A large number of Orlando’s Visitors head to the Orlando area to indulge in the Disney World Dream. And while we are far from discouraging this or in any way dissing a Disney World vacation, there is a whole lot more to the area than just Mickey and Co. This article is for anyone who either wants to avoid Disney Completely or just needs a break from the “Magic” for a day or two, as we pull together our 10 Best Things to do in Orlando Other Than Disney.
Before Disney World arrived fifty years ago, Orlando was a small community in Central Florida with a landscape of citrus groves, lakes formed from sinkholes, alligator-filled swamps, and flatland’s tangled in Palmetto. But that all changed when the granddaddy of all theme parks opened to the public in 1971.
After Disney’s grand entrance, savvy entrepreneurs flocked to the area to engage tourists with a mountain of other activities that filled their hours between trips to Walt’s creation. Now, Orlando, with its mild weather and evergreen terrain, is a magical paradise that has enough attractions to fill an entire travel book.
It is impossible to discover all that Orlando has to offer in one stay unless you have a month and unlimited income. Therefore, we did the work for you by listing our 10 best Orlando attractions. Our well-rounded options are a mix of Central Florida’s top attractions and cultural offerings to keep you busy when you are not wandering the 1,100 acres of Disney’s four famous parks.
1 – Universal Orlando
If it were located anywhere else, Universal Orlando would be the highlight of the area, but in Central Florida, it plays second fiddle, sitting in the shadows of Cinderella’s Castle. In recent times the park was falling a long way behind and was in danger of failing completely! Universal is gaining ground, however, and becoming a serious threat to Disney’s dominance. The Turn around is almost exclusively down to one thing…Harry Potter. Universal Orlando is innovative, is easier to roam, it has fast, free, and efficient ferries, and most of its attractions are inside, so you are free from Florida’s scorching sun and its sudden summer showers. In addition, the multi-stage queue system in the park provides ongoing entertainment along the way to your ride to make long lines seem shorter.
We encourage you to take the time to check out Universal Orlando in full by buying at least a one-day, two-park pass so that you can visit Universal Studios Florida in the morning and afternoon, and Universal’s Islands of Adventure in the evening. It can be a push to fit it all in but it’s certainly doable. We suggest you hit Universal Studio’s celebrated rides first, which include Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket (Actually one of our favorite coasters in the world!), Revenge of the Mummy, and the ultra-high-tech, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, which is a seamless mix of a roller-coaster, motion simulators, and commanding 3D, high-definition screens.
You might get hungry after several rides, so head over to Fast Food Boulevard in the whimsical surroundings of Springfield, named after the fictional town in “The Simpsons.” Here you will find all the significant joints from the long-running animated show, including Krusty Burger, Moe’s Tavern, The Frying Dutchman, Lard Lad Donuts, and several other eateries.
After a bite, check out Universal Studio’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter—Diagon Alley, where you will find yourself in a complex and surreal recreation of the cobblestoned alley and shopping center of Diagon located behind the Leaky Cauldron pub in London, England. Here, you will experience all things Harry, including Knockturn Alley, a shadowy ghetto with moving clouds in a furious sky, and onsite performances like The Singing Sorceress: Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees, and The Tales of Beedle the Bard, a street performance with puppets.
Then, zip-off from Diagon Alley on the Hogwarts Express by entering Kings Cross Station and boarding a vintage steam train, with all of the smoke and hisses you’d expect from this elaborate recreation. Find a spot in one of the train’s six-person compartments, and watch England, Scotland, and menacing shadows pass outside your window before the train disembarks outside the gate at Islands of Adventure, where you can enter with your two-park pass.
The first stop is the fantastic recreation of Hogshead where you can sample butterbeer and pick out your wand at Ollivander’s wand shop. Rides here include the sedate flight of the hippogryph and the technological Marvel that is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, located inside an inc4reible replica of Hogwarts castle.
Can’t-miss rides at Islands of Adventure include the Incredible Hulk Coaster, and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man located on Marvel Super Hero Island; Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls, and Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges in the Toon Lagoon; and Skull Island: Reign of Kong inside Jurassic Park. Seuss Landing is another extravagant spot in the park with madcap rides and hidden gags amongst the chaos of the good Doctor’s characters like the Cat in the Hat and the Grinch, who roam the property bringing folly and sneers, respectively.
2 – SeaWorld Orlando
SeaWorld has had its share of bad press lately after the 2013 documentary Blackfish, which exposed numerous animal welfare issues at the marine park. After a public backlash, SeaWorld took real action by announcing that they would phase out their orca shows and donate $10 million a year to rescue and rehabilitate ill, injured, and orphaned animals. So far, SeaWorld has rescued more than 31,000 animals around the world.
We tell you all of this because if you are open to second chances, we invite you to visit SeaWorld Orlando. While SeaWorld will no longer capture or breed Orcas, the park’s remaining population of these magnificent marine creatures, which are also called killer whales, still delight audiences in an educational show at Orlando’s location. Along with killer whales, you will be entertained by bottlenose dolphins, sea lions, and Elmo, the red, furry Muppet, who puts on a rock concert with a few of his friends.
There are also world-class aquariums filled with turtles, schools of Caribbean fish, and other marine life. In addition, SeaWorld has the high-flying roller coaster Mako, which is the longest, fastest, and tallest ride in Orlando, as well as a flume ride called Journey to Atlantis that will leave you soaked from head to toe. In fact, Sea Worlds Line-up of Thrill Rides actually beats any theme Park in Florida, and rivals even the best in the world!
3- Legoland Florida
Where can you find 50 million Lego blocks in one location? Well, Legoland, Florida, in Winter Park, which is just outside of North Orlando. The largest Lego Park in the world is geared towards families, and the park is refreshingly stress-free and relaxed, requiring limited planning to visit all the park has to offer.
Legoland is one of Orlando’s newest attractions, opening in 2011, but it was built on the site of the historic Cypress Gardens, a botanical garden, and water ski show complex, which opened in 1936. After several decades of success, the garden simply couldn’t keep pace with the high-tech competition all around it, and eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2006 before falling into oblivion in 2009.
A few years later, LegoLand bought the park and turned Cypress Gardens into a spectacle of wonder, with open spaces to frolic and kid-friendly rides and activities based on the Lego legacy. And, along every route in the park, you will see amazing engineering feats represented in Lego creations like Daytona International Speedway, Kennedy Space Center, and iconic spots in California, Las Vegas, and New York. So, if your kid is a Lego junkie, he or she will not be disappointed by all that Legoland has to offer.
4 – International Drive
You can spend a day or two just on International Drive, which is a strip between Universal Orlando and Disney World that holds some of the original attractions that created Central Florida’s vacationland. These sideshows and midways along International Drive won’t break your budget, and the I-Ride trolley will take you along the route, so you can rest your weary feet for a day. From CSI: The Experience to I-Drive NASCAR to Zombie Outbreak, everyone in your crew will find something to itch their niche.
One of our favorite distractions from Central Florida’s main attractions is the Orlando Sea Life Aquarium. If you do not have the cash to get you through a day at SeaWorld, this inexpensive alternative offers another view of marine life. The aquarium has a wonderful design, theatrical lighting, and is well-stocked with more than 5,000 fish. Curators pump 300,000 gallons into three large tanks to represent the habitats found in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans. Large, clear tubes run through each tank providing a walkway that allows you to see marine life from all angles.
Another hugely popular attraction is Madame Tussauds, a fabulously touristy wax museum that will have you giggling and taking photos with the most famous “people” in the world. You can rub shoulders with eerily-real recreations of the members of the Justice League, sports legends like Tiger Woods and David Beckham, film stars such as Will Smith and Ryan Gosling, and historical figures like Albert Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr.
5- Kennedy Space Center
If you are like us, you will have a moment where you will want to escape the chaos of “themed parks” to make sure that the rest of the world still exists. It doesn’t mean you are done with Orlando, but a minor excursion does help to break things up. While you won’t need a personal vehicle for most of your time in Orlando, you will need to rent a car and take a road trip 67 miles east in order to get to the Kennedy Space Center.
The Kennedy Space Center has a history that supersedes any park in Orlando and is represented in the schoolbooks of our youth. We are talking about the launching pad and operation stations that supported NASA’s Apollo flights that led to the first moon landing, as well as other triumphs and tragedies that surround the Space Shuttle program, from the first shuttle launch in 1981 to the first U.S. manned launch failure that ended in tragedy for its crew.
Located on a 140,000-acre barrier island on Florida’s Space Coast, the Kennedy Space Center has interactive experiences, guided tours by bus and foot, two brilliant IMAX movies that take you on a voyage through space, and up-close and personal views of rockets and shuttles.
6 – Gatorland
Nothing gives you the feel of Florida like the Everglades and gators. It would be a crime to travel all the way to Central Florida and not visit some part of the largest subtropical wilderness in the United States, which plays host to 1.25 million gators. So, get out of the city and into Florida’s backcountry, which offers thrills that compete with Disney’s Tower of Terror.
Our suggestion for an offbeat adventure into the Florida swamps is Gatorland. The park opened in 1949 on the southernmost border of Orlando. Back in the day, Seminole Indians wrestled gators for gasping crowds of tourists, even though curious travelers could find gators basking in the sun on the side of most roadways. These days, massive development has evicted most of these giant reptiles from their homes, so Gatorland offers the opportunity for travelers to ZIPLINE OVER GATOR PONDS that hold thousands of these half-ton beasts. Yes, all true. There is also a breeding marsh, swamp preserve, splash park, petting zoo, and aviary. In addition, Gatorland holds true to its roots by keeping its Gator Wrestlin’ Show alive.
7 – Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art
You owe it to yourself to visit one museum when you visit a new city. Think of it as culture for the soul. And the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art is the best museum in Orlando and possibly the best in the state of Florida. The museum is located in Winter Park, just north of Orlando, a place of new money represented by redbrick streets and lakefront mansions. You will find the museum nestled amongst Winter Park’s boutiques, and while there is big money all around it, a day at the museum is only $5 for adults and free for kids who are 11 and under.
This unexpected treasure has late 19th Century and early 20th Century American paintings and prints, and exhibits of American pottery, furniture, and jewelry, along with the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by American designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. An entire wing is devoted to his custom furnishings, vases, lamps, leaded-glass windows, bespoke fountains, and installations taken from Tiffany’s Long Island home. Even those who know nothing of Tiffany will leave awed by a close encounter with the astonishing radiance of Tiffany’s finest works of art.
8 – Discovery Cove
The Florida peninsula does not fall short with its affinity for water and wildlife, so there are plenty of options. If you are looking to slow your pace a bit, head to Discovery Cove, and make it your mission to spend the day doing NOTHING but enjoying a 32-acre tropical oasis.
Discovery Cove throws in a nice touch by issuing an all-inclusive admission, which covers breakfast, unlimited lunch that includes beer for adults, towels, wetsuit and masks, and sunscreen. Beautiful, right? Just head out of your hotel, plot a course for Discovery Cove, and the park takes care of the rest. To make things even better, it might feel like you are part of an exclusive crew as you wander the park because there is a daily cap on crowds to keep things mellow and the lines short.
Inside the park, you will find a sandy white beach underneath palm trees at Serenity Bay, and a lazy river for a leisurely float around the park as you pass through caves and cascading waterfalls, before arriving at a magnificent aviary where you can feed tropical birds. You can also snorkel above the trenches of a saltwater reef or head into the tropical rainforest where you come face-to-face with curious marmoset monkeys and playful Asian river otters. Yes, there are large beasts as well, as sharks loom behind glass that makes it appear as if you are swimming next to them.
There is one caveat to Discovery Cove’s all-inclusive package; two of the activities cost extra. First, you can wear a special diving helmet and walk underwater through Discovery Cove’s Grand Reef, which the park has filled with velvety rays that reach four feet across and swarms of tropical fish that are so close you can reach out and touch them. Second, there is the unique option to freely swim with bottle-nose dolphins. Really we are not huge fans of captive dolphin encounters and prefer to see them swimming freely in the ocean but in recent years Sea World has improved their animal welfare considerably and no longer uses wild-caught animals. So for anyone wanting to swim with dolphins, this is a good opportunity.
9 – Pirates Dinner Adventure
At some point during your time in Orlando, it is nice to just sit down and enjoy a show for a few hours, and you won’t find a better one than Cirque Magique at Treasure Tavern. The show is a serious rival to those at the big parks. Comedic magicians, clowns, acrobats, and PUPPIES collide in a show that even provides you with dinner and an ice cream treat. We were lucky enough to see the show before a hurricane destroyed part of Treasure Tavern, which put the production on hold but look for Cirque Magique to rebound soon, and until then, Treasure Tavern offers the return of Pirates Dinner Adventure, which also took a short hiatus before it returned to action.
Pirate’s Dinner Adventure is a Broadway-style musical that is both interactive and dazzling. Enjoy action, comedy, and romance aboard a 46-foot long, 18th Century Spanish galleon with 40-foot masts that sits on a 300,000-gallon indoor lagoon. Performers will excite you with aerial acts and other stunts, and spectacular special effects. As you watch evil pirates, heroes, a princess, a sea dragon, and 150 volunteers from the audience who become extras, you will sit in one of the six ships that surround the lagoon and dine on pot roast and chicken.
10 – Hanson’s Shoe Repair
Orlando will wear you out during the day, so if you can catch a nap and a hot bath to soothe your aching bones, you will want to spend at least one evening venturing out to tap into Orlando’s abundant nightlife. While Disney provides on-premises clubs and bars because they are not happy unless they own all of the cash in your wallet and your shirt as well, there are other options to consider; and these spots deserve a buck or two for even trying to compete with the greatest theme park in the world.
Therefore, if you didn’t bring any kids to Orlando, or you have stowed away your nanny, we suggest that the fun-loving tourist in you find a dive bar to get the local feel, or visit one of Orlando’s numerous theme bars. We had a hard time choosing our favorite nightspot because there isn’t a more fun and fanciful collection of bars on the planet. Consider that you can have a drink while getting a couple’s tattoo at Stigma Tattoo Bar, or you can grab a cold beer while spending Christmas at Frosty’s Christmastime Lounge. This joint celebrates the holiday every day with the look and feel of a cozy winter cabin, complete with snow-frosted windows and a snow machine, a vintage sleigh, snow cone cocktails, and Christmas ambiance for days.
However, our favorite has to be the covertly named Hanson’s Shoe Repair, a speakeasy that will make you feel like an extra on “Boardwalk Empire” or “Peaky Blinders.” The shop actually did repair shoes when it opened in 1883 by a cobbler named Hanson, who served the public with his family for many years in Orlando. Now, it is a super chill hideaway cocktail lounge that allows 30 people to get their “shoes repaired” at a time.
To access this Prohibition-style lounge, which is committed to the cause, you have to call ahead, and a password will be text messaged to you when it is time for your arrival. Inside, you will pass through a nondescript hallway and enter the lounge through a door disguised as an elevator shaft.
The owners decorated the bar with antique shoes and century-old portraits on the walls, and bartenders with bowler hats serve drinks that are mostly bourbon and rum mixed with tonics, sodas, bitters, and garnishes that the staff made in-house, just like speakeasies did in the 1920s.
Bonus – LEAVE!
While there is far more to Orlando than Disney World, this is also true of Orlando in general. Really the whole Orlando area is a pretty dull uninspiring swamp if you strip back the tourist trappings. Florida is a vast, diverse, and incredibly beautiful State with tons to see and do besides the theme parks and tourist traps.
We strongly advise getting out and seeing a lot more of what the state has to offer. Either with a road trip or a multi-center trip. There really is something for everyone from perfect beaches, thriving metropolises to remote wilderness teeming with wildlife!
Miami is a city like no other and a must-visit location. Perfect for a multi-base trip the tropical beach life of south beach is to die for. It’s no wonder this area has become the home of many A-list Celebs. While it is a very expensive place to visit it really has to be on your list to visit before you die. There is really no place like Miami!
The Everglades is a gigantic swap and flooded grassland at the southern tip of Florida. Exploring these vast expanses is best done by Airboat and instantly conjures up iconic images of the state and these ungainly craft waft over the shallow waters. The National Park works wonders for protecting the vast amount of plants and animals that make up the region and means Gator sightings are very frequent.
The Beaches of the Mexico Gulf and Sarasota are some of the finest in the world. The ultra-soft White Powder beaches feel more like snow than sand and are lapped by the clear warm Caribbean seas. This is a much more relaxed and chilled area of the state and can provide the perfect break from the crazy world of Walt Disney!
The Keys are a truly unique locale and one everyone must see once in their lives. This band of Small islands stretches out into the azure blue Gulf of Mexico nearly as far as Cuba. It’s a really laid-back tropical paradise where you are never more than a few hundred meters from the water. The US highway one that connects the keys to the Mainland is one of the MUST drive roads anywhere in the world!
Fifty years ago before Disney, Miami and Key West received all of the glory from adoring tourists in the sunshine state. The tables have now turned, as Orlando ushers in 70 million of the 120 million tourists that visit Florida each year. If you are one of these visitors, save some money by getting a Go Orlando Pass, which offers a diversity of attractions for tourists at a discounted rate. You choose which places to go based on your interests, and more than half of the attractions on our list are included, along with more than 20 other options.
Check out our full review to see if the Pass is right for you?
Orlando is a place of fancy. While it is a contrived paradise where everything is fantastical and dreamy, it provides a symbol of American culture, especially through the eyes of international tourists, as Orlando’s attractions are all about innovation and adventure, along with capitalism, which Americans are best known. It is a delightful rush of American gusto, and the American dream, with unexpected entertainment and wonder around every corner, and every bit of it is a whole heck of a lot of fun. Enjoy your stay.
Have Your Say?
What are your Favorite Attractions in Orlando? Are you All about Disney and Nothing else or do you do your best to avoid the “magic” Let us know in the Comments Below what attractions are your Favorite? And let us know if you have tried anything from Our List? As always we love to hear from you and would be happy to answer any questions you may have!