Looking for an alternative to theme parks during your Central Florida vacation? Maybe you want to fill only a few hours or don’t want to spend $95 for a day’s entertainment. Orlando and the surrounding communities have all the usual diversions — art and science museums, theater companies, golf courses and the like — but the area also offers attractions you won’t find at home. Here are nine of our favorites.
• Forever Florida Ziplines & Adventures in the Wild: If the theme parks’ roller coasters don’t provide enough thrills, Forever Florida, an hour’s drive south of Orlando, has a variety of zip lines. Peregrine Plunge is the longest and simplest ride, a 1,300-foot straight line. Panther Pounce is seven stories straight down. The Rattlesnake has a rigid spine instead of a cable that sends the rider on a zigzag, up-and-down, 1,000-foot route through the trees. Swooping Crane, the newest and most extreme, is part freefall, part swing through the trees. And the Zipline Adventure is a 2 1/2-hour course with seven zip lines and three bridges.
Forever Florida — a 4,700-acre wildlife conservation area that includes a working cattle ranch — has several other means of exploring the grounds, minus the adrenalin. The Cypress Canopy Cycle is sort of a recumbent bicycle suspended from a steel cable that riders pedal through the trees, from a few feet up to 25 feet above the ground. There are safaris on horseback and in a coach. Some of these adventures can be done by moonlight, when animals are more likely to venture into the open.
Details: 4755 N. Kenansville Rd., St. Cloud; 866-854-3837 or 407-957-9794; http://foreverflorida.com. $65 for Zipline Adventure, the four-zip Thrill Pack or horseback safari; Cypress Canopy Cycle or coach safari is $32.
• CSI: The Experience Orlando: CSI has been on network TV for 14 seasons — and who knows how many reruns on how many cable outlets? This attraction brings you into the show’s action — you choose one of three murder scenes, where you discover evidence, chart it on a printed form and enter your findings at interactive “lab stations” and are expected to solve the case.
The clever, full-size, murder-scene dioramas and lab stations add to the fun. Only downside: You may bump into, or have to wait behind, other CSI rookies following the same case. Having to don a cheesy vest imprinted with CSI as you start is silly. Making up for it: all the videos along the course that feature the show’s noted actors, here helping you understand techniques. And when you present your evidence at the final station to identify the killer, it is Gus Grissom himself — that is, original CSI hero William Peterson — who judges your choice.
This is a surprisingly enjoyable activity, with the bonus of being indoors, a respite from Central Florida’s aggressively hot weather.
Details: 7220 International Dr., Orlando; 407-226-7220; http://orlando.csiexhibit.com/. Admission: $20 for ages 12 years and older, $13 children 5-11.
• Fun Spot America: Admit it: Occasionally, you yearn for the days when you could race around the midway at the fair, lower the lap bar onto the Tilt-a-Whirl or roller coaster, and ride, ride, ride until you felt dizzy. You can satisfy your nostalgia, even get nauseous, at Fun Spot America: It’s a sort of carnival midway except that it is both permanent and clean. And the young staffers seem to be prepping for Up With People auditions.
Fun Spot is north of I-Drive, found easily enough if you look for the enormous Ferris wheel — near the 250-foot Sky Coaster arch, from which adrenaline junkies pay extra to be launched in a nylon-bag swing. Here are also Orlando’s best go-kart tracks — five of them, requiring varying degrees of skill. Those guests at least 54 inches tall can also drive bumper cars and ride familiar round-and-round rides.
There is a separate area for the little guests, with scaled-down attractions. And the two-story arcade building boasts more than five dozen video games and stalwarts such as skee-ball.
Fun Spot also has both a wooden coaster (White Lightning) and a futuristic-looking metal coaster (Freedom Flyer). The Flyer’s riders sit in an open-front carrier hanging from an overhead rail; their feet dangle or swing with the motion of the carrier. As for nostalgia, it’s tough to beat the clackety-clack as White Lightning’s cars climb that first hill before it lurches and races up, down and sideways for more than 2,000 feet.
Details: 5700 Fun Spot Way, Orlando; 407-363-3867; www.funspotattractions.com. Admission: Adult armband (for those at least 54 inches tall), $39.95; youth armband (shorter than 54 inches), $29.95. Ten-percent discount for either armband bought online.
• Titanic: The Experience: What is it that continues to draw our attention more than a century after the April 1912 disaster?
Admission gets you a narrated tour by a costumed guide portraying a real passenger or crew member. The guide leads you through 17 galleries that include 10 full-sized recreations of Titanic features, such as a first-class cabin and the famed Grand Staircase.
You’ll pass about 400 pieces of memorabilia, ranging from a two-ton slice of the hull to passengers’ recovered clothing. Among the facts your guide will recount is the foolish White Star Line decision to reduce the number of lifeboats from the suggested 64 to just 16 so they wouldn’t interrupt passengers’ views of the ocean.
In the final gallery, the air has been chilled, the lights dimmed and the walls lined with period newspaper and magazine accounts. Video animation interprets the ship’s collision with the iceberg, the Titanic sinking and breaking apart on the sea floor. And your guide discloses whether the character he or she has portrayed did survive the catastrophe.
There’s also an interactive dinner show most Friday and Saturday nights.
Titanic: The Experience, more museum than fun attraction, rises above morbid curiosity to recount lives lost and reputations ruined.
Details: 7324 International Dr., Orlando; 407-248-1166; titanictheexperience.com. Admission: $21.95 adults, $15.75 children ages 5-11, $19.75 ages 65 and older; $2 discount for all tickets when bought online. Dinner show: $69 adults, $42 children.
• Ripley’s Believe It or Not Odditorium: The Odditorium — a sort of museum of much that is odd but not much that is shocking — was designed to look like it was falling into a sinkhole on International Drive, setting you up to look at objects that are not as they appear. There are straight lines that aren’t straight, level-looking surfaces that are tilted, objects that are bigger or smaller than they appear.
Some exhibits reflect the oddity of the creator and will have you asking “why?” — a portrait of Beyonce created from candy, a likeness of John Lennon carved out of a phone book, another of Madonna fashioned from dried rice leaves and tree sap. Why would someone want to do that?
Some objects are simply rare; they are fun to look at and wonder about their origins. Among the displays are a stuffed Russian circus bear that used to ride a bicycle, a cannibal trophy skull worn as a necklace, a two-headed calf, torture devices and the skull of an allosaurus from the Jurassic Period.
Details: 8201 International Dr, Orlando; 407-345-0501; www.ripleys.com/orlando. Admission: $19.99 adults, $12.99 children 4-12 (discounts if purchased online in advance).
• The Holy Land Experience: This is a theme park, but one without rides. All of the visitors’ enjoyment is supposed to derive from within as they watch actors recount the story of Christ or walk through detailed educational exhibits.
Visitors wander through versions of about 20 biblical sites. They can take communion, watch actors in vignettes — some musical — or contemplate, perhaps pray, in these areas. There are also indoor theaters — one seats 2,000 — that stage morality plays and enact events from the New Testament.
There are also a rock-climbing wall for youngsters, a marvelous, tabletop model of Jerusalem, A.D. 66, fountains of water that “dance” to religious music and an automated tour of dioramas and displays that show how the Bible came to be in its present form.
The Holy Land Experience is for those who seek a quality version of what they might only have seen before in Sunday School recitals or concerts. It is a place to be reverent and to have talented performers confirm your own religious beliefs.
Detals: 4655 Vineland Rd., Orlando; 407-872-2272; www.holylandexperience.com. Admission: $50 ages 13 years and older, $35 ages 6-12, $20 ages 3 to 5, free for children 2 and younger.
• Gatorland: What is there about an alligator not to love, or at least to be fascinated by? Yes, they can be plenty bothersome in the backyard pool, under the parked SUV or swallowing your dog. But ’gators were here long before we humans began occupying their habitat.
Gatorland, one of Florida’s oldest, continuously operating, attractions, displays vast numbers of them and their cousins for our pleasure. There are even several kinds of snakes, including all of North America’s poisonous versions plus constrictors (ugh).
As alternatives to just viewing reptiles sunning themselves or cooling off in water, Gatorland has added several spectator shows and a very nice zip line. One or another of the shows begins every 45 to 75 minutes: gator wrestling, the “jumparoo” or the Up Close Encounters.
The zip line takes passengers along five routes, one of which is more than 500 feet long. Zippers reach nearly 30 miles per hour and cross above ponds and pens holding alligators and crocodiles. Also impressive: the safety checks made at each platform. Because you wouldn’t want to fall into a pond and scare the gators … .
Details: 14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando; 800-393-5297; www.gatorland.com. Admission: $26.99 adults, $18.99, ages 3-12, 2 and younger, free. Screamin’ Gator Zip Line $66.99, includes park admission.
• Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art: The most comprehensive collection of art glass and other work by Louis Comfort Tiffany is on display at the Morse Museum in Winter Park, an Orlando suburb. Here are not only Tiffany lamps and stained glass windows, but the Daffodil Terrace, which was once a veranda at Laurelton Hall, the artist’s Long Island estate and the Byzantine-inspired chapel that he created for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893.
The works were collected by Hugh McKean, a former art student who had won a fellowship at Laurelton Hall, and Morse’s wife, Jeanette Morse Genius McKean, who had built an art gallery in Winter Park. At the time, Tiffany’s art had fallen out of favor with the public.
In addition to Tiffany’s work, the Morse displays its collections of pottery from the Arts and Crafts movement; leaded-glass windows by other artists; paintings by American artists; Art Nouveau; and more.
Details: 445 N. Park Ave., Winter Park; 407-645-5311; www.morsemuseum.org. Admission: $5 adults, $4 seniors, $1 students.
• Family dinner theater: The greater Orlando area has a number of dinner theater shows, with themes from pirates to knights, gangsters to sleuths. Most are family oriented, casual, interactive and include a simple but hearty meal. Some do the hard-sell on photos and souvenirs.
To give you a sense of what you can expect, here’s what we did at Medieval Times:
We sit at tables around an arena with a dirt floor for the horses — pure-bred Andalusians and quarter horses that do Lipizzaner-style exercises and carry six knights in the jousting tournament. The show has a story line but that’s almost incidental — most of the entertainment is the horse dressage, the jousting tournament and swordplay. The latter is choreographed; it’s predetermined who will win (although unknown to the audience), an honor that changes daily.
The tournament is set in the 11th century, and as in medieval times, we’ll be eating without utensils: soup in a bowl that we can tip to our mouths; roast chicken; spare ribs and more that we can eat with our hands.
We’re in the red section, wearing red paper crowns and expected to cheer for the red knight. At the next table, spectators are getting rowdy, waving flags, chanting “Red Knight! Red Knight!” as the knights fight with lances, swords, maces and other medieval weaponry, on horseback and off. Ultimately, the red knight wins, and our section cheers. Later, in the souvenir store/bar in the next room, we can get our photos taken with our knight.
Some of the stunts are clumsy but the show is kitschy and fun. Go early and tour the Medieval Village with historical re-enactors.
Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament, 4510 W. Vine St., Kissimmee; 888-935-6878; www.medievaltimes.com/orlando. Adults $62.95, children 12 and under $36.95, lap children under 3 are free.
Here are some other dinner shows; this is not meant to be a comprehensive list.
Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort, 4510 Fort Wilderness Trail, Lake Buena Vista; 407-824-2803; Disneyworld.com/dining, then type “revue” in search bar. Adults $55-$70, children 3-9 $28-$36.
Sleuths Mystery Dinner Shows, 8267 International Dr., Orlando; 407-363-1985 or 800-393-1985; www.sleuths.com. Improvisational comedy, where guests help solve the mystery. Adults $57.95 (wine and beer included), children 3-11 $23.95.
Capone’s Dinner & Show, 4740 W. Hwy. 192, Kissimmee; 407-397-2378; www.alcapones.com. Musical comedy with mobsters, dancing girls and a gang shootout. Italian buffet dinner with certain alcoholic beverages included. Adults $59.99, children $39.99 (check website for 50 percent discount).
Pirate’s Dinner Adventure, 6400 Carrier Dr., Orlando; 407-248-0590 or 800-866-2469; www.piratesdinneradventure.com. Swashbuckling pirates, maidens in distress and sea dragons on an 18th century Spanish galleon in a lagoon. Pirate attire invited. Adults $65.95, children 3-12 $39.45.
Robert N. Jenkins is former travel editor of the Tampa Bay Times and the author of “End Bag,” an e-book anthology of travel articles. Marjie Lambert is the Miami Herald’s travel editor.