No doubt about it: Walt Disney World puts Orlando on the tourism map. Additional major theme parks, like Universal Studios Florida, SeaWorld Orlando and LEGOLAND, Florida have only added to the region's lure as a family vacation destination. But there's more to see in Central Florida, both in Orlando and its surrounding towns. These smaller attractions and off-the-beaten path sites offer quality entertainment and enrichment, and work within any travel budget.

Gatorland, Orlando
What began as a small tourist attraction in 1949 has evolved into the "Alligator Capital of the World." Gatorland offers a look at Florida tourism when gators were considered exotic enough to be the main attraction. However, it has progressed into a 110-acre theme park and wildlife preserve, showcasing thousands of alligators, crocodiles, an aviary, petting zoo and breeding marsh with an observation tower.

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Besides observing the gators of all ages and sizes in their pens, kids enjoy the train ride and the Gator Gully Splash Park. The Gator Wrestlin' Show and the Gator Jumparoo demonstration draw the biggest crowds. You can even sample gator, in the form of fried nuggets, at Pearl's Restaurant.

Gatorland's newest attractions include the White Gator Swamp, home to the world's largest collection of giant white Leucistic alligators, known for their ivory skin and reflective blue eyes. There are only 15 of this rare species known to be alive, and four of them reside here. Also, the new Screamin' Gator Zip Line features over 1,200 feet of zip lines and a 50-foot suspension bridge.

Orlando Science Center, Orlando
The Orlando Science Center introduces kids to physical and natural sciences in the most effective ways possible, with plenty of opportunities to experiment and interact with the exhibits. For preschoolers, the main attraction is KidsTown, where they can build dams at the water table, pick pretend oranges at the juice processing plant, create designs with working gears or participate in an impromptu drum lesson.

A life-size Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton greets you near the entrance of the "DinoDigs" exhibit gallery. Guides in lab coats give walking presentations about this and several reproduction skeletons of dinosaurs and prehistoric sea creatures. There are two fossil dig areas, which include a waist-high table and a "pit" on the floor, where kids can brush away "dirt" to reveal dino bones.

For the grade school-aged set, the Science Park gallery exhibits focus on principles such as magnetism, electricity, lasers, sound waves and more. They can construct pinewood derby cars and send them down the 70-ft. track, play a harp with laser "strings," or create echoes with tubs of PVC pipe. The Digistar planetarium, inside the 310-seat CineDome, features a giant, 8,000-sq. ft. screen. You can watch a traditional planetarium show, laser light shows and movies in this supersized theater.

Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens, Sanford
With over 400 animals, the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens offers a full day of entertainment. In addition to the menagerie of mammals, reptiles and amphibians in residence, there's also the Animal Adventure Children's Zoo and an impressive collection of bugs in the Massey Services Insect Zoo. The Herpetarium houses the southeast's largest collection of venomous snakes and non-venomous reptiles. Zookeepers offer several programs a day, such as bird shows, reptile demonstrations, feeding observations and "encounter" programs with raptors, camels, primates and felines.

The Zoo offers rides and attractions in addition to the nature and animal exhibits, including a train, carousel, playground and laser tag area. The Wharton-Smith Tropical Splash Ground is a water play area offering cool relief on warm days, with raining trees, a water tunnel and a bucket dump. The newest attractions include the North American River Otter Exhibit and the ZOOm Air Adventures aerial course of rope bridges, zip lines and suspended disks.

Unique and Unusual Finds
Two attractions located on Orlando's International Drive make the most of unusual, unique and sometimes downright bizarre exhibits. While it looks like Ripley's Believe it or Not! is sinking into the ground, it's just an illusion representing the quirky character of this collection of oddities from around the world. Artifacts and interactive exhibits are displayed in 16 different galleries, which you tour at your own speed. The relics range from the disturbing, like the human shrunken head, to the oversized, like the 25-foot tall mural of Jimi Hendrix made from more than 8,500 playing cards.

More architectural trickery is at hand at WonderWorks, a building that appears to be upside down, even when you first enter. This attraction aims to exercise your mind through education and entertainment with over 100 hands-on exhibits. To experience the application of force, you can lie on a bed of 3,500 nails, or feel a 5.3 earthquake in the Disaster Zone. Other kid-friendly experimentation awaits on the life size replica of the Mercury capsule, the Bubble Lab, the Mind Ball bio feedback game and the Far Out Illusion Gallery.

Dinner and a (Horse) Show
Medieval Times offers a family-friendly evening out in a themed surrounding that carries through to the live, interactive show, which you watch from your table while you dine.

The Medieval Times dinner attraction is inspired by an 11th century feast and tournament. The action takes place in a castle--one of the nine located throughout the U.S. and Canada--which is surrounded by a moat and drawbridge. Guests are served a four-course banquet in the arena, encouraged to cheer for one of six knights competing in the joust and other tests of skill. Expect almost two hours of jousting, swordsmanship, hand-to-hand combat, horsemanship and falconry, set to a story of the Spanish King Don Carlos and Princess Catalina.

Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Titusville
About an hour east of Orlando, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex pays tribute to space travel, with a remarkable collection of authentic rockets, launch pads, interactive programs and the opportunity to meet real astronauts and view rocket launches. The facility includes the Rocket Garden, two IMAX theaters, the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame and the neighboring Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

The regular bus tour, included with admission, explores the history of the Apollo moon and space shuttle programs with panoramic views of launch pads and the VAB's exterior. It stops at the LC-39 Observation Gantry and the Apollo/Saturn V Center, where visitors see a fully restored, 363-foot Saturn V moon rocket and relive the historic Apollo missions which resulted in man landing on the moon.

Two immersive programs, the Shuttle Launch Experience and the Astronaut Training Experience, provide a realistic taste of space travel. The newest tour options include the KSC Up-Close: Launch Control Center Tour, which gives guests rare access inside Firing Room 4, from which 21 space shuttle launches were controlled. The second, the KSC Up-Close: Launch Pad Tour, takes visitors from the visitor complex inside the highly secure Launch Complex 39. It was here that a majority of space shuttles, and all six Apollo missions which landed on the moon, were launched.

Nature's Bounty: Land and Water Adventures
Green space is plentiful in central Florida, so if your family enjoys spending time outdoors, there are countless parks, forests, preserves, public gardens and nature trails. Wildlife treks, bird-watching expeditions, horseback riding, fishing trips, and of course, cycling and hiking, are all easy-to-arrange experiences, either guided or on your own. Hundreds of lakes, rivers and swamps are navigable by boats of all shapes and sizes.

One of the best-known public gardens is Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales. You can tour Pinewood Estate and explore 250 acres, including the "fly-by-garden" with plants attracting butterflies; the "secret" capstone rock garden and the fort lookout point. Exploration baskets for kids include books and activities. Time your visit to coincide with carillon concerts emanating from the 1929 Bok Tower, a 205-foot, 60-bell "singing tower" made from marble and coquina shell.

For a close-up look at native wildlife, hit the trails at Polk's Nature Discovery Center in Lakeland, part of the Circle B-Bar Reserve. Pick up a trail map and head to the shores of Lake Hancock to observe alligators in their natural habitat, or walk along the marsh trails to get a glimpse of cranes, herons and bald eagles. For more self-guided exploration, try the Babson Park Nature Center in Babson Park, Gator Creek Reserve in Lakeland, the Street Nature Center in Winter Haven and the Wekiwa Springs State Park in Apopka.

There are hundreds of lakes throughout central Florida, and a uniquely southern way to experience them is by taking an airboat tour. These exhilarating, high-speed rides will take you into shallow lakes, swamps and marshland areas not accessible by other watercraft. You'll find that these close encounters with nature will include alligator and wild game sightings, as well as bird-watching opportunities.

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Most tour operators will allow kids of any age to ride, and everyone will get a life vest and hearing protection from the loud fans in the back of the boat. Try Big Toho Airboat Rides, Black Hammock Airboat Rides, Boggy Creek Airboat Rides, Camp Mack's River Resort, Captain Fred's Airboat Nature Tours, Kissimmee Swamp Tours or Wild Florida Airboats.

More Orlando Family Vacation Tips:
  • 10 Must-See Orlando Attractions
  • Top 10 Orlando Resorts for Family
  • 7 Secrets to Saving Big at Disney World

  • Written by Traci L. Suppa

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