By Susan and Simon Veness
Orlando is the city of make-believe, a place where fantasy and magic combine to create a wonderful family experience. But Central Florida offers much more than theme parks and attractions; it’s also a natural wonderland of rivers, lakes and forests, with a hint of small-town America thrown in for good measure.
We’ve all been through it. We arrive in Orlando with boundless energy, we pound the parks for days on end, getting up early and staying up late, and generally wearing ourselves out in a frenzy of family fun. And then Day 5 hits (or Day 3!) and the exhaustion kicks in. Attitudes are stretched to the limit, and suddenly that proverbial wall is hit, in a big, big way. But who wants to waste a single moment when you’re in the Greatest Holiday Destination on Earth? That’s where Seminole County comes in.
Here you’ll find the perfect antidote to theme-park burn-out; a chance to revive a bit while still being relatively active, giving you the energy to head straight back into the parks for another round of theme-park thrills. We like to call the natural attractions just beyond the main theme park area The Attitude Adjusters. We recently spent 3 days taking in Sanford and the Wekiva River, and here are our recommendations:
Families won’t want to miss Central Florida Zoo, where youngsters will find so much to do beyond viewing the animals in their naturalistic habitats. You can easily make a full day of it. Along with all of the expected environments, the zoo offers a kid-friendly railroad and carousel, a fabulous Tropical Splash Ground water-play area (watch out for the dump bucket!), KaBOOM Playground (with slides, tire swings and climbing structures), Barnyard Buddies touching-and-feeding zoo downsized for younger visitors, WOW Balls (giant transparent bubbles kids can climb into and ‘walk on water’), and Keeper Chats (Saturdays and Sundays).
Want to try something a bit special? Head over to the zoo’s giraffe enclosure where, for $5 per person, guests can feed the giraffes, whose long black tongues make for some amusing photographs. Or take a camel ride. Or meet the zoo’s young bachelor rhinos and get close enough to touch them as their keepers feed them special treats. You can even get a free audio tour of the zoo using your mobile phone.
But the zoo isn’t just for young’uns. Teens will find something to love here too, namely the ZOOmAir Adventure aerial courses with ziplines, for an additional fee along with your zoo admission (or enjoy them on their own without visiting the zoo). With three courses—a low-level Kids Course for the youngest members of the family (ages 4 and up, 36”-60”), and two higher courses geared toward older children and adults (minimum 54”)—there is something for everyone. Even if you’ve been ziplining before, the Upland and Rainforest courses offer far more than most ziplines.
The ‘adventure’ portions of the courses include swinging logs and narrow wires to traverse, bridges with missing planks and some seriously long zips, plus (get this!) each guest tethers his or her own safety-harness on to the safety wire each time they reach a new section of the course. Naturally, there is a full training session to ensure 100% safety, but the thrill factor of knowing you’re on your own is immense. Sound scary? It is. But rest assured, there are guides on the ground watching your every move and making sure your gear is properly affixed before you tackle each segment. Each course takes approximately an hour and a half, but we think it’s worth making a morning or afternoon of it and doing both.
Nearby Wekiva River is the place to be for a kayak excursion with Adventures In Florida, and it’s a must-do for nature lovers. The river is so clear and pristine you can see to the bottom, and you’ll certainly see plenty of birds and the occasional gator (don’t worry; they’re not interested in following you). If you’re lucky you may see manatees, too. The river is not terribly deep in most places, so if you’re nervous about tipping over, don’t be. Although a ‘rescue man’ paddles along with you, it’s generally a matter of simply standing up to save yourself.
The 4-hour journey isn’t difficult, as the current is gentle but swift enough to carry you along with very little effort. Our recent trip along the river included two paddlers who were new to the sport, and everyone made it to the end with no significant problems. Even better? No one fell into the drink—at least, not involuntarily. One of our guides amused us along the way by performing tricks (including several full rolls in his kayak), then showed us how to use the rope swing during a shore break. At the end of the tour, reward yourself with a drink or a meal at the riverside Swamphouse Grill bar and restaurant.
If boating appeals to you but exerting effort does not, head to downtown Sanford’s Lake Monroe, where you’ll find Gator’s Nest airboat tours. One-hour or 90-minute airboat tours take visitors out into the lake, where gators, birds and a variety of other wildlife sightings offer terrific photos for the family holiday album. Private tours are also available if you’re eager for some time away from other holiday-makers. Boggy Creek Airboats are an excellent family-owned company closer to the main tourist areas, but if you’ve been on a tour with them on Lake Toho or East Lake, the Lake Monroe experience is something altogether different again.
Landlubbers aren’t left out, and we’ve saved the most hilarious adventure for last. If you’re over the age of 21 (18 without alcohol, and younger accompanied by an adult, again without alcohol), LIMO Party Cycle combines the feel-good exercise of cycling with the feel-even-better exercise of tipping back a few beers. It’s a 15-person cycle (with electric power assist, so it’s not overly taxing), that takes the party on the road—with a designated driver included, of course. Ten people do the cycling while up to 5 can just sit there while the rest do the work, and your tour guide serves up cold beverages (supplied by guests), with the onboard music helping to inspire peddlers to keep at it. LIMO even does Ghost Tours and Pub Crawls. Their motto? ‘Slow…that’s how we roll!’
Prefer your drinks without physical activity? Drop into the Imperial Wine Bar (an eclectic furniture store by day!) in downtown Sanford, where the locals hang out, sometimes with their dogs. It doesn’t get much more laid-back than that.
Interested? Our recommended itinerary for a 1 or 2-day visit to Seminole County is:
Day 1: Kayaking along Wekiva River in the morning; AirZoom in the afternoon; dinner at Willow Tree Café in downtown Sanford.
Day 2: Morning airboat ride; browse the shops in downtown Sanford in the afternoon; LIMO Party bike in the evening with drinks (ages 21 and up) at the Imperial Wine Bar & Beer Garden to cap off a relaxing day.
If you're heading to the theme park capital of the world and are looking to mix your theme park visits up with some natural Florida experiences, be sure to take a look at the Attraction Tickets Direct range of tickets for natural Florida excursions.