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A Dozen Things To Love About Orlando

From family attractions to world-class shopping, delicious food to cool street art, here is our weekend guide to Orlando without the parks.

Orlando is one of the most visited cities in the world. While typically associated with major theme parks, the city offers big fun for everyone. From family attractions to world-class shopping, food fit for a king to cool street art, it’s all here and way more. Here are a dozen things to love about Orlando, a Florida city worth visiting.

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1. Harry P. Leu Gardens

My new favorite thing to do in Orlando after the theme parks is to visit the extremely well-kept ornamantal Harry P. Leu Gardens. This 50-acre property holds jaw-dropping beauty spread over around the park with themed gardens and collections that will keep you busy for hours. From majestic trees to hearty roses and delicate camilias, butterfly gardens to fruit trees and citrus groves, you can find it all at Harry P. Leu Gardens.  

The herb garden and vine collections were my favorites.

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2. Lake Eola

One of the most surprising sights in Orlando is that of the gorgeous Lake Eola and its surrounding cityscape. Between high-rise skyscrapers and in the heart of a thriving city life is this majestic lake that promotes getting outdoors and family fun. A cool offering at Lake Eola are the swan paddle boats, which glide across the picturesque waters and offer you a front row seat to the spectacular scenery. I am particularly drawn to the regal fountain that has LED lights for a showy display.

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You are also likely to see many people exercising, doing yoga, or jogging around the 23-acre lake. The banks of the lake are pristine and have gorgeous flowers and trees, allowing for some shaded areas. You may get lucky and catch a performance at the Walt Disney Amphitheater, such as a concert, movie, or play.

Fun Fact: If you are clocking your progress walking around the lake, one lap around is .9 miles.

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3. Discovery Cove

Step into a tropical oasis in the heart of Orlando. Think I’m kidding? You will be shocked at how close Discovery Cove comes to making you feel like you are truly in the Caribbean with pools, lagoons, and tropical fish and birds (who reside in an aviary setting). Bring the family and experience a great outdoor experience from snorkeling with the fish and sunbathing or sitting in your cabana to learning about rays and conservation. You can swim, float, and relax in the pool settings, or indulge in tasty food all day long, included in your admission ticket. Food includes breakfast, lunch, and a plethora of snacks and beverages to eat and drink from the time you arrive until closing. Alcohol is included for those over 21.

There are a couple of things that require an additional charge, should you wish to do an underwater walk or swim with dolphins. Attendance is limited, so you will never feel like the Discovery Cove park is overcrowded.

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4. Thornton Park

One of my favorite Orlando neighborhoods is Thornton Park, a shaded area with oak tree-lined brick streets, cute bungalows, and some great eateries. There are also a few boutiques and eye-catching murals to take pictures of. The coolest street is Washington, which transports you to somewhere in Europe, and they even have a place to sink your teeth into your favorite Quiche (the Lorraine is spectacular) and croissants at Benjamin French Bakery & Cafe. Enjoy the fountain in the heart of the hipster neighborhood, and the bars or restaurants with intimate outdoor seating.

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5. Shop Disney Springs

Venture through Disney Springs, a Disney food/shopping/entertainment complex that is loads of fun and also offers free parking. Enjoy taking pictures of the cool scenery and vibrant attractions/stores that include the carousel, LEGO Store, the Springs, and World of Disney. Musicians are almost always playing around Exposition Park and Marketplace Stage areas. Over 110 stores offer a great shopping selection with brands such as Alex and Ani, Build-a-Bear Workshop, and Coca-Cola Store.

In addition to shopping, grabbing a meal from Chicken Guy certainly won’t get any objection from me, nor will a cupcake from Sprinkles or gourmet dessert from Amorette’s Patisserie.

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FYI: If you are looking to splurge, I recommend a ride in the Dream Boats, vintage amphicars that float through the picturesque waters. Rides last 20 minutes.

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6. Crayola Experience and American Girl

A great rainy day idea for Orlando, or just to cool off, restock your wardrobe, entertain the kids, grab a tasty meal, and you get the point, is the Florida Mall. Two of the stores at the Florida Mall happen to be two of our favorites. First, enjoy everything related to the nostalgic crayon at the Crayola Experience. Though built around youngsters, my adult daughter and I had a fun walk down memory lane through all of the exhibits, games, and hands-on features, plus we were able to make our own crayons and name them whatever we wanted.

Second is the American Girl Store, home to the designer dolls that my children could not get enough of. The store still sells the dolls, accessories, and clothing, but also has a host of activities to participate in such as cake decorating, a celebration for Grandparents Day, and doll hair and manicure day, to name a few.

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7. Eat Through Universal Citywalk

The Universal CityWalk, between the entrances of both Universal Orlando Resort theme parks, is another free attraction and mega food, drink, and entertainment complex. For lunch, go to Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar for ultimate Crab Rangoon Dip (with wonton crisps) and The High Class Hillbilly (bbq pork with bacon coleslaw and chives.)

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Satisfy your sweet tooth with a tantalizing treat from Toothsome Chocolate Emporium. Chances are you’ve already seen their drool-worthy desserts on Instagram, and now is time for you to taste them for yourself. I’m a big fan of the Strawberry Cheesecake milkshake, but my daughter prefers Peanut Indulgence. If this sounds too heavy, you can always grab doughnuts from Voodoo Doughnut.

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8. Attend Medieval Times

I’m sure you’ve heard of Medieval Times, but have you seen the performance and eaten the darned tasty meal? If not, you are missing out! This high-energy dinner show has been entertaining families for years. It all begins with the show’s characters mingling with guests, an excellent chance for photo ops.

When the castle doors open, take your seat in the stadium-style arena and get ready for the fun. Dinner is served at once, starting with a bowl of Tomato Bisque Soup, followed by roasted chicken, potatoes, buttered corn, and two non-alcoholic beverages. Vegetarian meals are available upon request. You can also order cocktails which come in festive glasses.

The Medieval Times show is about chivalrous knights trying to win the princess’s hand, with plenty of steel and steed, jousting, and falconry. Majestic horses gallop and prance gracefully around the stadium in pretty costumes to catchy tunes. It would help if you cheered for the team’s knight representing the area you are sitting. One section will be the winner at the end of the show.

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9. See the Mills 50 Murals

A great free attraction in Orlando is to see the Mills 50 street murals. Impressive and talented artworks adorn building walls, electrical boxes/utility cabinets, and dumpsters to take on new life with colorful and larger-than-life scenes. One of the favorite murals is the #OrlandoStrong one, a tribute to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

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10. Discount Shopping

There is nowhere better to splurge or update your wardrobe than at the Orlando International Premium Outlets. This vast shopping megaplex, Florida’s most unique and largest shopping mall, features 180 designer and name-brand stores that see 17 million shoppers per year. Stores include Nike, kate spade, Ted Baker London, and Victoria’s Secret, to name a few.

A popular thing for tourists is to buy a suitcase at the mall and drag it behind you to hold your purchases. The earlier you arrive, the better due to the congested traffic pattern at and around the mall.

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Photo from Orlando International Premium Outlets.

11. Experience I-Drive

It would be a shame to come to Orlando and not experience the ultimate tourist-in-mind street with literally every attraction you can think of. International Drive, I-Drive, is not only home to the gorgeous ICON Park giant 400-foot-tall observation Wheel, but also a multitude of family-friendly attractions, activities, and entertainment venues that are worth of their own vacation. And speaking of the Ferris Wheel, each of the pods are air conditioned and afford 360 degree views. A pod can fit around 15 passengers and each ride lasts approximately 20 minutes.

StarFlyer, Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, Sea Life Orlando Aquarium, and Arcade City are a few other attractions in the area that are popular with the crowds.

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Pointe Orlando is another I-Drive area to explore, with shopping, dining, and entertainment. Main Event Entertainment, a 49,000 square foot play space, includes a high ropes adventure course, tasty restaurant, high-tech bowling, video games, pool tables, shuffleboard, and V Play Virtual Reality (zombie thriller game). It is sure to provide hours of laughs, thrills, and bring out your competitive side.

12. Celebration

Celebration, Florida, is a master-planned community designed by Walt himself to portray a picture-perfect small town with a close knit community and a taste of Americana. It is not only a beautiful place to live, but also a great place to stroll through the downtown boutiques, sit in a rocking chair and watch the birds and scenery, and have a good meal.

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Celebration is only minute from the Walt Disney World complex, but has a much more distinct feeling than just an offshoot of the parks. I love to take my dog to the pet store, eat at the retro Downtown Diner, and browse the other offerings at the Town Center. Though I haven’t stayed at the Bohemian Hotel, a charming AAA Four-Diamond boutique hotel, it certainly looks grand.

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Check out our other Florida posts:

St. Pete, Florida

Stuart, Florida

Best Things to Do in Delray Beach, Florida

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