The big mouse at Disney World is not the only reason to visit Orlando. There are some pretty quirky alternatives to the theme park treadmill and they all bask under the Florida sunshine, writes Amanda Cassidy.
There is so much more to this quirky state of Florida than Disney and Universal as we discovered after we retired our mouse ears in the days after our family trip to Orlando. From 'gator discovery trips to sublime restaurants and microbreweries, don't get too dazzled by the attractions that scream the loudest.
Here are some of our favourite (and more subtle) alternatives to waterparks and rollercoasters.
Related: Everything I wish I knew before bringing my children to Orlando
Sundowners: Get wet in the wild as you glide along the headwaters of the Florida Everglades by night on the Kissimmee Boggy Creek airboat (40 minutes from downtown Orlando).
This hour-long nocturnal adventure includes getting get up close and personal with Florida’s alligators in their natural habitat. Expect to see various exotic swamp creatures during this wetlands tour which kicks off with a zippy 40 mph sunset jaunt. The ride is thrilling and the guides knowledgeable.
Boggy Creek Adventures. Address: 2001 E. Southport Rd. Kissimmee, FL 34746
Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Edward Bok gifted one of Florida’s best-kept secrets back to the people as a token of gratitude. Just an hour’s drive from Orlando, the Bok Towers Gardens are made up of 700 acres of nature trails and citrus groves. In the centre of the lush gardens, the singing tower attracts the most crowds with a daily carillon bell recital mingling with birdsong from the adjacent bird sanctuary.
Bring a picnic and drink in the scent of oranges in the air. Bok Towers Gardens is also located just 10 miles from Legoland in the unlikely event you experience theme-park withdrawal symptoms.
Bok Tower Gardens Address: 151 Tower Blvd, Lake Wales, FL 33853
Imagine 1.8 million square feet of retail therapy…from high-end luxury to discounted designer brands. Located just minutes from Orlando International airport, The Florida Mall welcomes over 20 million visitors a year (the same number that frequent Universal resorts each year).
Recent renovations added an impressive dining pavilion where you can stop for fat doughy pretzels at Auntie Anne’s after a whistlestop tour of favourite shops such as Abercrombie, Macy's, Quicksilver and American Girl. For tired little feet, the Crayola Experience is also well worth a look (It is one of only two in the world).
The Florida Mall. Address: 8001 S Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando FL 32809
Related: Top 10 under-the-radar places to visit this summer
You simply can’t come to Orlando and not experience a Keke’s breakfast. This low-key ‘American diner’ style café is a favourite with locals. Although a popular restaurant chain, its homey feel and snug booths make it a cosy family affair. (They offer colourful crafts to keep the kids amused in lieu of crayons).
Just 10 minutes from Universal studios on Doctor Phillips Boulevard, Keke’s is the definition of service with a smile. Come for the stuffed French toast and stay for the people-watching.
Keke’s Breakfast Café. Address: 7512 Dr Phillips Blvd, Orlando, FL 32819
Nautical but nice
You don’t have to be a total theme park groupie to appreciate the Disney vibes bursting out of every corner of Disney Springs. This shopping slash dining slash mouse-worshipping zone also happens to house one of Orlando’s best seafood restaurants. The upscale Boathouse overlooks Lake Buena Vista where, along with your lobster meal, you can feast your eyes on some real dreamboats – converted Amphi-cars from the 30s, 40s, 50s.
Less than 4,000 retro Amphi-cars were made in the 1960s, and the Boathouse has 10 of the few remaining today. It is also a great place to celebrate a birthday as we discovered during our trip - basically everything bar fireworks!
The Boathouse. Address: 1620 Buena Vista Dr, Orlando, FL, 32830
Best friends Robbie Carelli and Andy Sistrunk run the Persimmon Hollow Brewery in the eclectic Deland – just a half hour from Orlando. This neighbourhood is also home to some quirky boutiques and a popular Friday night open-air market with some serious 1920’s vibes.
Core taproom beers include the brewery’s Daytona Dirty Blonde Ale, Beach Hippie IPA, Paddle Wheeler Red Ale and 2 Wise Guys Coffee Porter. You will often find trivia nights and yoga groups being hosted in the large airy parlour which means you can combine hair of the dog with your downward dog.
Persimmon Hollow Brewery. Address: 111 W Georgia Ave, DeLand, FL 32720, Phone: 386-873-7350
Run by a husband and wife team, the Ravenous Pig is the first spot you should hit if you are in the mood for imaginative libations and attentive service. Staff are also happy to accommodate specific cocktail requests from more discerning customers. The southern hospitality and Florida rock shrimp are what’s landed this bar-restaurant in the upper echelons of Orlando nightlife.
Don’t leave without trying a Transatlantic - a suave mix of cucumber, dill, tequila, strawberry and limoncello. This place is a true diamond among the theme park tourist tat.
The Ravenous Pig Address: 565 W Fairbanks Ave, Winter Park, Orlando FL 32789
When you arrive at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort near Universal Studios you are immediately transported back to 1960’s America with colourful Cadillacs lining its drive. Inside, the funky, midcentury-inspired furniture designs in orange and electric blue add to the retro feel. The Swizzle Lounge, a nod to the famous stir sticks found in martinis and other iconic drinks of the 1960s, shares the lobby with a huge skylight, flooding the space with Florida sunshine.
Kitschy-cool names like Thunderbird and Starlight differentiate the hotel buildings which include comfy family suites that sleep up to six. The sandy-beach effect outside, the water-slide pool and in-house bowling alley add to the holiday magic.
Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort Address: 6550 Adventure Way, Orlando, FL 32 819.
It may look more like the interiors of a Google or Facebook HQ than a traditional Orlando resort, but the playful B Resort and Spa located in Disney Springs area of Orlando has a world-class restaurant, glossy white surfaces and a huge zero-entry pool. Prices start from $95 a night and it is close to the malls and restaurant areas.
This is a good choice for a two-person trip and for who prefer to keep a wider berth from Mickey-Mouse everything.
B Resort and Spa: 1905 Hotel Plaza Boulevard, Lake Buena Vista, Orlando, FL 32830
Feature Image: Unsplash
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