Orlando: Beyond The Theme Parks

By: Maxine Sheppard

October 9, 2010

Though its theme parks made Orlando one of America’s top holiday destinations, there are loads of other activities available in the area as an alternative to the traditional attractions of Disney World and Universal Orlando. Writer Jason R. Rich uncovers a world of exciting options…


Airboat rides

Gliding along the Florida coastline in a high-speed airboat is a thrilling experience. The group rides last about 30 minutes – longer private tours are available – and offer an up-close look at alligators and other wildlife. Passengers remain dry, but sun and wind protection is recommended.



Boggy Creek Airboat Rides is located about 40 minutes from Disney World.

Airboats in the Everglades by Elin B on Flickr

Airboats in the Everglades by Elin B on Flickr



Bass fishing

Private two- and four-hour guided catch-and-release bass fishing excursions are offered for groups of up to five people at Disney World. Pontoon boats take you out on the lakes within the resort itself, all gear is provided and no previous fishing experience is required. Advance reservation is, however, necessary.



Helicopter tours

Several companies offer group and private helicopter tours of Orlando, including International HeliTours, Air Florida Helicopters, Inc. and Sunshine Helicopter Tours.


These companies operate from private helipads located along International Drive or W.Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway, a 10-20 minute drive from the main theme parks. An introductory five to six minute flight will cost $20-30 per adult, but longer trips are available as are romantic sunset flights.


Horse Riding

A handful of stables offer riding lessons and trail tours within 15 minutes of the Walt Disney World Resort. No previous riding experience is required, and these tours are open to people of all ages.


The stables include Clarcona Farm and Stables, Freedom Ride and Sweet Music Farm, as well as Tri-Circle-D Ranch at Disney World itself.


Hot air ballooning

For adults looking for a romantic experience, nothing beats an early-morning hot air balloon ride. The flights last for between an hour and 90 minutes and you’ll experience breathtaking views from hundreds of feet in the air while the sun rises. Rides end with a champagne toast.



Indoor skydiving



Indoor Skydiving at Sky Venture Orlando

Indoor Skydiving © Sky Venture Orlando

If you’re too afraid to actually jump out of an aeroplane with a parachute, I Fly Orlando offers an extremely safe indoor skydiving experience. It utilises a wind tunnel powered by an airplane engine to simulate the freefall experience.


Participants put on a special suit, helmet and goggles, receive the required instruction, and then experience two one-minute flights on a column of air flowing at 125 mph. Although it feels very real, you’ll never actually be more than eight to ten feet off the ground.

Sky Venture is open daily, until at least 9 or 10pm, and reservations are required. Indoor skydiving is suitable for anyone over the age of 12.


Racecar driving

For anyone interested in experiencing the high-speed thrill of driving a NASCAR racing car around a professional track, at speeds up to 160 mph, the Richard Petty Driving Experience at the Walt Disney World Speedway is a guaranteed adrenalin rush.


Several different driving and ride-along experiences are offered. For people who are too young or not comfortable driving their own manual transmission vehicle, a private ride-along programme with a professional driver is offered. More adventurous licensed drivers can take the wheel and race around the track themselves, after participating in group instruction.


Vintage aeroplane rides

Located in Polk City, Florida, an easy 30-minute drive from Disney World, is the Fantasy of Flight interactive air museum. This private airfield and hanger facility is owned by Kermit Weeks, a flight enthusiast and pilot who has amassed a vast collection of vintage aeroplanes. Each has been expertly rebuilt or restored and is fully operational.



Flight demonstrations and air shows are presented at the weekends and on other days during peak season. In addition, private biplane rides are offered for an additional fee. Feel the rush of flying in an open cockpit with the wind in your face, just as the pilots did during the golden era of flight.

B-17 in maintenance at Fantasy of Flight by divemasterking2000 on Flickr

B-17 in maintenance at Fantasy of Flight by divemasterking2000 on Flickr



Note: You’ll want a rental car with GPS to reach most of the places listed above, since public transportation is limited and taxis are expensive in the Orlando area.

Photos by Elin B and divemasterking2000 on Flickr and courtesy of Sky Venture Orlando. Header image of hot air balloons © Celso Diniz |


If we’ve whetted your appetite for a trip Stateside, Virgin Atlantic flies twice-daily from London Gatwick to Orlando, and daily from London Heathrow to Miami, and don’t forget to explore the extensive range of hotels, villas and fly-drive options available across the whole of Florida with Virgin Holidays.


Maxine Sheppard

Maxine is the co-editor of the Virgin Atlantic blog. Travel and music are her joint first loves, and despite having written for Virgin for more years than she cares to remember she still loves nothing more than jumping on a plane in search of new sights and new sounds.

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