Mention Orlando and one thing comes to mind – theme parks. And rightly so: Walt Disney World put this city on the map, and today the Magic Kingdom battles it out with EPCOT, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, and three other major parks for the attentions of 64.5 million travelers who come in search of rides, games, and Mickey Mouse ears each year.
But there’s a whole other side to Orlando. Just steps from the fireworks, the roller coasters, the crowds, an entirely different group of attractions awaits. From eco-safaris and astronaut training to canal cruises and historic gardens, America’s number one family destination has a whole unexpected side just waiting to be explored.
A short drive from the major attractions, Winter Park will charm you with tree-shaded avenues and a window into the world of Florida’s past. Once a major citrus-growing region, it became a popular retreat for well-to-do Northerners in the early 20th century. One of the best ways to get a peek at the Winter Park lifestyle is on the hour-long Scenic Boat Tour, a local attraction for more than half a century that takes you past lakefront mansions and through the city’s historic canals. Harry P. Leu Gardens is a 50-acre botanical park with the largest camellia collection outside California. Highlights include a butterfly garden, tropical stream garden, bamboo and palm gardens and a formal rose garden. It also includes the Leu House Museum, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
With nearly 50 museums, theatres, and galleries, the heartbeat of the arts district is the seven-mile “Cultural Corridor,” that stretches from downtown Orlando to Winter Park. The strip includes the Orlando Museum of Art, the new CityArts Factory, which houses art studios and galleries like Keila Glassworks, where you can get hand-on instruction in the art of glassblowing and the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum, which features the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, including an elaborate chapel interior.
Discover a habitat virtually unaltered by man in the wilderness of the Central Florida Everglades. Led by certified US Coast Guard Captains, Boggy Creek Airboat and Wildlife Safari Rides take you through the Florida wetlands in search of native wildlife. Whisking across the water at speeds up to 45 mph, each ride offers a unique glimpse of eagles, osprey, snakes, turtles and alligators. Florida Eco-Safaris at Forever Florida caters to all ages on its eco-safaris, guided horseback tours, and nature trails. They also offer the only zipline experience in the state: a two and a half hour treetop adventure, reaching heights of 55 feet and speeds up to 25 mph through the Pine Flatwoods and wetlands.
With more than 2,000 lakes, springs and rivers, Orlando is an endless summer of outdoor fun for water lovers. For more adrenaline-pumping activities, you can get behind the wheel of a 600-horse-power Nextel Cup race car at the Richard Petty Driving Experience, skydive indoors in a high-energy vertical wind tunnel at SkyVenture Orlando, or lean to hang glide at Wallaby Ranch Hang Gliding Flight Park, the first full-time aerotow hang gliding flight park in the world. No experience is necessary. And for the ultimate rush, the Astronaut Training Experience at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex prepares intergalactic explorers for the rigors of space flight with a range of interactive, anti-gravity activities – plus the chance to take the helm at Mission Control under the supervision of an actual NASA astronaut.