Orlando: Beyond the Theme Parks

Near & Away


Florida EcoSafaris in St. Cloud has The Rattlesnake, the country’s first zipline roller coaster, plus five other high-flying attractions.

Published: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 4:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 29, 2013 at 4:37 p.m.

If you think you’ve seen it all in Orlando because you’ve covered its theme parks, think again: The area offers plenty of family fun beyond Disney and Universal. Whether you’re looking for an alternative to the parks or an add-on to a theme-park outing, here are some hidden gems to consider on your next Orlando getaway.

Catch an inland wave

Surfing in Orlando? It’s possible, courtesy of the FlowRider wave machine at Fantasy Surf in Kissimmee. This isn’t a water-park style wave pool, but a constantly flowing, three-inch sheet of water blasted by jet engines over a smooth, cushioned surface. Two riders can surf side by side, standing on short boards with the maneuverability of snowboards and skateboards. ultimateindoorwave.com

Play confectioner

Craving a treat that’s more sophisticated than those giant theme-park lollipops? Head to one of Farris and Foster’s three Orlando shops, where you can make your own truffles, peanut butter cups, dipped fruits and chocolates in hundreds of shapes. Choose white, milk or dark chocolate, then let your inner Willy Wonka be your guide. On Mondays, a family of four can create a pound of treats for $29. farrisandfosters.com

Sink a putt at CityWalk

Better known for its shopping, dining and nightlife, Universal’s CityWalk (which doesn’t require park admission, although there is a parking fee) also includes two inventive, immersive miniature golf courses. Forget windmills: at Hollywood Drive-in golf, a sci-fi themed course intertwines with a just-slightly-spooky course inspired by vintage horror movies. Step inside a mad scientist’s lab, where your ball is scooped up into an experiment, or putt around UFOs: The courses are so inspired, you’ll want to make it a double feature and try them both. hollywooddriveingolf.com

Dig in at a dinner show

From magic tricks to western musical revues to luaus, Orlando brims with family-friendly dinner shows. Sure, they can be cheesy, but they also offer prime opportunities for family bonding. Where else can you snap a picture of Dad in a goofy paper crown eating half a chicken with his bare hands? The revamped menu and updated show at Medieval Times cranks up the drama with a visiting mystery man intent on stealing away the kingdom’s princess. Jousting ensues, along with jaw-dropping feats of equine grace. Pony up for the Royalty Upgrade and enjoy a front-row seat where the action is just a few feet from your table. medievaltimes.com/orlando

Walk with dinosaurs

With four floors of interactive exhibits, the Orlando Science Center is well worth a visit. Younger kids can’t get enough of the hands-on activities in the KidsTown area, from a pint-size orange juice factory to an interactive auto shop. Take a guided dinosaur safari, watch stuff blow up in the science adventure theater’s live show or get behind the news desk to deliver a weather forecast. Bonus: Members of Gainesville’s Florida Museum of Natural History get free admission. osc.org

Sail with a swan

At Lake Eola Park, visitors can feed five types of swans as well as ride them. (Swan-shaped paddle boats, that is.) Rent a swan boat or electric gondola for a view of the skyline, or browse the Sunday farmers market for local wares from pet outfits to kettle corn. Don’t share your snacks with the swans, though: Buy approved swan pellets at the park or give them lettuce, greens or spinach. cityoforlando.net, orlandofarmersmarket.com

Soar above it all

Florida EcoSafaris in St. Cloud made headlines in March when it unveiled The Rattlesnake, the country’s first zipline roller coaster. (Picture a roller coaster track with all of the usual dips, hills and whoop-de-doos … then imagine yourself as the car that navigates it.) At the top of a 65-foot tower, a guide straps your safety harness to a pulley on the track and assures you that the hard part – climbing the stairs – is already over. Although it takes some chutzpah to hurl yourself off of the platform, flying through the swoops and curves of the track is a thrill. The Rattlesnake is available as part of the all-day EcoPark adventure for adrenaline junkies age 10 and up, with six high-flying attractions in all. Prefer a less daring way to tour the treetops? Try the Cypress Canopy Cycle, a recumbent bike that traverses a cable up to 25 feet up in the trees. floridaecosafaris.com

Enjoy the amenities

“We came to Orlando to go to the theme parks,” confessed a tourist at the pool of the Nickelodeon Suites Resort, “but we’ve been here for three days, and haven’t left the hotel once!” Orlando’s resorts are steadily upping their on-site activities and attractions: The Nick Hotel’s daily slimings, interactive live game shows and 4-D Experience theater keep families entertained day and night, while CoCo Key Water Resort offers its own water park. If you prefer accommodations that are less overtly kid-centric, the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott Grande Lakes offer kayaking, hiking and even fly fishing, while the Sheraton Lake Buena Vista recently debuted the 27 Palms Pool Club as part of a $25 million renovation. Activities there range from family games to scavenger hunts and barbecues, overseen by “fun captains.” Groups of comfy upholstered seats and shaded tables ring a tiled, rectangular fire pit where s’mores-making is one of the most popular poolside pursuits – second only to the 79-foot waterslide.

A very different Disney park

Few tourists realize that the Disney name also graces a park without rides or costumed characters: The Nature Conservancy’s Disney Wilderness Preserve in Kissimmee. (Another distinction: This park is free.) Disney donated 8,500 of the park’s 12,000 acres – home to a wood stork rookery and rare big-eared bat colony – to offset the development of its theme parks. Head out to spot a bald eagle or crested caracara, or for a picnic and hike. Download a nature treasure hunt (one for ages 4-7, another for older kids) before you go from my.nature.org/kids.

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