I could start this article out by saying, “there’s more to Orlando than theme parks.” But let’s be honest. There’s really no other reason to go to Orlando. Sure, there’s probably some annual citrus festival and maybe a Jack Kerouac lookalike contest a-la Key West’s Hemingway Days, but should you plan an entire vacation around said events? Not unless you have a fascination with tangelos or drunk beatniks. That said, you don’t have to be a fat Midwesterner with 2.5 kids and an affinity for giant turkey legs to enjoy this quintessential Florida tourist town. There’s a way to balance the cheesy theme park fun with local favorites for a perfect O-town vacay. Here’s how.
Give your body (lemon slush overdose?) and your wallet (at $4.75 a pop?) a break and head to the downtown area, where you’ll find Ethos, which opened late last year. The cozy vegan café is tucked into an old-timey strip of shops on the outskirts of downtown’s center and offers everything from the What’s the Dilly, Philly? — a take on the cheesesteak (minus the steak, of course) consisting of sautéed, marinated seitan with onions, red and green peppers, mozzarella cheese and veganaise — to the sheep’s pie, a meat-free version of Shepherd’s Pie stuffed with sautéed broccoli, carrots, peas and onions in a veggie brown sauce topped with mashed potatoes. Wash it all down with a root beer and sweeten the deal with a macadamia nut cookie.
Of course, there are certainly some non-chain, non-pizza-and-chicken-fingers fare on theme park property as well. Just a water taxi ride away from Universal Studios’ CityWalk is Mama Della’s in Universal’s Loews Portofino resort. If you can tune out the Italian troubadours (apparently some people actually like wandering minstrels) singing “That’s Amore,” the food here is as belisimo as that found in a typical upscale Italian resto on South Beach, and less pricey to boot (get it? Boot?). Start out with a caprese salad, but save room for (or split) the Napoleon di Melanzana — thick slices of breaded eggplant topped with equally thick slices of buffalo mozzarella and oven-dried tomatoes. Baby spinach and mushrooms round out the dish.
If you opted to head to downtown for dinner, stick around and wander over to the Matador. Located on Pine St. just off main drag Orange Ave., this bar is as “neighborhood joint” as you’re going to get in this part of town. Skip the frat boy favorites — usually identifiable by a plastic Bud Light shamrock “garland” left up from St. Patrick’s Day and Sublime blaring from the speakers — and opt for this cozy space, which boasts plenty of room to move around, a pool table, loft space decorated with grandma’s couches and lamps for prime people watching below, cheap drinks ($4 drafts, $7 cocktails) and awesome music (think Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie and Albert Hammond, Jr.).
If you want to unleash your inner cheeseball, there’s no better place to go than CityWalk’s Rising Star. This isn’t your neighborhood divebar karaoke, which involves a machine the owner bought for $15 at Toys R Us, but rather the crème de la crème of teleprompter tunes. Brave (and usually inebriated) souls get their own backup band and singers — and they’re actually really good (probably all aspiring Vegas revue cast members). Expect everyone from the drunk girl air guitaring to Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” to the karaoke connoisseur who thinks she sounds just like Melissa Ethridge. The place is set up like a real piano bar lounge, so grab a table early and prepare to laugh — until, 3 g&ts in, you decide to get up there and belt out “We Built This City,” of course.
If you come to O-town to do one thing, it’s definitely this. During the summer, the theme parks are offering mad specials, especially if you’re a Florida resident. For example, if you buy a Universal Studios one day/one park pass ($71), you get a second day/second park free. That way, you can ride the Hulk roller coaster at Islands of Adventure over and over all day until you can’t see straight and then check out the new Simpsons ride, a virtual, topsy turvy spin through fictional Krustyland theme park, over at Universal Studios Florida. If you’re a people watcher, theme parks are a great place to grab a churro and play games like Best Tattoo of the Day, Count the Denim Shorts and Guess How Old That Girl in the Belly Shirt Is?
If you like music, surprisingly (or not) Orlando is a better town to catch some tunes than Miami. And cheaper to do so. It’s pretty easy to plan your trip around a great concert, as there’s usually at least one good show a week taking place somewhere around town. One venue that never disappoints is The Social. Recent shows have included everything from funky A Tribe Called Quest/Lupe Fiasco-esque Hieroglyphics to tap dancing indie quintet Tilly and the Wall. Other live music venues worth checking out: Hard Rock Live, Back Booth and the Central Station Bar.
If you’re traveling with an entourage — a family of 8 or your whiffle ball league, per se — and don’t mind driving or cabbing to the parks — an inexpensive option is a cabin on Lake Louisa. The newly renovated bungalows have two bedrooms, a fully stocked (except for food) kitchen, living room (with a pullout sofa), bbq and wraparound porch (with rocking chairs) — all for $110 per night. Book early, as there are only a handful of them. If you need a night off from too many Journey songs at Rising Star, bring board games (there’s no TV) and food for grilling for the perfect cozy night in. And if you need a day off from roller coaster riding, there are nature trails, bike paths and a really big Wal-Mart nearby.
Just like park passes, Orlando theme parks are piling on the deals for summer. For example, stay at one of Universal Studios’ on-site hotels, such as the Royal Pacific Resort, and save up to 30 percent (rates start at $189). Plus, when you stay at an on-site hotel, your key doubles as an Express pass. What’s an Express pass you ask? Well, it’s only the greatest thing invented since TV’s yellow first down marker during football games. Flash your room key at the parks and basically cut everyone else in line. Hour waits are cut to, oh
, five or ten minutes. Sure, you might feel like an a-hole at first, but that wears off fast when you realize you can ride the Hulk over and over and over. Plus, stay four nights and get two 2-park passes free.