Unique Things To Do in Orlando
Orlando is so much more than Disney. Yes really! If you are planning a Florida trip then it’s worth sticking around beyond the parks to explore the more unique things to do in Orlando. From alligators to flying simulators, check out some unusual things to do, suggested here by regulars to the fun capital of the world…
Unusual things to do in Orlando
Plan to visit Orlando? For those who go regularly and even those still considering a first trip, it’s one of those places that seems so familiar. We think we know what to expect. But it takes a real Orlando fan to know some quirkier places. And there’s always new and surprising things on offer, whether you are doing Orlando for kids or Orlando for adults.
From discovering the new dining scene in downtown to flying over gators, here’s some of the more unusual things to do in Orlando.
1. Discover Downtown food tours
From pillow-like doughnuts topped with pink icing to gooey cookies the size of a child’s head, downtown has a vibrant food scene says journalist Ella Buchan.
“Pack your appetite for a morning of grazing with Orlando Foodie Tours, which offers a family-friendly jaunt around the best brunch spots. The vegan doughnuts come from Valhalla Bakery in the hip Milk District, and queues regularly snake out the door. And those cookies, from Gideon’s Bakehouse in East End Market, are the result of owner Steve Lewis’ quest for the perfect recipe.”
But if you aren’t all about the sweet tooth you still won’t be disappointed: ‘Stops can include Swine & Sons for avocado toast with coffee-smoked bacon, ending at Osprey Tavern for a sit-down meal, if you have room.”
Top tip: “For a self-guided taster, make a beeline for East End Market. The bright, light indoor space has those giant cookies, cheese and prosecco at La Femme Du Fromage, topped toasts by Farm & Haus and craft coffee from Lineage.”
2. Eat the world at Epcot Food and Wine Festival
If you a confirmed foodie then Epcot International Food & Wine Festival is a must. This celebration of food around the world happens every year in the autumn. Stalls round the lake sell goodies like bratwurst, cheese plates, and falafel.
The Festival Center has tastings and chef demonstrations, and there are Eat to the Beat concerts and dining packages. And the most enticing part for me; cheese seminars. What’s not to love?
Top tip: The Swan & Dolphin Hotel holds its own Food & Wine Classic at the end of October, with samples from top chefs and seminars on pasta making, sushi and craft beer.
3. Dine with an astronaut at Kennedy Space Center
Many people do the space centre as a day trip from Orlando and rush back to their hotel at the end of the day, but it’s worth relaxing the pace and making a date with an astronaut as part of a longer visit says journalist Fiona Steggles who took the family. “We loved it and the kids came away thinking they could be the first brothers to land on Mars.” You don’t get the spaceman or woman to yourself; they are the after-dinner speaker rather than the buddy at your table but its intimate enough to feel connected.“At our lunch the astronaut came round the tables to speak to us all personally and both our kids were able to ask him questions in the Q and A afterwards. We were all totally inspired. I knew nothing about space before I went and now I find myself looking at the moon in a different way.”
Fiona’s tip for visiting the space centre: “Cape Canaveral is about an hour from Orlando. We arrived at opening time,and they had to kick us out as it shut, but later I realised we could have bought a two day ticket. I would highly recommend this as there’s so much to do and see and learn.”
4. Get soaring at iFly Orlando
When you think of Orlando you probably think of being turned inside out and upside down. Therefore it only seems logical to send you to iFly Orlando after the coasters. This simulated flying experience is a treat for all ages, and we have done it on several continents. They provide all the kit. You just turn up and relax. I said RELAX!
5. Dine with characters at Garden Grove
Ticking off the Disney ‘Big 5’ – that’s Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto and Goofy – is high on many Orlando wish lists but, just like a real safari, can be as expensive and time-consuming. Often, if you haven’t booked in advance, queuing can dominate your time in the park. And character dining experiences often have a six-month waiting list.
So how do you avoid disappointed kids? Grab breakfast at a hotel that offers a quick meet and greet over breakfast or dinner. We dined with Dora and Spongebob at the predecessor to Orlando’s Holiday Inn. Meanwhile Ella Buchan suggests the Garden Grove at the Swan for character dining every evening, with characters also joining guests for weekend breakfast.
Ella’s Top tip for character spotting in Orlando: “Spot Mickey everywhere. The original mouse’s image was dotted cleverly around the parks when the rides were first built, from a lock with ‘ears’ to a shadow in the shape of Mickey’s head. New Mickeys still pop up today – search online for fan sites that obsessively list sightings.”
6. Ride swan boats at Lake Eola Park
Who wouldn’t want to take to the lake in a swan? In downtown Orlando, Lake Eola Park has wide walking paths and swan-shaped pedalos. You can pack your family of five in for just $15 (£12) for a half-hour.
As you pootle around you can check out the real swans swimming circles around you. On land, there’s around a mile of pretty paths. There are lots of bird sculptures too. It’s a great way to see some Orlando nature, particularly lovely at sunset, where the fountain is in full flow.
Top tip: Head to the park on Sunday morning, when the popular farmer’s market sells street food, fresh local produce, preserves and artwork, often with live music.
7. Go topsy turvy at Wonderworks
From its exterior onwards WonderWorks will confuse your brain. That’s what it is designed for. A top-secret lab that apparently ‘landed’ upside down on Orlando’s International Drive, the fun building has lots of activities for all ages. You can design and ride your own roller coaster and lie on a bed of nails. But not at the same time. My son was seven when we visited and we could have spent all day there.
Top tip for a rainy day: “Drive the short distance from WonderWorks to I-Drive 360, which houses Madame Tussauds (without the crowds of the London equivalent) and the Orlando Eye, for views over Disney and beyond.” – Ella Buchan.
8. Float in a vintage car at The Boathouse
The Boathouse restaurant in Disney Springs boasts the largest collection of vintage Amphicars in the world says Ella. “The amphibious autos drive on land before splashing into the water for a 20-minute captain’s guided tour around Village Lake. The pristine vehicles, in aqua, scarlet and spearmint, look brand new – but these are the real deal. Less than 4,000 Amphicars were made in the 1960s, and the Boathouse has 10 of the few remaining today.”
Ella’s Top tip: If you fancy a jaunt on the water but don’t want to splash out over $125 (around £100) for the tour, many Disney World Resort hotels offer free water taxi rides to guests. The Walt Disney World Resort website has a guide to free transportation.
9. Track down a Gator
There are over a million alligators in Florida. Head to Lake Jesup, just north of Orlando to spot them in the wild. (It’s rumored to have over 10,000 of the big fat critters.) Many of Orlando’s hotels and resorts are located on lakes, focus on the banks to spot gators sunning themselves.
If you prefer to see your alligators from a safe distance, and have a high thrill experience, you can zip over them at Gatorland. There are a series of zipwires and several shows involving the scary ones at one of the oldest theme parks.
If you have the time, blogger Carrie Bradley suggests a trip out to Boggy Creek.
“Ever fancied zooming across the Everglades, a bit like the guy from CSI Miami? Ever since I saw him do that on TV, I wondered what it would be like, so when the opportunity arose to visit Boggy Creek Airboat Rides, I leapt at the chance.
The great thing about visiting Boggy Creek, is it’s not ‘just’ an airboat ride. Although that experience is thrilling, whilst you wait kids can go prospecting for fossils and semi precious stones. $6 for a huge bucket to sift through and discover ‘treasure’.
Ours included a huge chunk of amethyst and shark teeth!
The actual airboat ride was thrilling for all of us. We spotted 4 alligators, an eagle, a heron amongst other natural wildlife.” Carrie shares more things to do in Orlando besides Disney with kids here.
Carrie’s top tips for families: Check out the baby alligator creche and experience the past Native American way of life.
10. See the world’s largest Tiffany collection
In Winter Park the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art features the world’s largest collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. Just look at those bejewelled keepsake boxes and leaded lamps! If you’ve time, visit the chapel, moved and restored from his Long Island home. There’s free admission on Friday evenings in winter.
Top tip: In December the museum creates Tiffany stained glass windows for Winter Park’s Christmas in the Park celebration. They are truly awe inspiring, especially set to the music of the Bach Festival Choir.
11. Cruise through canals
A short walk from Winter Park is a chain of lakes and canals overhung with Spanish moss. Winter Park Scenic Boat Tours run on the hour from Lake Osceola. Take a guided cruise past palm trees, ‘snake birds’ and sunbathing alligators.
If you happen to be there at Christmas look out for the decorated branches of the thousand-year-old cypress trees around Lake Maitland.
Ella Buchan’s Top Tip: The ticket office only accepts cash or cheques, and get there at least 15 minutes early – they will leave without you.
12 Get out of Orlando’s Escape Room
Gold Rush is a great escape room for beginners says Alan Hooper who blogs at Here Come the Hoopers. He was trapped in a room with his family and a bunch of strangers at The Escape Game Orlando, and they enjoyed getting out.
“Our experience of their “easiest room” was impressive. The detail and depth of theme were brilliant.” says Alan. The rooms contained technology which turned a simple treasure hunt into a fun adventure. “It was more in-depth than simply finding 4 numbers and looking for a lock, followed by another 3 or 4 number lock. Puzzle elements, Scavenger hunting, a skill game, maths problems, and small physical challenge.” Read more about the family’s escape room Orlando experience here.
Alan’s Top Tip: Book for a second game, which gets you 20% of your next booking if booked while there. “If you keep your eyes peeled it is possible to find coupons in the coupon books you find located around Orlando, but we didn’t realise we had one until after the event.”
13 Meet Legoland’s Master Builders
What kid doesn’t like Lego? And what adult doesn’t secretly like it more than their child? Both of you will be satisfied if you book some time with the Legoland master builders. These are the guys with the dream job; to make the models in the parks. In their tidyish workshop, your child will get to dash around a grotto of bricks, while you get to ask all the technical questions you’ve ever had about how to put together the Millenium Falcon that’s been lying in pieces in the attic for more years than Yoda has been on the planet.
My Top Tip: You can access the workship by booking the Red Brick VIP Experience. Its isn’t cheap but you do also get priority on the rides and shows. Oh and a Minifigure!
Enjoyed this post? Find more inspiration for unusual Florida at visitorlando.com.
Visiting the US with kids? Check out our post on the characterful Charleston Festival of Houses and Gardens or things to do Charleston.