Central Florida has a smattering of cooler-than-cool things to keep you busy. You know the obvious ones — Disney, SeaWorld and Universal. Now here are the more inconspicuous spots. Some scream adventure; others soothe the soul.
1. Harry P. Leu Gardens
This 50-acre botanical garden is Orlando’s equivalent to The Secret Garden: a maze bursting with color and unusual greenery. At Leu Gardens take a guided tour of the southern-styled grounds, chill at a concert or just run amok through the giant bamboo stalks, hyper-manicured lawns and Camellias (they have the world’s largest collection). Better yet, its location on the shores of Lake Rowena affords a fitting view of the sunset.
2. The Nature Conservancy’s The Disney Wilderness Preserve
Located just south of Orlando in Osceola and Polk counties, this little-known getaway protects the headwaters of the Everglades ecosystem. Its 12,000 acres provide a cozy home for hundreds of wildlife species, including bald eagles, snakes, bobcats, Florida scrub-jays, sandhill cranes and gopher tortoises. Plus, there are 2.5 miles of hiking trails among the pine flatwoods available to visitors who want to learn about the preserve’s resident plants and animals.
3. SoBe Surf in Cocoa Beach
The best way to scope out the area’s teeming marine life is to skim across its waters. More specifically, head to SoBe Surf in Cocoa Beach for a stand-up paddleboarding lesson. You’ll be in good hands. The instructors are lifeguard certified and award-winning paddleboarders. Participants hop aboard super sturdy, extra-long boards and paddle several miles on the Banana River Bay. Expect an up-close encounter with manatees, dolphins, pelicans and fish of all sorts as you glide by waterfront mansions, including one owned by pro surfer Kelly Slater.
4. DeLeon Springs State Park
Before you hit the water at DeLeon Springs State Park, load up on carbs at the Old Spanish Sugar Mill Grill & Griddle House — an all-day breakfast joint inside the park where you cook flapjacks at your table. From there, hop into the 72-degree water for a 9 ½-mile jaunt via kayak, canoe or paddle boat. If you still have energy, trek the trails. Note: Turkey, deer and gators traverse these pathways, too. With 18,000 acres of lakes and marshes to explore, it’s easy to keep busy. The difficult part is leaving!
5. Winter Park Scenic Boat Ride
The lakes are so charming, it’s no wonder all types fancy the Winter Park Scenic Boat Ride. Glide by towering cypress, tropical birds and magnificent mansions, including the residence of a former world champion whistler.
6. Forever Florida
The Zipline Safari attraction at Forever Florida gives guests the chance to propel through a 4,700-acre wildlife conservation haven. In other words, you’ll breeze through seven ziplines, perch atop nine aerial observation platforms and clamor across two sky bridges. In fact, the high-flying adventure takes you through nine beautifully preserved ecosystems. Once the ride is over, trot down a section of the Florida Trail, one of eight national historic pathways running from South Florida to the Panhandle.
7. Wallaby Ranch
Uh, you can hang glide without mountains? Sure you can, according to the flying experts at Wallaby Ranch. It’s called aerotowing – think launching upward 2,000 feet then gliding nose first out of the sky while wrapped up like a human burrito. This old farm-turned-hang-gliding paradise is equal parts thrilling and family friendly. After your high-altitude frolic, try hammock lounging, trampoline bouncing or bungee slinging, a story in itself.
8. Discovery Cove
Turn off Central Florida Parkway and wander onto what looks exactly like a Caribbean island complete with with hammocks and the soothing sounds of steel drum music. Here, at Discovery Cove, you have the chance for some one-on-one time with an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin. Pose for photo ops, teach your new flippered friend some tricks and tour the lagoon via the dolphin’s dorsal fin. Don’t forget the aviary, too, where 250 birds flutter around freely. Then, lunch on grilled salmon and gourmet salads at the upscale cafeteria (food is included with your ticket), hop on the horticulture tour and leave plenty of time to feed the sting rays.
9. Orlando Aerial Art
Fun-loving folks of all types flock to Orlando Aerial Arts for an utterly uplifting workout. Here, you’ll find Cirque du Soliel-style classes. (Think: Climbing silk cloths that hang from the ceiling.) It is the perfect way to gain flexibility and core strength. Better yet: You are so busy mastering the skills that you don’t even realize you’re burning calories at the same time.
10. Enzian Theater
What you won’t find at the Enzian Theater are sticky floors, scary restrooms or a sub-par snack bar. What you will find is quite the opposite — independent films paired with gourmet eats.