What’s the first word that pops into your head when you hear the word “Orlando”?
Unless you’re an Orlando Bloom fan, chances are you thought of Disney World.
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I enjoyed Disney World tremendously when we spent almost a week there with our 4-year-old daughter, now grown. I’ll never forget the moment when we turned the corner in the line and she first saw Ariel, the Little Mermaid. On her first glimpse, my daughter gasped, “She IS real!”
(If you’re looking for information about visiting Disneyworld Orlando, this is not the place. Instead, try this site, Raising Whasians, which overflows with everything about Disney that you’d ever need to know!), as does ThemeParkPro.
This article (updated in April 2021) isn’t about Disney, or Universal Studios, or any of the standard things visitors go to Orlando for. This is about the lesser-known, off-the-beaten-track sights: things to do in Orlando besides Disney.
A Cluster of Things to See in Orlando that aren’t Disney
Wedged in by three lakes, three museums near downtown are worth a visit.
Orlando Museum of Art
The Orlando Museum of Art is the main art museum in Orlando, covering a range of periods, styles, and parts of the world in its permanent collection and its temporary exhibitions.
Orlando Museum of Art: 2416 N. Mills Ave. Orlando. Open Tuesday-Friday 10:00-16:00 and Saturday-Sunday 12:00-16:00. Closed Mondays. Admission: Adults $15, children 4-17 $5.
Mennello Museum of American Art
Less than a kilometer away, (about a half a mile by walking path), the Mennello Museum of American Art focuses on modern art, with a permanent collection of Earl Cunningham’s detailed, colorful harbor scene paintings, and special thematic or artist-focused temporary exhibitions.
Mennello Museum of American Art: Loch Haven Cultural Park, 900 E. Princeton Street, Orlando. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10:30-16:30 and Sunday 12:00-16:30. Closed on Mondays. Admission: Adults $5, children 6-17 $1.
Orlando Science Center
The third museum within a short walk is the Orlando Science Center, one of those interactive science museums that’s a big hit with kids (and their parents).
Orlando Science Center: 777 E. Princeton Street, Orlando. Open daily 10:00-17:00. Admission: Adults $21, children 2-11 $15.
Leu Botanical Garden
Also within walking distance is the Leu Botanical Garden, a 50-acre garden near the Orlando Museum of Art. It is also home to Leu House Museum, a turn-of-the-20th-century house listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Leu Botanical Garden: 1920 N. Forest Avenue, Orlando. Open daily 9:00-17:00. Admission: Adults $10, children 4-17 $5.
Leu House Museum: Open Tuesday-Sunday 10:00-13:00, closed on Mondays. Included in admission to the botanical garden.
Farther north in Orlando
From downtown you’ll need to take a car or bus to get to these, but they’d provide an enjoyable non-Disney day.
Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art focuses mostly on one artist: Louis Tiffany. Famous for his leaded glass lamps, you can see many of them, but also lots of other objects he created.
Charles Hosmer Morse Museum: 445 North Park Avenue, Winter Park. Open Tuesday-Saturday 10:00-15:00 by appointment only. This may change as the pandemic ends. Check their website for current information. Admission: Adults $6, children under 12 free.
Art and History Museums – Maitland
The Art and History Museums – Maitland includes five very different museums that could easily keep you entertained for a whole day, especially if you, like me, enjoy more obscure museums. The biggest is the Maitland Art Center, in a National Historic Landmark “Mayan revival” building, which houses a permanent collection and a range of temporary exhibitions.
Three smaller museums that are part of this group, the Maitland Historical Museum (local history), the Telephone Museum, and the Carpentry Shop Museum, sound like the kind of quirky local museums I always enjoy.
I’d particularly like the fifth of the group: the Waterhouse Residence Museum, which offers detailed guided tours through a house restored to the late Victorian period.
The Art and History Museums – Maitland: 231 West Packwood Avenue, Maitland. Open Thursday-Sunday 11:00-16:00. Closed Monday-Wednesday. Admission (One ticket covers all of the museums.): Adults $6, children 5-17 $5.
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East of Orlando, but worth the drive
While Orlando itself is dotted with lakes, many of which have parkland around them, you really have to get out of the city to get a real wildlife experience, and to see what Florida looked like before Disney, strip malls, and condos.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
Cross the bridge from Titusville to reach Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, hemmed in by Cape Canaveral on one side and Canaveral National Seashore on the other. It would combine well with a trip to the John F. Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Containing a range of habitats, from dunes to marshes to scrubland, it is home to an enormous array of wildlife, especially birds. You can see manatees here too! Again, bring your binoculars. Also bring bug spray! Watch out for poison ivy and alligators. Bring drinking water.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge: No address. Take Exit 220 from I-95. East on SR406 (Garden Street) for 4 miles, then over the Max Brewer Causeway Bridge and the refuge is on the east side of the causeway. Open daily sunrise-sunset. Free admission, but $10 per vehicle to take the Black Point wildlife drive.
If you’re thinking of adding Kennedy Space Center to your plans, use the form below to buy your tickets in advance.
Orlando Wetlands Park
Orlando Wetlands Park, despite its name, is actually about a 35-minute drive from downtown Orlando, near Titusville. Walk a trail through marshes, lakes, and woods. Bring your binoculars for some great birdwatching.
Orlando Wetlands Park: 25155 Wheeler Road, Christmas, FL. Open daily sunrise-sunset. Free admission.
If you want to go further afield and spend a day at the beach, you have plenty of beaches to choose from, both on the Atlantic and the Gulf coast.
It’ll probably be years until I’m next in Orlando, but when I am, these are the sights I’d like to see. Unless I have grandkids by then, of course, in which case, it’ll be Disney for me all over again!
Have you been to Orlando? If you have, what, besides Disney, did you see?
My travel recommendations
- Skyscanner is where I always start my flight searches.
- Booking.com is the company I use most for finding accommodations. If you prefer, Expedia offers more or less the same.
- Discover Cars offers an easy way to compare prices from all of the major car-rental companies in one place.
- Use Viator or GetYourGuide to find walking tours, day tours, airport pickups, city cards, tickets and whatever else you need at your destination.
- Bookmundi is great when you’re looking for a longer tour of a few days to a few weeks, private or with a group, pretty much anywhere in the world. Lots of different tour companies list their tours here, so you can comparison shop.
Other travel-related items
- Get a Priority Pass if you fly a lot so that you can use airport lounges while you wait for flights. Plan your visits around meals and/or drink times and it’s definitely worth the investment!
- I’m a fan of SCOTTeVEST’s jackets and vests because when I wear one, I don’t have to carry a handbag. I feel like all my stuff is safer when I travel because it’s in inside pockets close to my body.
- Airalo is an e-sim card. You buy it through an app and activate it when you need it. I tried it on my trip to Thailand and it worked just like any other sim card, but without my having to fuss with physical cards.
- I use ExpressVPN on my phone and laptop when I travel. It keeps me safe from hackers when I use public or hotel wifi.