Sunday, May 25, 2014

Orlando, Florida

Updated December 23, 2021

A trip to Disney World is a hallmark of childhood, and we've been a couple of times (here's my Disney itinerary). With the crazy expensive ticket prices (and general craziness of the park ambience), however, we usually opt to stay outside of the resort and visit the parks for a day or two, just to get a taste. The rest of the time we spend checking out Orlando, which has plenty of other fun activities to offer. Here's what we've done on our past trips.

What to Do

I'm really big on pick-you-own and was excited about visiting Showcase of Citrus in nearby Clermont, where there's more than 50 varieties of citrus for the picking. The kids had fun using the special picking tools (oranges can be tough to budge!) and sampling the fresh juice and citrus-flavored goodies at the country store.

In addition, Showcase of Citrus offers a pretty neat monster truck bus ride, where you have to climb a ladder to get onto the bus! Our tour guide was a nice young guy who let all the kids take a turn "driving" the bus, and they also really enjoyed seeing the cows on the property and tossing them oranges to munch on. Who knew cows liked oranges?

If you've got older kids who are as obsessed with the American Ninja Warrior show as mine are, the Xtreme Ninja Challenge in Old Town Kissimmee is a great way to get a taste of what it's like to be on one of those obstacle courses (minus the pool of water that breaks your fall; instead, there's a nice air mattress to catch you on the way down). It's a fun and inexpensive way to spend half an hour, and the staff couldn't be nicer or more helpful. 

Included in the challenges are the salmon ladder, cargo net, pistons, donuts, air spots, horseshoes, and of course, the warp wall!

My kids, now ages 10 and 12, got into the challenges right away, and my husband was also eager to jump on the course. Bo, one of the staff members, even convinced me to give the warp wall a go. There are actually two warp walls of different heights, and I was able to make it to the top of the shorter one after an embarrassing number of attempts! Here's my son going for the taller, 11-foot wall.

The Xtreme Ninja Challenge is a welcome break from all the crowded Disney and Universal Studios madness. It's also great activity for a rainy day ... or any day really!

Another terrific rainy day activity in Orlando is Escape Hatch Orlando, an escape room experience that's really well done. My kids are really into escape rooms at the moment, and we try to tackle one in every city we visit, so I know what I'm talking about when I say that some experiences are definitely better than others. 

Without giving away too much, I'll report that the theming at Escape Hatch is top notch, and the clues are just the right amount of difficult without being too frustrating. The room we escaped from (and yes, we did escape, with just six minutes to spare!) was Bubba's Basement Bargains, and we loved everything about it. At one point, my daughter commented that we were pulling off a move that we see on one of our favorite shows, Survivor, which was really cool.

Our puzzle master Tina was also fantastic, giving us a nudge here and there without forcing us to ask for clues, so the kids felt quite accomplished at the end. There's nothing like the triumph of bursting through that final door after frantically solving puzzles and undoing locks for almost an hour!

There are many opportunities to spy some gators while in Orlando. One is by taking an airboat ride and seeing the gators in their natural habitat in Kissimmee. There's nothing more thrilling than shooting through the tall grass of the Florida Everglades at high speeds!

Where to Stay

Because going to Disney isn't always our top priority in Orlando, we sometimes stay off resort, which can save tons of money. One time we visited, we were traveling with extended family, so we booked a three-bedroom suite at the upscale Marriott Lakeshore Reserve. It was really fantastic, with an incredible pool that even included water slides and a lazy river. For something less pricey, CLC Regal Oaks also offers spacious townhouses and a pool, but the appliances and bathroom are dated and the carpeting is dingy. Still, the price can't be beat, and every room does include a private hot tub in a screened-in back patio -- so great after a day of non-stop walking.

Where to Eat

If you can manage to get away from the theme park dining, there are some some excellent restaurants in the Orlando area. Padrino's Cuban Bistro is a fantastic Cuban restaurant serving up some seriously tasty arroz con pollo. And about half an hour north of Disney is the town of Winter Park, where we had a lovely Italian meal of rustic, handmade pasta (pizza for the kids) at Prato, as well as some legit barbecue at 4 Rivers Smokehouse (get the awesome brisket). One morning we checked out the Maple Street Biscuit Co. in Kissimmee, and there was a line out the door! After devouring our breakfast, we understood why. 

What's Nearby

Disney's not the only theme park in this town. We also love Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, which are perfectly suited for kids of all ages and features everything from rides based on Dr. Seuss stories to the legendary Harry Potter World. Here's a one-day itinerary for everything Harry Potter, including where to buy butter beer without waiting on line.

About 45 minutes south of Disney World is Legoland. I enjoy this low-key park more than Disney for many reasons: many of the rides (like the Technicycle) are different from the usual theme park fare; in addition to the rides, there are down-time activities, such as touring Miniland or  building and racing Lego cars on a timed track; while parents are waiting on lines, kids get to play at nearby Lego stations.

You might also like:
Disney World: A Beginner's Guide
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter Orlando: A One-Day Guide
How to Visit the Kennedy Space Center with Kids: Tips and Tricks