Orlando is known throughout the world as the location of Disney World and other theme parks and associated attractions. Disney fans and other travelers could be forgiven for assuming that Orlando is therefore just a massive airport due east of a cluster of parks, outlet malls, and other trappings of tourism—except Orlando isn’t, and the major theme parks including the Disney properties are not even located within Orlando’s city limits.
Orlando and Orange County were crucial to the development of central Florida before Walt decided to put Disney World here, and Orlando has been home historically to the origins of Florida’s famed citrus industry, a major Lockheed plant, and for years a leading Navy training base. During World War II, Army pilots trained out of Pinecastle Army Airfield/McCoy Air Force Base—which later would become Orlando International Airport when they military no longer needed all its facilities. (To this day, the airport code for Orlando International is “MCO” in honor of its origins as McCoy.)
By the 2000’s, Orlando and Orange County had grown in size, population, wealth, and sophistication to such a degree that Orange County now has its own mayor at the county level beside Orlando’s city mayor, and Orlando often makes its way into nationwide “top ten” lists for attributes such as job growth or highest literacy.
Not surprisingly then, Orlando offers a great deal that is fresh—quirky, even—as it’s still a young city, a diverse city, and a city inspired and furthered by tourism, by imagination, by an economic composition that is unique to the entire nation. Orlando’s closest relation in American cities may well be Los Angeles, another city that grew up via entertainment and dreams (though LA also has a fascinating history prior to the rise of Hollywood and wasn’t built on movies alone). So here’s a short tour of the Orlando often unseen and unknown to anyone but locals.
First thing to realize is that Orlando is a major sports city. The Orlando Magic has since 1989 been one of the most dynamic and exciting teams in the NBA, and their home arena, the Amway Center, is one of the newest in the country, having been built only in 2010. It’s a stunning place to see a basketball game and also the venue for major touring concerts and other forms of entertainment. Just this year, Orlando garnered Major League Soccer’s latest full-league expansion team, Orlando City, which with their inaugural match made history by filling their home stadium, the Citrus Bowl to capacity—a rare feat in American pro soccer and impressive even by the standards of leading European teams. Florida has the weather to attract top-notch pro, college, and youth sporting events year-round, and with the emphasis on first-rate venues and the high number of hotel rooms, the city can offer more than most cities its size. This summer, Bigfoot Hoops, a leading youth basketball training and competition league, will have its Bigfoot Summer Classic in Orlando in early July.
ESPN’s Wide World of Sports, located near the Disney parks southwest of Orlando, also is a center of sports including track and field events, soccer, tennis, and especially baseball with one of the finest spring training complexes in the nation.
When looking for those Orlando places and things uncommon or rare, United World Soccer fits the bill as well. Soccer is one of the fast-growing sports in America after decades of being seen as mainly a youth sport or one enjoyed by immigrants from nations where it’s more popular. Due to this, many mainstream sporting goods stores may stock basic soccer goods needed for when Junior joins a team. But few have the pro jerseys of favored overseas teams or a wide selection of cleats (known as “boots” in soccer jargon) beyond what beginning kids require. So why not a soccer specialty store? United World Soccer is exactly that, and located as it is in the Florida Mall (one of the largest malls in the state), it’s easy to find and even if you don’t need anything from it, it demonstrates just how big soccer has become in Florida.
Of course, Orlando has ample bars—it’s a major convention destination, vacation destination, and has a young and outgoing resident population. But some bars really stand out and would do so anywhere. Aku Aku, 431 East Central Boulevard, is a new Tiki bar in central Orlando just steps from Lake Eola—a beautiful lake and park and a constant attraction for locals. Tiki bars, for anyone who missed the 1950’s and ’60’s (which would include me, of course, but I’ve done my homework) were the invention of pioneering gents like Victor Bergeron of Trader Vic’s and Don “the beachcomber,” who took the exotic flavors of Polynesian cuisines servicemen encountered in the Pacific Theatre of World War II and devised original, not always fully authentic, but always tasty foods based loosely off these Asian-Pacific concepts. Thus the crab rangoon and rumaki were born. The centerpiece of Tiki menus, however, was not the food but the cocktail: the Mai Tai, the Blue Hawaii, the Navy Grog, and, of course, the Zombie. Tiki bars disappeared over the years, but now they’re making a strong comeback, and there’s none finer than Aku Aku. Tucked away in a small space and furnished with the finest in retro-fab decorations, super-dim lighting, and with period music (think James Bond movie soundtracks and jazz exotica) on the sound-system, it’s already become a local favorite. Drinks are served in classic maoi-inspired Tiki tumblers just like Don or Vic would have done and it’s fun times all around.
The Matador, a slight ways across town at 724 Virginia Drive, does for refined-yet-casual neighborhood hangouts what Aku Aku did for Tiki: made it perfect. While it has a pool table, it also has a posh little couch and quite possibly the best Old Fashioned in all of Florida. Known for their friendly yet expert bartenders and regal if laid-back vibe—complete with a wealth of references to bullfighting and matadors—this bar is easily one of the best and also most unique in the city. Come early if you want to ensure a place to sit, although in good weather (which is nearly always in Orlando aside from rainy nights) the outside patio is ideal and also dog-friendly.
Back at the Amway Center, 400 West Church Street, you can find the posh One80 Grey Goose Lounge in the northeast corner of the arena. This bar, which has a business-casual/dressy dress code and attracts a young professional clientele, is open most nights even when there are not events scheduled at the Amway Center. It sports a great view of the city and is focused on martinis and other cocktails as you’d expect from a bar sponsored by a vodka company. The outside deck is one of the best places for a drink and good company in Orlando and probably boasts the best view of any bar in town.
Orlando also has a nearly-endless array of options for exciting dining. Again, being a youthful city with no shortage of chefs and service industry types who know good food and emerging culinary trends, it only makes sense that Orlando should be on the cutting edge of cuisine. Sometimes though, the best surprises are found in rather typical and traditional guises, such as Napasorn Thai, 56 East Pine, a simple, conventional Thai restaurant in downtown Orlando that shines for its dedication to friendly service and Thai favorites.
The atmosphere, which is slightly-worn, very classic, and not too formal while still invoking a feeling of all things prim and proper, wins points and merits Napasorn’s inclusion here. Given that its location downtown cannot be beat and that it is open until at least 11:00 PM on weekends favors Napasorn as the logical go-to for those in the city’s vibrant center. Whatever you order—any of the curries would be my recommendation—be sure to ask for the spice tray, a silver-plate wonder of a vessel laden with various dry and marinated pepper-based spices in case that curry isn’t hot enough already for you.
White Wolf Café and Bar, 1829 North Orange Avenue, is a great brunch spot known for its Crab Cake Benedict and French toast but also its Bloody Marys and other cocktails. In Orlando’s Ivanhoe District, not far from Florida Hospital Corporation’s flagship hospital, a sprawling but strangely beautiful complex seemingly under constant construction and also near the museum complex of Orlando, which boasts art and science museums plus a beautiful and easily walkable park. Many visitors to Orlando assume the city is, like LA or Atlanta, endlessly vast and only accessed via car, but there are parts such as the Ivanhoe District or downtown that are quite walkable and made enjoyable by ample parks and green space.
And then there’s Colonialtown. No, Colonialtown isn’t an amusement park devoted to early American history but rather an area of Orlando named after the Colonial Drive around which it is clustered. Colonialtown is known as a “little Vietnam” since many Vietnamese refugees settled here after the war. Some of the best Viet food in Florida can be found here at restaurants like Pho 88, Viet Garden, and Little Saigon and several great Asian supermarkets are in the area as well. While not as walkable nor as large as, say, San Francisco’s Chinatown, the quality of food is normally very impressive for those craving Viet cuisine.
Orlando’s downtown is also filled with public art, both as efforts of the city government and of private corporations. In front of City Hall there is a small plaza with a tall abstract metal sculpture and a fountain with lights that change color at night, adding a sense of festivity to this center of government while the nearby plaza for Seaside National Bank and Trust, perhaps not to be outdone, has a tall abstract sculpture and fountain of its own. Despite having two first-rate shopping malls (Mall at Millenia and the Florida Mall) plus several outlet malls, retail has moved back downtown, with businesses such as Ego Lab, a combined hair salon and clothing/sneaker boutique, bringing the type of home-grown yet innovative shopping that young Orlandoians crave.
The Plaza, a two-tower post-modern skyscraper downtown designed by Baker Barrios Architects, offers retail, dining, and a movie theatre plus office space and does so with an emphasis on fun, cutting-edge design—the sense of space flight and futurism associated with Disney in fantasy and the Kennedy Space Center in real life is seen in many of Orlando’s newer structures but nowhere perhaps as vividly as here with the Plaza. Across the street in its long shadow is the impressive and dignified façade of the old Kress Department Store building, restored and in reuse now. Again, Orlando really came of age in two certain stages: in the pre-Disney years where it was a local epicenter of banking, health care, and commerce and then post-Disney with the equation of tourism furthering its economy but the same aspects of a regional center serving as key. Today, like many cities across America, it also has an emerging tech business with local start-ups and an emphasis on light industrial growth.
Most visitors to Orlando, especially those from out of state, come for the theme parks—if not Disney, perhaps Universal or the waterparks like Wet N Wild. These are all outstanding attractions—people come from all over the world for them, after all. But it would be a shame to be in Orlando and not partake in some of the local culture at all—seeing the Orlando Magic play another NBA team or getting in on the excitement of Orlando City soccer, which is nearly beyond all-consuming right now. Nearly every car I saw driving around Orlando this past month seemed to have the purple shield of Orlando City affixed to it. It’s been some time since I’ve seen as much love for any NBA or NFL team, much less for Major League Soccer. It’s refreshing. Then there is always the option of just walking around downtown or the Ivanhoe neighborhood or several other districts and enjoying this city very appropriately nicknamed “The City Beautiful.”
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