I love Orlando as much as the next person. On a recent trip, my family and I rented a house and spent several fabulous days at Walt Disney World, but then we spent a few days away from the amusement parks altogether, which fortunately is easier than you may think in Orlando.
Sure, there’s Sea World, LEGOLAND and Universal Studios, which offer more amusement-park fun away from the Disney empire, but there are also some lesser-known attractions where you’ll have just as much fun, like Kennedy Space Center and the Treetop Trek at the Brevard Zoo. So, hop in the car, take a break from cartoon characters and recharge before heading back to the Disney parks. Here are five must-stops that are 90 minutes or less from Orlando.
Kennedy Space Center
The space shuttle program may have disbanded last summer, but Kennedy Space Center is still very much worth a trip. Located just an hour away from all things mouse ears in Titusville, Florida, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to check out IMAX movies, go through the space shuttle launch sequence first-hand and check out a dozen rockets on display in the Rocket Garden.
Plan to take in the Lunch with an Astronaut program while at Kennedy Space Center. It’s an extra fee outside regular admission, but it’s one of the highlights. The buffet lunch is delicious, and if you’re traveling with kids, you’ll be pleased to find many kid-friendly options, like mini corn dogs. Following lunch, one of the astronauts will take the microphone to share experiences with the space program. There’s plenty of Q&A time, so get your questions ready.
After lunch, take the two-hour narrated bus tour around the complex. You’ll make various stops at facilities featuring short films and displays. You’ll even be able to touch a moon rock. At the first stop climb the observation deck to see the space shuttle launch pads. The second stop gives you the full scoop on all the Apollo missions. If you have time, check out the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, which is located just down the road from the main complex.
Located about 90 minutes from Orlando, St Augustine is not only the oldest European-established city in the United States, but it’s a beautiful, historic city with so much to see and do. When you arrive, I highly recommend that you hop on the Old Town Trolley. It makes more than 20 stops, and it’s an easy way to visit must-sees like the Castillo de San Marcos and the St Augustine History Museum.
When you begin your tour through St Augustine, make your first stop at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. It’s a bit hokey, but it’s fun to drink from the ‘fountain’ and offers a nice education on Spanish exploration and the Native Timucua Indians. Next, walk up the street for a 35-minute guided tour of the Old Jail given by a ‘jail deputy.’
Before you leave, explore the Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest fort in the US, which was never taken by force despite multiple attacks over the years. If you visit with kids, pick up the 18-page Junior Ranger Activity Booklet from the visitors desk. Once your kids complete the activities inside, they’ll earn a Junior Ranger badge.
Orlando Science Center
Take a break from Mickey and Minnie at the kid-friendly Orlando Science Center. Little ones can dig up fossils in the DinoDigs exhibit, ride on child-size trains and planes at the All Aboard exhibit, and learn about the ecosystems of Central Florida in the NatureWorks exhibit.
Check out the cool Science Stations too throughout the Orlando Science Center. Kids can learn how a weather forecast is put together and even practice delivering the weather on-camera. In Dr Dare’s Lab, kids can participate in all kinds of science experiments. Stop in on Saturday and Sunday afternoons for loads of hands-on lab activities.
Treetop Trek at Brevard Zoo
If you really want to escape the theme parks, then the Treetop Trek at the Brevard Zoo is a must-do. Located 75 minutes from Orlando, you’ll find three courses with bridges, tightropes and zip lines, and even preschoolers can participate, which is a plus.
Chutes & Ladders is perfect for little kids and school age kids with plenty of outdoor course adventures. Canopy Walk includes treetop challenges and zip lines, enabling you to fly over certain spots in the zoo. Finally, Treetop Challenge is the most advanced course, featuring high-stakes challenges and much higher zip lines. You’ll even zip past alligators!
If the Treetop Trek is more of an active adventure than you’d like, just stick to the Brevard Zoo. There’s a lot to do, like exploring various habitats, including Africa (giraffes, cheetahs) and Australia (emus, red kangaroos). There are also special add-ons for animal feedings and train rides.
A trip to Central Florida wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Everglades, which starts at the Kissimmee River near Orlando. There are numerous airboat operators available in the area to give you a tour of the protected swamps and marshes known for alligator sightings. These tours also provide the opportunity to see native wildlife, like bald eagles, sand hill cranes, herons and osprey.
For those with a more adventurous spirit, choose an airboat tour that enables you to get up close and personal with an alligator. Some tours include more of a hands-on learning experience where you’ll learn about the anatomy of the alligator and can even have your picture taken holding or touching a gator.
Do you have any favorite places you like to go to escape from Walt Disney World? Let us know in the comments section below.
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- Erin Gifford