Discover Orlando’s Dynamic Downtown
Photo: Historic Church Street © Clewisleake | Dreamstime.com
It’s easy for the 60 million-plus visitors coming to or through Orlando to see it as a mere way station to Florida’s theme parks or beaches. But not stopping to see what the city offers is a mistake.
“Our downtown is on fire,” says Mayor Buddy Dyer. “We’ve had the most incredible year ever. I’m the happiest mayor in America right now.”
Dyer has plenty to be excited about. The city boasts a new performing arts center and a new Major League Soccer stadium under construction. The Orange County Convention Center is undergoing a massive, multiyear transformation, and Orlando International Airport embarked on an expansion and renovation project which will make it Florida’s first intermodal transportation facility, with air, ground and rail service.
Easily walkable downtown Orlando also provides a free bus which circulates on a three-mile route with 21 stops. The city expanded its commuter train, SunRail, to cover 31 miles with four stops in the city proper and implemented a new bike share program, so visitors don’t need a car to get around.
One of the city’s liveliest areas for nightlife, the Church Street District is a hub of dining, nightlife, entertainment and, with the Amway Center next door, sporting events. Sports fans have it easy in Orlando. The Amway Center houses the city’s professional sports teams, including the NBA Orlando Magic, ECHL Orlando Solar Bears and AFL Orlando Predators. This year, the city welcomed one of Major League Soccer’s newest expansion teams, the Lions, who now play at the Orlando Citrus Bowl but in 2016 will move to the new soccer-specific stadium, also downtown.
Orlando pushed to make public art a priority in recent years. In 2011, See Art Orlando installed a collection of eight permanent contemporary public art sculptures around Lake Eola, the heart of the 43-acre park of the same name. Next to the park, the brick-lined streets of the Thornton Park neighborhood beckon those who want to browse eclectic boutique shops or dine alfresco at one of the many locally owned restaurants.
Last November, the $514 million Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts opened, covering two city blocks. The project includes the 2,700-seat Walt Disney Theater, the 300-seat Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater and an outdoor plaza as well as education and event spaces. A 1,700-seat acoustical theater is in the planning stages.
“Orlando recently experienced one of the most significant expansion periods in our destination’s history,” says George Aguel, president and CEO, Visit Orlando. “Six months ago, the Four Seasons joined Orlando’s stable of luxury properties that already includes The Ritz-Carlton and Waldorf Astoria.”
Of course, the theme parks remain major players in Orlando. Walt Disney World Resort is converting Downtown Disney into Disney Springs, doubling the number of shops, restaurants and other venues. Universal Studios, which opened Diagon Alley last year, doubled the size of its Harry Potter attraction across both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure.
“This is the first full year for visitors to experience two of the largest, most expansive and immersive development projects ever completed at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando,” says Aguel. “The two theme park properties are also revitalizing their retail, dining and entertainment complexes, and SeaWorld Orlando is rolling out new offerings as well.”
Mayor Dyer is quick to say the major theme parks are a key part of the city’s economic development, sitting on boards and getting involved in civic projects. “We’ve been able to achieve a lot with a culture of collaboration between government, tourism and businesses,” he says, adding this is perhaps unusual for a lot of cities.
Another recently completed project is I-Drive 360 on International Boulevard. Merlin Entertainments (the same group behind The London Eye) debuted the 400-foot-tall Orlando Eye observation wheel, along with a Madame Tussauds and SEALIFE Aquarium. Across the street, Mango’s Tropical Café, a South Beach Miami-based club, is opening a new venue twice the size of its South Florida location.
Last December, the Orlando Economic Development Commission launched a new ad campaign with the tag line, “Orlando. You don’t know the half of it.” Considering the exciting ongoing growth and changes in the city, that’s going to be true for some time to come, offering visitors new discoveries all the time.
For anyone who’s never driven on a beach, Daytona Beach, about an hour’s drive from Orlando, is the place to try it. Only a few beaches in the United States allow cars, and here you can drive in select areas along the 23 miles of beach.
Just north of the city winds the Ormond Scenic Loop & Trail, a 30-plus mile double loop of roadways which takes you through some of the most diverse natural areas you can imagine, with views of the Atlantic Ocean, two rivers, creeks, marshes and barrier island dunes. There are plenty of places to stop and take photos, and you might even spot dolphins.
For a new perspective on Orlando, head east of the city to the Green Mountain Scenic Byway, which follows 14 miles of the Lake Apopka shoreline and climbs steep hills where you can take in views of the Orlando skyline. Popular places along the route include Sugarloaf Mountain, the highest point in peninsular Florida at 312 feet; the 19th-century historic Harper House, which is on the National Register of Historic Places; and the picturesque town of Montverde.