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From technicolour castles to all-singing, all-dancing street parades, Disney serves up unbeatable family fun. But what the ‘House of Mouse’ and Orlando’s many other theme parks are not renowned for is decent food. Inside the parks, pretzels, pizza and pop still prevail, however at their fringes and in outlying neighbourhoods, innovative restaurants are fast appearing, making all the queues and costumed parades a lot more palatable for parents – as I discovered when I toured Orlando with my ten-year-old daughter.
A great example of this new-generation food destination is Disney Springs, within the city-like sprawl of Walt Disney World (Magic Kingdom, along with Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom parks, to name just a few). If you overlook its polished, manicured Truman Show-style aesthetic, this waterfront hamlet of high-end cafés, restaurants and shops offers a civilised bolthole away from the parks. Food outlets include a Wolfgang Puck Grand Café, the Orlando branch of New York’s STK (steak) restaurant, plus a new pan-Asian venture from Japanese chef Masaharu Morimoto.
For a less curated experience, Winter Park, just north of downtown Orlando, is one of Florida’s oldest resorts, set on a string of lakes that can (and should) be toured by boat (scenicboattours.com). It houses the best of Orlando’s art galleries and 19th-century plantation-style houses, with lakefront gardens of ancient oak trees draped with curtains of Spanish moss. On Park Avenue, look for Rocket Fizz, a cavernous candy store with vintage posters, brightly coloured soda pop and fudge flavours such as PB&J and pumpkin pie.
Near Winter Park, the Mills 50 district is the place to go for Asian food: no-nonsense eateries run by Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese families, plus lots of enticingly stocked grocery shops. Mills, which was the birthplace of Orlando’s food truck scene, has now blossomed into a breeding ground for interesting independent restaurants. With the Gulf Coast just a few hours’ drive away, it’s easy to break for the beach, with the Clearwater area offering pristine sands, more and more upscale hotels and great seafood.
Where to eat & drink
Fun, pan-Asian fusion in a New York cocktail lounge setting, with lively show kitchens and a sleek mezzanine sushi bar. Not to be missed: the saki-sangria cocktails, pretty much any of the sushi or dim sum, and the half-rack ribs with hoisin, coriander & sweet chilli glaze. Less of a hit, with us at least, was the Oreo tempura dessert – the wrong side of wrong. Mains from $14 (£11). disneysprings.com/dining
Near Universal Studios, next to the Orlando Eye (officialorlandoeye.com) on International Drive, this tapas restaurant comes with live flamenco dancing and kitsch but real food credentials. Go for the delicate ham & cheese croquetas, mussels with zingy chorizo, or unashamedly garlicky shrimp. Tapas from $5 (£4); mains from $17 (£13). Visit Tapa Toro on Twitter.
Cask & Larder
This is the latest outpost of the landmark Florida farm-to-fork restaurant, The Ravenous Pig. Housed in one of Orlando’s oldest buildings, this tavern-like restaurant and brewery (which also has an annex produce shop called Swine & Sons) serves traditional Southern food with modern flair. The cayenne mac ’n’ cheese and Nashville hot chicken make a flight of hopsy, craft ales a guilt-free necessity. The crispy cauliflower with harissa yogurt side is worth ordering twice. Mains from $20 (£15.50). caskandlarder.com
If entrepreneurial Puerto Rican owner Thomas Ward has his way, this former food truck is a business model that will conquer the South’s otherwise conservative BBQ scene. Ribs, tacos, and pulled pork and beef platters at this ‘urban barbakoa’ come with pan-Latino and Asian flavours; the Oakwood smoked ribs are the stuff holiday nostalgia will be made of. Mains from $10 (£7.50). pigfloyds.com
BRGR Kitchen + Bar
This cool pool and beachfront restaurant at the newly opened Treasure Island Beach Resort serves feather-light fried calamari, kid-pleasing mini burgers and build-yourself bigger versions (including bison, chicken and lamb), dressed with everything from sriracha to truffle shallot aïoli. Mains from $9 (£7). Upstairs, roomy family suites have kitchenettes and generous oceanview balconies. From $199 (£155). treasureislandbeachresort.com/dining
Visit Winter Park Farmers’ Market, set in a lovely old railway depot, for cold presses from the Juice Lab and sublime Florida coconut water, obscenely loaded fries from the Fry Bar (‘truffled’ and ‘Greek’ are standouts), plus pure, raw honey from Jean the beekeeper. (Saturdays 7am-1pm; cityofwinterpark.org).
Where to stay
In Winter park
The Alfond Inn is in elegant Floridian-cum-Mediterranean hotel in lush gardens, packed with contemporary art from the prestigious Rollins College. Family rooms are stylish and beds marshmallow-comfy, while Hamilton's Kitchen is a popular local hangout with an urban bistro vibe and rustic-refined southern food. Family rooms from $185 (£147). thealfondinn.com
Wyndham Grand Orlando Resort Bonnet Creek is a good-value resort with a huge pool area, set within Disney World, a 10-minute free shuttle ride from the main parks. The Magic Kingdom's nightly fireworks are visible from balconies. Family rooms from $139 (£108). wyndhamgrandorlando.com
On Clearwater Beach
Opal Sands Resort is a new upscale beach hotel on a prime piece of sandy real estate backed by Clearwater's lovely dunes. Family rooms have endless ocean views, while Sea-Guini restaurant does Italian by way of local Floridian fisherman. The Neapolitan-style pizza and local 'hogfish' with sweet Gulf shrimp and Florida corn broth both come highly recommended. Family rooms from $179 (£139) B&B. opalsands.com
How to do it
British Airways (ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (virgin-atlantic.com) and Norwegian (norwegian.com) fly non-stop from London Gatwick to Orlando. Virgin also flies from Manchester, and Thomas Cook Airlines (thomascookairlines.com) flies from a number of UK airports. Return flights from £400. For more information, go to visitorlando.com.
Do you have a favourite foodie hotspot in Orlando? Let us know in the comments below...