Travel feature: A trip to alternative Orlando
Tom Marshall discovers there’s more to the Florida city than Disney World
�Images that might pop into your head when you think of Orlando: big cartoon rodents, breakneck rollercoasters and overexcited kids dragging their parents from ride to ride.
The Florida city is the undisputed king of the theme park and virtually synonymous with the big three: Disney, Universal Studios and SeaWorld.
Many visitors are no doubt happy to spend their days exploring these vast fortresses of fun, never setting foot outside the parks or their hotels – and who can blame them.
But if you have grown tired of Mickey and Minnie – or just fancy something a bit more grown-up – what else is there?
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That’s what I set out to discover when I visited in February and embarked on a whistle-stop tour of alternative Orlando.
The best eateries, liveliest bars and most unexpected thrills were on my radar – as was finding time to tuck into some good old-fashioned relaxation.
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First up was the Revolution Off Road Experience – a stunning plot of land transformed into a rugged playground for dune buggies and quad bikes.
Sitting beside a scenic fishing lake, it boasts 230 acres of carefully plotted off-road tracks that sweep through trees beautifully blanketed in Spanish moss, with undulating terrain, bumps, sharp turns and straights that let you reach a fair lick.
As a quadding first-timer – one who doesn’t even hold a driver’s licence – I wasn’t exactly a natural and bumped into a few bushes. But it was great fun, especially when we took the dune buggies for a spin.
These felt like souped-up supercars compared to the quad bikes and we had a blast.
As well as the world famous theme parks, Orlando is also known for its reptile population and we were warned early on to be on our guard.
That was just before we went zip lining above alligator-infested waters.
The fear mounted as we scaled the tower to the line at Gatorland. But, when I courageously took the plunge, it wasn’t quite like my visions of reptiles gnashing at my feet as I swept above them. I don’t think they can jump that high – but it’s a great sensation and makes for a nice tale.
And the fearsome beasts aren’t just for show – they are hunted for meat. Our party had a taste of alligator soup at the hotel restaurant – like a cross between chicken and pork.
We were staying at Rosen Shingle Creek, a monolithic structure replete with 1,500 comfortable rooms and lots to do: two fine dining spots, four pools, a spa, tennis courts, games arcade – and encircled by a pristine 18-hole golf course.
I was after a bit of downtime and this is where I found it, leisurely walloping balls around the award-winning golf course – some of them even went in the air – and lounging by the pool. Even in February, the sun was scorching.
We dined at what at one of the city’s newest eateries – The Table. It’s been going a few months after evolving from a supper club and sees 20 diners pack around one table like old friends.
The owners are big on sourcing local produce and cutting down on food miles, picking up the fresh ingredients on the day and composing a menu out of what they have – never doing the same dish twice. This all adds to the charm, while the only drawback to the five-course feast was the difficulty in polishing it off.
Afterwards, we headed downtown to the urban heart of Orlando. It boasts sparkling skyscrapers reflected in Lake Eola, wide, palm-lined boulevards and a host of buzzing bars.
We hopped our way to the new Orlando Magic stadium and its rooftop Latitude Bar, a great spot to admire the city and cut a rug.
If there’s one thing you don’t want to do after a boozy night on the tiles, it’s early morning hang gliding. Mercifully, our airborne plans were kiboshed by high winds, making it too dangerous to take flight.
If there’s a second thing you definitely don’t want to do on a hangover, it’s speeding around a twisty-turny racetrack in a supercar – but this one I couldn’t escape.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to get behind the wheel of a Lamborghini or Ferrari and let rip on racetrack, the Richard Petty Driving Experience is for you. It’s fairly hard on the wallet but, for petrol heads who don’t have a spare few hundred thousand knocking about, I’m sure it’s priceless.
As for me, I gingerly jumped into a golden Lamborghini with a former racing driver. It was all I could do to not give the dashboard a new paint job and a good substitute for the rollercoasters we were shunning.
There is much more to Orlando than first meets the eye and ample opportunity to get your kicks without even touching on Disney ground – even for grown-ups.