Of course, most people vacation in Orlando to visit the Disney parks. But we went to Orlando to take advantage of warm spring weather and relax at a fabulous resort. Since there’s only so many days that I can lounge by the pool sipping fruity drinks, we had to find other ways to enjoy the magnificent weather. Here are the best things we found to do outside in Orlando.
I was hosted for some of these experiences. All opinions are my own.
1. Experience The Wild Side Of Florida
Florida is home to so much wildlife. I had always wanted to see a manatee in the wild and ride an airboat through swamplands. I made both of those things happen on our recent Orlando trip when we booked a tour with Real Florida Adventures. Manatees, gators, and flamingos, these are just a few of the animals we saw on our tour. What a treat! And one of the best things about our day was that we didn’t have to drive. We met the tour group at a local restaurant, grabbed our seat on the bus and let the driver fight the Orlando traffic.
Our first stop on this full-day tour was to Crystal River, Florida, where we started our adventure with the manatee swim. We met up with our manatee tour leaders, jumped on the pontoon boat, and headed out into the spring waters in search of manatees. It didn’t take long to spot them considering that Crystal River has the highest population of manatees in the United States. We learned that it’s the only place in North America where it’s actually legal to swim with the manatees. During winter, many, many manatees migrate to the warm springs of Crystal River so you’ll literally see hundreds of manatees hanging around in the river. By the time we went in March, the height of the migration season had passed, but we were still able to get in the water with these beautiful creatures! Manatees aren’t the only thing you’ll see in the clear spring waters of the Crystal River, plenty of colorful schools of fish happily swim here, too.
Our second tour stop of the day was at the Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, where we saw more wildlife, including a variety of alligators, Key deer, flamingos, whooping cranes, more manatees, and a very old hippopotamus. All of these animals are here because they are unable to survive on their own.
The final stop on our tour, a fast-moving airboat ride through the swamplands of the Withlacoochee River, was just plain fun! I was truly amazed at the beauty of the swamps as we powered through the greenish-black marsh. As we stopped to look at gators on the banks, turtles sunning themselves, and the beautiful pink spoonbills overhead, I think we may have saved the best for last!
2. Take A Relaxing Drive On A1A
To experience Old Florida charm, drive a stretch of the historic A1A Highway. The historic byway winds its way through quaint coastal towns and hamlets up and down the Atlantic Coast. It’s one of two all-American roads in Florida (the other being the magnificent Florida Keys Scenic Highway), and it will give you pause as you consider the way Florida used to be, before all the high-rise condominiums took over the coast.
If you’re in Orlando, you’re only about an hour away from Cocoa Beach, where we started our drive down A1A. Meandering north, we went through Merritt Island, Cape Canaveral, and Titusville. The southern portion of our drive took us through Satellite Beach and Indian Harbor Beach. There’s lots of places to stop and take a walk on the beach or maybe grab a drink somewhere overlooking the water. If you have the time, you could drive A1A all the way south to Key West!
3. Hit The Links
With its more than 1,400 golf courses, Florida is kind of known for golf. Orlando happens to have a ton of golf courses to choose from, and with good weather most of the year and lots of sunshine, it really is the perfect spot to unwind and work on your game. Try the popular Arnold Palmer-inspired public course, Shingle Creek, for a scenic day of golf. You may not appreciate a round of golf more than you will here, away from the lovable, yet chaotic world of Disney!
4. Visit ICON Park
Illuminated in blue, the iconic wheel at ICON Park lights up the Orlando sky. At the 20-acre, open-air, gate-free entertainment destination, located right on Orlando’s famous International Drive, you’ll find a lot of different entertainment options. The most famous attraction is indeed the 400-foot-tall wheel that you can ride and see Orlando from a totally different viewpoint. After a spin on the wheel, grab some food at one of the many different restaurants here. Or check out some of the other attractions at ICON Park like Sea Life Orlando Aquarium, Madame Tussauds Orlando, Arcade City, Museum of Illusions, and Orlando StarFlyer.
There are all kinds of different package options so you can buy tickets to the attractions you want to see. Make sure you buy your tickets online to save money as you’ll pay more if you buy tickets at the park. ICON Park is open every day from noon until at least 10 p.m., and even later on weekends!
5. Explore Florida’s Botanical Gardens
Florida offers beautiful gardens year-round. A visit to Leu Gardens showcases the amazing beauty of Florida plants in an incredible 50-acre park. If you’re looking for a quiet oasis where you can escape the craziness of Orlando, you’ll enjoy wandering the grounds here. You can literally stop and smell the roses in the rose garden that has over 200 varieties of roses and more than 600 roses displayed. As a nod to Florida history, they’ve even included a citrus grove onsite that contains over 50 different kinds of citrus trees. At the gardens, you can also explore the historic Leu House Museum with a tour of the first floor of the home.
6. Wander Through Disney Springs
For a taste of Disney without venturing into the parks, check out Disney Springs. This mega outdoor entertainment center features everything from restaurants, bars, and shops to a bowling alley and lots more places to play. We visited during the evening and I think everyone else did, too. Disney Springs is incredibly busy. Even with over 60 places to eat, it seems every place has a line just to get in the door. Safe to say that if you go to Disney Springs during the prime dinner hour, you will be waiting for a table. That’s not to say that you can’t go to a more casual, walk-up style restaurant like the Daily Poutine for their take on poutine; Guy Fieri’s place, The Chicken Guy; or the Amorette’s Patisserie for pastries.
If you’re heading to Disney Springs just for fun, you’re in luck. There are a ton of entertaining things to do here! Go for a ride on the carousel, take a spin across Lake Buena Vista in one of the vintage amphibian cars, or how about a balloon ride in the high-flying aerophile? There are also musical performances on the outdoor stage to enjoy. Of course, there’s plenty of shopping here, too. Even with Disney Springs being incredibly busy when we visited, we found parking easily in one of the parking garages.
7. Enjoy The Nearby Water
Did you know the Atlantic Coast is only about an hour from Orlando? And the Gulf Coast is only about 90 minutes away. So, you’ve got water nearby, both to the east and west! With both coasts so close, it’s really a no-brainer to check out some water activities while you’re in Orlando. We drove east, about an hour, to Merritt Island and set sail for the open waters! We hopped onto the huge catamaran at Sail Cocoa Beach and, along with the two-man crew and other passengers, we were off for a relaxing afternoon in the sun. Under the bright blue sky, we motored away from the dock and onto the Indian River. While the 2-hour itinerary included both a ride along the Indian River and into the Intracoastal Waterway, the Indian River was my favorite portion of the cruise. Maybe it was because I liked the calm waters or because I enjoyed watching the many seabirds along the river banks. The natural beauty of the river is spectacular. Captain Kris and Captain Ritchie are super knowledgeable about the area and they easily chatted with us throughout the cruise. They are also both experts at spotting wildlife and would regularly call out to let us know if dolphins or any other interesting sights were ahead.
We spent our 2-hour cruise lounging on the front of the boat watching dolphins play and pelicans dive bomb fish in the water. Highlights for us were steering the ship and helping to raise the sail for the return trip, not to mention seeing all those glorious seabirds. Who knew there is so much wildlife to be seen above the ocean waters? Next time, I plan to try the sunset sail at Sail Cocoa Beach.
Pro Tip: There are lots of toll roads in the Orlando area so you may want to make sure you have cash to pay the fare. We tried to have exact change when possible so we could go through the unmanned toll booth, but you can get change if you go through the line with manned cash booths.
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