Orlando Without the Theme Parks

… well, almost!

Mention Orlando and the first thought that usually springs to people’s minds is the razzmatazz and white knuckle rides of the Disney and Universal theme parks.

But while these two fabulous mega attractions pull in the masses and dominate this fun-filled corner of Florida, they are by no means the only places worth visiting. 

To prove it, I set out to spend a two-week holiday without setting foot through the gates of these giants of the entertainment industry. And discovered enough exciting places to occupy me and my wife, both in our 60s, for a month or more!

Yet despite my best intentions I still failed miserably in my quest, for which I mostly blame Harry Potter. But more of that young man later.

Boggy Creek airboatsTo get a feel for Orlando’s natural beauty we drove to Boggy Creek where airboats offer excellent nature tours on a lake that can just about lay claim to being a distant part of the famous Everglades.

We charged across the water and through the reeds in an airboat, our guide expertly swooshing it round so that a hearty spray flew into the faces of the people at the front. Then, suddenly, he brought the craft to a halt. His trained eye had spotted what we had all come to see – an alligator! On our half-hour trip we also saw an American bald eagle and some amazing plant life.

Elsewhere, you can enjoy a glimpse of Orlando from the air, courtesy of Orlando Balloon Adventures. Ballooning doesn’t come cheap at around £130 for an hour or so but if you have deep pockets and a head for heights, this, believe me, is a truly exciting way to check out your surroundings, especially when you hover over `gator-infested lagoons!

One day we paid a visit to Fun Spot America, where there’s proof that the big theme parks don’t have it all their own way.

Wild FloridaThere are some terrific rides here – including White Lightning, Orlando’s only wooden roller coaster and four fantastic go-kart tracks. I just had to have a go.

An hour’s drive away, in Tampa, and absolutely worth the journey, is Busch Gardens, which combines some sensational white-knuckle rides with wildlife.

Actually, this is one of the largest zoos in North America, with more than 12,000 animals representing 250 species, more than 30 of which are threatened and endangered.

Busch Gardens claims to bring visitors face-to-face with more exotic and endangered animals than any destination outside of Africa. By contrast, the park also boasts a stunning ice skating show with world-class performers.

Kennedy Space Center - DiscoveryOn another trip out of Orlando itself we enjoyed a wonderful day at the Kennedy Space Centre, a truly brilliant tribute to America’s space race contributors. Here you can explore NASA’s legendary past and witness the new frontier of space exploration. And when, after an informative big-screen film about its exploits, the Space Shuttle Atlantis comes into view in real-life, it’s a truly moving moment.

For night-time entertainment Orlando offers some great dinner shows.  

We loved Capone’s where the dark days of gangland Chicago are re-created. You even have to give a secret code word before you are allowed in to this sinister-but-fun speakeasy! As you tuck into your all-you-can eat buffet meal, you’re entertained by singers and dancers so evocative of the age that you almost expect Al himself to walk in, machine gun a-blazin’.

Medieval Times Dinner and TournamentAt the Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament top-class horsemen demonstrate their equestrian skills on beautifully trained horses, as you tuck into a fine meal with your bare hands. And you`re encouraged to cheer on your favourite knight in spectacular jousting and sword-fighting events.

On the famous International Drive is a permanent museum that pays homage to the Titanic. Here, in an artefact packed recreation of the stricken ship, actors assume the roles of genuine passengers and guide you round.

Close by is Wonderworks. You can’t miss this building – because it’s upside down! Here you can easily spend a couple of hours looking at amazingly quirky examples of nature and science at work. You can even experience a 5.3 earthquake!

Outta Control Comedy Dinner ShowLater we enjoyed the Outta Control Comedy Dinner Show on the same site – a real bargain, this, at £20 a head for all the pizza, coke and beer you can manage. And the magic was fun, too.

Talking of magic, I admit it. I didn’t quite manage to steer clear of theme parks. I’d heard that Harry Potter was all the rage at Universal, so I just had to see for myself – and was mightily impressed with what the creative dream-makers had done to bring the whole Potter world to life.

Actually I failed again in my non theme park quest. I couldn’t resist a visit to Disney’s wonderful EPCOT. Here, with ethnic shops, restaurants and iconic buildings, different countries are magnificently represented in a stunning lakeside setting. And you just have to stay on for the nightly fireworks show which is out of this world.

Whatever your taste in visitor attractions and whatever your age, it’s impossible to be bored in Orlando.

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Neil Bonner

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