Home » 6 Florida Attractions Disney Fans Will Love– And None Are Theme Parks!

6 Florida Attractions Disney Fans Will Love– And None Are Theme Parks!

When people think of a Florida vacation, generally they think of two things—theme parks and beaches.

For many visitors to the Sunshine State, these two things are enough. Especially if you’re planning a visit to Walt Disney World, you can easily fill an entire week and never leave Disney property, after all.

What is a family to do though if you want to experience more?

We’ve talked about some of Orlando’s best attractions outside of “the Disney bubble” before, but we barely scratched the surface (you’ll see a few of our favorites from that list return here). In particular, what sort of central Florida attractions might a Disney fan enjoy if you’re looking for a Disney-magic style experience outside of the Most Magical Place on Earth?

We gathered six of the top central Florida attractions that aren’t theme parks (or beaches) that Disney fans will love, as well as a few runners up. How many of these have you been to?

1. Bok Tower Gardens (For fans of the World Showcase and Grand Floridian gardens)

Horticulture and gardens are an experience all their own at Walt Disney World, from the sprawling gardens of the Grand Floridian to the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival. World Showcase, in particular, holds several gardens that we consistently rate as our favorite places to relax inside the parks.

Located about an hour south of Walt Disney World, Bok Tower Gardens is a botanical park that somewhat defies description—it took us a very long time to decide to visit because we couldn’t grasp what exactly it was. The short version is that in the 1920’s, Pulitzer Prize winning author Edward W. Bok got the idea to set up a bird sanctuary atop one of the highest hills in Florida, and to make it “a spot of beauty second to none in the country”.

The resulting garden covered 250 acres with lush camellias, jasmine, sabal palms, and seemingly countless other sub-tropical plants—all surrounding a 205 foot “Singing Tower”. The tower is home to a pristinely preserved carillon bell chamber, playing studio, and music library. While tours of the tower are limited to specific donors and occasions, visitors to the gardens can enjoy concerts from the carillon throughout the day.  

It is difficult to describe just how beautiful Bok Tower Gardens is. It truly feels like a place right out of a Disney story, right down to allusions to Aesop’s Fables throughout the property. There is a surprising amount of things to explore from the reflection pool, to nature trails, to an outdoor kitchen garden, and even a separate tour of the historic Pinewood Estate. Kids in particular will love the Children’s Garden, a massive play area full of fairy hollows, exploration zones, and even some hammocks for relaxing parents.

Runner Up: The Harry P. Leu Gardens

For an experience a little closer to Orlando (about 30 minutes from Walt Disney World), garden fans will definitely enjoy a visit to the Harry P. Leu Gardens, a 50-acre botanical garden. The Leu Gardens can also be an easier pick if you’re operating on a short timeline—two hours is generally adequate to see the entire grounds.

2. Safari Wilderness (For fans of Disney’s Animal Kingdom)

Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a perfect symphony of nature encounters, entrancing theming, and some of Disney’s best rides to date. Kilimanjaro Safari, in particular, completely took the concept of a safari ride in new directions.

What if your Kilimanjaro Safari experience involved no crowds and lasted for hours?

Look no further than Safari Wilderness, a 260-acre specialized wild animal park located 40 minutes from Walt Disney World (towards Tampa) where guests can take customized tours to get up close to free-roaming animals. Guests can choose from any number of guided experiences including a customized vehicle safari, ATV safaris, a camel expedition, kayak tours, and even feed the park’s resident lemurs. Tours start at $99 with specialized tours coming in around $200-230 (private tours are much more expensive). The reason for the price is that every experience at Safari Wilderness surrounds small groups rather than massive crowds you’d find at a zoo or theme park. Guests who have been cannot gush enough about the experience.

Runner Up: The Exotic Animal Experience

If you’re a serious animal lover looking for the most up-close experience possible, you may want to look into The Exotic Animal Experience in Orlando. This hands-on experience will give you the opportunity to meet and pet sloths, lemurs, kangaroos, wallabies, and more. Groups are kept small, so pricing starts at $150 a person with higher prices for private tours and extended animal encounters.

3. The Escape Game Orlando (for fans of Frontierland, Mission: SPACE, and all things immersive)

“Immersion” is a serious buzzword in theme park world these days. Extreme-immersion lands like The World of Pandora at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios have given guests the chance to step right into the center of their favorite adventures and become part of the story with hands on, high-stake attractions and experiences.

If immersion is your thing, you need to try an escape game on your next Orlando visit.

What is an escape game? The short version is that it is like stepping into a living video game scene—you and your party have one hour to complete a quest and escape a locked room (don’t worry—it’s not actually locked if you need to get out). We’ve gushed about escape games before but especially about one in particular: The Escape Game Orlando. While Orlando offers a whole line-up of amazing escape game options, we feel like Disney fans will appreciate The Escape Game’s family-friendly theming (no serial killer games here) and attention to detail.

Two of their games stand out for Disney fans—Mission to Mars (think Mission: SPACE and Tomorrowland) and Gold Rush (think Frontierland and Tom Sawyer Island vibes). We’ve done most of the games at The Escape Game, and Gold Rush has been our absolute favorite so far with a great setting, creative puzzles, and a seriously cool story. We escaped with like two seconds left, and we had an actual rocket scientist on our team… Other games available include Prison Break, The Heist, Playground, and Special Ops: Mysterious Market.

Runner Up: Lockbusters

Lockbusters is another great Orlando escape game that continues to receive high marks from visitors. Pirates of the Caribbean fans may want to check out their Pirate Adventure escape room. Haunted Mansion fans may also enjoy the Cremlocke Manor game (it looks pretty scary—you’ve been warned!).

4. Crystal River, FL / Three Sisters Springs (for fans of The Seas with Nemo and Friends)

No visit to Epcot’s The Seas with Nemo and Friends is complete without a stop to visit Disney’s rescue manatees. These graceful giants are beloved by both Florida residents and guests who visit from around the world to see them up close, both in aquarium settings and in their natural environment.

During the cold winter months, manatees migrate in large numbers into Florida’s natural waterways, seeking warmth in freshwater springs. Florida is home to a lot of these springs—hidden oases of clear blue waters and lush plant life that look like scenes straight out of the Garden of Eden. While there are a number close to Orlando, if you’re willing to take an hour and a half drive to Florida’s gulf coast, manatee seekers can partake in an experience like no other.

Crystal River, Florida is one of the only places in Florida where you can swim with manatees.

Manatees are a protected species, and there are strict regulations that prevent people from approaching or accosting them in the wild. Crystal River’s unique location on Kings Bay near the Gulf of Mexico makes it a haven for manatees during the winter season—large numbers of these beautiful animals congregate in both Hunter Springs and Three Sisters Springs every year (dolphins frequent the bay as well).

Guests visiting Crystal River can take a supervised manatee swim tour with a licensed guide who will ensure you stay within the rules for encountering these incredible creatures—some highly-rated examples include River Safaris (out of Homosassa), Bird’s Underwater, and Plantation Adventure Center.  Manatees are naturally very curious and tend to approach humans who follow the guidelines often on their own. If you prefer to just view the manatees, you can also simply visit Three Sisters Spring on foot or via trolley.

Runner-Up: Blue Spring State Park

If you want to see manatees with a slightly shorter drive (right around an hour), Blue Spring State Park near Deltona is another hot spot manatees love during the cold months. You won’t be able to swim with them, but you have a great chance of seeing manatees! Definitely get there early on weekends—the park reaches capacity often on busy days.

5. Medieval Times (for fans of Fantasyland)

Every visit to Disney’s Magic Kingdom is an opportunity to let ourselves be transported to another time and place—a time of kings and queens, heroes and villains, of swords and chivalry and valor.

It just so happens there’s another non-theme park destination where this sort of experience is celebrated.

Medieval Times is another Orlando mainstay we’ve raved about before, and for many, they remain king of the dinner theater scene—or queen, rather, these days (Long live Queen Isabella, the magnanimous!).

The show surrounds a fantastical medieval tournament, complete with live swordfighting, jousting, falconry, and some of the most beautiful horses you may ever see. Throughout the night you’ll enjoy a sumptuous feast while knights and knaves clash to win Her Majesty’s favor (Her beauty is fairer than the snowy wing of the delicate egret!) and even to ensure the security of the realm (May her enemies be cast to the moat dragons!). It’s a great show, and definitely something every Magic Kingdom fan must experience at least once.

Runner Up: Pirates Dinner Adventure

If you’re a Pirates of the Caribbean fan in a somewhat more whimsical mood than Medieval Times might offer, you may want to visit Pirates Dinner Adventure (unrelated to the earlier escape game). This dinner experience tends to go over particularly well with kids and features plenty of swashbuckling, stunts, and even singing!

6. Kennedy Space Center (for fans of Mission: SPACE and Tomorrowland)

From Mission to Mars to Mission: SPACE, Disney has always encouraged guests to look to the stars. For fans of Epcot and even Tomorrowland, we would be remiss if we left off one of Central Florida’s best attractions to experience the wonders of space.

Located about an hour away from Walt Disney World, Kennedy Space Center is such a massive attraction that it may as well be a theme park. Over the course of a day at the center, guests can take guided tours, explore the center’s rocket garden, experience a simulated Space Shuttle launch, journey to Mars, catch an IMAX, and encounter an astronaut. Future NASA members can even add on a trip to the Astronaut Training Experience to try their hands at space training!

Runner Up: Wonderworks

While nothing quite holds a candle to Kennedy Space Center, kids will love WonderWorks, a multi-level science museum of sorts where families can enjoy hands on activities in six different zones surrounding extreme weather, imagination, art, light and sound, physical challenges, and of course, space exploration. Kids can also try their hands at laser tag, a 4D simulator, and a ropes course!

What other Florida attractions appeal to your inner Disney fan?