Photo courtesy of www.paintedhorizons.com First off, let's agree that Disney has changed the face of American culture with its inspired approach to animation and storytelling and that its theme parks are amazingly conceived places where make-believe is granted the illusion of reality through intricate management of portrayal, perspective, and puppet strings.
Then, let's agree that the fascination with Disney's brand of child-like wonder is not all-pervasive. And no matter how mesmerized adults may be with theatrics and technology, not all of them want to be inundated by stylized worlds throughout their entire vacations. For them, Orlando needs to be about more than the all-encompassing vision of corporate studios. And, in fact, it is.
So, with no disrespect to anyone who loves Orlando for its obvious and abundant charms, we present alternatives for adults who crave more grown-up pursuits than character breakfasts and thrill rides.
In Central Florida, stellar hotels and resorts cater to vacationers and conventioneers alike, offering amenities that ensure you never have to leave the grounds to find satisfaction. For the utmost in luxury, give yourself over to Grande Lakes Orlando, a 500-acre waterside complex that hosts both The Ritz-Carlton and the JW Marriott. Naturally, the visual appeal of these two properties is without parallel, but the opportunities for cosseting are unbounded too. Dramatic pools, a serene spa with body-soothing therapies, carriage rides, and a pristine golf course hint at the possibilities. Restaurants featuring inventive gourmet cuisine and affiliated with top chefs like Norman Van Aken also serve as highlights.
[PHOTO_134363] If a break from the status quo is on your agenda, Orlando promises good times. Early risers take delight in hot-air balloon rides hosted by companies like Painted Horizons, which floats visitors gracefully over the landscape during sunrise excursions and then rewards them with a buffet breakfast. More inclined to water? Don't pass up Discovery Cove's Trainer for a Day package, which lets you swim with dolphins, snorkel with exotic fish, interact with rays, feed tropical birds, and immerse yourself in a world of Florida wildlife. It's a rare, all-inclusive experience you'll not soon forget.
Thrills can also be found on the hardwood and the turf. It goes without saying that the Orlando Magic get a fair amount of attention from the hometown crowd, and even though the NBA franchise is no longer on par with its glory days – when Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway lit up the court – it does still draw die-hard fans. UCF football also gets locals and alumni fired up each fall, and now that an on-campus stadium is in the picture, the loyalty is even more pronounced. Come at the right time of year, and you'll be in the midst of all the action you could want.
Should your passions run to the cultural, Orlando shines as well. The city's highly regarded Museum of Art hosts traveling exhibits throughout the year and also boasts a stunning permanent collection. Foremost within its airy galleries are American works dating from the 18th to 21st centuries, artifacts from the ancient Americas, and African art, notably jewelry, sculpture, textiles, and domestic items.
[PHOTO_134364] These calm displays are in marked contrast to the verve of big-ticket theater. La Nouba, for example, presents classic Cirque du Soleil spectacle and excellence. The show sets up a dichotomy between color and bleakness, passion and stability, that ultimately creates its own story of conflict and reconciliation. Music, song, character, and motion come together to confront both dream and reality. An otherworldly quality also distinguishes Blue Man Group, whose action-packed production takes a more percussive, humorous, and messy approach (ponchos provided!) to questions of life and its inherent quirkiness.
When it comes time to feed more than the soul, you'll discover that theme parks have no monopoly on terrific restaurants. It's true that Disney's praiseworthy Victoria & Albert's (no children under 10) makes for sumptuous dining, but you can also find delight at other city establishments. HUE Restaurant, a downtown favorite, kicks up American standards with global flair, producing tamari roasted duck breast, wood-grilled rack of lamb, and oven-roasted Chilean sea bass with asiago tapenade. For more traditional fare, richly prepared and lovingly presented, make reservations at cozy Le Coq au Vin. There, you'll be plied with comforts like cassoulet, braised rabbit, sweetbreads, and the namesake dish, with its whispers of bacon and rosemary.
Depending on which way your avocational interests lie, consider a stroll through Harry P. Leu Gardens, whose 50 acres showcase thousands of camellias, a formal rose garden, palms, tropical specimens, azaleas, and idea gardens, not to mention gorgeous old oaks festooned with moss. It's a great place for inspiration or just to enjoy one man's dedicated effort to maximize the beauty of the natural world. If, on the other hand, you'd prefer to scope out what man can create, head for The Mall at Millennia, whose dedication is to the beauty of luxury goods. Here, you'll ooh and aah at shoes by Jimmy Choo, jewelry by David Yurman and Tiffany & Co., apparel by Juicy Couture and Chanel, and the incomparable style of Neiman Marcus. Looking for something for the home instead? Antique Row on North Orange Avenue invites you to indulge your shopping jones, courtesy of upscale goods and lots of collectible merchandise. Nearby Lakeland is also a fantastic source for antique finds.
And finally, if the days have been long and you desire nothing more than to let loose with a cocktail and some nighttime fun, Orlando can set you up admirably. Samba Room offers Latin cuisine, an international wine list, cigars, and a satisfying supply of rums and tequilas. It also promises salsa dancing and live Latin bands on the weekend. The Social does live music as well, but it books up-and-comers of all styles and inclinations, often ushering them into the realm of the well-known. In addition, it serves potent martinis and gives patrons the chance to meet folks of all persuasions. And don't forget Tanqueray's, an intimate place that occupies a one-time bank vault. Its claims to fame are live jazz and blues, lots of Guinness, and well-mixed cocktails par excellence.
If easy access and one-stop partying seem more appealing in the long run, know that you have the option of simplifying the nightlife experience somewhat. For one admission price, the compound that's known as Pleasure Island gives you access to a clutch of clubs that offer live bands, a rotating dance floor, improv comedy, and tunes that range from R&B to Top 40, hip-hop, '80s, and techno-trance. Of course, the caveat is that Pleasure Island is part of Downtown Disney, and yes, that is the realm of the mouse. But hey, when it's all said and done, he does throw a good party, and isn't that what you really came to Orlando for after all?