Outside the gates of its famed theme parks is an entirely different Orlando than the one portrayed on TV. It is a city rich in art, history, music, culture, and the just plain bizarre. With vibrant neighborhoods boasting craft breweries and farm-to-table dining, you're more likely to find hipsters with long beards than kids in floppy mouse ears. Add in natural beauty rivaling any of Florida's coasts, and it becomes obvious why so many people, both young and old, choose to live here. Wondering how to find the best local spots? Travel away from the rides and costumes, and the city never ceases to offer off-the-beaten-path attractions. Here are some of Orlando's best kept secrets.
Although in the long shadow of the city's amusement parks, there are many unique, hidden things to do. It is home to historical attractions, verdant green spaces, and burgeoning neighborhoods.
In the blue waters of Walt Disney World's Bay Lake sits an abandoned island that was once home to a menagerie of exotic animals. Visitors would come by boat to walk among the lush vegetation and catch sight of creatures ranging from giant tortoises to flamingos.
Discovery Island was closed in 1999 and has remained unused. Though various ideas have been proposed, nothing has developed beyond the concept stage, leaving the island to be overrun by nature. As such, it has become a storied target for urban explorers. Fair warning, trespassers face banishment from all Disney properties.
Carmine Oddities Boutique
Carmine Oddities Boutique is a purveyor of all things eclectic, strange, and out right freakish. This specialty shop located in North Orlando is a must-see for anyone with affection for the abnormal or curious thrill-seekers. Glass eyeballs, antique books on the occult, mummified animals, these are a few of the unique items for sale at Carmine.
Perhaps the shop's centerpiece is a rocking chair crafted out of a stuffed goat. You can also find less frightening but equally peculiar novelties such as obsolete technology and medical supplies from the early to mid-20th century. If strange taxidermy and the esoteric pique your interest, you'll find something for you at Carmine.
Canaveral National Seashore
Just a short drive outside Orlando is the stunningly beautiful Canaveral National Seashore. With 24 miles of mostly undeveloped Atlantic shoreline, this barrier island is a sanctuary for wildlife, including threatened and endangered species.
For humans, the park serves as a refreshing respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. Visitors can take a stroll on a wooded trail among the park's more than 1,000 different types of plants and perhaps catch sight of the various birds and sea turtles that call the park home. Nearest to Orlando is Playalinda Beach, where visitors can find parking and restroom facilities.
Housed in a movie theater built in the 1920s, The Beacham is one of Orlando's hottest night clubs. Located in the Orange Avenue Entertainment District, it is the place to catch a live band or DJ and sip craft cocktails as you dance the night away.
The venue hosts music artists from all genres, from punk to hip hop. If staying in one place the entire night isn't your thing, this area of downtown Orlando boasts dozens of bars and clubs to fit anyone's tastes. Take in the view from a lively rooftop or conduct your own beer tour by hopping around the various establishments serving small-batch brew.
Jack Kerouac House
When he finished crisscrossing the United States with the likes of Neal Cassidy and Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac settled down in Orlando. He lived in this simple wooden home with his wife and mother. Though rather nondescript on the outside, people journey from all over to pay homage to the Beat icon. What makes the home special isn't just that it was Kerouac's final resting place but that it was where he wrote arguably his best novel, The Dharma Bums. Today, the home operates as a writers' residency under the care of the Friends of Jack Kerouac. Visiting writers live and work in the home in hopes of following in Kerouac's footsteps.
The Holy Land Experience
For those who want to be transported back to Biblical times, visiting this theme park is the next closest thing. The Holy Land Experience features exhibits that are elaborately designed as reproductions of important sites in the Bible. As if sightseers during the time of Christ, visitors wander through renditions of 1st-Century Jerusalem, the Garden Tomb, numerous temples, and more. Through its storied reenactments and hands-on exhibits, the purpose of The Holy Land Experience is to learn by participation. Play the role of spectator as actors perform a dramatic retelling of the crucifixion of Christ, or join the disciples in communion at the Last Supper.
Audubon Park Garden District
The Audubon Park Garden District is a mecca for the hip, cool, and environmentally conscious. This trendy neighborhood is anchored by local shops, independent restaurants, breweries, and organic markets. One of its top attractions is a food hall that houses its own organic garden and a waystation for migrating Monarch butterflies. The products aren't the only thing to remind you of the environment when making a purchase because the lifestyle isn't the only thing green around here. At Song Bird Park, you can take in a vast collection of native plants and a bird sanctuary where birds find refuge in colorful, hand-painted birdhouses.
Tupperware Confidence Center
If Tupperware doesn't sound like your idea of fun, then you don't know Tupperware. This free museum is located in Tupperware's headquarters in Kissimmee, Florida, which is just south of Orlando. Museum guests can learn the history of plastic storage containers and see how Tupperware's products have been made from past to present. Against a sleek, futuristic backdrop, vintage Tupperware machines and products are on full display. The many touchscreen interfaces throughout the museum provide visitors with an immersive experience – and quite likely a greater appreciation for the ingenuity and importance of food storage.
Amusement Outside the Parks
There's much more to Orlando than most people realize. Although in the long shadow of the city's amusement parks, there are many unique, hidden things to do. It is home to historical attractions, verdant green spaces and burgeoning neighborhoods. The city continues to replace its old reputation as a family destination with a new one as a cool, culturally hip place to visit and live.