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15 fab things to do in Orlando – besides Disney World!

Of course visiting Disney World is going to be at the top of your list when it comes to planning your trip to Orlando, but there is a lot more to this sunny Florida city than the mighty mouse and his friends!

Orlando is one of the most popular destinations for families in the United States, and with good reason, especially in the winter months when you want to escape the chill.

With more than 35 million visitors a year making a trip to Orlando, it’s no surprise that there’s so much to do and see in the Orlando area, from theme parks to water parks to space travel, shopping and beaches. It also makes the perfect winter haven for a warm getaway.

So if you’re planning a trip to Orlando with or without kids, I’ve got you covered across all budgets (because I know not everyone has the cash to spend a week in a theme park!).

Please note, some attractions may be operating with restrictions at the moment. Click on the links to find up to date information.

Downtown Orlando looks so pretty in the evening
Downtown Orlando looks so pretty in the evening

In this post, you’ll get tips on the best things do and see in Orlando, as well as where to stay and how to make the most of your visit. 

*This post contains some affiliate links. That means if you make a purchase I may make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Disney World

Disney World is, absolutely huge. Did you know it’s the size of San Francisco, so you could easily spend a week here and probably still need more time to explore it all!

You’ll need to choose from its four theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom – as well as two water parks: Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, for where you’re going to visit each day. 

I have written this hugely popular post on when is the best time to visit Disney World, which is also filled with advice on how to book your park pass, then your tickets and some tips you’ll want to know for a fun Disney experience.

You might also like this post on how to do Disney World like a local, with lots of cool inside tips for avoiding long lines and saving money.

Pro tip: If you stay in one of Walt Disney World Resort hotels (there are 30 of them) you’ll get lots of perks, like extra hours in the Disney parks.

Fall in Disney World
Fall in Disney World means pumpkin themed Mickey Mouse!

Disney Springs

Disney Springs is a free zone with over 100 shops, 64 dining outlets and 25 attractions or events. Yes it’s all free. There’s also free self-parking if you bring your car.

Pro tip: This is the perfect place to come on the day you arrive at Disney World if you don’t have a full day and don’t want to use up your tickets. It’s is great way to get your head in the game and come down here with the family for dinner to prepare everyone for what to expect tomorrow!

Balloon and shops in Disney Springs FL
Hang out in Disney Springs without using your park tickets

Universal Studios

Universal Studios is another hugely popular theme park for families with roller coasters, rides and attractions that delight kids of all ages.

Universal is an excellent choice if you have older children as there is a wide variety of thrills and adventures to choose from. However, they still have plenty of rides and attractions for young children, so there’s something for the entire family.

Universal Studios entrance
Welcome to Universal Studios!

There is also a load of fun things to do outside the gates at Universal Citywalk – for free! Restaurants and shops are here and honestly, it’s a great experience in itself. Like what Disney Springs is to Disney World.

Pro tip: If you stay at a Universal Orlando Resort hotel, you’ll get access to the parks one hour earlier than any other guests, allowing you to ride all the best rides before everyone else arrives. 

Islands of Adventure

Universal’s Islands of Adventure sits alongside Universal Studios Florida and takes visitors through a journey of eight themed islands.

This is where you’ll find the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and get to drink butter beer and taste Bertie Bot’s candies in Diagon Alley. Or visit Skull Island, part of the King Kong franchise for some thrill rides.

Jurassic Park River Adventure ride
Jurassic Park River Adventure ride. Prepare to get wet!
Shopping on Diagon Alley, Universal Studios
Shop along Diagon Alley

This is a separate park to Universal Studios and you need one ticket per park per day, or get a multi-park, multi-day ticket.

Pro tip: Get the Orlando CityPass if you intend to visit Disney World, Universal Studios, Legoland and SeaWorld. They are all included in a huge discount bundle.

Volcano Bay

Another Universal Studios park, Volcano Bay one is for those hot summer days when you just want to get wet! It’s filled with soaking rides, water slides, and enormous “beach” and wave pool, and a winding river.

You can rent private cabanas, enjoy the dining options and even a spot of shopping. Passes can be purchased for this park alone, or get a Universal Studios multi-pass.

Aerial view of Volcano Bay
Aerial view of Volcano Bay

Kennedy Space Center

Kennedy Space Center is such a great place to visit and a must-see for any family visiting Orlando – especially if your kids love rockets and all things space. It’ll impress big kids and little ones.

The Kennedy space center is about 40 minutes drive away from downtown Orlando out to the coast, but is definitely worth the trip.

Life size replica of the rocket boosters
Life size replica of the rocket boosters. Kennedy Space Center.

It has interactive experiences and displays – including the astronaut training simulator, and the gravity defying Shuttle Launch Experience ride, as well as tours of the space center itself where you can wander around the monstrous rockets. You can also book talks with astronauts and other exclusive experiences.

Pro tip: If you want a unique experience for your space-obsessed children, you’ll want to consider signing them up for special programs such as their Hands-On Astronaut Training or the After-Hours Kennedy Exploration Program with more than 60 simulators and activities. 

Person standing by rocket at Kennedy Space Center
The scale of this place!

Harry P Leu Botanical Gardens

The Harry P. Leu Gardens are a hidden gem in Orlando, with more than 50 acres of gardens and nature trails to explore.

The gardens are home to over 500 different species of plants from all over the world, as well as a butterfly garden, nature center, and children’s play area. So if you’re looking for a unique way to spend the day with your kids that doesn’t involve loud theme parks, this is the perfect spot. 

Movie night at Leu Gardens
Movie night at Leu Gardens. Pic Facebook/LeuGardens

They also run events throughout the year like movie nights, plant sales and live concerts. Until April 2022, your kids can join the Dragons: Hidden Treasure Quest, following a treasure map around the gardens.

Please note: no pets or picnics allowed in the gardens. Allow about 2 hours.

Pro-Tip: If you purchase an annual family pass, you’ll get free admission to this botanical garden, along with dozens of others around the country. 

Crayola Experience

The Crayola Experience is a must-visit for families with younger children.

This attraction is located in downtown Orlando adjacent to Florida Mall (see below) and is filled with interactive exhibits and activities that will keep kids entertained for hours on end.

From coloring your own stuffed animals to hands-on experiments and playing on the color playgrounds, the Crayola Experience has something for everyone. 

Crayola Experience entrance
Crayola Experience entrance

Pro-Tip: If you want a less crowded experience, you’ll want to visit Monday-Thursday, as weekends tend to be much more crowded, while Friday is notoriously popular for school field trips. 

Hang out at Orlando Icon Park

No visit to Orlando is complete without a visit to Orlando’s Icon Park on International Drive.

This park is home to dozens of restaurants, shops, and family-friendly attractions such as the Orlando Eye Ferris wheel, Sea Life Orlando Aquarium, Orlando StarFlyer, and Pearl Express Train.

With something for everyone, this is a great spot to spend an afternoon or evening with your family. 

If you love live music head to where the musicians hang out at Tin Roof for nightly events. Over the years they’ve played host to the famous, the should have been famous, and everyone in between!

Views of Orlando from the top of the Eye!
Views of Orlando from the top of the Eye!

Pro-tip: If you’re looking to save a bit of money, check out their special deals, which change weekly. Their most popular deal is called a Park Topper Pass, which allows your entire group to get 50% off The Wheel at night after you’ve visited one of the local theme parks. 

Get your geek on at Orlando Science Center

The Orlando Science Center is the perfect spot to take your kids on a rainy day or when the Florida heat is a little too intense.

With hundreds of interactive exhibits and educational activities for all ages, this place is sure to keep any kid busy for hours! However, you should plan at least three hours to fully experience the museum. 

Pro-tip: If you’re tired of walking around the museum, purchase a ticket to the CineDome featuring a high-resolution digital projection system, surround sound, and a domed screen. 

Visit Legoland

Legoland Florida Resort is a true kid haven. An amusement park with more than 50 rides, shows, and attractions geared towards children aged 2 to 12 – and yes real Legos that they can build with in the hotel.

With replicas of some of the most famous landmarks in the world made entirely out of Lego, this is a must-visit for any Lego lover. If you want the ultimate experience, you can even book a themed hotel room, including adventure rooms, pirate rooms, kingdom rooms, lego Ninjago rooms. 

Peppa Pig is a great splashing fun time for the little ones! Pic Facebook/PeppaPig

And wait! The world’s first Peppa Pig theme park is due to open in Legoland in 2022!

Pro-tip: Download the mobile application before your trip so that you can see current wait times at rides, shows, and restaurants. 

Madame Tussauds Orlando

Madame Tussauds is a museum where you can come face-to-face with your favorite celebrities, athletes, and historical figures.

The Orlando location contains more than 90 wax figures in 12 different themed zones. There is also an interactive section of the museum where you can test your knowledge of US presidents and vote for your favorites! 

Beyonnce at Madame Tussauds!
Get a selfie with Beyonnce at Madame Tussauds!

Pro-tip: You can combine this ticket with The Ride, which is the giant Ferris Wheel in downtown Orlando, and save $10 or more. 

Cool off at Orlando Watersports Complex

The Florida heat can get intense, so what better way to cool down than at the Orlando Watersports Complex?

This complex features water-skiing, wakeboarding, and a huge aquapark where your little ones can run around and explore, which makes it perfect for younger and older kids to enjoy. 

Pro-tip: If you want a personalized experience, you can book an individual lesson through their online portal. 

Shop at Florida Mall

When it’s just too hot out and you need some air conditioning, or maybe you just need some retail therapy, head to Florida Mall, the largest mall in central Florida.

You’ll find 250 stores here and a dining pavilion with 25 eateries. Families with young ones will also enjoy the Play Park located next to Crayola Experience. This interactive play area is more than 3,000 square-feet of fun and room to play set in a beautiful, nature-inspired area.

Play golf in Orlando

There are 25 golf courses in Orlando and another 34 courses within 20 miles, so bring your clubs and your plus fours and leave the family to the theme parks!

Some are small courses with a fee of just $10 a round, or go all out and play at some of the top resort courses like Reunion Resort with rates of up to $220 a round.

Click on OrlandoGolf to see a list of all golf courses in Orlando and info about each one.

Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill golf course
Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill golf course

If you want to head for the best, check out the three courses at Streamsong Resort (although it’s about 90 minutes from Orlando), or try Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club and Lodge where the famous Palmer Cup is played. It is only open to club members or guests who staying at the lodge.

What not to do in Orlando!

You’re probably wondering why SeaWorld Orlando is not in this list. Well, the thing is, I cannot endorse this park, but I mention it because not to would be leaving an elephant (the size of a whale!) in the room, but I cannot bring myself to recommend it.

My view is not (only) because of the doco Blackfish, but because you just need to do a simple Google Earth and see the size of the orca in their pools the relative size of a bathtub, and say no. They also allow guests to touch sharks and manta rays. NO!

Sadly SeaWorld Orlando, although have stopped the captive breeding program, still run Orca shows and keep whales in tiny pools when in the wild they swim about 100 miles a day.

The pools are about 10 whale-lengths long.

The image above is from Google Earth, as at February 2022, of SeaWorld San Diego. I could not see the whales in the Orlando earth view, but I’ll check back. You can see two whales in the pool, which are about 10 lengths long.

I wrote more about my boycott of SeaWorld here – and my (brilliant!) suggestion for Cirque du Soleil to fill the performance stadium instead. I just wish they would do that and in doing so may even turn their fortunes around as visitor numbers are down.

Where to stay in Orlando

Figuring out which of Orlando’s top attractions you’re going to visit is only half the battle when planning a vacation for the whole family – you also need to find somewhere great to stay!

So while there are dozens of resorts that would be great for kids, here are my top five picks for the best places to stay in Orlando …

Excited girls in car
Who’s excited!!

Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort

If you’re looking for an on-site hotel to enjoy Universal, you’ll want to check out Cabana Bay. This 1950s themed beach hotel is within walking distance of two pools, slides for older kids, and a lazy pool for relaxing. With on-site activities, bowling alleys, fire pits, and free shuttle rides to Universal, this hotel is perfect for families trying to experience everything Orlando has to offer. Rooms start at $99 per night and are ideal for families of all ages. 

Disney’s Beach Club Resort

Disney’s Beach Club Resort features a 230-foot water slide, lazy river, whirlpool spas, and a sand-bottomed pool, making it a perfect spot for kids of all ages. This resort is also within walking distance to Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, so the ideal location if you want to park-hop. Rooms start at $250 a night and are suitable for families with small children. 

Omni Resorts ChampionsGate

If you’re looking for hotels in Orlando that feature a high-quality experience but still cater to children, the Omni Resorts ChampionsGate is another excellent choice. It features several pools, including a large pool with water slides and splash pads along with scheduled activities like volleyball and golf – perfect for entertaining the kids while you relax by the pool or at one of their two bars! Rooms start at $100 and are ideal for families with elementary-school to high-school-aged children. 

The Grove Resort and Water Park

The Grove Resort and Water Park is a luxury resort featuring spacious rooms, multiple pools (one being an adults-only pool), hot tubs, and water slides. Suppose you’re traveling with older children who prefer to be on their own. In that case, this resort has several activities for teens, including swimming lessons, video game tournaments, fishing, and even boating activities. Plus, you’ll receive free admission to the water park on-site with your stay. Rooms start at $150 a night and are perfect for families of all ages. 

Coco Key Water Resort

If you’re looking for a budget-friendly option, Coco Key Hotel and Water Park Resort is an excellent choice. This resort offers free transportation to the major theme parks in Orlando, as well as unlimited access to their water park, which is perfect for keeping the kids busy all day long. They also offer discounted rates on tickets to neighboring theme parks such as Universal and Disney. Rooms start at $180 per night and are perfect for families with younger children. 

Orlando is the perfect destination for families looking to enjoy a fun-filled vacation. So whether you’re planning a trip around Disney World, Universal Studios, or want to relax by the pool, Orlando has something for everyone! 

If you want shortcuts to my best related posts, you might like to read these:

>> Inside tips for visiting Disney World

>> Florida Keys 4-day road trip

>> 20 great spots for Spring Break with the family

Myrtle Beach is one great spot for Spring Break!

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Julianna.

Thursday 24th of February 2022

FYI, icon park isn’t actually in downtown Orlando. It’s a good bit southwest of downtown. To natives it’s just called Icon Park and it’s by the tourist attraction area of Orlando, at least 20 (or 30 minutes with I-4 traffic) from downtown.

Megan Singleton

Thursday 24th of February 2022

Thanks Julianna, I'll update with that local knowledge! Much appreciated.

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!