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The Ultimate Adult’s Guide to Orlando

Most adults think Orlando is kids stuff. But everyone has to grow up eventually and this Disney town is no exception. Emma Sloley checks in on the farm-to-table food scene, bars and high-end spas that are making this sunny Florida town a destination both kids and kids-at-heart can agree on. Magic indeed.

See recent posts by Chelsea Stuart and Emma Sloley

If I told you I was sipping a glass of fine champagne poured by a bartender hailing from Provence while lounging inside a chateau, Disney probably wouldn’t be the first word that would spring to mind. Granted, the chateau is a painstaking recreation beneath a dazzling blue Florida sky, and the bartender is a French kid on an exchange program, but I’m still feeling the magic.

Growing up in Melbourne, Australia, Disneyland seemed a remote and not altogether plausible fantasy world. School-friends were sometimes whisked off to this mythic land during summer vacation, returning with breathless tales of haunted houses, wild rollercoasters and grown adults masquerading as fictional creatures. When I moved to the US ten years ago, the idea of visiting Disneyworld became something of an obsession. But by the time I finally got there this fall, I had outgrown the Minnie Mouse fantasy and was ready for some more grown-up fun. Which is how I find myself here in the chateau, one of the wonderfully wacky pavilions at Epcot, Disney’s World’s Fair-inspired wonderland, embarking on a pub crawl around the world that doesn’t even require a passport. This is my kind of magic kingdom.

Orlando is often viewed as a kind of purgatory for adults, a city overrun with overstimulated kids and grumpy parents mentally tallying up the significant damage involved in whisking a family through the city’s many theme parks. But that’s just one part of the story: this perpetually sunny town is increasingly a lure for grown-ups too, thanks to a burgeoning farm-to-table restaurant scene, hotels offering adults-only areas, cultural must-sees, and even theme park rides designed to restore a sense of wonder in the most jaded globetrotter. Whether you’ve got kids in tow or are just indulging your inner child, come along for the ride as we discover some of the town’s best pursuits.

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The Adults-Only Pool at Four Seasons Resort

The Four Seasons Orlando is set within the Walt Disney World Resort but feels like a world apart thanks to its array of grown-up enticements. While mini jetsetters are kept amused with diversions like character breakfasts, a fabulous lazy river and the interactive Explorer Island, adults can take advantage of The Oasis, a veritable wonderland for guests 21 and up (the only resort pool in Orlando of its kind) comprising a 92 feet-long infinity edge pool and jacuzzi set lakeside, complete with palm trees, white cabanas and underwater music. Poolside servers are on hand to cater to your every whimsy, be it Evian spritzes or sunglasses cleaning, with snacks like frozen blueberries and watermelon skewers circulating hourly.

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Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts

If you’re all theme parked out, this downtown landmark offers a (character-free) array of culture. A striking glass and steel building facing City Hall, the performing arts center has four theaters, including the 2700 seat Walt Disney Theater (the future site of Broadway productions and rock concerts) and an intimate 300 seater whose ceiling is adorned with abstract art. There’s also a grand plaza out front that spans a city block and will feature free outdoor performances, like the Sheryl Crow event that launched the space. Adult culture vultures aren’t the only ones in store for a treat: the center will also stage family-friendly shows, like those from the Orlando Ballet (think: Peter and the Wolf and The Swan Princess).

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'Round the World Bar Crawl

Of all the Disney worlds, Epcot is possibly the most ambitious, given that it aims to represent, well, the world. The Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, opened in 1982, was Walt’s vision of a Utopian universe that would showcase human achievement and celebrate both the wonders of technology and multiculturalism. We’ll drink to such lofty ambitions — preferably with an adult beverage at one of the park’s “World Showcase” countries, which span the globe from Japan to Morocco. Grab some friends and embark on a pub crawl of your favorite spots around the world, from a Grand Marnier slushie in a painstakingly created Parisian neighborhood (hey, there’s the Eiffel Tower!) to pints at the convivial English pub, bratwurst and beer in Germany, or an array of 80+ kinds of tequila in the Mexican pavilion, fashioned after a Mayan pyramid. Soak it all up at Italy’s Via Napoli restaurant, which dispenses authentic, Neopolitan-style pizza from three brick ovens named for the region’s volcanoes. (They even use water from Naples in the dough.)

RELATED: 12 Tips for Visiting Disney World On a Budget

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Farm-to-table Dining

Far from being immune to the locavore revolution, Orlando has enthusiastically embraced the locally-sourced, artisan-obsessed food movement. At K restaurant in College Park, set in a quaint 1930s wooden house, dine on soul food-meets-nonna-style dishes like fried green tomatoes with crab salad, eggplant parmesan and Florida pompano with succotash. Head to fancy gastropub The Ravenous Pig in Winter Park for porcine favorites like pork porterhouse steak, along with a raw bar and some of the city’s most decadent cocktails. (Owners James and Julie Petrakis also host a monthly pig roast.) Or if you’re in the mood for pinxtos, don’t miss Txokos Basque Kitchen, which dishes up fantastic tapas-style fare including house-cured meats and authentic Spanish tortillas — they also do a killer brunch. In the same complex, a former schoolhouse, is the East End Market, where you can witness the hipster revolution in full swing at stalls ranging from craft coffee roasters to fromageries.

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Spa Time

Not altogether surprisingly in a town devoted to making kids’ dreams come true, even traditionally grown-up pastimes like having spa treatments have been rendered family-friendly. The Senses spa at Victorian era-inspired grand dame the Grand Floridian offers manicures and pedicures for well-groomed tots and tweens between ages 4 to 12, while their guardians can indulge in fountain of youth-style pampering like the Signature Age Defying Lavender Facial. Sister Disney property Saratoga Springs, meanwhile, is all about paying homage to the 19th century mineral springs scene in upstate New York, a fun setting for little ones to indulge in mommy-and-me nail painting sessions.

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Wild Africa Trek at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

If taking the whole family on a genuine African safari isn’t really an option, this VIP wildlife experience offers some of the same thrills. Suitable for ages 8 and up, the 3 hour-long trek is limited to just 12 guests at a time and charts a different — and more exciting — path than the regular jeep tours of the Kingdom. First, you’ll be strapped into an incredibly professional looking khaki mesh vest and harness, then led along winding pathways through the Pagani Forest (within the Harambe Wildlife Reserve, Disney’s meticulously created African-style landscape) by several knowledgeable guides to observe hippos, crocodiles and giraffes up close. Expect lots of Indiana Jones-style exploits like crossing a rickety rope bridge over a gully filled with crocodiles, and at the end of it all is a delicious al fresco feast served in tin tiffin-style boxes in a pavilion overlooking the grasslands.

RELATED: 20 Things to Do for Free in Orlando Right Now

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Exploring Diagon Alley

You don’t need to be a kid (or even a Harry Potter fan) to be bowled over by the Diagon Alley exhibit, park of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando (the first section, the village of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts Castle, opened in 2010 and is accessed via a fun journey aboard the Hogwart’s Express train). The world-building involved in bringing J.K. Rowling’s magical universe to life is truly astonishing: the faithfully recreated Diagon Alley is complete with wand shops, the Weasley twins’ “Wizard Wheezes” joke shop and a Quidditch supply store, along with many, many more familiar spots from the books. The best part: the “Escape from Gringott’s” ride, an immersive, multi-dimensional 3D thrill-fest that’s bound to make even the most curmudgeonly grown-up believe in magic again.

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This fantastically fun — and perenially popular — Epcot ride is a hit with all ages. Disney’s “imagineers” used a 180-degree IMAX projection dome and aerially captured footage to replicate the experience of flying on a hang glider over California, and the effects are thrilling. You’ll feel like you’re dipping close to rolling waves, gliding over redwood forests and getting a birds-eye view of landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge. You’ll even be able to smell citrus as you pass over California’s orange groves. Sweet.

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Singing Along with Frozen

Admit it, you can’t help yourself when the familiar strains of “Let it Go” come on: you just have to warble along with Idina Menzel’s smash hit. After visiting the Frozen attraction currently at Epcot’s Norway exhibit — it's a recreation of Arendelle with Elsa and Anna greeting fans—head for the Frozen Sing-Along Celebration held in the Premiere Theater at Hollywood Studios. There are ten half-hour sing-alongs every day performed by singers dressed as characters from the cult movie, so you'll have plenty of opportunities to get your Elsa on.

RELATED: 7 Under-the-Radar Florida Beach Towns

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Candy Shopping

Often touted as Orlando’s answer to Rodeo Drive, tony Park Avenue in Winter Park has plenty of grown-up diversions in the form of noshing and boutique browsing, but there’s also a sweet surprise for kids who get dragged along: chocolate and ice-cream stores galore. Drop by Peterbrooke Chocolatier for chocolate-coated everything, from pretzels and strawberries to Ritz crackers, then stock up on velvety chocolate truffles at Gourmet Temptations or hand-made fudge at Kilwins before topping off the sugar rush at the adorably old school Sassafras Sweet Shoppe, which peddles retro candy and treats like saltwater taffy behind a pink and white candy-striped facade.

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