Cities, with the exception of greater Las Vegas, aren't built for amusement. They're built to function as market hubs and transport hubs and government hubs, and then people build houses to be near the jobs generated by all that hubness.
Gradually come places to buy shoes and clothespins and Grape Nuts and wing nuts, and places to pray and go to school, maybe a cafe or two, and in the best towns there arrives a bit of entertainment -- a movie theater, a club for social mingling with a little music on the side.
Still with me?
If business is good and extremely wealthy people have more money than they can spend guilt-free on themselves, culture happens -- all downtown.
It happened pretty much this way in Orlando. Sherry Lewis of the Orange County Regional History Center remembers that Orlando.
"When I was growing up here," she says, "downtown was it. We shopped downtown, we ate downtown."
And then downtown stopped being it, for a variety of reasons. It stopped being much of anything.
"The Orlando of the '50s that I grew up in? There's absolutely no resemblance to the Orlando we see today."
Which, while enjoying something of a revival, isn't bustling.
Why? Briefly, as with many mid-size cities in all regions, the interstate highway system made it easier to live 20 miles away from the downtown shops and offices, which begat malls to serve the newly installed residents, which begat office buildings alongside the malls. Downtowns withered.
In the South, especially, there were contributing factors, but I'm running out of space.
Now, specifically in Orlando, there was something else:
"There's no doubt about it," says Lewis. "In 1971, with Disney ... "
When Walt Disney World opened 20 miles southwest of the city in 1971 -- with hotels both within and neighboring the property -- the city, in perception if not reality, became a place to bypass. Universal Studios opened two decades later, technically part of Orlando but 11 miles from downtown; that, plus a new business-convention corridor near Universal, plus its proximity to Disney, spawned more hotels and restaurants -- down there.
Not up here.
You've got the picture.
Then why come into the city at all? Because if you poke around, you still find, even in Orlando, all the things that make cities wonderful.
Only in a real city will you find, in an art museum, a painting with a title like this: "In the beginning there was borscht, and then came the thought of liver." Done partly in beet juice.
Here are some of the joys of this city -- downtown and in the neighborhoods -- that are particularly suited for grownups and particularly for grownups weary of being blocked by convoys of baby strollers from getting to, say, Universal's incomparable "Spider-Man" thrill ride.
Loch Haven Park
Not only a park (and a loch), but home to a bevy of cultural and educational venues, including the Orlando Science Center, Orlando Museum of Art, Orlando Repertory Theatre and the Mennello Museum of American Art.
The Science Center is your basic kids museum, so skip that, unless you absolutely must see a dinosaur, need to press buttons or are one of the eight people left in American who hasn't experienced some variation of "Titanic: The Experience." The Rep's rep is primarily "family" shows ("You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," "Go, Dog! Go!"), not that there's anything wrong with that.
The Mennello, a compact venue, has a small permanent collection of folk art and intriguing temporary exhibits, notably one featuring the work of Earl Cunningham that's already moved to New York's American Folk Art Museum. (It'll be back next March.)
It's the Big Art Museum that's the star here. As with many regional museums, the collection isn't vast -- but unlike the others, what's here is very, very good. Its O'Keeffe ("Datura and Pedernal") is quintessential Georgia (flower, New Mexico; also here is fine work by John Singer Sargent and landscapists Thomas Moran and Herman Herzog. You just missed a delightful exhibition justly called "Audacity in Art" -- the "borscht" work, by a Vietnamese artist, was a highlight -- but there's a Rockwell show on through Memorial Day. Also, an excellent "Ancient Americas" collection, if you're into that -- and, of course, a Chihuly. Not talking the MoMA here, but better than you'd imagine ...
Orange County Regional History Center
Look for the statue of the guy wrangling an alligator in the heart of downtown, and you'll find this museum beside him, fashioned from the former county courthouse. Among the exhibits is a series of photos of a sinkhole that almost swallowed Winter Park in 1981 (and, of course, became a major tourist attraction for a while), much information on the local Seminoles (the real ones, not Bobby Bowden's Florida State teams), and chilling material on the African-American experience in the area. (The Groveland story will leave you shaking your head.)
Also intriguing: a courtroom, left whole.
"The Bundy trial was here," said the center's Sherry Lewis. "We can't give eyewitness confirmation that he was the one who carved his name into the desk, but ... "
In 1980, Ted Bundy was convicted here in the 1978 rape-murder of a 12-year-old Florida girl, Kimberly Leach. She would be his 29th, and last, victim.
Someone left a carving.
The train carrying the cold and wealthy from up north stopped here in winter, they built grand houses, and there you are. The in-town suburb is home to Rollins College, cute restaurants (some open for lunch, with sidewalk seating), the Albin Polasek Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (which, befitting a museum with a name that long, gets its own section later in this essay) and, of course, the Scenic Boat Tour.
The Scenic Boat Tour has been plying the mossy-tree- and mansion-lined lakes and canals of Winter Park since the Great Depression. It's evidently an "essential" for visitors here, at least in part because it beats walking around in the heat -- but the vegetation is lush, the narration is amusing, the price is right ($10, $5 for kids, who will be bored 10 minutes into it) and what better way to see, on the same tour, homes lived in by the likes of Mamie Eisenhower and Horace Grant?
Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art
If there is a must-visit art thing in Orlando, this is it. The Morse contains a variety of artwork -- paintings by the likes of Maxfield Parrish and Sargent, plus lots of pottery and glass, and that's good. Its reason for being, however, is its extensive collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany glasswork, and in particular, this:
Tiffany created a chapel for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition -- yes, that world's fair, in Chicago -- and it's here. It is a wonder. It's also a wonder how it got here after nearly being lost forever.
"The chapel was, for the most part, in a warehouse," says spokeswoman Catherine Hinman. "When the museum opened [in its current location] in 1999, it was the first time the public had seen it whole and intact in about 100 years."
It's indescribable, so I won't even try.
The Jack Kerouac House
The celebrated Beat Generation author of "On the Road" did not write "On the Road" in a back room of his mother's simple house in Orlando's College Park neighborhood, but he did write "Dharma Bums" there and was still in residence when "On the Road" hit the streets.
Finding the house can be a challenge.
Reporter, to a waiter in a College Park restaurant: "Can you tell me where I can find the Jack Kerouac house?"
Reporter: "Jack Kerouac. The author."
Waiter: "Author? Like, books?"
Reporter: "I understand his house is right around here."
Waiter: "I don't know ... try the restaurant down the street. It's been here longer and maybe he goes in there."
Not lately -- Kerouac has been dead since 1969 -- but the greeter at K Restaurant Wine Bar (K for chef-owner Kevin Fonzo, not for the dead author) knew the name and knew the street, and before long, right around here, there it was.
It's just a basic frame house. There's no sign, unless you count a brief note on the door: "The Kerouac House is not a public building. ... Please do not disturb the writer, as he or she is creating ..."
Sponsor is the Jack Kerouac Writer in Residence Project of Orlando. Information, in lieu of knocking: kerouacproject.org.
Restaurants for you and me
There evidently is no "iconic in-close Orlando restaurant" -- no place that's been there since the 1920s owned by the same family and serving perfect grits or incomparable duck in local l'orange, far as we could find.
The occasion/expense-account place (jackets "preferred" for men ... in Florida) may be Manuel's on the 28th (390 N. Orange Ave.; 407-246-6580; manuelsonthe28th.com), conveniently, given the prices, atop the downtown Bank of America building. Nice view; leave the kids home.
But there has been something of a restaurant boom over the last five years or so, especially in the center. Prime boom producer is a partnership called Urban Life Management. Walk into its Kres Chop House (17 W. Church St.; 407-4477950; kreschophouse.com), and -- steps away from that statue of the alligator wrangler -- you're in one of those spiffy lofty Manhattan neighborhoods. Less fashion-conscious, the group's Cityfish (617 E. Central Blvd.; 407-849-9779; cityfishorlando.com) replaced its Central City Market last year and is especially pleasant for outdoor dining in tolerable weather. (By the same group, also in the center but not sampled: Citrus and HUE, the latter name a reference to color, not to a city in Vietnam.)
Speaking of Vietnamese: Just north and east of downtown, scattered along Colonial Drive in an area called ViMi (there's a reason; not important), can be found a concentration of Asian restaurants, mostly Vietnamese with a few Chinese, that qualify as destinations. Tried one, Pho 88 (730 N. Mills Ave.; 407-897-3488; pho88orlando.com), that's become a local favorite and deservedly so for its huge, well-priced menu of Vietnamese faves.
K Restaurant Wine Bar is the established class of College Park (2401 Edgewater Dr.; 407-872-2332; krestaurantwinebar.com). But right up the street and open less than a year, Adriatico Trattoria Italiana (2417 Edgewater Dr.; 407-428-0044; adriatico-trattoria.com) is just like the old country, right down to the chef sticking his head through an opening into the dining room to make sure all is well.
And our Winter Park matinee visit cut down on the options (which, I'm told, are many and fine after dark), but it would be hard to top the $14 smoked salmon potato galette appetizer at Park Plaza Gardens (319 Park Ave. S., Winter Park; 407-645-2475; parkplazagardens.com).
Every possible chain and a few independents are interspersed among the hotels down toward Universal. Good for them.
And there's more, of course
Downtown on Orange Avenue, Wall Street Plaza is, with its nearby tributaries, the closest thing to an Orlando nightlife district this side of Universal's CityWalk. Not far, if things are slow: Thornton Park, home of some of the aforementioned restaurants (HUE, Cityfish) and the unmentioned Dexter's, is easing into martini/wine-bar slickness.
This is the 50th season for the Orlando Opera, whose latest production was Puccini's "Turandot." You will not see "Turandot" on Pleasure Island (Disney) or at Islands of Adventure (Universal). The Orlando Philharmonic has the Verdi Requiem coming up, and that's big. Orlando Ballet dances "Sleeping Beauty" May 16-18. More theater, too, and for grownups.
Coming soon (well, in 2012): a new downtown performing arts center.
Getting the picture?
Things slow down in Orlando in summer, because most of Florida slows down in summer -- except the theme parks, which merely add hot and muggy to their attractions; and some holiday fun (Juneteenth, 4th of July) around downtown's Lake Eola.
But aside from that lull, the message is this: Orlando, being a city, isn't just another alligator-infested series of subdivisions.
Those are just up the Interstate.
Where to stay:
If the focus of the visit is Orlando's downtown and neighborhoods, then consider staying at one of the downtown hotels. There are several; two prime properties within walking distance of good things: a newish and very fine Embassy Suites Orlando-Downtown (doubles from $179 [subject to change]; 800-EMBASSY; embassy-suites.com) and the so-stylish Grand Bohemian (doubles from $209; 866-663-0024; grandbohemianhotel.com). Among other downtown lodgings: a Sheraton and a Courtyard by Marriott. If your visit is all about conventions or the Universal and Disney theme parks, most chains are represented in the International Drive zone near Universal Orlando.