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Orlando, beyond the theme parks

Theme parks put Orlando firmly and prominently on the tourism map half a century ago, a development that Walt Disney World is now trumpeting in its 18-month celebration of its 50th anniversary. But theme parks are far from the only thing to do in Central Florida.

The people at the Michelin Guide certainly believe there's more to explore in Orlando, announcing they would be including the destination in the latest guide, which will recognize top restaurants in Florida; Miami and Tampa restaurants will also be included.

"The community has seen the emergence of a culinary arts scene in Orlando, so the fact that Orlando's dining scene has captured the attention of Michelin is just going to help us share that message that there are a lot of incredible options in Orlando," said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, who moved to Florida in February from the visitors bureau in San Antonio.

Dining destinations in Orlando

As is the case in Las Vegas, many of Orlando's top restaurants are in hotels. Foodies have long been aware of the caliber of Victoria & Albert's at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa or the California Grill atop the Disney Contemporary Resort.

In addition, Matej cites Todd English's Bluezoo at the Walt Disney World Dolphin hotel near Epcot and the Knife & Spoon restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes. For nonhotel dining, she mentions the Hillstone in Winter Park or two restaurants in Orlando's Ivanhoe neighborhood: Russell's and the Pinery.

"Orlando is home to over 6,000 restaurants representing 40 different international cuisines," Matej said. "People can get a taste of anything here."

Central Florida also deserves to be recognized for its wealth of outdoor activities, thanks to hundreds of lakes and springs in places like Wekiwa Springs State Park near Apopka, about 20 miles northwest of Orlando. "So, there's kayaking and canoeing and all types of boating," Matej said.

There are also places in the region that Matej calls "Main Streets." Downtown Orlando is one, and upscale Winter Park is another. Both are chock full of art galleries and shops.

Winter Park attractions include picturesque Rollins Collins on Lake Virginia, several botanical gardens, the shopping and dining district along Park Avenue and the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art.

Downtown Orlando has its own fresh water set-piece, Lake Eola, with a spectacular fountain and resident population of swans. "There's a great little path around it," said Matej. "You can go shopping at stores, grab something to eat and enjoy a walk."

There are also swan-shaped paddleboats available on the weekends.

Concert venue opening

In January, Steinmetz Hall at the downtown Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is scheduled to make its long-awaited debut. The London Philharmonic Orchestra will take up residence for 10 days to christen the 1,700-seat concert hall.

Because tourists flock to Orlando from all over the world, it's not unusual for the city to attract big names in entertainment. "There are always festivities, and shows and big entertainment or sports," Matej said.

A glance a's calendar of events shows jazz guitarist Pat Metheny at Steinmetz Hall on Feb. 17 and country star Vince Gill at the Amway Center on Feb. 24.

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