18 Things to do in Orlando Besides Theme Parks

Jan 14, 2020

Heading to Orlando, but want to escape the theme parks? Here’s our list of 18 things to do in Orlando besides theme parks, as well as tips for your trip!

When you think of Orlando you probably think of Disney, Universal Studios, and the many other theme parks that call it home. And while all of the parks are amazing and so much fun, there’s a lot more to Orlando! 

During our last visit to the Orlando area, we spent a few days exploring the city without theme parks and were surprised by the beautiful nature, awesome food scene, diverse list of things to do, and delicious coffee we encountered. You can watch one of our days in Orlando here!

Central Florida Springs

We’re excited to share a list of 18 things to do in Orlando besides theme parks. Whether you’re visiting and aren’t a theme park fan, or just have some free days during your trip and want to see something different, we’ve gotcha covered! We’ll be sharing a mix of things to do both in Orlando city limits, as well as in the surrounding areas, but all are easy to access and close by. 

But before we jump into the best things to do, we wanted to share some information about Orlando, as well as some tips for your visit, including how to get around and where to stay!

Want to visit Disney too? Check out our Disney World guides!

Need ideas of other things to do in Florida?

Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!

About Orlando

We all know about some of Orlando’s most famous residents (we’re looking at you Mickey!), but did you know that…

  • According to US News, Orlando is the most visited place in the US! In 2018 it had 75 million visitors.
  • Orlando is home to more than 100 lakes and 100 parks.
  • Orlando was originally named “Jernigan” after the first permanent settler in the area.
  • Orlando is nicknamed “The City Beautiful.”
  • Orlando has two professional sports teams: Orlando City SC (MLS) and Orlando Magic (NBA).
  • The Orlando area is home to gators, Florida panthers, and even black bears!

When to Visit Orlando

Orlando is a year-round destination, but there are definitely better times to visit due to weather and crowds!

Since Orlando’s big draw are the theme parks, the busiest time to visit Orlando will be during school holidays and around major holidays, especially Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and the 4th of July. We’d suggest avoiding these times if you really don’t want to battle crowds!

We’d also suggest avoiding Orlando in the summer if heat, humidity, and rain are not your jam. The summers in Orlando can be pretty brutal with the heat + humidity combo and the Orlando area is prone to lots of rain in the summer, as well as hurricanes and tropical storms. Our previous trip to Orlando was during 4th of July week and we were basically soaked in sweat the entire time. It did make the pool and frozen treats even better though! 🙂 

Our top picks for visiting Orlando would be sometime between January-mid May or October-December, all while avoiding major holidays. These months have more bearable temperatures, less rain, and less crowds! Our most recent trip to Orlando was in January and while they did experience unusually high temperatures, we couldn’t really complain while a lot of the country was freezing and getting snow!

Getting to Orlando

Orlando is home to Orlando International Airport (MCO), a major airport and one of the top 10 busiest in the country! It’s located SE of downtown Orlando and about a 20-30 minute ride to both downtown Orlando and the Disney area. 

All major airlines fly in and out of MCO, which means no matter what airline you’re loyal to, you can use your miles to book your flight!

Since Orlando is in Central Florida, it’s pretty central to other major cities in Florida. It’s about a 1.5 hour drive from Tampa, 2-2.5 hours from Jacksonville, and a 3.5 hour drive from Miami.

Getting Around Orlando

Orlando is a pretty large city, especially if you plan to visit the theme parks and some of the items on this list, which are spread out among town. It can take about 45 minutes to an hour to get from the theme parks to Winter Park during traffic.

Depending on your trip itinerary, plus where you’re staying, you have a couple options: Uber/Lyft around town or get a rental car. Below are some pros and cons for both. We also recommend reading this blog post, which shares a lot of good info about the cost to Uber/Lyft around the theme parks!

Rental Cars

  • Pros
    • Can be as cheap as $25/day in Orlando
    • Cheaper to get from the theme parks to different areas on this guide
    • Provides flexibility when getting around town
    • No surge pricing
  • Cons
    • You may have to pay for parking at some resorts (our Airbnb had free parking!) and you’d have to pay for parking at the parks if not staying on park property.

Lyft/Uber

  • Pros:
    • No parking costs! 
    • They have designated areas to meet rideshare drivers at the parks, which can help with any confusion
  • Cons:
    • You may experience surge pricing during peak times to travel
    • You have to wait for someone to drive you places vs. having your own car
    • Rides to some spots on this guide would be pretty pricey

Our tip would be to look at your trip itinerary, map out how much driving you would need to do, calculate any parking fees, and estimate any Lyft/Uber costs (they have ride estimators on their website) to determine which option is the cheapest for you.

Where to stay in Orlando

Orlando Airbnb Where to stay in Orlando

Winter Park

This city just northeast of downtown Orlando is SO nice! We spent quite a bit of time here and loved staring at all of the gorgeous homes. There are also lots of parks and a super cute “downtown” area with restaurants and shops!

Downtown Orlando

Downtown Orlando is surrounded by a bunch of smaller neighborhoods, like the Central Business District (CBD), Lake Eola Historic District, and Thornton Park. 

Near Disney and Universal

Although this blog is focused on things to do outside of the theme parks, there’s a good chance you’ll make a visit to the parks while you’re there! If you plan to visit Disney World, we highly suggest staying at a Disney resort to take advantage of the shuttles and extra magic hours. There are also some great resorts and Airbnbs off Disney property that are nice options too!

Disney Hotels

Universal Hotels

Off-Property Hotels

Airbnbs

We LOVED the Airbnb we stayed at near Disney! The complex was so nice, had tons of amenities, and was close to Disney. Here are some Airbnbs at the property:

PS: If it is your first time staying at an Airbnb, click this link to get $40 off your first stay!

18 Things to Do in Orlando besides Theme Parks

Now that you know a little bit about Orlando, when to visit, how to get around, and where to stay, here’s our list of 18 things to do in Orlando besides theme parks!

1. Eat delicious food!

Orlando Food, Things to do in Orlando besides theme parks

When researching what to do and eat when spending a day exploring Orlando, we were overwhelmed (in a good way!) by all of the delicious restaurants! Orlando definitely has a pretty awesome food scene, which is something we didn’t know before our latest visit. We enjoyed an amazing (and affordable) meal at Sticky Rice and highly recommend it, but there are so many other spots we didn’t get to try! If you want to stuff your face while in Orlando, check out:

2. Kayak the Springs

Kings Landing, Things to do in Orlando besides theme parks

We had no idea how much amazing nature was so close to Orlando! Our friend TJ had told us how beautiful the springs were near Orlando and during our latest trip we spent a couple hours kayaking around the Emerald Cut at Kings Landing (on the Rock Springs run) and absolutely loved it! 

You have a few options at Kings Landing. You can either do the 8.5 mile river run, which lasts around 4.5-5 hours to reach the end and then they’ll shuttle you back. They have specific pick up times and you must be on the water by 11 AM. This trip is around $50-60 depending on the vessel you choose. 

However, what we did, since we didn’t want to spend that long on the water, is do an out and back kayak and just go to Emerald Cut, which is said to be the most beautiful part. This cost us $50 for a two person kayak for the entire day. You can also rent a canoe for $30 or a single person kayak for $40. 

You can also bring your own paddle board or kayak, which costs $10 to launch and $20 if you want the shuttle back after kayaking to the end.

Note: Kings Landing is CASH only!

Another springs option is Blue Springs State Park. It’s $6/car to enter and there are boat tours or you can go fishing, hiking, paddling, scuba diving, snorkeling, swimming, and tubing. However, this spot is a very hot spot for manatees and the water activities do shut down in the winter.

3. Admire (or snorkel with) lots of manatees 

manatees

Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

Speaking of manatees, one of the best things to do in Orlando is to go see the manatees! In the winter months, the manatees migrate to the springs, which are 72 degrees year round, to escape the cold. There are a couple of main places to view these awesome mammals (nicknamed “sea cows”).

Blue Springs State Park as we mentioned above is a hot spot for manatees. They have around 500 manatees that call the park home in the winter. As we said earlier, they do close the water during the winter so that no one disturbs the manatees. You can walk on their ⅓ mile boardwalk to see the manatees up close though!

Another great spot to see manatees is at Crystal River, but unlike Blue Springs State Park, you can actually swim with manatees at Crystal River! There are a handful of tour companies that can take you out on the water for a manatee snorkel, which usually starts at $65+/person. A couple good tour companies to check out are: Bird’s Underwater, River Ventures, and Fun 2 Dive Manatee Tours! Note: Crystal River is about 1.5 hours from Orlando.

To learn more about the best months and times to see manatees, check out this quick guide!

4. See the gators at Gatorland

Want to see some gators? Head to Gatorland! Although Gatorland is technically a theme park, it’s not your typical park and we’re going to cheat and include it anyways! 

They have a zipline, off road adventures, the chance to touch a gator, and so much more! They also have Florida panthers, crocodiles, snakes, birds, and tortoises. If you want the chance to get an up close and personal experience with these creatures, but in a safe environment, Gatorland is worth checking out!

5. Drink some craft coffee

We were very pleasantly surprised by Orlando’s craft coffee game! We discovered a handful of super high quality and well-designed coffee shops and while we unfortunately didn’t get the chance to try them all, they are all on our list for our next visit! 

We visited Foxtail Coffee during our visit and loved the dark and industrial interior. The cafe con leche was also super delicious! A few others we want to check out next time are:

6. Check out the state parks

Florida has 175 state parks and there are a handful of really beautiful ones really close to Orlando! We have mentioned Blue Springs State Park a few times, but a couple other great ones to visit are:

Wekiwa Springs State Park, which is right by Kings Landing and is home to trails and a great swimming area that is over half an acre in size and has an area to lay out. If you have ever been to Austin, TX, it looks a lot like Barton Springs pool! 

Lake Louisa State Park, which is home to one of the few swimmable lakes in the area and has horseback riding, cabins, and kayak tours. 

7. Take a Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour

We absolutely loved Winter Park! From the extremely gorgeous (and $$) homes, to the parks, to the cute downtown area with lots of shops and restaurants, it’s a very nice town that we loved working in and walking around. 

One thing we didn’t know about Winter Park until after our visit there is that they have boat tours! For $14 (adults) or $7 (children) you can hop on one of their 18 passenger boats for a tour around the Winter Park chain of lakes. The tours run every hour from 10 AM-4 PM and are cash or check only.

On the boat you get to learn about the history of the area, see some nice homes, and enjoy a nice ride on the water. We hear this is so much fun and a hidden gem!

8. Explore some beautiful gardens

Just like lakes, there are many parks and gardens around Orlando (most of which have lake views!). One of our favorites to walk around was Kraft Azalea Gardens, which isn’t huge, but had a nice column statue, water views, tons of beautiful Spanish moss trees, and is free. There were at least 5 photoshoots happening while we were there, so it’s clearly well loved by locals!

A couple other popular gardens to explore are Harry P Leu Gardens and Bok Tower Gardens! Harry P Leu costs $10/person to get in, unless you go on one of the free entry dates, and Bok Tower costs $15/person to enter.

9. See a show

Did you know that Orlando has many shows to see? From Blue Man Group, to Cirque du Soleil, to dinner shows, to musicals, there is a little bit of something for everyone!

The exact shows, dates, and times vary, but you can see a list of broadway shows here, Cirque du Soleil here, and other shows here!

10. Treat yourself to some dessert

Orlando Ice cream, Things to do in Orlando besides theme parks

There’s a good chance you’re on vacation if you’re visiting Orlando and what is a vacation without dessert? During our last visit, we indulged in some amazing ice cream at The Greenery Creamery (how cute is that name?!), which may have melted all over us (that’s what happens when you take it out into the Orlando warmth), but it was so dang good! They have half vegan flavors and half regular flavors, charcoal cones, crazy toppings like hibiscus crystals, and a super cute interior. We loved it!

Some other spots that caught our eye were:

11. Cheer on Orlando City SC or Orlando Magic!

If you’re a sports fan, spend a few hours cheering on one of Orlando’s professional sports teams! Orlando is home to both Orlando City SC (MLS) and Orlando Magic (NBA) and between the two there is always a game to enjoy! You can view Orlando City SC’s schedule here and Orlando Magic’s schedule here!

12. Visit a brewery

For the beer lovers visiting Orlando, you gotta check out one of Orlando’s microbreweries. While we don’t drink, we have heard the beer scene in Orlando is pretty strong and there has been a surge of new breweries opening up. Here are some of the ones that have come highly recommended to us!

13. Walk around Lake Eola

Orlando

Lake Eola is a “lake” in the heart of downtown Orlando (it’s just a quick walk from The Greenery Creamery too!). We put “lake” in quotes because it’s actually a sinkhole that’s 23 feet and 8 inches deep!

The sidewalk around the lake is 0.9 miles and great for walking or jogging! You can also rent swan paddle boats, snap a photo of the fountain or Chinese pagoda, or see a concert or play at the Walt Disney Amphitheater. 

14. Go on an airboat tour

Want to see Orlando in a unique way? Go on an airboat tour! An airboat is a flat bottomed boat that is propelled by fans instead of a motor. On an airboat tour, you’ll glide through swamps, see wildlife, and learn about the surrounding nature. It’s a fun way to get out on the water!

We suggest checking out Spirit of the Swamp Airboat Rides, as they limit them to 6 people max so you can have great views without sharing the boat with lots of people.

15. Visit the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum

For art aficionados, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum is worth a visit! This museum houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, including pottery, jewelry, and art glass.

It’s only $6 for adults to enter (and free 4-8 PM on Fridays in November through April) and located in Winter Park, very close to a handful of other things to do on this list! Just don’t show up on a Monday, as they are closed. 🙂

16. Wander around Disney Springs

Disney Springs

Photo by Katherine McAdoo on Unsplash

Although Disney Springs is a Disney property, it’s technically not a theme park and it’s 100% free to visit! Disney Springs is a huge outdoor shopping and entertainment complex with lots of restaurants, Disney related and non Disney related stores (like Anthropologie and Columbia!), a movie theater, bowling, and so much more!

Disney Springs is a great spot to grab some dinner and walk around! They often have live music and they have a helium filled “hot air” balloon you can go on! A few restaurants to check out there: Frontera Cocina, The Polite Pig, Raglan Road Irish Pub, and Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’.

17. Play golf 

Adam loves golf and Florida is golf paradise! Adam’s preferred style of golf is to play affordable and casual courses and there are plenty to choose from! The prices vary depending on the season, time, and if you’re walking or taking a cart, but here are a few of his favorites around Orlando!

  • Winter Park Golf Course (~$25): Adam played here this past week and loved it! It’s a public 9 hole course in one of the nicest areas of town.
  • Dubsdread (~$65: This course may have the coolest name of them all!
  • Royal St. Cloud Golf Links (~$50): This course is about an hour from Orlando, but worth checking out if you don’t mind a drive!
  • Highlands Reserve ($25-$70): A course west of Disney.

18. Take a day trip from Orlando

NASA photo by Christian Wagner on Unsplash

There are many other things to do in Orlando besides theme parks, but some of them require a bit more of a trek! Below are a few ideas of things to do if you have a full day to spare!

Visit the Kennedy Space Center
Get up close to space shuttles, walk around the rocket garden, and if you time your visit right, you can even see a launch! Kennedy Space Center is about an hour drive from Orlando and is $47 for children and $57 for adults. 

Visit Cocoa Beach
Cocoa Beach is right by Kennedy Space Center and would make a great extra activity while you’re out on the East coast! You can see the rocket launches from here as well!

Lay out at Clearwater Beach
Clearwater Beach was named America’s #1 beach by TripAdvisor in 2019. We visited a little over 5 years ago and it was beautiful! We hear it’s great for dolphin watching too!

Explore Tampa
Tampa is about 1.5 hours from Orlando and has a much bigger city feel. Some highlights are Busch Gardens, museums, professional sports teams, the riverwalk, and Big Cat Rescue.

Fall in love with St. Pete
We have heard so many great things about St. Petersburg and cannot wait to visit very soon! St. Pete is nicknamed “the Sunshine City,” as it gets an average of 361 clear days per year. It’s a little under 2 hours from Orlando and very close to Tampa, so you could visit the two within a couple days if you had time.

Some must-see things while in St. Pete are The Dali Museum, Chihuly Collection, Honeymoon Island State Park, and check out their many great spots to eat and coffee shops!

Our friends Let’s Be Us also have a great list of their favorite spots in St. Pete!

Ready to explore Orlando without theme parks?

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about us

Hi y’all! We’re Adam, Kathryn, and Kona, an adventurous married couple (+ pup!) living on the road in our self-converted sprinter van! You can often find us driving all around the US and Canada, scoping out the best coffee shops, eating tacos and ice cream (we’re a 5+ taco and 2+ scoop household), and enjoying nature.

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2 Comments

  1. Suzanne

    Sounds like there are a lot of cool places to see and eat at in Orlando! Enjoyed reading about yet another place I need to visit!

    Reply
    • Kathryn Frazer

      We were so surprised by how many cool things to do (and places to eat) there were!

      Reply

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