As a mom who lives just outside of Orlando, I’m well aware that there are no shortage of things to do in this town! If you’re coming to visit, you’re probably coming for the theme parks (there’s these two little parks here called Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, you might have heard of them?!) and even if you’re not a theme park fan, there are a ton of other fun things to see and do in and around Orlando (read through my list of family friendly things to do in Orlando outside the theme parks or amazing places to eat in Orlando). But if you’re visiting the city for an extended period of time (or even better, coming to live in the City Beautiful!) then you might want to branch out and look into some day trips from Orlando. There are some super fun places to visit just a short drive from Orlando, all of which give you a bit of an escape from the chaos of the theme parks, that are really great places to visit with kids. So read ahead for my list of Orlando day trips to take with kids and make some plans for your next trip!
1. Kennedy Space Center
As such an incredibly unique place to visit, the Kennedy Space Center is one of the most common day trips from Orlando. Located on the east coast of Florida (in an area aptly known as the Space Coast), the Kennedy Space Center is less than an hour’s drive from Orlando in Cape Canaveral. The visitor’s complex has a huge amount of things to do and it is definitely possible to fill a whole day there; from the bus tours throughout the complex, to strolling through the rocket garden, to meeting an actual astronaut and exploring the Astronaut Hall of Fame, there’s something for the whole family to enjoy. If you’re planning on visiting the Kennedy Space Center with kids, I would definitely recommend going online first to have a look at everything the complex has to offer and picking out a few must-dos, because seeing everything with little ones in tow might prove tricky. Although I think there’s more than enough to fill an entire day here (and tickets are quite pricey), you could easily combine a morning at the Kennedy Space Center with an afternoon or evening at the beach; Canaveral National Seashore is a quick drive away (read more on visiting Canaveral National Seashore with kids here).
2. St Augustine
St Augustine is a historical town just over a 2 hour drive from Orlando. There is plenty to do here to fill a day, and I would definitely recommend the Hop on Hop off Old Town trolley tour to take you around town; this offers not only an opportunity to see the area and get your bearings, but allows you to jump off at the attractions that interest you the most. When looking for things to do in St Augustine with kids, my recommendations include the Old Jail, the Oldest Wooden School House, and Castillo de San Marcus National Monument for a bit of history (read more here on Florida National Parks to visit with kids), as well as visiting the St Augustine Alligator Farm if you have time. St Augustine also has some beautiful, quiet beaches, so be sure to pack a bathing suit!
3. Florida Aquarium in Tampa
Tampa is about a 45-minute ride away from Orlando and while there is plenty to do in Tampa, one of my favorite things to do in Tampa with kids is visit the Florida Aquarium. This is a non-profit organization who aim to educate and inspire people to care about the environment and the world around them. With 7000 species of plants and animals, there are a ton of fantastic exhibits to look at, and things for kids to do; in fact, Parents Magazine voted it one of the top 5 aquariums in the county for kids. My favorite exhibit was the Coral Reef, where we saw turtles, stingrays and sharks, and my 5-year old Harrison loved the Wetlands Trail where we saw river otters and alligators. There was also a really fun splash pad, and a playground where the kids could burn off some energy. Overall, this is easily somewhere you could spend a whole day, and there are plenty of nearby places to eat that are within walking distance of the aquarium. You do have to hop on I4 to get to Tampa and rush hour traffic can be crazy, so definitely time your trip there and back to avoid it if at all possible!
4. Crystal River
When I heard that it was possible to swim with manatees, I was initially very wary; there are so many companies out there that offer swimming with dolphins or other sea creatures that are just not looking out for the best interests of the animals themselves, and since manatees are such gentle creatures, I had my concerns about how exactly one would go about swimming with them without bothering them in any way. I did my research, however, and found that Crystal River in Florida is the only place where it is legal to swim with manatees, and the animals themselves are not held captive in any way, they are free to roam about as they please and even leave completely if they wish. The cold sea temperatures in the winter months in Florida are the reason manatees flock to Crystal River to bask in the warmer waters, and then when temperatures begin to climb in the spring, the majority of them head back out to sea. This means that the best time to swim with them is during the winter months. There are very strict rules and regulations (and even laws) surrounding swimming with manatees (you can find them here) and it will be made very clear to you by tour guides that you are simply there to observe, and are not to harass or bother the animals in any way. This is an amazing experience for kids, with a few things to bear in mind: they need to be good swimmers, the water itself will be pretty cold, and most importantly, they will need to be able to follow rules and be calm and quiet when in the water with the manatees.
5. Brevard County Zoo
About an hours drive from Orlando is one of my favorite zoos ever! The Brevard Zoo is not your regular, run of the mill zoo – not only are the exhibits and attractions amazing, but you can do all kinds of really cool and unique things, like feeding the giraffes and taking guided kayaking tours around the animal exhibits (I cannot recommend enough kayaking past a giraffe, one of the best things ever!) You can see a huge variety of animals, and there are daily keeper talks where you can learn more about them. The zoo’s mission statement is “wildlife conservation through education and participation” and they put a huge emphasis on not only learning about the animals you’ll see, but finding out what you can do to take better care of the world around you. The zoo also has an amazing kids zone, with a really cool splash pad, beach, play area, train, and petting zoo, all perfect for little ones.
6. Merritt Island
Located on Florida’s largest island, Merritt Island is a small town best known for being a great place to watch rocket launches from the Kennedy Space Center. While this is a well-deserved reputation – if a rocket launch is planned for your visit, I cannot recommend enough watching one take off, it is the coolest thing ever! – there are a whole host of other things to do too, including beautiful beaches and amazing golf courses. My biggest recommendation, however, is something that will require you staying a little later into the evening – and that is a bio luminescence tour. Have you ever seen those photos of water lit up all blue and pretty, like something out of Avatar? Well, this is one of the places you can see that! Plankton leave a glowing trail in the water as you kayak through, a truly unique and magical experience. Since Merritt Island is also a wildlife refuge, other animals can also be seen in the calm of the night, such as manatees and dolphins. There are a number of tour companies that offer these experiences, and although it obviously does mean staying in the area after the sun goes down, it is absolutely worth it!
7. Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Just over an hour away from Orlando is beautiful Clearwater. This area not only has the most fabulous white sandy beaches with warm, calm water, but it has another of my favorite Florida attractions, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. This aquarium is home to Winter the dolphin, the star of the movie A Dolphin Tale; this movie tells Winters real story of how she was injured as a baby and had to have her tail amputated. The aquarium is now Winters permanent home, as well as being a sanctuary to other animals that are either being rehabilitated in preparation for release back into the wild, or those who cannot be released and will live out their days at the facility. The aquarium does the most amazing work, and I was truly inspired to take greater care of the ocean and the environment after our visit. You can read my full article on our trip to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium here, and watch our video of both the aquarium and the surrounding Clearwater beach area here.
OK so this isn’t exactly escaping the theme parks, but Legoland Florida is a different kind of theme park than the ones you’ll find at Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Resort. First of all, Legoland Florida is a smaller park, and has a much more laid back, relaxed feel to it. It is also perfect for a younger crowd; from toddlers to grade schoolers, this park is perfect for young kids. There are dedicated toddler zones where little ones can play safely, as well as some tamer thrill rides for older kids to enjoy. We visit the park frequently and have nothing but wonderful things to say about it. You can read more on why we think young families will love Legoland Florida and the neighboring Legoland Water Park, and don’t forget to check out the fantastic seasonal events they offer; our favorites include Lego Star Wars Weekends and the Legoland Brick or Treat in the fall.
9. Mount Dora
Mount Dora is a sleepy, quaint little town less than an hour away from Orlando. While I will be totally honest and say that our main reason for visiting Mount Dora is to eat – seriously, we’ll talk about the food in a minute! – there are definitely some other activities to keep little ones entertained. There are a few really cool ways to see Mount Dora, including by train, by sea, and by air! Train rides depart between Mount Dora, Eustis and Tavares daily, and if you have a train lover in the family, this is a really fun experience (if you’re here over the Christmas period, definitely check out the Polar Express experience!) For boat lovers, there are narrated trips every day where you can learn the history of the town on the beautiful waterways (and look at some of the stunning lakeside properties!) or for the brave, there are sea plane trips where you can see the town from the air! There are lots of unique little shops to pick up souvenirs, and as I said, some amazing places to eat! We love the Windsor Rose Tea Room for a proper English afternoon tea (complete with scones and clotted cream!) and Cecile’s French Corner, where you can dine on beautiful quiches and crepes at their outdoor tables. Mount Dora has a very ‘old Florida’ feel to it, and despite not being that far away, feels like a million miles from the Orlando theme parks! You can read more on how to spend a day in Mount Dora in my post.
10. Hit the beach
If you want to take an Orlando day trip but need some rest and relaxation after the chaos of the theme parks, then you absolutely need to hit one of Florida’s beautiful beaches. There are countless beaches up and down the coast to choose from, and many gorgeous beaches just a short drive from Orlando. You can see my recommendations for the best beaches close to Orlando and everything to need for surviving a beach trip with a baby.
Have you taken any of these Orlando day trips? Let me know in the comments!