During a recent trip to Orlando, we interviewed our friend (and Orlando local) Ben Reed about what it’s like to call Orlando home. Consider his “best of” tips when planning your next trip to Orlando.
No Vacation Required (NVR): A lot of people dream of living in a place like Orlando. Tell us what it’s like to call Orlando home.
Ben Reed (BR): When most people think of Orlando, they think of theme parks and tourists. But truth be told, the City of Orlando is actually 30 minutes from the theme parks, and therein lies an entirely new community unfamiliar to tourists but adored by locals. With a base of individuals who have moved here to work in the hospitality industry, Orlando is composed of people from all over the world. And since our families are back “home,” there is a strong desire for everyone to connect with each other and plant their roots. Artists, entrepreneurs, bloggers, restaurateurs, community activities… Everyone is working on something to make their mark on the city and show their pride in their new home. There’s a vibe throughout Orlando unlike any other place I’ve been as people create the city they want Orlando to be.
From a purely practical standpoint, there is no state income tax, and the year-round warm weather is fantastic. I can’t even think about moving back to anywhere with snow. With a lower cost of living than other parts of the country, Orlando should be on your list of places to consider moving to.
If going off the beaten path excites you, a visit to Winter Park’s boutique shops, a boat tour of the mansions and dinner and drinks will keep you busy.
NVR: Let’s say someone is planning a trip to Orlando. How long do you recommend they stay and what area do you recommend they stay in?
BR: If theme parks are the major driver for your decision to visit, then I’d suggest staying at any of the Walt Disney World Resort hotels. You benefit from complimentary parking at the theme parks, early entry or extended evenings in the park, and advance selection of FastPass tickets. The convenience in location is a huge advantage after a long, tiring day in the parks. My favorite resort is Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge because of the savanna view rooms and unique restaurants. You could easily spend a full seven days visiting Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and relaxing by the pool. Some international visitors spend upwards to two full weeks and take trips to the beach, the Kennedy Space Center (where you can see an actual space shuttle), and spend even more time at Walt Disney World. I’ve been here for 10 years and still haven’t seen it all.
The nearby Mount Dora is known around the country for its annual craft festival, and Downtown Orlando has a cultural event or festival almost every weekend around Lake Eola. The Thornton Park district has a regular Wine Walk, and the pride parade is one of the largest in the state. Sampling the mix of Cuban (Black Bean Deli), Asian (Hawkers Asian Street Fare), and BBQ (Pig Floyd’s Urban Barbakoa) will keep you busy all weekend long. And the Daily City Food Truck Bazaar is the first of its kind in the country and the longest-running mobile food truck event. One long weekend is just the right amount of time to see what we have to offer. Always ask a local for suggestions for when you visit. Our local media hasn’t quite figured out how to reach the tourism market, so some events may be tough to find for the novice traveler.
NVR: What are three can’t-miss activities?
BR: To really learn how Orlandoans think about their community, you need to immerse yourself in many of the arts and cultural events that are hosted on a regular basis. The international public speaking sensation PechaKucha has a thriving fan base in Orlando. If you’re not familiar with the event, local residents present talks on any topic imaginable with only 20 slides and 20 seconds per slide. You’ll hear stories from all walks of life—music, science, art, humor, love, volunteerism, academia, and more. Orlando’s best come together several times each year to a packed house twice nightly.
Over at the East End Market, local entrepreneurs come together for a wine, cheese, and chocolate pairing. You’re seated at long tables with strangers whilst indulging in unique flavor combinations of life’s three major food groups put together by Quantum Leap Winery, La Femme Du Fromage, and Peterbrooke Chocolatier of Winter Park. When tastings aren’t in session, East End Market is a showcase of local artisan chefs.
And finally, the Orlando Fringe Festival is a yearly theater event with unique performances by local artists across a wide spectrum of the arts. Completely unique!
NVR: We learned—from a writing assignment in Edmonton, Alberta—that we love a good fringe festival. When is Orlando’s? Maybe that’s when we’ll visit you next!
BR: Fringe is in the spring on May 18–30.
NVR: Where is one place you take all of your out-of-town guests?
BR: Orlando beyond the theme parks offers a lot for out-of-town guests. On Tuesday nights I love taking friends and family to Hamburger Mary’s for bingo. Hosted by Carol Lee and Miss Sammy, a drag-queen duo that has been hosting bingo for almost a decade and every week it is sold out! This ain’t your common church bingo. Forget the innuendo, this pair joke, sing, and call numbers like you’ve never seen before. Make reservations far in advance as this show books up fast between regulars and newcomers alike.
NVR: Okay, we’re going to make you give it up. What’s your insider restaurant pick? Why?
BR: 4 Rivers Smokehouse is the local restaurant to try. Everybody loves to brag that they have the best BBQ, but this favorite stands out amongst anywhere else in the country. Arrive early on the weekends because the line goes out the door and around the corner. My best tip is to order ahead and pick up versus dine in. You can avoid the very lengthy wait in line.
For a more intimate dining experience, try Le Coq au Vin. Distinctly French, they have the best onion soup and the soufflés are larger than your head. Seriously! And while I’m on the theme of desserts, Better Than Sex has recently expanded from its original Key West, Florida, location and is Orlando’s hottest spot for double entendre named desserts.
NVR: My mind is blown. We’ve had the pleasure of dining with you at a few places in Orlando but never at any of these establishments. Next time, let’s hit Better Than Sex for dessert. What will we order?
BR: Their signature dessert, my favorite, is the Chocolate Grilled Cheese. Award winning, it features Brie cheese cooked inside bread with chocolate, cinnamon sugar, and strawberry soup.
NVR: And we’re going to make you do the same for your favorite bar? Why?
BR: There’s a bar for everyone in Orlando. Classic cocktails bars, wine bars, breweries, and everything in between can be found here. I really enjoy Aku Aku, a tiki bar complete with Easter Island moai statue heads, Elvis on the TV, and Martin Denny playing in the background. The cocktails are potent! Just across the street is Eola Wine Company where its tables on the sidewalk offer great people watching as the night continues on. At night I dance at Stardust Lounge to mash-ups of dance favorites from the 80s, 90s, and today. All three are located right next to each other making for an entire night of entertainment.
NVR: Now let’s get really personal. What makes Orlando “home” for you? What keeps you there?
BR: When I think of home, I think about having connections to the city—the place you live. And those connections are the people who tirelessly work to make the city bigger and better every year.
Now is a great time to call Orlando home. In just the past few years we’ve opened up a new performing arts center, launched one of the most popular soccer teams in the nation, and new restaurants are popping up every week. Our technology industry is maturing and the ever-growing tourism industry provides plenty of things to keep you busy. There was a time I complained how “there was nothing to do in Orlando,” but that reputation has since changed to challenge locals to decide on “what to do” as there are so many competing events every weekend.
NVR: What’s one thing that you think more visitors should know about Orlando?
BR: Orlando has an identity overlooked by tourists and overshadowed by theme parks. Its turn-of-the-century bungalows surrounding the city center give it a charm uniquely its own. Come visit our city and see for yourself.
What tips do you have for visiting Orlando?
Originally from Massachusetts, Ben has now called Orlando home for the past 10 years. A proud Orlandoan, Ben spends his time shopping locally and loves showing off his city to visiting friends and family.