When Your Guide is Local

When Your Guide is Local

They’re calling it a fancy name. But the real surprise is that there are not more sites like it.

They call it a “Travel Influencer.” Or “Gibby Road.”

It claims to be the “first of its kind social platform that will change the way we experience travel.”

The main idea is to connect “trusted travel influencers with curious experience seekers.”

These travel influencers are called “Gibbies.”

Why? Not sure.

Experience seekers or tourist are called “Roadies. It you wanted a simpler explanation:

Local knowledge.

That is what this is all about.

That’s been a long-time goal of many travelers: go where the locals go.

It may have started out many years ago when road-savvy truckers discovered the best and most budget-friendly “blue plates” at roadside restaurants.

Off the beaten track…or where the locals know enough to visit.

Since then, local knowledge has been sought by many travelers.

Local advice for Central Florida

So what might the locals tell you about what to do in Orlando?

After or before you buy your Universal Studios Orlando tickets or your Disney World Orlando tickets?

There’s obviously a lot of choices, as you know.

But we are here going to limit your choices to reasonably inexpensive or even free things to do.

Let’s keep this to less cost than a one-day price of a Disney or Universal ticket price, which for our purposes has to start at $100+ just for a ticket to get inside the gates.

Our reasoning is that fancy restaurants and hotels such as the Four Seasons and obvious sight-seeing tourist stops such as balloon rides to see the Orlando skyline can afford to do their own advertising.

They will let you know what is out there.

But what about those other places Orlando residents pick when they get out of their homes or apartments?

Your attitude may be similar to one blogger friend who raised this question:

“There are places in Orlando outside of the theme parks?”

Well, yes, skeptical outsider.

There are.

And even if you know the area, we may have some surprises for you.

Some surprising places you may have missed

We could start here with water related activities, which you know are common but the variety may also be outside the limits of what you have thought about.

But let’s begin with where locals eat (a universal activity since everyone does it). Locals tend to favor two chains. And they are not be what you might have thought: McDonald’s and Burger-King.

The chain of Ale Houses (sometimes known as Miller’s but with some different names) may be known for their wide selection of you-know-what, but they also have a good number of wines.

They have 75 different beers. And more wines.

Beer and wine daily specials are priced far below what you would find at fancy French restaurants.

Their claim is “top quality food at great prices.”

They claim their steaks are the “best,” which is highly dubious. But they do serve well-done beef products as well as fish.

And their prices at various outlets are eye-dropping.

The daily $4.99 or $5.99 special of fish or turkey or anything else is a real find.

Recommended: fish and chips.

Done as it should be: with a light batter that doesn’t overwhelm the fresh fish. One of the best you’ll find anywhere.

The comfort level of home

Wherever you are from, the atmosphere here is like home.

Or like an old-fashioned corner tavern that used to be common in American neighborhoods…call it a perhaps not intended tribute to Disney-style nostalgia.

“A vast menu with cheap beer prices. There’s nothing bad I can say about it,” said one of many Internet commentators praising the chain.

The second local chain favored by locals is “The Golden Corral.”

It has long been known to locals who have avoided and perhaps helped ruin many all-you-can-eat places with sloppy housekeeping and surly service (does anyone remember Ponderosa’s cheap but tough steaks?).

The North Carolina based Golden chain started more than 50 years ago and still offers a large and assorted buffet with ice cream and small but widely varied desserts. Even cotton candy, found at just about nowhere outside of state fairs.

It’s not the absolutely highest USDA sirloin, but it’s good enough.

There’s plenty of beef but also “made-from-scratch meatloaf, crispy fried chicken, creamy mac and cheese, made-from-scratch mashed potatoes,” etc.

And lots of fresh salads (the chain somehow manages to avoid the usual mess of help yourself servings).

The best item on the menu may be the slow-roasted pot roast. In the oven for more than a day.

And prices are usually under $10.

Perhaps the best part of it, for both residents and visitors, is to pay your bill and find your own food.

No waiting for a waitress, though they do show up to ask if you want drink refills (and thus qualifying for a tip, though you can assume the amount for limited service can be lower than the standard 10-15 percent).

So this is not your normal Mickey D’s

Most people — whether they live here or not — end up at times in McDonald’s.

  • But locals know the preferred one is a French-Fry shaped building near the theme parks.

  • It’s the largest entertainment McDonald’s in the world because of its PlayPlace.

  • That has a Kid’s Club tree house with a designated area for toddlers. And over 100 card swipe arcade games.  

  • And an Animatronic singing Mac Tonite.

  • And regular monthly events such as alligator shows.

  • But the food also goes beyond Big Macs. There are panini’s, pastas, and even fresh baked pizza.

  • Hand-dipped ice cream, too, and even what they term gourmet coffee (perhaps not exactly the real gourmet, but at least close to the claim).

  • Open 24 hours a day.

Another very popular place for locals is the intersection of Mills Avenue and Colonial Avenue (Route 50) near downtown. Pho 88 and Little Saigon and many others clustered around here cater to the growing Asian crowds.

But locals from all nationalities go there for the $3-4 huge bowls of soup.

A tip: if you’re really into food, ask for the real Chinese menu.

You don’t get it routinely. No wonder, when you consider it might offer fried pork intestines.

You may have to ask for it but there are other offerings for serious eaters outside of that television program where the guy eats grasshoppers and other non-traditional tasty dishes.

Food for other thought

You might know that Orlando is land-locked. No Ocean on both borders.

But it has hundreds of lakes.

The state of Florida has an estimated 30,000 lakes. More than 1,000 of them are in just Lake County, Orlando’s near neighbor.

So it should not really be a surprise that this is also the world headquarters for a huge variety of water related activities.

Sure, there’s fishing and swimming, of course.

But some see Central Florida as the wakeboarding and waterskiing…even the surfing center…of the world.

Or at least the Southern US world.

You need a board or a boat for water skiing or wakeboarding or even surfing.

Natives have no problem since not only pools are common throughout the area, but so are boats.

Neighbor’s boats.

But of course, you don’t live here.

For wakeboarding, Aktion Parks (formerly The Orlando Watersports Complex) is a watersports park designed for wakeboarding, wakeskating, wakesurfing, kneeboarding and waterskiing.

It’s particular specialty is wakeboarding.

You want to learn?

Lessons start at only $59.

Yes, hardly free but a lot less than $100 for a theme park

For a somewhat higher price, “The Get Up Guarantee Program” there is designed to “create the best experience for new or beginning riders.” If you don’t get up on your own after a first day lesson, the next lesson is free.

You do have to be ten years old for this guarantee. But that seems to be the only requirement (similar to height requirements at roller coasters).

Orlando is not on the Atlantic Ocean, but Brevard County is.

And while it’s hardly Hawaii for big waves, it does have its followers.

It’s also an easy 45-minute drive from Orlando.

And everyone by now knows you don’t have to be a 16-year-old athlete to surf. They come in all sizes and shapes.

From 300 pound adults to 92-year-old senior citizens.

Some of the world’s best-known surfers hang out here.

A good place to learn is Ron Jon’s, the world’s largest surf shop. Lessons start at a low of $50.

Surf, water ski or just watch

The Wave Masters Surf School in Cocoa Beach will come to you or your hotel to teach you how to do it.

Lessons start at $60 for two hours of instruction, or plenty of time to learn the basics. All necessary equipment is provided.

You may have heard of a newer sport, stand up paddle boarding. Said to be far easier than surfing.

And here too lessons are available all over the Cocoa Beach area.

Not interested in actually being in the water?

The Florida Surf Museum at Ron Jon’s is open daily is a small room that has as its goal the documentation of the practice. Exhibits, documents, etc.

Not an extensive collection, but worth an hour visit (and there are always the extensive collection of surfboards and beachcombing and stylish clothing at Ron Jon…hugely expensive but very attractive if you can afford it).

The museum, by contrast, has free admission.

While you’re in the Cocoa area, there are a lot of attractions such as a zoo where you can see the animals while paddling a canoe or other boat.

But there are also a few museums and other indoor activities not always found just anywhere.

One of these is the “American Police Hall of Fame and Museum,” which is just as it sounds.

Admission is a hefty $13 for adults but free for law enforcement officers and relatives of family survivors.

Kids love it. But so do adults.

Police icons and surfing not far from Disney

Just a few minutes from Disney itself, the Water Ski Hall of Fame and Museum was built near Interstate 4 in Winter Haven. There’s even more memorabilia to see than the limited supply at Ron Jon.

The first pair of water skis ever made is on display. So is a classic 1954 Correct Craft boat. And skis from all over the world….almost enough to make you want to try it if you have not already.

Admission is only $5 for adults.

For those interested in nightlife, downtown Orlando in recent years has had a well-known revival with restaurants and even more so with a huge variety of bars.

Downtown’s main artery, Orange Avenue, offers popular bars such on dead-end Wall Street and famous Church Street.

Popular, we should say, mainly with the younger, single crowd usually hunting for companionship.

If you still want to try it, the Grand Bohemian Hotel right across the street from the Orlando City Hall offers the Bosendorfer Lounge (with a million-dollar plus piano, its namesake).

That’s fine for the wee hour revelers who don’t mind the noise but locals often prefer quieter downtown Winter Park.

Unlike many “parks” that are common in Florida, this one is right next to a real park with a railroad running right though it.

This park somehow escaped the fancy and expensive development beside it.

The 11-acre park has shady oak trees, landscaped planters, sitting areas, open space and three fountains. There is even a rose garden at the southern corner of Central Park. 

People can and do picnic here regularly.

Everyone, visitor or resident, is invited.

Famous events here (and some visitors do arrive by train) include the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival.

There’s also the Farmers Market at the old train depot, which is a historical landmark worth taking a quick look.

You can buy but many things are also free

It’s been compared to trendy Worth Avenue in Palm Beach.

Lots of shopping, and very expensive but tasty restaurants. Forty of them, in fact. Fitting the varied tastes of everyone looking for anything from vegan dishes to sea food or steaks.

If you can afford the prices, fine, enjoy.

But locals who might not choose to spend a lot on food simply enjoy the walk and the sightseeing.

The area is full of free hidden gardens to explore.

But that’s hardly all.

Tree-shaded college campuses (Rollins College’s 80-acre campus is the best known), and historic homes (the most famous is the historic Casa Feliz, a restored Spanish farmhouse designed by acclaimed architect James Gamble Rogers).

There’s also historic neighborhoods.

All free to visit, of course.

Botanical gardens (Mead Gardens is best described in its brochures as “an urban oasis, a refuge for wildlife, a  botanical garden emphasizing nature, sustainability and  environmental learning, and a place for contemplation,  celebration, and recreation.”

What more could you ask for?

Try inexpensive scenic boat tours to view multi-million dollar waterfront homes, reasonably priced art museums, and even some sculpture gardens (200 of them by famous artist Albin Polasek).

For literary lovers, the Winter Park Public Library right off Park avenue has 280,000 books.

Of course, you don’t have a library card if you don’t live here, but a used store sells best-selling books for as little as $1. Videos and DVDs, too.

Anyone, resident of visitor, can use it.

You don’t have to swing to like it

But of all things to find here, and running right through Park Avenue, lies a 9-hole golf course.

Unlikely anywhere else?

Of course.

It’s more than a century old. And it’s not what you might expect because there are not many sand traps and even fewer water hazards (none).

And it does go through an ancient graveyard where errant golfers are urged by a sign to pick up their balls outside the tombstones for their next shot.

While green fees at many courses top $100 or several hundred dollars, you can play here for as little as $12. Nine holes only, of course.

The course is so short and user-friendly that many locals relate how their dads brought them here for their first golf outing (followed by other trips).

Locals also know a good thing when they find it. ###