The travel experience on a work assignment is much different than vacation, of course, but I never let the fact that I’m working get in the way of experiencing a place.
I spent several months in Orlando in 2016, and fortunately had a chance to be there over many weekends, and during times of the year with a good bit of sunlight after 5 for exploring and sunset watching. My work assignment was located in Maitland, which is in the northern part of the Orlando area. I didn’t spend any time downtown, but concentrated my playtime to the north and south of downtown.
When I go away for work for any time longer than a work week, I try to establish a “local”; that is, a restaurant I can and will go to many times over my stay. I tip well for good service, and it helps when going back. So where is my “local”? Hillstone Winter Park! Hillstone is one of a chain of restaurants, but each adapts itself to the area it calls home. The Winter Park location is set on the banks of Lake Killarney, and the outside area is low-key, with Adirondack chairs scattered about in groupings, and a fire pit for those chilly nights, but the sunsets over the water are spectacular. (Of course Orlando has no beach, but surprisingly there is plenty of water. Google map it and you’ll see what I mean.) Not only is the setting aesthetically pleasing inside and out, but the food is consistently delicious and the service top notch. Just the place to unwind after a hectic day at work!
Downtown Winter Park itself is a lovely place to stroll, window shop independent stores, dine and drink at independent restaurants, and generally take in the ambience. I didn’t eat any dinners there, as after a crazy day the sunsets at Hillstone were a balm on my soul, but I did enjoy a delicious brunch at The Briarpatch. Next time I go to Orlando, though, a Winter Park Food Tour is on my list. What a great way to sample some of Winter Park’s best offerings-the ultimate in local knowledge!
For sheer wow factor, in a very understated way, make sure you check out the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum right in downtown Winter Park. Their collection of Tiffany is out of this world. Mr and Mrs McKean (the museum is named after Mrs. McKean’s grandfather) of Orlando were avid collectors even before they traveled to Tiffany’s Long Island home after the tragic fire there and salvaged some of the most amazing pieces. Oh they have the requisite lamps of course, a whole room full, but the collection of windows, and entire rooms, is just dazzling. This place is a must! No photos allowed inside, unfortunately.
Another must see in Winter Park is Leu Gardens. This is a small but lovely botanical garden, with meandering paths through a variety of tropical and temperate plants, all situated on the banks of Lake Rowena. Leu Gardens is just the place to bring your blood pressure down a notch, and smell the roses (literally and figuratively) along the way.
Looking for a great spot to hang out, watch the sunset, go for a boat ride, listen to live music, eat and drink, and maybe do some shopping? There is one place for all of this, and most of it is FREE! Where, you ask? That’s Disney Springs, the Disney enclave formerly known as Downtown Disney. (Link to the google map)
I am not a Disney fan particularly; if it wasn’t for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal (more about that later), I would probably have never set foot in a theme park at all. Disney Springs is not an amusement or theme park, but more like an incredible outdoor mall with a lake. But that doesn’t really even begin to describe it.
First off, the parking is free. That’s amazing in itself. The first thing I usually do upon arrival is jump directly onto a boat for a trip to the other side of the place. The boats leave from three different spots on the property, which is laid out along the side(s) of a lake (see google map link above), and guess what? The boat rides are also free. So what’s next? Dockside Margaritas is a great place to watch the sun go down with a margarita and some island music, although the bar outside at The Boathouse , a nautical-themed restaurant with beautiful decor, including antique boats inside and outside, also boasts a smashing sunset view. (Boathouse tip-it’s difficult to score an inside table, but if you wander out to the dockside bar area, the bar itself and the tables are first-come first-served, and they serve the exact same food.) Even though the menu isn’t exactly a bargain, there are plenty of choices, and it’s all reliably good.
Disney Springs also offers a myriad of opportunities to shop til you drop. Not only can you purchase any and all Disney swag, shops like Anthropologie and Uniqlo also have outposts here. There is even a market-like building showcasing local artisans.
Speaking of local talent-the live music is everywhere. There is a stage with kid-friendly acts, but also all kinds of other options available, including Jimmy Buffet style guitar at the margarita bar, Spanish guitar outside the boathouse, and on and on. Again-all free. The place really is a good value.
Last but not least, I give you the only reason I go to a theme park-the Wizarding World of Harry Potter! You may know I am an all out Harry Potter nerd, so spending time in the world created by some of same artisans who created the original sets was/is a must on my Orlando list. (Yes, I’ve seen the original sets at the WB Studio Tour outside London, twice in fact, and I hope to go back next December. My thoughts on and photos of the tour here.) I’m not going to go into a lot of the logistical details in this post, as the folks at Orlando Informer have that down pat. But I do want to bring you some of my insights, along with some of my hundreds of pictures. (If you are a map geek like me, you’ll find this page helpful.)
The Wizarding World comprises two separate “lands” at Universal Orlando. The first and oldest is in Universal Islands of Adventure and brings to life the wizarding village of Hogsmeade and of course Hogwarts Castle. As this is the original WWOHP site, it is not as detailed as the Diagon Alley side, but still worth a visit. Click above for more about rides (Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, inside Hogwarts, the Dragon Challenge rollercoasters), entertainment, dining (The Three Broomsticks), and shopping (Ollivander’s, Owlpost, Honeydukes, Filch’s Confiscated Goods)!
The other, newer section of the Wizarding World is located at the Universal Studios part of the park. The two sections are connected by the Hogwarts Express, which in addition to providing a Harry Potterish experience, with fun animation outside the “window”, really does transport one between the two parks. A park-to-park ticket is required to ride the train, however. Remember to ride the train both ways, as the experiences are different.
Because I spent much of my Wizarding World time in 2016 during Halloween Horror Nights, which occurs at the Universal Studios part of the park only, I am much more familiar with this side, which is newer, larger, more awesomely detailed, and for my money, better.
One starts out as Harry Potter did, on the streets of London. In addition to Kings Cross Station, the street features 12 Grimmauld Place, shop fronts, and the Knight Bus. One enters Diagon Alley is through a passage in a brick wall, which is not magical. But once you get through it, I promise, magic awaits!
What are my favorite things about/to do in the Wizarding World?
- The music! John Williams’ amazing scores are all around you at all times, transporting you into the world. This is one of the many reasons to try to go when it is not so crowded. Check Orlando Informer for lots of tips and a crowd calendar.
- Performing spells with my interactive wand. I held out purchasing this for many visits, but the magic and wonder are well worth every dollar. If one is not going to let one’s inner child come out to play here, well one doesn’t have an inner child! Besides, when Pottermore assigned me the same wand wood and core as Hermione Granger, well I just had to splurge for Hermione’s wand. It’s as close to my own wand as I’m ever going to get. Vine wood with a dragon heartstring core, in case you’re wondering.
- Eating and drinking. I’m not much for butter beer, but the lemon squash is just the thing. The ice cream at Fortescue’s is delicious, especially the chocolate. My recommendations for dinner at The Leaky Cauldron (I think The Three Broomsticks has much the same menu) include the Fish and Chips and the Bangers and Mash. In addition to all the Chocolate Frogs et al you can stomach, Sugarplums Sweet Shop also carries delicious savory pumpkin pasties.
- The shops. I listed some of the Hogsmeade shops above; Diagon Alley has many more, including Madam Malkin’s, Wiseacres Wizarding Equipment, Quality Quidditch Supplies, Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, Ollivander’s Wands, Borgin and Burkes. Not only are there so many interesting and cool items for sale (don’t miss Borgin and Burkes in Knockturn Alley-fun for the dark magic-curious like me) but the shop interiors are incredibly and wonderfully detailed. Look up in every one!
- The shop windows, including and especially those without shops behind them. These windows are masterpieces of detail, and there are so many! Don’t miss any of them. Some of my favorites? The clocks, the potion bottles at the apothecary, the muggle artifacts, and the bookshop, to name a few.
- The Gringotts Dragon! He breathes fire about every 20 minutes or so, and although it’s fun in the daytime, I highly recommend experiencing the dragon fire at night (in fact, I think Diagon Alley is at its absolute best and most magical at night). Photo tip-wait until you see the little flame inside the dragon’s mouth before holding your camera or phone up for the shot.
- I’ve saved Diagon Alley for last in this post, but I recommend seeing the Wizarding World as Harry did. Start on the streets of London, make your way back into Diagon Alley to experience the magic there, then hop on the Hogwarts Express (remember you must have a park to park ticket) for the ride to Hogsmeade and the Castle.
- What about the rides? I am not much for rides, so I don’t have a lot to say about them. I’ve ridden Escape from Gringotts and it was fun; I certainly will do it again, but it is never the highlight of my visit. I’ve heard that the Forbidden Journey ride in Hogwarts Castle and the Dragon Challenge are a bit much for those like me prone to motion sickness, so I haven’t attempted them. If rides are a big thing for you, I suggest checking out this Orlando Informer page for tips and tricks to beat the lines.
- To make a long story about my change of heart on this subject, I understand why people feel safer paying to take their kids to a theme park than showing them a real city. Everyone entering Universal goes through a metal detector and a look through their bags; even if just enjoying CityWalk, which doesn’t require a ticket. The actual parks themselves are much more secure, however, and this is very comforting, even without any children in tow. Not only must everyone have a ticket to enter, one uses their thumbprint to enter and reenter. Granted, terrorists or other criminals could conceivably obtain tickets, but as soft targets go, the parks are probably not an easy bet. This makes me feel good, and I pride myself on being street smart when out and about, so I now understand a bit more about the appeal. (Not to mention, I mean, THE WIZARDING WORLD!!!)
I mentioned Halloween Horror Nights above. Here’s some more detail about my amazingly cheap deal for Diagon Alley. I spent all of September working in Orlando, and when I realized that Diagon Alley would be open extremely late hours with low crowd levels, I bought a pass for Horror Nights, even though I am not a horror fan or interested in haunted houses. My Rush of Fear pass gave me admission to just about every night in September, and I enjoyed many hours of magic in the dark at Diagon Alley for less than $100. A real bargain. If you are visiting in September or October, I suggest you check it out. Again, Orlando Informer, and their group page on Facebook, are invaluable sources of information for your trip.
So there you have it-my Orlando. Thanks for traveling with me! How do you like your Orlando?