Burdened with the epithet "Theme Park Capital of the World," Orlando, Florida, has been pigeonholed as an unsophisticated, artificial playground. Granted, many visitors to Orlando never get past the mousetrap to discover other opportunities. But Orlando has a bounty of cultural offerings, including many unique museums. Here are seven Orlando museums recommended by local experts.
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art
For 75 years, The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art on Winter Park's Park Avenue has housed the largest comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, including jewelry, pottery, furniture and paintings. The highlight is Tiffany's opalescent window glass and creative lead designs. The museum's signature piece is the opulent Tiffany Chapel, originally built in 1893 for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The Byzantine-style chapel has arches and columns, a baptismal font, glass mosaics bursting with color and a half-ton cross-shaped chandelier. The Morse Museum will literally be a colorful experience.
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Hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. It's closed Monday. Admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $1 for students with an ID, and free for children 11 and younger. Budget tip: All visitors are free on Fridays, 4 to 8 p.m. from November through April.
Orange County Regional History Center
In downtown Orlando's center rises the stately Orange County Regional History Center, formerly the county courthouse. Built in 1927, the five-story neoclassical building sits in front of Heritage Square Park, from where Orlando's city limits were plotted.
"For a look back in time to the period before theme parks, the Orange County Regional History Center ... takes visitors on a journey through 12,000 years of central Florida history," says George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando, the area's official tourism organization.
Visitors can soak up the early history of Orange County at permanent exhibits like First People, which explores the lives of the indigenous people who once lived in the area, or First Contact, which covers the period when Spanish settlers came to Florida. To see Orlando's transformation into amusement nirvana, check out two tourism exhibits: Destination Florida, an installation on 100 years of prepark tourism, and The Theme-Park Era, detailing the area's metamorphosis from cattle town to mouse town.
The history center is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors, $7 for students and members of the military (both with ID), $6 for children 5 to 12 and free for younger kids.
Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College and the Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art
The Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College in Winter Park will dazzle you with 5,500 pieces from old masters and contemporary artists. The European collection includes Renaissance and Baroque paintings, Restoration-period portraiture and abstract works from the 20th century Bloomsbury Group. The American collection features portraiture, landscapes and early American modernism.
Across the street at The Alfond Inn, visitors will also find works from the museum's permanent collection on display. The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art has nearly 300 pieces of art expressing social, historical and political viewpoints.
"The whole concept of The Alfond Inn is to enhance art," says Patricia Clifton, chief concierge at the hotel. "We have wonderful self-guided art tours ... and a docent-led art tour with someone from the Cornell." For art aficionados, these are a must-see.
Cornell Fine Arts Museum's hours are Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and weekends from noon to 5 p.m. It's closed Monday. Admission is free.
Orlando Museum of Art
The 45-acre Loch Haven Park – home to three museums, a science center, multiple theaters, the Orlando Ballet and The Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival – is the city's cultural core.
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The park's centerpiece is the Orlando Museum of Art, which features local, national and international artists. OMA exhibits include art and relics from Africa, including colorful textiles and beadwork; more than 900 pieces from ancient America, including Mayan, Peruvian and Incan art and crafts, and 160 Mexican Chupicuaro figurines; American paintings spanning from the Colonial period to World War II; and contemporary works.
OMA is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. It's closed Monday. Admission is $15 for adults, $8 for seniors, $5 for children 4 to 17 and students with an ID, and free for members of the military and children 3 and younger.
Mennello Museum of American Art
The Mennello Museum of American Art, also in Loch Haven Park, was created to house the largest collection of work by folksy landscape artist Earl Cunningham. Rotating art exhibits by American painters, sculptors and modern artists grace the interior, while outside, guests can walk among huge creations in the Marilyn L. Mennello Sculpture Gardens, which surround a massive live oak called The Mayor, estimated to have sprouted in 1688.
Hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4:30 p.m. It's closed Monday. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $1 for students with an ID and children 6 to 18, and free for members of the military and children 5 and younger.
Orlando Science Center
Across the street from the Mennello is the Orlando Science Center, an interactive learning museum beloved by kids and adults. Permanent collections have you delving into thunder lizards in DinoDigs, examining forces like electricity and gravity in the Kinetic Zone, and exploring Earth in Our Planet.
Young children will go cuckoo for the hands-on wonderment of KidsTown with experiences like the Isaacs Family ClimbTime and Drip Drop Splash. OSC also hosts fun, educational events, including the technology-themed Otronicon and the adult-centric Science of Wine.
The museum is open Thursday through Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It's closed Wednesday. Admission is $20.95 for adults, $14.95 for children 3 to 11, $18.95 for seniors and students with an ID, and free for children 2 and younger.
Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex
An hour's drive east of Orlando is the acme of space museums: the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. NASA nerds will delight in this educational, interactive tribute to man's quest off the planet. Learn about space pioneers in the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame; re-enact the 1968 Apollo 8 launch from the actual control room; and stroll beneath towering rockets from the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs in the Rocket Garden.
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"It's also a great generational offering," says Richard Tribou, travel editor for the Orlando Sentinel. "I've gone with my kids and my dad, mixing someone who was around Florida when the Apollo missions were going up ... while I was raised with the shuttle mission ... and my children are looking at the past and waiting for the future with whatever NASA has coming next."
The complex is packed with interactive features, theater experiences and even a space launch simulator. If you've dreamed of crawling through a space station, training with astronauts or piloting a space shuttle, this is your mecca.
The visitor complex opens at 9 a.m. daily with seasonal closings between 6, 7 and 8 p.m. Admission is $50 for those 12 and older and $40 for children 3 to 11. There's a $4 discount for military, military children and seniors. Packages with numerous add-ons are also sold.
To experience more of what Orlando has to offer, check out the U.S. News Travel guide.
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