Although Orlando is indisputably the world's theme-park capital, there is more to this part of Florida than Disney-esque magic, a colossal mouse and topsy-turvy rides for adrenaline junkies
Once upon a time
Once known only for its cattle, cotton and citrus industries, the area didn’t enjoy the taste of fame until Walt Disney World opened its doors in 1971. Now, Orlando has evolved into one of the world’s leading holiday destinations, with more than a million Britons visiting every year.
Tucked away in the heart of the Sunshine State, Orlando grew up around a sleepy farming town called Fort Gatlin, founded as a military outpost. While there are different versions of the origin of the name, the official version gives credit to a US soldier Orlando Reeves, killed by an American Indian's arrow while on duty at what is now the 43-acre (17-hectare) Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando. These days, the park is a busy visitor attraction, with walking and jogging trails, playgrounds, eateries, an amphitheatre for special events and swan-shaped pleasure boats for hire.
So much to do
There are few destinations to rival Orlando’s year-round recreational offerings. Besides a pulsing nightlife, fabulous restaurants, luxurious spas and culture galore in the form of live theatre, dance, and art and history museums, there is also an abundance of lakes, springs and crystal-clear rivers for swimming, boating, water skiing and fishing. Sporty types have a choice of 21 fitness trails for biking or walking, 800 tennis courts, opportunities for horse-riding - and, of course, it just wouldn’t be Florida without golf. There are more than 150 courses within a 45-minute drive of Orlando, and golf schools, golf events and golf speciality outlets are all part of the local scene. Walt Disney World itself is home to six golf courses.
Orlando and surrounding district is a shopper’s paradise, home to around a dozen shopping malls and department stores including Saks Fifth Avenue. One of the most recent additions to the shopping skyline is the stunning, state-of-the-art Mall at Millenia, where world-famous department stores Bloomingdale's and Macy's sit alongside a wardrobe’s worth of designer names including Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, Tiffany & Co and Jimmy Choo.
Ritzy Winter Park
Downtown, only a short drive from Orlando’s major attractions, you can mingle with the ritzy crowd in the swish neighbourhood of charming Winter Park. This area is chocker with art galleries, jewellery stores and antique shops as well as chocolatiers and a shop devoted to selling clothing for dogs! After you’ve shopped till you drop, there is no shortage of sophisticated cafés in the tree-shaded avenues spilling out on to red-brick pavements where you can relax and people watch. Another way to get a peek at the Winter Park lifestyle is by taking a trip on the Scenic Boat Tour, which trundles through historic canals past a glorious collection of lakefront mansions.
Wildlife is plentiful in this part of the world and taking an eco-tour is the perfect way to catch sight of wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, hogs, coyotes, bobcats, black bears and maybe even the elusive Florida panther. The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, with its hiking trails and seven-mile wildlife drive also has a manatee viewing area and offers boating, fishing and canoeing. This is an excellent place to see waterfowl, wading birds, alligators and river otters. In the wildlife realm, you can't beat Gatorland for up-close-and-personal encounters with alligators, (or even hands-on, if you want to sign up for the Trainer-for-a-Day Programme).
Old time fun
Neighbouring Kissimmee is less showy than Orlando, and true blast-from-the-past cattle auctions and rodeos are still a way of life in its historic downtown area. If the past doesn’t do it for you, there are also plenty of modern-day attractions including 75 speciality stores, 18 amusement rides and eight restaurants.
A little farther from Orlando’s core attractions, off-the-beaten-path small towns spill over with gallons of old-time zippety doodah. This is where to find nuggets of antiquity aplenty, including the antiquing, biking, time-warp town of Mount Dora, just made for relaxing and rocking on a verandah, and Sanford, a St Johns River town where visitors can enjoy romantic excursions by riverboat. Cassadaga is famous for its spiritualist community and those who enjoy such things can stop for a palm-reading while tuning into the town’s unusual vibe. In Polk City, heart of cattle country, you can take the wheel on a virtual reality flight, have a whirring bird’s eye view of the countryside from a real biplane and tour the world’s largest private aircraft collection at the aviation-oriented park, Fantasy of Flight.
Where to Stay
With its backdrop of dense oaks and pines, the 1500 room Rosen Shingle Creek hotel got its name from settlers who in the 1800s logged cypress trees down the creek. These were then used to make shingles for the roofs of their homes. The hotel has amenities galore including one of the nation's largest ballrooms, four outdoor swimming pools, two tennis courts, basketball, nature and jogging trails, a glorious nine treatment room Spa, state-of-the-art fitness centre and 18 hole championship golf course. The location is handy for Orlando International Airport too, being a mere 10 minutes drive away.
Tour operator Virgin Holidays offers package deals, flying direct from Gatwick to Orlando. Before your flight, you can relax in Virgin’s V ROOM, in a premium Gatwick location with runway views, floor-to-ceiling windows, and three distinct areas: kids, adults-only and family.