After nearly eight years of living here, I feel confident in my choices for top spots to take kids that have nothing to do with the world’s most popular family vacation destination.
Of course, the more my family explores, the more my list changes! If you have a favorite place that didn’t make the list, please comment below as I’m always looking for fresh ideas. Everything you will find below is within the city limits of Orlando and its surrounding suburbs.
- Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens. This is a small zoo, but what it lacks in animals it gains in outdoor activities that operate separately under a canopy of trees.Multiple zip line tours for various ages, including preschoolers, grace the entrance as part of the ZOOm Air Adventure Park. Nearby a train takes families on a short ride through the wooded area surrounding the zoo and an old-fashioned carousel beckons. Recently a laser tag experience called Battlefield Live opened, too. This is all stuff you can do before you even set foot in the zoo!
The fees for each of these slices of fun can add up, but you don’t have to indulge in each experience on the same day. Our family has gone twice and only done the zip line tour, for example. When my son was younger, we’d ride the train and the carousel then head back home. It was years before he realized there was also a zoo there.
Bring a swimsuit if you plan to venture inside. A splash park is nestled next to a shady area and café where parents can lounge while the little ones run through the fountains.
2.Orlando Repertory Theatre. Many of the shows at this theatre just off I-4 near downtown sell out, especially on weekends, so that tells you a lot about the quality of the productions here. The theatre is intimate and shaped like the letter U, giving kids the feeling that they are part of the stage experience.Throughout the school year as well during summer and school breaks, the Rep’s Youth Academy turns kids into performers as each session wraps with a show they star in themselves.Download the free Orlando Magicard and you can score 2-for-1 discounts on tickets.
3.Orlando Science Center
Our family has had an annual pass to this gem across from the Orlando Rep for the past three years.When my second grader was younger, we’d pick and sort oranges for hours in the Orange Grove Factory that’s part of the Kids Town exhibit. Now we hang out at Imagination Playground, a new portable playground made of lightweight foam, so kids can rebuild it however they want. My son’s favorite spot is the Science Park, where he can sit in a flight simulator or pretend to race on a derby track.Couple that with a rotating crop of movies that play in the CineDome, and the NatureWorks section with its live gator feedings a couple of times each day, and you’ve got a packed afternoon.
4.Winter Park Boat Tour. This family-owned biz in the tony suburb of Winter Park is an inexpensive way to keep the whole family entertained.
The open-air boat cruises along a chain of lakes where the city’s wealthiest live, providing you a peek at the back side of homes that would make HGTV jealous. Parts of the tour wind past the Mediterranean architecture of Rollins College as well as along narrow canals that will have your kid thinking he’s Jack Cousteau. The mangroves alongside you coupled with the breeze and feeling of the open water will remind you why you chose to live here.
$12 adults, $6 kids. Boats leave every hour between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., open every day except Christmas.
Before you ask why would I take my family to a nursery as a fun day out, let me tell you about Lukas Nursery. Besides rows and rows of gorgeous plants, this family-owned biz is home to a butterfly conservatory with a huge variety of native butterflies. We’ve been a few times, and my son loves to to feed nectar to the butterflies and stand still as they perch on his shoulders.
There are hay rides, too, so you can drop off the kids and wander around the garden shop. We’ve even had lunch at the grill and hot dog stand near shaded picnic tables. The hay rides are free and entrance to the conservatory is $5, free for kids under 3.
6.Farmer’s Market at Lake Eola on Sundays.
Sure, there are lots of farmer’s markets around town, but this one in the heart of the city has enough going on that you can knock out a few hours having all kinds of family fun. Besides the general shopping for produce, which my son loves to do with his own basket, there are booths that sell everything from cupcakes to crepes. My family usually orders a few Jamaican patties, a grilled corn husk and a fruit crepe and parks at the tables under the huge trees in the center.Most Sundays there’s live music starting at 12:30 courtesy of Joseph Martens, who’s kind of a big kid himself. I’ve even seen him play musical chairs with the kids, who use the pint-sized seats specially provided for them. At around that time, the beer and wine garden opens, too, so you can sip while the kids play.Afterwards, we usually check out the vendors. There’s always fun jewelry and pottery for sale and folks lining up to get chair massages. Eventually we make our way over to the playground. The event is pet-friendly, so you can bring Fido. Opens at 10 a.m. every Sunday.
7.Orlando Public Library, downtown branch.
Right on Central Avenue is a huge library that our family frequents. The children’s section is enormous, with steady programming geared to all ages. When my son was little, we showed up for story time. Now he likes to sit at one of the 24 computers with access to educational games. There’s even a Little Tykes computer station for toddlers.The library hosts all kinds of contests for kids, too, some of which score you tickets to shows that come to town if you read a certain number of books, for example. The reading area is huge and bathed in light, with a cute little playhouse with ample reading room for moms and preschoolers.It’s the largest library in the state, which means there’s plenty to see and do throughout the three floors beyond the kids’ section. All of their events and shows are free, just check the daily schedule online by clicking HERE.
8.Swim in the springs
One of the coolest things about living in Orlando is its proximity to several springs that are just perfect when it’s 85 degrees and humid outside. The water is a chilly for the locals, usually with a temperature in the 70s, but the setting is beautiful.We mostly go to Wekiwa Springs State Park, but we do a lot more hiking and canoeing than swimming. The trails are wide enough for kids to run around or ride their bike and you can see all kinds of cool birds and turtles when you canoe the Wekiwa River.Blue Springs State Park is another close option, plus it’s a great spot to watch manatees when they migrate between November and March. For a list of the top 10 springs near Orlando, click HERE.
9.Pinochio’s Marionette Theatre
This tiny theatre tucked into the Altamonte Mall has been there since 1999, when it opened as a performance space for what used to be a traveling theatre company. Kids can sit on the floor near the stage or on benches with you. I’ve been to several shows here over the years and the quality of the puppetry is excellent. I love what the theatre claims its role to be: “To help preserve the art and craft of marionette puppetry; to introduce children to live theater; and to teach theater etiquette.” You can have birthday parties here, too. Tickets to individual shows are $6 per person.
10.Bike a designated trail
The Cady Way Trail is a 3.8-mile ride from the city’s Fashion Square Mall on East Colonial Drive to Ward Park and Cady Way Pool in Winter Park, so you can cool off at the end if it’s a hot day. Some parts feel urban, others wooded, and one section skirts a golf course, giving you a wide range of scenery while biking the wide paved trail.Another shorter trail for biking is found at Baldwin Park. My son and I have often biked on the 2.5-mile path surrounding the lake. We stop at the dog park and watch the pups romp in the water or walk the short wooded trail there, and if we get hungry, Baldwin Park’s Village Center has plenty of places to eat or grab a drink. There’s even a bike shop, Loco-Motion, in case you need to put air in your tires.