By Lee Foster
On my last trip to Orlando I decided to examine the area from its opposite sides: the theme parks vs. downtown.
For a theme park, I chose the epitome of theme parks, Disney, which began the theme park phenomenon here by opening its Magic Kingdom in 1971. All the other theme parks could be seen as footnotes to this initial decision. I decided to explore what was interesting at Disney.
For the downtown, which would appeal to the traveler theme-parked-to-death, I stayed at an historic downtown lodging and analyzed what the “real city” of Orlando offered.
Disney–For Adults Also
As I was traveling without children on this occasion, I was more alert to the “adult” world now flourishing at Disney.
The Cirque du Soleil show known as La Nouba is an example. Having seen Cirque’s shows in Las Vegas, as well as the company’s at-home tented performance in Montreal, I was delighted again to see a wondrous Cirque du Soleil. Any time you can see a Cirque du Soleil your life will be enhanced.
The Disney Cirque will appeal to all ages, but with special emphasis on adults. Cirque presents an imaginative evening of dance, acrobatics, and specialty acts. The Disney performance occurs in a specially built theater with the full staging sophistication of Las Vegas, presenting an urbane vision of life through dance. La Nouba, which means celebration, is a medley of metaphysical dancing, stunning acrobatics, and specialty acts wondrous in their execution.
La Nouba is in the “downtown Disney” area known as West Side. I walked from La Nouba through West Side to my dining option at a Wolfgang Puck restaurant and then went to the prospect of music at the House of Blues.
Parks in the Park
On the following day I was ready to explore the various Disney parks, starting early in the morning so as to avoid the long lines that clobber late risers. I explored four Disney theme parks with an eye for what was interesting.
Animal Kingdom is a newer Disney park, built circularly around an immense and amazing tree, called the Tree of Life. The tree idea is a tour de force of Disney’s “imagineers,” as they call their creative people. In the tree you can see over 325 animals represented on the trunk.
The major attraction in Animal Kingdom is a safari ride, which simulates what one would see on an African safari trip. The attraction succeeds in presenting all the major animals in a seamless natural environment. Anyone who has been to Kenya or Tanzania will appreciate the attention to detail, such as the extensive planting of thorn acacias and the huge termite mounds.
Part of the Disney safari is an ongoing drama to locate the poachers. This is a departure for Disney, allowing the problems in the real world to intrude here. Eventually the poachers are located and arrested. If you want to ponder real-world problems, Disney is not usually the place.
Disney goes out of its way to tiptoe through minefields of controversy. As an example, the gays have their self-proclaimed day at Disney, so the Southern Baptists are not happy.
I particularly enjoyed some shows at Disney that appeal to all ages, given their genius at presenting the search for love, the fear of exclusion, and the hope for acceptance, all elements of the universal human predicament. The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Beauty and the Beast will live on as long as basic human concerns endure.
Each of the theme parks at Disney has its appeal. The first park to be built, Magic Kingdom (1971), offers an entertaining mid-afternoon parade of Disney characters. Epcot (1982) presents some intriguing looks at the future in Innovention. I watched a Xerox spokesman talk about the company’s development of reusable “electronic” paper. Epcot’s World Showcase also allows the visitors a vicarious travel experience to eleven far-away nations, a taste of their food, a glimpse of their native dress, and a chance to hear their music. Disney’s Hollywood (1989) offers entertaining portraits of movie history, such as Journey Into the Movies. Animal Kingdom (1998) includes a jungle walk through a South Asian rainforest, the Maharaja Jungle Trek.
The evening fireworks at Disney is always a magnificent spectacle.
I found dining at Disney engaging, especially when it had a thematic tie-in. I tried a Cobb Salad at the Hollywood Brown Derby, a re-creation of the famous Los Angeles restaurant and its signature dish from 1929. For a fast-food lunch at Epcot, I sampled a tabbouleh wrap in the Morocco Pavilion, complete with a salad of lentils, cucumber, bulgar wheat, parsley, and tomato.
Disney presents the adult traveler or family on vacation with a clean, safe, and entertaining vacation destination. The price of admission has not deterred visitors and has kept Disney profitable.
All employees are seen as “cast members” with strict performance and appearance guidelines. It is unlikely that you will see any visible tattoos or unusual pierced body parts. Men will not have long hair. Even the length of a woman’s fingernails and the color range of possible nail polishes are subject to regulation. Iconoclasts need not apply for employment.
After a couple of days of theme park immersion, I was ready to ask the opposite question: is there a “downtown” Orlando where “real people” live? For a traveler who doesn’t have an affinity with theme parks, what is the Orlando alternative like?
For lodging in downtown Orlando I found an historic B&B known as the Courtyard at Lake Lucerne. Several historic buildings, including the Phillips House, the oldest house in Orlando, make up the complex. I was greeted with a carafe of wine and also enjoyed an elaborate breakfast each day. My room was in an Art-deco building and had a one-of-a-kind décor. The garden of palms, azaleas, and magnolias at the establishment was so lush that you could curl up here with a good book and forget about the outside world for awhile.
From the Courtyard at Lake Lucerne I walked into the downtown area. I strolled around the downtown lake, Lake Eola, and looked over the signature Centennial Fountain that is the main city landmark. I was not alone during the walk. Orlando residents were out jogging, walking, and biking amidst the mature oak trees and the lawns around the lake. Orlando has an accessible outdoor climate year around. Winters are mild. Summers can be hot, so I walked in the cool of the morning or evening.
Then I ventured over to the Church Street Station, only a short walk from the Courtyard. Church Street Station was an actual rail station, but has evolved to become a dining, music, and retail area. In the evening you can catch jazz, country, and rock n roll at various venues. I enjoyed a buffet lunch at Lili Marlene’s Aviator Pub, an example of the lively restaurants here.
There is a growing arts emphasis in downtown Orlando and a sense that the city is on the move. I enjoyed seeing a huge mural on a parking garage at 132 E. Central, filled with pictures of indigenous animals of Florida. In another city this mundane structure would have been tedious.
A thriving performing arts movement flourishes in Orlando. Ballet, orchestra music, performing artists and multiple theater performances are available daily. One of the main venues is the Bob Carr Performing Arts Center, a large modern concert hall with masterful acoustics.
Downtown Orlando receives a major cultural boost from the Orange County Regional History Center in the old county courthouse. On display are a number of Florida phenomena, ranging from a Seminole Indian village to the campaign to sell Florida orange juice as a breakfast beverage.
People are moving back into the downtown area, partly because commuting on the freeways takes time and consumes precious fuel. The Thornton Park neighborhood is witnessing a renaissance as more people invest in fixer-uppers and restore the neighborhood.
It’s easy to get around downtown, using a free public trolley called The Lymmo.
Typical of the fun of downtown Orlando is the Gallery at Avalon Island, on Magnolia Street. Avalon is an art gallery, a coffee house, a live music venue, and a place for internet access.
The lodging scene includes an upscale option, the Westin Grand Bohemian. Décor is a European Bohemian theme, emphasizing turn of the 2oth century opulence, with part of the owner’s extensive art collection on display.
I drove my rental car a few miles north to the area known as Loch Haven to see the Harry P. Leu Gardens, a major amenity in the region. This 50-acre botanical garden is famous for many of its plant collections, including what is said to be the largest camellia collection in the Eastern U.S. Roses, wildflowers, herbs, and ancient oaks were some of the delights I contemplated as I walked on the attractive paved paths of the gardens.
After Leu Gardens I perused the Antique Row district around the 1800 block of North Orange. A dozen stores presented various assortments of collectibles. I paused for a salad lunch at the White Wolf Café.
Also in Loch Haven, I stopped at the Mennello Museum of American Folk Art to see the primitive paintings of Earl Cunningham, who projected a lyrical and carefree portrait of 20th century America.
However, I also anticipated that a world-class art experience was only a few miles north in the community of Winter Park. The museum in question is the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, focused almost entirely on the grand glass art of Louis Comfort Tiffany. I had deliberately saved one of the best for the last.
Tiffany glass became a symbol at the turn of the 20th century for beauty and grace in an America emerging from the practicalities of industrialization. The Morse museum has the most comprehensive collection of Tiffany glass that you will find. Not only are the famous stained glass windows and lampshades well represented, but also the more affordable vases that Tiffany turned out in great numbers. There is even a full chapel that Tiffany decorated for the Chicago Exposition of 1893. Among the works, I particularly enjoyed the stained glass window “Feeding the Flamingoes” from 1892. For an appreciator of Americana, the Tiffany museum alone would be reason enough to visit Orlando.
Finally, I returned to the Courtyard at Lake Lucerne to find a chilled glass of Chardonnay awaiting me. While sipping the wine in the gracious, bookish parlor at this lovely B&B, I felt satisfied that I had made some Orlando discoveries. I had learned a little more about the theme parks in a region that had helped invent the genre. And, when I wanted to leave the theme parks, there was something of a “real city” to explore in Orlando.
If You Go: Orlando
Walt Disney World is 23 miles from downtown Orlando. The website is Walt Disney World, www.disneyworld.disney.go.comparks.
The overall Orlando area tourism information source is the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, www.visitorlando.com.
Tickets for performances at the Bob Carr Performing Arts center can be obtained at www.orlandovenues.net after selecting the Bob Carr events.
The entity focused on guiding the city’s downtown is Downtown Orlando, www.downtownorlando.com.
One historic lodging in the downtown area is a B&B known as The Courtyard at Lake Lucerne, www.orlandohistoricinn.com.