Sometimes you just can’t take another minute in a theme park — the lines, the humidity, the jostling crowds, the screaming kids (and sometimes screaming parents) or too many renditions of “It’s a Small World.” Or maybe theme parks aren’t for you at all. You’re there only for that family reunion and need to get away from the sibs. What else to do?
Plenty. Orlando and its surroundings aren’t only about princesses and wizards. The headwaters of the Everglades are here along with the St. Johns River and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, all of which offer opportunities for paddling, boating and wildlife viewing. You can delve into history, learn to swing on a trapeze or a zip line, ogle old war planes, ride a train into Old Florida or try a different kind of wine-tasting.
Here are some of our favorite escapes, most within an hour’s drive of the parks.
Get close to a bald eagle: The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey rehabilitates birds that have been seriously injured or aren’t able to take care of themselves in the wild. The Audubon center in Maitland, just outside Orlando, works with eagles, hawks, osprey, kites and falcons.
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Birds who will be able to fly and hunt again are rehabilitated with release in mind. They have very limited contact with humans so they don’t come to depend on them for food, and spend much of their time in the Flight Barn, which is off-limits to the public. Birds with injuries that will leave them unable to hunt or protect themselves are nursed back to health, then sent to zoos or nature centers, or remain at the center where they make public appearances. Visitors can’t touch them, but they can get within a few feet of birds in the aviaries or tethered to outdoor perches. Check out the fierce glare of the bald eagles — the birds are mesmerizing.
The center is at 1101 Audubon Way, Maitland; 407-644-0190; http://fl.audubon.org/chapters-centers/audubon-center-birds-prey.
Visit vintage warplanes: The Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum in Titusville stretches our one-hour drive-time limit, but it’s a gem worth visiting — especially if your trip includes the nearby Kennedy Space Center. The museum’s 45 or so aircraft, which date from World War I to the present, will be of special interest to history or aviation buffs. I am neither and found the collection fascinating.
The plane the museum calls its flagship is the Tico Belle, a Douglas C-47 Skytrain that served in Europe, including at D-Day. Other highlights include a Grumman TBM Avenger, the U.S. Navy’s primary torpedo bomber; and a F-86 Sabre jetfighter from the Korean War. Most of the warbirds are U.S. aircraft, but the museum also has a Luftwaffe Liaison, a MiG jet fighter from Russia, a different model MiG from the Czech Air Force, an English Electric Canberra from the Royal Air Force and a replica Fokker Dr.I Triplane, a German World War I fighter plane made famous by the Red Baron. The museum also has a restoration hangar and a display of aviation memorabilia.
The museum is located at the Space Coast Regional Airport, 6600 Tico Rd. in Titusville; 321-268-1941; www.valiantaircommand.com.
Escape by train: SunRail makes 36 trips a day between Orlando and DeBary, 32 miles north, with stops at several small cities that provide a few hours of lunch and leisurely escape. SunRail is a commuter train — it doesn’t run nights or weekends, and it’s busiest at the start and end of the workday. But from late morning to mid-afternoon, it offers plenty of empty seats.
Riding SunRail is one case where the destination is the journey. You don’t do it to get from Point A to Point B. You do it for the pleasure of turning the driving over to someone else, enjoying the backyard views of Central Florida and getting a taste of Old Florida. The train currently serves 12 stations between Orlando and DeBary in Volusia County, but is expanding.
One favorite stop is Lake Mary, an affluent suburb 18 miles north of Orlando, where the Lake Mary Historical Museum offers free admission and exhibits on the town’s history. Walk a few blocks to the commercial center and have lunch or a glass of wine at 4th Street Bar & Grill or Lonnie’s Fusion Cuisine.
Another good stop is Winter Park, where the Morse Museum with its collection of art glass by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Scenic Boat Tour of the town’s chain of lakes, upscale shopping and a good variety of restaurants are within an easy walk.
Sunrail: Runs from about 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. The closest station to the theme parks is the southernmost stop, at 8068 S Orange Ave. Route and schedule at www.sunrail.com.
Go wine-tasting: Florida has about 30 wineries that have tasting rooms, including four that are within an hour’s drive of the parks. But don’t expect local chardonnay and pinot noir. Traditional wine grapes don’t do well in Florida’s hot, wet summers. Most Florida are made from muscadine grapes, blueberries or other fruit, and most of them are sweet. Check with the winery before you go. Most aren’t open seven days a week and some are only open seasonally.
▪ True Blue Winery: Serves samples of several of its own blueberry wines plus peach, cranberry, citrus and other wines by a Louisiana winery. It also has a bistro. The winery is in Davenport, about midway between Walt Disney World and Legoland. 604 Pink Apartments Rd., Davenport; 863-419-4400; www.truebluewinery.com.
▪ Hutchinson Farm Winery: Makes wine from muscadine grapes, also more traditional varieties with juice imported from California. Hutchinson is in Apopka, about 28 miles north of Walt Disney World, 18 miles from Universal Orlando and SeaWorld, and 56 miles from Legoland. 8061 Stone Rd.; Apopka; 407-814-8330; www.hutchinsonfarmwinery.com.
▪ Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards: The state’s largest winery, Lakeridge offers more structured tours and tastings than most Florida wineries. Lakeridge makes wine from muscadine grapes and some traditional varieties, including chardonnay and cabernet, from grape juice it buys elsewhere. It’s about 35 miles northwest of Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld, 51 miles from Legoland. 19239 U.S. 27 North, Clermont; 800-768-WINE (9463); www.lakeridgewinery.com.
▪ Oak Haven Farms & Winery: Oak Haven makes wine from strawberries, blueberries and muscadine grapes. This winery on a strawberry farm is open only during strawberry season, approximately early December to early April. Oak Haven is about 42 miles southwest of Walt Disney World and 12 miles southeast of Legoland, just outside our one-hour range from Universal and SeaWorld. 32418 Avington Rd., Sorrento; 352-735-1996; www.berriesandwines.com.
Ride a zip line: If you find the theme parks’ thrill rides too tame, too structured or too crowded with cute characters, a zip line might get your heart pumping. Forever Florida, set on a 4,700-acre wildlife conservation area south of Orlando, has three zip lines plus Zip Line Safari, with seven zip lines and two suspension bridges that take almost 2 1/2 hours to complete.
The other three are Peregrine Plunge, with two side-by-side zip lines so two people can race its 1,300-foot length; Panther Pounce, a seven-story drop straight down; and the Rattlesnake, which has a rigid track that turns and dips through the treetops so it feels like the zip line is following a roller coaster track. .
Forever Florida also offers “safaris” by horseback, a cattle drive, “cowboy for a day” adventure, camping, and rides on a “coach” that is more like a swamp buggy. The property has a working cattle ranch, and there is wildlife throughout. Some zips and other activities are available by moonlight. Address is 4755 N. Kenansville Road, St. Cloud, but it’s closer to Holopaw, 45 miles and about an hour’s drive from Orlando. Information: 866-854-3837 or 407-957-9794; www.floridaecosafaris.com.
Watch manatees: As temperatures drop, usually in November, manatees start returning to Blue Spring State Park , where the water from a natural spring is a warm refuge for West Indian manatees. They’ll stay until about mid-February, when rising temperatures in the St. Johns River are more welcoming. Manatees don’t tolerate temperatures lower than 68 degrees well, so in Central Florida’s winter — such as it is — they’re drawn to Blue Spring, which runs consistently around 72 or 73 degrees.
Last year, close to 400 manatees were spotted in the spring run, which is located off the St. Johns River in Orange City, 33 miles north of downtown Orlando. Usually in April, after the manatees leave, the run opens for swimming, snorkeling and diving.
The park has a boardwalk with observation platforms along the 1,050-foot run, which once had a steamboat landing. In addition, the historic Thursby House has historical artifacts and exhibits and is open for self-guided tours. The park has RV campsites and six two-bedroom cabins available for rent. Blue Spring State Park: 2100 W. French Ave., Orange City; 386-775-3663; www.floridastateparks.org/park/Blue-Spring.
Visit a slice of black history: Six miles north of Orlando is Eatonville, the first all-black town to incorporate in the United States, in 1887. In August, the town launched a year-long celebration of its 130th anniversary.
The town was the childhood home of the author Zora Neale Hurston, a writer of the Harlem Renaissance and Eatonville’s most famous resident. Some of her writings, including the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” are set in Eatonville. In turn, the local library and tiny art museum are both named for her.
What to do: The Eatonville Historical Trail is a self-guided walking tour of its oldest buildings and Historic District, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. And every January the community puts on the Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities (Jan. 20-28, 2018).
Learn to fly on a trapeze: Orlando Circus School teaches a few skills that might qualify you to join the circus. Most notable is the trapeze class, a swinging two-hour class open to all. On the day I observed, the only students were kids who were first-timers, but later in the session, two experienced adults took a few turns.
If you want to learn serious trapeze skills, it will take more than one class, but a single session is a fun way for an out-of-towner to get a taste. Other classes include aerial silks, aerial hoops and tumbling for kids and adults. Orlando Circus School, 6809 Visitors Cir., Orlando; 407-965-1552; www.orlandocircusschool.com.
Visit a singing tower: Until you get close, you probably can’t see the elegance of the pink tower of marble and coquina stone that a wealthy immigrant had built as the centerpiece of his bird sanctuary almost a century ago.
The 205-foot Singing Tower, also known as Bok Tower, houses a set of bells — a carillon — that plays short concerts every day. The gardens that surround it — known for their blaze of spring color, when azaleas, camellias and magnolias are in bloom — were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.
The Singing Tower is in Lake Wales, 55 miles southwest of Orlando, 43 miles from Disney’s Magic Kingdom and just 12 miles from Legoland. Edward W. Bok, a Dutch immigrant, author and publisher of Ladies’ Home Journal, who bought the land, opened the grounds to the public. It is now designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Bok Tower Gardens: 1151 Tower Blvd., Lake Wales; 863-676-1408; boktowergardens.org.
Go kayaking: Central Florida offers a wide variety of kayaking opportunities from the St. Johns River to the north to Cape Canaveral on the east coast, and on Shingle Creek in Kissimmee, close to the center of the theme park action. You can leave behind the cartoon critters and see wildlife in its natural setting — manatees at Blue Spring State Park in winter, tiny bioluminescent creatures in the waters of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in the summer, dolphins, alligators and wading birds year-round.
Start by Googling kayaking and the destination you’re interested in. A few to consider are Shingle Creek, Wekiva River, St. Johns River (including the end of the Blue Spring run, where manatees come and go), Merritt Island or Indian River Lagoon, Blackwater Creek, and Cocoa Beach. Many outfitters offer guided tours as well as equipment rental for DIY tours. Ask whether a particular tour is suited for your level of experience, but know that a daylight tour of one to two hours on slow-moving water is a good introduction for a beginner. Expect to get wet, wear a hat and sunscreen, don’t take an expensive camera or phone, and apply bug repellant liberally.