Orlando attractions: things to do in Orlando besides theme parks
By Helen Wright
I am asked so often about alternative Orlando attractions and what to do in Orlando besides theme parks, that I wish I’d written this post sooner! The reality is, a trip to Orlando will be expensive, so people are always looking for cheap things to do in Orlando and things to do in Orlando besides theme parks. We love the likes of Disney, Universal and Sea World, and there are great deals available in the UK, but you may have seen in our sample Orlando itinerary post we recommend you take a few theme park breaks and explore other things to do in Orlando.
Orlando attractions: the top six things to do in Orlando besides theme parks
I went to Gatorland when I was eight years old and so I didn’t remember that much about it, other than the big ‘gator jaw’ entrance. When we went back to Orlando with Finn, he was very excited about seeing alligators up close. Keen to plan some things to do in Orlando besides theme parks, we booked a visit and ended up having SUCH a great day. Gatorland has genuinely rocketed up my list as one of my favourite Orlando attractions. You can book tickets in advance, in the UK here.
The wildlife park is huge and has room for a whopping 10,000 alligators. There are big ones, small ones, charismatic ones, VIP ones, unusual ones and crocodiles… If you don’t know the difference between them, you can find out here. Most of their alligators are rescued from the wild and I found the educational aspect as interesting as when I was eight. They also have different animals such as wild cats and giant tortoises. Finn was thrilled because they also had a steam train, of course.
To treat Finn and get a closer look at the magnificent alligators, we paid an extra $10 for the Adventure Hour package, which meant we got to go inside the enclosure with a guide and watch as the big guys came out for their lunch. It was a bit scary! But they really seemed to respond to charismatic alligator handler, Donny, who has been with Gatorland for many years. If they came too far forward, he would bang a stick on the ground and they would retreat. It felt very safe, but Finn was not so sure about mummy getting too close for a photo with the main guys!
The Gatorland Zipline Orlando
If you are looking for other things to do in Orlando besides theme parks but still want to feel the rush of adrenaline, you can zipline Orlando at Gatorland on the Screamin’ Gator Zipline (£49pp includes entry to Gatorland and the Gatorland zipline Orlando). This is a zipline with a difference because you actually fly over the alligator enclosures on five separate ziplines that start as high as 65 feet. There is no age restriction for the Gatorland Zipline Orlando but flyers do have to be 37 inches tall, so Finn couldn’t ride, but he enjoyed watching mummy and daddy ‘flying’.
If you have never ridden a zip line before, it can be quite daunting but once you get the hang of it, it’s exhilarating. Tickets for the Screaming’ Gator Zipline are separate from your entrance admission (combo deals are available and save you money) but it’s a brilliant thing for the whole family to do. Simon isn’t that keen on heights so I wondered if he would go through with it but he did eventually and he loved it. Don’t forget to wear closed-toe shoes or you may not be allowed to ride.
Another experience you can have at Gatorland is the new Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure ($10pp). Giant monster truck swamp buggies with names like ‘Bonecrusher’ and ‘Cannibal Jake’ take you through giant muddy puddles, bumpy plains, a (creepy) real alligator graveyard and a lake of live gators. ‘Red neck’ actor-drivers narrate the whole trip and it’s a lot of bouncy, and slightly uncomfortable, fun.
We had only planned to go to Gatorland for a few hours as we had no idea how much was there! As well as the variety of animals there were educational sessions, a water play area, a playground, picnic areas and a train ride. We ended up staying all day and it was brilliant. It’s one of the best things to do in Orlando with kids. Finn loved running around and it was very relaxed and safe. The only thing we avoided was the Gator Wrestling and photocall, as animals performing isn’t really our thing. After an energetic morning, we chose just to spend our time enjoying watching the animals chilling out in a more natural setting and just wandering around in the sun.
(Affiliate links on this page mean I may get a small financial benefit if you buy tickets after clicking my link but this will come at no extra cost to yourself and would never affect my recommendations or opinions).
The best things to do in Orlando besides theme parks
ICON ORLANDO 360 / I Drive 360
The Icon Orlando 360 is a 400ft high big wheel along the popular I-drive, hence why many people call it the I drive 360. In fact, I drive 360 is the blanket term that covers the whole complex, which also includes the wheel, Madame Tussauds, Sealife Orlando and all the shops, restaurants and bars surrounding them. Even more confusingly, it also used to be called the Orlando Eye too (so good they named it three times?) Whatever you call it, you can’t deny the iconic Orlando Ferris Wheel is pretty cool. It looks extra impressive a night, all lit up and you can see it for miles – we played ‘spot the wheel’ on virtually all of our car journeys.
Whilst it makes quite a distinctive impression on the Orlando skyline, I wasn’t sure if the I drive 360 would be fun for us as a family. Would the Icon Orlando be suitable for a toddler with limitless energy? I worried that Finn would get bored on the ‘flight’ but, in fact, it was quite the opposite. He loved the Orlando Eye and wouldn’t stop talking about the ‘big wheel’ for the rest of the holiday! He was fascinated by the moving ‘pod’, the other capsules on the wheel, the mechanics and the panoramic views. He also quite enjoyed the echo of his voice so spent a lot of time shouting his own name…
Inside the capsules, there were interactive ipads so you could click to find out what you could see from your vantage point and interesting facts and information about the sights. We were so lucky to have ridden on such a clear day as we could see so far – including to Walt Disney World, where we could see the Epcot globe, The Tower or Terror and Summit Plummit. We could also see the volcano of Universal’s Volcano Bay and the rollercoasters of SeaWorld. When visibility is perfect, you can see all the way to Cape Canaveral and the east coast. It’s high!
It was nice for us as a couple too, as while Finn darted about, looking out of all of the different windows, we got to enjoy a mini date and a glass of champagne. We had booked the Icon Orlando Champagne Experience (£32pp for age 21 and over), which meant we got a glass of fizz to enjoy along with the views. Finn rode free of charge as he was under three.
We really enjoyed our ride and since Finn had become fixated on spotting the Orlando Eye, we actually booked a second ride on the last day of our trip. This time, we chose to go at Sunset and it was beautiful. So, what would I recommend, Icon Orlando 360 at Sunset or during the day? It’s true that you can see further during the day, when the sun is shining but I loved the trip at Sunset – it felt very special and was a lovely way to end our brilliant trip to Orlando.
BOGGY CREEK AIRBOAT ADVENTURES
Before Walt Disney pitched up in Orlando with his castle and magical vision, the area was pretty much a no-man’s land – dominated by orange trees, swamps, everglades and alligators. If you are looking for things to do in Orlando besides theme parks, go back to nature with a classic air boat ride over the ‘glades. It’s a fun thing for the whole family to do, one of the best authentic things to do in Orlando with kids and one of the more unique adult activities in Orlando. Take to the water on one of these classic ‘fan boats’ which have been used to explore the area since the 1930s and you’ll get to understand a bit more about what Orlando was like before it became the world’s number one summer holiday destination.
We were recommended the Boggy Creek Airboat Rides and Adventures company which tour the central Florida everglades. We decided on a 30-minute Boggy Creek airboat tour as we felt an hour sat on a boat (with no option to move around) would be too much for a two year old, and it was the perfect amount of time. We travel with noise cancelling earphones for Finn anyway and they worked well as the ones provoded by the company would have been a bit big. The noise of the fan is LOUD, so it is recommended you wear them! The boats may be a very simple design but they can travel at up to 45 miles per hour, so if you are travelling with little ones, I don’t recommend sitting on the front row as the wind in your face is harsh!
It was so nice to be out on the water, enjoying a little breeze (and break from the sun) and some fresh air. The boats are quite thrilling to ride, especially when the drivers do sharp turns, splashing water everywhere. You are advised that you might see exotic birds, turtles and alligators in the wild but there are no guarantees. I was pleased that the company have a no interaction policy and so they don’t bait the gators with food or treats to encourage them to approach the boat. We were lucky enough to see a couple of gators in the wild and exotic birds, including a bald eagle, but we were always a respectable distance away. It was really exciting being surrounded by such natural beauty.
Boggy Creek Airboat Rides and Adventures also have a Native American experience, a playground, water features and a quality BBQ restaurant called Boggy Bottom BBQ – try the brisket! Parking was free.
Believe it or not, Orlando isn’t just neon-lit complexes, theme parks and tourist traps. 280,000 people live in Orlando and it has some beautiful and interesting communities. Local experts, Veness Travel, touch on some of them in our Orlando Insiders post. You may have seen mentions for Celebration, the inauthentic and twee Disney-esk village, just ten minutes from the theme parks but we prefer Winter Park. This affluent area is set around a series of lakes, has a traditional high street (Park Avenue) with independent shops, restaurants and businesses and is a great place to find adult activities in Orlando.
For a way to stay dry and cool off, head first to Winter Park Scenic Tours on Lake Virginia. This boat tour has been in operation since 1938, pre-dating Disney, and making it the oldest tourist attraction in Orlando. The lake is actually three lakes, (which originally formed as the result of a sink hole, arghhhhhhh), and they are joined together by a series of canals. The cruise route is really beautiful and you get a glimpse of some magnificent billionaire mansions and the exclusive Rollins private collage, which sits on the water’s edge and where fees start from a cool $44,000 per year… ouch.
After the tour, a walk around the lake is a nice way to spend the morning and you can also wander the grounds of Rollins and check out all the rich kids. From here, head to Park Avenue, a classic American high street that looks like it was built to star in a Hallmark movie about a slick city girl who gets amnesia and ends up living in a small town with friendly locals. It’s a cool area to wander with lots of bars, restaurants and quirky shops.
We had lunch at The Wine Room, one of the fun adult things to do in Orlando. With a pay-as-you-go machine card, you can go self-service wine tasting, trying wines from across America and the world. Drink responsibly by also ordering some of the delicious food – the squash hummus and flatbread was my favourite.
NASCAR I Drive, Indoor Go Karts Orlando
Okay, so on the subject of things to do in Orlando for adults, now we’re talking! Simon and I had such a laugh being big kids at Nascar I Drive Go Karts Orlando on International Drive. Whizzing around the track we took it very seriously, getting competitive and trying to beat each other to the finish line. It was so much fun – I would love to go back with a bunch of friends, I think it would be one of the best adult things to do in Orlando for big groups.
The Nascar I Drive is actually just off International drive in a kind-of airport hanger building. It’s huge! The atmosphere and vibe is brilliant when you walk in, with racing memorabilia and a huge arcade. When you are called for your race, you are taken to the track to get kitted up and attend a safety briefing. The young, friendly staff are fun and get you really revved up and excited for your turn. Simon whizzed off and left me behind as I was a bit slow to start with but I soon caught up and gave him a run for his money! The whole experience took about 90 minutes and since it is all under cover, this is also a top tip for things to do indoors in Orlando when it’s raining. You can book a non-specific date before you travel at Attraction Tickets Direct in the UK and literally save it for a rainy day! Watch my video, featuring Nascar here
Unique things to do in Orlando besides theme parks
OLD TOWN KISSIMMEE
My family and I have been going to the Old Town Amusement park in Kissimmee whenever we were in Orlando since I was a kid. Over the years, it has grown from a small, independent venture to one of the most popular Orlando attractions. Now, it has a choice of casual restaurants and bars, an Orlando Fun Spot fairground, nightly entertainment and a dose of retro Americana.
To describe it accurately, Old Town Kissimmee is a replica of a classic American Western town. There is no cost to enter Old Town, you are free to wander the cobbled streets, check out the quirky shops and stop for a drink or a bite. The slices at Flippers Pizzeria are highly recommended, or for a fun sports pub with good bar snacks (especially the buffalo wings) opt for the Froggers Grill and Bar. The Old Town amusement park is quiet during the day, so it’s a peaceful place to wander up and down (and pedestrianised, so a good thing to do in Orlando with kids to let them stretch their legs for a bit). There is a colourful Ferris Wheel, arcades, small rollercoasters and bungee jumping on offer too.
The highlight of Old Town is the Saturday Nite’ Classic Car Cruise – a vintage car show with over 100 perfectly preserved cars. In the early evening you can walk up and down to get a close look at the cars, take photos and talk to the owners. There is also live music and line dancing! At the end of the night, the cars file out in an end-of-the-night parade. Everyone lines the streets with drinks and flags and waves the cars off as they leave. Finn (and my dad) absolutely loved it! Finn was especially thrilled when he realized he could high five the drivers as they went past.
For a charitable donation, you can actually get the chance to ride in one of the cars and Finn and I rode in a beautiful blue 50s Cadillac. I felt like a carnival queen and Finn was thrilled to be in the front seat, cruising along and waving at everyone. It was a brilliant and unique experience, one of the best things to do in Orlando for adults before you hit the bars and clubs, as well as being a wholesome and fun evening for families. It really felt like we had been invited to a big street party and it was just something so different and memorable, I highly recommend a visit – especially on a Saturday!
Cycle the West Orange Trail
I think, particularly if you are from Europe, one thing you notice about a holiday to Orlando is that you spend a lot of time in your rental car going from A to B. By the way, if you have any questions about renting a car in the USA and what insurances you need, one of our most popular posts is about just that! Click here to read more. On our Orlando Frequently Asked Questions page we also discuss whether you need a car in Orlando and how long you need for your Orlando holiday.
With some much time on the road, swapping four wheels for two is one of my favourite things to do in Orlando besides theme parks. With the weather (usually) so nice, and the fact that Orlando is so flat, this makes for the perfect destination to go cycling. The best place to rent bikes in Orlando is from Bikes and Blades along the West Orange Trail in Winter Garden.
The West Orange Trail is a former railway line and so a straight and direct route through woodland, orange groves, residential areas and pretty towns. It actually stretches 22-miles and you can go as little or as far as you like – just remember you need to go back to return the bike and collect your car! We got a bike each and a trailer for Finn – which he loved! We cycle with him at home in London but here, he got to sit in the special carriage and he thought that was great. It also allowed him to go to sleep during the ride, which meant we could cycle for a bit longer without worrying that he would get fidgety.
We cycled as far as Plant Street Market, which is a cool food hall with independent shops and food stalls. The Crooked Can Brewery is also part of the market with a selection of craft beers and seating inside and outside. If the weather is a bit iffy and you are looking for things to do indoors in Orlando, you can take a tour of the micro brewery (they brew their beer on site), but booking in advance is recommended. Plant Street Market and Crooked Can is one of the top things to do in Orlando for adults and a refreshing change from the tourist areas of Universal CityWalk and Disney Springs. We met a lot of locals here – in fact, we seemed to be the only out-of-towners! Maybe this is Orlando’s top secret location? Or was… Regardless of the fact we were newbies, we were all welcomed so warmly and we ended up staying here all afternoon in the sun and not cycling as far as we’d planned. The atmosphere (and beer) was so good!
Our itinerary was supported, in part, by visitorlando.com and some of the attractions were comped.
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