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, tear through turns in high-powered Italian go-carts at Grand Prix Orlando and squeal through the first drop at Disney's Animal Kingdom's signature Expedition Everest roller coaster. 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.
10 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. ((352) 394-4377)
9 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)
8 Silver Springs
Just 90-minutes' drive from Orlando, this unique wildlife park, with surreal beauty has captivated visitors for more than a century, offers guests a glimpse into the crystal abyss as they cruise the pristine waterways in a glass-bottom riverboat. Make sure you keep an eye out for the wildlife which may include anything from red-bellied turtles to alligators to native birds of prey. Other highlights include the zoo's collection of unique animals from around the world and the popular Doolittle's Petting Zoo, where some of the cutest resident critters get all the attention. Also on tap: alligator feedings, reptile shows and more. Trivia fact: Some of the famous "Tarzan" movies of the 1930s and '40s were filmed here. It's easy to see why. (352-236-2121, 800-234-7458)
7 Legoland Florida
In a city where mice, cartoon characters and comic books are transformed into roller coasters, shows and rides for families and kids to enjoy, there didn't seem to be much more room for another theme park. But in Orlando � the tourist capital of the world � there's always room for more fun and LEGOLAND added a completely fresh and different park to the mix. The 150-acre park houses 10 different areas: Fun Town, Miniland USA, DUPLO Village, LEGO Kingdoms, Land of Adventure, LEGO City, Imagination Zone, LEGO TECHNIC, Pirates' Cove and Cypress Gardens. They can see and learn how LEGO bricks are made, see cities recreated with LEGOs, take a ride on the Dragon (an indoor/outdoor family rollercoaster) and even build and program computerized LEGO robots. The family-oriented park offers visitors an exciting alternative to the larger more well-known parks in Orlando. ((863) 325-8021)
6 Orlando Grand Prix
Age ain't nothing but a number and the one that really counts at Orlando Grand Prix is height. Forty-eight inches (that's four feet tall) and kids ages 6 and up are good to go in junior carts that reach speed of up to 20 miles per hour on the Grand Prix Track. Folks at least 56 inches tall are ready for adult-sized carts can enjoy the thrill of the Grand Prix in carts that hit 50 or check out the excitement of drifting on an alternative track with ice-simulated flooring for maximum slide. Orlando Grand Prix is comprised of more than 70,000 square feet with technology that times your laps overall and within your party. The best part? Indoor air-conditioned comfort means you can enjoy family fun regardless of what's going on outside. ((407) 434-7500)
5 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)
4 Zip Orlando
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)
3 Disney's Animal Kingdom® Theme Park
Seven unique areas encompassing the world's many colorful cultures and the majesty of nature make Disney's Animal Kingdom the apex predator of its theme-park savannah. With myriad rides for all ages, from the TriceraTop Spin, where kids can control the altitude of their flying herbivore, to Expedition Everest, a high-altitude adventure coaster that brings those who dare into the den of the snarling Yeti before sending them careening from the world's highest peak, this park's allure runs the spectrum from young to old with first-rate shows, wonderful rides and of course, some 1,700 beautiful and fascinating animals to encounter along the way. Not to be missed: the Kilimanjaro Safari, an outdoor ride in an open-sided vehicle (with a little trademark Disney drama thrown in for excitement) brings explorers face-to-face with antelope and elephant, cheetah and hippo, zebra, wildebeest, rhino and more. No two expeditions are ever the same. (407-824-4321)
2 iFLY Orlando
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)
1 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)
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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