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Beyond theme parks in Central Florida

By John Couwels, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando is the city's town square
  • For a sweet treat, visit The Dessert Lady downtown
  • Park Avenue in nearby Winter Park is a great place to shop and eat
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Editor's Note: John Couwels is a CNN All-Platform Journalist based in Orlando. Before moving to Orlando in 2009, he lived in Fort Lauderdale and worked for 18 years at CNN's Miami bureau.

Orlando, Florida (CNN) -- Though the area's most famous residents are Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Shamu and new arrival Harry Potter, Orlando has more to offer than its blockbuster theme parks.

Outside of the amusement park zone, International Drive is the center of tourism. It's packed with super-sized restaurants, T-shirt shops, water parks, miniature golf, outlet malls and some of the biggest hotels in the world. The enormous Orange County Convention Center, the United States' second-busiest convention center behind Las Vegas, is located on I-Drive.

I have always liked Orlando for the charm of bricked streets framed by moss-draped oak and maple trees in the mid-century neighborhoods around downtown. The maples are reminiscent of a Northern city, but the palm trees remind you that this is Florida (if the oppressive heat of summer isn't enough of a hint).

What essential thing should visitors see/experience if they only have a few hours?

Lake Eola in downtown Orlando is the city's town square where residents come to play, relax and take part in political discussions. In the middle of the lake, which is surrounded by tall office and residential buildings, sits the landmark fountain featured in the city's logo (It is currently undergoing repairs after a lightning strike in 2009). Ducks and swans call the lake home, and big white swans boats are available to rent.

The band shell in Lake Eola Park, donated by Walt Disney World in 1989, is the site of concerts, fundraisers and political rallies -- from Tea Parties to gay pride.

If you want the theme park feeling quick and cheap, head to Downtown Disney. It's free to park and walk, and the outdoor shopping and entertainment complex gives visitors the Disney feeling with plenty of souvenir shops. Or hit any T-shirt shop to buy Universal or Sea World trinkets.

How do tourists stick out and what's the best way to blend in?

Who cares? it's Florida! We are all from somewhere else. Shorts, T-shirt and sandals are the dress code year round for locals and visitors alike.

Where was your most memorable meal?

My two favorite places to eat are always memorable.

Antonio's Café and Deli in Maitland serves fresh Italian food at café tables scattered throughout the wine and Italian specialty food shop.

Houston's in Winter Park, soon to be converted to Hillstone, offers the most spectacular sunsets from your table overlooking Lake Killarney.

What's the biggest misconception about your city?

Everyone thinks the only thing in Orlando is theme parks and tourists. Though Disney World is the biggest employer, Central Florida is home to large defense contractors, the University of Central Florida (with its new medical school) and emerging nanotechnology and modeling industries.

Where can you get the best view of the city?

The best view from a high vantage point is the 23rd floor of the Orange County Courthouse. It is a public building, but everyone must pass through a security check point. You can even see Kennedy Space Center on a clear day.

The best view from down low is from the east side of Lake Eola. For the best views of the theme parks, take a $20 helicopter ride offered along International Drive. The best view of International Drive is from the Ferris wheel at Fun Spot Attractions.

Where's the best place to people watch?

Park Avenue, a beautifully landscaped red brick street in Winter Park, is full of restaurants, upscale shops, wine bars and people from all walks of life.

At night and on weekends, downtown Orlando comes to life with young people packing restaurants and nightclubs.

What is your favorite neighborhood?

College Park is one of Orlando's first suburbs. The centrally located neighborhood has a small-town charm. I lived there until recently, and I plan to return.

Where do you go to relax?

Lake Eola with the dogs -- basset hounds -- brothers Beau and Luke.

Are there any specialty dishes or drinks that visitors must try?

The Dessert Lady in downtown Orlando at the Church Street Station makes cakes that are amazingly good. Get the triple combination plate so you can test a smaller piece of three different cakes. Great for sharing!

What's the biggest tourist trap?

The two gas stations closest to Orlando International Airport on Semoran Drive are a rip-off aimed at tourists returning rental cars. The stations have the highest gas prices in the city. When I recently stopped to refuel a rental car, the price on the pump was $4.99. A station a mile down the road was $2.39.

Neither station displays their prices on a road sign, although the city of Orlando enacted an ordinance recently requiring gas stations to display their prices. One station has filed suit against the city saying it meets state law by displaying prices on the gas pump.

What is a good local souvenir?

Pictures taken while on the rides at the attractions make great souvenirs. I have pictures of me on Disney's Space Mountain, Sea World's new ride Manta and recently with the train conductor at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.