Budget Getaway: Orlando Beyond Disney

Explore the history and culture of unbranded Orlando. Plus, our whole weekend for two cost less than $500.

Lake Osceola Scenic Boat Tour
Scenic boat tour on Lake Osceola near Orlando. Photo: Van Chaplin

When you think of Orlando, you think of Mickey, Shamu, Harry, and Hermione. But on a $500 budget for the weekend, who can afford theme parks? Instead, Alisa and I explored unbranded Orlando—an area with history, culture, and even a bit of urban cool.


We checked into The Courtyard at Lake Lucerne. Nestled in the busy downtown, its four buildings include an Art Deco suites hotel and a couple of meticulously restored Victorians. The inn keeps prices down ($99 at the low end), but it offers luxury where it counts. Our room had an antique bed and an armoire the size of Atlanta.

Orlando is home to some of the prettiest golf courses in the South, but the greens fees put many out of reach for weekend visitors. A solution: the Winter Park Country Club, a century-old, 9-hole municipal course with short fairways and quaint, small bunkers. The fees are from another time too: $13 for 9 holes, $7 more for a replay.

Afterward we had lunch at the WaiTiki restaurant. Its beach-movie motif includes waiters in shorts, a tiki bar, and surfboards on the walls. Check out the people checking each other out at the outdoor tables. And try the tiki tacos—grilled mahi with cilantro slaw (our bill: $40).

We worked off lunch with a walk around nearby Lake Eola, where you can pedal a swan boat for $15. For dinner we headed to Thornton Park, with its brick streets, Cracker-style bungalows, and funky eateries. We dined at Dexter's on Tuscan shrimp pizza and a rustic cast-iron skillet salad ($60). After dinner, we headed to the improv show at SAK Comedy Lab ($15 a ticket). Improv can be lame, but they've been doing it right for years at SAK. (Television improv star and Let's Make a Deal host Wayne Brady is an alum.) Later we stopped at the Grand Bohemian Hotel for a nightcap ($25) and a look at the Imperial Grand Bösendorfer Piano, said to be one of only two in the world.


We checked out of the inn and drove north to Winter Park. We began by eating raspberry-and-Brie French toast and a Gorgonzola-walnut salad with grilled chicken ($32) at the Briarpatch, an excellent little cafe with tables on the sidewalk and a clean, white motif indoors. From there it was just a few blocks to Lake Osceola for the hour-long Scenic Boat Tour ($12 a ticket). From a bench in a pontoon boat, we got views of Winter Park's lakefront mansions the way tourists have been seeing them since 1938. Finally we squeezed in a quick pass through the Morse Museum ($5 a person). The Morse features one of the world's finest collections of works by Louis Tiffany. For us, it was a lovely, peaceful ending to the trip.

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