Orlando’s Unexpectedly Artistic Side

Orlando is known by one and all as the home of Walt Disney World and an assortment of other big-name theme parks. But don’t let the mega-attractions fool you; the central Florida city and its environs are also home to cultural and historic treasures.

As any parent or student travel planner knows, Orlando is where you’ll find the most iconic theme parks – and therefore thousands of excited, screaming children.  But this city has hidden depths, although locals might argue that the depths are hidden only just behind the fanfare.  Orlando and its surrounding areas have a rich historical, artistic, and architecturally significant past that’s there for the asking.

This city recently snagged the 20th spot on Travel + Leisure’s Snobbiest Cities list – in a good way – by virtue of its luxurious, art-filled hotels.  Of course, luxe accommodations are not in the budget for most student travelers, but they do signify something of the area’s heritage.  So if your travel group needs a break from the big rides and mass-produced spectacle of the heavy-hitters, it’s worthwhile to investigate some of these quieter alternatives.

The four we’ve chosen to highlight this specific facet of Orland focus on the area’s glorious architectural and artistic side.  Within an hour’s drive or less, your group can visit historic homes, a bevy of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, soothing gardens and American art by the gallery-full.  Why wait?  Let’s take a look at what Orlando offers students of art, architecture and history.  Here’s our short list:

The Campus of Florida Southern College

Florida Southern College

Florida Southern College

Located about an hour southwest of Orlando in the city of Lakeland, Florida Southern College is home to a collection of 12 items (10 buildings and two other structures) designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  Although he originally planned for a total of 18 structures, these still make this college the home of the largest collection of Wright-designed edifices in one spot.  Should you have any doubts about the site’s creds, it made Travel Channel’s list of 10 Things You Don’t Know About: Florida.

The Sharp Family Tourism and Education Center houses a collection of drawings, photos and furnishings related to the project.  Self-guided and docent-led tours are available that cover the campus and allow visitors a one-hour summary or a two-hour in-depth look at this National Historic Landmark.  Group, private, and behind-the-scenes tours are available.

Orlando Museum of Art

Orlando Museum of Art

Orlando Museum of Art

This is one art museum that isn’t anchored to the traditions of the Old European Masters.  Its exhibits include African art, ancient American art, pre- and post-1945 American art and American graphic arts.  The museum is designated as an educational facility, but it’s also very much into encouraging the local art scene; on the first Thursday of each month, there’s a special program featuring nearby artists.  The community outreach extends to monthly gallery talks and a Discovery Center where the young and young at heart to get involved in art.  Group tours and rates are available, and your group can decide between docent-led and self-guided tours.  Should docent-led tours be chosen, reservations are required.  Reservations for self-guided tours are recommended.

Bok Tower Gardens

Bok Tower Gardens

Bok Tower Gardens

An hour to the south of Orlando you’ll find Bok Tower Gardens, a peaceful retreat with the namesake tower – complete with carillon – and a 1930s-era mansion.  The art deco Singing Tower is 205 feet tall, and it “sings” every afternoon at 1 and 3 p.m. by means of its 60-bell carillon.  The concerts can be heard throughout the gardens.

The experience at Bok Tower Gardens is designed to be contemplative, soothing and natural.  Trees are plentiful and varied, and an abundance of flowers greets visitors in season.  These gardens are considered one of the chief works of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who is best known as the designer of New York’s Central Park.

The mansion house on the grounds of the gardens does require an additional ticket (or a combo ticket, which allow access to both sites, can be purchased).  Its Spanish-inspired roots make it one of the state’s best examples of Mediterranean-style architecture.  A bit unusual is the fact that the gardens were designed first, and the house was positioned to fit the landscaping.

Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival

Actually, it’s unfair to limit visits to Winter Park – a city just 20 minutes or so from Orlando – to March 20-22, when the 2015 Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival will take place.  The Festival is worth seeing; it is scheduled to draw over 250 artists in 11 categories, and it’s ranked as one of the top five art festivals in the nation.

But Winter Park has so much more to offer art lovers.  There’s the Cornell Fine Arts Museum and Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, which houses the largest collection of Tiffany works in the country.  The historical and architectural gems include multiple historic homes, the Albin Polasek Museum & Sculpture Gardens and the campus of Rollins College.

If your ideas of Orlando begin and end with people dressed up as giant cartoon princesses and heroes, it’s time to revamp them.  The area around this easy-to-get-to Florida city has art, architecture, landscape gardening and history that make it perfect for a student travel experience.

What hidden treasures in the Orlando area have you uncovered?  Tell us in the comment section below.

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Orlando’s Unexpectedly Artistic Side
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Orlando’s Unexpectedly Artistic Side
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Orlando is known by one and all as the home of Walt Disney World and an assortment of other big-name theme parks. But don’t let the mega-attractions fool you; the central Florida city and its environs are also home to cultural and historic treasures.
Student Travel Planning Guide

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