Known around the globe as the home of Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida, every year draws millions of visitors seeking a bit of whimsy at the most magical place on Earth. But what can you do beyond the theme park gates? Fortunately, you can find plenty of hidden gems sprinkled in and around this central Florida city, taking you off the well-worn path.
1. Lake Nona
This trendy, 17-square-mile Orlando neighborhood sits 25 minutes from the tourist-focused International Drive. Lake Nona boasts a thriving cultural scene, signature dining, eye-catching public art and world-class sports facilities. Check out Boxi Park, an outdoor venue fashioned from repurposed shipping containers featuring restaurants, live music and events. Pop into the mammoth U.S. Tennis Association National Campus, where you can learn to play pickleball, padel or tennis — or watch many of the year-round amateur and professional tournaments for free. Stay in the funky, tech-forward Wave Hotel, grabbing dinner at the fabulous Michelin-recommended BACÁN restaurant or strolling through the 50,000-square-foot sculpture garden. Take an Aqua Zumba class or ascend the rock-climbing wall at Lake Nona Performance Club — or find your Zen in the facility’s tranquil Chopra Mind-Body Zone.
Ways to save: Access to the Performance Club is included in a stay at the Wave. Non-hotel guests can purchase a club day pass for $25 or add Chopra access for $5 more.
2. Outdoor excursions
Explore the wildlife haven of Tibet-Butler Preserve, a 438-acre Orange County park nestled along the shore of Lake Tibet. Stroll the boardwalk and trails, learn about local flora and fauna at the environmental center and bring a lunch to enjoy in the picnic area. If you love birding, pack your binoculars for Orlando Wetlands Park, where you might spot roseate spoonbill, snowy egret or American kestrel. A 1,650-acre, man-made park in nearby Christmas, this birders’ paradise features miles of hiking trails, wildlife viewing, a nature center and free guided tram tours on weekends. Hoping to spot manatees? Go to Blue Spring State Park (about 33 miles north of Orlando). From November through March, hundreds of gentle sea cows flock to the springs, thanks to constant 72-degree water.
Ways to save: Though both local parks are free, the state park costs $6 per vehicle (two to eight people). If you’ll be visiting multiple Florida state parks, you can purchase an annual pass for $60 per person.