In Addition to the big three theme parks, Orlando has many great neighborhoods brimming with inventive things to do, see, and eat.
There aren’t many destinations where you can pose for a photo with Jesus, watch a former linebacker in drag do a fully choreographed musical number from The Greatest Showman, see beetles strip the flesh off a skeleton, chat up a flapper on stilts before a burlesque review, savor a cocktail in a 19th-century shoe repair shop, and play a bingo game where sex toys are the prizes. Yet so goes a typical 24 hours in Orlando, Florida. Oh, and let’s not forget riding a mythical creature’s back through the brand-new fantasy world of Pandora, based on the movie Avatar, at Disney’s Animal Kingdom—although you probably need a second day to fit that in.
I have to admit, the second morning of my July 2018 visit I made a gleeful, excited beeline to the Fast Pass entry for Flight of Passage (www.disneyworld.disney.go.com), one of the most high-tech rides ever created for Disney parks, and easily the Hamilton of Disney World. Fast Pass tickets are gobbled up months in advance, and waiting in line can consume a serious chunk of a morning or afternoon (we’re talking over two hours, and as long as six-plus during peak periods).
Opened in May 2017, Flight of Passage allows visitors to become a Na’vi (virtually, of course) and bond with one of the film’s banshees for an insanely thrilling flight. It simulates the feel of big drops and soaring through a completely immersive, convincing blend of 3D, sound, smells, and other sensations. Afterward, in the adjacent shop, you can have a Na’vi action figure made with your facial features, while a second ride, Na’vi River Journey (www.disneyworld.disney.go.com), is filled with awesome special effects and possibly the most incredible animatronic figure I’ve ever seen: a full-sized, singing Na’vi. It’s quite romantic, too!
While the big three theme parks (Disney, Universal, and Sea World) may define the vision of Orlando for many, there’s a whole lot of local life and neighborhoods brimming with unusual, wild, and inventive things to do, see, and eat.
For this visit, I stayed about a 20-minute drive away at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes (4012 Central Florida Pkwy. Tel: 407- 206-2400. www.ritzcarlton.com), which was completing a property-wide freshening up and some renovations at the time (it’ll be all finished as you read this). Although I did gripe about missing out on a cold brew coffee from the lobby’s in-progress First Drop café, I found more than enough treats to compensate in the club lounge: specifically, a case of freshly baked, incredible cookies (with a stack of convenient to-go pouches), candy, and plenty of savory food and beverages. The pool area is a delight, the spa top notch (with a second pool just for spa guests), and the property also takes farm-to-table cuisine seriously at its Highball & Harvest restaurant, which sources honey, produce, and even poultry from onsite apiaries, a 7,000-square-foot garden, and chicken coops.
After checking in, it was time to get weird by watching a time-lapse video of how the flesh is stripped from animal skeletons by flesh-eating dermestid beetleson display at Skeletons: Museum of Osteology (8411 International Drive, Suite 250. Tel: 407-203-6999. www.skeletonmuseum.com). At Orlando’s first natural history museum/attraction, and the world’s largest publicly viewable osteology collection, about 500 posed skeletons are on display at any time, including rare critters like a Sumatran rhino and a 22-foot orca whale.
Skeletons is part of International Drive’s iDrive360 Complex, where thrill seekers will also find the towering, 450-foot-high Orlando Starflyer (8265 International Dr. Tel: 407-640-7009. www.starflyer.com). Opened in June 2018, it’s the world’s tallest swing ride. Not good with dizzying spins and open air heights? Orlando’s answer to the London Eye, Icon Orlando 360, is located just across the complex.
Instead, I opted for a literal come to Jesus moment at The Holy Land Experience (4655 Vineland Rd. Tel: 407-872- 2272. www.holylandexperience.com). I have driven by this theme park of sorts at least a few times over the past decade (Bill Maher paid it a visit in his film Religulous), and I’ve genuinely been curious. Would there be hostility toward LGBTs? Is there a kitsch factor? What is the crowd like? Only one way to find out! Essentially, HLE is a Bible-themed park without rides. Instead, Bible-themed musical theater productions (one involves the Lost Ark of the Covenant, another sees Lazarus resurrected) are its main draws, plus a few museum-style exhibits (including a model of Jerusalem circa 66 C.E.), a shop selling Israeli merchandise, and, that inescapable theme park staple, turkey legs.
There are indoor and outdoor shows throughout the day. The well-designed, slick 2,000-seat Church of all Nations theater features a massive, high-tech digital screen with impressive CGI graphics and, during one segment, a less gruesome Passion of the Christ–style crucifixion reenactment, chock full of song and dance, and opportunities to pose with Jesus, whose name is Michael and is genuinely engaging. While there certainly was humor and kitsch, everyone took the religious aspect and belief in Christ and God seriously (full disclosure: I’m an atheist). One HLE higher-up told me that transgender visitors are welcome to use the restroom of their choice, and there was even a Gay Day event that took place on one of the park’s free admission days (free admission days are a requirement for its Florida tax-free status). Happily, I didn’t see a single Trump shirt or MAGA hat.
That night, I visted Disney Springs and The Edison (1560 East Buena Vista Dr. Tel: 407-560-9288. www.theedisonfla.com), an “industrial Gothic” themed restaurant. Formerly dubbed Downtown Disney, Disney Springs is just bursting with places to drink and enjoy the company of other gay people.