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How to spend 48 hours in Orlando with no theme parks

From the original Gideon’s Bakehouse to a bar masquerading as a lamp store, Orlando is lit if you know where to look.
A cookie from Gideon's Bakehouse in the East End Market in Orlando.
A cookie from Gideon's Bakehouse in the East End Market in Orlando. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]
Published Aug. 27, 2021|Updated Aug. 27, 2021

Remember that blissful streamlet of summer when it felt safer to travel and do things? You told a lie, an odious damned lie! Upon my soul, a lie, a wicked lie!

Back then, my husband and I booked a trip to Chicago, with two nights on the end in Orlando for the Florida Cup at Camping World Stadium. Sadly, the soccer team we wanted to see backed out due to COVID-19. Our hotel wasn’t refundable by then, so we went anyway.

Life is moment-to-moment right now, even for those of us who are vaccinated. But nearby weekend getaways, done safely, can be a salve. Keep this itinerary handy for the future, or for when your last emotional thread runs bare.

I asked around for things to do not involving a theme park. Friends wrote with helpful suggestions such as, “Not much.” Nonsense! First of all, Disney World is not technically even in Orlando. We all need to try harder.

We wanted to explore areas close to our hotel, the Sonder Wellborn in the charming Lake Cherokee Historic District. Well, it’s sort of a hotel. More like a cross between a hotel and an Airbnb. Our room inside an 1883 Victorian house had hotel amenities with self check-in. The comfortable unit (less than $100 a night, plus cleaning fees) backed up to a shabby-chic courtyard with a cocktail truck. Note: the music stays on late, great if you like the sounds of the ‘90s at midnight.

The courtyard of the Wellborn House on a July night.
The courtyard of the Wellborn House on a July night. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

We spotted attractive folks walking into a mysterious building behind the hotel. We acted attractive and followed them into the Wellborn House Bar and Restaurant, a fun surprise. It’s like a hip grandma’s house full of velvet couches, tchotchkes, TVs and board games. Pop down anywhere and bartenders bring fancy sliders and cocktails. Consider the “Waxed, Vaxed and Ready to Party,” with cachaça, mango syrup, lime and a Fresno chile tincture. We were vaxed. But were we waxed and ready to party? I need to consult the Centers for Disease Control on both questions.

Cocktails at the Wellborn House Bar and Restaurant in Orlando.
Cocktails at the Wellborn House Bar and Restaurant in Orlando. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

A manager told us the same marketing group runs several other spots. The next night, we checked out Ann Teague’s Lamp Supply downtown, a bar that looks like a lamp repair shop. We bopped to the Robinson Cafe and Cocktail Lounge, another Instagram haven. It was a bit crowded as we scrolled evolving delta variant news. Once someone started playing a sax in front of a saber-tooth tiger skeleton, it was time to go.

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Related: Try a Florida day trip to Warm Mineral Springs. Your skin will thank you.

Okay, onto important topics: dessert. If you’ve been to Disney Springs lately, you’ve seen the line for face-sized cookies at Gideon’s Bakehouse. It’s like when I worked at a Ticketmaster in college and the Smashing Pumpkins went on sale. But here’s a hack. Skip the tourist version for the original location in the East End Market, a small food hall in the eclectic Audubon Park district.

A box of half-pound cookies from Gideon's Bakehouse in the East End Market in Orlando.
A box of half-pound cookies from Gideon's Bakehouse in the East End Market in Orlando. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

Are the cookies worth it? Do you like half-pound piles of ecstasy? Maybe that’s not your thing, but it is mine. We carried our box of cookies around like a newborn child, then decided to eat more at the market’s outpost of Winter Park Biscuit Company. The “fried chicken” biscuit was all vegan, but it could have fooled me.

A vegan "fried chicken" biscuit from the Winter Park Biscuit Company in the East End Market in Orlando.
A vegan "fried chicken" biscuit from the Winter Park Biscuit Company in the East End Market in Orlando. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

We tried antiquing in Ivanhoe Village, a neighborhood spanning Orange Avenue, known for secondhand stores and indie boutiques. It’s home to Washburn Imports, the Golden Phoenix and the cavernous A&T Antiques. It was pleasant, but we overestimated how walkable the area was in these hot, hot times and burned out quickly.

The exterior of the Golden Phoenix antique store in the Ivanhoe Village neighborhood of Orlando.
The exterior of the Golden Phoenix antique store in the Ivanhoe Village neighborhood of Orlando. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Times ]

Only one way to recover: more food. Mills 50 is the go-to neighborhood for east Asian grocery stores and Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean restaurants. We picked Shin Jung Korean BBQ to perform bicep curls of bulgogi off the tabletop grill, staring into the distance, so full, so tired.

So, Orlando? We had more fun than we would have stuffed in a soccer stadium. And it was a reminder to take our weekend getaways a bit deeper and try something unexpected. You know, to eat six half-pound cookies to cope with anxiety.

On the way home, we stopped in City Furniture to preview the 1.2 million-square-foot behemoth opening in Plant City next year. We carried our ward, our son, our Gideon’s cookie box. A salesman freaked when we he saw them, and — I am not making this up — tried to sell us a furniture cleaning plan for chocolate smears.

He also told us that Gideon’s in Disney Springs has an exclusive peanut butter coffee, no hack available. OK, Orlando. Fine. FINE. The theme parks can stay.

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