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15 Things to Do in Orlando Besides Theme Parks

Jorge has been to many different parts of the United States.

The convention center of The City Beautiful.

The convention center of The City Beautiful.

Things to Do in Orlando That Are Not the Disney Theme Parks

Orlando is a weird place of extremes. You have the bright and cheerful theme parks like Disney World, Universal Studios, and Seaworld to name a few--but on the other hand, you have a seedy underbelly of countless Florida Men lurking at every gas station.

Luckily, even Florida Man is usually friendly. He might even tell you where to go if that superficial world of dancing cartoon mice starts to wear on you and you'd like to try something that's a bit more...in this reality.

More importantly, Orlando is really big, and there's much more to it than the West side that most tourists get to see. If you really want to get to know what the city is actually like, you'll have to step out of that bubble a little.

Here are some suggestions:

1) Pose Next to Your Favorite Celebrities at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum

Yeah, it's part of the whole tourist trap that is West Orlando...but it's also a lot of fun.

And kinda creepy.

Creepy fun.

Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum is close to the aquarium and the Ferris wheel (which changes its name sometimes, so I'll just call it "the Ferris wheel") near International Drive. Last I was there, you could get a combo ticket for all three.

It's also on the same side of town as the theme parks, so if you're already there, you may as well!

Look for a Ferris wheel in the skyline. The wax museum is close.

Look for a Ferris wheel in the skyline. The wax museum is close.

2) See Some Native Animals at a Wildlife Refuge

Florida may be known for its theme parks, but it's also known for its wildlife. There are even some animals that you won't find in other parts of the country, and the best way to get up close to them is by visiting a wildlife rehabilitation center.

Unlike most zoos, you'll get a chance to help a good cause and educate yourself about Central Florida's native animals at the same time. There are many wildlife rehabilitation centers to choose from around Florida, but you might want to check out Back to Nature Wildlife Refuge if you're in the Orlando area.

See some cute animals (like raccoons and bobcats and cougars), as well as some...less-than-cute animals (like some of Florida's native snakes) at a wildlife refuge.

See some cute animals (like raccoons and bobcats and cougars), as well as some...less-than-cute animals (like some of Florida's native snakes) at a wildlife refuge.

3) Have Fun Learning at the Orlando Science Center

Over in North Orlando, close to Winter Park, you'll find the Orlando Science Center, a great place for kids and adults alike. It focuses on hands-on exploration of science, has an IMAX theater where they show educational films, and even has a super cool observatory. Special exhibits come and go, so you might want to check out what's going on before you go.

It's also right across the street from some other interesting spots...

4) Find Your Inner Critic at the Art Museum

Walking distance from the Science Center, you'll find the Orlando Museum of Art. Similarly, they change up their exhibitions, so it's best to look up the latest news online before you give them a visit.

But if you're more into performance art than visual art...

5) See a Play By the Orlando Shakes

Conveniently located next to the previous two suggestions is a theater where you can check out the Orlando Shakes, who are the local Shakespearean troupe. They also put on a lot of kid-friendly plays that may be slightly less violent.

If you're really into theater, you might be happy to know that this general area--near the Orlando Science Center and the Orlando Museum of Art--is also where the annual Orlando Fringe Festival is held. (It's usually held around May, so maybe you'll catch it when you visit!)

6) Narrowly Avoid Getting Eaten at Gatorland

Gatorland is a zoo in South Orlando where you go after having a post-Disney existential crisis and you decide that you want to pay money to get eaten by alligators.

Just kidding, alligators are actually kind of lazy and normally can't be bothered to eat people. Even if you pay them, they'll usually leave you alone.

Usually.

But you can watch the handlers feed them non-people meat. You can learn about gators and see them up close in a controlled, safe environment. You can even ride a zipline over alligator and crocodile pits. (No joke. It's one of the most Florida things in existence.)

For the kids, there's also a petting zoo! (Without alligators, of course. You want your offspring to keep all their fingers, right?)

They're cute when they're small, but don't let that innocent look fool you. Florida gators are best observed at a distance, no matter the size.

They're cute when they're small, but don't let that innocent look fool you. Florida gators are best observed at a distance, no matter the size.

Florida's Animals

7) Take a Break on Some Nature Trails

Sometimes the simplest things are the most memorable things. Florida is full of all kinds of interesting flora and fauna, and one of the easiest ways to explore them is to just take a hike on one of the many nature trails in Orlando.

Most of them are also free. If you want one really close to the theme parks in West Orlando, I recommend the scrub trail in Shadow Bay Park, but there are many more in East Orlando, such as the forest trails of Blanchard Park or even the Arboretum at the University of Central Florida.

You have a good chance of running into lizards, snakes, gopher tortoises, armadillos, interesting birds...and maybe even an alligator or two.

Just remember to look from afar and not to approach any wild animals--and never, ever, EVER feed an alligator. (That cute little baby gator may seem harmless, but he'll lose his fear of humans if you feed him. When he grows up, he's more likely to approach and attack another person, especially tourists who don't realize they should be vigilant near any body of water.)

8) Ride a Swan Boat at Lake Eola

Lake Eola, a park smack in the city center, is home to a family of evil swans who want nothing more than to destroy you. I don't mean just physically. They want to siphon your life force. If you meet eyes with one of these monsters, you will find yourself a shell of the person who you once were.

Don't mess with the live swans. You will regret it.

Luckily, there are fake swans you can rent instead. These are paddle boats that are shaped like swans that you can take out on the lake. It's perfect for a romantic date between you and your significant other.

After your ride, I recommend checking out the nearby Thornton Park area for some coffee or dinner or organic juice blends. It's one of Orlando's hipster neighborhoods.

This is Lake Eola. Notice the swan.

This is Lake Eola. Notice the swan.

9) Make a Splash at a Water Park

Orlando is only cold a few weeks out of the year, so if you're in Orlando, it's probably hot.

Cool off by jumping in a bunch of fancy water. I recommend Disney's Typhoon Lagoon for people who are looking to chill out and relax, but there are many others.

10) Go Canoeing at Wekiwa Springs State Park

If you like your water a bit less chlorinated, you can go canoeing or kayaking at Wekiwa Springs. This is a state park just North of Orlando, and you can rent the canoes right there.

You can also take a walk through its nature trails or even take a dip in the spring itself (which maintains a constant temperature throughout the year).

11) Gasp in Disbelief at Ripley's Believe It Or Not

If you're the kind of person who likes to watch reality shows about...unusual people, then you might just love the Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum in Orlando. It's full of all kinds of fanciful oddities, such as life-sized statues of some of the biggest and smallest people in the world, taxidermied animals with extra heads, and obscure cultural relics.

Think of it kind of as a mega display of the types of things that used to appear in circus sideshows.

It'll be the building that's tilted and partly sunken into the ground (not to be confused with the upside down one). You can't miss it.

Your Relationship with Disney

12) Meet Some Giraffes at the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens

Technically not in Orlando, but rather in Sanford (a town about twenty minutes North), you'll find the Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens. It's a non-profit zoo that's reasonably-priced and has the usual zoo staples (reptiles, exotic birds, big cats), but best of all, you can feed the giraffes!

There's also a botanical garden where you can smell flowers, too, if you're into that.

13) Spend the Night in One of Central Florida's Campgrounds

Why not get in touch with nature the old-fashioned way by camping out?

One of the most easily-accessible campgrounds in Central Florida is the aforementioned Wekiwa Springs State Park. If you want to head as far North as Ocala, Juniper Springs is further out from the city lights, and you'll be able to see more stars. If you'd rather be in the city, then you can actually camp at Bill Fredrick Park at Turkey Lake in West Orlando, a stone's throw from Universal Studios.

And, of course, if you want a more...manufactured experience, you can camp at Disney's Fort Wilderness resort.

Are you tired of staring at this effing castle? Maybe you can stare at this fun factoid instead: Did you know that Disney World is not actually in Orlando? It's in Lake Buena Vista, which is an alternate universe just South-West of Orlando.

Are you tired of staring at this effing castle? Maybe you can stare at this fun factoid instead: Did you know that Disney World is not actually in Orlando? It's in Lake Buena Vista, which is an alternate universe just South-West of Orlando.

14) Shop for Both Necessities and Souvenirs Without Getting Ripped Off

Though all those stores that are shaped like wizards and mermaids and castles that line International Drive may be alluring, they all sell the same things: overpriced knick-knacks for tourists.

Why should you pay eight dollars for a dollar store keychain that says "Florida" on it? Orlando has plenty of actual dollar stores if you know where to look. In fact, there's one right down the street from Universal Studios, close to the Mall of Millenia. If you need anything practical, like batteries or frozen meatballs, there's an IKEA near there, too.

Head North-East. The Further North-East you go, the more normal the stores get. (Just avoid the North Orange Blossom Trail area, unless the kind of stores you want to shop in require your leaving with your items in a discreet brown paper bag.)

15) Go See Some Manatees

Sure, there are manatees at Seaworld, but if you're trying to get out of the tourist bubble and see the animals in their natural environments, you can take a tour in one of Florida's conservation areas. There are plenty of private companies that offer this.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is one such place where you can book a kayak tour with a private company and have the chance to see dolphins or manatees. It's in Titusville, a town just East of Orlando and West of Cocoa Beach.

Now You Have Some Things to Do in Orlando Besides Theme Parks

There are actually tons of things to do in Orlando besides theme parks, if you just keep your eyes open. Like any other city, it has its own character beyond its tourist traps.

Next time you catch a Florida Man riding his alligator on the way to Magic Kingdom, ask him where all the locals hang out, and you may just discover a new secret.

Or you'll get bitten.

By the man, not the alligator.