Escape from O-Town
Without a doubt, Orlando is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the USA, if not the world. Every year, this one city can draw in millions of people to visit from all over the world. Visitors are drawn here for the many amusement parks, including Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, and many other family-friendly attractions. If you have never been to Orlando, you may be in the minority. Whether that is a good or bad thing is up to you to decide.
For many of you, a trip to Orlando is the vacation your family has been dreaming of taking. Maybe your children have been nagging at you for years or months to take you to see Mickey & his friends. Or if you are like most Disney-lovers I know – you are an adult who thinks a trip to Orlando is your idea of the perfect vacation destination. Some of whom go yearly, or maybe twice some years. Whatever your reason, Orlando has probably been on your vacation bucket list at least once.
Take a Break from the House of Mouse
However, not everyone who goes to Orlando will be content with hanging out with princesses & cartoon animals, or riding coasters & taking a jungle cruise. If you find yourself in Orlando and want to break free from the Disney bubble and do something else, there are plenty of options.
Here, we have some suggestions for short day trips that you can take from Orlando that will get you out of the enclave of Princess Castles, superheroes, and magic wizards and experience something a little different.
Blue Springs Park
Approximately one hour drive north of Orlando is Blue Springs State Park. This park has a natural spring that maintains 72 degrees, making it a perfect wintering environment for manatees. You can take a hike along the trail and watch the manatees as they swim around in safety. The water is so clear and bright blue that the photos and videos of the manatee that you get will be stunning, even for novice photogs. Kayaking, Scuba diving, and canoeing are also very popular activities you can enjoy in this idyllic setting.
Our visit to the Blue Springs State Park was undoubtedly a highlight of our trip to central Florida.
About 40 minutes outside of Orlando, just south of St Cloud, you will find an exotic animal sanctuary, Amazing Animals. This is a privately run wildlife sanctuary and nature preserve for exotic animals with a mission to inspire conservation through hands-on education. They offer private tours for you and your group, where visitors are introduced to rare, threatened, and endangered species, with the park’s animal residents serving as ambassadors for their wild counterparts. You will be able to hold Thelma & Louise the Burmese Pythons, play with a Capybara (as much as capybara play), and the highlight is to hang with the sloths. A visit to Amazing Animals Inc is a great way to spend an afternoon.
Roguetrippers consists of 3 people with extensive animal health care education and experience. Whenever we visit zoos, aquariums, sanctuaries, or farms, we always pay close attention to the conditions. It is just what we do – we care how animals are cared for and kept. The Amazing Animals Sanctuary is an excellent facility. The animals all look healthy, happy, and have significant enrichment to reduce stress.
Have you ever dreamed of Jeannie, or maybe you wished you were Major Tony Nelson and could fly to space with NASA? Well, a day trip to Cocoa Beach might be in order. Take a drive one hour east of Orlando to the Atlantic Ocean, and you can live out your dreams, of sorts. Cocoa Beach is a beautiful beach town that was also the location for the 60’s tv show “I Dream of Jeannie”. You will enjoy visiting this gorgeous spot with the sand, the surf, and the Cocoa Beach pier – with its many shops and eateries.
Kennedy Space Centre / Cape Canaveral
Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Centre are located very near Cocoa Beach. You can unleash your inner astronaut and take a tour of the Nasa Museum. A visit to the Kennedy Space Centre visitor complex is a must-do for anyone who loves space and space exploration.
In the vicinity of Cocoa Beach, there are many eateries to grab a tasty meal. Still, for our money, the best bet was Dixie Crossroads in Titusville. Fresh-caught seafood and a never-ending supply of fantastic corn fritters topped with icing sugar.
Don’t forget to stop in to see SWAMPY at the Jungle adventures on your way.
Gulf Coast Day Trips from Orlando
We love manatees. There, we said it. These gentle giants are not only beautiful to look at, but they have a natural calming effect on you when you watch them slowly move through the water. Homosassa Springs State Park is home to many species of animals, including manatees, Florida panthers, red wolves, deer, flamingo, and other captive animal ambassadors. The State Park is a beautiful spot to enjoy hiking, wildlife watching, picnicking, and much more. Head to the visitor centre to learn more about the wildlife, the park, the history, and pose for a photo with the Manatee statue out front.
Weeki Wachee Mermaids
Less than 2 hours west of Orlando is Weeki Wachee Spring State Park, home to the famous Weeki Wachee Mermaids. The live ‘mermaid’ show has been a constant tourist attraction for visitors to Florida for many decades. Children (and many adults) will delight in seeing real-live mermaids swimming the giant tanks.
Pose for a photo with your favourite mermaid, or AS a mermaid while you are there.
The theatre is not far from Homosassa Springs State Park, so you can easily do both attractions in one day.
When we first visited Tampa, we asked the clerk at the airport tourism booth, “What do people in Tampa do for fun”. Her answer, without hesitation, was “We go to Orlando”.
An odd choice of answer for a tourism counsellor to advise, so we made our own plans. Three activities that I would highly recommend doing in Tampa are, of course, animal-related, and you can do both activities in one day if you so choose.
Yeah, it’s an amusement park – which is what you are trying to get away from, right? Well, it is also a fantastic animal adventure. We had more fun feeding and playing with the animals than at the amusement park. With over 200 species of animals at Busch Gardens, there are hours of fun to have. Hands down, the Australian encounter was by far our favourite thing to do.
A visit to an aquarium is a must for us in every city that has one. Like most, the design of The Florida Aquarium in Tampa is to take you on a journey from tree to sea with a variety of diverse ecosystem exhibits. You will learn about marine animals, plants, and their habitats.
Lowry Park Zoo
Zoo Tampa at Lowry Park is a fairly small zoo, in the heart of Tampa and is operated by the Lowry Park Zoological Society. The park is home to over 1000 animals and offers a unique setting for visitors to get up close with the animals.
Travel Tip: You may wish to purchase a multi-attraction pass for discount rates.
The Ringling Museum
Two and Half hours southwest of Orlando on the gulf coast is the city of Sarasota. The most remarkable thing about Sarasota is that it is where John Ringling, the famous circus owner, chose to build his mega-mansion, Ca’ D’Zan, a Venetian Gothic style estate. Once the winter home for him and his wife, it is now home to The Ringling Museum. There is truly something for everyone here. The stunning architecture, numerous works of art and sculpture, ornate decorating, and breathtaking views are all sure to impress. The Ringling Museum houses an impressive collection of circus-related artefacts, exhibits, and memorabilia. You will love walking the yard and gardens surrounding the house, which are gorgeous, consisting of many unique plants and trees.
The Mote Marine Laboratory
The Mote Marine Laboratory is a private marine research laboratory dedicated to research, education, and marine life conservation, located right across Sarasota Bay. The aquarium is an educational experience for visitors to interpret the research for the public with science and ocean sustainability as its prime directive.
Tampa Electric Manatee Viewing Centre
On your way to Sarasota, be sure to stop in at the Manatee Viewing Centre. Here, you can observe the beautiful sea cows in the warm water beside a Tampa Electric power plant. The manatees enjoy protection from the cold and the dangers of humans.
Travel Tip: The gift shop here is an excellent place to get some Manatee souvenirs.
Sure, sea sponges may not be the most exciting thing, but to the residents of Tarpon Springs, they are. The “Sponge Capital of the World” is located just north of Tampa Bay / Clearwater. It is about 2 hours away from Orlando, along the gulf coast. Many stores in town sell locally harvested sea sponges in all shapes, sizes, textures, and colours. The natural sponges and loofas make great gifts. There are museums dedicated to the history of sea sponge harvesting, sponge divers, and the town’s history. Tarpon Springs has a rich Greek heritage, which means there is an abundance of options to get delicious Greek food.
Located in Plant City, Florida, about 1 hour southwest of Orlando, Dinosaur World is a must if you have a budding palaeontologist or junior archaeologist in your family. Anyone who loves dinosaurs, animatronics, fossils, evolution, or natural history will enjoy a visit to Dinosaur World – Central Florida’s only attraction dedicated to the giant creatures of the past. Dinosaur world is also dog friendly, making it an attraction the whole family can enjoy.
When you think of Florida, you probably think Gators. Of course, you do. You also probably hope to see some when you are in Florida, and there is no shortage of gator sightings. Just try to do it safely. One place that has been an Orlando tourist destination for over 80 years is Gatorland, and while technically in Orlando, it doesn’t feel like it. This animal adventure park is just teeming with gators at every turn. You can feed them, observe them, and enjoy the gator wrestling show. There are several other animal encounters within Gatorland, including birds, wildcats, snakes, tortoises, and other critters. Gatorland also features other amusements and attractions to entertain the family for hours.
So, the next time you find yourself getting a little tired of the Happiest Place on Earth, consider taking a break with one of these easy-to-make day trips. Then you can get back to enthusiastically singing “it’s a small world”.
Follow all Covid-19 travel restrictions.