If you go to Orlando and don’t go to Disney World, did you really go to Orlando? Yes! The theme parks are great, but Orlando and Central Florida have so much more to offer than just Disney, SeaWorld, and Universal. As an Orlando local, born and raised, here are some of the best things Central Florida has to offer besides the theme parks.
Most people know about Daytona Beach, but most locals will tell you it is overrated. If you’re visiting central Florida, locals recommend Cocoa Beach or New Smyrna. New Smyrna is the more touristy of the two, but you can find great restaurants on the beach. We love eating at Breakers when we want good food with a perfect view over the beach.
Cocoa is the most popular beach among locals and the closest to Orlando. It is only a 45-minute drive if you are staying in East Orlando and not much further if you stay near the theme parks. Cocoa is more laid back than New Smyrna. Our favorite place to stop for food in New Smyrna is Coconuts on the Beach. Great seafood and a relaxing vibe overlooking the crashing waves.
While you’re in Central Florida, something you don’t want to miss is bioluminescent paddle boarding or kayaking. This is available all year near Cocoa Beach. It doesn’t capture well on camera, but it is amazing to see in person. There are quite a few companies who offer tours like BK Adventure, but we take our own paddleboards out on the water and go on our own.
In the warmer months (typically April to October), you will see plankton lighting up the water as you paddle. You have to get away from all of the lights and then you can watch the colors dance in the water as you paddle. In the cooler weather (November to March), you will see comb jellyfish glowing in the water as you paddle.
If you come to Orlando and love the outdoors or the water, you have to check out our natural springs. The water is crystal clear and 72F (22C) all year long. In the summer, it is the perfect way to cool down and in the “winter”, it is about the same temperature as the air.
Wekiwa Springs State Park is the closest to Orlando. It offers a swimming area, canoeing, paddle boarding, picnic areas, and short hiking trails. If you’re willing to drive a little further, Blue Springs State Park is known for the manatees that live there throughout the winter months. It is the perfect opportunity to interact with these gentle giants.
Orlando has quite a few resorts that are not affiliated with the theme parks if resort life is what you are looking for on your vacation. Westgate Town Center is a favorite for our staycations since it costs about the same as any other hotel near the attractions but includes more amenities and much bigger rooms. If you are looking to visit the theme parks, it is only a few minutes from Disney. They also have their own water park which is perfect if you are traveling with young kids and don’t want to deal with the large crowds at the theme park water parks. If you are a Florida resident, they offer discounts year round which helps. They have similar deals at their Utah resorts for Utah residents as well.
Another favorite is Westgate River Ranch for a getaway in Central Florida. If you want a unique vacation experience in Central Florida, this is only an hour from the theme parks and a fun way to get away from the crowds. They have campsites, hotel rooms, glamping tents (our favorite!) and luxury teepees if you are up for a splurge. With swimming pools, tennis courts, airboat rides, horseback riding, mini golf, and swamp buggies, there is no shortage of activities to keep you entertained.
The best part is the weekly rodeo on Saturday nights. I grew up going to rodeos with my family to cheer on friends we had that rode in them, and I was impressed. At the end of the day, we could return to our air-conditioned glamping tent, grab our s’more supplies, and relax by the campfire.
My favorite part of the Orlando area is Winter Park. Take a stroll down Park Avenue and check out the cute boutiques before enjoying dinner along the street at one of the locally owned restaurants. Our favorite stop for a special dinner is Panullo’s. Nearby, we also enjoy casual meals at The Porch. Brunch is popular on Park Avenue too, and there are frequent events in nearby Central Park like art shows and movie nights. You can also catch the SunRail train to other parts of Central Florida here.
If you are looking for places for pictures, Winter Park has plenty of them. Rollins College is a beautiful campus overlooking the Winter Park Chain of Lakes. Park Avenue and Central Park are also good options. My favorite spot is Kraft Azalea Park though. With towering cypress trees and the exedra (columned structure pictured) as well as docks with lake views, you can’t go wrong. It is a popular spot with a local photographer for photo shoots.
Speaking of lake views, the Winter Park chain of lakes is one of the most popular lake chains in Orlando. Made up of seven lakes and several man made canals, these lakes are surrounded by beautiful homes. You can rent paddle boards to go out on the lakes, but the easier way is to do the Winter Park Boat Tour. Relax and enjoy the wildlife and beautiful architecture.
The only chain of lakes more popular than the Winter Park chain is the Butler chain. This is where you can find most of Orlando’s wealthiest families and celebrities. Boat tours are also available on the Butler chain if you want to see Orlando’s biggest homes.
If you want to see some wildlife in Florida, especially alligators, airboat rides are the way to do it. They do offer airboat rides at Westgate River Ranch, but if you don’t head that way, there are other options. The airboat company we have used is Midway since it is closest to our house.
Airboat rides are a fun experience and a good way to see the natural side of Florida that you don’t see otherwise. The St. John’s River is full of alligators, and the guides are knowledgeable. I have grown up around alligators and still learned new things about them on our ride. Remember that if you see an alligator on your vacation, they are wild and will attack. I have seen too many tourists going up to them on the side of the road to get a picture. At Midway, they often have small alligators that you can hold after your ride for photos.
The theme parks make for a great vacation, but if you are looking to save some money, know that Orlando and Central Florida have much more to offer than just Disney, SeaWorld, and Universal. Come to see what else the Sunshine State has to offer!
Have you ever been to Central Florida? If you have any additional tips for our readers or questions please leave these in the comments below.
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Our Top Places To Stay In Central Florida
- Westgate River Ranch & Rodeo
- Marriott’s Harbour Lake
- Hyatt House Orlando
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