Holly McBard, a longtime vegan, used to pack more food than clothing in her suitcase when she'd vacation in Orlando.
"Even packing my own salad dressing, toothpaste and vegan coffee creamer, I spent half of my vacation wondering where I was going to eat my next meal. It was frustrating," she says.
Last year, on a friend's advice, the 37-year-old bravely left her vegan ingredients at home in New Jersey and filled her suitcase with extra bathing suits and books instead.
"Things have totally changed since I was (in Orlando) a few years ago," she said. "I was amazed by how many vegetarian and vegan options have popped up all over the city and tourist area. I finally felt comfortable going out to eat, and now I know my vegetarian daughter will be able to eat nutritiously when we visit."
Holly and the other vegetarians and vegans who regularly visit Central Florida are in for a treat. Orlando has become much more veg-friendly, and the city now offers dozens of delicious options that cater to even the strictest vegans. No matter where you stay or what you eat, Orlando can satisfy your palate and stock your hotel fridge.
Vegetarianism is fairly new to Orlando, says Larry Rumbough, president of Vegetarians of Central Florida, and there's been an explosion of vegetarian restaurants in recent years. The increase is due in part more locals passing on meat and changing attitudes toward animal rights, the environment and holistic health.
The City Beautiful is home to Central Florida Earth Day and Central Florida Veg Fest, one of the biggest vegan festivals in the country. Both are free, with Veg Fest drawing as many as 15,000 people from around the country and the Earth Day celebration attracting even higher numbers.
If you haven't been to Orlando recently, it's worth driving downtown to sample the local vegetarian fare. You'll find something to eat in every neighborhood.
"Per capita, Central Florida may have one of the highest concentrations of vegetarian restaurants in the country," Rumbough says.
Dandelion Communitea Cafe, located in the Mills 50 District, is a popular choice for residents and tourists who desire a vegetarian, organic and locally grown meal. The Giddyup wraps and salads are a big hit, owner Julie Norris says, and are topped with organic cheddar or vegan queso and made with crumbled blue corn chips, chili, diced tomatoes, scallions and spring greens. The cafe also boasts a full calendar featuring live music, open-mic poetry and art openings. Be sure to try the hummus and homemade vegan dressings. dandelioncommunitea.com
Also worth checking out: Garden Cafe on Colonial Drive, the veg-friendly Sandwich Bar in the Milk District and Infusion Tea in College Park. Ethos Vegan Kitchen is another local favorite that recently moved from Ivanhoe to Winter Park, and Z-Cafe is a hidden gem with an impressive vegetarian menu tucked inside the downtown public library. To find other meat-free dining options, visit the Vegetarians of Central Florida at vegcf.org.
Surrounded by Vietnamese restaurants and dive bars in the Mills 50 district, Raphsodic Cooperative Bakery might seem out of place, but it is a must-visit for vegans. Raphsodic is a colorful and eclectic bakery, or "Urban Pastry Art House," as they call themselves. Stop by for a cup of coffee and a mouthwatering vegan pastry or cookie while enjoying some local art or music. And grab a brownie for the road. raphsodic.com
Babycakes in Downtown Disney's Marketplace is also worth a visit. Head to the Drunken Monkey Coffee Bar for fair-trade organic coffee and a variety of veggie and vegan treats. Sample the delectable vegan doughnuts sold by Glazed and Infused at local farmers markets and other locations around the city.
Artichoke Red, a vegan market located in the Ivanhoe District, carries a huge variety of vegan foods, supplements, cleaning products, aromatherapy and fair-trade organic coffee. The market also stocks vegan food for dogs and cats. Sustain Natural Market on East Semoran and Chamberlin's Natural Foods also carry veggie and vegan foods and products.
If you're looking for something a little more adventurous, Orlando is home to the Sah Nevaeh Hot Dog Cart and the Pure Mobile Cafe Food Truck. The Yum Yum Cupcake Truck and several other local food trucks also offer veggie or vegan options. You can find most Orlando food trucks on Facebook, or bookmark the Orlando's Food Trucks site, orlandosfoodtrucks.com, to keep current on locations.