Regular visitors will need no second urging to visit this truly charming neighbourhood of upmarket shops, restaurants and small-scale attractions, which makes a great half-day away from the tourist hubbub elsewhere.
If you have never been to Orlando, one essential message is that you will need a relaxing day away from the main attractions at some stage; a holiday from your holiday, if you like. Winter Park is ideally suited as that day. And, this month, there is a bonus – our favourite central Florida museum, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2017, and February is its Open House, meaning there is free admission all month.
But, before we wax lyrical about the museum, let’s also tell you why you should come to Winter Park in the first place.
First of all, it is a genuine American experience. As fun and exciting as Disney and Co are, they are completely separate to the ‘real’ business of Orlando the city. Winter Park is the city’s chic quarter, the local answer to London’s Mayfair, and a welcoming place for a soothing stroll as well as a great meal.
There are no less than 39 pavement cafes and restaurants along the main street of Park Avenue alone, and dozens more throughout the area. Our favourite breakfast and lunch spot is The Briarpatch (don’t miss their great soups and salads, plus superb waffles, pancakes and French toast), while Luma on Park and Boca Kitchen Bar Market are great dinner choices.
Central Park runs alongside Park Avenue, with its signature fountain, bandstand and open spaces for kids to run round and let off some steam, while the main History Center (10am-4pm Tue-Fri, 9am-2pm Sat; closed Sun-Mon) in the Farmers Market building next door to the park is a great starting point, as it provides (free) local info, maps and a great walking tour.
A ‘secret within a secret’ can be found at the bottom end of East Morse Boulevard, where the one-hour Scenic Boat Tour departs from 10am-4pm daily and provides a brilliant up-close view of the lakes, scenery and wildlife of the area, including the stunning lakefront homes and mansions along the way (Orlando’s version of Millionaire’s Row!).
Another gem hereabouts is the gorgeous Alfond Inn, which is a gem of Spanish revival architecture and fine arts, as it was designed as a rotating collection of artwork from neighbouring Cornell Fine Arts Museum. Even better – it includes Hamilton’s Kitchen, a fabulous dining choice for breakfast, lunch and dinner (especially the latter – try the Chilean Sea Bass for a taste of seafood heaven). Backtrack ever so slightly to Orange Avenue and you’ll find the Winter Park Play House, an excellent local theatre group who stage high-quality musicals six times a year (for up to a month at a time) as well as a monthly Cabaret Spotlight series in a wonderfully small-scale setting.
Finally, head back on to Park Avenue, walk most of the way north (nowhere is far away in Winter Park), and, on your left, will be the Morse Museum, at the junction with Canton Avenue.
Here, in a genuinely exquisite setting, is the private arts collection of Winter Park’s wealthy McKean family, which has grown over the years to include the world’s largest collection of artwork from Louis Comfort Tiffany. Remember Tiffany and Co the jewelers? Tiffany lamps? Tiffany stained glass? Ceramics, enamels and metalwork? Yes, it’s all the same guy. Born in 1848 and an American legend in the Art Nouveau movement, Louis was positively Disney-esque in his creativity and innovation, and the range of his stunning life’s work is beautifully presented in the museum (which is named for the philanthropic industrialist grandfather of Jeannette McKean).
The extensive collection includes the stunning chapel interior created for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago – a Byzantine-inspired masterpiece of mosaics, leaded glass and a breathtaking central chandelier – a representation of his Laurelton Hall home/studio, stuffed with precious works of art, and a series of individual pieces from Tiffany Studios, all painstakingly cleaned and re-presented in several galleries that richly repay a casual wander.
However, although most visitors are drawn by the lure of Tiffany, most are equally captivated by the rest of the McKeans’ collection, as it goes on to highlight a dazzling mixture of paintings, sculptures, glasswork and jewellery (Simon especially likes the ‘Carnival Glass’ exhibit, while Susan’s favourite is the ‘Four Seasons’ Tiffany leaded window quartet). There is one exhibit room that changes periodically (this year it is Pathways of American Art), and another 12 galleries of discoveries of 19th and 20th century works from the likes of Lalique, Cezanne, Sargent, Faberge and Frank Lloyd Wright.
The museum itself has a fascinating family history, and we spoke to Director of Publications Catherine Hinman about it. “Disney is the big dog, but we are the tail,” she told us. “Art Nouveau was still largely unknown here until the 1970s, in museum terms, and we got a huge boost from exhibiting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2006-07. The museum was originally established in 1942 for the community. It is here because the McKeans wanted to provide local access to art and they wanted people to make art a part of their lives. We interpret, reinterpret and combine things in different ways.
“Tiffany himself was a taste creator, hence he decorated the East Room at the White House in 1882, as well as Mark Twain’s house before going on to create a whole art industry. The McKeans were avid collectors and effectively became curators of the Tiffany legacy, although there is a lot more here than just his work. We like to let people discover it for themselves, though, and they are often amazed by how much we have here, especially as we change things at regular intervals, hence it is a museum people should come back to.”
The tranquil interior definitely has a rewarding sense of casual magnificence, at one both old-fashioned and perfectly modern (there is a new audio mobile phone tour, for example), while the Laurelton Hall section is a journey into true artistic opulence, albeit with the tragic story of the Hall’s demise.
Just before you head into the (extremely well-stocked – wallets beware) gift shop, there is something called The Art Machine (as devised by Hugh McKean), with its own armchair and instruction booklet for enjoying a vintage portrait of the young Queen Victoria. If it’s not too busy, the gallery staff may just let you try it out (as Simon did) and get a whole new perspective on enjoying art. Now that’s an opportunity you can’t turn down!
The Morse is an exciting and extraordinary find at the heart of an entertaining and unexpected part of Orlando. It’s the perfect antidote to the tourist frenzy elsewhere, and you will truly discover a new way to appreciate our destination of endless surprises!
If you have questions about anything to do with the wonders of Florida, be sure to go online and ask Susan and Simon on the ATD forums.
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