Alternative Orlando is blooming

There is more to the Sunshine State’s theme-park capital than Disney Land

I WAS in Orlando for the Florida Film Festival. A film I had produced called The North London Book of the Dead was in the British Shorts Now! programme. Great, right? Except... Orlando? Seriously? It’s hardly renowned for its thriving arts scene. But the Film Festival has been going for over 20 years, surely there must be some like-minded culture-seekers? I made it my mission to discover the alternative Orlando, if indeed such a place exists.

It didn’t look promising. Guide book after guide book provided nothing but desperation. Yes, I could drive to the Kennedy Space Centre or pay a visit to Gatorland, but that’s not quite what I had in mind. If you look hard enough, though, there are places off the beaten track, such as Lake Eola, Mount Dora, and the spot that most piqued my interest, Winter Park.

Founded in the late 19th century as a place for the rich to holiday in the colder months, Winter Park has steadily grown to become a hotbed of independent retailers and world-class restaurants. In a bid to retain its individuality, international chains are relegated to secondary positions around corners, or so far down the street they don’t tarnish the area’s appeal.

The elusive charm and élan I was seeking was to be found at the Park Plaza. Built in 1921 in a European vintage style, the Spang family took control of it 40 years ago, maintaining the shabby chic styling with lashings of olde worlde charm. Even better, no children under the age of five are allowed. The walls are fairly thin so while there’s not much the hotel can do about the trains running across town, the absence of screaming babies was appreciated.

I stayed in one of the front suites with a shared balcony overlooking Park Avenue, the heart of Winter Park. The foliage, installed for guests’ privacy, makes it an ideal people-watching spot. The downside of these rooms is the sound of al fresco diners, although there isn’t a late night culture and the noise dies down well before midnight on weekdays (1am at the weekend).

Guests over the years include Paul Newman, Christopher Plummer, Willem Defoe, Gabriel Byrne, and the latest Mrs Paul McCartney, Nancy Shevell, whose son studies at the nearby Rollins College. When Ella Fitzgerald stayed here, the Spang family matriarch Cissie was concerned she never left her room aside from performance times; it turned out she was basketball mad and was glued to the television watching the big games.

Inspired by her famous residents and wanting to shake things up, Cissie pioneered the Winter Park Arts Festival, booking previous guest Dave Brubeck for the inaugural concert. It was a huge success and drew 12,000 people to Central Park. Although she resigned from the event several years ago, it still takes place annually.

Park Avenue is all about appreciating the finer things in life. It’s a moochers’ idyll. If you have a spare afternoon, be dazzled by the innovative pieces on display at the Morse Museum, the largest collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s work (morsemuseum.org).

As well as a number of preppy clothing stores, Cigarz on the Avenue (if you can get past the superfluous “Z”) is impressively stocked. Oenophiles, meanwhile, will delight in over 148 wines to sample in The Wine Room (thewineroomonline.com), while the quirky Antiques Store (antiquesonparkave.com) is a wonderful place to lose yourself for a few hours. Practical considerations abandoned me and I gave no thought to the logistics of transporting home a painting, exquisitely embroidered silk cushion and 1950s cocktail shaker.

For a change of pace, the hourly boat tour proved to be the perfect introduction to Winter Park’s lakes, tropical birds, plant life and architecture. It soon becomes apparent why so many writers, including Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker, Margaret Mitchell and Jack Kerouac, have been inspired by its beauty and tranquility.

There are a large number of high-quality restaurants in Winter Park and nearby, the buzziest of which is the recently opened Prato.

A stroll through the grounds of Rollins College rewarded me with an unexpected sight. Was it a mirage? No – there really is a beach. Dinky Dock may be tiny, but it comes complete with sun loungers, park benches, picnic tables and a lake to swim in.

Even with a beach, though, I was starting to go a little stir crazy after a few days. Without a car, it’s tricky to get around as there isn’t much of a public transport system. Hailing cabs isn’t an option and pre-ordering is no guarantee they’ll turn up, as I learnt when stranded at midnight outside a movie theatre.

Once you cave and rent a car, you’re suddenly opened up to the world-famous wildlife of the Everglades (I recommend the airboat ride to Boggy Creek in Kissimmee: make sure you go for the longer tour; 30 minutes isn’t nearly enough), although whether you can call a Unesco world heritage site “alternative” is debatable.

So did I find the alternative Orlando? Yes, kind of. It’s there if you look hard enough. It will never compete with the great cultural capitals of the world but it has a buzzy, thriving culture scene that just happens to be blessed with scorching sunshine. And if you get bored, there’s always Gatorland around the corner. You don’t get that in Paris.

■ WHERE TO STAY
Night rates at the Park Plaza Hotel start from $170 plus tax for a deluxe double bedroom, including breakfast, valet parking and wifi. Call: +1 800 227 7220 or email frontdesk@parkplazahotel.com. parkplazahotel.com

■ HOW TO GET THERE
It is possible to fly direct to Orlando, but it’s far more cost-effective (and fun) to break up the gruelling nine hour plus journey with a few days elsewhere. American Airlines offer four stop-offs via New York, Chicago, Dallas and Miami.

American Airlines’ Boeing 777-300ER has fully lie-flat chairs in business class. Log on to americanairlines.co.uk for more information.

American Airlines operates up to four daily nonstop flights from London Heathrow to New York’s JFK airport, with an onward connection to destinations including Orlando Chicago, Dallas and Miami. Adult return fares in economy start from £530.75 including taxes and surcharges.

Adult return fares in business start from £2,074.75 including taxes and surcharges

For the latest offers and further details contact reservations on 0844 499 7300 or visit aa.com.