Seeing Beyond Disney World
Museums in the Real Orlando
Although the Orlando area of central Florida has long been a destination for visitors seeking mild winters, fresh oranges or outstanding fishing, these days the main draw is Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Sea World and other man-made attractions just outside of downtown Orlando.
But Orlando is a cosmopolitan city in its own right, with museums and performing arts centers equal to or better than those of many other American cities. This culture is fueled in part by the many talented performers, technicians and managers that the attractions have brought to the area as well as an increasing corporate base interested it supporting its home culture.
So, after you’ve completed your tour of the attractions or if you’re getting rained out or if you’re just interested in seeing what a modern Florida city has to offer, check out some of these outstanding museums that are all within a 45 minute drive of Downtown Disney.
1. Orange County Regional History Center
The closest to Disney on our list, the History Center is located in the heart of downtown Orlando, a very walkable and interesting business, government and cultural center in its own right. This five story building houses Florida cultural and natural history going back 12,000 years. Its permanent exhibits will help you understand Florida’s native American heritage, the arrival of Spanish colonists, pioneer cracker living, the exploration of space and even, if you haven’t had enough, the influence of Disney on the way the city has grown. Rotating and traveling exhibits and interactive presentations on a variety of topics make this a great choice.
2. Loch Haven Park
Loch Haven Park is a 45 acre city park between downtown Orlando and Winter Park adjacent to the massive Florida Hospital medical center and is a campus for several cultural centers, while its ground host outdoor festivals. The Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando Science Center, Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Orlando Repertory Theater, Mennello Museum of American Art are all located at Loch Haven. Most notable museums here are:
Orlando Museum of Art
Orlando’s largest art museum is home to impressive collections of American art, contemporary graphics, African art and ancient American artifacts. Special exhibits and travelling presentations always keep the galleries fresh and events throughout the year are very popular. Its Festival of Trees held in November each year presents dozens of Christmas tree vignettes with decadent decorations prepared by area sponsors and draws thousands of visitors.
Orlando Science Center. Also at Loch Haven Park, if you have children (or have the exuberance of a child) and would like them to actually learn something while having fun, then the Science Center has to be a stop. With four floors of very interactive exhibits, amazing giant screen movies and engaging live programming, young children, teens and mom and dad will experience science in a new way with their stimulating presentations. Race your friends on the 70ft pinewood derby track or take to the air on their flight simulator. Discover the power of light and make your own mini-laser show.
3. Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts
Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts is located not far from Loch Haven in Eatonville. Historically notable by itself, Eatonville was formed after the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and is America’s oldest incorpoated African-American municipality. It is now also home to The Hurston, named for Zora Neale Hurston, noted writer, folklorist and anthropologist who grew up in Eatonville. The Hurston presents “creative work from the universe of distinguished visual artists of African ancestry.”
4. Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art is in the center of tony Winter Park. The world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany is housed at the Morse Museum and includes jewelry, pottery, paintings, art glass, leaded-glass windows and lamps, and the chapel interior that Tiffany designed for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Museum’s collections also include American art pottery and late 19th- and early 20th-century American paintings, graphics, and decorative art.
5. Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens
Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens, also in Winter Park, holds an art collection focusing primarily on American sculpture, with over 200 works by Czech-born American sculptor Albin Polasek. The Polasek is a living museum, with three acres of outdoor gardens around the Polasek home dating to 1949. It's historic landscape on Lake Osceola presents many of the plantings originally placed by Mr. Polasek and his family. Fifty outdoor sculptures by Albin Polasek and other 20th century sculptors enhance the gardens.
6. Rollins College
Rollins College anchors the south end of Winter Park’s Park Avenue commercial center. Though not a museum but a fully functional college, the Rollins campus features a collection of beautiful buildings in a Spanish-Mediterranean style of architecture on a very walkable campus overlooking Lake Virginia. Of special note is the Knowles Memorial Chapel which was designed by the famous ecclesiastical architect, Ralph Adams Cram of the firm of Cram and Ferguson of Boston. Mr. Cram's work also included the Church of St. John the Divine in New York City and the University of Notre Dame chapel. Founded in 1885 and with a current enrollment of 3200 undergraduate and graduate students, Rollins was the first recognized college in Florida. On campus, the Cornell Fine Arts Museum has assembled one of the oldest and most distinguished art collections in Florida, with more than 5,000 pieces spanning from the ancient to contemporary.