Think Orlando, think Mickey Mouse? There’s so much more to the City Beautiful than that. Sure, the theme parks may be the main draw here, but that’s not the only reason this city’s far and away the most visited in the US. Thrill-seekers can take a heart-pounding lap around the Daytona Speedway, nature lovers can swim alongside gentle manatees in a picture-postcard natural spring, and budding astronauts can time-travel through intergalactic history at the Kennedy Space Center.
So next time you find yourself in Central Florida, skip the theme park queues in lieu of these underrated attractions – we promise you won’t be disappointed.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Orlando
Best things to do in Orlando besides theme parks
Just north of downtown Orlando, you’ll find one of the most charming features of the Sunshine State, Winter Park. This is where Orlandonians come to dine at European-style bistros, shop at high-end boutiques, and admire the world’s largest collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany at the Morse Museum. Hop on the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour for an up-close look at some of the area’s most outstanding beauty spots. On Saturdays, a vibrant farmers’ market takes over the old train depot.
From the early pioneers of the space exploration program to the future of Nasa, Kennedy Space Center takes you on an exhilarating journey through hands-on exhibitions, behind-the-scenes access to historic launch sites, and the magnificent Saturn V Rocket. For a truly awe-inspiring experience, plan your trip around an actual take-off.
Whether you’re looking for some Mickey-inspired souvenirs or a James Beard Award-winning restaurant, Disney Springs can deliver. Happily, this leisure complex boasts a range of shopping, dining and entertainment options for all the family. Don’t miss Wine Bar George, The Edison for acrobatic and dance shows, live music at Stargazers Bar, and the world’s largest hand-painted helium balloon at Aerophile.
Stroll through Thornton Park or Church Street Station, and you’ll quickly get the sense that downtown Orlando is steeped in fascinating history. Visit the Orange County Regional History Center and explore more than 12,000 years of Central Floridian heritage, take in a Broadway production at the striking Dr. Phillips Center, or experience this city’s vibrant nightlife scene when the sun goes down.
Pack your sandals and sunscreen and head to Orlando’s favourite beach. Just over an hour from downtown, New Smyrna Beach offers some of the state’s best surfing opportunities. If you want to trade your board in and relax, grab a towel and pick a spot along the 17-mile stretch of white sand beach. From North America’s most biodiverse estuary, the Indian River Lagoon, to the wildly popular JB’s Fish Camp, there’s no shortage of excellent things to see and do here.
Minutes from the theme park crowds lies a natural wonder where you can swim, fish, hike, bike, kayak, ride horses, and more. It’s the constant 74-degree waters, five-foot-deep on average, that make Wekiwa Springs State Park such a refreshing break from the blazing Florida sun.
Bask in surreally good views of Orlando from 400ft up on The Wheel, examine more than 500 actual skeletons at the Museum of Osteology, and come nighttime, wind down at iLounge Istanbul with an Efes beer and some hookah. Sprawling Icon Park offers more than 40 restaurants, an array of bars and many, many trendy boutiques.
Four floors of exhibits, workshops, a theatre and an observatory: this award-winning science center pretty much has it all. We recommend the virtual cockpit and the ever-popular Kid Town, where aspiring scientists can make their own hands-on discoveries. Be sure to catch a flick at the Dr. Phillips CinaDome for a riveting 3D experience.
If you’ve ever envisioned yourself behind the wheel of an official NASCAR race car, here’s your chance. At the Daytona International Speedway you can take to the track yourself, chivvied along (and reassured) by a personal spotter over a two-way radio channel. If you’re not quite up to going solo, opt to ride shotgun for three or six heart-pounding laps.
This is how a good deal of Floridians actually spend their days off. Orlando Watersports Complex offers day-long courses in wakeboarding, water skiing, water surfing and kneeboarding. Beginner? No problem – OWC offers starter lessons for those looking to take their skills up a notch. Continue the fun at the 10,000-square-foot Aquapark.