Welcome to our “See the USA” series as we travel across the country (and through the alphabet) exploring some beautiful destinations you should explore (if you haven’t already). Hopefully you caught the best of Newport, Rhode Island last week and Manhattan the week before. This week we’ve reached letter O and Orlando a place many of you might know, but maybe you don’t know about everything it has to offer outside the theme parks. This week I have Heather from I Love Family Travel sharing the top 5 family friendly things to do in Orlando, her home town!
We recently moved to Orlando from South Florida, but before that we traveled up frequently because we have a lot of family in the area. This has provided us with the opportunity to experience Orlando both as residents and tourists (we say “travelers”). As residents, we might know some nooks and crannies in the area so we can offer some great advice if you are planning to stay here awhile. As travelers, we understand the experiences you are looking out for and the logistics of getting things done.
When you think of Orlando, your mind probably automatically heads towards the thoughts of Disney, Universal or SeaWorld, but Orlando offers so much more. It is actually much larger than people might think. In fact, we live in Orlando and it takes us 40 minutes to get to Disney. This leaves room for so many fun things to do.
We should probably add a disclaimer to the title like “Top 5 Family Friendly Things To Do in Orlando (Besides Major ThemeParks)”. By now, the parks appear on so many top lists for the area that we would do you no justice by repeating them here. For now, let’s assume you are renting a car and are willing to travel around a bit.
1.) Visit I-Drive 360
I-Drive stands for International Drive. (Many hotels offer a shuttle to International Drive because of Universal Studios, so even if you can’t rent a car, you can probably still get here). I-Drive 360 offers three attractions, for which you can purchase tickets for all 3 for as low as $38 for adults and $33 for children.
The first attraction is the Orlando Eye. The Orlando Eye is a 400 ft observation wheel that provides an all-around view of Central Florida. For those who worry about their kids wanting to climb out, there is no worry as each of the 30 capsules is fully enclosed. If you are timid about getting aboard, you can always check out the pre-fight 4D Cinema Experience first. (Traveling to London, you might find this wheel’s sister, The London Eye).
The second attraction is Madame Tussauds Orlando. This celebrity wax museum is a favorite destination that provides your family the opportunity to hob knob with Hollywood’s elite from both past and present.
The third attraction is the SEA LIFE Aquarium. Give your children the opportunity to learn about and even touch some wonderful sea creatures. (There are actually SEA LIFE aquariums throughout the US and we visited one in Minnesota in June. They had a lot of unique experiences that I had not seen before).
2.) Go Shopping
Maybe having your kids in tow, is not your idea of an ideal shopping experience, but there are actually some fun things you can experience while shopping here in Orlando. While you could probably catch a shuttle to one of the great Outlet centers in the area, there are other places you can shop and have fun too!
I love visiting Waterford Lakes. You might think I am biased because I live in the area, but you should also consider that we moved here because we liked what was offered here. Waterford Lakes is located just off the 408, which you can catch from I-4. It might be a small drive, but you can plan your day here. Every time I go, I discover a new store that I didn’t see the last time. They probably have almost every store and restaurant you could think of. Even if they don’t, you’ll probably find it across the street or nearby on Alafaya or Colonial. Besides shopping in the stores, you can grab a movie, have the kids play at the play area inside Chick-fil-A, stop by the two pet stores so they can play with the puppies or let them run wild at Chuck E. Cheese. On Tuesdays, we pick up half priced frozen yogurt at Sweet! By Miss Holly (made famous by Cupcake Wars). Throughout the winter, they have a Carnival with rides and more.
Other cool places to shop include the Mall at Millenia and Disney Springs. The Mall at Millenia offers tons of different stores and restaurants. They have a currency exchange, and it’s located close to many of the attractions. At Disney Springs, you can find a Lego store to build Lego creations, say hi to Disney characters, catch some live music, go bowling at Splitsville and see a movie too!
3.) Venture Out to the Zoo
The Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens is about an hour drive, but totally worth it. With over 500 animals and 23 acres of native gardens, this place offers a chance to delve into Florida’s natural side.
Photo credit: Heather Lopez
My son loves the Insect Zoo and the Herpetarium, especially because we have a pet lizard. There are so many educational programs and demonstrations too! We’ve learned so much about animals and plants from them. Our favorite part is the live animal encounters and also they have a splash playground to cool down on those hot Florida days. Other favorites are the KaBoom playground, the little railroad and the carousel! They also have a children’s zoo where your kids can feed and pet the animals. If you are feeling adventurous, you can even zipline through the tree tops with the ZOOm Air Aerial Adventures course, bungee jump or roll around in the WOW balls. It all makes for an awesome and fun experience.
4.) Get Wet!
Obviously there are water parks at the big theme parks, but there are other places around to cool off. A favorite in the area has been Wet N’ Wild Orlando, but you’ll have to catch it before it closes at the end of this year. They are in the process of building something even bigger and better.
The central location means you can travel to either coast in about 2 hours, if you want to visit the beautiful Clearwater Beaches close to Busch Gardens, check out Cocoa Beach close to the Kennedy Space Center, or sunbathe on Daytona Beach. There are tons of lakes here where you can go jet-skiing and boating too! Most hotels have pools, but some even have mini water parks at their resorts. You won’t need to travel far to find water for sure!
Photo credit: Heather Lopez
5.) Explore History
Florida has tons of history that you are free to explore. Like the beaches, St. Augustine is a two hour drive, but totally worth a day trip. A community that has survived for almost 500 years is sure to bring you face to face with our past. In fact, it is the oldest continuously occupied community in the US. With its pirate museum, ship encounters, forts, and colonial-styled village areas; you will feel transported back to a different century.
Photo credit: Heather Lopez
Nearby to LEGOLAND, you will find the Bok Tower. It is one of those hidden gems that you won’t have to travel too far to reach. Not only is it a National Landmark, it has the “Best Garden” in Florida with over 50 acres designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. For the kids, they have a children’s garden with almost three acres for them to explore, as well as a water play area. For the parents, they offer daily concerts, an Outdoor Kitchen and an Edible Garden.
Everyone can get together and experience The Wild Garden that showcases four of Florida’s ecologies, along with natural wildlife, lush plantings, a boardwalk and a bog. The prime feature is the 205 ft. Singing Tower, which sings with 60 bells every half hour. Made with pink marble and coquina stone, it is both beautiful to listen to, but to see as well.
History is ever-present here in Florida, with the state celebrating its 500th Anniversary recently.
So for those of you who want to stick around on your next family vacation and explore Orlando, we know the above options will provide you with an all-around memorable experience. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need any recommendations.
If you’ve been, do you have any recommendations for family friendly things to do in Orlando as well?
Heather lives in Orlando with her husband and two children. You can find her at I Love Family Travel.