We visited some well-known and lesser-known Orlando and Central Florida attractions to find the best mix of fun—and sometimes unusual—things to do. Even your teen will be interested in the family trip.

By Ginger Cowles

The Central Florida Orlando area has a lot more to offer than Walt Disney World. We toured the area for six days in February 2019 to get an in-person look at popular destinations and those that are a little off the beaten path. If you’re planning a trip, check out visitflorida.com to get a complete rundown of everything The Sunshine State has to offer. Here are our favorites:

Brevard Zoo

Photo by Ginger Cowles

Brevard Zoo is one of the coolest zoos we’ve visited. Featuring 900 animals and 200 species, it opened in 1994 after a long construction process by 16,000 volunteers. One visitor favorite is the Kangaroo Walkabout, which features about 15 kangaroos and other animals freely wondering about the area. One crowd favorite is Lily, who “was hand-raised a couple years ago by humans because her mom didn’t want to take care of her,” said our tour guide Elliot. “She loves people, maybe a little too much.”

Photo by Ginger Cowles

Be warned though: Visitors should not attempt to touch the animals, especially the kangaroos, who might punch, kick, or spit. The ones we encountered weren’t aggressive at all. We even saw a joey (a baby kangaroo) napping in the sun!

Photo by Ginger Cowles

Other highlights we saw during our two-hour visit Brevard include:

  • The Wetlands: It's 15 acres. Guests can kayak through to see alligators, otters, crones, and more. This is a seasonal attraction so call ahead to make sure it’s open during your visit.
  • African Kayak: Guests can see rhinos, cheetahs, giraffe, zebras, impalas, and camels at this year-round attraction.
  • Giraffe Feeding: Get up close and personal with these gentle giants to feed them lettuce and carrots. The zoo holds about nine, included a couple babies.

Brevard Zoo has a lot more to offer, so it should definitely be on your must-see list!

Admission: $14.70 to $19.70

Hours: Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. rain or shine. Last admission is 4:15 p.m.

Kennedy Space Center

Photo by Ginger Cowles

You don’t have to be a space enthusiast to appreciate the attention to detail at the Kennedy Space Center. With way more to see than our time permitted, the highlight of our visit was the Atlantis exhibit by far. It featured a short video about the making of the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which was the first to launch like a rocket and land like a glider—a feat that was more than a decade in the making. After the movie, the screen lifts to reveal the actual shuttle along with all the in-depth details of this historic accomplishment.

Photo by Ginger Cowles

Space enthusiasts should plan ahead and make reservations early to try the Astronaut Training Experience (ATX). This hands-on, immersive package puts lay people into intense mission scenarios that require teamwork to resolve and a lot more.

General daily admission: $41-$57

ATX 5-Hour Program: $175 (plus tax). Age restrictions apply. Check site for details.

Hours: Seasonal. Check site for details.

Exploration Tower at Port Canaveral

Photo by Ginger Cowles

Looking for the perfect place to watch a shuttle launch? This is the place to be. Located on Port Canaveral across from the launch sites, this unique building is seven stories above ground and offers unobstructed views from the observation deck. The tower also boasts a bevy of information about regional and historical news and events.

If you want to make a reservation to watch a launch from the tower, our guide David Poston advises calling ahead, as companies sometimes rent the entire tower for launches.

Admission: $3.75-$6.50 (reduced admission for Brevard County, Florida residents)

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., excluding some holidays (check site for details)

Black Hammock Adventures Airboat Ride

If you’re visiting the region, you MUST experience a Black Hammock Adventures Airboat tour of Lake Jesup, home of the largest concentration of gators in all of the United States at more than 10,000.

While waiting for your airboat ride to start, say hello to and feed the rescued macaws—one of whom talks. Then hop on the boat, meet your captain, put on your ear protection (the fan is loud but you will still be able to hear the captain), and get ready for a fun ride through nature. Your captain will point out different species of birds and trees, but really everyone there is looking for gator sightings.

On our ride, we saw a handful, including this big one who slid into the water as we approached:

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Don’t fear, we never got much closer than that.

After the boat ride, we had the opportunity to hold a baby alligator. You wouldn’t believe how smooth the scales are when they’re this small. This little girl (pictured below) was raised in captivity and is used to being handled by humans.

Airboat ride rates: Prices vary by day and package. Check site for details.

Hours: Walk-ins are welcome for the 30-minute airboat ride between 9:15 a.m. and 5 p.m. Call (407) 365-1244, ext. 101 to make a reservation.

Photo by Ginger Cowles

SeaWorld Orlando

Photo by Ginger Cowles

A big highlight of our brief visit was the behind-the-scenes look at how professionals help rehabilitate sick and injured manatees, turtles, and even dolphins. Other highlights during our visit included feeding sting rays (the sucking sensation you feel when they snatch the frozen fish from your hand is so strange!), a dolphin show, roller coasters, and the amazing penguin exhibit (watch the video of feeding time below).

Admission: Prices vary by package. Check site for details.

Hours: Monday-Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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Universal Orlando Resort

Eight hours was not nearly enough time to spend at Universal Studios Orlando—guests can spend days at the park and still not experience everything—but we squeezed in as much as we could, thanks to our VIP tour.

First, if you think Universal Orlando is anything like the Hollywood park, you are wrong. There’s a lot more going on in Orlando.

First, there’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley, which is so meticulously designed you almost feel as if you’re on set. The Leaky Cauldron actually leaks; the poor dragon, in her chains and held prisoner in the vaults of Gringotts, actually breathes fire atop the bank; and portraits and goblins talk to guests at every turn. Even non-Potter fans would be impressed with the space.

Photo by Ginger Cowles

Then you can take a ride to Hogsmeade via the famous red Hogwarts Express train, which is actually attacked by—you guessed it—a Dementor.

We won’t give away all the surprises at the two Harry Potter attractions, but there will be a new ride arriving at the park on June 13, 2019: Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. And don’t forget to pick up an interactive wand at Ollivanders—you can even order before you arrive—to cast your spells like real wizards and witches.

Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Studios Orlando features countless other attractions and rides, including ones from King Kong, Jurassic Park, E.T., Marvel characters, and a lot more.

Admission: Prices vary by package. Check site for options and details.

Hours: Hours vary by season. Check site for details.