When planning a trip to Central Florida, it’s easy to focus on big name attractions and forget to look for lesser known local favorites. Mixing in a few quiet mornings of exploration can be well worth the effort. Look beyond the amusement park hoopla to discover that Central Florida is full of easy-going adventures that can be both relaxing and enjoyable for the whole family.
Family Adventures in Central Florida
After several amazing/exhausting vacations to Walt Disney World, I decided it was time to broaden my family’s horizons and explore a little more of the Sunshine State. Our ultimate destination was LEGOLAND Florida which is, admittedly, still an amusement park. But I was determined that this trip would be more relaxing than past pack-it-all-in visits to Central Florida. With a goal of better balance in mind, I planned accompanying visits to low key attractions, including Bok Tower Gardens, a National Historic Landmark, and Safari Wilderness Ranch, a 260-acre working game ranch.
1. Bok Tower Gardens
Located a mere 11 miles from LEGOLAND Florida Resort, Bok Tower Gardens boasts more than 600 acres of gardens and architecture, including the famous 205-foot art deco and neo-Gothic Singing Tower. A popular tourist attraction since the 1920s, Bok Tower Gardens recently opened a children’s garden, making it a truly irresistible destination for families.
Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden, included in General Admission to Bok Tower Gardens, is a 2.7-acre wonderland, filled with caves, bridges, and magical mist. On the day we visited, my children took one peek through the kid-size entrance and they were sold. “Let’s play Hide and Seek,” one yelled, as they all raced toward Hammock Hollow’s River Walk. Lots of happy screams ensued as they chased each other through the morning mist. Then, in a flash, they were off to check out the rest of the Garden. Discovering all of Hammock Hollow’s features was a blast, with so many unique opportunities for hands-on exploration of nature. Sand, pebbles, logs, and tree stumps made for a grand morning of play!
What to know before you go
- Bok Tower Gardens is open 365 days a year from 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.
- General Admission is $12 for adults and $3 for children ages 5-12. This ticket option includes admission to the gardens (including Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden), Pine Ridge Nature Trail, Preserve Trail and the Visitor Center complex.
- Parking is free.
- The Singing Tower concerts featuring 60 carillon bells are at 1 and 3 p.m. daily, with short selections played on the hour and half-hour. You can hear the bells throughout the Gardens.
- You may bring a picnic, but must eat in one of the designated picnic areas.
- If you are planning to visit all of the Gardens and Trails, you will want to bring a stroller. You can rent one in the Visitor Center complex, which is open from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. If you are only planning to visit the Children’s Garden, you don’t need a stroller. It’s an easy walk from the parking lot.
- Arrive early! We entered the Gardens at 8 a.m., and by 9 a.m. it was already hot!
2. Safari Wilderness Ranch
Located 30 miles from LEGOLAND in Central Florida’s Green Swamp, Safari Wilderness Ranch offers visitors the unique opportunity to get up close and personal with 450 exotic animals on a guided tour of the property. Recently named by Fodor’s as one of the top 10 best safaris in the country, this exotic game ranch is home to 50 different species of animals.
Cruising through a lush section of the swamp in an open-air safari vehicle, my kids and I spotted ostriches, camels, waterbuck antelopes, kudu, Livingstone eland antelope, a warthog, and zebra families with one-month old foals in tow. Our tour was two and a half hours, which was a little long for my small children in the hot Florida sun, but they rallied at the end when they got to hand-feed water buffalo.
What to know before you go
- The custom vehicle safari tour costs $75 per person and must be booked in advance. Each safari vehicle seats 20 people. All ages are required to buy a ticket.
- Parking is $7.
- There are two tours each day, at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. It’s already hot in Florida at 9 a.m., and the vehicles are open-air, so I recommend the earlier tour. Also, the animals may seek out the shade, further from the vehicle, later in the day.
- Tours last two and a half hours. It is requested that you arrive half an hour before the start of your tour to check in and use the restroom. There are more animals in enclosures to visit following the tour, if you have the time.
- Tours are rain or shine.
3. LEGOLAND Florida
Making my LEGO-loving boys’ dreams come true, we finally arrived at LEGOLAND Florida. It was late September, so there were few lines with light crowds and the water park was still open. Our day in the park was delightful–just the right blend of exploring and relaxing.
My boys have wanted to visit LEGOLAND for years, and this laid-back theme park did not disappoint. A nice mix of rides, play areas, splash pads and shows, we enjoyed the day without feeling overwhelmed. I definitely recommend visiting in the off-season if you can!
What to know before you go
- If you stay at LEGOLAND Hotel, you can enter LEGOLAND Florida half an hour before the park opens to the public. What a wonderful perk!
- There is not a lot of shade in LEGOLAND Florida, so you’re going to want to seek out water adventures to keep cool between rides. Don’t miss the two splash pads, The Quest for CHI interactive water ride, the AQUAZONE Wave Racers, and of course, LEGOLAND Water Park. Admission to the water park is $20 extra per person, or you can purchase a combo ticket online before you visit.
- Make plans to see a show! LEGOLAND Florida offers 12-minute 4D movies and a 20-minute “Friends to the Rescue” live stage show, but I think the don’t-miss show is the Pirates Cove Live Water Ski Show. Arrive early to sit in the front row behind one of the red water cannons if you have a child who would like to be a part of the action.
- Don’t miss Driving School! Ford Jr. Driving School is for ages three to five and Ford Driving School is for ages six to 13. Kids receive a paper license upon completion of the course.
- Save enough time to explore Miniland USA, an outdoor wonderland of replicas created with more than 32 million LEGO bricks.
- Trade minifigures all day long. Bring your own LEGO minifigures or buy some at the park. Any park employee who has at least one minifigure on their badge will be happy to trade.
My children thought LEGOLAND would be the highlight of our visit, but they loved all of our stops in Central Florida. In fact, while playing at Bok Tower Gardens, my 10-year-old exclaimed, “We should move to Florida. Then we could come here all the time!”