By Kara Williams, on May 25, 2013

Secret Orlando, for kids

For your first family trip to Orlando you’ll surely hit at least one of the major theme parks this Central Florida city is famous for: Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, Sea World or LEGOLAND. But if you tire of crowds and standing in line for roller coasters, or you’re simply looking to explore Orlando and its environs beyond the theme parks, consider these things to do with kids:


Is it hokey? Yes. Is it fun? Absolutely. Once you walk through the giant gator jaws at Gatorland’s entrance, you’ll find several pools of alligators — from little baby gators bred at Gatorland to mammoth ones that had been caught in the wild. (Of course, they’re all fenced off. Safety first!) Otherwise, admire birds in an aviary, watch a gator wrestling show, play in a kiddie water park, hop on a mellow train ride, or whoosh across the treetops on a new zipline. In business for 64 years, Gatorland is even older than the Magic Kingdom. It also is more low-key, and provides a great break from the chaos of the bigger theme parks.

Hiking in De Leon Springs State Park

De Leon Springs State Park

Named for the famous Spanish explorer who likely passed through this area of Florida in the early 16th century, De Leon Springs State Park is a haven for outdoor activity in a lush, pristine setting. Soak in the huge pool fed by natural mineral springs; it remains a steady 72 degrees year-round. For more exercise, rent a kayak or canoe to explore the network of lakes, creeks, and marshes in the adjacent Lake Woodruff National Wildlife Refuge. Another option: Stroll the paved interpretive trail or more rugged 4-mile loop trail and keep an eye out for alligators, manatees, osprey, and bald eagles. Once you’ve worked up an appetite, head over to the Old Spanish Sugar Mill to cook your own pancakes on a tabletop griddle – kids love the hands-on activity (after all, it’s always more fun to eat a meal you helped prepare).

Orlando Science Center

Especially if you’re visiting Orlando in the hot, muggy summer months, the Orlando Science Center provides a nice, indoor, air-conditioned diversion for children. A few exhibits and activities cater to the kindergarten-age and under crowd, such as the traveling exhibition Adventures with Clifford The Big Red Dog, where visitors get to know the residents of Birdwell Island through interactive play. KidsTown is for guests under four feet tall, with more hands-on activities like Messy Afternoons and a water table for building dams. Then there are alligator feedings in NatureWorks, fossil finding adventures in DinoDigs, and kid-sized trains, planes and automobiles in the All Aboard exhibit hall. Also check for multiple opportunities to watch 3D films and planetarium shows. Hooray for air-conditioned movie theatres!

Viewfinder Tip: Take airboat rides early in the day, as alligators usually sun themselves before 10 a.m.

Boggy Creek Airboat Rides

For an adrenaline-charged adventure through Central Florida’s wetlands, check out Boggy Creek Airboat Rides. Get up close and personal with the alligators, birds, turtles and other wildlife that make their homes in the tall grass and marshy swamp. This can be a quick excursion; scenic half-hour rides leave every 30 minutes and whisk guests across the calm water. If trying to spot red-eyed alligators in the dark of night doesn’t freak you out, consider the 1-hour night tour. For a more personal experience on a much smaller airboat, go for the Extreme Swamp Safari. There’s no age minimum to take an airboat ride with Boggy Creek; in fact, children under three are free.

What are your favorite things to do in Florida with the family?