This last month or so has been absolutely mental for me, for so many different reasons - good and bad and it's not all over yet but I just wanted to share with you a few ideas of what you can do in Orlando (and surrounding areas) without going into a theme park. The general assumption is that a Florida holiday has to be a very expensive, possibly once in a lifetime experience but this really doesn't have to be the case because although the theme parks are brilliant, Orlando has so much more to offer and reducing the number of parks you do can reduce the overall price of your holiday quite significantly. Jason and I have just got back from a week in Orlando and we loved every minute of it, we didn't do Disney (shock horror!) and we only actually went to the two Universal theme parks (Diagon Alley was a must do for me because I missed it last year); we focused on chilling out and doing some non-park things. So if you're looking for something to do in the Orlando area that doesn't involve going to a theme park then here you are:
Visit a State Park - State Parks are the US equivalent of Forestry Commission areas but often on a much bigger scale, we visited two while we were there and they were both unique and brilliant in their own way. Lake Louisa was the first one we visited because it was a bit closer to our villa; it has lots to do while you're there from hiring bikes and nature trails to swimming and kayaking. We focused on Lake Louisa because you could have a swim (or paddle in our case) although there are other lakes which offer other activities.
I'm going to put it out there now, the colour of the water in Lake Louisa is weird. It's tea coloured; it sounds like it's going to look mucky but it isn't, it's not murky it's just like actual black tea. This is because the water flows over fallen leaves and the 'tannin' in them turns the water brown like this...
Weird, isn't it?! You can't see the bottom of the water so obviously you swim at your own risk but we went straight in and had a paddle because we're fearless, obvs. There's a little beachy area and a picnic area too so you could take your own food and have a bite to eat while you're there at the side of the lake. We also did a little nature trail which was nicely shaded by the trees and we saw a gopher tortoise (who didn't seem too pleased to see us, he went straight back in his hole!), there were boards along the way telling us what we might see but to be honest I was pleased that we never saw a Diamond Back Rattle Snake!
The second state park we visited was Kelly Springs which is a little further out in Apopka but well worth the drive in my opinion. Here you'll find a 'lazy river' like what you'd find at a water park but this one is completely natural and ever so beautiful to swim down. Before you get into the park you stop off at one of the shacks which hire out rubber rings which you can use to go down the river in (this is optional, you don't have to). There's a huge area in the park where you get sit and there's also areas where you can BBQ if that takes your fancy. We headed straight for the lazy river!
It was a little bumpy along the way; there's obviously rocks underwater and it's not that deep so you do have to be careful as you're swept slowly along down the river but the fact that it's crystal clear means you can see them and because it's not that deep does mean that you could walk down if you wanted but I much preferred to just bob along. We paid just $3 to get in here and it provides hours and hours of fun!
Visit a Mall - OK so not necessarily a cheap option but depending on the exchange rate, things can be pretty cheap in Florida and they have shops like Bath & Body Works and Sephora so what's not to like, even if you just go for a look it's something a bit different. We visited Mall at Millenia which is considered to be a more 'upmarket' mall but it still has some high street stores such as Macy's, Bath and Body Works and Sephora as well as the high end stores like Bloomingdale's and various other designer stores. It's also home to Cheesecake Factory which, in all honesty was the only reason we went. We ate possibly our best meal of the holiday in there; we both had a burger then a piece of original strawberry cheesecake as well as a piece of key lime cheesecake to go (yep, we were going all out with the food).
I also bought a few bits from MAC which worked out to be quite a bit cheaper than in the UK (their lipsticks are $16 which works out to be roughly £11) and some hand sanitisers from Bath and Body Works. I did have a look in Sephora and was very tempted but I didn't come out with anything, which I kind of regret now because the Too Faced Better than Sex mascara was only around £15. Moral of the story - if you want it and can afford it, just treat yourself!
Airboat Ride - there are plenty of wild alligators to be seen around Orlando but in all honesty I wouldn't want to be caught off guard near one, we decided to do an airboat tour of the swamps with Spirit of the Swamp which is a small company which only uses a small airboat so you're not all backed on like on a 'swamp bus'. They don't guarantee that you'll see a gator but obviously it's their natural habitat so odds are quite high, we saw two and some babies and it was such an amazing experience (even though one of them got pretty pissed off with us so we had to make a somewhat swift exit but surprisingly I felt very safe with our captain). You can see clips of our airboat ride in the YouTube video I made about our 2014 Florida trip.
Obviously this isn't an exhaustive list, I could go on but I feel like this post has got long enough already and I may well do a part two because I really want people to know that Orlando holidays aren't just about spending every waking minute in a thrill ride queue; it's a beautiful place and I really hope more people venture out of their comfort zone and experience some of the other things the area has to offer!
Have you done anything not park related in Florida, would you actually want to?