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Orlando Florida Top Ten Alternatives to the Theme Parks
Florida has its own rhythm..
Ah Florida, let me count the ways I love thee......I've always had a love affair with Florida. Initially, it was because of the theme parks. Don't get me wrong, I love them too, and have been to them all many times. As time went on, my horizons broadened, and I developed an interest in natural Florida, its wildlife, rivers etc, and then its history. Became a bit of a Florida-phile I guess.
The idea for this lens is to show people who are unaware that Orlando, in central Florida, has a lot more to offer than just the parks; I wouldn't suggest these places replace the parks, but just that they offer a change of pace and a bit of variety. These are all places I have personally visited, so can , hand on heart, recommend them. One or two places did not make the cut for that reason, I went there, didn't like 'em.
if this lens opens your eyes just a little, then its achieved its purpose...
There's plenty of sunshine to go around after all!
p.s Just for clarity's sake, Orlando refers to Orlando and the surrounding area, not just the City of Orlando!
Image Credit: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/747932
10. iFLY Orlando
Suitable for all ages.(so they say..!)
Nestled at the Universal end of International Drive is iFLY. Now, this may not be for everyone, but it is a fantastic experience. I went on this in 2009, when its was SkyVenture, and although its now rebranded, its essentially the same experience. Its essentially a safe way to skydive; you do it in a wind tunnel, its totally controlled and safe, and you genuinely, truly fly! the feeling of flying, with nothing holding you, is hard to describe.
the training is done pre-flight, you get to watch others having their go first, and there is always a trained instructor on hand. You can do as much, or as little, as you wish. Just want to float? that's fine. Want to try a somersault, or a twist? they'll help you try that too.
Me? Just floated. Enough for me!
Its not cheap, but there are various packages, and often there are coupons available (2 for 1's etc), ts a truly unique experience, and one I would recommend.
To be honest, its the closest I will ever come to skydiving, and I'm happy with that!
iFLY - Credit: Michael Brunk/NWLens.com
iFLY in Action...
9. Boggy Creek Airboats
Suitable for all ages
There are a few options for airboat rides in the area, but the one I personally have experienced is the one I will recommend, and that is Boggy Creek airboat rides. If you want a touch of natural Florida, these are for you.
You get to travel through the Central Florida wetlands, firstly on a slower ride to allow photos, filming,viewing etc, then up to speeds of 45 mph as you skim across the 'beautiful Central Florida Everglades'.
What you get to see varies day by day, but you can expect to see exotic birds, turtles, cypress trees, and (if you are lucky) the Florida alligator in their own natural environment. The boat pilots are all experts, and very good at seeking out anything interesting, and pointing out interesting sights. On our visit, the guide pointed out a rare bald eagle nest.
It's a great experience, and one the kids will especially love. There are several options you can try - A 30 minute or a 60 minute scenic airboat ride on 17 passenger airboat, 45 minute airboat tour on 6 passenger boat, and the 1 hour night airboat ride. I went on the 60 minute version, and very much enjoyed it; I would love to try the nighttime tour some time though.
There is also a 'Extreme Swamp Safari', which goes to places the main tour doesn't, so something for the braver among you there!
If you do not have the chance to take time to see anything else of natural Florida, try these tours; they are close to the parks, fun, educational, and its great to spend a few hours with nature.
Fun on the water... - Credit: Boggy Creek Airboat Rides
Boggy Creek Airboats Promo video
8. Winter Park and Scenic Boat Tour
Suitable for all ages (especially mums who shop!)
I love Winter Park. It was recommended to us by friends, and is essentially a suburb of Orlando, but most definitely has its own charm. Its very laid back, filled with lovely shops and places to eat, public parks, and several galleries and museums. Its a very scenic and pretty city, and is known for its liberalism, history and the various festivals that take place year round. You can easily while away a morning, or an afternoon, browsing the shops, sitting in parks with 100 year old trees, and eating at any of the many cafes. Its a lovely laid back slice of small town Florida.
In addition, you can take a boat tour on the Scenic Boat Tour, which offers hour long guided cruises through three of the seven lakes and two, narrow manmade cannals on the tranquil Winter Park waterways. You'll get to see some of Florida wildlife (cranes aplenty, possibly a gator sunning itself) but the real draw is seeing some of the mansions built around the water, harkening back to the founders of Winter Park, wealthy businessmen from up north. You'll also see Rollins College, one of the most prestigious arts colleges in the U.S
Its a really pleasant way to spend a few hours and recharge the batteries.
City website: http://cityofwinterpark.org/Default.aspx
Boat Tours website: http://scenicboattours.com/home.htm
Winter Park Scenic Boat Tours - Photo: http://scenicboattours.com/photo2.htm
A look at Winter Park...
7. Horse World Riding Stables
Suitable for all ages
As much fun as Orlando is, it is pretty 'full on'. There is not much in the way of catching your breath, yet still doing something fun. Well, this may be just the ticket. Admittedly, this wasn't I chose myself, but having visited, I can really recommend. Horse World is not far from Disney itself, and offers a range of activities, for all levels. You can actually take lessons if you wish, but the trail rides cater for all levels of competence (look, if I can get on a horse, anyone can!). There are 3 main trail rides:- the Nature Trail (a relaxed, slow ride, suitable for beginners and young children), the Intermediate Trail (slightly faster, for people with a little experience of riding), and the (gulp!) Advanced Trail, which I can imagine is for the experts among us!
The trails are lovely, and you get a view of a natural Florida and its wildlife, and a chance to relax and unwind. You can also pet a few farm animals and toss horseshoes if you so desire!
Also worth noting is that the stables rescue, rehabilitate, and care for neglected and abused horses, so your money is going towards a very worthwhile cause.
If you want to unwind, and try something new, you can't go wrong here.
Horse World Riding Stables - Photo: http://67daysofsmiles.com/2009/10/14/day-48-horse-world-riding-stables/img_2715/
Horse World Riding Stables advert
6. Harry.P.Leu Gardens
Suitable for all ages
This was a real treat. The Gardens are a 50 acre delight, full of smaller gardens growing a huge array of tropical flowers and plants. The landscaping is gorgeous, and the setting is equally inspiring, set around a lake. It was genuinely one of my favorite experiences in Orlando.
I'm not an expert when it comes to plants and flowers, but the many specialist gardens included ones such as arid plants, bamboo, banana, citrus, butterfly garden, conifer, fern, fruit trees, herbs, and so on. The amount of care spent on the gardens is obvious.
My favorite? the Tropical Stream Garden.
As well as being a fun place to visit, and a lovely place to walk around (did I mention the lovely landscaping!) the Gardens also like to educate people, and there regular talks and sessions with their master gardeners. Another nice touch is they have an art trail, dotted around the Gardens, which are fun to seek out.
As well as the beautiful gardens, there is the Leu House Museum, a restored 19th century home listed on the National Register of Historic Places; this is where the several generations of previous owners lived, and provides a nice historical overview of both the gardens and surrounding area, going back to 1858. Guided tours take place on some days. The Museum interior is recreated in an authentic 19th century/ early 20th century style, with original items of the day., and is a really interesting place to see.
The Gardens are named for Harry P Leu, the last owner, who donated the gardens to the city of Orlando; it was largely his collecting of exotic plants that gave the gardens their unique style.
As always, there are interesting events on throughout the year, as well as a permanent reference library and gift shop.
Genuinely a lovely, inspiring place to visit, and probably the nicest botanical gardens I have been to anywhere.
Harry P Leu Gardens - Photo: Scott Todd/ http://stoddphotography.com
Harry P Leu Gardens - Short Promotional Video
Not Disney Dollars... - ..real money please!
5. The Orlando Helicenter
Suitable for all ages (you better like heights!)
Now, this was fun! seriously, when isn't a helicopter ride fun anyway, but getting a chance to see Disney, SeaWorld, and Kissimmee Old Town from the air was pretty awesome.
The Orlando Helicenter are based in Kissimmee, and run a variety of air tours for all tastes and pockets. The one I have personally experienced was 'Disney Sea World Plus' which took in Sea World, Discovery Cove, Aquatica, Orlando Premium Outlet Mall, Downtown Disney, Disney's Hollywood Studios, Epcot Center, Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, Gaylord Palms Resort, and Old Towne Kissimmee. It is apparently their most popular tour, and I can see why. There are other tour options, such as just Disney, and even just a quick trip up in the air for a budget experience. Its all great fun.
Orlando is a very unique place, and to see it from the air only adds to your enjoyment of it. Its amazing. Parks full of fantastical buildings sit side by side with lakes, large and small, towering hotels, natures reserves, huge highways etc. Its a unique landscape.
The Helicenter also do 'Eco tours' which let you just take in natural Florida, and that is the one I plan to do next, when I next visit
If you love Orlando, I really recommend this attraction.
Check out the view of Universal... - Photo courtesy of Orlando Helicenter
Suitable for all ages (but mostly kids!)
I love Celebration. This is, if you are not aware, the town Disney built. It has only been in existence since 1994, but is carefully laid out and designed like a classic American small town from the early 20th century. Colors are bright, buildings are larger than life, its the classic Disney 'America that never was'.
Designed along the lines that Walt Disney himself drew up (Epcot was his original vision) businesses sit side by side with residences in Celebration Town Center. Shops, restaurants, offices, banks, a movie theater, and a hotel line a walkway that encircles a small lake. This arrangement purposefully encourages leisurely strolls and lingering meals at outdoor cafes. Its town planning to the nth degree. Is it bland? too 'Stepford Wives'? Well, I love to visit, but note sure I'd want to live there!
I guarantee as a visitor that your camera, or video camera, will not stop the whole time, there are things to see everywhere; I pretty much took pictures of everything ( I'll bet you my house you'll take a snap of the Town Hall!). The architecture gives the town a real fairytale atmosphere, and you almost forget it is a working, living, breathing town.
As a tourist, its Celebration Town Center you'll want to see, not so much the outer residential neighborhoods. For me, the fun to be had is mainly in the wandering and gawking, but there are 'real' things to do, such as carriage rides, plenty of places to eat and drink, and some quite unique shops.
Its a unique place, right on the shoulder of Magic Kingdom, and its a place every Disney fan should pop in to and say hi; its what Walt would have wanted!
Celebration, Florida - Photo: celebrationtowncenter.com
Celebration, Florida promo video
Its $5 somewhere... - ...spend it!
3. Gatorland Zoo
Suitable for all (unless you're scared by gators)
I'll admit I wasn't too sure about Gatorland; I enjoy zoos, and like seeing animals, but don't like them to be mistreated, and was worried Gatorland would just be exploiting them. Luckily, I was wrong.
Gatorland is set in 110 acres of everglades land and houses thousands of alligators and crocodiles, plus a few turtles. In addition, there is also an aviary, a breeding marsh with observation tower, petting zoo, excellent nature walk, regular shows (which include gator wrestling, gator jumperoo and up-close encounters show) and of course, gift shop. The braver among you can take the zip line ride that travels above and across a pool of Alligators and past several of the existing attractions.
Something I didn't see, but is now there, is the White Gator Swamp, featuring four of the world's largest white alligators (with blue eyes!) ,twelve feet in length and weighing over 800 pounds. Wowzer.
You can also take a ride on the Gatorland train and head over to Gator Gully Splash Park where the children can enjoy themselves. In other words Gatorland has something for everyone (I know, a bit cliché, but true!), and has far more going for it than just the gators.
There are various educational events as well, and special tours. Its a great day out.
Gatorlands,er, gators... - Photo: http://i.seekissimmee.com
Gatorland promotional video
2. Orlando Science Center
Suitable for all ages (especially big kids!)
This was a genuine surprise. I visited the Center out of a sort of obligation, feeling as though I should try an educational attraction to justify all the theme park hours (and no, folks, EPCOT doesn't count!), but this turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip.
Its an amazing place. Its been around since the mid 1950s, but is completely up to date with its technology, exhibits, and things to do. It has a great mix of education/ interaction/ film and talks, and you really have to set aside a day to see and do everything. The live demonstrations and talks are excellent, by the way.
The Center has four large floors, with different galleries focusing on different areas (technology, weather, prehistoric age, soundwaves etc). Nearly everything has an interactive element, so its educational, fun, and interesting. There's even an in-house observatory, where you can use the powerful telescopes.
Science related films are also shown regularly (Tornado Alley at the moment)
Its great for all, but kids especially will love it.
Image: Orlando Science Center
Orlando Science Center - Photo: Spacecoastblogger.com
Orlando Science Center Promotional video
1. Forever Florida
As much as I love the theme parks (and boy, do I!) its natural Florida, the 'real' Florida that I love the most. Its important that people who visit Florida are aware of that side, and should definitely, in my mind, experience it.
Forever Florida is essentially a 4700 acre wildlife preserve, which encompasses nine Florida eco-systems and is home to 'an endless array of natural flora and fauna including alligators, black bears, white-tail deer, nearly two hundred species of birds and the endangered Florida Panther.' it has one of the highest concentrations of endangered and highly threatened species in the State.
Its a stunning place, full of every type of plant, animal, and tree you can think of, and there are a hundred different ways to see it. There are a variety of options how you can see Florida Forever, so you can tailor-make your own experience.
want to travel just by zipline, 68 feet above everything? yep, you can do that!
want to cycle around the treetops? well, with the Cypress Canopy Cycle you can do just that.
want to look round on horseback? yep, that's fine
Just want a good old fashioned coach? done.
want to try any of the above at night? yep, you can do that
There is also the The Crescent J Ranch, a working horse and cattle ranch, located next to Forever Florida and integrally involved with Forever Florida in 'ecological education and preservation of native Florida land and species'. It is also a living museum of Spanish Colonial Cattle and Florida's unique Cracker Horses.
I can't tell you to visit enough. Its an amazing experience, your funds go to Florida conservation,and, corny as it sounds, being away from the overdeveloped new Florida, you get a small feel for what those early pioneers felt when they came. Its something we should all do once in a while..