10 Wheelchair Accessible Hidden Treasures to Explore Near Orlando

I know it’s a crazy concept, but there is actually more to Orlando, Florida than just Walt Disney World. Technically, Disney isn’t even located in Orlando proper, but in Kissimmee and Lake Buena Vista, which are at least a 30-minute drive away. Visiting Disney is also extremely expensive, especially for larger families. Orlando and its surrounding suburbs are filled with tons of wheelchair accessible (and budget-friendly) hidden treasures that all visitors should try to explore to get their vacation’s fill of culture, art, and the outdoors.

1. Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Since opening the arts center in 2014, the stunning Dr. Phillips Center has been named one of Travel + Leisure magazine’s “25 New Tourist Attractions Worth Adding to Your Bucket List” and one of Southern Living magazine’s “50 Best Places in the South Now.” From ballet to Broadway, comedy acts to kids’ shows and educational programs to outdoor festivals, you’re always in for an amazing experience at the arts center. The Center provides a venue for touring shows, such as Broadway musicals, as well as popular headliners, comedy specials, lectures, musicians, local and emerging artists and much more. You’ll often find Orlando Ballet, Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, Opera Orlando and other favorites performing here. Wheelchair accessibility is fantastic, with ample wheelchair spaces in both theaters, electric lifts to reach them, and comfortable accessible bathroom stalls. Individual tickets may be purchased by calling the Dr. Phillips Center Box Office at 844.513.2014 or by visitingthe Box Office. Tickets are also available online at drphillipscenter.org.

2. Mennello Museum of American Art. The Mennello Museum of American Art endeavors to preserve, exhibit, and interpret their outstanding permanent collection of paintings by Earl Cunningham. The Mennello Museum of American Art also seeks to enrich the public through temporary exhibitions, programs, educational initiatives, and publications that celebrate other outstanding traditional and contemporary American art and artists across a broad range of disciplines to reflect the rich diversity of American art, while making it accessible to all. The Museum shares extraordinary works of American art donated by its founders, the Honorable Marilyn Logsdon Mennello and Michael A. Mennello. Owned and operated by the City of Orlando, the museum is housed in what was once the private home of Howard Phillips, son of local philanthropist Dr. Philip Phillips. It uses its multiple gallery spaces and four intimate rooms to showcase changing exhibitions featuring American art of all genres and time periods, including original and traveling shows. The Marilyn L. Mennello Sculpture Garden is always open to the public and is most recognized for the 350-year-plus sprawling live oak tree draped with Spanish moss called “The Mayor.” Numerous sculptures can be found in the surrounding Old Florida landscape along with walking paths, which merge into the larger Orlando Urban Trail with over 4000 acres of art and nature. A circular driveway in front of the museum allows for visitor drop-off at the covered front porch, which is equipped with a ramp and stairs. There is a concrete pathway through the Sculpture Garden for lakeside strolls. A wheelchair is available free of charge upon request. Please contact the front desk receptionist for any special needs assistance.

3. Winter Park. The Orange County city of Winter Park, situated north of Orlando, was once considered a winter resort. Today, the arts- and culture-filled city of Winter Park includes Rollins College and the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of Natural Art. Winter Park also is a nature lover’s destination. In Winter Park you will find more than 70 parks, all home to various events, festivals and celebrations throughout the year – and available to anyone looking for a place to sit in the shade and enjoy a beautiful Central Florida afternoon. Not only are there enough activities to keep you and your family content within the Winter Park city limits, but all the Orlando attractions are just minutes away. Winter Park is home to world-class museums, upscale boutiques and shopping, fine-dining restaurants, sidewalk cafes, and luxury accommodations, all with the feel of a European village, not the crush of a theme park.

4. Harry P. Leu Gardens. Explore an amazing 50-acre botanical oasis minutes from Downtown Orlando. Each garden is designed specifically to further their mission: inspire visitors to appreciate and understand plants. The garden and historical home were donated to the City of Orlando in 1961 by Mr. Harry P. Leu and his wife, Mary Jane. The climate of Central Florida permits Leu Gardens to grow and enjoy a wide array of temperate and tropical plants. Leu Gardens teems with vigor and beauty, regardless of the season. Discover palms, cycads and flowering trees. Enjoy azaleas, vines, bromeliads and tropical philodendrons. Appreciate the sight of familiar annual flowers and the beauty of roses and camellias. Stroll under the awe-inspiring branches of camphor trees, elms and oaks. Guests with a camera phone and QR reader application may scan QR Code images on many of garden signs to display additional information about the collections of plants. Read the information as you stroll through Leu Gardens or “bookmark” the site for reading and/or printing later. Harry P. Leu Gardens is handicap accessible. Complimentary wheelchairs are available in the Garden House Welcome Center on a first-come, first-serve basis. Wheelchairs cannot be reserved. Please note that due to storm damage by Hurricane Irma, the historic Leu House Museum is closed for restoration and repairs. At this time, they do not have a reopen date.

5. Historic Sanford. Conveniently located about halfway between the attractions of Orlando and the beaches and other allures of Daytona Beach, my hometown of Sanford serves as the Florida home of the Auto Train and offers many treats of its own. Sanford, the seat of Seminole County, lies on the south shore of Lake Monroe at the head of navigation on the historic and beautiful St. Johns River. Experience the charm and ambience of Sanford’s 19th-century buildings, pristine waterfront, unique shops and restaurants. Sanford’s downtown (and very accessible) riverwalk features antique and collectible shops, all located within a two-block radius of Magnolia Square. And, for entertainment, visit Sanford’s restored Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center, one of Florida’s most historic facilities for the performing arts. The city completed multimillion-dollar streetscapes of 1st Street and Sanford Avenue in its historic downtown, using brick pavers, creating wider sidewalks, and adding trees, flowers, and benches. The Orlando Sanford International Airport, which is in the heart of the town, functions as the secondary commercial airport for international and domestic carriers in the Orlando metropolitan area.

6. Loch Haven Park. Loch Haven Cultural Park covers 45 acres and serves as the region’s premier cultural park. Nestled between three lakes, Lake Estelle on the north, Lake Rowena on the east and Lake Formosa on the south, the park is located on North Mills Avenue and Princeton Street. It’s also home to several of the city’s most august cultural institutions: Orlando Shakespeare Theater, Orlando Repertory Theatre, Orlando Museum of Art, the Mennello Museum of American Art and the Orlando Science Center. If that’s not enough culture for you, the park is also home to the Orlando Garden Club, the small Orlando Fire Museum and the rehearsal studios for Orlando Ballet. The combination of museums and theaters means the park is abuzz with activity morning, noon and night — though the grounds technically close at sundown. With all the activity, you might be wondering if you’ll ever find a parking space. There are three free lots: one between the Shakes and OMA, one at the Rep and one at the Mennello. In addition, the Science Center operates a parking garage, which charges a small fee. The Florida SunRail station is just a 10-minute walk away. There are plenty of wheelchair-friendly paved paths throughout the park.

7. Mount Dora. The City of Mount Dora truly is ‘Someplace Special,’ a charming, one-hundred plus year old historic village in the heart of Central Florida on the shores of beautiful Lake Dora in the Harris Chain of Lakes. Join in for one of the city’s nationally known annual festivals, go fishing in the “Bass Capital of the World,” or simply relax and escape the hustle and bustle of every day life. Bring the entire family and enjoy and old-fashioned, small town celebration. The small-town environment caters particularly to antique enthusiasts from across the state, country and world. Shops in and around Mount Dora’s downtown area are full of nostalgic items, valuable antiques and collectibles, and even estate jewelry. Outdoor cafes, gourmet restaurants, galleries, wineries, and bed and breakfast inns also grace Mount Dora’s downtown area. Downtown, the Modernism Museum displays modern furniture. Housed in a 1923 fire station, the Mount Dora History Museum documents local history. An extensive collection of classic cars, plus a replica of a 1940s gas station, are on display at the Museum of Speed. 

8. Morse Museum of American Art. The Morse Museum houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933), including the artist and designer’s jewelry, pottery, paintings, art glass, leaded-glass lamps and windows; his chapel interior from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago; and art and architectural objects from his Long Island country estate, Laurelton Hall. The Museum’s holdings also include American art pottery, late 19th- and early 20th-century American painting, graphics, and decorative art. The work of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the Morse Museum collection. The Museum’s Tiffany collection is broad, deep, and unique. It includes fine examples in every medium Tiffany explored, in every series of work he produced, and from every period of his life. The collection has been referred to as “the most comprehensive and most interesting collection of Tiffany anywhere” by Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Curator of American Decorative Arts at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In her book The Art of Louis Tiffany, Vivienne Couldrey described the Morse’s holdings as “the most important collection of Tiffany material in the world today.”

9. Wekiwa Springs State Park. With emerald springs feeding the Wekiwa River and lush tropical hammocks, this unique park just minutes from Downtown Orlando is perfect for observing abundant wildlife or cooling off on a summer day. Miles of trails beg to be explored on foot, bike or horseback, and canoes and kayaks are available on site. It’s easy to see why visitors have been flocking to beautiful Wekiwa Springs since the mid-nineteenth century. Orange County’s longest-running tourist attraction, the azure waters of Wekiwa Springs have been a popular leisure retreat. From the dense, almost tropical hammocks near where the springs feed into the Wekiva river, to the scenic sandhill uplands, the park is rife with opportunities to see many kinds of animals. Candy Harrington of Emerging Horizons writes that accessible parking is located near a barrier-free path, which winds past the concession area and over to the springs. And if you can’t walk into the springs, you can use the fixed wheelchair lift that is located next to the lower boardwalk. Don’t forget to take a stroll along the Wet to Dry Trail before you leave. This one-mile trail begins across from the wheelchair lift, and travels through three different natural communities. The trail begins as an accessible boardwalk through the hardwood forest hammock, and features low bumpers instead of a railing, so wheelchair-users have a full view of the surrounding forest. About halfway along the way, the trail transitions to a hard-packed dirt trail, and although it starts out fine, it slowly becomes littered with more and more tree roots, until it’s not at all accessible. So do as much of the trail as you can, and double back.

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10. Old Town. Old Town is a recreation of a classic Florida town – a throwback to a time when crowds were a little smaller, lines a little shorter and the fun a little simpler. We are a family-friendly place where the good times are authentic, the pace realistic, and the memories just as magical as any other Orlando attraction. Old Town is more than your average shopping complex. Relax as you stroll through 18-acres of beautiful, tree-lined brick streets and discover over 70 unique, affordable shops and restaurants. The complex features free, weekly live entertainment and events, family-friendly attractions, and rides every generation, young and old, can enjoy together. Every weekend, come and admire muscle and classic cars and trucks throughout Old Town. At night, you can line the sidewalk to watch these beautiful cars drive down Old Town’s brick-layered Main Street for the Friday Nite Muscle Car Cruise and Saturday Nite Classic Car Cruise.

Are you ready for a wheelchair accessible adventure to Orlando and the Central Florida area? Contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel so we can start planning!

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