Let’s be honest: When someone says, “Orlando,” the first things that pop into your mind probably are churros and a particularly famous mouse.
For years, this line of associative reasoning was spot on—there wasn’t much in Orlando worth experiencing beyond the walls of the Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Theme Park, and SeaWorld Orlando.
In recent years, however, the scene in O-Town has changed completely. Heading into 2016, the metropolis has become a legitimate foodie destination, a city with actual luxury hotels, and a year-round destination where families can have genuine (read: not contrived) fun that doesn’t revolve around theme parks.
For these reasons, I’m tabbing Orlando as my “Destination to Watch” in 2016.
What’s new and exciting? Here, in no particular order, are some of the reasons the city is worth a closer look.
Foodies around the world, take note: Y’all need to get to Orlando, stat. For the third consecutive year, Orlando captured the most nominations of any Florida city for the prestigious James Beard Foundation’s 2015 Restaurant and Chef Award semifinalists. Five Orlando chefs were named semifinalists in the “Best Chefs in the South” category. In addition, in 2015 Orlando received several prominent culinary accolades: Wine Enthusiast named the city one of the “10 Best Wine Travel Destinations for 2015,” and The New York Times highlighted Orlando’s “surprising food scene” as a reason for making it one of the “52 Places to go in 2015.”
Poolside at Four Seasons Resort, Orlando
Leading Orlando’s foodie revolution is Morimoto Asia, a collaboration between Chef Masaharu Morimoto and the Patina Restaurant Group that hit the scene in late 2015. The restaurant is the Japanese master chef’s first pan-Asian dining experience and showcases flavors from across the Asian continent with an emphasis on China, Korea, Japan, and Thailand. (For a peek at the interior, see the picture at the top of this page; the photo was courtesy of the restaurant.)
The menu here is an eclectic take on some of Morimoto’s favorite Asian flavors such as L.A. BBQ kalbi ribs, moo shu pork, Peking duck, lobster chow fun, sweet-and-sour crispy whole fish, pho ga, pad Thai, sticky ribs, and Singapore laska noodles. A modest offering of Chinese dim sum is available at all times—offerings that include dumplings, shumai, shrimp har-gao, and grilled chicken bao. And, of course, the restaurant has a sushi bar and full sushi list.
Disney Springs, formerly Downtown Disney, also has taken a huge leap in the local dining scene. In 2016 the area will welcome Homecoming: Florida Kitchen and Southern Shine from Chef Art Smith; STK Orlando; and Frontera Fresco by Chef Rick Bayless.
Other foodie haunts in the Orlando area that are getting buzz include K Restaurant & Wine Bar (from Chef Kevin Fonzo), The Rusty Spoon (from Chef Kathleen Blake, a James Beard Foundation-nominated “Best Chef”), Prato (from Chef Brandon McGlamery), Tako Cheena, Chaun Lu Garden, SoCo, Luma on Park, and Market on South. Another locals’ favorite: Slate, a classic American restaurant that features wood-grilled cuisine and open air dining. This eatery, from Chef Dominic Rice, is situated on a particularly dense stretch of Sand Lake Road that has become known as “Restaurant Row.”
Last but not least—for beer-lovers—is Crooked Can Brewing Company in Winter Garden. This microbrewery is located at Plant Street Market, the area’s answer to San Francisco’s Ferry Building. The Brewmaster, Kent Waugh, is making incredible craft beer, and he serves up four flagship brands as well as many other limited edition, seasonal, and specialty batches every day. (As an aside, the brewery mascot is a sprightly dude nicknamed, “McSwagger.” How could you not love that?)
Viewfinder Tip: Visit Orlando in the winter and just bring raingear. Prices at most non-theme park attractions are significantly lower.
Family fun, minus the theme park
Other attractions in and around Orlando provide visitors—specifically families—with diversion alternatives to theme parks.
For starters, there’s the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, a live music and theater venue that opened in early 2015 to critical acclaim. The center hosts award-winning Broadway-style shows, speakers, and musical concerts. It’s also a great place to hear live jazz.
The area also has a number of fantastic outdoor trails. One locals’ favorite: The West Orange Trail, a 22-mile-long multi-use rail trail owned by Orange County Parks and Recreation. This trail passes through downtown Oakland, Winter Garden, and Apopka. It also connects to the 13-mile South Lake/Lake Minneola Scenic Trail, another paved trail that is fantastic for recreational use.
Garden lovers will adore the Harry P. Leu Gardens, a 50-acre botanical oasis literally five minutes from downtown Orlando. The facility comprises palms, cycads, flowering trees, azaleas, vines, bromeliads, and tropical philodendrons, to name a few. Guests can marvel at the beauty of roses and camellias, and can stroll under the branches of camphor trees, elms, and oaks. There’s also a museum that offers (30-minute guided tours which provide) a glimpse at turn-of-the-century living for the families who once called the gardens home.
Four Seasons Orlando
Finally, don’t forget about Pointe Orlando, a shopping area that comprises more than 40 stores. The facility also is home to the arctic Minus5 Ice Experience, where you don a parka and drink vodka from glasses made of ice; and the Orlando Eye, a giant observation wheel overlooking the city.
Lap of luxury hotel
Of course my favorite place to stay in Orlando isn’t that new anymore—the Four Seasons Resort Orlando. This 434-room property opened in 2014, but is just as wonderful today as it was when it debuted. The property appeals not just to well-heeled families (all stays include a 24-hour shuttle to the parks) but also to couples who want to experience Orlando.
The resort’s location is unique in that it is inside the Walt Disney World Resort, yet it sits on 26 acres in a secluded part of a residential area. The hotel has the only adults-only pool within Disney, too—an infinity-edge wonder with stunning views of palm trees, as far as the eye can see. The kid-free vibe of this pool comes in handy if you’re visiting sans kiddos and are tired of parenting other people’s offspring (I say this as the father of three).
To encourage adults to experience Four Seasons Orlando, the hotel recently launched a new “Couples Stay & Play” package and special “Couples Weeks” with complimentary offerings such as mixology classes, Massage 101 classes, and more. Consider these sorts of experiences as Fast Passes to a happier relationship. You can thank me later.
What are your favorite non-theme park things to do in Orlando and why?