents, aunt and uncle had all relocated to Orlando. With me being on the East Coast too, it’s a bit easier to get to Florida for Thanksgiving as opposed to California with my parents. Having been there three times recently, I feel like I’ve got a pretty decent idea of how to have a good time in Orlando while avoiding the theme parks.
University of Central Florida:
Would you believe me if I told you that University of Central Florida has more students enrolled on campus than any other university in the USA? Coming from a family where my dad went to Ohio State and my brother is currently at Arizona State, all of us found this a bit hard to believe. But UCF is the biggest university in the US. The campus is gorgeous and includes a lake and a woodlands area, as well. I love checking out universities when I’m traveling, and stopping by the library and finding a coffee shop or a place for lunch.
UCF is a bit of a quirky school too that embodies the Florida spirit in a way. If you follow college football at all, you will remember the whole story with UCF claiming they won the National Championship in 2017. But for those of you that don’t know, the very summarized version is, UCF had an undefeated season and felt they should therefore be recognized as the National Championship. If you go to the UCF campus, the campus police cars all say “2017 National Champions”. However, they did not win the National Championship game. You can read more about it here if you’re really curious. To me, Florida is all about going your own way and sticking to your guns (literally and figuratively). So just seeing those police cars with their National Championship claim on the sides will remind you that you are indeed in Florida.
My grandmother actually volunteers in the gift shop at the Orlando Museum of Art! I tagged along with her one day to go see what it’s all about. Down by Loch Haven Park, there is not only the Orlando Museum of Modern Art, but also the Orlando Science Center, the Repertory Theater, the Ballet Studios, the Mannello Museum of American Art and the Orlando Fire Museum. It’s definitely a nice set up to have all the museums and science center grouped together, so you can make a day out of checking them all out if you wanted. The Orlando Museum of Art is relatively new, in terms of museums, so it has a lot of smaller up and coming artists. It’s relatively small in comparison with other larger museums in the world, too. I would recommend doing the Orlando Museum of Art and making a day of it and then stopping by the other museums nearby. Quick note: there is an entrance fee of $10 for the Orlando Museum of Art.
Lake Eola Park is absolutely gorgeous and I love going down for a quick walk around the lake. The Park also includes the Walt Disney Amphitheater and there is frequently events on in the park. You can even do things like rent a paddle boat and go out on the lake. There’s lots of public art and open space to enjoy a picnic in the sunshine. It’s definitely worth checking out on a nice day!
Fan Boat Tour:
On my first trip down to Florida, I was determined to do a fan boat tour. How many other places in the world can you do that? I really wanted to see an alligator too, and this experience did not disappoint. My cousin, aunt, grandmother and I all headed to Captain Duke’s Air Boat Rides and had an absolute blast. Not only did I see an alligator, we saw three alligators and a bald eagle. I’ve never spent much time tromping about in swamps so this was an incredibly amazing and unique experience for me. It’s a really fun way to get outdoors in Florida.
Places to Eat:
The Black Bean Deli serves traditional, tasty Cuban fare from four separate locations throughout Orlando. My favorite is the Mills50 location on East Colonial because it is a converted old gas station. As you pull up, you get the old 1950’s vibe from the building’s architecture. Their sandwiches and empanadas are always delicious. They’ve been in the Orlando area for 15 years, and it’s easy to see why!
I recently stopped by the East End Market with my grandparents and my uncle before flying back to New York. We picked up a few cinnamon rolls from Olde Hearth Bread Co and a smoothie from Skyebird, and sat in the sun for a bit before heading to the airport. The East End Market is definitely pretty trendy. It calls itself a “neighborhood market and culinary food hub”. To its credit, the market does offer events and classes and includes a community garden you can walk through. The garden is run in cooperation with a community NGO called Fleet Farming. Fleet farming uses the garden at East End market and underutilized lawn space in Orlando as urban micro-farms to grow local produce. If you want to get a feel for the Orlando food scene, the East End Market is definitely worth checking out.
Looking for a burger and a beer? Graffiti Junktion in Orlando has that down to a science. Sometimes you just want an easy meal when you’re on the road, and to me, a burger and a beer is just that. They offer a few non-burger food items too!
In the Orlando Area:
About an hours drive away from Orlando, in Volusia County is Daytona Beach. You may have heard of Daytona Beach thanks to the NASCAR International Speedway or the Daytona 500 there on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. It’s well-known for allowing people to drive on certain parts of the beach (however it does cost about $10 to do so). But, when in Daytona Beach do as the Daytonans do. Daytona beach is also incredibly close to Ponce Inlet if you’re looking for a fun day trip from Orlando, too.
Also in Volusia County, south of Daytona Beach, is the town of Ponce Inlet and their lighthouse. The lighthouse is the tallest in Florida and the second tallest in the nation. Designated as a National Historic Landmark, the museum on the lighthouse grounds offers a really unique perspective into the lives of lighthouse keepers and the history of the area. The grounds consist of the lighthouse and three keepers’ homes which have all been restored. You can climb to the top of the lighthouse as well, for some amazing panoramic pictures.