When you travel to Orlando with children, most people assume that you’re heading to the Disney complex. Not a bad guess, given more than 132 million people visited the parks in 2013. Still, Orlando is more than just the big D, and families visiting the region aren’t limited to princess breakfasts, warring pirates, and small worlds. Whether you’ve exhausted “the happiest place on Earth” or plan to skip the parks altogether, consider visiting one of these family-friendly Disney alternatives on your Orlando vacation.
If your child eats, sleeps, and breathes Lego and sings “Everything is Awesome” in the shower, LEGOLAND should be a must on your Orlando trip. It’s big at 150 acres, but not overwhelming, and it offers a wide variety of activities to appeal to a diverse group. Divided into themed sections, you’ll find roller coasters, a World of Chima zone, an interactive Duplo Valley perfect for toddlers, replicas of American cityscapes (and Star Wars), a water ski show with Lego people, and an Imagination Zone where kids can actually build Lego creations. There’s also plenty of places to buy Lego sets and mini figures, including Extreme Brick Bargains Shop. And in the summer of 2015, the Legoland Hotel will open adjacent to the park. A word of caution: “Everything is Awesome” plays on a loop as you enter the park, meaning you’ll now be singing in the shower, too.
Standard admission: Starts at $87 for adults (13-plus) and $80 for 3-12
How long should you plan to stay? 1 day (2 for Brickheads)
There’s plenty of reasons to spend a day or 2 at Universal’s Island of Adventure, including immersing your kids (and yourself) squarely in the brilliantly colored world of Seuss Landing where you can keep Thing 1 and Thing 2 entertained while you go Grinch without anyone blinking an eye. But whether or not you’ve read any of J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is a spectacular and (ahem) magical experience. You can buy a wand at Ollivander’s, grab a Butterbeer at Three Broomsticks, fly with Harry on a hair-scorching, mind-bending ride called “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey” at the end of the tour of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The shops and rides are entertaining, but seeing the intricate and elaborate world of magic at full scale in living color will make for a memorable experience for everyone in the family.
Standard admission: Single park tickets for 1 day are $96 per adult and $96 per child and $136 per adult and $130 per child for full access to all six parks
How long should you plan to stay? 1 full day at the Wizard World, 2 if you plan to see other parts of Universal, including Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, The Lost Continent, and Seuss Landing
About an hour from Walt Disney World near Cape Canaveral sits this landmark of American space travel that’s both a cool and educational attraction for families. General admission includes an IMAX movie, exhibits, a space center bus tour and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame (you can get a second day free at the Hall of Fame if you return within seven days of the original visit). A visit also includes cool interactive exhibits like the Shuttle Launch Experience, rockets, simulators and an up-close view of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. Diehard space fans can also buy tickets to have astronaut encounters.
Standard admission: Starts at $50 for adults and $40 for children
How long should you plan to stay? 1 full day
About 40 minutes southeast of Florida in St. Cloud is an eco-adventure perfect for dare-devil families. Forever Florida consists of a 4,700-acre wildlife conservation area, divided into 9 different eco-systems that are home to gators, black bear, deer and the Florida panther—you can see them up close on horseback or coach rides throughout the park. For a bird’s eye view, you can sign up for the zip line package, which will have you zooming through the trees on seven zip and across three sky bridges. The longest zip line is nearly two football fields, and the highest tower height is nearly 68 feet.
Standard admission: Starting at $14.99 for children and $24.99 for adults (coach ride); $69.99 for horseback riding, and $79.99 for zip-lining
How long should I plan to stay? 1 day
Take a trip under the sea on your Orlando vacation courtesy of Discovery Cove. This wildly popular Orlando attraction allows visitors to spend the day swimming with dolphins and rays, snorkeling amid exotic fish and hand-feeding tropical birds—or simply lounge on the beach or in the lazy river ride. In addition, your ticket purchase includes parking plus breakfast, lunch, snacks and beverages (including alcohol). The park limits the number of guests each day to avoid over-crowding, which allows for a more relaxing experience, and dolphin encounters are designed for visitors age 6 and older. While prices are steep, tickets include unlimited admission to Sea World and Sea World’s water park Aquatica.
Standard admission: Tickets start at $259 a person. Reservations required.
How long should I plan to stay: 1 day
‘Gators and Florida go together like peanut butter and chocolate or Brad and Angie. So it’s only natural that Orlando has a theme park that celebrates this indigenous creature. Founded in 1949, this family-owned attraction sits on 110 acres and has thousands of alligators and crocodiles on display, plus a zip line adventure, rookie gator wrestling, nighttime tours, a behind-the-scenes tour of the breeding marsh and plenty of gator shows. The park is recognizable for its giant gator head that doubles as an entrance and is perfect for families looking to walk on the wild side.
Standard admission: Adults start at $23.99, children $15.99
How long should I plan to stay there: half to full day