It’s inevitable. When any single destination has as much to choose from as Orlando, there will be great places that simply get overlooked. Especially when you consider the ‘pack’ mentality that tends to develop among us Disney fans. We hear about a ‘don’t miss’ place and we all flock there – repeatedly. We’re a loyal group – there’s no doubt about that, but after so many visits to Disney World maybe it’s time to expand your horizons a little and take a chance on something new. And, if you’re not a veteran Disney visitor – if you’re planning your first or second visit to Orlando, this list will help point you to some great places that a lot of people are overlooking. Yes, you too can be the envy of all your friends as you regale them with your tales of the road less traveled. Well, perhaps that’s overselling it a bit – but you get the idea.
How does something make it on to our list, you ask? Well, that’s simple. When we find someplace that’s so obviously good that we ask ourselves out loud “how come more people don’t know about this?” – then it’s worthy of inclusion on our list.
Another question you might be asking is “who are you people and why are you making lists?”. We are the creative team behind this site, DISBoards.com, DreamsUnlimitedTravel.com and the DIS Unplugged Podcast. We’ve been working in the Orlando tourism business for 10 years, and we’ve been consumers of the product for a long time before that. To compile the final list, I asked our team to submit their suggestions for the list, and with a few of my own, I decided which of those would make the list and in what order.
You will notice that our list is heavy on restaurants and dining experiences. There are a few reasons for this, not the least of which is that we really like food. But the main reason for the presence of so many restaurants on this list is that so many of the ‘must do’ restaurants are full of ‘must doers’, making the chance of getting a table at some restaurants slim to none. Since the dining experiences in Orlando can rival even the best attractions, it’s important to have good alternatives.
This list will be updated twice a year – in January and July. While some might come off the list, and others might move up or down - the list will always reflect (in order) the top 10 places that we think you’re missing out on. So, with all that out of the way, here’s our list:
10) Wekiwa Springs State Park
okay, I’ll admit that this one is a bit of a stretch, but hear me out. If you would like to see what Florida looked like before it was overrun with tourists – a canoe ride up the Wekiwa river is a great way to do it. This is natural Florida at its very best. The spring that feeds the river keeps a constant temperature of 72 degrees year round. If you’re not into the canoe trip, you can always go visit the springs and take a swim. There are 13 miles of nature trails here, as well as horseback riding and bicycling. This is one of the most naturally beautiful places you’ll ever visit, and it gives you a much different perspective on what truly makes Florida special. The park is open from 8am till sundown 365 days a year. They offer guided tours for $35 per person (min of 4 people). Conoe rentals average $12 for 2 hrs and $3 p/hr thereafter. Details can be found at the website www.canoewekiva.com Horseback rides range from $30 to
$150 (more info on Horseback riding can be found at.
09) Downtown Celebration, FL
the town that Disney built (and subsequently sold) has its share of fans and detractors. Regardless of what you think of the ultimate in planned communities, it’s hard to ignore the charm and warmth that embody downtown Celebration. Whether it’s the unique stores or outstanding restaurants – this is a great way to see another side of Orlando living.
08) Mama Dellas Ristorante Italiano
Located at Universal’s Portofino Bay Hotel, this is, quite frankly, my favorite restaurant anywhere, period. It has it all – spectacular food, outstanding service and atmosphere for days. What it doesn’t have is crowds, and honestly – I can’t understand why. Yes, the prices here are on the high side – but consider that the portions served are also unusually large. No one walks away from Mama’s hungry. And if you’re looking for a very special romantic evening – reserve a table on the piazza for 7:30pm. At 8pm each night, Portofino Bay does “Le Bella Notte” (Music of the Night) where performers step out onto the terraces overlooking the piazza and perform musical numbers ranging from operas to more modern romantic songs. A visit to Mama Della’s is also a good excuse to walk around one of the most beautiful resorts in Florida.
07)Velvet Sessions – Hard Rock Hotel – Universal Orlando
Held on the last Thursday of each month, this is a chance for all you 30 and 40 something’s to get a close up look at the bands you idolized as kids. Recent acts have been The Ramones, the FIXX, Eddie Money among others. Held in the lobby of the Hard Rock Hotel, this is a sophisticated, high energy evening that is a real departure from most theme park experiences. It’s adults only (21 and older), so you’ll have to leave the kids with a baby sitter, but it’s well worth it! This event is very popular with locals and attire is ‘business casual’. The $25 per person cover charges gets you complimentary cocktails until 8pm, along with butler-served hors d’ouevres and a one hour ‘up close’ concert. Cash bar is available after 8pm (be warned, the drinks are pricey). Reservations are required – tickets and information is available at
06) Sunday Gospel Brunch – House of Blues / Downtown Disney West Side.
Unless you are an avowed atheist, I can’t imagine anyone not loving this brunch. The food is better than good, and there’s a decent variety of selections to keep just about anyone happy. The brunch menu consists of items ranging from fresh pastries to cheesecake, all the staples like bacon and sausage, scrambled eggs and biscuits and gravy are joined by unusual fare like broccoli salad (I’m gagging just typing it), But the food is just something you do until the entertainment starts – and that’s where this goes from a good brunch to a great time. This is a full on Gospel show that will have you clapping your hands and waving your napkins as you marvel at the sheer energy and passion that these performers bring to the stage. This is certainly one of the more unique ways to enjoy a Sunday morning brunch. This venue is a bit more popular than some others on this list, but it is still (in our opinion) woefully underrated. Advance reservations are recommended (but it’s not difficult to get last minute seatings during less crowded times of the year). There are two seatings each Sunday at 10:30am and 1:00pm Adults are $33.50 and children ages 3-9 are $17.25 Reservations can be made by calling 407-934-BLUE. More information at
05) Discovery Cove - Orlando
Discovery Cove is by far the most expensive item on our list. This brilliant off shoot of Sea World suffers from ‘sticker shock’ syndrome in a town already overrun with it. When people hear that the price of a 1 day admission to this ‘theme park’ is $269, they simply dismiss it out of hand, but consider what you actually get for that price. You get an all inclusive day at a park that’s not crowded (they strictly limit attendance every day), where lunch is included and you get up close and personal with a dolphin. And we’re not talking a petting pool here – you don a wet suit and get 30 minutes of quality time with Flipper.
Every person I’ve talked to who has gone to Discovery Cove complained about the price going in, and never mentioned it again after they left. (You can also experience Discovery Cove without the dolphin portion for a more reasonable $169.) Reservations are required and it’s always a good idea to book as early as possible, especially if you plan on visiting during busier times of the year. Reservations can be made at www.discoverycove.com Right now they are offering a 10% discount if you book more than 100 days in advance, and there appears to be plenty of availability all year – one of the reasons they made our list. Review / Photos
04) Captain’s Galley (formerly the Yacht Club Galley)
When a restaurant on Disney property has an inspired menu of excellent dishes, outstanding service and surprisingly reasonable prices, and is located in the lobby of Disney’s Yacht Club – you’d think it would be packed every night, right? But, while everyone else is trying to split the atom to get a reservation at Le Cellier, this gem of a restaurant sits virtually empty just a few minutes away. No, the Galley is not an elegant restaurant, nor does it exude ambiance. What it does have are very creative chefs who prepare an ever-changing menu that is well suited to just about any palate. The bold and timid alike will find something here to enjoy. I’ve been eating at this restaurant for about 9 years (except for the period where they closed it down), and the food and service have been consistently good.
03) WDW Swan and Dolphin
Before you say anything, I know that the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin are not exactly ‘secrets’. Everyone knows about them, but oddly enough, there are many people who haven’t yet actually stayed there – that’s the part that baffles me. Forget the fact that these hotels sit side by side with three of Disney’s premier resorts (Yacht Club, Beach Club and Boardwalk). Never mind that you can routinely get a room at the Swan/Dolphin for at least $100 per night cheaper than the aforementioned Disney hotels – and forget that the resort has one of the best pools on property (we rate it second after Stormalong Bay at the Yacht & Beach Club). The beds here alone are worth the price of the room. Disney has no property that matches the Heavenly beds that have become so integral to the Starwood brand. Falling into one of these bad boys after 10 hours of ‘theme parking’ with the unwashed masses is one of life’s finer pleasures. While you don’t get certain perks at these hotels (Magical Express, Key to the World Card), you do get extra magic hours and Disney transportation (buses and water launches). Really – these hotels should be turning people away at the front desk given the sheer value of this. Also, the Swan and Dolphin offer excellent discounts to government and military employees, teachers, nurses, Disney annual passholders and others. It’s a good idea to book here as early as possible (that’s when the best deals are available) and take the money you save and have a blast.
02) Kennedy Space Center
Often overlooked by many visiting Orlando, KSC is one of the true gems of Florida. As someone who grew up in the late 60’s and 70’s, it’s not hard for me to wax nostalgic about the space program, and the excitement that surrounded it during the hey day of the Apollo missions. KSC does a fantastic job of playing up its storied past, and presenting its current and future plans in the best possible light. It’s difficult not to feel a little of the romanticism surrounding the Mercury and Apollo programs as you walk around and look at artifacts from the early space race. The vehicle tour around the center is another highlight that should not be missed. It gives you a close up look (albeit from inside a bus) of the areas that make up the space program. If you time your visit right, you might even get to see the shuttle being crawled out to the launch pad. If your visit coincides with a launch, the experience of watching the shuttle rocket into space is something everyone should do once. It’s sad that so many people come to Orlando and don’t even think about taking the 45 minute ride out to the coast. This is a great way to spend a day, have fun and encourage the next generation of Astronauts!
01) Les Chefs de France
This fantastic eatery is not destined for a long life on our list. In fact, I predict that within 6 months, it will be off the list, and a reservation here will be hard to get. The fact is that this is the single most under-rated restaurant on Disney property – period. You know you’re guilty of the same crime I committed many times – walking past this restaurant saying somewhere in the back of my mind “I don’t really like French food – there are so many better places to eat”. Our combined experiences with this restaurant leave us no other explanation – this is simply the best restaurant in Epcot, and among the best on Disney property. And while a table is easy to get now, once the word is out on this place – that’s going to change. Make your ADR’s now! Chef’s De France Review