Exploring the adult side of this kid-friendly vacation spot

by Libby Boren McMillan

If you tend to associate Orlando with only children or theme parks, it’s time for another look at Central Florida’s exciting urban metropolis. Swanky restaurants, cool clubs, and hip arts spots serves as excellent alternatives for those more interested in Mozart and shiraz than Mickey and Shamu.

A vibrant energy hums in downtown Orlando, its streets filled with stunning architecture, outdoor bistros, and frequent festivals. Lake Eola, in the shadow of new penthouses, quietly draws outdoor lovers to its jogging path, while residents and savvy visitors relish exploring the city’s inviting neighborhoods.

Foodies should set their GPS for Sand Lake Road and reserve a coveted table at Seasons 52. Gleaming wood and stone walls set the stage for a cozy evening in this welcoming haven. You can expect the waitstaff to be reverent about its flavor-infused food; Season 52’s menu is built around seasonal ingredients, and master sommelier George Miliotes helps diners choose from seventy luscious wines by the glass.

Sand Lake Road also has a number of other restaurants and lounges, many with live music. The city’s finest band, however, will be rockin’ the house at B.B. King’s Blues Club on International Drive. Located within the Pointe Orlando complex, King’s club and restaurant serves up Southern food and cocktails while its supremely talented house band keeps things hopping, seven nights a week. Don’t be surprised when well-known guest artists and backup bands appear unannounced.

At the other end of the spectrum, Orlando Opera’s fifty-first season runs November through April at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre downtown, a 2,500-seat concert hall that’s also home to ballet, symphony, and theater productions. If you use special events as catalysts for weekend getaways, check the schedule for Amway Arena, the place for top-drawer acts like Coldplay or Enrique Iglesias, as well as touring productions (Avenue Q runs this December).

Sports fans may already know Amway Arena is where the Orlando Magic hit the hardwood November through April. But the venue is also home to the Orlando Sharks indoor soccer team from October to March and the Orlando Predators arena football team March through June. The city’s Florida Citrus Bowl fills its seventy thousand seats with pigskin fans on January 1 for the Capital One Bowl.

No one can deny the spectacular athleticism and creative magic that is Cirque du Soleil, and the troupe’s La Nouba, a quirky and exciting visual extravaganza, thrills audiences in its own dedicated theater at Downtown Disney. Next door is the House of Blues, which, unbeknownst to many, has one of the world’s finest collections of original American folk art hanging on its walls. The Creole and Southern fare is tasty; the art is off the hook. House of Blues also has a performance stage where your favorite touring act could be appearing.

Travelers who enjoy strolling the streets of interesting urban enclaves find plenty to discover in Orlando. Trendy Thornton Park lies adjacent to Lake Eola and is generating lots of buzz. Grab a bite at Dexter’s during its Thursday night music jam or stop by for jazz brunch on Saturday. Also nearby: the popular Hue Restaurant, an acclaimed eatery offering progressive American cuisine. Eo Inn and Urban Spa makes a great home base for exploring this popular area.

Orlando has several other gracious, tree-shaded neighborhoods, perfect for a leisurely drive or walk. College Park, one of the prettiest, is set among hills rolling gently around Lake Adair just west of downtown. Cruise Edgewater Drive and you’ll forget you’re in Florida. With streets bearing names like Harvard, Dartmouth, and Yale, the neighborhood draws gourmet food and wine lovers as well as those interested in acoustic music, vintage clothing, cooking classes, and more.

North of downtown you’ll find tony Winter Park. Generously sprinkled with upscale boutiques and martini bars, this small city is also home to Rollins College, which graces the shores of Lake Virginia and is Florida’s oldest recognized college. A vibrant mix of residents often fills bistro tables along Park Avenue; book a room overlooking it all at the Park Plaza Inn and discover the city on foot, including the nearby Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, known for its Tiffany collection. If time allows, purchase a ride on the Scenic Boat Tour for a relaxing, narrated excursion around Winter Park’s many lakes and the canals that connect them.

Movie lovers should set aside a night for Maitland’s Enzian Theater. Situated in a building that looks more like a home than a theater, this popular local hangout shows excellent art and foreign films in an unusual cinema setting, with food-and-cocktail service during the show. Giant moss-draped oaks shade the theater’s courtyard and fountain, while a lovely outdoor bar lures moviegoers after the show. It’s a great place to unwind, be entertained, and make new friends.

Downtown Orlando is undergoing an exciting transformation, with multiple mixed-use and high-rise projects underway or already completed. Consequently, there’s always something going on; watch for weekend festivals and events. You’ll also discover lots of places to enjoy a meal outdoors. Alternative art happenings and exhibitions pop up regularly at CityArtsFactory; its five galleries, working studios, and performance art space spawn utterly unpredictable events worth checking out.

The Corona Cigar Company’s beautiful downtown location is worth a visit, even if you don’t smoke. With décor right out of Central America (including Nicaraguan furnishings), this chic cigar mecca also harbors the Diamond Crown Lounge. Settle in for tasty single malts, rare whiskies, fine Cognacs, South American wines, or pre-embargo Cuban rums. And yes, cigars are definitely in the house—thousands of them, from more than a dozen countries. (Corona’s headquarters on Sand Lake stocks over a million.) Ladies, you could make quite the splash in these sexy, testosterone-heavy environs.

But even with all these adult diversions, Orlando can still bring out the kid in all of us. If extreme sports are how you get your ya-yas out, you’re in luck. At the tiny free-admission Old Town amusement park on Highway 192 just east of I-4, someone is waiting to strap you into the Old Town Slingshot and hurl you 365 feet straight up in the air. When your stomach falls out at the apex and you begin to freefall, the crowd below enjoys watching your face on video monitors on the ground, thanks to the camera near your head. (Voyeurs and wannabes have just as much fun as those who pay to be human ammunition.)

Another form of falling awaits at Sky Venture, a little-known extreme-style attraction that’s also a blast for spectators. Simulating the feel of skydiving inside a massive, glass-walled vertical wind tunnel, Sky Venture attracts legions of actual skydivers who train there. Sky Venture participants complete a short training session before entrusting themselves to the helping hands of a trained skydiver in the 125-mile-per-hour wind tunnel. Move one leg up or down, and you’ll spin left or right; an error in calculation will have you bouncing off the ceiling or rapidly sinking. Sky Venture’s wind tunnel is exhilarating to enter and fascinating to watch (which is free to the public). “Jump” if you dare!

Freelance writer Libby Boren McMillan is a frequent contributor to Times of the Islands and RSW Living.