If you're planning a family vacation to Orlando, there's plenty to experience beyond the theme parks. Having lived there for almost 10 years, I got the chance to explore outside the typical tourist zones. Here are five of my family favorites:
Favorite museum/indoor attraction — Orlando Science Center is located in downtown Orlando, about a 20-minute drive or so from the attractions. This is a great place to visit with kids, especially on a really hot or rainy day when you’re looking for an indoor attraction. Orlando Science Center is a four-story, interactive attraction, offering hands-on fun for all ages through engaging interactive exhibits, live animals and giant-screen films on IMAX. It is the largest museum of its kind in the Southeast, and downtown Orlando, including the museum campus, is a great place to escape the park crowds and find some great restaurants.
Shopping and Dining — Winter Park is well-known amongst locals but a fairly well-kept secret when it comes to tourists. If you’re looking for a place where your kids can run and scream, this is not it. However, if you want to experience some of the real, old Florida during your family vacation, as well as a quaint shopping and dining district, this is the place to go. The Winter Park Boat Tour is terrific, linking some the town’s smaller lakes, and gives riders a chance to see some breathtaking homes, picturesque Rollins College and much more. Great shops, restaurants and everything is within walking distance. About a 30-minute drive from the attractions, north of downtown. Also, Mall at Millenia, closer to Universal Studios area, is a beautiful new mall with great dining and every good store you’ve ever wanted.
Beaches — New Smyrna Beach. About an hour and a half from the attractions, New Smyrna Beach is the nicest beach close to Orlando. Cocoa Beach is closer, under an hour from attractions, but the New Smyrna beaches are nicer, cleaner and better for kids. Cocoa Beach is where you want to go if you’re looking for a bigger party.
Restaurant — Seasons 52. Sand Lake Road near Universal. Again, a place locals know well but tourists aren’t likely to find. Seasons 52 offers a great atmosphere, outdoor dining, outstanding food and a full wine bar with more than 120 wines. Best thing is you can get a great meal that’s healthy and low in calories. The menu is constantly changing to showcase the finest foods that are in season, grilled over open fire. Reservations strongly recommended.
State Park – Blue Spring State Park. If your family vacation in Orlando is during the winter time and you don’t mind the drive, Blue Spring State Park is about an hour away and the best spot in Central Florida to see the manatees. Blue Springs is a designated manatee refuge, and on chilly days when waters in the St. Johns River are cool, you can see upwards of 75 manatee in their winter home at Blue Springs. The manatee are an endangered species, and this is one of the best places to see them. Blue Springs is 2,644 acres of natural Florida, Winter park activities include St. Johns River Nature Cruises, kayak tours and canoe rentals. Great for the outdoor enthusiast.
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When Jim Cohn is not running drills with his wife and kids, he can be found at Wrigley Field watching his beloved Cubbies, coaching t-ball or chasing his other passion, a little white ball on the golf course.