When I visit Walt Disney World it is hard for me to make myself leave the “Disney Bubble.” Disney has done an excellent job creating an environment with varied activities, multiple dining experiences, entertainment, and resorts at all budget levels that makes it the perfect vacation kingdom in Central Florida. But, there are a lot of places to visit outside of Disney in the Greater Orlando area, so if you are looking to expand your horizons a little bit, this is the list for you.
Legoland is great fun if you have children who fall into the target age group of the park (2-12), which skews fairly young, or if you have die hard Lego fans in your family who just want to go for the Lego structures themselves. The attractions are for younger kids, so there isn’t as much for big kids and adults to enjoy—but they have a few things. The park is a decent drive outside of Orlando, you’ll want to allow at least 45 minutes to an hour, and having your own car or a rental is the best way to go. Legoland was built around the old Cypress Gardens, so you can still see some parts of that in the landscape as well.
9. Airboat Tours
There are several companies around the Orlando area that offer Airboat tours through local swamps and waterways. This adventure will give you a look at the wild, natural side of Central Florida. You’ll get to observe wildlife, see the local natural environments and habitats, and have a bit of a thrill out on the water. Various operators have different options and offerings, so do a little research and check reviews before choosing the company that is right for your trip.
8. Crayola Experience
The Crayola Experience is located inside the Florida Mall, and offers one huge benefit: Air conditioning! But seriously, there is a lot of fun to be had at the Crayola Experience including a Color Playground, Adventure Lab, Color Magic creations, characters, and colorful activities like “Drip Art,” “Melt & Mold,” and “Modeling Madness.” The coolest thing is seeing how Crayons are made. Check out the website for full visit details and extensive list of activities: crayolaexperience.com
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7. Sea World
I really enjoy my visits to Sea World. It is a much more relaxed park visit than some of the other Orlando Theme Parks. You’ll find some fairly intense thrill rides in the park like Mako, Kraken, and Manta where you fly like a Manta Ray, but my favorite part are the marine animals and the shows. I love visiting the dolphins, feeding the Sea Lions and Seals, and watching the fish in the various aquariums. The Wild Arctic is a really unique experience combining a ride and an immersive themed environment with Beluga Whales and other arctic creatures. A newly built Sesame Street area makes the park even more kid-friendly.
6. The Wheel (Former known as The Orlando Eye)
You can see the Orlando Eye for miles (no pun intended), and it is part of the ICON Park which includes a Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, a 7D Dark Ride, The Orlando StarFlyer (imagine fair swings WAY up high), a SEA Life Aquarium, Osteology: Skeleton Museum, and an arcade. The Wheel itself features various experiences that can include dining. At 400 feet tall it offers spectacular views, on a clear day you can see all the way to the East Coast of Florida and the Kennedy Space Center.
If you are looking for a more controlled way to see Florida’s wildlife (more so than an airboat anyway), Gatorland is a great spot for a day visit. Of course Gatorland offers its legendary Gator shows and the chance to see alligators and other wildlife like wild cats, birds, crocodiles, tortoises and snakes, but there are many more activities offered. Gatorland has an off road adventure, nighttime experiences, and a zipline (including a zipline that is accessible for those with mobility challenges).
4. Wekiwa Springs State Park or Blue Springs State Park
If you are looking for another “natural” Florida experience, I highly recommend paying a visit to one of these state parks. The clear water of the natural spring is gorgeous and filled with fish that are clearly visible. In the winter the manatees fill the springs seeking warmer waters, and in the other months of the year people fill the water for a fun-filled day of swimming. Several recreational activities may also be available depending on the time of year including kayaking and canoeing, scuba diving, or guided tours on the water. Wekiwa Springs is closer to Orlando, but Blue Springs is a great stop if you are driving down I-95 to come to the theme parks—it is just off 95 as you get on to I-4.
3. Volcano Bay
Disney has great water parks, but if you are looking for a really unique experience with a few more thrills you may want to consider spending a day at Universal’s Volcano Bay Water Park. Here you will find a lazy river, and more adventurous rapids type river, and numerous slides that challenge even the most daring riders like the Krakatau Aqua Coaster and the Kala and Tai Nui Serpentine slides (where trap doors open up to send you careening down the shoot). Volcano Bay offers up some more gentle and relaxing experiences too like the picturesque Waturi Beach. The whole environment is well themed, and features a beach, cabanas (for rent), and great food options. Using the Tapu Tapu system you can check in to the water rides for a return time, and then keep enjoying the rest of the park to minimize your waiting.
2. Universal Orlando Theme Parks
Volcano Bay isn’t the only great thing at Universal, the two theme parks Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure are a top destination. Many guests choose to split their vacation between Universal and Walt Disney World. Universal is geared more toward tweens, teens and adults with a higher thrill ride ratio, but there are lots of great rides for little ones too like the Seuss Landing area. Harry Potter fans will not want to miss the elaborately themed Wizarding World of Harry Potter that has a presence in both parks—it looks like you stepped foot onto the movie set! Many people need two days to explore the parks (or more), and I recommend getting the park to park ticket so that you can experience all of the attractions, including my favorite Hogwarts Express (park to park ticket required for this ride). Universal’s parks are so close together it is very easy to park hop (unlike at Walt Disney World).
1. Discovery Cove
Discovery Cove is absolutely one of my favorite vacation destinations. It is an all-inclusive resort day at a beautifully landscaped water paradise. You can just enjoy the park with the winding lazy river, aviary, snorkeling, fresh water oasis, and swimming areas, or you can add in an interactive dolphin swim (which I highly recommend). Your day begins first thing in the morning and includes your breakfast, lunch, snacks, and some drinks. It is the perfect combination of relaxation, fun, and new experiences to build into your Orlando area vacation. My family all agree that our day here is one of the “Best Days Ever.”
What are your favorite Orlando experiences outside of Walt Disney World?