Explore Orlando's lesser-known (and often less crowded or expensive) attractions 

Be a tourist in your own town

Hard Rock Tours

Universal Orlando offers a range of rarely publicized special tours, including exclusive (and expensive) VIP guides to back-door you past the attraction queues and free secret peeks behind the scenes at select rides like Men In Black and Reign of Kong. Unfortunately, you have to pay for a park ticket or annual pass in order to participate in most of these experiences, but there is one tour at CityWalk that you can enjoy without spending a penny (aside from the parking fee). Orlando's Hard Rock Cafe boasts the biggest musical memorabilia collection of any restaurant in the globe-spanning chain, and they offer daily complimentary guided "Vibe Tours" every afternoon and evening. Inquire about availability at the podium in the main lobby, and you may find yourself inside ordinarily off-limits areas like the Lennon Room, exploring musical instruments and artifacts representing everyone from the Beatles to Bootsy Collins. If you want more, walk or take the free water taxi to the Hard Rock Hotel, where QR codes let your smartphone lead you on a self-directed tour of costumes worn by Lady Gaga, Rihanna and J.Lo. Visit hardrockhotelorlando.com for a guide to all the garb. hardrock.com/cafes/orlando

Bootsy Collins glasses - COURTESY HARD ROCK
  • Courtesy Hard Rock
  • Bootsy Collins glasses
Kurt Cobain ephemera (Polaroid, receipt) - COURTESY HARD ROCK
  • Courtesy Hard Rock
  • Kurt Cobain ephemera (Polaroid, receipt)

Starflyer

The giant Icon Orlando 400-foot tall observation wheel (formerly known as the Coca-Cola Orlando Eye, and before that simply the Orlando Eye) continues to roll along on International Drive, and we're still awaiting the start of construction on the 501-foot Polercoaster at Joshua Wallack's proposed Skyplex up the street. Now those nosebleed-inducing structures have another skyscraping neighbor in the newly opened Starflyer, billed as the tallest ride of its type in the world. Just picture that old-fashioned fair favorite, the spinning swing ride – only set so high up in the air that you can see the coast on a clear day. Guests ride in 24 tandem seats which are attached to the 450-foot-tall tower by metal chains, and which reach speeds of up to 45 mph while circling more than 40 stories above the cement. DO save a couple bucks off the $13 ticket by buying online, and DO avail yourself of the Star Bar for some liquid courage (just a little) before riding. DON'T drop your smartphone from the top while trying to take a selfie, as seen in a recent viral video. starflyer.com

click to enlarge Starflyer - PHOTO COURTESY MATT ROSEBOOM/ATTRACTIONS MAGAZINE
  • Photo courtesy Matt Roseboom/Attractions Magazine
  • Starflyer
Manatee skeletons
  • Manatee skeletons

Skeletons: Museum of Osteology

If you survive your spin aboard the Starflyer and feel the need to memorialize the occasion with a memento mori, stumble next door to Skeletons for Orlando's best selection of bone-based souvenirs. You can browse through the gift shop up front for free and even buy a defleshed feline for your mantelpiece, but the Museum of Osteology in the back is worth the $10 admission fee (with advance online purchase). This is the most macabre family-friendly educational attraction at the Icon 360 complex, featuring the real remains of over 500 animals, reconstructed in dynamic poses amid detailed dioramas. Highlights of the collection include an elephant, a giraffe and a 22-foot-long orca, but our favorite is the case full of live flesh-eating beetles. Because there's nothing kids enjoy more than watching a rotting carcass being devoured by insects! Much like the Starflyer, you'll probably want to save eating at one of the Icon complex's many restaurants until after your tour. skeletonmuseum.com

click to enlarge Flying lemur skull with flesh-eating insects
  • Flying lemur skull with flesh-eating insects

Fun Spot

A one-day parkhopper ticket at Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando now costs upward of $175, but you can find some of our area's finest thrill rides for less than one-third the price at Central Florida's two Fun Spot locations. Start your day at the Kissimmee location next to Old Town with Mine Blower, which opened in 2017 as the only wooden roller coaster in Florida with an upside-down barrel roll. This intense coaster is a blast, but far bumpier than a nearly brand-new ride should be, so you might as well get it out of the way before braving the 300-foot-tall Skycoaster, which is the tallest free-fall ride of its type in the world. Then head to the other Fun Spot off I-Drive (a $10 fee makes your day pass valid at both locations) for a few flights on Freedom Flyer, the first (and still best) virtual reality roller coaster in town. Fun Spot stays open until midnight, and the parks' competitive go-kart tracks are far more enjoyable when they're not baking in the sun. fun-spot.com

click to enlarge Mine Blower at Fun Spot Kissimmee
  • Mine Blower at Fun Spot Kissimmee
click to enlarge Pearl, one of Gatorland’s seven white alligators
  • Pearl, one of Gatorland’s seven white alligators

Gatorland

If the Gator Spot exhibit at Fun Spot isn't big enough to satiate your saurian appetite, slither southbound along the Orange Blossom Trail to a place where Central Florida's legacy of pre-Disney roadside attractions still proudly lives on. Founded in 1946 by entrepreneurs Owen and Pearl Godwin, Gatorland has long advertised itself as Orlando's "best half-day attraction," but fans of flora and fauna can easily expend a full afternoon exploring the park's 110 acres of verdant swampland. Alligators are obviously the attraction's marquee stars – from the iconic open-jaw entryway to the signature Gator Jumparoo show, where leapin' lizards lunge for their lunch – but there are also plenty of feathered and furry residents, including a bounty of breeding birds and a pair of protected Florida panthers. Single day adult admission is under $30, and an annual pass is only $15 more, but daredevils will want to spring for a slide down the 1,200 foot-long Screamin' Gator zip line, if only for the bird's eye view of the alligator breeding marsh. Don't depart without trying the deep-fried gator nuggets from Pearl's Good Eats; yes, they taste like chicken. Gatorland.com

click to enlarge Mead Botanical Garden, Winter Park
  • Mead Botanical Garden, Winter Park

Mead Botanical Garden

The City Beautiful boasts a bounty of public parks, including Dickson Azalea, Lake Eola and Leu Gardens. But the "City of Culture and Heritage," Winter Park, is home to Mead Botanical Garden, a 48-acre "urban oasis" located near Loch Haven. Mead Garden tends to fly under the radar, with many neighboring residents only vaguely aware of its existence. That's partly because, aside from weekly yoga and tai chi classes, Mead doesn't hold many regularly scheduled activities, though they are looking to host more cultural events like Christie Miga's recent "Luminosities" art opening. But the facility is free to visit from 7:30 a.m. until dusk daily, and the grounds – a wetland wilderness full of foliage and waterfowl – are ideal for hiking, biking, bird-watching or simply picnicking. Mead is even home to the region's first geocache location, if you're still into that pre-Pokemon Go GPS-based game. And if you're searching for an unconventional outdoor wedding venue, Mead's amphitheater is tough to beat. meadgarden.org

click to enlarge Replica of the Titanic’s Grand Staircase
  • Replica of the Titanic’s Grand Staircase

Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition

It's been more than 106 years since White Star's legendary ocean liner met an iceberg in the North Atlantic, and two decades since James Cameron's film version of the incident crowned him "king of the world." That should be enough temporal distance to quiet any calls of "too soon," allowing you to enjoy reliving the R.M.S. Titanic's tragedy for edutainment purposes without enduring any residual guilt. Premier Exhibitions' 20,000-square-foot I-Drive experience integrates detailed reproductions of iconic locations aboard the doomed vessel – such as the Grand Staircase and First Class Cabin – with displays of authentic artifacts recovered from the wreck, including a three-ton section of the steel hull. Daytime self-guided tours of the Ship of Dreams cost $22 ($10 cheaper than the sister attraction in Vegas) and themed dinner events on Friday and Saturday nights ($69) include a four-course meal with professional actors playing Capt. Smith and Molly Brown. Whichever way you sail, you're guaranteed at least 70 percent less Celine Dion than in Dion than in the cinema. premierexhibitions.com

click to enlarge Feeding a lemur at Safari Wilderness
  • Feeding a lemur at Safari Wilderness

Safari Wilderness

So, you're eager to go on an expedition to see exotic animals and Animal Kingdom's Kilimanjaro Safari isn't authentic enough for you, but a flight to Africa is out of the budget. Plot a course for Safari Wilderness in Lakeland, where herds of wild game roam free across 260 undeveloped acres a mere six miles away from I-4. Call ahead to book a safari truck for a $90, two-and-a-half-hour guided tour of the property, complete with the opportunity to feed waterbuck, Watusi cattle and water buffalo from the open-sided vehicles. (The truck is a bit bumpy, but far less bruising than the optional camel-back rides.) Or show up for a $39 Young Explorers Safari, a 45-minute introductory tour held on Friday, Saturday and Sunday afternoons from May through August; similar Critter Christmas walk-up tours are offered over the holidays. Whichever experience you pick, don't miss the park's most adorable attraction: a colony of adorable guinea pigs that guests can hand feed. safariwilderness.com

click to enlarge Royal Palm's vintage diesel-driven passenger train
  • Royal Palm's vintage diesel-driven passenger train

Royal Palm Railway Experience

Crawling through the endless – why, they seem positively "Ultimate" – construction zones along I-4 is enough to make any commuter long for a return to an era before interstate highways. For the next best thing, make your way to Tavares and board the Royal Palm Railway Experience. Vintage diesel-driven 1950s passenger trains, outfitted with air conditioning and domed observation windows, make regular departures from the recently renovated Wooton Park terminal along the "Golden Triangle" to shopping and entertainment districts in Mount Dora and Eustis. Round-trip tickets for a standard ride cost under $15 per adult ($10 for kids), while special family-friendly holiday seasonal experiences with entertainment themed around The Polar Express will run you $38-$64. Adults will be more interested in weekly dining events like Saturday's BBQ Limited ($28) or monthly alcohol events such as Rails & Ales ($40) and the Royal Wine Limited ($50). Spend your 70-minute journey into the past sipping or supping, while you soak in the Old Florida scenery and shake your fist at what Eisenhower's infrastructure investments hath spawned. thefloridatrain.com

click to enlarge Dinosaur World, Plant City
  • Dinosaur World, Plant City

Dinosaur World

Since long before Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom arrived in cinemas, we've strongly suspected that dinosaurs didn't really go extinct but rather are merely hiding in the Orlampa swamps, biding their time until humanity's demise, when they'll reclaim their domain. For proof, pay a visit to Plant City's Dinosaur World, a self-guided outdoor museum with more than 200 life-sized dinosaur sculptures secluded among the cypress trees. Stroll along the boardwalk that cuts through the marshland and discover all the dino-ramas, then retreat from the humidity to recover inside the air-conditioned paleontology exhibits and gift shop. At only $17 for adults ($12 for kids), Dinosaur World is one of the least expensive day-trip attractions in the area, although digging for fossils or gems costs extra. The facility is even dog-friendly, but beware: Some of the black flies may be bigger than your bichon frise. dinosaurworld.com/florida

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