It’s a kind of magic – Orlando beyond the theme parks

Angelina Villa-Clarke looks beyond Orlando’s theme parks, from historic towns to untouched nature, to discover a different kind of thrill


Little Big Mountain has a string of alligator teeth around his neck, a shaved bone through his septum and limbs decorated with ornate tribal tattoos. Sat on the banks of Lake Tohopekaliga, in Osceola County, Florida, he easily falls into conversation about how his ancestors, members of the Jororo Native American tribe, survived in the alligator-infested Everglades for hundreds of years.

“Back then it was not unusual for alligators to grow to over 20 feet,” Little says, explaining how the Jororos would have hunted the dangerous animals with arrows and spears. “Even now, only 10 per cent of people survive alligator attacks,” he adds ominously.

Looking at the teeth around his neck, it’s clear his relatives must have been pretty good at the task in hand.

One of six siblings, Little is a fourth-generation Native American and as a child, travelled with his family across the US performing and educating others about his culture. These days, he has taken on the mantle of storytelling and teaching at a living-history museum close to the lake, just outside of Orlando.

The replica Native American village is made up of traditional chickee huts, filled with artefacts, some dating back thousands of years, open fires for cooking and thatched “rooms” where weapons and everyday objects would have been crafted.

Found just a 40-minute drive south of Disney World, Lake Tohopekaliga – or Toho, as it is locally known – is a world apart from the Florida that most tourists experience.

Here, there are no Mickey ears to be seen, no screaming heard from high-adrenaline rollercoasters and (most importantly, perhaps) no queueing to see its sights.

Instead, this is a slowed-down Florida, where time seems to have stood still and where visitors can immerse themselves in the area’s natural beauty.

Surrounded by towering cypress trees and oaks dripping in Spanish moss, the serene Lake Toho stretches over 22,000 acres and, due to its largemouth bass that grow to huge sizes, is most famous for its fishing competitions.

For visitors, the best way to explore it is on an airboat tour, such as those offered by Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures. Reaching high speeds, you glide across the surface of the water, the wind whipping your hair as you sit on the elevated seats on the boat’s hull.

As you zoom around, the eagle-eyed captain suddenly slows the boat down when he spots anything of interest, his fingers on his lips for silence — snail kites glide over the marshes, bald eagles appear as if from nowhere to dive into the bulrushes and camouflaged alligators are found hiding amid waving maiden-cane and hydrilla grasses.

While Orlando may be dubbed the theme park capital of the world, with 74 million visitors recorded in 2022, there is a surprisingly large number of little-known natural and cultural activities, all in reach of the city.

A home rental is one of the most practical ways to enjoy all the region has to offer. Seeking more flexibility than that afforded by hotel stays, I checked in to a modern townhouse, by Homes & Villas by Marriot Bonvoy, in the ChampionsGate residential area, south of downtown Orlando.

Close to supermarkets, restaurants (and the parks if you did want to spend some time there), the rentals have open-plan living, en suite bedrooms, high-tech kitchens, a laundry room and swimming pools, making them perfect as a base for exploring further afield.

A 40-minute drive north from here, the quaint town of Winter Park became popular in the late 19th century as a resort town for well-heeled New Englanders escaping the harsh winters of the north. Buying up cheap land around Lake Osceola, the out-of-towners built grandiose mansions, many designed by the prominent architect James Gamble Rogers.

These days, the houses’ heritage designs and idyllic waterside positions mean that they sell for millions of dollars and are snapped up by some of the US’s richest CEOs, celebrities and sports stars.

A pontoon boat tour with the Scenic Boat Tour company, which has itself been operating since 1938, not only points out the history of many of the prominent houses but takes you to remote parts of the waterway to spot some of the resident wildlife.

Lake Osceola is, in fact, not one but seven lakes connected by narrow canals, lined with giant ferns and lush banana trees.

You’ll spot ospreys swooping overhead and anhingas, or snake birds, which submerge themselves under the lily-pad-covered waters and rear their heads like snakes. You’ll sail past the lake’s “secret garden” — the Kraft Azalea Park — filled with vibrant azaleas and 200-year-old towering cypress trees.

Also found on the banks is Rollins College, a prestigious arts college, which is often voted as having the prettiest campus in the whole of the US. It was founded in 1885 by New England Congregationalists who wanted to bring their style of liberal arts education to the Florida frontier.

Back in town, Park Avenue’s cobbled streets are lined with inviting boutiques, ideal to browse with a coffee in hand from Barnie’s. Pop into independent bookseller the Writer’s Block Bookstore, check out the crystals and jewellery in Loving Thyself Rocks and the locally sourced artisan produce in Ancient Olive Gourmet.

The town is also known for its thriving foodie scene with a wide choice of Michelin-starred and other high-end restaurants, such as Boca Winter Park, which focuses on farm-to-table dining, as well as a sprawling farmers’ market every Saturday.

For those seeking a culture fix, Winter Park is also home to the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art. Inside, the rooms gleam with rainbow-hued stained glass created by Louis Comfort Tiffany and the museum houses the largest collection of his Tiffany lamps, leaded glass windows, jewellery and paintings.

There is also a stunning, restored Byzantine-Romanesque chapel interior that Tiffany designed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, as well as art and architectural objects from his Long Island estate, Laurelton Hall.

Just ten minutes outside Winter Park, Orlando’s East End Market, in the Audubon Park Garden District, is the ideal spot for stocking up on treats. Celebrating central Florida’s top food entrepreneurs, farmers and makers, you’ll find artisan cookies from Gideon’s Bakehouse (try the delicious banana bread chocolate chip version), cheeses from La Femme du Fromage and Japanese street waffles from Wafu.

Meanwhile, for another day of exploring, you might want to venture west of the city. Here is where you’ll find Winter Garden (as opposed to Winter Park), perched on the banks of Lake Apopka. Listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, the old-fashioned town oozes age-old charm and is home to a thriving crafts and farmers’ market and more independent stores.

From homemade lemonade to on-trend jewellery, hot sauces to homewares, the market takes place every Saturday with live music and entertainment. It champions local artists such as Marly Rose, who has sold her lovingly crafted cards and paintings here for the past six years.

For lunch, head to the Plant Street Market, a hub of 20 food vendors, housed in the same building as the Crooked Can Brewing Company. You can sit inside the industrial space and sup the brewery’s craft beer as you choose what to eat from the list of specialist vendors; an Ecuadorian empanada or perhaps an American dirty burger, gourmet popsicles or hot doughnuts. Afterwards, catch a show or watch a film at the retro Garden Theatre.

To learn more about the history of the town, the Winter Garden Heritage Museum reveals how the area’s roots are entwined with the citrus industry and the orange farms that once lined the fertile shores of Lake Apopka.

Who needs rollercoasters when you can drink all this in? It’s a refreshing side of Orlando that so many don’t know exists.

​Getting There

​Flights to Orlando cost from around £280 return from London with Norse Airlines, from around £420 return from Manchester with Virgin Atlantic.

Homes & Villas by Marriott Bonvoy cost from £140 per night.

Book tours with Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures and Scenic Boat Tour Company

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