My last trip to Orlando was a short one. My husband and I primarily went to visit my grandmother, and it wasn’t our first visit there. Everyone knows that when you go to Orlando, you’re probably going to visit one or more of the big amusement parks. But we’d already been to Disney World, Epcot and Universal Studios. This time we wanted to be part-time tourists. We chose an itinerary that allowed us to enjoy four half-days in Orlando, while still spending every afternoon with my sweet grandmother!
We decided to go in late September. It’s a great time to go, for a couple reasons. First, the temperatures are slightly cooler than in July and August. Secondly, it’s shoulder season for tourists…meaning it’s not when most of the tourists go to Orlando. So it just wasn’t very crowded. As a travel blogger, I decided to contact the Visit Orlando tourism board to see if anyone might be interested in having me write reviews in exchange for discounted or complimentary admission. As it turned out, September was a good time for this as well.
I’m sharing our itinerary with you so you can get an idea of all the fun things there are to do in Orlando besides the theme parks. Maybe you don’t want to spend the money to do Disney or Universal. Or perhaps you have young children, and they don’t have the stamina for all-day activities. Or maybe you don’t! (A vacation is supposed to be relaxing, after all.) And even if you are spending time at Disney World, you might want to see more of the natural side of Orlando and nearby attractions.
I’ll also share ways you might be able to save yourself some money. That never hurts, right?!
Getting to Orlando
Last year, I got a new American Airlines Visa card with a 60,000 point bonus for spending $3,000 within three months. Getting that card before Christmas made it pretty simple to reach $3,000 — purchasing groceries, gas, Christmas gifts, and other household expenses. Flying in September meant we could get more bang for our points, too. For only 50,000 miles, I was able to get two round-trip tickets from San Diego to Orlando. My cost? Only $22.40 for taxes.
My husband received one of those gift catalogs from work with points he could redeem for awards. As it turned out, one of the options was trading points for a car rental. That was an unexpected blessing — we paid nothing for the rental car, except for gas and tolls. That came to about $60.00. If you have to pay for a rental car, trying renting through Costco. We have found that to be the least expensive option for us in the past.
Staying at my grandmother’s home was not an option, and I didn’t really want to stay at a hotel, so I went to Airbnb to look for a room in a home we could rent. I found the perfect place in Windermere (only 8 miles away from my grandmother’s home). It was close to most tourist attractions, but it was in a beautiful quiet neighborhood near Lake Down. It was also close to the Orlando LDS Temple, with its gorgeous landscaping and water fountains. With a beautiful swimming pool and a wing of the house practically to ourselves, it was a wonderful choice. The owner was very friendly and helpful! And our total was just $300 for 5 nights.
I have written detailed reviews about each place we visited while in Orlando, so if you’d like to know more about each location, follow the links.
Day 1 — Ripley’s Odditorium and Gatorland
The Odditorium on International Drive (that looks like it has tipped into a Florida sinkhole!) has a lot of fascinating information and plenty of interactive displays, too. Everything there is part of the mass collection of oddities from all over the world that Robert Ripley (of Believe It or Not fame) gathered during his travels. Ripley was an interesting man, and his motto is also fitting: “I have traveled over 201 countries, and the strangest thing I saw was man.” The Odditorium is a fun place to visit for individuals, couples, or families (probably most interesting to children who are old enough to read easily). You could spend an hour and a half to several hours here, depending on how many interactive displays you check out.
Next we sped over to Gatorland–something I was really looking forward to seeing again after a 40-year hiatus (I last visited as a 12-yr old!). Gatorland is the oldest attraction in Orlando. It is dedicated to the preservation of over 1700 alligators and crocodiles. But they also have tortoises, snakes, a petting zoo, an aviary, owls, and lots more. There’s a train that takes you around the park every 20 minutes or so…and an adventure-filled zip line that zooms over one of the alligator ponds!
If you’re interested in learning about Florida’s natural habitat, you’ll really enjoy Gatorland’s Swamp Walk — with over a mile of wooden raised trails through an authentic swamp. We loved the entertaining and educational shows as well. The staff at Gatorland have a great sense of humor! I’m sure kids would love Gatorland (grown-up kids too) and the splash pad makes for a fun place to cool down on hot days. We spent about three hours at Gatorland. There’s plenty to do there to keep you longer!
Day 2 — Beaches, Lighthouse, and Earls Kitchen
Guess what? The beach is only about an hour drive from Orlando, and I figured we just had to see it! On this day, we got up quite early because I really wanted to walk along the Daytona Beach boardwalk before businesses were open. We arrived about 7:30 am and nearly had the beach to ourselves. After exploring the Daytona Beach pier where a few fishermen hung out, we strolled along the boardwalk and read the placards that described Daytona racing trivia. And we checked out the Ormond Beach splash pad and picnic area. These are great beaches for families. I’m sure they’re crowded during summer months, but when everyone goes back to school, this is a perfect place to hang out.
Nearby is the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse. I was excited to climb to the top of the lighthouse and see the views. But as it turned out, there was a lot more to do than just that. With several historic light keeper’s homes to explore, a museum dedicated to lighthouse lens displays, a film to watch, and a beautiful gift shop, we really enjoyed seeing and learning as much as we could. We spent about 1 1/2 hours at the lighthouse.
Next on our agenda was visiting a brand-new restaurant that had just opened at the Millenia Mall in Orlando: Earls Kitchen + Bar. So we hopped back on the I-4 and made it back in time for a stylishly late lunch. This was actually my first-ever restaurant review, and I took it quite seriously. I had not really expected to be so impressed, but we loved the atmosphere, the food, the decor, and the craft sodas! It’s a restaurant that appeals to all ages, with great soul food. And the prices are very reasonable. You won’t feel like you’re eating in a mall eatery. It’s very urban and classy!
Day 3 — Air Boat Ride and Winter Park
Did you know that the Everglades begin in central Florida, near Orlando? I’d always thought they were only in southern Florida. So when I learned there was an air boat ride available at Boggy Creek, I signed up! We opted for the 9:40 am scenic nature ride, and Chris (our guide) gave us a quick introduction to air boat riding: Hold on to your hats, scarves, and belongings and have a great ride! It was very refreshing to be skimming across the water, with the wind blowing our hair; it really kept us cool! But it was also very noisy, so we all donned noise cancelling headphones. We saw lots of native birds — egrets, herons, and limpkins. And we also saw a baby alligator!
Our next stop was Winter Park, a beautiful suburb only 8 miles from Orlando built around seven lakes. There we took another boat tour — the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour. This was an hour ride on three of the seven lakes — yes, they’re connected by small canals. The captain of the boat told us all kinds of interesting tidbits about the lakes, the town, and the people who live there! I loved the tour and would highly recommend it for anyone. I learned a lot, and it was so beautiful.
After our boat tour, we strolled through the main downtown section of Winter Park. There’s a historic train station, a meticulously landscaped park, and lots of cute boutiques and eateries. We enjoyed a croissant sandwich lunch at the Croissant Gourmet, which also had a great selection of French pastries!
As always, after our half day of boating and Winter Park, we spent the afternoon and evening sharing stories and photos with my grandmother. I loved the mix of being a tourist and visiting family! Part of our time together did include a nice drive downtown around Lake Eola, to see the beautiful fountain and lights in the middle of the lake.
Day 4 — Temple, Disney Springs, and La Nouba
I already mentioned we were staying near the Orlando LDS Temple, otherwise known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints temple (others call it the Mormon temple). For those who are members of the church, it is a very sacred place, where families and couples are sealed together, not just for their mortal lives, but forever. Whether you are a church member or not, the grounds are open for people to visit — to take photos or to sit and enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. This was our first stop for the day, and I have to say…it made the rest of the day that much better!
Our next stop was Disney Springs. It used to be called Downtown Disney, and it’s a wonderful, free place to hang out with the kids and browse the shops and sights. There’s lots of fun shops to check out…and places to eat, too. There’s also a bowling alley, a tethered balloon ride, and a vintage car/boat ride. (Those items cost money, of course, but there’s so much to see without spending anything!) The entire “village” surrounds a beautiful lake.
We picked up our tickets for the Disney Springs’ Cirque du Soleil show called La Nouba, and returned later in the evening for the show. I have to tell you that La Nouba was an incredibly fantastic show. There were acrobats, aerial silk performers, trampoline artists, jugglers, a very talented cast of musicians, and humorous clowns, too! I loved every minute of it. I was just in awe of the skill of the performers.
Our Orlando trip went pretty fast. I wish we could have stayed longer, but I thought we did a good job of balancing family time and fun tourist attractions. If you find yourself looking for an alternative to the big theme parks in Orlando, be sure to check out some of these half-day itineraries. For a lot less money, you can enjoy a large variety of activities. And in many cases, they could easily be expanded to fill an entire day.
Orlando cost-saving tips:
- Discount of $3.00 off tickets at Odditorium if you buy online here
- Here’s a Gatorland discount coupon here and a Gatorland zipline package Groupon here
- Ponce Inlet lighthouse free gift with admission coupon
- I found a half-price coupon for Boggy Creek Air Boat rides!
- Here’s a Groupon coupon for the Albin Polasek museum we learned about on the Winter Park Scenic Boat tour; we could see it from the lake!
- At times there are special prices for Florida residents for the La Nouba show.
- Always check out Groupon.com (Orlando) before your trip; there are lots of great prices you can take advantage of — for attractions and restaurants, too
If you’ve been to Orlando, what else have you enjoyed besides the theme parks? Please share with my readers in the comments below!