One of the best family vacation sports in the U.S., an Orlando vacation is a bucket list trip for many families. And while visiting the theme parks is usually at the top of most family vacation ideas wishlists, it doesn’t have to be the only memorable part of your time in the Sunshine State. A day on the water is super easy to plan and just a few miles from Disney and Universal. There’s a lot to do in some of the smaller Orlando neighborhoods, too.
1. Boggy Creek Airboat Adventure
No Orlando vacation is complete without getting a good look at the area’s unique biodiversity and wildlife. For families, one of the best ways to do that is on an airboat ride at the mouth of the Florida Everglades. Each of the Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures will take your family on a high-speed ride through the rivers and creeks around Orlando to see gators, birds, fish, and more. It might even be more memorable than the rides at Disney.
2. Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour
If a relaxing day on the water is more your speed, you won’t want to miss the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour on your Olando vacation. The boat tour launches from historic Winter Park, about 30 minutes away from the theme parks, and the tours offer excellent lakeside views of the homes of the rich and famous. Be sure to stop by the nearby Buttermilk Bakery for breakfast or lunch to-go and eat before or after your scenic boat tour.
3. The Crayola Experience
For indoor fun with little kids on a rainy or extra hot day in Orlando, it’s hard to beat The Crayola Experience, a colorful entertainment complex dedicated to all things crayons. Visit the indoor activity center for more than two dozen hands-on experiences, including learning how crayons are made and wrapping your own crayon. With a playground, a cafe, a factory show, character meet-and-greets, and a craft studio, there are plenty of things to do.
4. ICON Park
Rarely is the word “free” associated with Orlando attractions, but ICON Park, located in the heart of International Drive’s commercial district, offers free daily admission and parking. Once inside, you’ll enjoy delights at a multitude of restaurants and bars, spend some time shopping at unique boutiques and stores, or take in the nightly entertainment and dancing fountains. You can also get a unique view of the Orlando skyline via the 400-foot Wheel at ICON Park. The park also features Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium, a bone museum, an arcade, and various other thrill rides. (These attractions, along with The Wheel, do require paid admission.)
5. Orlando Balloon Rides
Get a bird’s eye view of the most magical place on earth with Orlando Balloon Rides. A one-hour trip will amaze the kiddos as they take in the theme parks, swamps, and orange groves of central Florida from the basket of a giant balloon. With a sunrise tour, you’ll get the lay of the land before heading off to the rest of your day’s activities. Guests enjoy a Champagne (or sparkling cider) toast after landing.
6. Lake Eola Park
Give your kids a break from the action at Lake Eola Park, located smack in the middle of downtown Orlando. Created in the late 19th century just as Orlando was taking shape, the park today is an idyllic oasis for locals and visitors. Lined with weeping willows and brightly colored flowers, Lake Eola Park’s mile-long paved walking path offers the perfect spot to watch swans and other local fauna cool off in the lake. Rent a swan-shaped paddle boat and let the kids burn off some energy, and be sure to check the park’s website for notices for band performances, open-air movie screenings, and more at the band shell.
7. Orlando Science Center
At the Orlando Science Center, kids can discover the natural world through touch, play, and exploration. The hands-on exhibits allow kids to “hike” across Florida’s ecosystems, discover how the Earth’s atmosphere makes life possible, and get an up-close and personal view of dinosaur fossils and prehistoric mega animals. And if that’s not enough, the science center also hosts revolving exhibits like “Pompeii: The Immortal City” as well as events like “Kids Night on the Town” (that also gives parents a night on the town, sans kiddos).
8. Florida Mall
With nearly 1.8 million square feet of enclosed shopping space, the Florida Mall offers an air-conditioned respite when you need a break from central Florida’s heat and humidity. Kids love the American Girl Store and Crayola Experience stores. Parents like the Apple Store, Pottery Barn, and Armani Exchange. And if you just haven’t had enough of the Mouse during your Orlando vacation, there’s a Disney Store, too. Dining options include full-service restaurants like California Pizza Kitchen, the American Girl Bistro, and Buca di Beppo, as well as counter-service favorites like Five Guy’s and Sbarro.
9. Fun Spot America
A classic old-school amusement park, Fun Spot America in Orlando offers all the traditional rides like a Ferris wheel, carousel, swings, bumper cars, and go karts, along with midway games and thrill rides like roller coasters and a skycoaster. The Orlando location is home to Gator Spot, where kids can get a first-hand look at Florida’s most popular reptile. A second location in nearby Kissimmee has fewer thrill rides but more for the younger kids.
Both parks feature Fun Spot America’s patented multi-level go kart tracks. These parks are definitely not be as flashy as Orlando’s major theme parks, but you’ll probably find the shorter lines and lower ticket prices a nice change of pace during an otherwise overstuffed Orlando vacation.
10. Orlando International Premium Outlets
Shop til you drop and then some at Orlando International Premium Outlets. As the name implies, the sprawling complex is located on International Drive and features some 180 stores. The open-air complex is filled with fountains and places to sit and people-watch. You can snag great deals at outlets for high-end brands like Tory Burch, Victoria’s Secret, Adidas, and Brooks Brothers. There’s free parking, but it can be hard to come by unless you arrive early.
11. Disney Springs
If you’ve done all the theme parks but still can’t get enough Disney, it’s time to put Disney Springs on your radar. This Disney-themed shopping, dining, and entertainment complex can be accessed from Walt Disney World resorts via pedestrian bridge (from Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa), Disney shuttle bus, or by water taxi from three Disney resorts. If you’re not staying on a Disney property, Disney Springs offers free self parking and $20 valet service. The complex is divided into four district neighborhoods:
- The Landing
- West Side
- Town Center
Within these neighborhoods, you’ll find more than 100 shops, 64 places to eat or drink, and entertainment options like bowling, movie theaters, a vintage Amphicar ride, and the chance to soar above the complex in the world’s largest painted helium hot air balloon.
12. Winter Park
Driving northeast from downtown Orlando will land you squarely in Winter Park, a tony village complete with high-end al fresco dining, bespoke clothiers, independent movie theaters, and luxurious wine bars. This isn’t a great option for the littles, but teens and young adults may relish the experience. Stroll along the cobbled streets of Park Avenue or get a different view of the town’s magnificent waterfront homes via a Winter Park Scenic Boat tour. You’ll also find golf courses, art museums, sculpture gardens, and entertainment venues here, including Winter Park Playhouse, Florida’s only professional theater dedicated to musical theater.