Orlando is Much More than Disney
Don’t judge me. I know the idea of skipping Disney World (WDW) is repugnant to many devoted mouse fans, and children everywhere, but in reality, it is not everyone’s cup of tea.
To many families, Disney is simply too expensive with tickets costing over $100 per person, per day! That doesn’t include food, beverages, or souvenirs. A family of four can easily run a grand a day. Yikes! Others prefer more thrill rides. There are only a handful of thrill rides in WDW, and they are spread over several parks, requiring different tickets. So as not to bash Disney, I want to tell you of the exciting, fun and cheaper alternatives available in Orlando.
Theme Parks in Orlando
Universal Studios/ Islands of Adventure Parks~ If you want thrill rides, head to Universal Studios and the Islands of Adventure parks. The cost of a ticket is lower as are food/drink costs. You can save hundreds of dollars, and the parks are incredibly immersive. Kids and adults will find attraction gems and delightful surprises. If you think you will visit the parks more than twice, consider buying a season pass. It will save on admission, as well as providing discounts at vendors, and food service, preference to lines, and discounts on special events, like Universal’s annual “spooktacular,” Halloween Horror Nights, which is pretty impressive. Younger children should NOT attend. Teens love this, but it is truly scary at times. Those prone to heart or panic attacks might want to think twice before attending.
Sea World~ If you want to mix things up a bit, Sea World offers visitors the chance to see some of the world’s most elegant and exciting sea life, up close, and to learn about the animals and how best to protect them. (Yeah, yeah. Sea World got a bad rap on animal issues, but things have improved and are closely monitored to protect the animals. You can go guilt free.) There are plenty of rides from tame to wild, to please everyone in your group. Sea World stunt shows will leave you breathless and on the edge of your seat. (Discount packages allow you to visit sister parks: Busch Gardens, Discovery Cove, and water park.)
Discovery Cove~ Discovery Cove isn’t the most cost effective alternative, but it is truly unique and wonderful. Here you can swim with dolphins, snorkel, or simply take it all in. Discovery Cove is great for those who love the water, as most of the attractions here will get you wet, if not completely submerged. If you dream of swimming with dolphins, stroking a manta ray, or snorkeling in pristine waters, Discovery Cove is worth a look.
Legoland~ Orlando’s Legoland is the largest in the world. Who hasn’t played with Legos? They are as appealing for adults as they are for children. In this park, the kids rule. There are plenty of interactive attractions to spark the imagination, and fun rides suitable for the entire family. Everything here is made of Legos, and you will be amazed as you visit National Landmarks from across the USA. Bring the bathing suits, too; you will want to cool off in the water park. Legoland offers special family rates, making it a great alternative theme park.
Fun Spot America~ Although labeled as a theme park, I would caution this is a basic family run amusement park. Admission is free, but the rides are not. For under $50, you can get a day pass that allows you to ride as much as you want. There are two separate locations- one in Orlando, and one in nearby Kissimmee, which is home to the tallest sky coaster in the world. The Orlando park has the area’s only wooden roller coaster known as White Lighting. Both parks offer thrill rides and kiddie rides, go-carts, bumper cars, and old-fashioned fun for every member of the family.
Water Parks in Orlando
Orlando weather is consistently nice, so regardless of the time of year you visit, you can find a lot of enjoyment at the water parks nearby. I was initially leery of donning a bathing suit in public, but my fears were soon assuaged; everyone is just there to have fun, and there is no body judgment at any of the parks I have visited. I can tell you one thing, the water parks go to great lengths to compete with the theme parks, and have become theme parks in their own right. Many share the immersion of Disney and Universal, others offer extraordinary thrill rides, and some offer both. Overall, water parks are less costly than the dry theme parks.
Typhoon Lagoon~ This is one of the most immersive water parks I have visited. The grounds are lavishly landscaped, and the rides meander around and through, offering a great deal of camouflage so you do not feel like you are truly stranded on an island oasis. From their lazy river to the big thrills, Typhoon Lagoon can be a relaxing day for the adults, and completely wear out the kids. The wave pool here is excellent, but deceptively strong.
Blizzard Beach~ The frozen world that is Blizzard Beach is refreshingly cool on hot, humid summer days. Psychologically, it may be off putting in the cooler months, but the fun heats things up quickly. Immersion is a Disney trait, and Blizzard Beach follows in this grand tradition. You will find rides akin the bunny hill, or spectacular drops surpassed only by steep Alpine slaloms.
Wet n’ Wild~ Imagine 30 acres of sheer enjoyment. Wet n’ Wild has some awesome family rides. Several of their attractions offer multiple riders the chance to share an experience. So often, the kids go one way, and adults the other way, and family time is scarcely recognizable. Have fun together on a raft or slide that accommodates a family unit. Teens, older kids and kids at heart will find thrills galore, including some of those for multiple riders. Don’t worry though, there are some mild rides for the faint of heart.
Aquatica~ This is Sea World’s version of a water park, so in addition to the fun of water rides, you can count on some interesting animal interactions as well. Aquatica offers an amazing array of thrill type rides, and a good many family friendly rides. I like that they offer discounted rates if you plan to visit Aquatica and any of the sister parks. One thing I liked was their cashless wristband that allows you to link a credit card (or pay cash) to a waterproof band each member of the family can use to purchase food, drink, or souvenir. You can allot a certain spending limit to each individual band. Trying to keep cash or a locker key handy can be rather difficult, especially on certain rides, so the band is really convenient.
Flamingo Water Park~ This is a state of the art water park, but it lacks the scenic ambiance you get at the larger parks. If you want a ton of fun for less than $10 per person per day, Flamingo is a good bet. They even have a family friendly resort should you want to stay the night. What fun to step out of your room and into the action! Three major slides, a 30′ plunge into the water, and more are available for thrill seekers, while the lazy river and two pools offer much tamer fun in the sun. For the money, this is a great bet.
More Memorable Attractions in Orlando
Gatorland~ As the name implies, this is a place where you can get closer than you ever dreamed to fascinating alligators, and even some crocodiles, turtles and toads. Where else can you take a leisurely stroll on a wooden boardwalk with hundreds of breeding alligators? If you, or a member of your party does not want such a personal view, try a ride on the Gatorland Express. This is a huge hit with younger kids. Gatorland has educational opportunities, and exciting shows, as well as a chance to step out of our ordinary comfort zone, while safely encountering these almost prehistoric creatures. Brag to your friends that you wrestled an alligator, and bring a photo home to prove it.
Kennedy Space Center~ You do not need to be a science nerd or a space fanatic to thoroughly enjoy a day at the Kennedy Space Center. Hands-on exhibits and the sheer scale of the shuttles and other spacecraft will leave a sense of awe in even the most difficult to impress. You can even get the feel of being an astronaut, by riding in a simulator of a Space Shuttle launch. Several IMAX movies are available to blow your mind with images only NASA can provide. Visit the Rocket Garden to see full sized Titan rockets, replicas of engines, and scale models of various spacecraft. Shuttles run tours if walking is an issue, and be sure to visit the Astronaut Memorial.
Titanic the Experience~ I will admit I have not visited the Orlando version of this attraction, but I have experienced it elsewhere. If you are a history buff, or just a little curious about the disastrous sinking of the Titanic, you will not want to miss this opportunity. It brings the personal experience of being a passenger, and the reality that class preference really played. Everyone in your group will have a different identity, and therefore a different point of view. All will leave this attraction with a new understanding, and a deeply moving respect for the lost. It is not a downer, but it is powerful.
International Drive plays host to a bevy of outstanding attractions, shops, dining, and all around people watching opportunities. Bear in mind, traffic can be a nightmare on I Drive, so you might want to ride the I-Trolley, or hop a bus to get around. It would be impossible to tell you everything about I Drive, but I want to hit some highlights, aside from the major theme parks housed here.
The Orlando Eye~ Towering 400 feet above the ground, the high-tech Ferris wheel is an outstanding site. By day, you can see the coastal beaches, as well as the theme parks dotted around the city. By night, the vista of light is spectacular. Even the Eye adds to the sparkle. Your experience at night will be very different from the day. If you can, go twice.
The Orlando Eye is actually part of a large complex packed full with attractions such as Madam Tussaud’s wax museum, the Orlando Sea Life Aquarium, and a good mix of shops. A food court is conveniently located there, too.
Wonder Works~ Wonder Works bills itself as a theme park for the mind. The entire attraction is built upside down, which is both disorienting and exhilarating at the same time. There are over a 100 interactive exhibits that will delight and educate you. See what it feels like in a high velocity winds, or ride out an earthquake via simulators that bring science to life. There is an upgrade available to include a dinner show and laser-tag, but trust me you do not need to upgrade to get an exciting visit. Try a bed of nails, or check out the Hurricane Hole, if you dare, or take a ride on the Wonder Coaster. This place is designed to inspire, to make you think, and learn, in a fun, and strangely different way.
Ripley’s Believe it or Not~ A self- guided tour will lead you through a world of oddities and extraordinary artifacts, Ripley called his “Odditorium.” Wander through more than a dozen galleries featuring creepy and kooky exhibits that are real- “believe it or not.” Nowhere else in Orlando can you examine shrunken heads, a kit designed to kill vampires, and hundreds of thought provoking, and head-scratching exhibits. Even the building itself appears to be sinking into one of Florida’s many sinkholes. If weird and unusual are your thing, don’t miss this little gem of a “museum.”
Shopping~ From the Premium Outlet Mall to the endless variety of boutiques and salons, shoppers will be in paradise. I can’t prove it, but I think you can buy anything under the sun on I Drive. Seriously, there are so many shops here, agencies offer shopping tours to help out-of-towners navigate the choices. When you explore the I Drive shopping, wear comfortable shoes, you will need them.
Dining~ Where to start, is the question. I Drive is chock full of exciting dining experiences. Looking for a dinner show? Become a pirate for a night, or join Al Capone and his cronies for an evening at a speakeasy; become a sleuth in a comical mystery or be amazed at magic show. If you can imagine it, you can probably find it in Orlando. Off I Drive there are many dinner shows available for every taste and topic. Attend a Royal Hawaiian luau, or watch a rousing jousting competition. Dinner shows are ubiquitous in Orlando.
Have lunch and learn how to prepare it, with a chef’s lesson, at UNO Pizzeria and Grill. Or sit at the chef private table, and simply watch your gourmet meal come to life with private seating en-kitchen at the Victoria and Albert.
Regardless of budget you can find some of the most extraordinary food in Orlando, especially along I Drive. It is called ‘International’ for a reason. Delight your senses with foods from all over the world. You do not need to spend a fortune to sample food from all over the globe. I enjoy street venders offering Cuban, Asian, or traditional American fare for pennies on the dollar of a fancy restaurant.
Are You Convinced?
Truly, I have not even scratched the surface of fun things to do in Orlando, without the expense of a WDW visit. Orlando is a bustling hub, featuring some of the finest entertainment in the world. And if you absolutely must have a Disney fix, consider one of their hotel meals- many have character interactions, or play a round of mini-golf at one of two putt-putt courses lavished with Disney magic. You do not need a ticket to visit any of the resort properties, although you might have to pay for parking. The Animal Kingdom Lodge has some great animal viewing, in their own “savannah.” A trip down the Disney Boardwalk is ideal for nostalgic fun, or the newly refurbished and renamed Disney Springs can provide an inexpensive Disney fix.