I wrote off the theme parks as an idea very quickly, because the rides available to us would be too limited to justify the cost of entry. Not to mention that I didn't fancy keeping track of my wandering daughter in the crowds. So I did many google searches along the lines of "Things to do in Orlando with toddlers" and came up with a plan. For the benefit of future parents seeking to do Orlando on a smaller scale, here is my travelogue.
Tactical advice before we start: I usually did a big activity in the morning then returned to the hotel before finding something quieter to do for the afternoon. The problem with this was that the children would often nap in the car on the way to the hotel, and would be ready for action again while I was ready to collapse and chill. Our most stressful moments came at this point, despite the toys I'd brought along to keep them occupied. We weren't there long enough for me to figure out a solution, but going straight from the morning excursion to the afternoon excursion was what I would have tried. (One day the trip back was too short for the kids to fall asleep and we all had a nap in the hotel, which was glorious!).
Sometimes our afternoon activity was just playing in the hotel pool for a couple of hours and for sheer convenience, I would recommend choosing a hotel with a good-sized, fun pool (funnily enough, Orlando has a good range of them!). Bring or buy a small beach ball which can't be beaten for versatility. We used ours as a float, we pushed it underwater to watch it erupt upwards... and sometimes we used it as a ball as well.
Other days, piling into our suite's jetted tub for half an hour was a great way to keep the children entertained without exhausting or overheating Mum. I should have brought more bath toys.
This isn't really in Orlando, but fifty minutes down the I4, well on the way to Tampa. As you might guess from the name, it's a dinosaur park, with 'lifesize' (I can't verify that, but they certainly looked impressive enough!) models of dinosaurs looming at you from the trees. My son loves dinosaurs as much as the next three year old, and he just about died with joy when we saw the T-rex at the end of the freeway exit.
You enter and exit through an extensive gift shop, ranging from all sorts of dinosaur and reptile toys to artistic geodes. Beyond that is a lawn with a few dinosaurs and two very nice playgrounds, one for toddlers and one for older children, flanked with shaded picnic areas. My son ditched the toddler area very quickly for the bigger slides, somewhat to my frustration, since his sister couldn't keep up.
Included with his ticket price (my daughter had free entry) was a fossil dig, which happened at certain times throughout the day. He was given a sifter to sift out the fossils from the sand, choose his three favourites and take them to the woman in charge of the dig for identification. While it doesn't strike me as having a lot of bearing on real paleontology (not that I'm in a position to know!), he enjoyed it, although he was more interested in digging for fossils than getting them identified. Fortunately, this was a finish when you like kind of activity, and really only took about five minutes anyway. We ended with an ammonite, tiger shark tooth and stingray tooth.
From there, we proceeded to the main walk through the trees and river, with dinosaurs on all sides. We indulged in a lot of fake screaming and had to run past the T-rex (aside from our five minute stop beneath his jaws for photos). That was fun, although since my son wasn't greatly interested in reading the signs about what the dinosaurs were like, he had his fill sooner than I expected. One thing we failed to do was consult our map as we went round, which meant that we missed a huge chunk of the route along with all the features at the end, including the models of skeletons. Oops. Still, as I said, he'd had his fill. We did get to see a sculptor working on an allosaur by the path, which was interesting. Arguably, it ruined the illusion, but we enjoyed stopping to watch a dinosaur being made.
Advisory note: one model was of five smaller dinosaurs (deinonychus?) bringing down and tearing into a larger dinosaur. It wasn't particularly gory, although blood was painted on. It is one of the more interesting models, and one of the few that I was able to actually discuss with my son (who I think was a little taken aback by it). I approved of it, as an example of the food chain, but it was a bit of a departure from the more bland poses around us.
There are koi fish swimming through the waterways and machines charging a quarter for fishfood. This was the highlight of the trip for my fish-loving daughter, who would have spent all morning watching the koi and howled when I made her come with us to see the rest of the dinosaurs.
On our return from the dinosaur walk, we did the museum. I had saved this for last, because we'd been told there were animatronic dinosaurs in the museum, and I thought that the static forest ones might be anticlimactic after that. Actually, the museum was a bit of an anticlimax, since there was only one tableau of animatronic dinosaurs, and the bulk of the museum is made up of a winding corridor with fossils behind glass cases and nothing hands on at all. We went through about a dozen with my son wanting to know what they were, and then both children got more interested in just chasing each other down the corridor.
The dinosaurs are right at the end, and they're motion sensitive. There was a warning as you go in that small children might be scared of them, and my children were certainly shocked when they rounded a corner and a brachiosaurus (or was it a diplodocus?) started bellowing and waving its head. Fortunately, this was either not lifesize or it depicted a juvenile! Still, both children backed up to me and a corner, and my daughter would only continue if carried. My son, though wide-eyed, was persuaded to come forward and see the entire group of moving dinosaurs, before we headed for the exit.
A bit of a stretch to get to, but a fun excursion if you have a dinosaur lover in the family. The biggest downside was that there was no food available on site, nor really anything nearby. Following the advice of the lady at the gift shop, we stopped off at the next junction for a decent selection of eating places, but I'd have done better to bring a picnic.
Dr Phillips Community Park
This was just a ten minute drive from our hotel. I went for the splash park, having heard it was free, but it turned out it costs a dollar per person in the summer (you get a wristband for re-entry). My daughter loved it, but my son wanted to go to the main playground instead, so we didn't stay that long. The main playground is free at least, and it's a rather good one--a lot of the focus is on those abstract climbing things, so there are very few slides and swings, but there were a bunch of smaller things for my children to play with.
This was the recommendation that kept coming up on my internet searching. A natural lazy river which you can ride for a mile or so in the midst of nature. We actually did this one twice, because my husband wanted to see it too. Just as well, because it's too much for one adult with two small children. I never succeeded in getting the children in our inner tube the first time we went, because they were too intimidated by it all.
As it was, once you're in the water, you need to be able to steer reliably in order to get out at the end (and to keep from drifting into the underwater grasses--the current will eventually push you out again, but they're a big impediment to progress). The water is shallow enough for an adult to walk at all points, but if you ride with children on your lap, it's not easy to stand up at short notice.
Even if you don't ride the river, there's a lagoon that's been half-landscaped halfway down, at the point closest to the main car park. Here there's lots of sand and shallow (cold!) water for small children to splash in and this was what the children and I did on our first visit. They had a fantastic time... I was a little more jaded about the sand. We live near the beach as it is, and I had been looking forward to a week without two sandy children!
If you do ride the river, you need to bring your own floats (you can swim, but where's the fun in that?) or rent sturdy inner tubes from places just outside the park. The park is very popular and visitors are barred entry once it reaches capacity so get there early, particularly on a weekend! Our second visit was on a Saturday. We got in at 9am, and found many people setting up camp for the day. Not sure what time the gates closed, but they re-opened at 1pm and were reportedly closed again ten minutes later. As we left (by 2pm), signs advertised re-opening at 4pm.
The best (as in closest to the water) car parking spaces are reached by ignoring the signs and driving through the drop-off zone, though depending on when you go, there might not be a lot of choice! There's a very good playground further up in the car park, which made for a great place to dump the kids while we assembled our gear and applied sunblock. Also useful for letting them dry off before the trip home.
Head past the concession stand to get to the starting point which is a rocky area containing a jumping (no diving!) pool and numerous places in which to board your tubes. My own preference, due to small children, ended up being the shelving and slippery rock across the bridge. We beached the tubes, got ourselves in them and then shoved off with feet and hands.
Going underwater is not a toddler-friendly activity, but I highly recommend bringing a pair of goggles in case you can sneak a peek beneath the surface anyway. The starting point is stunning--can't vouch for the rest of it, but the concession stand does do a face-mask and snorkel rental, and we saw several people going downriver like that--also finding fossilised shark-teeth at the bottom.
The river starts off rocky with interesting currents depending on the depth before becoming steadier and broader with a sandy floor, on which you can see fish swimming beneath you. We also had several dragonflies hitching rides on us as we drifted down, much to my son's delight. He loved it, but my daughter was done long before the rest of us.
On my first visit, a stretch of the river was closed briefly as an alligator (about a foot long apparently) had been spotted. Once it moved away, it was opened again. There are lifeguards posted at regular intervals and several exit points as well. On the whole, we were very impressed.
Pro-tip: if you bring a ziploc bag to hold your electronic valuables... make sure that bag has no leaks. We nearly killed our camera that way.
Brilliant fun and this is the one thing that I would definitely want to do again.
Gatorland was a recommendation from a friend. Probably the most expensive thing we did, but it worked pretty well. It's more or less a zoo with a fairly limited focus, and to an extent, after you get used to seeing so many alligators around, it's exhausted its entertainment value.
Actually, my son's favourite thing was the zipline--he was far too young to go on it, but he was fascinated by it. Once he'd established that I was not going to force him on it (my son is well aware of my attitudes to risk-taking), he took great delight in pointing out every person who went whizzing over our heads.
We got talked into buying the 'grunt package' at entry, which meant we were entitled to some free food to feed the gators with, unlimited train rides and to sit on an alligator after the wrestling show (the photograph of which cost extra!). I should have picked up the food at the start, because ultimately we never got around to it; likewise, we only actually rode the train once. On the whole, we were pretty inefficient with our routes around the park, which, on such a hot and humid day cost us dearly in time.
We did catch a wrestling show and joined a very long line to sit on an alligator. I wasn't sure how that would pan out, but it turned out all three of us could go on together. My son had said he didn't want to sit on a gator when I bought the tickets, though after seeing so many other people manage it without mishap, he changed his mind. Of course, for him the alligator got wriggly, and I was ushered several feet away very quickly while the handlers retrieved my son (who had kept his balance admirably) and calmed the gator down.
Against my expectations, my son agreed to get back on the gator, though this time they put me on it first with my daughter on my lap, and my son sat (gingerly) behind me and held my hand. I had told him that the alligator just needed to get into a comfortable position and let the handlers know when she was ready to continue; the handlers told him that silly me had stepped on her toe--I think they were joking, although for all I know they could have been right. I was more focused on the kids than myself, though I'm pretty sure my daughter did kick her in the eye which the alligator endured stoically.
Yeah, I'm not sure how this balances with my stance against animal cruelty. Well, animal cruelty is probably a bit strong, especially considering my minimal knowledge of alligator science (is this actually any worse than a pony ride?), but it is exploitation. Some people might want to take that into account.
On the other hand, it was amazing just being able to watch gators swimming casually around the breeding marsh. Or seeing the collection of white alligators. And while the back end collection of crocodiles etc start feeling a bit repetitive, they do try and make the exhibits interesting--my son loved the mock plane wreckage in one of them.
There is also a very nice splash park and playground, located near the train station, which is obviously a great cool-off method.
One problem of the park is that are a large number of wading birds stalking guests for food. Signs warned that they target small children, and I was accordingly careful to minimise snacks. At lunchtime, one kept lurking by our table, eyeing up my daughter's messy habits. She was unbothered, but my son was more aware of the size of the bird's beak and got agitated, so I chased it off a few times.
Also, you have to exit through the gift shop, much to my displeasure. I warned my son in advance that we would not be buying anything, which worked fairly well.
We did have a lot of fun, and the park is small enough that you can see everything in one morning, but be warned that for small children, you've got a lot to fit into your window of good temper, and the price reflects that.
Lukas Nursery Butterfly Encounter
This is a very small butterfly place, based in a gardening centre, with only a few different breeds of butterflies present though they do also have quail running around! What makes it stand out from other places is that they have a room where you can feed the butterflies: dip your finger in the provided pot of gatorade and then put it to a butterfly's mouth; the next thing you know, the butterfly has climbed onto your finger and is eagerly dabbing its tongue out.
I personally found that very cool, and a great thing to show the children. My son was too squeamish to try it himself, and my daughter kept trying to grab the butterfly with her other hand, but it is a unique way to observe the feeding process!
They request that you keep on the path and don't touch the plants, which meant my daughter was automatically relegated to the stroller (alternatively, I could have carried her). So in that respect, it's not best suited to toddlers, but children three and under are free, which is always nice!
Although the Encounter itself is cheap, bear in mind you'll almost certainly need to take a toll road to get there, and... well... I don't know what I did wrong, but I managed to pay five tolls in less than an hour's trip. The toll roads of Orlando are not intuitive. Still worse, the exit onto Red Bug Lake Road (from the 417) has an unmanned tollbooth which requires the exact change. It's only twenty-five cents, but for the love of God, keep back a quarter for it.
The entire place takes less than five minutes to get around (not including time spent feeding) which is good for short attention spans, but it's not going to kill a lot of time. Afterwards, my son insisted on exploring their sample butterfly garden because he wasn't ready to leave yet. If you're a gardening enthusiast, or wish to shop for a gardening enthusiast, the Butterfly Encounter is a great excuse to go to the nursery, but if you're going specifically for the Encounter, be aware that it's going to be a very brief excursion.
The gift shop, incidentally, is lovely, as you might expect from a nursery. The highlight for me were several gorgeous suncatchers, including some very large pieces that I drooled over though I refrained from buying any owing to their price tag.
One last advisory note: it's hot inside the Encounter. If you go in the summer months, plan to go early in the day.
Celebration was a last minute substitute for Blue Spring State Park. I had originally planned to take the kids to see manatees at the latter, but on the morning of the trip, it finally occurred to me to check what time of year manatees could be seen. Of course, it was during the winter months: November through March. I was massively disappointed, having always had a soft spot for manatees. Another time, hopefully.
So after a very hasty check of my secondary to-do list, I plumped for Celebration, a Disney-created community. I was a little dubious, but I am so glad we did it. It's got that sanitised, film studio feel you'd expect from a town that's designed to be picture-perfect, but it's still a very lovely place with plenty of interesting views packed into a small space--ideal for a toddler-sized stroll.
I was a little fuzzy on where I should be going as I headed into Celebration and got sidetracked into the various estates before I realised I should be following the signs for Market Street / Hotel. I also almost got caught for speeding as I came into the town, but thankfully, some reckless soul had overtaken me less than a minute earlier and the cop stopped him instead. Take note of the speed limit!
The biggest attraction for my children was a fantastic 'splash pad': fountains that rose out of the ground at apparently random intervals. There were three circles, any or all of which might be going at once. If you stand in the middle, you'll get sprayed but not soaked, (allowing for some fun photography), so it's possible to play without a bathing suit, although I think all three of us got wetter than we had intended! Still, I figured accurately that would help us keep cool.
The Splash Pad is located on Front St, between the junctions for Market St and Sycamore St, and there was a shady parking area nearby that we used. We did the Splash Pad first, putting the children in a fantastic mood and getting us all nice and cool before heading to Market St for lunch and a short walk.
One of the things I wished I'd done beforehand was to get a list of the different buildings and artists who'd designed them. We saw a few strikingly designed buildings, but reading the Wikipedia article later made me realise how much I'd missed! The above is the Bank of America Tower. I'm not entirely sure if we were supposed to be able to climb halfway up it, but the gate was open and my son insisted we should! Opposite is an attractive wishing fountain which claimed all my copper pennies.
We lunched at the Market St Cafe which I noted for being very good with my children (can't say much about the food as it was one of those meals where I was more focused on getting the children to eat rather than on what any of us were eating). Directly opposite the splash pad was an ingeniously located ice cream cafe, and the Market St Gallery was good for souvenir shopping. Still, we didn't stray far from Market St, so don't take this as a comprehensive review!
Nearby is Lakeside Park which had a less-than-a-mile trail around the lake. I would have liked to have done this, but my son wasn't keen and it was too hot to make an issue of it. Be warned that Lakeside Park also has a visible playground which is gated, for Celebration residents only. That required a lot of explanations for my disappointed son.
Lake Eola Park
Lake Eola Park is essentially Orlando's version of Central Park, though considerably smaller, and we thoroughly enjoyed our walk around it. Be warned that most of the time there is no barrier between path and road beyond twenty feet of grass/flowers/trees. The playground is more securely enclosed, however.
My daughter's favourite part was the waterfowl, of which there were a number calmly waddling and swimming about--or just snoozing peacefully on the grass, ignoring passers by. I wish I'd brought something to feed them with.
We also rented one of the swan-shaped pedal boats ($15 for half an hour), but for the most part, these are for two adults with one child or one adult with two children, and they're a pain to steer. They also have motorised gondolas that seat four, but these weren't in operation owing to windy conditions the day we went.
There's also an amphitheatre ('amphi' here used for its less accurate meaning of 'outdoor'), which was gearing up for a performance when we were there, though the children showed no interest.
Not much else to say about it, but it's a nice easy go-to for an hour or much longer, depending on how much time you want to pass. Lots of other features at regular intervals as you walk. Definitely worth a visit.
Wet 'n Wild
OK, so we did one theme park once Daddy was done with the conference. We chose Wet'n Wild because in our experience, water parks are more forgiving to families. However, our experience is largely in Water Country USA, which doesn't have a minimum height requirement for most of its rides; instead, riders below a certain height must wear a lifejacket and be accompanied by an adult. Accordingly, our whole family can go on most of the multi-person rides.
What we failed to notice was that Wet ' n Wild has a height requirement of 36 inches for most of its rides, meaning that our daughter couldn't go on anything. Thus my husband and I spent most of the day taking turns to take our son on a ride--he's 37-38 inches depending on who's measuring!
The other way in which Water Country USA had spoiled us was its excellent range of kiddie pools. Wet 'n Wild really only has one: Blastaway Beach.
Now, it cannot be denied that Blastaway Beach is a great play area, with slides of different sizes to suit all ages. The big problem with it was that it sprayed water at every possible opportunity. Cannons, fountains, buckets... it was impossible to go anywhere without getting soaked. Neither of my children like getting sprayed with water, nor having water poured over their heads, and the resultant noise was intimidating by itself.
While my son eventually warmed up to it, this place was not, as we had hoped, a good ice-breaker for the park, and my daughter preferred to watch rather than participate. She did pretty well on the Lazy River though, which we took to late in the day: she zoned out on this, eventually falling asleep on my lap in the tube.
My son went on a good deal of the multi-person rides, but his first and favourite was The Flyer, which had a toboggan style raft that let him sit on our lap as we zoomed down. He met the height requirements for the cloverleaf style tubes, but he always looked like he was going to fall through and he couldn't move once he was in one.
Queues and waiting time were a problem, but my son actually handled them fairly well, much to our surprise. On the whole, I liked the park very much, but I wouldn't recommend it until all the family is over three feet.
And that is that! Phew! For further reading, this was my go-to ideas resource while we were there.
Free Things to do in Orlando - National Geographic