Orlando: Beyond Theme Parks

There is more to Orlando than meets the eye.

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Photo by: Orlando Sentinel

Orlando Sentinel

Orlando's theme parks need no introduction. After all, the city's Disney, Universal and SeaWorld calling cards make it one of the planet's most popular tourist destinations.

Chances are, if you find yourself in the town of the Mouse, it's for pure entertainment purposes or to attend one of the hundreds of conventions scheduled here annually. Business blurs the line with pleasure in the neon-lit throes of kitschy International Drive, awash with luxury hotels, cheesy souvenir shops, mystery dinner theaters and extreme experiences of all genres.

But the human body is only hardwired to withstand so much faux.

Follow Travel Channel's lead to experience Orlando's alter ego, where shopping streets that conjure Europe, manatee encounters and canoe trips through pristine Central Florida woodlands await.

Downtown Orlando: A Traipse Through Thornton Park
Few conventioneers or theme park visitors ever make it into the city of Orlando itself. Downtown Orlando is roughly 15 minutes from SeaWorld and Universal Studios, and less than half an hour from Disney World. Plan your visit for a Sunday morning to get a glimpse of residential urban life in the neighborhood of Thornton Park, just east of Lake Eola in downtown Orlando's green heart. At the Eola Sunday Market in a park by the lake, locals gather for a morning coffee while browsing for handmade crafts, artisan pasta and honeys and a small range of organic produce. Around the corner, HUE Restaurant is a hot place for brunch, particularly if your visit coincides with the Disco Brunch (held on the third Thursday of every month) when DJs spin dance tunes and locals turn out in costume. Burn off your meal and mimosa buzz with a walk down brick-lined Washington Street, strung with boutiques and cafes, or wander the perimeter of Lake Eola to scope wading birds and the kitschy swan boats that are available to rent.

Wekiwa Springs State Park
Millions of gallons of crystal clear water bubble up like effervescing diamond dust at the headwaters of Wekiwa Springs State Park, where a grassy hill prime for picnicking slopes down to a circular swimming platform at the spring's head. Don a snorkel to admire the silvery fish swimming amidst patches of reeds, and marvel at the impossibly blue color of this mirror-like oasis in the woods. There's a 13-mile-long hiking trail through sand pine scrub, river estuaries and dry sandhill terrain. Visitors can even rent a canoe to paddle into the Wekiwa River, where you're likely to see alligators, turtles and countless wading birds - if you're really lucky, you might even spot the elusive Florida black bear. Outside of the mosquito-infested summer months, the park's campground is a great place to stay - 60 sites shaded by oak and pine trees lie within a short stroll of the springs.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
One of America's top bird-watching destinations, this awesome wildlife refuge near Cape Canaveral has rocket science to thank for its pristine surrounds. Located roughly an hour from downtown Orlando on a barrier island between the Indian River and the Atlantic Ocean, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1963 as a buffer zone for NASA activities at nearby Kennedy Space Center. Now it's the birds and animals that have their way with this stretch of land, demonstrating how Florida might have looked without rampant coastal development. November through March is the best time to see wintering birds making a pit stop along a major migration corridor - and you don't even need binoculars to spot the flamboyant pink roseate spoonbills that populate the salty estuaries. The best way to enjoy the park is to cruise slowly along the Black Point Wildlife Drive, a seven-mile loop that takes you past alligator-laden estuaries and bird-viewing platforms through some of the park's most scenic terrain. Stop off at the Haulover Canal for the best chance of spotting manatees - as many as 400 of the lumbering sea cows have been observed in the waters here during the spring months.

Winter Park, FL
Less than 15 minutes from downtown Orlando, Winter Park is one of Central Florida's most upscale addresses. But even if you can't afford one of the lakefront mansions or to shop in the trendy boutiques along posh Park Avenue, it's still worth visiting for the European vibe and pretty setting. Rollins College, one of Florida's prettiest campuses, is set along the shores of Lake Virginia and features many beautiful Spanish Mediterranean buildings.It's a great place to stroll, and just steps off Park Avenue. For unpretentious Turkish food with great people-watching, head to Bosphorus Restaurant, where tables are pulled onto the sidewalk and diners linger long into the night. Hop aboard a pontoon boat with Winter Park Scenic Boat Tours for a watery look at Winter Park. The hour-long cruises follow a chain of lakes and canals fronted by opulent estates, with a chance to spot birds, alligators and turtles along the way.

Canaveral National Seashore
Situated midway between Florida's Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Orlando lends itself naturally to seaside escapes. Tourists with time to spare often build a beach day or two into their park-hopping itineraries. Most out-of-staters stumble blindly to beaches with big name recognition, like Daytona Beach or Cocoa Beach. But if you like your sun and sand served up with solitude, set your sights on Canaveral National Seashore instead. Some 24 miles of undeveloped Florida coastline will be all yours inside this beautiful oceanfront park, which doubles as a major sea turtle nesting area from May to August. Family-friendly Apollo Beach, on the North end of the park, has picnic pavilions. If you're looking to go au naturel in natural Florida, join the German tourists and fearless Americans baring all at the park's legendary if unofficial nude beach, Playalinda.

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