Orlando’s best day trips
Everyone loves Mickey Mouse, but just a car ride away from Orlando’s theme parks lies a whole range of activities to satisfy your passions. Local travel writer Rona Gindin shares inside info on the city’s A+ attractions – including those the residents try to keep to themselves
For nature lovers
Florida’s renowned Everglades, though worth the visit, are a little too far for a day trip, yet you won’t miss wetland wonders if you take on Orlando’s untouched areas instead. You can spend a whole day kayaking or canoeing along the Wekiva River – expect to spot gators and manatees. Start and end at shaded Wekiwa Springs State Park, with barbecue grills and playgrounds, stopping at Wekiva Island’s The Tooting Otter for a bite and beer mid-adventure. Trot through woods on horseback with Rock Springs Run Trail Rides nearby. For a different type of natural immersion, drive to Little Big Econ State Forest, with 26km-plus of trails, then follow up with a sunset Airboat Rides at Midway tour – you’ll see cows grazing and gators sunbathing while zooming through the waters on a narrated boat ride.
For science buffs
What does it feel like to ride a spaceship? What do astronauts eat? Spend a day at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, about an hour from central Orlando, and you’ll learn all about America’s rocket ships and those who manned them. Arrive early and head for the bus queue to tour the launch pad and outlying features – be warned, lines grow quickly. Afterwards, meander through exhibits, maybe riding in a simulator, meeting an astronaut, standing under a Saturn V (the biggest rocket ever flown) or watching astronauts chat about their lives via short videos. If you’re super-lucky with your timing, you might even get to watch a live launch.
Whether you want your five-year-old to have one special tennis lesson, or you’d like to hire a tutor and play all day, you can’t do better than the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona, a community on Orlando’s outer eastern edge. This 26-hectare facility has a whopping 100 courts. On some, hi-tech machines feed back stats, so you can find out how speedy your serve really is. After a few hours here, go golfing at Drive Shack. Groups gather in climate-controlled hitting bays to play digitally designed games on their own mini greens, with food and drink delivered. Cool off at sports-light Nona Adventure Park, a floating recreation centre where you might tackle an obstacle course, climb a 15m rock wall or work a ropes course.
If you’re into art, start your day at Loch Haven Park, where you can peruse permanent and travelling exhibits at the Orlando Museum of Art. Across the street, The Mennello Museum of American Art features the work of folk artist Earl Cunningham, plus other folk-art exhibits and a sculpture garden. Orlando Science Center has an observatory and interactive areas for all ages. Follow with some performing arts: Orlando Shakes and Orlando Repertory Theatre on the same campus put on a variety of plays. Just six kilometres away, the Dr Phillips Center for the Performing Arts hosts plays, concerts, symphonies and speakers. Or, zip up to Maitland for a foreign or independent film – with food and drink served tableside – at Enzian Theater.
With four major theme park complexes, the Orlando area pampers parents looking to wow their young ones. First-timers with school-agers should start with Walt Disney World Resort’s Magic Kingdom and its iconic castle. See Snow White from a rollercoaster, hear Belle tell a story and spend time as a pirate of the Caribbean. Meanwhile, experience exotic breeds at Disney’s Animal Kingdom; science and global cultures at Epcot; and classic movies at Hollywood Studios – including a massive Star Wars land, Galaxy’s Edge. Each blends education, rides and characters for a day’s worth of fun. Travelling with teens? Consider instead Universal Resort Orlando, home to Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure – which recently unleashed the Jurassic World VelociCoaster (Florida’s fastest and tallest rollercoaster). Inspired by the blockbuster film, Jurassic World – feel the rush of the hunt as you race through the jungle alongside Velociraptors at extreme speeds of 70mph.
If you’re looking to go further afield in Florida, consider a stay at these luxury properties, which channel distinct Sunshine State flavours
The Setai, Miami Beach
Book a stay at The Setai, Miami Beach
Sitting oceanside in the heart of Miami’s buzzing South Beach – it’s no wonder The Setai is an A-list hangout. The sleek and chic design, spearheaded by Jean-Michel Gathy (designer of Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands), combines the architectural history of South Beach with Asian influences, from the Shanghai brick flooring to the palm tree-lined courtyard. The all-suite property offers spacious rooms complete with sweeping ocean views, best admired from either the 1930s Art Deco building or the modern Setai skyscraper (one of Miami’s tallest) and home to the Setai Penthouse, which spans the entire 40th floor and boasts a Steinway piano. A sophisticated Asian-inspired spa and luxurious spread of swimming pools make relaxing here a breeze, while dining is equally pleasurable. Experience the hotel restaurant’s infamous Sunday Jazz Brunch, which combines fresh seafood with free-flowing Roederer Champagne. In the evening, enjoy al fresco dining in Jaya’s courtyard and sample its signature pork bao buns and Indian Thali platter of small pots filled with chicken, fish and okra.
Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort & Spa
Book a stay at Hyatt Regency Coconut Point
This chic, modern property is prepped for every kind of guest. Set within 26 acres of tropical foliage, it’s home to three acres of waterslides and a lazy river. Those keen for a workout can dive into any of its four outdoor pools, each dotted with dreamy palms, cabanas, and sun-loungers – perfect for reclining after a lap session. Kids will be over the moon when they make new friends at Camp Coconut. Children aged three to 12 can enjoy walks along adventure trails, playful pool competitions and try their hand at arts and crafts. Adults can soak up the famous Florida sun on the immense pool deck or take to the 18-hole golf course before rejuvenating in the Stillwater Spa (ranked in the top 100 resort spas in the United States). Included with any stay is the Island Excursion, a 15-minute boat ride across Estero Bay to Big Hickory Island for a day out on its private beach (look out for wild dolphins along the way). For foodies, there’s a choice of five eating and dining options, from Tanglewood’s fresh seafood and artisan wood-fired pizzas to the delicious tropical-inspired cocktail menu at Corkscrew pool bar and grill.
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