In Orlando for a Disney vacation? Explore beyond the gates, too
When you vacation at the Disney resorts in Florida or California, every moment of every day can be filled with Disney-related activities. You can go to a Disney theme park. You can shop at the Disney retail centers, eat at Disney restaurants, hire a Disney babysitter so you can dance the night away at a Disney club. You can pay for everything with the wristband you get at check-in, which is also your hotel room key and your ticket to the theme parks. This vacation by immersion is affectionately known among fans as the Disney Bubble.
But what if you want to burst out of that bubble? What if, unlike the rest of your group, you'd be happier if you never entered "The Happiest Place on Earth"? If you stay at the resorts in Orlando or Anaheim, can you have fun without lining the pockets of Mickey's ill-fitting red shorts? We sent a couple of reporters to find out.
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Anaheim's sunny weather is its own great attraction. That glorious climate lured the indigenous Tongva tribe, which based a village nearby, and the 19th-century Bavarian vintners who gave the city its current name. It also attracted Harrison "Buzz" Price, a research economist and consultant for animator and studio owner Walt Disney.
Disney had an unusual idea: He wanted to build an entertainment complex that focused on storytelling and families, in contrast to what he considered the boozy, louche amusement parks of the day. Price calculated traffic patterns, population growth and proximity to freeways - and in 1953 homed in on 160 acres of orange groves as the perfect site for a manicured magic land.
Luckily for those who don't share Disney's vision - or need a break from the two-park, 2,500 room resort - Anaheim offers its own enticements. All can be reached via a 10-minute Lyft ride or a short Anaheim Resort Transportation bus trip from Disneyland's Main Transportation Center.
- Drop that Fred Flintstone jumbo turkey leg ...
For good food other than Mickey-shaped starches and Dole Whip (although these are also delicious), and items more affordably priced, turn to the Center City section of downtown Anaheim. Center Street Promenade is lined with restaurants, including a Japanese bakery, a storefront selling gigantic Hungarian "chimney cakes" crammed with ice cream and Pour Vida Latin Flavor, a friendly joint with a heart-stopping, ooey-gooey "Anaheim Burger" taco. A few blocks away on South Anaheim Boulevard - but still within Center City - is Anaheim Packing District, an upscale food hall set in and around a former citrus packing warehouse, which will delight both grilled-cheese lovers and gourmet-popsicle gnawers. Dodge the Instagrammers and head to Urbana for punchy tacos or Adya for Indian street food bites.
(If you overindulge, Center City also offers Free Rides Around the Neighborhood or FRAN, an app-powered system of shared electric minibuses that shuttle passengers to specific drop-off points within the area.)
Ten minutes west of Disneyland is Little Arabia, a vibrant stretch of strip-mall eateries and markets lining Brookhurst Street. You can ride the 35 bus along the main drag and roll out to enjoy the namesake dish at Kareem's Falafel or bouza, a stretchy Middle Eastern ice cream, at Le Mirage Pastry.
- ... And pick up a quirky souvenir or two
Center City is also home to some wonderfully offbeat boutiques, such as Rare by Goodwill, a meticulously curated collection of the fanciest, most fashionable finds in the Goodwill inventory, and Pop Comics & Culture Emporium. In Anaheim Packing District, stop by SEED Peoples Market for charming home goods and gifts. For those unafraid of crowds and a little chaos, the combination swap meet and flea market at Anaheim Indoor Marketplace is chockablock with stalls stocked with it all. Frothy quinceanera dresses! Electronics! Sporting goods! Tattooing! And finally, outlet shoppers will be happy hunting at the Outlets at Orange, accessible by Anaheim Resort Transportation.
- Happy places for adults
You may find it funny that Disney set his (till recently) teetotaling park in a city with a storied history of winemaking - and a plethora of modern-day breweries and other adults-only options. Craft Brew Tours offers tours of brew houses in Anaheim and neighboring cities. If you have time for only one brewery, head 10 minutes east of Disneyland to multiple award-winner Noble Ale Works for its cheekily named beers.
Travelers motivated enough to make reservations and ditch their cargo shorts can book into the Blind Rabbit, a speakeasy with a dress code, housed in Anaheim Packing District.
For visitors wanting just a peek at Disney spectacle, rooftop bar and restaurant the Fifth offers a prime spot for taking in Disneyland's nightly fireworks. Make a reservation for before 9:30 p.m. or show up early and be prepared to stand.
- Pocket art, pocket (historical) park
For those looking for more of a think than a thrill, Anaheim can give you your art or history fix. The compact Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center in Center City includes a main art gallery and the historical 1908 Carnegie Library. The free exhibits in the Carnegie space include a rotating art exhibition and a permanent display on Anaheim's history. The gallery is showing work from the art collection of Cheech Marin (of Cheech & Chong fame) until July 14.
Don't be misled by the name of Founders' Park. Located 10 minutes north of Disney, this is more of a historical site, featuring two original buildings from Anaheim's early days: the understated 1857 Mother Colony House and the turreted 1894 Woelke-Stoffel House. Visiting the park is free; volunteer docents are on hand the first Saturday morning of every month to answer questions. Make sure to gawk at the site's landmark Moreton Bay fig tree, which was at least partial inspiration for the Swiss Family Treehouse (of yore) and Tarzan's Treehouse (of now) at Disneyland.
- Better than Space Mountain
Perhaps sitting through a ride where your only decision is how loud to scream isn't for you - or your offspring. There are other activities in Anaheim. Get your Top Gun on 10 minutes east of Disneyland at Flightdeck, which offers flight-simulation experiences in the mode of either fighter jets or a Boeing 737. Skate or watch the skaters carving and grinding at Vans Skateparkin neighboring Orange for some free jaw-dropping entertainment. The Rinks: Anaheim ICEin Center City (designed by Frank Gehry) offers daily public skating sessions and skate rental. Local hockey teams and figure skaters practice and play throughout the day - another wonderful free show.
- Noy Thrupkaew
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Walt Disney spent the mid-1960s anonymously snatching up Florida ranches and swampland. He wanted room - a lot of room - to build a second magical theme park, one that he could isolate from the encroachment of the real world that Disneyland had experienced in California.
He didn't necessarily set out to create a campus about twice the size of Manhattan with three resorts other than the Magic Kingdom, two water parks and 30,000 hotel rooms to hold upward of 100,000 people as willing captives, providing for every want and need at a markup. But Walt was a visionary. Once you get onto the resort, it can be hard to leave, both logistically and because, well, you don't need to.
So, if you want to spend significant time off Disney property, you should rent a car. Yes, you can hail a taxi, Uber or Lyft, but the property is so vast that you'll run a healthy fare before you've technically left the World.
- Eat like you're at Epcot
One of the best parts of staying at Disney World is the diverse food options, and the best place to be hungry is Epcot. Around the park's World Showcase are pavilions featuring nine countries, each with interesting dining options. But you can expand on Epcot's offerings without straying far from the parks.
Sofrito Latin Cafe, about two miles from Disney Springs at the south end of the property, is a clearinghouse for Latin American cuisine. You can order empanadas in the style of Argentina, Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia, and have a delicious learning experience. Roast pork and chicken are popular in that region, and you're safe with those here, too.
India isn't represented in Epcot, so head to A'taj, just outside one of the resort's southern gates, for kebabs, curries and kormas in a fairly opulent setting that belies its strip-mall address.
- Deal hunting
If your shopping habits align more with Prada and Jimmy Choo than Pluto and Jiminy Cricket, the Orlando Vineland Premium Outlets are just three miles from Disney Springs. There are 160 stores with outlet pricing on designer brands. And if you do need some branded ware to take home, the outlets' Disney's Character Warehouse is a good place to stock up on Mickey swag.
- It's a natural world
If you ever wondered what Florida looked like before a castle sprouted at the edge of Orange County, you can still find slices of it. Just five miles northeast of the Magic Kingdom at the north end of the property, the Tibet-Butler Preserve is a 440-acre park with almost four miles of trails and boardwalks along a wetlands area that's home to herons, osprey, eagles, otters, armadillos and snakes. You can listen to the birds sing, but they won't have any insightful banter and you shouldn't expect any Busby Berkeley-style showstoppers from them. It's a good place for a quiet walk, but depending on your tolerance for humidity, plan to go early in the day. And scheduling your ride back while you know you have a cellphone signal is a good idea.
At the theme parks, a lot of the rides will load the hordes into boats that float through movie scenes or saddle you with an earworm. But at the Paddling Center at Shingle Creek, about 10 miles from Disney Springs, you can rent kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddleboards to travel to the edge of the Everglades. It's a great way to get close to Florida's flora and fauna. But know that even if you don't see alligators, they see you. So keep your arms and hands inside the boat at all times.
- A real-life Main Street
Just 12 miles north of the Magic Kingdom, you'll find downtown Winter Garden, where Plant Street acts a living version of Disney's idyllic creation. Real life happens here, with farmers markets, art festivals and street fairs. Stop in at the Central Florida Railroad Museum, in the city's old station or the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation to learn how honestly the city came by its name. Plant Street is lined with independent stores with quirky home goods or Florida-themed gifts. When you get thirsty, the Plant Street Market is an artisan food hall anchored by Crooked Can Brewing Company, which offers tours and a dozen beers on tap.
- Alternate amusements
If you're looking for a park without a theme or rides without an animated plot line, you can find that at Old Town, six miles south of Disney Springs. If there's a theme, it's harking back to the traveling carnival that set up in your town's parking lot. And there are funnel cakes.
If you miss the arcade of your misspent youth, Player 1 Video Game Bar is two miles from Disney Springs and is its own kind of fantasyland: A nominal entry fee covers all your game play. Whether you're into Dig Dug and Defender or Mario Kart and Fortnite, you're covered. And unlike any arcade in my memories, there's an extensive craft beer list.
- Jim Webster