Also known as the Theme Park Capital of the World, Orlando is regularly one of the top 5 most visited cities in the US and one of the best places for a family vacation. But Orlando has a lot more to offer than just theme parks and quirky attractions. If you like getting off the beaten track, you’ll be happy to hear that there are a lot of hidden gems in Orlando that you won’t find in most tourist guides. This article is all about that- off the beaten track destinations and hidden places in Orlando.
Kayaking at Shingle Creek
Only 20 minutes away from Disney, you’ll find one of the best eco-kayaking opportunities in Florida. The first time we visited Orlando, I was baffled by the sight of dense cypress forests and wildlife so close to the city center but the option of being able to get off the beaten track without ever leaving the city is what makes this creek so awesome.
You can rent canoes, paddleboards, or even kayaks and there are numerous tour operators that provide guided tours of the area. If you’re lucky, you might even see some of the creek’s residents, such as herons, snakes, turtles, and gators.
Discover tropical plant species at Leu Gardens
If you’re a fan of nature and peaceful places where you can unwind and relax after a long day, you’ll just love Leu Gardens. Orlando’s specific climate makes it great for growing different types of plants, many of which can’t be found anywhere else in North America except in Leu Gardens. The garden stretches across 50 acres and is home to an array of different tropical plants from all around the world.
It was designed by Harry P. Leu who personally brought tropical plants from his travels with a goal to create Orlando’s own tropical paradise. Among other things, you can expect to see bamboo gardens, tropical philodendrons, azaleas, a butterfly garden, and also a museum that portrays a typical 19th century home.
Unwind at Kelly Park Rock Springs
Stretching over 17 miles of trails and greenery, Kelly Park Rock Springs is one of the best places for trekking, camping, and relaxing in the Orlando area. You can tube on a crystal clear river, see a free-flowing natural spring, rent kayaks or canoes, try bioluminescent kayaking in Titusville, have a picnic, or just get off the beaten track while in Orlando. It still surprises me to this day how close to 60 million people visit Orlando every year but only a handful make it to the springs…
Sail the Butler Chain of Lakes
Speaking of hidden gems in Orlando, we shouldn’t forget about the Butler Chain of Lakes. Once a fishing camp, the Butler Chain of Lakes is home to some of the cleanest water in the Central Florida area and a part of the most expensive real estate in this part of the States. The chain is composed of 13 lakes that flow toward Reedy Creek, Kissimmee River, Okeechobee Lake, and finally, the Everglades.
This was also the first lake system in Florida to receive the designation of Outstanding Florida Waters because of its wildlife habitat and water quality. If you want to rent a boat, sail the lakes, and soak up the sun, the Butler Chain of Lakes will become one of your favorite hidden gems in Orlando.
Fly at Wallaby Ranch
In case you’re not familiar with it, Wallaby Ranch is one of the world’s largest hang gliding flight parks. The park was opened in 1991 and at the time, it was the first aero-tow hang gliding flight park in the whole world.
Aerotowing basically means hang gliders are towed into the air with ultralight tow planes 2,000 feet in the air and are left to glide around for 15-20 minutes before landing. It’s an amazing way to experience Florida from new heights. Of course, there’s an instructor with you but you can even get a chance to take over the control for a minute or two.
Check out the Presidents’ Hall of Fame
We just couldn’t complete this list of hidden gems in Orlando without mentioning one of the oldest roadside attractions in the US. The Presidents’ Hall of Fame is home to a hall of fame that features all US presidents and a hand-made model of the white house that stretches across 60 feet and features crystal chandeliers and an updated Oval Office to match the interior of each new administration as time passes by.
If we’d try to put this into numbers, it would take roughly 500,000 work hours to research, design, and construct this project. Hence, it’s no wonder that some of the previous presidents refer to the Hall of Fame as a national treasure.
Explore the historic Milk District
You might think that there aren’t any historic districts in Orlando but they do exist. One of them is the historic Milk District. This district was named Milk District because it was home to one of the first milk shops in the city. Today, it’s a vibrant district that’s one of Orlando’s main cultural hubs with a range of diverse eateries, colorful street art, unique antique shops, rich music and arts scene, and a lot of cool cafes and bars.
And speaking of historic districts in Orlando…
See one of the oldest parts of Orlando – Church Street
Even though a lot of tourists don’t know about it, Church Street is one of the most important historic districts in Orlando. Basically, Orlando’s Metropolitan Area grew around the Old Orlando Railroad Station, a sight which is a part of the National Register of Historic Places. This historic district was slowly forgotten until the 1970s when a private investor launched a project that was supposed to turn the area into an entertainment center.
However, that didn’t work out and Church Street saw yet another period of decline until the early 2010s when the area begins to bloom. Today, in the area, you’ll discover a bustling bar scene, authentic artisan shops, and some interesting old buildings.
Eat at East-end Market
For experiencing the best of Orlando’s food scene and fresh produce, head to East End Market. Here, you’ll find a lot of cheap eateries and restaurants, local organic fruits and vegetables, and an array of cute artisans shops. This part of Orlando still has a farm-to-basket mentality and it’s one of the locals’ favorite shopping spots. If you’re visiting Orlando on a budget and are staying in a place with its own kitchen, you can find a large choice of fresh vegetables, bakery stands, pasta, fresh juice, and even sushi.
Have a drink at Hanson’s Shoe Repair
Before you get the wrong idea, no, this is not a place where you can have your shoes repaired. It’s a revival of an old speakeasy in Orlando that has some of the best cocktails in town. The speakeasy was opened in 1894 (during the Prohibition era) by Andrew Hanson and it was masked as “Hanson’s Shoe Repair Shop” but it was actually one of the most popular speakeasies in Orlando.
Today, the speakeasy idea has been revived by the current owners and you need a password to get inside (check their Twitter account), just like in the good, old days. If you like the idea of going back in time and seeing how does it feel like to have a drink in a speakeasy, you’ll surely love this place.
Visit Jack Kerouac’s house
We previously mentioned Jack Kerouac Alley in San Francisco in one of our previous posts but it was his house in Orlando where he wrote the manuscript for the legendary Dharma Buns (sequel to On The Road). If you’re a fan of travel writing, you probably heard of him and you’ll surely like this place. I know I sure did; it was one of my favorite hidden gems in Orlando.
Today, the property is a writers’ retreat and even though it technically isn’t open to the public, Kerouac fans who ask nicely are always welcome for a quick tour of the place.
Check out one of only two skeleton museums in America
Orlando’s Museum of Osteology is one of only two such museums in America (the other one is in OKC). Visiting this museum is a great educational experience; visitors get the rare chance to learn about numerous different vertebrae from animals around the world. To get a glimpse of what the museum is all about, check out their museum blog; I’m sure it will tickle your imagination and make you want to visit.
Are you a fan of museums and are planning an East Coast itinerary? Make sure to check out our post about the best museums in Williamsburg.
Have a quirky experience at Tupperware Confidence Center
The best way to describe the Tupperware Confidence Center is as a museum dedicated to one company’s history of preserving food. Back in 1946, a local grocery store started to use the “burping” plasticware that eventually revolutionized the way we keep leftovers. But “Tuppy the Tupperware Seal” is just one of many interesting artifacts you can see in this museum.
You can explore the vast history of some of the items they used, such as plastic porringers, molding machines, vintage dining sets, and a wide array of colorful, touchscreen displays that were used by this pioneering shop. In case you’re wondering why the place is called “a confidence center”, it’s because of the company’s famous “chain of confidence campaign” aimed at empowering women which is also celebrated in the museum to this day.
See the blades of Randall Knife Museum
This quirky museum is home to arguably the largest collection of pocket knives in the world. Back in the 1930s, Walter Doane “Bo” Randall, Jr. made his first knife. Around 100 years later, his company is owned by his grandchildren and produces close to 10,000 knives every year and all new customers have to wait for years to get their hands on one of Randall’s knives.
The museum is located next to the factory where the first Randall knife was made and here, you can see some of the family’s most fascinating renovated pocket knives, military knives, machetes, swords, axes, swords, and so on. In total, the collections consists of 7,000 items, including specialty items, such as the famous Randall Astro knife which astronaut Gordon Cooper carried when orbiting the Earth in 1963.
Go treasure-hunting in Ivanhoe
When looking for hidden gems in Orlando, you should definitely consider Ivanhoe Village. Locals often call this place Orlando’s indie side and there’s a good reason for that. The village is offbeat, it’s authentic, there are a lot of trekking and biking opportunities, and several interesting art museums and retro antique shops. While you’re here, you should also check out…
Buy records at Rock ‘n roll Heaven
Rock ’n Roll Heaven is a haven for people who love old-school things. Here, you can find gramophone records, vintage posters, as well as a lot of marionettes, toys, and memorabilia. According to an urban legend, even Michael Jackson visited this place. He wanted to buy the Three Stooges marionettes but the owners did not accept his price.
Have a blast from the past in Player 1 Video Game Bar
Player 1 Video Game Bar is one of the most epic bars in Orlando. It’s home to a wealthy collection of classic arcade games, featuring a variety of consoles from every era you can think of and it gives visitors the unique opportunity to go back in time for only a $5 fee. In addition to arcade games, visitors can also taste some great local craft beers and wines, as well as some traditional sake and mead.
Explore Orlando’s abandoned attractions
A list of hidden gems in Orlando couldn’t be complete without showcasing some of the city’s abandoned attractions. If you’re driving to the inevitable part of Orlando (the theme parks), drop by the old, forgotten “singing runway”. The runway was closed for airplanes in the 70s but if you drive faster than 45-50 miles per hour, you’ll hear When You Wish Upon a Star echoing from the pavement.
Another abandoned attraction is Discovery Island. This was a lush zoological park that was home to many exotic animals until it was closed in 1999. Since then, the island has turned into an overgrown ruin and is officially closed to the public but some people still find a way to visit.
Find a psychic at Cassadaga Spiritual Camp
Going for a psychic reading might not be one of the first things you’d have in mind when visiting a new city but let’s not forget this is a list of hidden gems in Orlando. Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp is a residential area that consists of more than 50 private houses but it’s always open to visitors.
Visitors can attend some of the numerous workshops and classes, get a guided tour, or even have a consultation with a psychic. There are also accommodation facilities for people who are so impressed by the camp that they want to stay longer.
If you want to get there, it’s probably a good idea to rent a car and drive on your own. The camp is located roughly 30 minutes away from Orlando.
Helpful Resources For Visiting Orlando
Last but not least, for the best travel insurance deals in the US, check out World Nomads. It might be a bit more expensive than what you’d expect but have in mind that their plans have you covered in all potentially-unwanted situations that might happen to you on the road. Travel insurance is one thing you shouldn’t try to save money on.
Did you like this list of hidden gems in Orlando? Did you ever get off the beaten track in Orlando? Which one of these places seems the most interesting to you? Let us know in the comments!
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