Start your tour of haunted Orlando at Church Street Station. (Photo: Matthew Kaiser 7/Shutterstock.com)
Ten years ago, when Ting Rappa began leading ghost tours in Downtown Orlando, she was a self-described “Scooby Doo of ghost hunting,” hesitant to get too close to the city’s spirits. Soon though, “a lightbulb” went on for the Orlando native and trained private investigator.
As the founder of American Ghost Adventures, one of Orlando’s most popular tour operations, Ting quickly became hooked on the hereafter. “In this job,” she says, “we act as tour guides, investigators and researchers, telling the stories of Orlando’s spirits.”
AGA’s tours take visitors to several Downtown Orlando buildings and businesses, mixing history with local urban legends and ghost stories. Tours then culminate in a real-life ghost hunt (ghost hunting equipment is issued).
Here, Ting shares some of her best Orlando insights for the living:
What do you wish visitors knew about Orlando’s haunted history?
I like to remind people that we are only a few hours away from, St. Augustine, the oldest city in the United States. When people started moving out of the St. Augustine area, Orlando was one of those first places to be settled. Downtown Orlando has some wonderful historical buildings and the history in some of these buildings is still very much “alive” today with past guests.
I don't recommend overbooking yourself. We always see tourists who spend all day at the theme park, then book another activity in the evening, and they're exhausted. By the time they end their trip to Orlando, they need a vacation from their vacation!
What do you think Orlando’s visitors would be most surprised to discover about the Downtown District in general?
Its history! Few people realize that the City of Orlando was founded in 1885 and existed long before Walt Disney World Resort came along. In fact, the Church Street Station railroad depot and entertainment complex in Downtown Orlando is still active and housed in its original buildings. Church Street use to be the place to see-and-be-seen; this is where all the locals and tourist would come together to experience Orlando’s nightlife.
Even fewer people realize that Disney and Universal Studios Orlando used Church Street as their model to build (now defunct) Pleasure Island and the Universal CityWalk. Downtown Orlando may not be as packed as it used to be, but as new business come into the neighborhood, a new era is about to emerge.
Describe a perfect day in Downtown Orlando after finishing up a ghost tour.
If visitors want to attend a sporting event or concert, I recommend checking out the schedule at the Amway Center arena. It’s new, it’s huge, and great shows and events come through there. You can grab a quick bite or drink at the sports bar, Harry Buffalo, which is in walking distance of the arena.
If you’re looking to relax and explore, plan to have lunch at the Harp and Celt Irish pub. After finishing lunch, walk around Lake Eola Park and enjoy the downtown skyline views. It’s a great spot for photo ops, and the best part is, it’s free!
What is your top “do” and your biggest “don’t” for first-time visitors to Orlando?
I always suggest tourists explore beyond Orlando’s theme parks, including Downtown Orlando, and funky neighborhoods like Thornton Park.
I don’t recommend overbooking yourself. We always see tourists who spend all day at the theme park, then book another activity in the evening, and they’re exhausted. By the time they end their trip to Orlando, they need a vacation from their vacation!
Which sites or attractions should travelers visit to learn more about Orlando’s history?
For a history fix, the Orange County Regional History Center in Downtown Orlando features regular and rotating exhibits, and the cost of admission is very reasonable. The exhibits in the museum tell a great story of how Orlando has transitioned over the decades.
How does Downtown Orlando’s vibe shift from day to night?
During the daytime, Downtown Orlando fills with professionals in suits, busy conducting official business and going to meetings. As night draws upon the city, you start noticing all the nightclubs and bars getting busy. People are attending events at the Amway and Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. They’re not thinking about business, instead having fun with their friends and family.
Where do you think the most haunted spot in Orlando is? What have you experienced there?
The corner of Magnolia Avenue and Pine Street is considered the most haunted intersection in Downtown Orlando. As far as buildings go, the Orange County Regional History Center would get my vote as most haunted.
I’ve had several unexplained occurrences in this building — everything from ghost sightings to unexplained noises and interactions with the deceased. Several spirits are known to haunt the location, but don’t worry, they’re all friendly!