Think of Orlando and you might think of everything you can probably visit and do much cheaper right here in sunny, Southern California. Disneyland? Check. Universal Studios? Check. Surfing? Double check. Why go all the way to Florida to do what we can do right here?
Two words: space coast.
And that’s just the beginning. Yes, you can go for the wizards and rides in Orlando, but then unwind with under-the-radar and over-the-top fun you’ll never find in L.A.
Cocoa Beach and the Brevard Zoo
Three, two, one…lift off! NASA retired the space program in 2011 and has been transferring low-Earth-orbit space flights to the private sector through a commercial program with familiar names like Northrop Grumman, SpaceX (Elon Musk) and Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos). The collaboration is focused on resupplying missions to the International Space Station (ISS), but also has a goal of creating safe, cost-effective access to space for all.
As commercial space transportation transforms our world, creative thinkers and problem solvers like our children will be in demand. Give yours a head start with a visit to Kennedy Space Center in Cocoa Beach.
Check out the Shuttle Launch Experience and the Astronaut Training Experience, where everyone in the family meeting the 48-inch height requirements can work in a space botany lab, experience mission simulations with microgravity, launch a NASA rocket as part of the control team and Orion capsule crew and create personalized vlogs of the experience. In July, celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo space mission at The Astronaut Walking Pub Crawl, where you’ll meet the astronauts.
After watching a rocket launch at dawn, witness nature’s greatest light show by night on a bioluminescence tour where fish look like little green rockets going off under your kayak. NASA is part Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge, home to many rare species of birds and animals.
The perfect before- or after-cruise retreat in Cocoa Beach is the Radisson Resort at the Port. It boasts an intimate setting close to the beach with family-friendly grotto-inspired pools, hot tub and patios perfect for gatherings. It’s close to the beach, port, space center, shops and restaurants, and has a great breakfast buffet.
Just a short drive from Cocoa Beach, the Brevard Zoo is home to 900 animals, including many rescues, and makes good use of its beachfront home. My favorite experience was kayaking to see the giraffes. My guide told a cute story about the “lollipop” trees which, when the giraffes graze them, ooze sap the giraffes find delicious.
Sanford, Wekiva Island, Lake Jesup
North of Cocoa Beach and inland, you can enjoy small-town southern hospitality in Sanford. Start by making your own marshmallows during workshops at Wondermade, created in 2011 by Nathan Clark and his wife, Jenn. Next, join former local editor Dan Ping on a Ride Lime golf cart tour of the picturesque town. He’ll tell you how the local zoo got started when someone dropped off a monkey at the fire station in 1922 and show you the former home of an African American midwife who delivered black babies there during segregation, when the local hospital was “whites-only.” “40,000!” a smiling lady just the street shouted our way. “I was one of ‘em.”
Sanford’s signature festivals include the Sanford Porchfest, a free grassroots festival that builds community through great music.
For a first-class stay close to Sanford, check out Hyatt Place Lake Mary. The hotel is close to nature and will help you get out in it with the Westin Gear Lending program of New Balance workout wear and shoes delivered to your door. Sophisticated Hilton Orlando Altamonte Springs, closer to Orlando, is also close to great shopping and a wonderful arcade called District Eat + Play with four escape rooms, boutique bowling, full bar and live entertainment.
Wekiva Island, a half-hour drive east from Sanford, is within easy reach of both the Hyatt and Hilton properties. This truly “green” oasis is powered by solar trees, and features rainwater-flushed toilets. Concerts and art festivals during the high season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, provide great family time. The area boasts one of the biggest wine selections in the region. Your kids will enjoy kayaking and spotting alligators, snakes, turtles and birds.
Heading 30 mintues west out of Sanford, you can get the next best thing to an Everglades visit with an airboat tour of 100,000-year-old Lake Jesup, home to well over 10,000 alligators and known locally as the Alligator Sea. Once upon a time, Walt Disney needed a place to put the alligators he encountered when building his storied park. Lake Jesup has been the go-to refuge for wayward gators ever since.
Orlando and the Big Parks
Animal lovers and theme-park fans won’t want to miss the chance to hit two of Orlando’s biggest attractions: SeaWorld and Universal Orlando Resort.
Thrill-seekers will love the screams and swirls of the Kraken, Macko and Manta rollercoasters at SeaWorld, while animal lovers will enjoy petting the stingrays. Flamingo paddle boats, the Sky Tower and the Sea Carousel make sure everyone can access their own brand of thrills. But the park isn’t all about the rides. Check out dolphin encounters and feedings up-close to boost your animal-fun factor. And don’t miss behind-the-scenes tours that showcase the inspiring job of the park’s animal-care experts. When she isn’t out rescuing sick dolphins and cetaceans in a specially designed truck, Candy Moore-Fuhrmeister is working with the staff at the Aquarium Health Center to monitor rehabilitation pools. They’ve saved turtles recovering from cold snaps, entanglement in fishing gear and motorboat collisions; frostbitten manatee; cetaceans; birds; dolphins; otters and even honeybees.
During the past decade, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, three new hotels, Minions and Transformers have come to Universal Orlando Resort. For a special experience in the wizarding world, visit Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes and adopt (buy) a Pgymy Puff, those creatures all the Hogwarts girls had to have in “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” and tell the clerk you want the naming ceremony. Get your interactive wand at Ollivanders Wand Shop and have a blast discovering medallions that mark spots where you can cast spells – from making it rain to turning on lights and animating the facades of various buildings. The most affordable Harry Potter souvenir, however, is a postcard sent by Owl Post from Diagon Alley. After your time with the wizards, head to CityWalk for a steampunk, chocolate-inspired dinner at Toothsome Chocolate Emporium. Enjoy in-character waitresses and waiters and, if you’re lucky, meet proprietor Professor Dr. Penelope Tibeaux-Tinker Toothsome.
For a stay close to Universal, try Loews Sapphire Falls Resort. It offers a water-taxi boat ride to Universal City Walk and the parks, only minutes away. Caribbean fort interiors keep the hotel romantic and adventurous. Poolside cabanas and cocktails and a sandy beach provide rejuvenation. The waterfall pool with a grotto-like slide features a shallow section in the center so babies and parents get in on all the exotic fun, and the walk-in fountains are perfect for adventurous toddlers.