Off the Beaten Path In and Around Orlando
By Susan Clary
Many travel sites highlight Central Florida’s theme parks, shopping malls and outlet stores, and rightfully so.
But there are always hidden gems. The local places people share with family and friends. When they move away, these are the places they come back to visit. Every city has them. Here are just a few in Central Florida:
Most cities lack a great art house movie theater, but not Orlando. This little non-profit offers some of the best independent and foreign films. Check the calendar because there are a ton of special events, classic movie nights and an annual film festival. The food is fabulous; from the Eden Bar, which offers happy hour and lunch specials to a gourmet menu inside the theater. Want to see the latest winners from Cannes and Sundance? This is the place to visit. Several times a year famous directors and movie stars will sit and chat about their films.
It’s no mistake that Nerd Nite is held every month at Stardust. What was once a bustling coffeehouse and wall-to-wall video rental joint, continues to change with the times. With chapel doors as tables, and service from a semi-healthy menu and a full bar with beer, wine and spirits, this is comfort at its best. On any given night, you can find an art show, poetry reading or live music here. Food trucks around town congregate here on the Mondays when Stardust hosts an outdoor market. The Sunday brunch menu changes weekly and free Wi-Fi makes it a popular place for creatives to mull over their laptops. Make sure you try the waffles and tater tots.
Scenic Boat Tour
A visit to the beautiful oak-lined streets of swank Winter Park wouldn’t be the same without a spin on the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour. It’s a must for first-time visitors. Less than ten minutes northwest of downtown Orlando, the 18-passenger pontoon boats tour docks on Lake Osceola. The hour-long guided cruise glides through three of the seven lakes and two, narrow manmade canals on the Winter Park chain. There is no better view of the gorgeous homes that line these fabulous bodies of water. In addition, when the weather is fine, visitors may see an alligator or turtle sunning itself, all kinds of waterfowl and fish. Rollins College, a small, private, liberal arts school sets nestled on Lake Virginia. When school is in session, students rowing crew or water skiing will pass by. Afterward, enjoy the amazing food and exquisite shopping on nearby Park Avenue.
SAK Comedy Lab
If you want to laugh during your visit, the area has its share of comedy clubs. Near the theme parks, you can catch stand up at the Improv Comedy Club, Bonkerz, and Disney’s Comedy Club at Pleasure Island and Disney’s Boardwalk. But if you’re looking for the best family-friendly improvisational show, check out SAK Comedy Lab in downtown Orlando. The 250-seat club is the original home of Wayne Brady. Other comedians who performed there before they hit the big time include Jonathan Mangum, Brendan Jennings, Paula Pell, Paul Vogt and Aaron Shure. SAK Comedy Lab was the winner of the Orlando Weekly’s Best Theater Company of 2013. If you’re really ambitious, SAK runs an improv training school called SAK University (SAK U), which features four levels of classes.
The female impersonators at El Goya were one of the best reasons to visit Ybor City in the 1980s. The club closed twenty years ago, leaving a void that Tampa has yet to fill. Luckily, Orlando has the Parliament House. The largest gay bar and nightclub in Central Florida, it has been open since 1975. While the seven unique bars and adjacent hotel cater to the LGBT crowd, the nightly drag performance by the Footlight Players attracts gay, straight, young, old and everyone in between. Shows are every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night at 10 p.m. and midnight.
Oakland Nature Preserve
It was one of the best investments ever made. A group of impassioned conservationists known as the Friends of Lake Apopka, fearing future development, raised the money in the 1990s to save the land along the shoreline of beautiful Lake Apopka. The Friends formed a second nonprofit group known as Oakland Nature Preserve. Cooperative landowners resisted offers by developers and waited until more than a million dollars was raised by these dedicated volunteers. The Oakland Nature Preserve is now a 128-acre preserve with boardwalk nearly a mile long leading through natural wetlands to a pavilion on Lake Apopka. Visitors can hike the trails through oak and pine forests and explore the visitor center and its wild animal exhibits and natural history museum. Educational programs and lectures are offered monthly. Oakland Nature Preserve is open 365 days a year and it’s free. The town of Oakland is west of Orlando.
The Oakland Nature Preserve is located at 747 Machete Trail in Oakland. For information, call 407-905-0054 or visit OaklandNaturePreserve.org
Timucua Arts White House
Local musician Benoit Glazer believes that music is best enjoyed in the living room, among friends. So, Glazer literally opened his house and began hosting concerts in 2000. In the first few months, a few dozen people would gather to hear acoustic, jazz, blues or classical. In 2004, Glazer founded the Timucua Arts Foundation with some friends and raised funds to build a house whose focus would be a grand living room for the concerts. Glazer and his family moved into what is known as “The White House” in August 2007. The living room seats up to 150 people. Most shows are free, but donations are appreciated. Bring a bottle of wine to share.
Rock and Roll Heaven
Vinyl never goes out of style at Rock and Roll Heaven, one of the largest record stores in Florida. Have an old song running through your head? Chances are you will find it at Rock and Roll Heaven, which boasts concert posters and collectibles, single 45s, vinyl LPs and just about anything to do with music. The store has every genre from Rock, Pop, Soul and Jazz to Heavy Metal, Folk, Blues, India and Punk. Records start at $1. Check out White Wolf Café for breakfast, lunch and dinner across the street.