Off the Beaten Path Orlando Attractions

    Beyond the theme parks, Orlando has a multitude of unexpected outings.

    It started innocently enough. My wife, Mary, and I were at the computer hashing out potential vacations, things having detoured from a more mundane bills-and-schedules conversation.

    As these things go, however, it wasn't a two-person engagement for long. In no time the kids were hovering, their radars no doubt having picked up on keywords such as "ride," "game" and "fun." We'd already decided the Orlando area would be our destination, and Sammy, age 9, and Julia, age 5½, were chiming in quickly with their "all-time favorite parts" of visits past, or "suggesting" their ideas for upcoming family outings. And could we go soon?

    There's something about wide-eyed, hopeful expressions on young faces. Very persuasive. By the end of our talk Mary and I had an armful of options, and were evaluating the kids' respective futures in sales and marketing, or perhaps law.

    Or, maybe we're just as eager as Sammy and Julia are to get out and chase down a good time in Orlando.

    An International Flavor (A Trip Down I-Drive)

    This stretch on the southwest side of town is the heart of Orlando's attractions and entertainment district. It's why you see fun-seeking visitors here from all over the world. What might startle some is just how wide the spectrum is of things to do.

    On this main thoroughfare you can go from a buccaneer-themed mini-golf outing at Pirate's Cove Adventure Golf to shops that go from surfshack-to-super chic to dining while playing detective at a themed dinner show.

    And where else are you going to find indoor skydiving with no plane, no parachute... no problem? iFLY Orlando has a vertical wind tunnel that allows "jumpers" to experience a freefall without a plane or a parachute. Thrill ride? This is plain thrill – just ask my son, who surprised us all with his adventurous spirit.

    Julia is still talking about our trip down The Black Hole: The Next Generation at Wet 'n Wild - Orlando. It's a two-person raft ride down a dark tunnel with explosions of color and sounds at every turn. It’s a deep space adventure that’s light years from ordinary – quite a feat for a girl her age; she'd do it again in a second.

    Both kids loved the simulation of a San Francisco earthquake at WonderWorks, the upside-down "amusement park for the mind" you have to see to believe.

    Thrill Rides for Your Mind

    Playing word association for a minute, if someone said "Orlando," I might answer with "theme park." No problems there. With Disney, Universal and SeaWorld around, the area's reputation for big-ticket fun goes without saying.

    But don't allow that to obscure the "unexpected Orlando." It's a place where culture thrives and the arts provide family destinations of their own. There's a multitude of museums, small and large stage theaters and a jumping network of musical outlets.

    Actor/athlete/acrobats take turns flying, bouncing, soaring, dancing, juggling and flipping in every possible direction at the gravity-defying La Nouba, a circus- meets-magic show production of Cirque du Soleil shown exclusively in Downtown Disney. On our ride home, the kids finally won the "what was most amazing?" contest by pulling out the trapeze artist trump card.

    Sammy and Julia were able to roll up their sleeves and express their own creative sides at the Discovery Centers in the Orlando Museum of Art, where, after a few hours, they finally admitted that learning can be fun (but just don't tell their friends).

    The Attraction is Natural

    Not all the animals in Orlando are animatronic. In fact, just on the outskirts of the theme parks lie Orlando's (live) natural attractions. Introduce the family to Mother Nature and go horseback riding, bass fishing, swimming in crystal-clear springs, strolling through citrus groves and exploring remnants of "Cracker culture" (including an 1876 Cow Camp with real cowboys, called cow hunters here).

    There are certain things that help kids come around to an appreciation of nature. For instance, a 45-mph zip across wetlands on one of the Boggy Creek Airboat Rides makes exploring the state's wildlife and Cypress trees a bunch more fun. My high-speed-craving daughter especially loved it.

    In the wildlife realm, you can't beat Gatorland for up-close encounters with alligators (or even hands-on, in the case of the Trainer-for-a-Day Program). Young Sammy was amazed at how high they'd jump for food at the Gator Jumparoo show.

    For more information on the above activities and for help in planning your own family- friendly getaway to the Orlando area, visit or call Visit Orlando Official Visitor Center at 407-363-5872.