Exploring Orlando “Off the Beaten Path” has been the theme for our trip and I intend to explore the Central areas of the Sunshine State, and flush out all those unexpected and unconventional destinations in and around Orlando. In my discoveries of Orlando, I have been working closely with the Orlando Visitor and Convention Bureau, to get the input of local experts and work out an itinerary for our two weeks in Florida, without setting foot once into a theme park.
One of the first places they suggested was the Orange County Regional History Center, home to the varied and extensive collections of the Historical Society of Central Florida. Located in the heart of downtown Orlando in the beautifully restored five-story Orange County Courthouse, The History Center is continuously distinguished as the area’s “Best Museum”. When the History Center was built as a courthouse in 1927, the jail was on the top floor, with quarters for the jailer and his wife, an infirmary, and separate cellblocks for white women, white men, black women and black men.
Alligator wrestler in front of the Orange County Regional History Center
With an exciting roster of ever-changing exhibits on display and travelling exhibits on loan to other facilities, The History Center is one of Central Florida’s premier attractions. Members, educators and visitors alike find a wealth of fascinating information, delivered in dynamic fashion. From guided tours and “hands-on history” events to fun-packed summer camps and interactive children’s programs, learning is fun for all ages. History Center members can take advantage of a number of special value-added benefits, including discounts and exclusive event opportunities. The stately facility is also available for event rentals, ranging from unparalleled conferences to unforgettable weddings.
The First People exhibit takes visitors back in time to see how Paleo-Indians lived in the days before European Contact. First Contact helps visitors imagine Native American’s reaction and the changes in their lifestyles due to the arrival of the Spanish. A recreated early 19th century Seminole Settlement provides a look at artifacts of Florida’s most famous tribe and a replica Florida Pioneer cabin lets curious guests test a Spanish moss-filled mattress and discover the much-discussed origin of the term “Florida Cracker”.
School children explore one of the exhibits
Other permanent exhibits include Cattle and Citrus, Central Florida’s first major industries, Tourism, Transportation, Real Estate, Aviation, the impact of Walt Disney, and Central Florida’s African American community. From a replica World War II B-17 bomber and a two-story dome featuring over 150 unique Central Florida icons to the restored 1927 Courtroom B, and the outdoor Heritage Square courtyard, a wealth of fascinating sights and experiences awaits visitors to the History Center.
Our first stop in the museum was the Orientation Theatre. Set as a Florida back porch, you can relax in a rocker while being surrounded by the sights and sounds of Central Florida. Right after our introduction to Central Florida’s history we had a chance to meet Shanon Larimer, spokesperson for the Museum, who gave us a great overview of this facility.
The solid wooden entrance to Courtroom B
The exhibits feature many interactive displays and Shanon, our museum expert, indicated that new exhibits offering even more interactive features will be coming on stream shortly. We particularly enjoyed Courtroom B, an authentic courtroom that is part of this former Orange County Courthouse, with furnishings and decorations dating back to 1927. One of the benches in the front has an inscription “Ted Bundy”, indicating this infamous criminal may indeed have been sitting here on this very wooden bench in the past. Bundy was in fact tried in the former Annex to the 1927 Orange County Courthouse, but historians still debate the authenticity of the signature. The seat backs of the prisoners’ benches are all scuffed up with markings of the handcuffs that tied their hands behind their backs.
Is this Ted Bundy’s handy work?
Shanon also showed us a very famous friendship doll that was given to the United States by the Japanese. Every year hundreds of visitors come from Japan and visit the History Center, with the specific intention of seeing this friendship doll.
The Historium gift store sells memorabilia, books and souvenirs while the Educational Program’s office offers a wide range of programs and activities for children of all ages as well as tours, workshops and lectures for adults. Ongoing special events include a Third Thursday themed evening event and a Saturday morning Farmer’s Market staged in the lush Heritage Square courtyard in front of the building.
Courtroom B in its full glory
Fortunately for visitors not just hungry for historical insights, there are ample dining opportunities right outside the Museum. Wall Street Plaza, which abuts the History Center, features eight bars and restaurants lining a brick-paved pedestrian sidewalk. Restaurants include the Wall Street Cantina serving Mexican fare, The Globe, a relaxed European-style café featuring both indoor and al fresco dining, and the new Waitiki Retro Tiki Lounge, offering the best in upscale island seafood.
The clock from an earlier courthouse
From Too Jay’s and Kress Chop House on Church Street, to cutting edge cuisine at The Bohème and sushi bar Ichiban on Orange Avenue, and from Sam Sneads and HUE on Central Boulevard to the Lake Eola Yacht Club, Lee’s Lakeside and GondEola featuring candlelit dinners aboard a gondola on Lake Eola, History Center visitors are sure to find just the right meal to top off their museum experience.
Inspired by our discovery of the History Center we continued our learning experiences at the Well’s Built Museum of African American History and Culture, followed up by a relaxing walk around Lake Eola, to take in a beautiful sunset. We capped off an intense day with a tasty Mexican Dinner on downtown Heritage Square. In one afternoon we managed to satisfy our desire for learning and our cravings for spicy Mexican food.
Outdoor exhibit in front of the Museum
Conveniently located at 65 East Boulevard in the heart of downtown Orlando, the History Center is open Monday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm, and Sunday from 12 to 5 pm. General admission is $7, students with a valid student ID and seniors (60+) pay $6.50 and children ages 3 to 12 $3.50. Visitors receive two hours of FREE covered parking at the Orlando Public Library with paid admission (not valid for special events). Guided tours are offered on Saturdays at 11 am and included in the price of general admission. For more information visit www.thehistorycenter.org or call (407) 836-8500.