DESTINATION FOCUS • September 2019
Everyone loves Mickey Mouse, but just a car ride away from Orlando’s theme parks lies a whole range of activities to satisfy your passions. Local travel writer Rona Gindin shares inside info on the city’s A+ attractions – including those the residents try to keep to themselves
Florida’s renowned Everglades, though worth the visit, are a little too far for a day trip, yet you won’t miss wetland wonders if you take on Orlando’s untouched areas instead. You can spend a whole day kayaking or canoeing along the Wekiva River – expect to spot gators and manatees. Start and end at shaded Wekiwa Springs State Park, with barbecue grills and playgrounds, stopping at Wekiva Island’s The Tooting Otter for a bite and beer mid-adventure. Trot through woods on horseback with Rock Springs Runs Trail Rides nearby. For a different type of natural immersion, drive to Little Big Econ State Forest, with 26-plus kilometres of trails, then follow up with a sunset Airboat Rides at Midway tour – you’ll see cows grazing and gators sunbathing while zooming through the waters on a narrated boat ride.
What does it feel like to ride a spaceship? What do astronauts eat? Spend a day at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, about an hour from central Orlando, and you’ll learn all about America’s rocket ships and those who manned them. Arrive early and head for the bus queue to tour the launch pad and outlying features – be warned, lines grow quickly. Afterwards, meander through exhibits, maybe riding in a simulator, meeting an astronaut, standing under a Saturn V (the biggest rocket ever flown) or watching astronauts chat about their lives via short videos. If you’re super-lucky with your timing, you might get to watch a live launch.
With four major theme park complexes, the Orlando area pampers parents looking to wow their young ones. First-timers with school-agers should start with Walt Disney World Resort’s Magic Kingdom and its iconic castle. See Snow White from a rollercoaster, hear Belle tell a story and spend time as a pirate of the Caribbean. Meanwhile, experience exotic breeds at Disney’s Animal Kingdom; science and global cultures at Epcot; and classic movies at Hollywood Studios – including, most recently, a massive Star Wars land. Each blends education, rides and characters for a day’s worth of fun. Travelling with teens? Consider instead Universal Resort Orlando, where both Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure bring Harry Potter, Hermione and Hagrid to life in recreations of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley.
If you’re into art, start your day at Loch Haven Park, where you can peruse permanent and travelling exhibits at the Orlando Museum of Art. Across the street, The Mennello Museum of American Arts features the works of folk artist Earl Cunningham, plus other folk-art exhibits and a sculpture garden. Orlando Science Center has a planetarium and interactive areas for all ages. Follow with some performing arts: Orlando Shakes and The Orlando Repertory Theatre on the same campus put on a variety of plays. Just six kilometres away, the brand-new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts hosts plays, concerts, symphonies and speakers. Or, zip up to Maitland for a foreign or independent film – with food and drink served tableside – at Enzian.
Whether you want your five-year-old to have one special tennis lesson, or you’d like to hire a tutor and play all day, you can’t do better than the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona, a community on Orlando’s outer eastern edge. This 26-hectare facility has a whopping 100 courts. On some, hi-tech machines feed back stats, so you can find out how speedy your serve really is. After a few hours here, go golfing at Drive Shack. Groups gather in climate-controlled hitting bays to play digitally designed games on their own mini greens, with food and drink delivered. Cool off at sports-light Nona Adventure Park, a floating recreation centre where you might tackle an obstacle course, climb a 15-metre rock wall or work a ropes course.