Like peanut butter and jelly, Orlando and Walt Disney World go hand in hand. Each year tourists from all over the world descend on the sunshine state to pose with Mickey and watch fireworks over Cinderella’s castle.
So popular are the theme parks, in fact, that during peak times Disney cast members are on hand to direct the human traffic and occasionally, after reaching full capacity, visitors are simply turned away at the gate.
Crowds or not, for the vast majority of Disney pilgrims there is no substitute. But for everyone else Orlando offers a host of other family fun options worth exploring.
Why settle for a jungle cruise with machine-operated reptiles when you can hang out with the real ones just a few miles away? Known as the “Alligator Capital of the World,” Gatorland is home to thousands of alligators and crocodiles, including four rare “white” alligators.
But gators aren’t the only things you’ll find at the expansive 100-acre theme park and wildlife preserve, there’s also a petting zoo, aviary, nature walk, and one of the largest bird rookeries in Central Florida with more than 20 different species.
The Screamin’ Gator Zip Line offers thrill-seekers the opportunity to soar above Cuban and Nile crocodiles and an alligator breeding marsh or guests can book a behind-scenes tour into the swamp where they can get up close and personal with a posse of giant, hungry alligators.
Established back in 1949, Gatorland has a retro, kitschy feel with its big, painted gator head out front and piped in banjo music, but don’t let that fool you, this is one seriously cool animal park.
If you’ve always wanted to skydive but are too afraid to plummet 10,000 feet from a prop plane, iFLY indoor skydiving is the next best thing and no parachute is required. Suitable for participants ages 3 and up (with a few restrictions based on health and weight), flyers first attend a brief training session before gearing up and preparing for flight.
Once ready, participants enter a vertical wind tunnel and are propelled on a high-speed air column allowing them to fly. An instructor accompanies flyers in the chamber and assists them in getting accustomed to their newly acquired “wings” along with practicing a few thrilling skydiving maneuvers.
Each flight lasts only about a minute but make no mistake, it’s great fun and well-worth the price. Don’t be surprised if you end up wanting more when you’re done, or even find yourself entertaining doing a real skydive.
iFly offers several different flight packages to accommodate individuals and families including one that sends flyers home with pictures and a video of their experience.
Kissimmee Swamp Tours
About 45 minutes south of Orlando in Kenansville, nature lovers can escape the throngs of tourists and attractions and take an airboat ride through the Florida Everglades.
Located on the Great Florida Bird Trail, Kissimmee Swamp Tours offers 60- or 90-minute trips aboard 6-passenger airboats. On most trips riders are able to spot American bald eagles, osprey, whopping cranes, snail kites and an abundance of other wildlife including alligators gliding silently beneath the vegetation.
Far from any sign of civilization, passengers sail through reeds and thickets while the boat captain points out notable sights, animals, and habitats. Special radio headsets provide two-way communication between the captain and riders, allowing for questions along the way.
Both exhilarating and tranquil, a trip through Kissimmee’s scenic swamp is the perfect getaway from Orlando’s high-octane atmosphere.
Outta Control Magic Dinner Show
You know you’re in for something just a little different when you arrive at WonderWorks and the building is upside down.
Described as 35,000-square-feet of “edu-tainment,” this Orlando attraction offers visitors loads of interactive exhibits including a hurricane simulator, bubble lab, 4D motion thrill ride, and real bed of nails to stretch out on.
There’s also laser tag and a dizzying glow-in-the-dark ropes course that isn’t for folks who have a problem walking on tightropes. You’re wearing a harness, of course, but looking down three stories, it doesn’t feel like it.
However, it’s the Outta Control Magic Comedy Dinner show performed twice nightly that’s arguably the most entertaining. Pizza, soda and salad served up at communal tables account for the dinner part, but it’s the show that you’re there for.
Showman Tony Brent performs a hysterical mix of comedy and magic filled with a heavy dose of audience participation that’ll have you laughing and gasping in surprise at the same time. It’s pretty tame in contrast to some of Orlando’s more over-the-top productions, but that’s what makes it so delightful. It’s family-friendly, fun, and funny. You’ll be glad you went.
OK, just one Disney mention, but it isn’t a theme park and there’s no admission charge. Located between Epcot and Hollywood Studios, Disney’s BoardWalk is a quarter-mile promenade lined with shops and restaurants reminiscent of 1920s Coney Island.
Quaint and completely charming, you’ll want to meander along the wooden boardwalk, or admire the pretty man-made lake that it’s built around and enjoy an ice cream cone from the nearby sweet shop.
Slow-moving canal boats chug from the BoardWalk to various other resorts in the area along with stops at the two nearby theme parks. It’s free to hop aboard and you can just go for the ride, taking in the scenery along the way.
At night the strip comes alive with street performers doing magic tricks and a myriad of other entertaining feats like swallowing swords, spinning plates and old fashioned juggling.
For a small fee you can rent a surrey (yes, with the fringe on top) and ride around the lake. There’s a bell attached to the front to warn pedestrians of your approach, but you’ll go crazy ringing it whether there are people around or not.
Finally, if you stay until 9 p.m. you’ll be rewarded with a great view of the IllumiNations fireworks show put on each night at neighboring Epcot. No need to jockey for a good spot to watch, the display is visible from most places on the BoardWalk, the best view, however, is from the bridge near the ESPN Club.