Updated: May 17, 2021
A job with Sport Fishing and Marlin magazines originally brought Adventure IO VP of Operations Tony Smith down to Orlando, but as a self-described “hot weather person” who loves outdoor Adventures, he was more than happy to settle there for the next 18 years.
“To me, a lot of Central Florida's appeal has to do with water access,” says Smith. “There are lakes, rivers, springs, the ocean – a lot of different possibilities if you like water sports.”
It’s true that you can try everything from paddleboarding to hydrofoiling, but wakeboarding was Smith’s personal obsession. A sport which, thanks to year-round sunshine and an abundance of nearby lakes, Orlando has become synonymous with.
From wakeboarding and hidden bars to mountain bike trail riding and the state’s best Cuban cuisine – there’s so much more to this city than Disney. Read on for a local’s guide to Orlando and Central Florida.
WHERE TO STAY
The Alfond Inn
I lived in a suburb on the north side of Orlando called Winter Park – an old railroad town that started as a cold weather getaway for wealthy Northerners. It’s sandwiched between five lakes ringed with cypress trees called the Winter Park Chain of Lakes. The area is really low key and it’s got a great art scene and a really good restaurant scene – a whole other world compared to Disney.
One cool place to stay there is the Alfond Inn, a luxury boutique hotel right on Lake Virginia, where you can take a boat tour from across the street. People load onto a pontoon and go through canals and lakes, spotting alligators and the occasional professional wakeboarder. It's a very unique Winter Park experience, and a much more "relaxed" old Central Florida feel.
If you must stay at Disney, spend the money and pick a really nice hotel like the Grand Floridian. Don’t go cheap at Disney because you get what you pay for. But seriously, just don't go, it's gotten ridiculously expensive for what it is.
UNMISSABLE EATS AND DRINKS
Central Florida's best Cuban sandwich at the Black Bean Deli
Central Florida and particularly Winter Park has a well-established food scene. There’s a street called Park Avenue that’s lined with shops and restaurants offering tons of variety, from Mediterranean to French nouvelle cuisine, plus lots of health-food spots. One of my personal favorites has always been Prato, an Italian place with great cocktails and the best woodfired pizza in town. It’s not your typical New York-style pie, it’s more gourmet with different cheeses and unusual toppings.
One thing you have to try in Florida is a Cuban sandwich – a pressed-toasted filled with ham, roasted pork, cheese, mustard and pickles. My go-to spot is called the Black Bean Deli. It’s been in Orlando for over 20 years and makes a Cuban sandwich as good or better than a lot of places in Miami. The trick is to get the black bean soup and dunk your sandwich in it.
Mosquito Lagoon, on CenFla's Space Coast, is home to trophy-sized saltwater species
If you like water activities you’ll be in yur element because there are lots of really high-level athletes in Central Florida. Champion waterskater Brian Grubb runs Adventures on an electric hydrofoil (eFoil), which is a foilboard with a propellor and a hand trigger which lets you fly above the water. It’s a bit of a learning curve but once you get the hang of it you can’t wipe the smile off your face. Seriously, you feel like George Jetson.
If you want to try wakeboarding or wakesurfing, I can’t think of a better guy than Shaun Murray. He’s a global icon in the industry and one of the most fun people you’ll ever spend the day with. You’ll definitely come away having learned something new.
For a more laid back time I’d opt for a paddleboarding session with Jessica Cichra, a yogi who also does paddleboarding alongside manatees in the Blue Springs. You can’t touch them but they’ll come up and drink right from your water bottle.
If you’re here in the summer, head for the coast where the sea breeze usually makes it about 10 degrees cooler. New Smyrna Beach is a bohemian beach town that’s close to salt water estuaries – Mosquito Lagoon and Indian River. There’s a photographer and fly fishing guide there called Willie Le who’s really dialed in. He spends more than 250 days a year on Mosquito Lagoon and has a very environmentally friendly approach to help navigate fluctuating fish populations in the area.
Central Florida also has tons of trails for mountain biking. What the location lacks in elevation, it makes up for with parks and trails. For one-on-one mountain biking tours and instruction, Shaun Moore is your guy. (*Sidenote: Ask Moore for his Buffalo wing recipes, he’s a connoisseur.)
BEST-KEPT LOCAL SECRET
The Imperial Bar at Washburn Imports
If you like drinking cocktails, there’s a cool place off Orange Avenue in Orlando called Washburn Imports. In the front it sells really cool South Pacific-style furniture, but in the back there’s a hidden bar (the Imperial Wine Bar) with a patio. It’s funny because it’s set on this little strip of stores that have been there since the 60s – a dry cleaners and a record store etc. – and if you didn’t know you’d never stumble across it. It’s a really fun, hidden spot with a great atmosphere.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
There’s one main highway called I-4 that runs from Tampa to Daytona, and it is awful. Try to avoid it at all costs during rush hour, and be warned – it gets especially insane as you approach Disney.
If you visit during the summer be prepared for brief afternoon storms. Every day at around 3 p.m. the sky will get dark, the wind will pick up and it will rain for about half an hour. But don’t worry, it will clear out just as quickly as it arrived – your vacation isn’t ruined!
Other great Central Florida Adventures: