A whole new world

Disney World and Orlando go hand-in-hand - not that there's anything wrong with that. Those in Orlando are proud to be associated with the trademark mouse ears. After all, it's what put this Central Florida town on the map. As Disney catapulted Orlando onto the world stage, business and government pooled their resources to build up the community. As a result, Orlando offers unique attractions outside Disney's borders.

Colors are on display at the Leu Gardens

Outdoor beauty and grace: that's what describes the Harry P. Leu Gardens. Lush landscaping set in a tranquil atmosphere literally takes you away from the dizzying pace of Orlando's beloved theme park. Easily accessible from Interstate 4, Leu Gardens is Orlando's embassy in a sea of city madness. "If you are looking to get away from the crowds, catch your breath and see the real Orlando, then come to the gardens," said Robert Bowden, executive director of the gardens. "We have the largest rose garden that is in full bloom, a bamboo garden and the new tropical stream garden and kitchen garden." The property is also home to an awesome butterfly garden. See the Skipper and Queen butterflies frolic among the 150 plants that attract them year-round. Aside from the amazing palette of colors in the gardens, the Harry P. Leu House Museum is a treasure trove of turn-of the-20th-century Florida living on display. Guided tours of this Orlando legend's home are available on the hour and half-hour from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The house is closed during the month of July. The Leu House is also noted for an excellent education program, which is key at this Orlando spectacle. "It is one of the best things about my job," said Bowden, who worked for many years at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens. "We have over 200 classes, from cooking to fine arts and horticulture. I just love being a part of something that shows visitors how pertinent plants are to their everyday lives."

Orlando is not just for kids

Even though Orlando has been known as a family-friendly destination, couples, singles and groups have a number of adult-oriented choices. Check into the Canyon Ranch SpaClub at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center. Adults can spoil themselves with the spa's classic Mango Sugar Glo Scrub, a mixture of jojoba esters, fruit sugar and a variety of oils. The Canyon Stone massage irons out stress in an 80-minute tension-reliever that uses warm basalt stones. This is a place where rejuvenation is taken to a whole new level. A visit here is not only a memorable experience, it can be a life-changing one. Qualified staff members are on hand to assist visitors into making "lifestyle choices," including exercise and nutrition information. If health changes aren't on your agenda but you still want the services of a spa, The Ritz-Carlton Spa, Grande Lakes Orlando might be the place for you. Visitors relish the "Ritz experience" in the spa's 40 treatment rooms. You can also join group dance classes, including South American salsa, Australian outback spinning and Hawaiian hula.

Thornton Park offers unique shopping and dining

With the commercialization of Disney that is seemingly everywhere in Orlando, it's hard to believe that an eclectic area like Thornton Park exists in this fast-moving metropolis. Unique stores and exquisite restaurants make up this revitalized district. Described as a relatively small area, Thornton Park packs quite a punch. Progressive American cuisine is served up daily in the hip bistro known as Hue. Where else can you find Duck Tostados, Black Beans, Mozzarella Cheese and Hue Salsa as an appetizer? Are you in the mood for tuna that is a cut above the rest? The Wok Seared Ahi Tuna with sesame hoisin glaze, stir fried vegetable pearl pasta and pickled ginger is a combination that is worthy on its own of a number of culinary awards. This establishment has been running in the area for more than three years and has received scores of rave reviews. Many of Hue's kudos hail from well-known publications including Conde Naste Traveler and Florida Trend magazines. Another trendy cafe is the nearby Dexter's, home of the Wild Australian Barrimundi Bass Filet. This carefully braised bass is served with French green beans, grilled onions, shiitake mushrooms and thyme-scented mushroom jus. Then there's the Country French Cassoulet, which is a duck confit with wild boar sausage, braised pork, navy bean ragout, buttered leeks and Cabernet jus. Something serious is brewing in the area, too. Washington Street in Thornton Park boasts one of the most unique coffeehouses in Florida. The Coffee House at Thornton Park is a cute hole-in-the-wall that offers a rich array of java that will literally make your head spin. Varieties of Cuban, Panamanian or Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee fill the air at any given time with flavorful smells that are out of this world. Great brew in an inviting atmosphere - what more could you ask for?

Endless options

Even without Disney World, the choices of things to do in Orlando are endless. Culture, shopping and dining make this city a place worth exploring. "We do have a problem here," said Leu Garden's Bowden. "The biggest problem with Orlando is deciding what to do."


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