The other day we gave our tips for having the best time in the Happiest Place on Earth. We hope that all of that helps you plan and execute a great visit to Disney. But if you’re headed to Florida and you want a break from looking at mouse ears, we get it! When we went, we also took a break to tour around the area and visit some other attractions in the area. We had so much fun doing other things that we felt it deserved it’s own post!
1. Visit LEGOland, the place our boys said they were looking forward to more than Disney!
Our boys absolutely love LEGO anything – as can be plainly seen when you glance at the huge bins of them in their rooms. Frankly, I’m a big fan as well. Few things are as satisfying as completing a large LEGO set. So when we went to Florida, LEGOland was at the very top of their list of places to visit.
As far as theme parks go, this one was decidedly aimed at a younger crowd than the other parks we visited. Almost all the rides were fine for Wesley, as well as all the LEGO building attractions. He loved it! And frankly, so did we. We built racing cars in one building, then wen down roller coasters designed for kids his size, and played on the playgrounds featuring ball pits and big slides. But, our favorite part was the big area in the center of the park where the “master builders” had built a ton of cool cityscapes with LEGO versions of famous landmarks as well as a Star Wars section featuring a life size Darth Vader.
We loved visiting Orlando with our friends, The Domestic Man and his family
While the park had lots of gluten-free friendly options, the best indulgence was certainly the apple fries. We split one order between both families, which was just the right amount.
A piece of advice? Avoid sitting next to the pizza place. There is an incredibly annoying audio on loop. Like seriously, it’s so painful that Russ recorded the noise and sometimes texts it to us as a running joke!
2. Pick oranges in a Florida orange grove
On our way to Florida Finn told us the one thing he wanted to do (other than the standard stuff) was to pick oranges, “I know America gets its oranges from Florida – can we go visit a farm to learn how they grow?!” We all loved the idea and had a blast doing it! It was the perfect “reset” for a down day between amusement parks.
In Virginia, we grow apples and there are tons of apple orchards where you can go pick your own. Not surprising, with a quick google search we were able to find the fantastic Ridge Island Groves, an orange grove (and free range chicken farm) that allowed us to pick our own citrus – tangerines and oranges! The boys had a great time picking a big bag of them to take with us for snacks the rest of vacation. We also got to try kumquats for the first time, which was a great treat as well!
Our personal favorite, if you get a chance, are the Strawberry Onions. They were BY FAR the BEST onions we’ve ever had in our lives, because they are grown under the hanging strawberries – which sweeten the water and dirt the onions grow in. Seriously, it’s worth another trip to Florida just to get more of those onions!
I mean, c’mon – the adorable may kill you.
3. Find a hole-in-the-wall restaurant like Brazas Peruvian Chicken or BB Junction
We, of course had to eat somewhere in Orlando, and most of the time we picked spectacularly well! Instead of going to the same chains you have in your area, we polled our readers, searched the internet and tried to find interesting places to visit!
On our way back from a book signing, we found a neat Peruvian Chicken restaurant called Brazas out near Winter Park. They had great rotisserie chicken, yuca fries and our personal favorite, plantain tostones!
BB Junction is a little bit north of the city, but absolutely worth the visit! It’s a paleo paradise with grassfed beef, organic ingredients, kombucha, dedicated gluten free fryers, wonderful fries and very friendly people. We were so lucky to stumble across this place in a late night search and walked in 15 minutes before close. It’s now our favorite restaurant in the whole city! If you go, the butter herb smoked + fried wings are a CAN’T MISS.
4. Of course, go to Universal Studios and visit Harry Potter!
We took the big boys to Universal Studios because Wesley was too little for most of the rides (Russ’ family generously offered to take him for another day of LEGOland while we did big kid stuff). While Universal does offer Dr. Seussland that little kids would love, overall it is definitely for older kids for the most part, especially kids who know the movies that are referenced. But even those that haven’t watched The Mummy will love one of our favorite rides of all time, the Mummy ride. And if you don’t love Harry Potter, well, I’m not sure we could really be friends!
The Universal Studios section features the Diagon Alley part of the Harry Potter attraction and it is absolutely wonderful and exactly like the movie come to life. If you’re a fan, it’s a pilgrimage you must make. While there are so many fantastic and fun things to do that don’t require rides (like exploring Diagon Alley or riding the train between parks) – it does features our favorite ride (48″+), Escape From Gringotts, a ride you definitely can’t miss because it’s got a huge fire breathing dragon on top of it!
We ended up eating at the Leaky Cauldron. While the efficiency of the restaurant was something to marvel at, there was only one item on the menu we could eat for lunch: a chicken sandwich on gluten-free bread. It was… sufficient, but nothing to rave about.
5. And there’s the other half, Islands of Adventure
While Stacy planned vising Universal entirely for Harry Potter, Islands of Adventure was probably what I was looking forward to the most because it had both Jurassic Park and Marvel sections!
And nothing is cooler that dinosaurs and superheroes. Plus, we got to arrive there by taking the cool train that goes from park to park in the Harry Potter world. Yes, you get to go through the wall to get to Platform 9 3/4! On the other side was Hogsmeade, where you can get the best drink on earth, liquid butterscotch gold, butterbeer!
And while we did enjoy this section of the park, including the awesome Dragon Challenge roller coaster and walking through Hogwarts, I couldn’t wait to see the dinosaurs!
I particularly love how the theme plays as you enter the gates. While you’re there, don’t skip the Discovery Center. It looks like just a gift shop from the outside, but the lower level has cool animatronic dinosaurs replicated to look just like the movie! Then you can head over to Superhero Island (moving as quickly as possible through the bizarre comic strip section) and see the giant Spider-man and hang out with Dr. Doom (another of our favorite rides). I absolutely love loved walking through this part.
As for food selections in the Islands, we definitely recommend Mythos, winner of best theme park restaurant for many years running, which is over on the right side of the park in the Greek myths inspired section. It’s Mediterranean cuisine, but it’s extremely allergen aware and friendly. The waiter helped us easily navigate the menu, only crossing off a few items, and we ended up with a delicious pad Thai and a fantastic risotto for lunch. They even had gluten-free rolls, if that interests you!
6. Head over to Florida Southern College to check out the college Frank Lloyd Wright Designed
Tucked away a little outside of town is a small college that had a big enough budget to hire the most famous architect in the world to design all its buildings. We visited because that concept seemed pretty interesting, and the whole experience was. Wright could make concrete look interesting and cool. Plus, it was nearby to the orange farm and made a perfect picnic location!
I loved the covered walkway and the super cool central fountain. And the setting, right next to a lake, was a beautiful place for a picnic. Which reminds me…
7. Challenge Russ Crandall to a BeanBoozled contest
When we went to Florida, Cole had just become obsessed with BeanBoozled and wanted to try it on vacation. His mother and I were less than excited to do it with him, as the idea of consuming gross things on purpose is unappealing to us. Luckily, he found a very willing partner in Super Sailor Russ. They each took a bean of the same color, taste it together, and take their chances that one would get popcorn while the other would get rotting eggs.
While not remotely paleo, it was a special treat we all still remember and it was a lot of fun for participants and observers alike!
8. Finish Off Your Day with a Pizookie from BJ’s Restaurant
When we said we were going to Orlando, several people told us that the one thing in the area we had to try was a Pizza-Cookie (Pizookie) from BJ’s Restaurants, a chain that doesn’t exist where we are. Now, while the rest of the menu was typical for a very casual restaurant, the gluten-free food and “pizza cookie” dessert that was enjoyed by all!
9. Take a scenic trip in the Orlando Eye.
I’m a sucker for large Ferris wheels and I love it when a city has one. Right off of International Drive, very close to Universal Studios, is the Orlando Eye, a giant 400 foot tall Ferris Wheel you will not miss. It has amazing views in all directions and neat standing cabins. Definitely the best way to check out the cityscape!
10. Go to Sea World. Maybe?
We did not go to Sea World at all on this trip because of our concerns with orca treatment. But recently Sea World made the commitment to cease their “shows” as well as breeding or acquiring new orcas, meaning the public campaign that was popularized with the movie Blackfish has succeeded. So, it’s up to you to determine whether you feel comfortable going or not. I can tell you that the coasters looked pretty epic and since we’re big on supporting when companies make decisions we believe in, we’ll probably visit next time we go – we hear it’s pretty fun.
We hope that you can use this list to go explore more of what Orlando has to offer. We found ton of good food, fun stuff to do, and things to see and are already planning our return next year (once Welsey is tall enough for Harry Potter rides)!