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Also, see: New thrills at the Big Three.

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The other side of Orlando
After you’ve visited Orlando’s theme parks, it’s time to discover the area’s museums, gardens, springs and its space center

Church Street Station is an entertainment mecca, with dining and a variety of musical venues. /Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc. photo. The Orlando area is home to several springs where you can snorkel and swim (top). /VISIT FLORIDA photo
By Debbie Harmsen
Published: Mar/Apr 2001

The Orlando area is all about amusement. When you step off the plane, you are greeted with colorful paraphernalia that spills out of the airport’s theme-park shops. Enter into traffic, and you’ll find that the city’s thoroughfares overflow with visitors off to one of the Big Three: Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando.

But Mickey and Shamu are not the only characters competing for your attention. The Orlando area is home to nearly 100 attractions, including great museums, gardens and animal habitats.

So if you’ve been to Orlando and only done Disney, it’s time to go back and discover other ways to enjoy the city and its surrounding communities. Here are a few attractions to check out in the other Orlando.

Arts corridor

The city’s arts community is thriving, according to Karen Plunkett of United Arts of Central Florida.

“Our mayor has an interest in revitalizing the downtown area with an arts component,” Plunkett said. “While most first-time visitors head to the theme parks or attend conventions, return visitors are interested in what else there is to do in Orlando.”

To help this effort, much of the city’s cultural offerings are now grouped into a three-mile area between Lock Haven Park and downtown. Within the park’s boundaries lie the small Mennello Museum of American Folk Art, featuring paintings by Earl Cunningham; the Orlando Science Center, with hundreds of interactive activities teaching lessons about magnetism, the human body and other areas of science; and facilities for the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra and Orlando-UCF Winter Shakespeare Festival.

Also in the park is the Orlando Museum of Art, exhibiting works from Africa, the ancient Americas and the United States. If the art on the wall inspires you, you can create your own masterpiece through hands-on activities in the discovery centers.

Nearby is the Harry P. Leu Gardens with nearly 50 acres of various plants and flowers, such as herbs, banana and palm trees, camellias, daylilies and roses. Special activities at the gardens include slide presentations, bonsai-pruning workshops, cooking classes, and arts and crafts.

Communities in the area are home to other cultural gems, such as Winter Park’s Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, which contains the world’s most comprehensive collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany glass.

Springs and shuttles

The Orlando area is home to several springs where you can snorkel and swim (top). /VISIT FLORIDA photo
When friends from out of town visit Cris Dooley, a Midwest transplant to Orlando, she shows them her area favorites, starting with Blue Spring and Rock Spring.

“Everybody comes down and does Disney and misses out on the springs. It’s really too bad,” she said. Manatees frequent Blue Spring in the winter, and swimming and tubing are popular at Rock Spring. “It’s just like Fantasy Island with the crystal-clear turquoise water, surrounded by palm trees and other tropical life.”

Dooley also recommends the inspiring Kennedy Space Center, especially if there’s a launch. Commonly mistaken for Cape Canaveral, Kennedy Space Center, about 45 minutes east of Orlando, launches the space shuttles. (Cape Canaveral, just across the Banana River from Kennedy Space Center, is where rockets and missiles blast off.)

The center’s three-hour tour, which starts at the visitor center, includes views of the space shuttle and launch pad (safety regulations prohibit you from getting very close), movies on the pioneering of space, exhibits on life in space and astronauts, and displays of space craft, such as the moon walker made out of Mylar–the same material as those helium-filled balloons. Be sure to check out Astronaut Encounter, where an astronaut has a Q-and A session with visitors.

At Kennedy Space Center, you can see exhibits on space and astronauts and experience what a launch feels like through thrilling simulators. And if you time your visit right, you can even watch a shuttle launch. /VISIT FLORIDA photo
To experience firsthand what it’s like to be an astronaut, stop at the Astronaut Hall of Fame as you drive west on the NASA Causeway. In addition to exhibits, simulators here re-create the g-force of a launch and the feeling of zero gravity. If you don’t mind getting dizzy and flipping upside down, you’ll love these rides. For those with sensitive stomachs, the moon walk lets you enjoy space at a calmer pace.

As you drive along the causeway, keep an eye out for alligators. A creek runs by the road, and alligators sometimes come up to bask in the sun. As for alligators in general, one Florida resident gives this pearl of wisdom. “Assume that every body of water in Florida has an alligator in it, including the puddle in your backyard.”

Night on the town

Nearly 4,000 restaurants are in the Orlando metro, many with packed dance floors and live music. Dooley said that when she and her husband want to enjoy a night out, they first head to Church Street Station, where a $17.95 pass ($11.95 for children) allows entrance into all its venues, which offer music ranging from jazz to country to rock ‘n’ roll. After dinner, visitors can ride a horse-drawn carriage over the cobblestone streets toward Lake Eola, which is colorfully lit at night.

Dancing also can be found around the corner from Church Street. “Last weekend we went dancing at Cairo, which has three different dance floors,” Dooley said. “The main floor is modern dancing, the second floor is disco and the top of the roof is reggae. It’s just gorgeous, dancing under the stars.”

For downtown outdoor dining, try one of the restaurants at Portofino Bay Hotel, on Universal Orlando’s property. Its Delfino Riviera was named as Orlando’s most romantic restaurant November 1999. For another good choice, try the relaxed Mama Della’s restaurant.

Unlike the nightlife areas of Downtown Disney and Universal Studios CityWalk, Portofino Bay Hotel is set away from all the hubbub of theme park activity. The trompe l’oeils of Italian architecture and the view of dinghies bobbing on the placid lake create a serene atmosphere. You may feel like you’re at the seaside village of Portofino Bay, Italy. It’s yet another side to the other Orlando.

Debbie Harmsen is an assistant editor of AAA’s Home & Away magazine.

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