Orlando Beyond Mickey

by  Paul Eisenberg | Nov 1, 2011
Orlando, Florida
Orlando, Florida / Sean Pavone/iStock

This week’s family vacation post was inspired by the opening sentence of our swell Orlando Travel Guide: “There’s more to Orlando than Mickey Mouse.” True enough, but the problem is, many families visiting the city for the first or even the fourth time are still not taking the time to find that out.

The pressure not to find out is enormous. During your first visit to Orlando you and your family will likely visit some but not all of the Walt Disney World parks. On subsequent trips you might knock off some of Universal, take in delightful Aquatica, spend an afternoon at SeaWorld, or revisit the parts of Disney you rushed through or skipped the last time.

Meanwhile, the Orlando tourism bureau, like any parent who loves all its children equally, shrewdly embraces Disney and the other theme parks as the city’s crown jewels, all the while wishing that you would take the other parts of its fair city out for a cup of coffee and get to know them.

Well, the time might be now.

Despite the fact that the theme parks, crowded as they often are, appear to be recession-proof, you may not be. And as Orlando locals have long known, not only is there more to Orlando than Mickey, but there are plenty of family-friendly attractions in Orlando that you can see for free or for a relatively nominal fee.

First, get a free Magicard

A Magicard will yield discounts on attractions, rental cars, restaurants, and hotels, and you can get one for free.

Speaking of hotels, Orlando’s tremendous hotel inventory means you should never have to hunt too hard or long for a cheap room rate, and given that you’ve taken the pressure off yourself to find a hotel near Disney property, there are tons of hotels up and down I-Drive with favorable rates, including the Fairfield Inn and Suites, with rates from $79.

Next, check out these five hidden gems

Well, not hidden per se, but as far as you’re concerned, they may have been invisible while you were focused on the theme parks.

An all-ages crowd-pleaser, the Orlando Science Center ($17 adults, $12 kids 3-11) has among its offerings a worthy hands-on nature exhibit, a respectable collection of dinosaur fossil replicas, and through mid-March of next year, a traveling “Star Wars” exhibit that includes props and costumes from all six of the films. And if your brood can’t get enough of the dinosaurs, another good-for-the price outing is Dinosaur World ($12.75 adults, $9.75 kids 3-12), with more than 150 life-sized dinosaurs in its outdoor space.

However much you or your kids’ teachers have already talked with them about the Holocaust, a visit to the The Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida might be a welcome opportunity to educate them. The Center uses lessons from the Holocaust to reinforce good citizenship, and educational materials are given out with each exhibit. While the subject matter may not be appropriate for your younger kids, the museum notes that it doesn’t rely on graphic images of Nazi brutality in its permanent exhibit. Through mid-January, a traveling exhibit of photos by Maxine Rude portrays post-war European refugees putting their lives back together, including shots of children playing that are bound to be thought-provoking for your own children. Admission here is free.

Two exceptional out-of-doors experiences beloved by families who like gardens are the  Harry P. Leu Gardens ($7 adults, $2 kids 5-18) – a visit to the butterfly gardens here is obligatory – and Bok Tower Gardens ($10 adults, $3 kids 5-12), which has wonderful secret gardens designed for meandering kids as well as family picnic areas with tables.

For shopping, perhaps just a small hint of the Mouse

If Mickey’s pull is too strong to ignore, consider a family stroll through Downtown Disney, where window-shopping in and around the eclectic stores can be just as satisfying for kids (and their parents) as paying out for pricey souvenirs.

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