More than just theme parks: exploring Orlando’s blind spots

It may be the Theme Park Capital of the World, but there is plenty of adventure in Orlando beyond the amusement parks

  • Feb 01, 2024
  • 1,118 words
  • 5 minutes
Kayaking with manatees in Silver Springs State Park. (Photo courtesy Epic Paddle Advenures)
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It took our rental car eight minutes and 14 seconds to enter and exit Disney World, the total amount of time we’d spend all week in the Magic Kingdom. The kids stared at me in disbelief, as if I had inflicted a particularly cruel and unusual punishment. 

Continuing along a highway that cuts through the colossal 111 square-kilometre resort, we drove past glowing LED screens advertising Universal Studios, Epcot Centre, Sea World, Hollywood Studios, and some of the dozen other theme parks located around Orlando. It was enough to distract me from a vehicle sneaking up in an adjacent lane.

Climbing at NONA Adventure Park. (Photo: Robin Esrock/Can Geo)
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Blind spots plague us on the highways, but they also impact our travels. Hugely popular attractions – landmarks, museums, viewpoints, beaches or theme parks – hog the limelight, draining the oxygen of other great experiences waiting to be discovered. This is especially true in Orlando, which attracts about 74 million visitors a year, many arriving like combat soldiers geared up for a tour of duty in the Theme Park Capital of the World. I wondered what they could be missing and what activities add a different flavour to the largest tourist destination in the United States (Orlando now beats out Vegas, New York, and Miami). Intending to avoid all things Disney, I wondered if my kids would ever forgive me.

The airboat roared into the swamp, coasting over shallow waters under angry, cloudy skies. The fresh air, exotic birdlife and boisterous stories from our pilot came thick and fast on Lake Tohopekaliga, home to Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures. Compared to slick theme park rides, this local attraction felt a little rough around the edges, but so are the alligators that prowl these headwaters of the Everglades. On our boat were a couple from St. John’s, N.L. we all agreed that the unseasonal cool weather was preferable to waist-high snow back home. Next, I took the kids to NONA Adventure Park, which offers a floating water park, a wakeboard cable track, and an 18-metre-tall climbing tower. Admission includes hard hats and wetsuits for obstacles on land and water, designed to thrill all ages.

The mirror of tricks at the Museum of Illusions. (Photo: Robin Esrock/Can Geo)
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Shifting to a more traditional gear, we drove to ICON Park, a pedestrian-friendly destination packed with restaurants, bars, live music, and various attractions. The fascinating Museum of Illusions kept my kids rapt with various optical and physical illusions, including a large mirrored climbing wall, multi-levelled rooms, and various mirror tricks. Steps away, we found familiar attractions like Madame Tussauds, a 7D Motion Theatre, and a large arcade called In the Game, which kept my kids busy while I caught my breath. Above us, the 121-metre-tall Wheel provided views of the city from 30 air-conditioned glass capsules, with an opportunity to buy drinks from a base bar and patch our own music into each capsule’s Bluetooth speakers. At no point had Disney World come up in conversation, and at no point did it feel like we were missing anything. Still, this is the world’s Theme Park Capital, and I’m not a monster.

My seven-year-old popped a penny into a wishing well a few months ago, telling me his biggest wish was to visit Legoland. That evening, as The Wheel reached its apex, I told him that some wishes come true, at least for seven-year-olds in Orlando. He screamed for two and a half minutes straight.

Driving north the following morning in iffy low-season weather ensured we had the 150-acre park mainly to ourselves, with no line-ups in sight. The smaller rollercoasters, interactive rides and exhibits focus on active imagination and play right into the hands of kids under 12. As I’ve written previously, theme parks don’t fill my goblet, but travelling parents will always appreciate the total value of delighted kids. That said, I wanted our final peek into Orlando’s blind spot to wow us all.

Hanging around the museum of illusions. (Photo: Robin Esrock/Can Geo)
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Airboating at Boggy Creek. (Photo: Robin Esrock/Can Geo)
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As the Gulf of Mexico cools in the winter, manatees swim up the warm springs that flow inland towards the sea. These gentle giants resemble a cross between a whale, seal, hippo, and walrus and are annual visitors to Silver Springs State Park, located a couple hours’ drive north of Orlando. Epic Paddle Adventures is one of several operators who guide visitors into the park using glass-bottomed kayaks that immerse you in the warm, crystal waters. 

Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures. (Photo: Robin Esrock/Can Geo)
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We encounter our first manatee just a few minutes before the launch. Large and curious, they effortlessly floated between our kayaks, surfacing every few minutes for air. Feeding on grass and algae below, manatees can weigh as much as 1350 kilograms and, rather oddly, are most closely related to elephants. Like narwhals, they are said to have inspired tales of mermaids and, despite all the alligators about them, have no natural predators. Our two-hour paddle into the spring offered up more surprises, from great blue herons and basking turtles to alligators and a playful river otter. The dense forest, with its bearded trees and shadowed mysteries, provided a striking backdrop for kayakers on the water and those looking for wildlife from the walking trails. Bring a change of clothes for the drive home, and if you’re hungry, take a slight detour to Artman’s Country Smokehouse for the insanely fine brisket. 

Orlando has long been a winter escape for Canadian snowbirds and will always be North America’s theme park mecca. Exploring the blind spot for a few days (intentionally or just for a break from the crowds) delivered surprises, bucket list moments, and memorable family-friendly attractions worth twisting your neck for.


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