Welcome to Orlando, the Floridian utopia of parental promises, a place where not only childhood dreams come true, but a living time machine of sorts, where grown-ups regress with joy as they glide through tree tops a la Tarzan at attractions like Zip Orlando, take in the sights from 400 feet at the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye and test their mettle at problem solving while the clock ticks down at I-Drive's mind-bending escape room attraction, Escapology. While many people think of the City Beautiful as a destination focused solely on theme-park attractions, it's a consummate myth. Options for back country exploration via canoe, kayak, foot, horseback and even ATV or zipline – with venues like Wekiwa Springs State Park and others just minutes from Disney – are many. Educational entertainment at the state-of-the-art Orlando Science Center consistently delights all ages via permanent and rotating exhibits, as well as large-screen films and laser shows at its Dr. Phillips CineDome. Thrill seekers in search of something truly unique (yes, even those with a fear of heights) can sample the art of the skydive at iFLY Orlando's incredible indoor vertical wind tunnel. And if you're sold on the idea of that ubiquitous bag of Florida oranges as a gift for the folks back home, you may as well pull them from the tree yourself at the area's signature U-Pick: Showcase of Citrus.
Green Meadows Petting Farm
There's just something about a farm that brings out the child in all of us. Green Meadows is a favorite for local parents of young children, not to mention school and camp groups, an attraction where kids enjoy hands-on learning and delight in animal interaction with pigs, cows, sheep, ducks, donkeys, goats, chickens and other usual (and unusual) furry and feathered suspects in a safe environment. With admission comes a guided tour on which kids enjoy a train ride, tractor-drawn hay ride and pony rides along with farm-fun experiences like milking a cow. On-site picnic area allows for those packing lunches to break for eats and drinks and snacks are available for purchase at the farm's General Store. ((407) 846-0770)
Wekiwa Springs State Park
Return to Florida's natural beauty at Wekiwa Springs State Park. Hike through wild, diverse ecosystems, paddle the famous Wekiva River, or camp beneath the stars. Wekiwa Springs offers nature lovers the opportunity to experience a part of Florida that is all too quickly vanishing – and just minutes from the theme park area. Bring your camera, because wild turkey, black bear, deer, and many species of birds call this park home. Canoes and kayaks are available for rent and guided tours are available. Those interested in exploring the area on horseback may do so on weekends (minimum age: 6). Guided trail rides are $25/per person and run about an hour long. For more information, call 407-880-4110. (407-884-2008, 407-884-2009)
Showcase of Citrus
Owned by fourth generation citrus farmers, Showcase of Citrus is one of those classic "only in Florida" activities you have to do at least once (or, like the locals, you can come back again and again). This farm is home to 13 varieties of oranges alone – not counting the lemons, limes, tangerines and outstanding ruby red grapefruit. Pick 'em yourself or, if you're feeling lazy, grab a bag from the country store and mosey, but you might want to check out the Monster Truck Eco Tour while you're here. Watch for gators in the canals as you pick and enjoy a frozen OJ before you leave! ((352) 394-4377)
Escape Rooms are a trending to-do these days. Have you found out what all the fuss is about? Escapology, with its convenient I-Drive location, is a great place to do it. Here your group – as few as 2, as many as 5 – will get one hour to escape their themed lock-in. Players work as a team to uncover the clues, piece them together and solve the puzzles to make it out in time. Game Masters are on-hand to track your progress, and offer a few hints if necessary (you know, just to help you along). It's great fun for team-building, group outings, even date night – and RPG enthusiasts will likely enjoy taking their adventures into a three-dimensional setting as they navigate places like Old West Arizona, 19th Century Hong Kong and more. (407.278.1515)
Hollywood Drive-In Golf
Thirty-six holes of kitschy '50s fun await mini-golfers at this CityWalk-ensconced tribute to the era's sci-fi and horror movies. It is Universal Orlando, after all. Miniature golf aficionados of all ages will enjoy these exceptionally cool designs, as well as some surprise effects and interactive elements as they navigate their way around the courses. You may just want to play both in one day – or night. It's open until 2 am seven days a week. The Hollywood Drive-In is an exceptional option for everyone: friendly games, family outings, playful date nights, plus the dining, shopping and entertainment attractions of CityWalk are literally steps away. (407-802-4848)
Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens
From goats at the petting zoo to the super cool insect zoo (your enthusiasm will depend on your comfort level with creepy-crawlies) this Sanford Zoo isn't as small as it may seem. More than 500 animals representing roughly 200 species call this place home, including elephants, llamas, cheetah, apes and a whole house full of reptiles to ooh and ahh over. Active visitors may want to take a turn on the on-site aerial adventure course and everyone enjoys the weekend Keeper Chats. Who wouldn't want to learn more about the zoo's colorful, beautiful residents? (407-323-4450)
Zip Orlando is home to one of Florida's longest, fastest,and highest ziplines and offers a course with eight lines total, each ranging from 225 to 950 feet long and up to 65 feet off the ground – exciting stuff! Suspension bridges add even more thrills and the verdant Florida canopy and wildlife are a soothing off-set to all that adrenaline. There are no age requirements here, just weight. Riders need to fall in the 70 to 270-pound threshold. If careening about the canopy isn't your thing, Zip Orlando's exciting ATV tours of the Florida outback might be more your speed. Daytime and moonlight excursions are available for either. ((407) 808-4947)
Fear of heights? No worries. Live your dream of experiencing the adrenaline-infused skydiver's high of freefall in the controlled environment of iFLY Orlando's vertical wind tunnel. Adventurous adults and even seniors enjoy this attraction as much as the children, who can be as young as 3 to fly! How real is the experience? World champion skydiving teams have been training here since 1993. Packages for first-time single flyers begin at $59.95 and include instruction, gear and two one-minute flights in the wind tunnel with trainer assistance. Discounts are available for groups and return customers. This is as close to human flight as you can get sans airplane and kids – even the cautious ones – delight in finding their wings and soaring. ((407) 903-1150, (800) 759-3861)
Orlando Science Center
Giant screen movies and planetarium shows, towering dinosaur skeletons, four floors of interactive science exhibits in the realms of weather and space, lights and lasers, electricity and magnetism, live animals and live science programming throughout, not to mention limited engagement exhibits of all kinds depending on when you visit make the Orlando Science Center an ideal place to spend a day – with or without children. Experience the gale force winds of a Category 1 hurricane firsthand, watch a live gator feeding, discover the real life sea monsters that ruled the prehistoric seas and take in a giant-screen movie or laser show in the Dr. Phillips CineDome. You can even plan an evening SkyWatch at the Crosby Observatory (check the OSC website for this and other special events). (407.514.2000, 888.OSC.4FUN)
I-Drive 360 is a relatively new entertainment complex on International Drive, and an easy one to locate sans GPS – as its icon is visible for miles. The glittering Coca-Cola Orlando Eye observation wheel towers at 400 feet. One circuit takes about 20 minutes and passengers ride in climate-controlled capsules allowing for 360-degree views. Down at terra firma, other attractions abound: Madame Tussaud's world-famous wax wonders allow for selfies with everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Barack Obama, Michael Jackson to Samuel L. Jackson, Justin Bieber to Johnny Depp. The SeaLife Aquarium's wonders, however, are very much alive, representing bodies of water far and near and Skeletons: Animals Unveiled? Well, not a lot of life in here, but this brilliantly entertaining museum satisfies cravings for science fact and a bit of fiction (cryptozoology), its residents staged in poses that almost bring them back to life. The complex houses a host of restaurants, as well, along with an arcade. Whether your kids are 3 or 23, I-Drive 360's a safe bet for fun, food and photo-ops.
About A.D. Thompson
A.D. Thompson has spent more than 20 years as a professional writer and roughly 15 as a Floridian. The words, she has found, come easier with bare feet and rum.
A roller coaster enthusiast, A.D. readily admits there is fun to be had amid the madness of the theme parks, but has found there is magic, as well, in the outer-lying reaches of Mickey’s long shadow. She is delighted to share with you the spoils of her adopted city.
Visit her colorful compendium at www.amydrewthompson.com.
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