As home to the Walt Disney World and Universal theme parks, as well as SeaWorld, Orlando is a hot theme park destination for families. Still, it’s possible to visit the area and having an amazingly full vacation without going to any of the big-name parks. Orlando is packed with other attractions within its limits and nearby. Here are a few of the endless options:
Known as I-Drive to locals, International Drive is an attraction-packed tourist strip. The main drag runs between the Universal Orlando Resort area and the Orange County Convention Center. The street is lined with hotels, restaurants, and corny-but-fun family attractions like Ripley’s Believe It or Not, Pirates Dinner Adventure, several miniature golf courses, the Regal Pointe movie theater complex, and the Wet ‘N Wild water park.
WonderWorks is one of the best I-Drive options for kids because of all its hands-on activities, from creating bubbles to building and riding a virtual roller coaster. It’s also home to the Outta Control Magic Show, a hilarious dinner show that appeals to youngsters, yet also has humor for parents. The food is kid-friendly and all-you-can-eat, with salad, pizza, and dessert.
Parking is at a premium on most parts of I-Drive, so be prepared to pay at a parking garage if you drive your car. Some restaurants do have their own free lots, but don’t leave your car all evening or it’s likely to be towed. Depending on your hotel location, you might be able to take the I-Ride Trolley.
Most people think Walt Disney World is in Orlando, but it’s actually closer to Kissimmee. Once a “cow town,” this area quickly adapted to being the Mouse’s neighbor as a plethora of hotels, restaurants, and attractions sprang up on Highway 192.
You’ll find plenty of miniature golf courses, go-kart tracks, and helicopter pads just by driving down 192 between Orange Blossom Trail and Highway 27. Other popular attractions include dinner shows like Capones, with its wacky gangster antics, and horse-themed fun at Medieval Times and Arabian Nights.
Head down Orange Blossom Trail and you’ll run into Gatorland, a true piece of “Old Florida” dating back to 1949. Grab a photo at the kitschy gator jaws entrance, then meet gators inside up close. Watch live alligator wrestling and the gator jumparoo show where you’ll see the creatures leap out of the water for whole chickens. You can even feed them hot dogs yourself…if you dare.
Orlando is actually a hot spot for shopping, particularly for international visitors, although Americans love to hunt for bargains too. Outlet malls in Kissimmee and Orlando like Orlando Premium Outlets and the Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores have name-brand goods at discounted prices.
Orlando also has two popular retail malls: the Florida Mall near Orlando International Airport, and the Mall at Millenia near Universal Orlando Resort. The Mall at Millenia is considered the more upscale of these two shopping meccas, while the Florida Mall is similar to typical malls, albeit on a larger scale, with over 250 stores. Many have special appeal for younger kids all the way up through teens, like a huge Disney Store, M&Ms World, EB Games, and Hot Topic. A family shopping excursion is a fun part of a break-from-the-theme-parks day.
For a taste of Disney World without actually going to the parks, make the drive to Theme Park Connection in Winter Garden. It’s as much an ever-changing museum as a store, with rare memorabilia from the Disney parks. There are also reasonably price items, like pins and Disney character figures, so give the kids a few dollars and let them go on a souvenir treasure hunt.
Go beyond the immediate Orlando area to find some real adventures for the whole family. You can do everything from zip lining to horseback riding to going on an airboat tour. Zip lining companies like Zip Orlando welcome kids and take great care with their safety. Stables like Horse World have slow-paced family-friendly rides. Airboats are also suitable for all ages, and kids get the thrill of seeing alligators, bald eagles, and other wildlife in their natural habitat.
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