Arts Season Preview: Six events for an arts lover's serious side

Of course, not everything arts-related is meant to be jolly. Here are a half-dozen events from the 2017-18 arts season that dive into weightier issues while they entertain.

•"Baggage Claims": In this Orlando Museum of Art exhibition, an international group of 18 artists explores the mobility of global culture, especially in regard to the humanitarian, economic and political concerns of those fleeing conflict or other hardships. The title refers to physical travel, but also to "emotional baggage" that people cannot leave behind. (Sept. 15-Dec. 31, omart.org)

•"La Boheme": Opera Orlando forgoes the iconic comedy mask for its companion – tragedy. "La Boheme" tells the story of impoverished friends in 19th-century Paris. At its center is the love of Mimi and Rodolfo, a romance derailed by illness. (Nov. 15-19, operaorlando.org)

•"Romeo and Juliet": Another case of love gone tragically wrong takes the stage as Orlando Ballet presents a dance adaptation of Shakespeare's best-known romance, set to a score by Prokofiev. The young couple are torn apart by their warring families with disastrous consequences. (Feb. 9-11, orlandoballet.org)

•"American Roots": This Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra concert features two works by the great U.S. composer Aaron Copland. His "Quiet City" is an ode to New York – and the lonely people who inhabit it. The thorny issues of politics, love, death and religion inspired his "Old American Songs." (April 2, orlandophil.org)

•"Writings on the Wall": NBA superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will speak at Rollins College's Winter Park Institute this spring. Although his basketball playing was serious business, don't be surprised if the six-time league MVP has more important things on his mind. An activist and best-selling author, Abdul-Jabbar regularly contributes to The Washington Post and Time magazine, where he writes on socially relevant and politically controversial topics. (April 4, winterparkinstitute.org)

•"African-American Masterpieces": Marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park presents a concert of three symphonic spirituals: "Negro Symphony," "And They Lynched Him on a Tree" and "The Ordering of Moses." (April 21-22, bachfestivalflorida.org)

Orlando's 5 Strangest Attractions

1. Gatorland

Part of Florida's great charm is its penchant for local kitsch, and Gatorland certainly fits the bill. For more than 60 years, this quirky spot has entertained travelers from the moment they stroll through the park's enormous, alligator mouth-shaped entrance. The 110-acre theme park is the self-proclaimed "Alligator Capital of the World," and houses hundreds of gators which you'll see up-close on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Alligator Breeding Marsh, or during one of the parks Gator Wrestlin' or Gator Jumparoo (yes, gators can jump) shows. Adventurous visitors can ride the 1,200-foot-long Screamin' Gator Zipline, whizzing past hungry gators down below. If you still don't have your fill of reptiles, the Trainer for a Day program allows you to hold baby alligators.

2. Holy Land Experience

Billed as a "living, biblical history museum," the Holy Land Experience easily wins our award for the most unexpected Orlando attraction. This Christian-themed park recreates the ancient city of Jerusalem. You'll enter the complex through an archway modeled after the Damascus Gate, then wander past 40 exhibits, including a Middle Eastern marketplace complete with touts dressed in period garb, and a replica of the caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed. Interactivity is key at the Holy Land, and guests can watch live entertainment in the Temple Plaza, take part in a Baptism ceremony, or even watch a live reenactment of the Passion of Christ.

3. The Presidents Hall of Fame

Sure you can trek all the way up to Washington D.C. for a lesson in White House history – or, while you're chilling in Orlando, you can make your way to the President's Hall of Fame, which pays homage to the nation's capital, as well as its monuments and history. Visitors can stroll past miniature recreations of sights like Mount Rushmore, the Lincoln Memorial, and of course, the White House. In fact, the White House has been so lovingly designed that there are representations of each room of the house during every president's residency there – yup, all 43 of them. These White House displays rotate regularly. Other exhibits include recreations of First Lady inaugural ball gowns, animatronic presidents, china patterns, and even a dresser that once lived in Caroline Kennedy's bedroom.

4. American Ghost Adventures

Too often, visitors arrive in Orlando and only experience the thrills of the city's shiny, new attractions, when in fact, the town has a storied history that's also well worth exploring. The City of Orlando was founded in 1885, and today, people can see some of that history in the original building of Church Street Station and on historic tours. One unique way to dive into the city's past is on a haunted tour with American Ghost Adventures. Guides with a penchant for the paranormal lead guests on a hunt for the hereafter's (mostly friendly) spirits. You'll trek through some of the city's oldest hotels and buildings, passing by notorious haunted spots. During the latter half of the tour, guests are given EMF detectors, so that they can witness some of the electromagnetic oddities in Orlando's buildings for themselves. A haunted pub tour is also available, for those in need of liquid courage.

5. Wonderworks

No, you're not seeing things; the Wonderworks building actually is built upside down, and plopped smack on the street in Orlando. This "amusement park for the mind" serves to spark the imagination and broaden the intellect with more than 100 interactive exhibits. Legend has it that the space was once a top-secret laboratory in the Bermuda Triangle, but after an experiment when terribly wrong it was flung through the skies and landed upside down on International Drive. Visitors will have the chance to experience an earthquake in the Disaster Zone, lie on a bed of 3,500 nails, experience hurricane-force winds of 71-mph in the Hurricane Shack, and climb into a replica space capsule.

Where to Stay in Orlando for Sightseeing

Most first-time visitors to Orlando come to visit the famous theme parks: SeaWorld, Walt Disney World, and Universal Studios, about 10 to 20 miles from the downtown area. A short drive from the theme parks, the popular tourist area around International Drive is home to large outlet malls, water parks such as Wet 'n' Wild, and other tourist attractions. Below are some highly-rated hotels, with swimming pools, in convenient locations for visiting Orlando's top tourist sites and outlet shopping malls:

Luxury Hotels: Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, in a gated community at the namesake theme park, ensconces guests in serene rooms and suites with views of the fireworks and an array of enticing spa services. Waldorf Astoria Orlando is another top luxury option, a five-minute complimentary shuttle ride from Walt Disney World. Guests can use the facilities at the more affordable yet still top-notch Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek next door, including a three-acre lazy river pool and waterslide. Also close to the Disney theme parks, as well as outlet shopping malls, Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress is another family-friendly and more affordable luxury option.

Middle-Range Hotels: A free shuttle whisks you to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure from Drury Inn & Suites, a good value mid-range option. Close to Walt Disney World and outlet shopping, Marriott's Cypress Harbour has two-bedroom suites and villas with fully-equipped kitchens that are great for families, while Homewood Suites Orlando/International Drive/Convention Center sits in a convenient location 15 minutes by car from Walt Disney World and only 10 minutes by car from Universal Studios and SeaWorld.

Budget Hotels: In a fantastic location, about four minutes by car from Walt Disney World, Hampton Inn Orlando/Lake Buena Vista offers great value with free parking and a complimentary shuttle to the park. From the Fairfield Inn & Suites Orlando Universal Studios, you can take advantage of the free shuttle to Universal Studios or walk to the park in about 15 minutes, and the Comfort Suites near Universal Studios offers large, clean rooms within walking distance of restaurants.

Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Orlando

Helicopter Tour: One of the most unique ways to see Orlando and the surrounding area is from the air. A Helicopter Tour from Walt Disney World Resort Area offers a chance to gain a bird's-eye view of the theme parks and get a true picture of their size and layout.Day Trip to Kennedy Space Center: One of the biggest attractions in Florida can be easily visited on the Kennedy Space Center Day Trip with Transport from Orlando. This comprehensive tour allows plenty of time to explore the many exhibits at this large complex and includes IMAX films, a tour of NASA's Launch Headquarters, a private tour of the Space Shuttle Atlantis exhibit, and hotel pickup and drop-off. For a slightly shorter and more economical tour with a few less perks, try the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral Tour.

Top 10 Things to Do This Summer in Orlando

With the help of our Facebook fans, here's our list of the hottest summer "must-dos" in the Orlando area.

1. Our Facebook fan Tiffany N. suggests Gatorland, and starting this month, experience 1,200 feet of high-flying adventure on the new Screamin' Gator Zip Line.

2. Explore The Grand Reef, opening June 10 at Discovery Cove. For a more exhilarating adventure, try the underwater walking tour, SeaVenture, which offers up-close encounters with schools of fish and rays. Don't forget to swim with the dolphins while you're there (from Facebook fan Allison W.).

3. Cycle through the treetops on the Cypress Canopy Cycle, a new ecotourism experience at Forever Florida that's the first of its kind in the U.S.

4. Spend your summer nights swaying to the tunes of live concerts at the Amway Center, House of Blues, Hard Rock Live Orlando or check out the summer concert series at Universal Studios (Saturday nights June 11-July 16) and Epcot (June 12 - July 30).

5. As our Facebook fan Constanze N. suggests, indulge in some retail therapy in Orlando's ever-growing shopping options, including The Mall at Millenia and Orlando Premium Outlets.

6. The summer must-do from Facebook fan Amanda P.? "EAT!" Well, treat your taste buds at one of Orlando's newest eateries like Pine 22 and Chico's Dirty Tacos and Tequila in downtown Orlando or Cocina 214 in Winter Park.

7. Beat the summer heat at Orlando's coolest water parks, including Aquatica - SeaWorld's Waterpark, Wet ‘n Wild - Orlando (from Facebook fan Justin E.), Disney's Typhoon Lagoon or Disney's Blizzard Beach.

8. If kicking back at cool pool is a must for your resort stay, check out the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress, Nickelodeon Suites Resort, Lake Buena Vista Resort Village & Spa or Orlando World Center Marriott (editor's note: their pool was voted one of the World's Coolest Hotel Pools by Forbes!).

9. Celebrate Independence Day at SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Orlando Resort, Walt Disney World Resort or Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando for the Fireworks at the Fountain event.

10. Keep the family cool at one of Orlando's indoor museums like the Orlando Science Center, The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art or even Ripley's Believe It or Not! Orlando Odditorium (from Facebook fans Joe K. and Christi S.).

20 coffee shops you should visit in Orlando that aren’t Starbucks

Yeah, so there's a Starbucks on every corner, in your hotel lobby and even inside most of the theme parks. But you're on vacation! It's time to treat yourself to a really amazing, unique and non-corporate cup of coffee. These seven selections will leave you warm and toasty and with enough caffeine to get you through another round of roller coasters.

Barnie's: This Winter Park coffee shop is the perfect pick-me-up with its microroast and rare small-lot coffees. Over the holidays, coffee drinkers can't get enough of Santa's White Christmas; a blend of coconut, caramel and vanilla. And there's also Barnie's Blend—a go-to favorite year-round. Take your cup to-go for boutique window shopping along the charming, cobblestoned Park Avenue.

Lickety-Split: Just inside the beautiful lobby of the new Four Seasons Walt Disney World Resort is this gourmet coffee shop. Guests can order a refreshing cold brew that's been dripping for eight hours or get a freshly made, French-pressed cup of joe along with a house-made pastry. It's the perfect way to get a jolt before hitting the theme parks.

Credo: Not as polished as the Four Seasons, and the hipsters in this neighborhood of College Park like it that way. It is after all, the former ’hood of Jack Kerouac. Credo brings a fresh concept along with incredible Guatamalan coffee. Established in 2010, Credo asks customers to name their own price, with proceeds going back to the community. Since its founding, the coffee shop with a conscience has distributed over 2,000 pounds of direct-trade coffee for donation. After your fix, check out some of the funky consignment shops and local boutiques along Edgewater Drive.

Le Café de Paris: French natives Claude and Chantal have brewed up quite the following at this little bistro in a Dr. Phillips neighborhood strip mall, not far from Universal Orlando. Patrons linger over their perfectly poured cups of café du jour paired with a chocolate croissant.

Pho 88: This family-run Vietnamese restaurant is located in the eclectic Mills 50 district near downtown Orlando where some of the city's most authentic Vietnamese, Thai, Korean and Chinese eateries cater to customers seeking the real-deal. While Pho 88 offers some of the best beef noodle soups around, its Cà Phê Sữa Ðá, or iced coffee with condensed milk, is out-of-this-world. The rich coffee blended with the creamy milk is the perfect ending to a flavorful meal.

Black Bean Deli: Just around the corner is this popular eatery where locals fight over parking spaces and wrap around the building to get a taste of the daily special and the Cuban coffee. The café con leche makes the perfect dessert and will leave you buzzing around for the rest of the afternoon

Benjamin French: This French bakery in downtown's charming pocket of Thornton Park is worth a visit. The owner herself will pour your cappuccino served with whipped cream or frothy steamed milk. Take your perfect cup for a walk down the bricked streets to admire the 1920s bungalows or around Downtown's Lake Eola for the outdoor sculpture garden and skyline views. C'est magnifique!

Victoria & Albert's: This special-occasion restaurant is the only in town to receive the AAA five-diamond rating. After devouring seven courses paired with wines, you're going to need a pick-me-up, and this coffee service is extraordinary. The coffee brews at the table in a Cona glass vacuum pot for the richest and purest of flavors. After waiting eight minutes for the perfect concoction, it's served in delicate China with a silver spoon.

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