Orlando is the undisputed theme park capital of America, maybe even the world. But outside of the theme parks, Orlando is a welcoming, diverse city with so many great things for families to do. Whenever we have friends visit, I suggest that they take a day to step out of the Disney or Universal bubble to see the rest of the city and nearby neighborhoods, and they are always amazed at what else the city has to offer. Here is my list of 5 fantastic things to do in Orlando outside of the theme parks.
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1. Orlando Science Center
Located in Downtown Orlando, approximately 30 minutes from Walt Disney World, the Orlando Science Center is an interactive, hands on museum that is perfect for families and children of all ages. Spread out across five floors, the Center is a great place to spend a rainy day, or escape from the brutal Florida summer heat. Admission is free for children two and under, and if you have a Bank of America debit or credit card, admission is free the first weekend of every month! As well as all of the exhibits, there is a cafeteria with a Subway sandwich shop, as well as a gift shop.
The Center features a wide variety of exhibits, and there will be something to keep every child occupied. As a toddler, my son loved Kidstown, which has just been updated and expanded to feature some amazing new activities. The water tables are always a hit, as is the fantastic Orange Grove play area, featuring ‘orange’ trees, a factory, and a farmers market. There is also a play kitchen, story time, and coloring stations. Another popular exhibit is DinoDigs, with life-size replicas of various species of dinosaur skeletons, as well as a dig pit where kids can dig for fossils. My son is obsessed with dinosaurs, and could spend all day playing in this area!
The Center also features several theaters, showing nature movies as well as popular family friendly hits. There is an extra charge for the shows, but if you’re planning on spending the whole day at the Center, I think the extra cost is worth it for something a little different to do.
Honestly, this is somewhere we go every single month (we bank with Bank of America, so we go when it’s free!) We have never gotten bored there, or run out of things to do. I was amazed at how young my son was when we first showed an interest in the exhibits, but I’ve also seen preteen kids having a great time. It’s an inexpensive way to spend a day as a family, with plenty of fun, educational things for kids to do. Definitely somewhere to check out! Find out more about the exhibits, plus hours and admission costs at Orlando Science Center’s website here.
2. Blue Springs State Park
Approximately 45 minutes from Orlando is Blue Springs State Park. This park covers 2,600 acres, including the largest natural springs on the St Johns river. As well as being an amazing place to swim, snorkel, boat, and camp, Blue Springs is a designated manatee refuge, with several hundred manatees calling it home during the winter months. The park often reaches capacity, so if you plan to visit, be sure to get there early.
The crystal clear rivers of the spring are the perfect place to swim, snorkel, and go tubing. The water is cold, but in the Florida heat, this feels amazing! At the top of the spring, the water is deep and a great place to explore underwater caverns and look for fish. There are tubes for rent to float downstream, although plenty of people just swim down to the main swim dock at the bottom of the springs. Kayaks and canoes are also available to rent, and boat tours leave daily.
Seeing manatees in the wild is a really special experience. From November to March, hundreds of West Indian Manatees can be spotted basking in the calm waters of the spring. Although swimming with the manatees is strictly prohibited, seeing them up close – especially seeing mothers with their calves – is something I will never forget.
Blue Springs is somewhere where you can really get a feel for rural Florida outside of the hustle and bustle of the city. To find out more about the park, as well as camping and lodging information, visit the website here.
3. ICON Orlando 360
ICON Orlando 360 is a huge entertainment complex on International Drive. It is home to bars, restaurants, and shops, but the two main reasons we visit are the SEA LIFE Aquarium, and ICON Orlando (that’s the big wheel, folks).
The SEA LIFE Aquarium is home to more than 5,000 species of fish, with interactive exhibits and hands-on experiences, perfect for families. My son especially loves the 360 degree ocean tunnel, where you can walk through a tank filled with sharks, turtles, and other tropical fish. It is another great option for a rainy day, or a day when you simply need to get out of the sun and into some air conditioning!
The ICON Orlando is something you’ve probably noticed if you’ve spent any time in Orlando or the theme parks. It is a 400 foot observation wheel with incredible views over the theme parks, downtown Orlando, and the surrounding area. On a clear day, you can even see all the way out to the Kennedy Space Center and the Space Coast. The wheel moves slowly, giving you plenty of time to look around, and the whole experience (including a 4D movie explaining the creation of the wheel) takes approximately 30 minutes. We’ve taken a trip on the wheel in the middle of the day, and at sunset, and I would say both times were equally enjoyable. During the day, the weather is often clear enough to see a great distance, and it’s amazing to see just how lush the landscape around Orlando really is. At sunset, seeing the lights of the city illuminate is beautiful. I’ve never been up there during the Disney fireworks, but I bet the view of those is spectacular!
Visit the ICON Orlando 360 website for more information on both the SEA LIFE Aquarium and the ICON Orlando, and I’d definitely recommend looking into an Orlando City Pass to save some money if you’re planning to visit these attractions.
4. Bill Frederick Park at Turkey Lake
Bill Frederick Park covers 183 acres alongside Turkey Lake, approximately 20 minutes from Walt Disney World. This park is absolutely perfect for families to get out, enjoy nature, and see some of the more pastoral landscape surrounding the theme parks. There are cabins and opportunities for camping, places to fish and hike, as well as parks, playgrounds, and even a children’s farm. The live oaks provide plenty of shade, making this an enjoyable place, even in the middle of summer.
We seriously love this place! The playgrounds are amazing, and they themselves are a reason to visit. The children’s farm is fantastic too, with horses, pigs, goats, and chickens. The hiking trails are easy going, perfect for young children to let off some steam and run around. Sometimes the theme parks can become overwhelming for little ones, and it’s nice to go somewhere quiet and simple to spend some time away from the craziness. Learn more about Bill Frederick Park here.
5. Lake Eola and Winter Park
In the center of Downtown Orlando is Lake Eola. This lake is home to the famous swan-shaped paddle boats, the Walt Disney Amphitheater, and various parks and playgrounds. You can also find various breeds of swan, including Australian Black Swans. All the swans are on a specific diet and visitors are discouraged from feeding them bread; however, there are feeders around the lake where you can pick up duck feed. Swans are one of my favorite animals, and the black swans especially are beautiful. Taking a walk around Lake Eola itself is a relaxing way to spend some time, and renting a swan-shaped paddle boat is so much fun!
A short drive from Downtown Orlando and Lake Eola is the quaint suburb of Winter Park. This area is one of my favorite places in all of Florida! The central Park Avenue has fantastic shops and restaurants, including plenty of places that are extremely child-friendly; we love the locally owned Ravenous Pig for the most amazing Southern-style comfort food (see a list of our other favorite Orlando places to eat here). There are some great playgrounds to explore to – our favorite is the Community Playground (otherwise known as the castle playground) a huge wooden play structure perfect for kids to run and explore. For more Orlando day trips, take a look at this post.
Have you stepped outside the theme parks and sampled what else Orlando has to offer? Let me know what you’ve found!