It may be best known for its theme parks – from Disney World to Universal Studios – but there’s a lot more to Orlando than rollercoaster rides and costumed characters.
In fact, there’s enough to do in and around Orlando that you need never go near such things as giant mice, so don’t write off the Sunshine State as a holiday destination if theme parks aren’t your cup of tea. Rachel McCombie shares seven of her favourite things to do in Orlando, and there’s not a mouse in sight.
1. Kennedy Space Center
Even if you were to do nothing else in Florida, NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, on Florida’s Atlantic coast, just an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Orlando, would more than make the trip worthwhile. As well as its space museums, a must-do is the bus tour of Cape C’s working facilities, including the launchpad from which Apollo 11 left for the Moon. Unveiled in 2014, the most impressive exhibit is none other than the Space Shuttle Atlantis, until recently part of the iconic fleet that was NASA’s means of shipping astronauts from Cape Canaveral’s launchpads out to the International Space Station. Suspended from the ceiling as though in flight, you’ll get so close that you can almost reach out and touch it.
2. Lake Kissimmee Swamp Tour
See some of Florida’s wonderful wildlife by taking a ‘swamp tour’ on one of the state’s most well-known bodies of water, Lake Kissimmee. Several companies offer tours, for which you can find money-off coupons in local tourist brochures. Swamp tours take you on an exhilarating high-speed boat trip through the lilypads and swamps that form an ecosystem that’s home to countless species of flora and fauna. Look out for sandhill cranes, bald eagles and, of course, alligators.
3. See the lakes from the air
The landscape to the north of Orlando is peppered with lakes, and the best way to see just how many there are is from the air. Take to the skies in a floatplane and you’ll not only see the lakes from above, but you’ll get to land on them, too. There are several floatplane schools that can be easily reached from Orlando; Jones Brothers & Co in Tavares is a particularly good one.
4. Mr Ripley’s Believe It or Not
If the Florida heat gets a bit much, Mr Ripley’s Believe It or Not on International Drive is a fun place to retreat for air-conditioned comfort. The innumerable curiosities in this bizarre 1930s museum were amassed by the eponymous Mr Ripley, housed in a building that appears to be half-sinking into one of Florida’s infamous sinkholes (don’t worry, it’s not really). All kinds of weird and wonderful things await visitors to this ‘Odditorium’, from a model of the world’s tallest ever man to a fragment of the Berlin Wall.
5. Go Downtown
Downtown Orlando is the city’s business district, and its skyline has high-rise buildings aplenty. It’s best enjoyed in the evening, when the place comes alive as its restaurants and bars buzz with activity. Orange Avenue is particularly noted for its eating establishments, so it’s perfect for dinner. If you visit during the day, Lake Eola Park is worth a look for the insight it gives into what Orlando was like before Disney brought mass tourism to the area.
6. Daytona Beach and International Speedway
If you fancy dipping your toes into the Atlantic on Florida’s East Coast, Daytona Beach might be the place to try. Daytona Beach is unusual in that it allows cars on the beach, and the town as a whole is famous for its motor racing. It’s home to the Daytona International Speedway, which hosts the NASCAR meets and various other races. Take a tour, and experience the thrill of being in a race in one of its simulators. Keep an eye on the race calendar if you’d like to be in the crowd.
7. Clearwater Beach and the West Coast
Florida’s impeccably white sandy beaches on its Gulf of Mexico coast make for a great day trip from Orlando. Clearwater Beach is one of the most popular in Florida. Watch pelicans dive-bombing into the sea catching fish, and stroll along Pier 60, from which you can see shoals of fish swimming below. Between 6 and 9pm every night, the pier is the setting for Sunsets at Pier 60, with craft stalls and family entertainment, as the sun sets over the Gulf.
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