Everyone knows the Disney theme parks in Orlando are fabulous, but there are plenty of other theme parks to be discovered. Stroll through the miniature cities of LEGOLAND. Marvel at the aquatic creatures of SeaWorld. Watch the movies come to life at Universal Studios. Or try a little alligator wrestling at Gatorland. Your family entertainment options are endless.
Best Theme Parks in Orlando That Aren’t Disney
When Disney World came to Central Florida back in the 1970s, it quickly became the number one tourist attraction of Florida. But Disney isn’t the only theme park in town. There’s plenty of entertainment at other Central Florida theme parks. Here are a few of my family’s favorites.
Kids all over the world spend an astonishing five billion hours a year building with LEGOS, and there’s no better place to celebrate LEGO mania than Central Florida’s LEGOLAND. Built on part of the former site of Cypress Gardens, Florida’ original theme park, LEGOLAND is the place where all those hours of building with LEGO bricks come to life.
Spread over seven themed areas, Miniland USA is filled with miniature LEGO replicas of American cities. Look for street musicians in Times Square, find the movie stars in Los Angeles and thrill to the space shuttle smoke and rumble at the Kennedy Space Center. The Las Vegas display showcases the city’s famous resorts and casinos while Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood is alive with salsa dancers. New York City landmarks include Grand Central Station, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and Central Park. At the Kennedy Space Center a rocket counts down to blast off. And the Daytona 500 Speedway gives the kids a chance to race LEGO cars.
Other park highlights include the Imagination Zone, where budding engineers can build and program real MINDSTORM robots or build and race LEGO cars at Build and Test. In the LEGO Hero Factory play area, kids can build their own heroes to fight evil. Who knew building blocks could accomplish so much?
A favorite feature of the park for my group is the character trading. On my recent visit with my grandkids, we stopped at the gift shop near the entrance of the park where I gave the kids the option to choose a small LEGO character. We then sat out on a bench and assembled the characters. Throughout the park, Model Citizens (employees) wear LEGO characters on their name tags. If you like one of their characters better than yours, you can trade.
One of the hardest things about taking kids to any theme park is keeping them entertained while waiting in line for rides or while parents and grandparents finish eating. LEGOLAND has taken care of that problem by placing tables throughout the park and in restaurants with buckets of LEGO bricks so the kids can create while they wait.
SeaWorld, Aquatica and Discovery Cove
SeaWorld and its sister parks, Aquatica and Discovery Cove, are all located in the Orlando area. The entire family will be entertained and amazed by the killer whales, dolphins, manatees, sharks and thrilling rides at the parks. The SeaWorld Kids Shamu close-up experience will have kids looking into the eyes of a killer whale while the Dolphin Nursery lets them see newborn calves.
For an interactive experience check out Discovery Cove where the entire family can swim with dolphins and take an underwater stroll in a diving helmet. With guest access restricted to 1,300 per day, Discovery Cove feels more like an exclusive resort than a theme park. Without crowds to worry about, you get to enjoy up-close animal encounters with dolphins, sting rays, tropical fish, sea otters and exotic birds. It’s all-inclusive too, so you won’t have to worry about food, towels or snorkeling equipment.
When the Central Florida heat gets to you, head over to Aquatica, SeaWorld’s Waterpark where a state-of-the-art climate system adjusts the water temperature according to the weather so that it’s always just right – cool and refreshing in the summer months, but heated when the temperature drops. There are plenty of ways to cool off but riding the surf at Roa’s Rapids or lounging in one of two side-by-side wave pools are among the best. Or you can take a break and watch the kids splash about in the waters from your personal oasis – a shaded cabana. And for the little ones 48” and under, don’t miss Kata’s Kookaburra Cove with water spouts and several silly spilly water slides.
Be sure to stop by Conservation Cabana across from Loggerhead Lane (don’t you love that name?) to get up close with the amazing animals or the surf and sand.
Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure
Movies come to life at Universal Studios and its sister park, Islands of Adventure. Both parks showcase Universal films as well as characters from rival studios like Seuss Landing from Dr. Seuss Enterprises, Toon Lagoon from Jay Ward Productions and Paramount Pictures, and Marvel Super Hero Island from Marvel Entertainment.
Epic adventures await at the uniquely themed islands of Universal’s Islands of Adventure where the world’s most cutting-edge rides, shows and interactive attractions bring your favorite stories, myths, cartoons, comic book heroes and children’s tales to life. Come face to face with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. Venture through the mists of time as you experience the epic adventures of The Lost Continent. And step right into the pages of the children’s books of Dr. Seuss in Seuss Landing.
You’ll be transported to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter as you pass through the towering Hogwarts castle gates and explore the familiar passageways, classrooms and corridors. Visit the shops of Hogsmeade, including Honeydukes, Ollivanders and more. Plus, you can experience pulse-pounding rides including Dragon Challenge, Flight of the Hippogriff and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a state-of-the-art attraction that brings the magic, characters, and stories of Harry Potter to life in ways never before imagined.
Old style Florida entertainment has been the theme at Orlando’s Gatorland since its opening in 1949. Enter through a giant alligator’s mouth to see snakes, lizards, Florida deer and spiders before heading to Alligator Island – home to hundreds of alligators and even a few crocodiles.
The Gatorland Express train delivers you to the Gator Wrestlin’ Arena, where real live cowboys wrestle the snapping gators and climb onto their backs.Think you can conquer a gator? Step in the sandbox in the Gator Wrestlin’ Arena and give it a shot with the “Rookie Wrestlin’” experience.
If watching and wrestling gators isn’t enough, venture into the Alligator Breeding Marsh for an unforgettable behind-the-scenes tour. Stand within a few feet of huge, hungry alligators and watch their feeding frenzy. Your guide will make sure your family isn’t on the dinner menu.
The Screamin’ Gator Zip Line soars through the air over some of the theme park’s star attractions – including Cuban and Nile crocodiles – before heading over the Alligator Breeding Marsh, where 130 giant alligators are watching from below.
Eventually, You Will Need to Rest
After a long day exploring these Orlando theme parks, your choice of lodging will help continue the magical experience. When our family travels together there’s usually three or four generations in tow, so we prefer to find an Orlando vacation rental. Depending on the size of your group choose a resort residence, 2-bedroom condo or 3-bedroom condo in Orlando. These are all great options and offering enough resort amenities to keep everyone happy.