Renting an automobile usually falls under one of only a few categories, top of which is usually for vacationing purposes. Though it’s not the only one, the markets that I operate an auto rental business constitute a larger portion of renters that fall into this category. In that light, I will be supplementing my usual rental tips posts with information about cities themselves and what to do when visiting whether for vacation, business, or otherwise.

This is the first in a series of blogs about cities throughout the Southeastern United States. All too often, I have customers who ask “what should we do while we’re here? Is there anything or anywhere that you recommend?”. It’s not a lack of planning on their part, but simply looking to gain perspective from a local as to what off-the-beaten-path locales are available for tourists to immerse themselves more like someone who’s living in that city rather than a visitor or tourist.

When my wife and I travel, whether it’s in the US or out of the country, we typically shy away from places that would be considered “touristy”. Being that Orlando is the number one tourist destination in the world, that can be somewhat difficult to accomplish! This is especially true if you are anywhere within 10-15 minutes of Walt Disney World. If we were visiting Orlando on vacation, the first place that I would tell you not to miss is Downtown Orlando. Most visitors to Central Florida fixate on the Walt Disney World or Universal Studios areas. With so much more to offer than the commercialized (that’s relatively untouched upon by travel guides) is a small historic neighborhood just outside of downtown Orlando – Thornton Park. This is a quaint “Old Florida” section of town that begs for pedestrians to lay their feet on its tree-lined sidewalks and screams “try my restaurants!” as there are many and they are varied in what they offer! Find more information here. I personally recommend Dexter’s for breakfast (try the Eggs Benedict!) as they offer an eclectic atmosphere as well as delicious, reasonably-price food. For lunch or dinner, have a burger (there are plenty to choose from – all equally taste bud satisfying) and make it a custom-built – limited only by the seemingly endless ingredient list and your imagination. Try a fried egg on ANY burger! It’s amazing…

So you’ve checked out downtown and taken in a little bit of what it’s like to live like a native. Don’t leave just yet! A few local watering holes will have both your thirst quenched and your people-watching desires fulfilled. Check out The Lodge on Orange Ave (the main “strip) downtown. Offering inexpensive drinks and a mix of 80’s and 90’s music and a hunting lodge feel replete with an upstairs lounge area and animal heads on the walls. Expect a decent crowd on weekend nights but not usually until 11pm or so. It’s usually a mix of a young aprés-work professionals and middle-age party-goers to make for a great blend of people watching. Check out their website here.

Last but not least is where to take the family in Orlando. Sure the list of places is endless if you are looking for commercialized, Disney-saturated activity. Topping the list is Gatorland. Although nearly decimated by fire a few years ago, Gatorland has been rebuilt and is better than ever. Offering a lower cost alternative to the parks, Gatorland is sure to please. If your kids are not up for gators, etc, another alternative is the new Legoland complex opening October 2011. Set on the site of the old Cypress Gardens (one of the United States’ first amusement parks), Legoland is one of only four in the world. With admission prices at a fraction of Disney’s fees, it is sure to please and won’t put a damper on your budget.

If you have visited Orlando or live in Orlando and you have any other suggestions, please comment as I am always looking for new places to frequent! Have fun and enjoy Orlando – not just for Disney, but for the real Orlando!

-Eric Libby is Operations Manager for Carl’s Van Rentals – the largest van specific auto rental company in the Southeastern United States. He is based in Orlando, Florida and oversees multiple operations in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. With over ten years experience, he is well-versed in all aspects of the auto rental industry and considered an authority on the subject. You can email [email protected] or visit their website at