Orlando may be synonymous with Disney but, as great as that experience is, there’s much more in this Florida city.
Other attractions and theme parks abound, as I learned on a recent spring break trip. Mickey Mouse, move over.
Our trip was primarily a getaway to the area’s second-best-known theme park: SeaWorld. When you combine SeaWorld, Discovery Cove and Aquatica, as we did, you pack in full days of fun that lead to a good night’s sleep.
After a few action-packed days, you may even need a "vacation from your vacation."
The rides, exhibits and shows at Sea World are first rate.
Granted, it’s a long wait for the popular rides, but spending a few extra bucks buys a pass that takes you to the front of the line. The shows at SeaWorld usually have no waits, though, and performances such as "Believe," featuring killer whales, and "Blue Horizons," featuring dolphins, birds and acrobatic entertainers, allow you to relax before getting back into the buzz of the park.
Georgia residents who visit SeaWorld also can take advantage of a new offer aiming to increase visits from the Peach State. Purchase a SeaWorld ticket and get a Busch Gardens or Aquatica (SeaWorld water park) ticket free. Or, you can get discounted tickets for Discovery Cove.
Speaking of Discovery Cove, while many people are familiar with SeaWorld, not as many are aware of this other attraction — and it was the highlight of our trip.
Discovery Cove is more than a theme park and more than an attraction; after spending a wonderful day there, "escape" is the word that comes to mind.
At Discovery Cove, you can escape from the normal 100-mph pace of a typical theme park because reservations are required, limiting the daily attendance at the park to a number which gives you enough elbow room to experience all that is there . The highlight of Discovery Cove is swimming with dolphins, an experience we couldn’t enjoy due to the timing of our trip and need for special reservations. We did, however, get up close and personal with the dolphins as we watched others in the water with them.
Swimming with dolphins aside, there’s plenty of other things to do at Discovery Cove. We snorkeled, swimming among reef fish and large but harmless rays. It’s exciting when you snorkel underwater and peer into the depths to see an 8- to 10-foot shark only a few feet away.
Once your blood pressure goes back down, you realize the shark and other predators are indeed in the same water as you but behind a glass wall that keeps them separate and keeps you safe.
The Discovery Cove day includes all meals, snacks and locker rentals, as well as a complimentary group picture.
Outside the parks
Traveling to and from the hotel to an attraction can be a hassle, with traffic and parking fees. Sometimes, lodging makes the difference when it comes to the overall vacation experience.
There are several accommodations to choose in the area, but for our trip we stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn at SeaWorld. There’s a free shuttle from the hotel to SeaWorld, and because it’s within walking distance, too, we were able to see SeaWorld’s fireworks each night from our eighth-floor room.
Dinner in Orlando is often more than just sitting down to eat. It can be a grand experience with even more entertainment value — take Pirates Dinner Adventure. The audience is "taken hostage" by a group of pirates who are led by the evil Captain Sebastian the Black.
The restaurant replicates a 46-foot 18th century Spanish galleon with 40-foot masts, floating in a 300,000-gallon indoor lagoon. The show divides the audience into six sections, each cheering for the pirate designated to watch over the "hostages."
All the while you’re encouraged to participate, finishing dinner alongside cannon blasts and pyrotechnics.
The non-Disney entertainment in Orlando also includes indoor sky diving at Sky Venture, bungee jumping and numerous other dinner theaters, attractions and tours.
If you go to Orlando and take in the Disney experience, it will be a great time. But if you skip Disney, you will not lack for excitement, fun and a memorable experience.