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The idea of going to Orlando and not doing any of the parks is normally a bit surprising to most people: the area is, after all, best known for being the home of Disney World, plus all of the Universal Orlando parks – so why go, if you’re not planning to visit any of them?
Well, quite simply, we go because, wonderful though it is (And it really IS, trust me: they don’t call the Magic Kingdom the The Happiest Place on Earth for nothing… ) there’s much more to Florida than Disney and theme parks: and today, I’m going to sharing a few of my favourite things to do in the Orlando area.
First, though, a few useful links for anyone planning to travel to the sunshine state: or the U.S. in general…
- Florida with a toddler: our top tips
- How to survive a long-haul flight with a toddler
- Visit Orlando travel site
- U.S.ESTA Applicationsite: the ESTA is your travel visa for the United States, and it’s super-important, because, well, you won’t be allowed into the country without one, basically. (And yes, you would be amazed by how often this happens: on our last trip to the States, one of the airline staff confided in us that they have constant issues with people turning up to travel, without realising they needed an ESTA – whoops!) You can apply online, at a cost of £29.95 per person, and although you can get your application approved in under an hour, if it’s really urgent, I’d recommend applying as soon as you can, just to avoid any unpleasant surprises when you arrive at the immigration hall. There’s more information on the ESTA, who needs to apply, and how it all works here: if you do nothing else in preparation for your trip the U.S., at the very least, make sure you take a look at this – because, seriously, can you even imagine how it would feel to get off an 8 hour flight, only to be told that, whoops, sorry, you’re going to have to turn around and go straight back home again? No, me neither.
Anyway! With the serious stuff out of the way, here – in no particular order – are some of my favourite non-theme-park places to visit in the Orlando area (And by that I mean Orlando, Kissimmee, and the surrounding areas, not just the city itself)…
Old Town, Kissimmee
5770 West Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway, Kissimmee,
Despite the name, Old Town isn’t actually particularly old – and , to be fair, not many places in central Florida are, really. It does, however, at least look the part, with an old-style main street, filled with shops, restaurants and bars, plus a giant fun fair right next door. Old Town has really grown in the past few years: when we first visited, it was just a single street of shops (“This was all fields, back then…”): now, however, it has some of the most extreme rides you’ll find, including an absolutely terrifying looking slingshot ride, a rollercoaster, and lots of different entertainment options, like live music, line dancing, etc. This is the kind of place where you can easily lose a few hours to just wandering around, taking in the sights, and it’s also very Instagrammable, if that’s important to you – and I think we all know it is.
TOP TIP: Visit on a Saturday night, when dozens of classic cars cruise down Main Street, and bore your family rigid by talking incessantly about which one you’d most like to own, and why.
Off U.S. 192, Osceola County
Celebration is an entire town built by Disney, and it shows: like, if you’ve ever thought to yourself, “Hey, I wonder what it would be like if Disney built a town?” – and I know I have – then Celebration is the answer to that question. This is a real town, so don’t expect any rides or other attractions – just visit to soak up the picture-perfect streets surrounding the lake, and imagine what it might be like to live in this little slice of heaven. I have a huge soft spot for Celebration, partly because I first visited the site the year they broke ground, and when it literally WAS all just fields out there: my mum had seen a TV show about it, and wanted to see the site, and we make a point of gong back every year, to see what’s changed. (And, honestly, ‘Not much,’ is normally the answer to that: Celebration is as beautiful today as it was when it was first built, and it remains one of my favourite places on the planet. If I ever win the lottery, this is where I’m buying a house, for sure…) Celebration is no longer owned by Disney: it does, however, still very much resemble the set of The Truman Show, so it’s worth visiting for that reason alone.
TOP TIP: Columbia Restaurant (Cuban) and Thai Thani (Asian) are both excellent, but if you’re looking for something a bit more casual – OK, a LOT more causal – there’s also an excellent Five Guys just outside the main town.
Lake Eola Park
Ithink a lot of visitors to Orlando pretty much ignore the city itself, which is a shame, because what did it ever do to you, huh? Seriously, though: from the road, downtown Orlando looks like one big financial district, but it actually has a surprisingly pretty little historic district, part of which sits right next to Lake Eola, in the centre of the city. There’s a footpath here which allows you to walk all the way around the lake (top top: wait for a cool day to do this. Well, a cool-ish day, at least…), and it’s worth doing at least a little bit of this, just to see the swans, squirrels and other wildlife living around the lake. There are swan boats for hire on the water, a colourful amphitheatre where you can watch concerts, and a farmer’s market every Sunday.
ICON Park / The Orlando Wheel
8375 International Dr, Orlando
ICON park is home to the Orlando Wheel, which is a bit like the London Eye, only… well, in Orlando, obviously. I bet you’re glad I’m here to explain this stuff to you, huh? Now, I was in two minds about whether or not to recommend this one: partly because I haven’t actually ridden the Wheel itself (I learned my lesson from the London Eye…), but also because we had the slowest service ever in one of the eateries there – as in, so slow we actually ended up cancelling our order and going somewhere else – which put me off the place a bit. To be fair, though, there are plenty of other restaurants and bars to try, and I suspect this is the kind of place that comes alive at night (We were there in the afternoon, and it was a bit of a ghost town…), so I’ll reserve judgement until next time. If there is a next time…
iFLY Orlando Indoor Skydiving
8969 International Drive
I have absolutely no reservations about recommending this place, meanwhile: in fact, we liked it so much we actually went twice. Both of our visits were a few years ago now, back when it was called SkyVenture Orlando, and was located at the opposite end of iDrive. They’ve since changed name and location, but the basic premise remains the same: after a short safety video and some instruction on land, you’re taken into a wind tunnel, where, accompanied by an instructor, you get to experience what it’s like to “fly”. This was so much fun, and, as I said, we enjoyed it so much we went back and did it again the following year. It wasn’t particularly cheap, as I recall, but it was totally worth it – check out the website here.
2101 EPCOT Resorts Boulevard, Orlando
OK, this one’s a Disney property, obviously, but it’s not a theme park, so it totally counts, right? Disney’s Boardwalk is located right next to EPCOT, on the Disney World property, and, as the name suggests, it’s an old-style boardwalk resort, complete with restaurants, shops, hotels, and even a small beach. You can take boat rides on the lake, hire bicycles on the boardwalk, watch street entertainers, or visit an old-fashioned dancehall. Like the town of Celebration, it’s one of those picture-perfect little places that I never get tired of visiting, no matter how many times I go: and I’ve been a LOT, trust me.
TOP TIP: The Boardwalk is free to visit, and is a great spot from which to watch the EPCOT fireworks in the evening – you won’t see the full show, obviously, but you’ll see enough to make it worth the trip.
Afternoon tea at the Grand Floridian
Bay Lake, FL 32836
Not everyone realises that you don’t actually have to be staying at one of the Disney hotels in order to visit them, and use some of the facilities. All of the hotels are interesting in their own way, but my favourite is The Grand Floridian: not only is it absolutely beautiful to wander around, it also does an excellent afternoon tea, served in the Garden View Tea Room. Just like the Boardwalk, this hotel is on the Disney property, and if you’re there in the evening, you’ll get a fantastic view of the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks display over Cinderella Castle – truly magic.
Ice Bar Orlando
8967 International Drive
There are ice bars all over the world, but there’s something particularly special about walking in from the Florida heat, into the chilled interior of Ice Bar Orlando. Don’t worry if you’re not dressed for the icy temperatures: special coats are provided (I paid extra for a faux-fur version,because I can be a bit extra from time to time…), and if you’re cold, well, I’m pretty sure the vodka will warm you up in no time at all. Not that I would know, obviously. Ahem. (Read my full post on Ice Bar Orlando here.)
Dr. Phillips Splash Pad
7943 Fenton St, Orlando
This is technically one for the kids, although the adults in your party will probably enjoy it too, let’s be honest. Dr. Phillips splash pad is a free alternative to one of the central Florida water parks and while it’s obviously not nearly as big as one, it is a huge amount of fun, as well as being a good way to keep your little ones cool in the Florida sun. Max would still be there now if he possibly could be.
1486 Buena Vista Dr, Lake Buena Vista, FL
Another Disney one, but, again, Not a Theme Park, but rather a rambling collection of shops, restaurants and other entertainment (Including the famous hot air balloon ride show above…), all gathered around a lake. Disney Springs is another place that’s changed enormously over the years, with the latest addition being an outdoor mall, featuring brands like ZARA, Anthropologie, Coach and more. It’s free to enter (Although you’ll have to pay to park), and has enough to keep you occupied for hours, especially if you like shopping and/or eating. And who doesn’t, I ask you?
6000 Universal Boulevard, Orlando
Icouldn’t talk mention Disney Springs without also mentioning the Universal Studios equivalent – CityWalk. This is also built around a lake, and also features a wide range of shops and restaurants: you won’t find the same big brand names you get at Disney Springs, but there is a giant Hard Rock Cafe, plus live music and shows, so there’s a real buzz about the place in the evenings, when the theme parks start to empty, and everyone heads for CityWalk’s bars and restaurants.
The Citrus Tower
141 North Hwy 27, Clermont,
As you probably know, Florida is flat: really, really flat. As in, however flat you’re thinking it is, it’s much flatter than that, seriously. The small town of Clermont, however, is built on what Floridians call “a hill”, and what we Scots would describe as, “A piece of land that’s slightly higher than the land around it.” Back in the 1950s, someone had the idea of building a very tall tower on this “high” piece of land: the Citrus Tower is 226 feet tall, and you can still ride the elevator to the very top, to take in the views. I’ll be honest: as thrills go, this is a pretty mild one (Unless you’re scared of heights, obviously, in which case it’s actually quite scary…), and it’s a little bit further away than most of the other places I’ve listed here. I’ve included it, however, because it’s a little piece of central Florida history, and has a nostalgic charm all of its own. Right next to it, meanwhile, is the House of Presidents Wax Museum, which, yes, is every bit as strange as it sounds, and well worth the drive up to Clermont for sure. (You go “up” to Clermont, because Clermont is on a hill: don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.)
Wild Willy’s Airboat Rides
4715 Kissimmee Park Road Saint Cloud
There are quite a few places offering airboat rides in central Florida, but some of them, sadly, are not very good. Wild Willy’s airboat rides, however, ARE very good, allowing you to pretend you’re in the opening credits of Gentle Ben, as you zip through the everglades with the wind in your hair. (But without a giant bear on your boat, obviously. That would cost extra.) Our hour-long ride with Capt’n Jim (Who Terry inexplicably referred to as ‘Capt’n Pete the whole time. GOD.) was exhilarating and informative, and you can book your own trip here. Just remember, the guy’s name is Jim, though. JIM.
One thing’s for sure: there’s definitely no shortage of shopping opportunities in central Florida: in fact, the place has more malls per square mile than anywhere else on earth, and even although I totally just made that up, I’m 100% willing to bet it’s true. Probably. My personal favourite shopping venue is the awesome Mall at Millenia in Orlando (a.k.a The OTHER Happiest Place on Earth), but I’m also fond of a rummage around Orlando Premium Outlets and The Florida Mall, which is a bit like a theme park itself, now I come to think of it. I could write a whole other list just filled with central Florida malls, though, and think I’ve rambled on for long enough here, so I’m going to end this one here.
Any other Florida fans out there? What are your favourite non-theme park places to go?