Downtown and Disney-free

There's far more to Orlando than fun parks. David Whitley finds a whole new adventure land.

Some destinations are almost designed to send shivers down the spines of curmudgeonly types who don't want to buy into everyone else's party. Orlando stands among them like a flashing, Disneyfied beacon of enforced-fun terror. Standing in queues of excitable children while being harassed by failed actors dressed as cartoon mice is not my idea of magic.

Think Orlando, and massive theme parks awash with corporate branding spring to mind: heaven for kids; a saccharine nightmare for those without them.

As with most cities in the US Sun Belt, Florida's tourism capital is a mammoth, ungainly sprawl. The likes of Disney, Universal and SeaWorld occupy vast tracts of land to the south-west, but escape their clutches and a number of different characters emerge. Wonders do exist for the grown-ups – and many of them were made by Louis Comfort Tiffany. The artist – best known for his stained-glass lamps and being the son of the jewellery empire founder – is one of Orlando's unexpected treats.

Leafy Winter Park in the north-east of Orlando is the sort of well-to-do lakeside suburb that thrives on organic bakeries and beauty salons. But it's also home to the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art.

This treasure of a museum hosts the world's largest collection of Tiffany's work. The famous lamps and other furnishings are beautiful, but it's the statement works that really have the wow factor. Two giant stained-glass windows based on Botticelli paintings are mesmerising in their scale and detail, but even they seem unambitious compared with the chapel.

In 1893, Tiffany embarked on a project of staggering chutzpah. He decided to build his own chapel – a masterpiece of Byzantine arches, intricate mosaic work, hanging glass crosses and, yes, stained-glass windows – for the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. It has since been passed around numerous churches and private homes. The Morse Museum eventually secured it and restored it from its distinctly unloved state. It's a dazzling piece of virtuosity; I ended up locked to the pew in reverence.

The Morse Museum is one of a series of proper grown-up attractions along what is billed as Orlando's Cultural Corridor, stretching between Winter Park and downtown. Clustered around Loch Haven Park are the Museum of Art, Science Centre and Mennello Museum, all worth a look, while two major theatres are also found there and Donald Duck is conspicuous in his absence.

Downtown itself is an oddity. It has something of a Truman Show feel about it at times – all crisply clean and shiny, with an absence of the noise and crowded pavements you'd see in just about any other major city.

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But that's not to say it's dead – it's a different kind of alive. The bars are rowdy and energetic – particularly around Church Street and Wall Street. There are also good places to eat – such as hip Peruvian joint Ceviche on Church Street – that deviate from the chain hegemony to the south-west.

For the cool factor, the CityArts Factory is the place to be. It's a maze of galleries, artists' studios and performance spaces that shows there's more to life than tourism.

But the Orange County Regional History Centre is the real surprise. The old courthouse is packed with inventive displays about the region's transition from soggy backwater to leisure behemoth.

The most interesting section is named "The Day We Changed", and it goes into the effects of Disney World opening on what was previously 11,000hectares of snake- and alligator-infested swampland. Money and people came flooding into Orlando – visitor numbers went up from 660,000 in 1970 to 37.9million in 1999 – but strain was put on the water supply, and both crime and traffic ballooned.

It also made other attractions almost instantaneously obsolete.

Most closed, but one is still open. The Wekiwa Springs State Park was apopular spot in the early era of tourism as people flocked to bathe inthe natural springs. They go to thebig water parks now, but Wekiwa Springs offers another world: one where excited screams are absent, walking tracks are marked out rather than ridequeues, and concocted magicisreplaced by a peaceful, organic version.

I hire a canoe from the little wooden shack and begin to meander down the Wekiva River. The sun makes the water dazzle, herons emerge from the dense green banks and turtles laze on the branches of partially submerged trees. It's a glorious respite; a timeless piece of soft adventure that releases the joyful inner child far more than any roller-coaster ride could.

Sorry, Walt.

The writer was a guest of Visit Orlando and Visit Seminole County.

Trip notes

Getting there

Flights to Orlando, Florida, via Los Angeles cost from about $2000 with United Airlines.

Getting around

You're almost certainly going to need to hire a car: everything's too spread out for public transport to be viable. It's a relatively painless procedure at the airport.

Staying there

The Grand Bohemian is the best downtown option. Rooms cost from $US210 ($200) a night. 325 South Orange Avenue, +1 407 313 9000, grandbohemianhotel.com. If you have a car and want to save money, the La Quinta Inns offer surprising quality for about $US90 a night. lq.com.

More information

visitorlando.com, visitseminole.com

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