Orlando away from the theme parks

Planning a family holiday to Orlando, Florida and worried you'll be chasing the kids around theme parks 24/7? Relax; it's a holiday, and there is no need to worry, as Orlando boasts a rich array of family-friendly attractions beyond the world-class delights of the Sunshine State's theme parks.

Orlando away from the theme parks
Orlando away from the theme parks © Julie Fletcher - courtesy of Visit Florida

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Orlando away from the theme parks

In fact, you could spend two weeks in and around Orlando, and not even enter a theme park. We're not suggesting for a second that your wee ones would forgive you if you did, just that there is so much out there, from horse riding and biking trails, through to epic stargazing, and restaurants where you can dine in style and spoil all the family.

1. Restaurant Row

Forget the clichéd fast-food burger joints - Orlando these days boasts an impressive array of foodie options, and 'Restaurant Row' is one the best places to treat your tastebuds. This is a one-mile-long sweep of Sand Lake Road that is home to a whopping 20 restaurants.

Lobster tails as served by Eddie V's
Lobster tails as served by Eddie V's - photo courtesy of www.eddiev.com

For seafood lovers, Eddie V's is a great place on the Row to introduce the wee ones to fish and shellfish. Kids tend to love the lobster tacos if you fancy giving them a taste for the finer things in life, while the wine list will keep big kids happy too.

Seito Sushi is the place for adventurous families seeking a healthy break from fast food with a sushi session. If it's proper pizza you are after you cannot go wrong with NYPD Pizza which has a number of supremely family-friendly restaurants around the city.

2. Hot air ballooning

A hot air balloon ride is surely the most dramatic and spectacular way to check out the city and its environs. You can take it all in and see the people like ants below in the theme parks as you sail up on high. There are a number of operators to choose from including Bob's Balloon Flights, Orlando Balloon Rides and Magic Sunrise Ballooning.

Ballooning at sunrise over central Florida
Ballooning at sunrise over central Florida © Wknight94 - Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Sunrise is the best time of day for heading off on a balloon flight. It is a truly magical experience for children, and it's priceless watching their faces light up as you lift off.

As well as theme parks and the city, kids can also peer from 1,000ft above for wildlife such as deer on the green fringes of Orlando. It's fun watching people look around trying to work out where the voices are coming from as you pass over.

3. Horseback riding

If you don't associate Orlando with horseback adventures you will be surprised at the number of companies, such as Cactus Jack's Trail Rides, are on hand to take families out.

Trail riding, pony rides, and horsemanship training are available for all skill levels, while Forever Florida will organise some seriously fun equestrian experiences for kids aged 10 and over. It's not just trotting around, as the whole family gets involved in the 'Rawhide Roundup', where you help corral the cattle together.

Up close and personal with friendly horses
Up close and personal with friendly horses - photo courtesy of Cactus Jack's Trail Rides

Westgate River Ranch meanwhile, allows riders as young as eight to take the reins. There are introductory lessons, which include grooming, tacking, and safety. Then there are the more challenging two-hour trail rides for more experienced riders.

4. Trailing & biking

It might surprise you that Orlando has been designated a 'Bicycle Friendly Community' by the League of American Bicyclists. This is because Orlando offers up a multitude of paved trails for families looking to get out on two wheels.

You can, of course, in-line skate, walk or run on these trails too, but cycling is our tip. You can ease along and appreciate the lakes and parkland as you go. A real local favourite is the West Orange Trail, an old railway line which provides 22 paved miles.

Cycling the West Orange Trail, Florida
Cycling the West Orange Trail, Florida © rwjoslyn - photo courtesy of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy (RTC)

Handily, there are all-important toilets, though we recommend bringing your own picnic. Juice Orlando Bike Share is on hand for those looking to cycle around the urban areas. They charge by the hour with rental hubs across downtown Orlando.

5. Go green

It's not all neon and big theme parks in Orlando. Oh no, there is plenty of greenery around the city and state to enjoy. Forever Florida offers a range of hands-on experiences rather than spoon-fed entertainment.

As well as the aforementioned horse rides it offers the chance to venture out in a swamp buggy amidst a nature preserve that boasts nine ecosystems.

Then there is Florida's biggest zip line trail. There are 10 observation platforms where you can stare out over the trees. The Swooping Crane hoists guests 55 feet up and then sends them soaring through the trees.

Your children won't moan or ask for anything as they are engulfed in all that greenery and excitement. You can even book a nighttime zipline experience for something different.

6. Shop until you drop

We're not talking gift shops inside the theme parks here. We are after the malls, the bigger the better, the sort of place where mums and dads can enjoy themselves as much as kids.

The Mall at Millenia is a classy escape that sports over 150 stores and is the place to get techy, with all the latest Apple gadgets that will get the kids seriously excited. Grown-ups can check out the likes of Gucci and Prada, or pick up a pair of Jimmy Choos. The Cheesecake Factory tempts too.

The main entrance to the Mall at Millenia
The main entrance to the Mall at Millenia - photo courtesy of www.mallatmillenia.com

The Florida Mall, meanwhile, is central Florida's largest shopping mall with a whopping 1.8 million square feet of retail therapy! Staggeringly, there are more than 250 retail, dining, and entertainment outlets from Macy's and Dillard's, through to the Crayola Experience, The Disney Store, and M&M's for the kids.

7. Stare at the stars

The Orlando Science Centre - itself a brilliantly fun attraction for visitors of all ages - is topped with the aluminium-domed Crosby Observatory. Here you will find Florida's largest publicly accessible refractor telescope.

Looking through a telescope for the first time
Looking through a telescope for the first time - photo courtesy of the Orlando Science Centre

This is a one-of-a-kind custom-built 10-inch refractor telescope, which, along with several smaller scopes, opens up the skies by day and - even more impressively by night. Your children will be able to go back to school after the holidays full of stories of seeing the four moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn.

Weather in Orlando

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The weather in Orlando is pretty sunny all year round with hotter, stickier days in summer and cooler, fresher ones in winter. As a place for some seasonal sunshine, it's certainly a fantastic option. Don't forget to see when we think is the very best time to go.

Tempted to experience a different side of Orlando? Check out the latest deals with Virgin Holidays to save on flights and accommodation to the US' leading playground-city.

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Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie is a Scottish travel writer, author and broadcaster. He has visited over 100 countries and regularly writes about Scotland and the Canary Islands. As well as frequently contributing to Weather2Travel.com, Robin writes for publications including The Telegraph, The Independent, The Guardian, The Times and Wanderlust, and has authored more than 30 guidebooks.

Article updated on Thursday 26th December 2019 in: City Family North America Virgin Atlantic

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