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Although Orlando, Fla., is synonymous with mouse ears and — recently — wands and wizards, there’s plenty for families to do, see and taste outside the confines of the area’s major theme parks. International Drive, the 11-mile thruway known colloquially as “I-Drive,” is peppered with many of these options and is conveniently located for clients staying at many Orlando resorts.
The I-Drive 360 complex houses the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye, along with two other main attractions sure to appeal to kids: Madame Tussauds and Sea Life Orlando Aquarium.
Because Madame Tussauds and Sea Life Aquarium are indoors, a visit to these attractions is a nice reprieve from walking around theme parks in the humidity and heat. Families with a mix of younger and older children will appreciate how the aquarium provides hands-on educational entertainment for the little ones, while Madame Tussauds allows teens to snap selfies with their favorite wax pop stars, including icons such as musician Taylor Swift and actor Ryan Gosling. Not just a dwelling for wax A-list stars, the museum also includes historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and sports legends such as Tiger Woods.
But the largest and the brightest of these entertainment choices is the Orlando Eye. Similar to the famous London Eye, the Orlando Eye allows visitors to get a panoramic perspective of the area from 400 feet in the air, with the best views just before twilight.
Although there are a multitude of eateries in and around I-Drive 360, visitors may want to venture to the nearby “Restaurant Row” for a truly epicurean experience. This stretch of Sand Lake Road features a number of popular restaurants, such as Roy’s, known for its upscale Hawaiian-influenced cuisine, and homegrown dining concept Slate, which offers wood-grilled pizzas, among other classic American fare.
If families choose to stay close to Walt Disney World, parents looking to take a morning off will love an excursion to Buena Vista Watersports, which is located near the park on the shores of Lake Bryan.
This lake’s calm atmosphere is perfect for relaxing on the beach with younger children while the older kids row around in kayaks. For a more adventurous family outing, there is wakeboarding, waterskiing and tube rides. A reservation with the company includes a driver/instructor, gas and all the necessary equipment.
After a morning at the lake, a jaunt to the newly renovated Disney Springs for dinner and a show will top off the day.
The Boathouse is one of several restaurants that debuted with Disney’s revamping of The Landing, an area formally known as Pleasure Island. This family-friendly waterfront-dining venue features plenty of seafood options, a kids’ menu for the little ones and nautical-themed dining rooms. But the real draw is the vintage Amphicars that can drive both on land and in water, where they float like boats. For an extra fee, diners can even take a ride in one of these amphibious automobiles after they finish their meal.
After dinner, families should be sure to head to the white-tented theater located on the west end of Disney Springs to catch a showing of La Nouba by Cirque du Soleil. Seeing the performance — which is helmed by two clowns that speak in their own nonsensical language and ascribe to a Charlie Chaplin type of comedy — is like watching a Salvador Dali painting come to life. The show is mixed with energetic displays of dance, balancing and acrobatics. With entertainment appeal for all ages, it’s no surprise that it has been an Orlando mainstay since 1998.
It’s true that no family’s trip to Orlando is complete without visiting the city’s theme parks. However, when travelers discover the area’s other family-fun offerings, they’ll also agree that no tour is complete without a day or two beyond the mouse ears and wizard wands.
WHEN TO GOWhile most visitors come in the summer, central Florida’s subtropical weather is perfect for vacation year-round, thanks to the state’s mild winters. If clients want to beat the hot weather and thick humidity that comes with a summer visit, spring and fall are excellent alternatives.
GETTING THEREOrlando International Airport is located 20 minutes east of Orlando’s tourist district. Renting a car is not necessary, as most hotels in the area provide transportation options to the major attractions. For clients who want to get around on their own, a car can be an added convenience.
WHERE TO STAYCoco Key Water ResortLocated on I-Drive just a few minutes from Universal Orlando, Coco Key Water Resort is a family-centric hotel with a famed waterpark that features 14 waterslides.
Gaylord Palms ResortLocated approximately 3.5 miles from Walt Disney World, Gaylord Palms offers plenty of amenities for families, including its Cypress Springs Family Fun Water Park and its 4.6-acre, glass-covered atrium complete with live fish, plants and baby gators.
Buena Vista Watersportswww.bvwatersports.com
Coca-Cola Orlando Eyewww.officialorlandoeye.com
La Nouba by Cirque Du Soleilwww.cirquedusoleil.com
Sea Life Orlando Aquariumwww.visitsealife.com