Looking for Hidden Gems in Orlando?
Orlando is famous for its theme parks, and understandably so. The city is home to Walt Disney World, Sea World, LEGOLAND, and Universal Orlando; each year, millions of visitors flock there to visit at least one park or resort nearby. But there’s more to Orlando than its theme parks.
The area is rich in scenic beauty, history, culture, and unique experiences you can’t have anywhere else, all without the long wait times you’ll encounter at the parks.
If you want to discover a different side of Orlando, read on for our list of favorite non-theme-park sites and activities in and around the city.
19 Hidden Gems in Orlando
Kayaking in Wekiwa Springs State Park
Natural beauty awaits just sixteen miles from downtown Orlando at Wekiwa Springs State Park, one of the best springs near Orlando. Congress designated the river system as a National Wild and Scenic River for its value as a wildlife habitat and as a recreational destination.
The springwater is 72 degrees year-round, and the spring itself is a very popular swimming spot. The state park’s attractions are no secret: it often reaches capacity during the summer and on weekends, so be sure to get there early!
Kayaking is one of the best ways to explore the spring-fed river system. The King’s Landing rental company offers a short route through Emerald Cut, featuring clear turquoise water and a sandy bottom.
More experienced paddlers can try the guided 8.5-mile route through the darker waters of Rock Springs Run. You’ll venture into prime habitat for wildlife including alligators, wild turkeys and other birds, turtles, and more. A shuttle will take you back at the end of the trip.
Horseback Riding at Hidden Palms Ranch
Horseback riding is another great option for exploring the scenic habitats that some refer to as “old Florida”, or even “the real Florida”. Located a 30-minute drive from downtown Orlando, Hidden Palms Ranch offers guided trail rides through the Lake Jesup Conservation Area, which protects the lake and its surrounding shallow marshes, floodplain wetlands, and wooded hammocks. The area is home to wildlife including eagles, osprey, hawks, and many other birds.
Before hitting the trail, the guides provide instructions on horse safety and handling so even first-time riders will feel comfortable.
Trail rides last about 60 minutes and are recommended for people 10 and up. The ranch offers a separate horse experience where younger guests can learn about horse safety, grooming, and the basics of riding. Trail rides at Hidden Palms Ranch are a great activity for late summer because the route takes riders through fields of wild sunflowers in bloom for some amazing photo ops!
Hang Gliding at Wallaby Ranch
The adventurous at heart should consider a visit to Wallaby Ranch for an unforgettable hang-gliding experience.
Located 36 minutes from downtown Orlando, Wallaby Ranch is a compound dedicated exclusively to hang gliding, owned and staffed by a team with unmatched experience. They adhere to rigorous safety standards and have conducted tens of thousands of flights in their ten-year history with no incidents.
The ranch offers tandem flights, meaning you will share the glider with an experienced instructor who will show you how to control it. The experience is open to all ages, and you can pay extra to record a Go-Pro video of your flight.
Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to fly because the air is the smoothest. Wallaby Ranch uses tow planes to get the gliders into the air, meaning you don’t have to wait for the perfect breeze to lift you off the ground. The ranch also serves home-cooked breakfast and lunch, which guests can enjoy before or after their flight.
Night Kayaking on the Indian River
Okay, it’s true we did mention kayaking once already, but night kayaking on the Indian River is a completely different experience.
This is one of only a handful of places in the world where you can observe bioluminescent sea life on the surface, and it’s just an hour from Orlando. Several tour operators in Titusville offer excursions to experience this phenomenon, plus chances to see dolphins and manatees.
Comb jellyfish and plankton create an ethereal blue-green light near the surface of the water in the Indian River Lagoon. Movement activates the plankton’s glow, so your kayak and paddles will leave a trail of sparkles in your wake.
Some tour companies offer clear kayaks as an upgrade, which gives you an even better view of the light show around you. The best conditions occur during the summer on new moon nights, but be sure to secure your spot early because those times sell out quickly.
Boating and Fishing on the Butler Chain of Lakes
If kayaking isn’t fast-paced enough for you, how about renting a boat or jet ski on the Butler Chain of Lakes? These thirteen lakes are interconnected by 32 navigable canals and feature great water quality and miles of shoreline to explore.
The lakes are surrounded by marshes and wetlands with abundant wildlife such as birds, alligators, river otters, armadillos, and raccoons. The lakefront also comprises some of Orlando’s prime real estate, so you’ll see impressive homes along most routes.
Boat rentals and public boat ramps are available within 30 minutes of downtown Orlando.
The lakes are good for water sports such as wakeboarding, water skiing, and tubing. Pocket Lake and Lake Tibet each have fixed water-ski slalom courses. Fishing is also popular on the lakes, particularly for large-mouth bass. Great visibility helps anglers spot fish in up to 25 feet of water. The best fishing is from October to May.
Strolling the Grounds at Harry P. Leu Gardens
The Harry P. Leu Gardens offer a retreat from the hustle and bustle of city life without leaving Orlando. This botanical garden is located on Lake Rowena on the former estate of Harry and Mary Jane Leu, who traveled extensively and brought back plants to add to their collection.
Visitors can stroll 50 acres of gardens including an arid garden, azalea collection, butterfly garden, citrus grove, and many more. The camellia collection is a particular highlight, with 2,000 plants and over 200 varieties, making it one of the largest collections of camellias in the country.
Visitors can also explore the Leu House Museum, the preserved home of the Leu family which was first built in 1888. The decor and furnishings show how the Leu family would have lived after buying the house in 1936. The Gardens look especially beautiful during the Dazzling Lights event from Nov. 25 – Jan. 1, when the grounds are decorated with twinkling holiday lights.
History, Museums, and Culture
Visit Historic Eatonville, Home of Zora Neale Hurston
Eatonville is one of the first all-Black cities incorporated in the United States. It was built by formerly enslaved people who settled in the Maitland area after being freed. In 1887, a group of Black residents voted to establish their own town and elect a mayor, thereby establishing the new Town of Eatonville.
Harlem Renaissance author Zora Neale Hurston grew up in Eatonville and described the town in her stories and in her well-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. What was then a small, backwoods town is now a suburb of Orlando.
The town has honored Hurston by establishing the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum, which features works by artists of African descent. The museum is also the starting point for the 1.2-mile guided walking tour of this historic town. Eatonville also hosts the ZORA! Festival every January, honoring Black history and culture for the entire month.
Soak Up Presidential History at The Presidents Hall of Fame
The Presidents Hall of Fame is a quirky museum and roadside attraction that houses a huge variety of presidential memorabilia and replicas. Located in Claremont, 30 minutes from Orlando, the Hall predates many of the resorts and theme parks nearby. It opened in 1964, making it one of the area’s original attractions.
Upon entering, visitors will see scaled-down replicas of Mount Rushmore and the Lincoln Memorial. The museum houses a huge variety of president-shaped figurines, from full-sized waxworks to miniature statuettes. The centerpiece of the collection is a large and detailed model of the White House, which is handmade and lovingly updated for each administration.
The Hall also contains replicas of White House china dishes, first ladies’ dresses, and more. Knowledgeable guides lead visitors through the museum and share interesting facts about the White House and the U.S. Presidents. At $15 per person at the time of writing, the Presidents Hall of Fame offers bang for your buck rarely seen in Orlando!
Explore Art, History, and Architecture at The Maitland Art Center
The Maitland Art Center holds just as much appeal for would-be explorers as it does for art lovers, all just 15 minutes from downtown Orlando.
Built in 1937 in a Mayan Revival style from the Art Deco period, this former artists’ colony features thousands of hand-carved statues tucked away in hidden courtyards, secret gardens, and winding walkways. Not surprisingly, it’s a popular spot for photoshoots, so photography buffs should be sure to bring their cameras.
The site still includes working artists’ studios and galleries. Some of the artists offer classes and workshops for kids and adults, who will find plenty of inspiration in this striking setting.
The site also houses several museums. For instance, experience the work of a switchboard operator at the Telephone Museum’s interactive exhibit. Or tour the Waterhouse Residence Museum, a Victorian-era home showing what life was like in nineteenth-century Florida.
Discover Local Craftsmanship at The Randall Knife Museum
Randall Made Knives are well-known among outdoor enthusiasts and survivalists for their superb quality. In the 1930s, W.D. “Bo” Randall started crafting hand-made knives as a hobby, which he turned into a business as his knives gained popularity among service members during World War II.
Each knife is still hand-crafted in this Orlando workshop, taking seventeen steps and up to eight hours to make. The company only produces 8,000 knives a year and has a huge backlog of customers waiting to purchase one.
The Randall Knife Museum is located in Orlando on the company’s grounds. The museum houses one of the largest pocket knife collections in the world, a knife claiming to be the world’s largest switchblade, and a total of over 7,000 sharp objects including swords, hatchets, machetes, and more.
Visitors can also view the “Astro” knife, which became the first knife in space when astronaut Gordon Cooper carried it on his 1963 mission to orbit Earth.
Peruse the Disney Collection at the Orlando Public Library
What better place for Disney enthusiasts to immerse themselves in rare documents chronicling the theme park’s history than at the Orlando Public Library?
The Disney Collection is tucked away on the fourth floor and houses books and documents covering Disney World from its groundbreaking in 1960 through the present. Many of the resources can only be explored at the library, so this is a one-of-a-kind Orlando experience.
Items in the collection include concept art for the parks and Disney characters; recipes from park restaurants; corporate newsletters and other internal documents; and a large collection of press clippings.
Visitors can see images of the monorail being constructed and of theme park rides that no longer exist. You can even peruse Epcot’s plumbing code if that’s of interest. Nothing is too obscure for the library’s Disney collection.
Shopping and Dining
Orlando Farmer’s Market at Lake Eola Park
Every Sunday from 10 AM to 3 PM, over 50 produce vendors and artisans from around Central Florida set up shop at Lake Eola Park, where visitors can browse a variety of fresh local fruit, veggies, cut flowers, live plants, and more.
Lake Eola Park is centrally located in downtown Orlando, with parking available on the street and in nearby garages. The lake and downtown skyline create a scenic backdrop for this bustling farmer’s market.
In addition to fresh produce, the market features vendors preparing food on-site. Once you grab your meal, you can enjoy it at the outdoor dining area and stop by the beer and wine garden. The market also showcases a large selection of arts and crafts from local designers. Dogs are welcome at the market, with some vendors catering specifically to pets.
After you’ve had your fill of shopping and eating, stroll the .9-mile paved path around Lake Eola for great views of the Orlando skyline, or rent a swan-shaped paddle boat to enjoy the lake and its fountain up close. Lake Eola Park is also home to the Walt Disney Amphitheater where visitors can attend concerts and plays. Or, spread your blanket on the East Lawn for a movie night under the stars.
Taste Orlando Private Chef Experience
If you’re worn out after a day of exploring the hidden gems of Orlando and want to treat yourself, consider hiring a local chef to prepare a multi-course meal for you. Take A Chef provides professional private chefs across the country; in Orlando and Kissimmee, you’d be working with Chef Jose. The experience covers a minimum of two guests, with discounts for four or more.
Chef Jose has 15 years of experience as an executive chef in the restaurant industry and 5 years as a personal chef. He will provide fresh local ingredients and will bring his cooking equipment with him.
You can decide whether you want to step into the kitchen to watch or help him prepare the meal. If not, sit back and relax until dinnertime. Chef Jose will give you the background on each dish, which highlight Spanish and Latin cuisine, and the team will leave your kitchen spotless.
The Milk District
The Milk District is a trendy neighborhood in the eastern part of Orlando which takes its name from a dairy farm founded in the area in 1925.
Today, the Milk District is known as a hub for arts, dining, music, and fashion and as a home where small, independent businesses can thrive. The district’s membership organization maintains a detailed website listing restaurants, bars, and other businesses in the neighborhood, as well as upcoming events such as bar crawls, markets, and block parties.
Food is a major highlight of the Milk District. Check out A La Carte Orlando, a food court hosting food trucks and pop-up restaurants with a dedicated bar serving craft beer and wine. The area also places a heavy emphasis on sandwiches: try the roast beef at Beefy King, a classic Italian sub at Stasio’s Italian Deli, or one of the many Asian-inspired sandwiches at Pom Pom’s Teahouse and Sandwicheria.
Coffee Tasting and Barista Class in Winter Park
Winter Park is an upscale, walkable suburb 15 minutes from downtown Orlando with a good dining scene. Trendy cafe and micro-roastery KOS offers a Coffee Tasting and Barista Class to groups of 2 to 8 participants, with the goal of making specialty coffee more approachable to the general public. This socially-conscious business is dedicated to transparent sourcing practices and gives 10% of profits back to the local community.
Barista class participants will learn about one of KOS’s farm partners, the coffee the farm produces, and the steps needed to get the beans from the farm to the shop.
They will then learn different brew styles and will taste the different flavor notes that emerge from espresso, drip, and pour-over brewing methods. The price of the class includes one piece of KOS merchandise and a bag of their coffee, so participants can practice their new skills when they get home.
During your visit to Winter Park, be sure to visit Prometheus Esoterica, which is hidden in a back room inside Abbey Rose Vintage Shop. The shop-within-a-shop describes itself as “part Oddities Shop, part Gothic Boutique”, and features a collection of animal skulls, taxidermy, crystals, jewelry, clothing, and books on spooky subjects. If you want the Diagon Alley experience without going to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, this place is for you!
Customers praise the husband and wife duo who run the shop and encourage patrons to interact with the merchandise. They also serve coffee and tea, billing themselves as “Orlando’s weirdest coffee shop.” You can sip the poison of your choice while you shop for everything you’ll need for your next magic spell. According to their website, these folks also offer their own taxidermy services, including “Pet Memorials”.
Player 1 Video Game Bar
Travel back in time to the 1980s with a visit to Player 1 Video Game Bar in Orlando, which boasts a large collection of retro arcade cabinets. The cover charge gives you unlimited access to the cabinets without the need for tokens or quarters. Their collection includes titles like Galaga, Mortal Kombat, and Pac-Man, plus more recent games like Guitar Hero.
The cover is $5 for Florida residents and $8 for visitors from out of state. Everyone must show a valid ID for entry, but the bar does offer craft sodas and other non-alcoholic drinks in addition to its large tap list. Players can refuel with hot snacks like fries, corn dogs, and pretzels from the bar.
You can rent game consoles including Playstation and Wii for an extra charge, and some games can even be played from your barstool on big screens over the bar.
Night Helicopter Tour
If you want to see the theme park lights from a distance without dealing with lines and crowds, a night helicopter tour may be the perfect solution! Several tour operators in Orlando and Kissimmee offer nightly flights, weather permitting.
Each helicopter can seat 3 to 4 passengers per helicopter, depending on the company. You can tailor your experience to ensure you see your top-priority sights, whether that’s sunset over Epcot or the Disney World fireworks.
Most operators offer flights of different lengths, so you can choose according to your budget, and many offer daytime flights as well if you’d rather see the parks under the sunshine.
Meet the Animals at Alaska Farms
Escape the theme park crowds and spend some quality time with the animals at Alaska Farms. They are located just 15 minutes from downtown Orlando, but it feels like a world away. This 10-acre family farm offers tours to interact with their animals, including cows, horses, donkeys, emus, and goats.
Their goat yoga is extremely popular. Each 45-minute class is led by a yoga instructor and attended by baby goats as well as human participants. The baby goats are friendly and will hop on your back or nibble your clothes during class.
It’s a great way to stretch and laugh all at the same time and is sure to relieve some stress. Yoga mats are provided, and there is time afterward to take pictures with the goats and see more of the farm.