For many Disney fanatics, it is sacrilegious to even acknowledge that there are “other” theme parks in the Orlando area. But the fact is, Orlando is home to a large number of tourist attractions and theme parks that weren’t “all started by a mouse”. And while it is inconceivable to many of us that we could visit the Orlando area without checking in with Walt, Mickey, and all their friends, the fact is that there is enough to do in Orlando off Disney property to keep any guest busy for weeks or even months. Here are just a few of the things to do in Orlando outside of the Disney Resort:
1. Universal Studios
Opened in 1990, Universal Studios Orlando has been the biggest competitor to the Disney theme parks for many years. Known for its thrill rides and roller coasters, it often has more appeal to teenagers and young adults visiting Orlando than the more family-friendly Disney Resort does. Capitalizing on tie-ins with such film properties as Transformers, Shrek, Despicable Me, Men in Black, Terminator, E.T., and The Mummy, Universal Studios’ attractions can sometimes seem a bit more “cool” than Disney’s. And fans of those films provide a built-in audience for the theme park, which is a natural benefit to their bottom line. While perennially finishing behind all four of Disney World’s parks in attendance, Universal Studios nonetheless draws millions of guests a year. Their place in the hierarchy of top-grossing Orlando theme parks has only been surpassed by another Universal property, Islands of Adventure, and only since the 2010 opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade. But with the 2014 opening of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley in Universal Studios, attendance in both parks is likely to be more balanced for years to come.
2. Islands of Adventure
Opened in 1999, Universal’s Islands of Adventure succeeded in pairing with Universal Studios Orlando to turn the Universal Orlando Resort into a multi-day vacation destination. Instead of being a one-day side trip for guests attending Disney World, Universal Orlando now was a destination unto itself. Much like its predecessor, Islands of Adventure leveraged tie-ins with such properties as Jurassic Park, Marvel’s superheroes, and Dr. Seuss’s characters to draw crowds. However, it was the previously-mentioned The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade that really put the park on the map, vaulting its attendance numbers above its sister park.
3. Universal CityWalk
In addition to the theme parks, it was the construction and expansion of Universal CityWalk, an entertainment, retail, and dining district, which allowed the transformation of Universal Orlando into a destination of its own. Hard Rock Café, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, AMC Theatres, Blue Man Group, and frequent live music are just a few of the dining and entertainment options to be found there.
Opening just two years after the Magic Kingdom, SeaWorld Orlando has been a staple of Orlando tourism for decades. Despite recent controversy for the company, this combination theme park and zoological park attracts millions of visitors annually. With everything from roller coasters to theater shows and animal attractions to children’s areas, there really is something here for the whole family.
5. Discovery Cove
Discovery Cove takes the animal interaction of its sister park SeaWorld up a notch, allowing its guests to swim with marine wildlife such as dolphins, sting rays, sharks, and tropical fish. Guests can also float down the heated Tropical River, which flows through an aviary with tropical birds, by a rainforest and waterfalls, and finally into a heated fresh water pool.
Opened in 2008, Aquatica is the third park in the SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment family of parks that served to create yet another multi-day vacation destination in the Orlando area. This water park features the requisite wave pools, lazy rivers and both body and mat slides, in addition to multi-rider raft slides and more unique rides like the Dolphin Plunge which features clear tube slides which pass through a pool containing dolphins.
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The oldest attraction on this list, Gatorland was opened in 1949 by the Godwin family and has been owned by them ever since. Called the “Alligator Capital of the World”, Gatorland features reptile shows, a swamp train ride, petting zoo, a swamp walk, and a zip line. They are also known for their rare white alligators.
8. Wet ‘n Wild
The original water park in Orlando, and in fact considered to be the United States’ first water park, Wet ‘n Wild opened in 1977. While the park features a couple of water slides towering six stories above the ground and racing slides, it also has a wave pool, lazy river, and a six-story castle play area for the less adventurous. Purchased by Universal Orlando in 1998, Wet ‘n Wild will be closed in late 2016 in order to be re-themed and reopened as Volcano Bay.
9. Holy Land Experience
In a city of theme parks that offer roller coasters, thrill rides, animal shows and exhibits, and water parks, the Holy Land Experience nonetheless stands out in its uniqueness. This Christian theme park has exhibits, restaurants, and retail shops themed to 1st century Jerusalem. Other attractions include shows, musicals, and presentations, all based around the life of Jesus and the Middle East where he grew up. Their scriptorium features a collection of actual ancient biblical artifacts.
10. International Drive
International Drive is Orlando’s primary tourist strip, located in the southern part of the city and including the convention center area. With such businesses as Wonderworks, Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, The Escape Game, Madame Tussauds, IFLY Orlando Indoor Skydiving, SEA LIFE Orlando Aquarium, and Chocolate Kingdom, among numerous others, a tourist could spend a lot of time visiting attractions on I-Drive without ever setting foot into one of the many Orlando theme parks.
With so many attractions and experiences available in the area, it’s no wonder that Orlando became and remains a booming tourist destination. Like many of my fellow Disney fanatics though, I am content to spend most of my time at the Disney World Resort – even if I occasionally “cheat” on Disney by checking out The Wizarding World of Harry Potter now and again! What is your favorite Orlando activity outside of Disney’s borders?
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