Maybe you and Mickey just need a break from each other, or you’re holding off on the big Disney trip until the new Star Wars section opens (date still TBD, but excited we are!). While Orlando is best known for being home to Disney, many other kid-centric attractions have sprung up around it. In fact, you can put together an itinerary that will blow your kids’ minds without even setting foot in the Magic Kingdom. (Pssst: If you’re OK with taking your kids out of school, May and October are ideal times to go, as the average temperature is a toasty 31C and 29C, but the crowds are thinner!)
If you have half a day
This new attraction, located in the Florida Mall, is great for a rainy day. Name and label your own crayon, or melt a few into cool shapes. The Be a Star area lets you take pictures of yourself and turn them into printables or animate kids’ colouring pages. A large climbing and play space gets kids primed for naptime. The highlight is the drip art station, where you pop colours and papers into a machine to create a waxy spin-art masterpiece.
Prices: $22 US; $18 US online.
This new complex is composed of a slew of shops, restaurants and a few key attractions. The Orlando Eye, a slow-moving stand-up enclosed observation wheel, has views all the way to Kennedy Space Center on a clear day. Madame Tussauds is cheesy photo-op fun—the Katy Perry figure looks scary real! Sea Life Aquarium has more than 5,000 species (kids can touch some in the Rockpool area) and a 260-degree sea tunnel.
If you have a full day
Let’s just put it out there: A visit to this man-made lagoon and wildlife park is a splurge. But it’s also a morning-till-night, once-in-a-lifetime, all-inclusive experience (we’re talking wetsuits, towels, meals, snacks, drinks and even sunblock). Snorkle with graceful rays and vibrant fish; sharks and eels are visible behind underwater glass. There’s also a creature-free lazy river–style option for beginners. But the real highlight is interacting and swimming with the dolphins, who “smile,” make toot sounds on command and handily win a splashing contest, all to the utter delight of your kids. Photographers and videographers are there to get your shots for Instagram.
Prices (depending on season): Day resort, $169–$199 US; Day resort with dolphins package, $229–$339 US; (kids two and under, free).
KENNEDY SPACE CENTRE
Located an hour’s drive from Orlando, this is your space nut’s dream come true. Climb inside cramped replicas of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo capsules (photo op!). Buses take you for a drive-by view of the launch pad and to the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where kids can touch a moon rock. The highlight is the actual space shuttle Atlantis, introduced with an appropriately dramatic unveiling. (Its accompanying exhibit includes commentary from Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield!) Older kids will go for the Shuttle Launch Experience, an intense simulator narrated by former astronauts. Space super fans can make a reservation for lunch with a real astronaut. And yes, there’s a whole section in the Atlantis exhibit on how they pee and poop in space, because, really, who doesn’t want to know?
Prices: Adult, $50 US; child, $40 US.
If you have two days
This mammoth theme park (really two side-by-side parks, Universal Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida) rivals Disney. The hottest draw is the immersive Wizarding World of Harry Potter, full of insider-y details from the books. The charming Hogwarts Express train connects the attraction’s two parts—Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade—but you can avoid the long lineups by crossing via the CityWalk instead. Little kids can run wild on the gentle Fievel’s Playland, while older ones can brave Doctor Doom’s Fearfall and Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. Clever 3D rides like Despicable Me Minion Mayhem are great for all ages. (The Revenge of the Mummy ride, however, has freaky imagery and drops in the dark, so skip if your kid—or, um, his parent—scares easily.) Child-swap lines, where parents can switch off riding, accommodate kids who don’t meet the height requirement or lose their nerve. Universal Express Unlimited tickets, which let you bypass most lines, are available, but prices vary throughout the year, from $209 to $279 US for adults and kids.
Prices: adult 1-day, $147 US; child 1-day, $142 US; adult 2-day, $195 US; child 2-day, $185 US (single park admission also available).
Everything is (truly) awesome at this brick wonderland an hour from Orlando. It’s geared toward little kids, with building areas where they play while you wait in ride lines. You could cram the park’s gentle rides and tame coasters into one day, but the on-site hotel and water park mean it’s more relaxing to stretch it into two. Crowds can mean long waits, so get there early and hit the rides first thing, or shell out $85 US for a premium play band that lets you jump the line. If it’s hot, stick to the shady Land of Adventure section of the park or head to the Build & Test area, where kids can race their Lego car creations. Dress the kids in rash guards and water shoes, as the rides that promise to soak you live up to their promise (if not, walk-in dryers can take you from dripping to merely soggy for $5). For a treat, Granny’s Apple Fries served with whipped cream dipping sauce hit the spot.
Prices: adult 1-day, $89 US; child 1-day, $82 US; adult 2-day, $104 US; Child 2-day, $97 US.
To SeaWorld or not to SeaWorld?
If you’ve seen the 2013 documentary Blackfish, you may have sworn to never set foot in SeaWorld. Indeed, the accusations about the park’s treatment of orcas are disturbing. But did you also know that SeaWorld spent $7.3 million US worldwide on conservation in 2013 and has saved 27,000 animals to date? SeaWorld Orlando also houses around 50 injured animals. Some will be rehabilitated and released, but those that can’t make SeaWorld their home. Those animal-saving efforts are largely funded by visits to the park, where the main attraction is, of course, Shamu. Whether the end justifies the means is still up for debate, but if you’re interested in investigating further, you can sign up for a behind-the-scenes tour to learn more about the company’s rescue efforts. [Updated]
Where to stay (These hotels are newly opened or recently renovated)
This sleek hotel located on the Disney resort has bunk beds or love seat pullouts in many rooms to accommodate families. A beach-entry pool and a kids’ lounge mean you should definitely plan to hang out at the hotel during your visit.
UNIVERSAL'S CABANA BAY BEACH RESORT
This retro Vegas-style hotel offers family suites with room for six that come equipped with kitchenettes. Two huge pools and a lazy river give kids a chance to cool off after a hot day at the parks.
DISNEY'S POLYNESIAN VILLAGE RESORT
Renovations to this on-resort hotel will finish up by early 2016 and will include 20 bungalows that sleep up to eight people and feature plunge pools with views of the Magic Kingdom fireworks.