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The other Orlando

Have a blast in Orlando without a trip to Disney!

From giant 'gators to rocket launches, Liz Kavanagh finds plenty of thrills - and no need to go near a rollercoaster

Some of us just don't do theme parks. The last time I went on a rollercoaster (by mistake, thinking it was a scenic water ride), I was green for the rest of the day.

So when my husband suggested we should take the children to Orlando in Florida, we came to a compromise. I would find as many alternative activities for the family to enjoy, on the understanding we would never set foot in a theme park (not one with adrenaline rides anyway). The children, Ella, 11, and Ollie, 8, were sure I would relent once we got there.

While there's nothing particularly scenic about Orlando's main drag - the sprawling International Drive, with its huge shopping malls and eat-as-much-as-you-want buffet restaurants - if you drive south for 30 minutes to the Central Florida Everglades in Kissimmee, the scenery changes completely.

Whizzing through the wetlands of the Central Florida Everglades

You can whizz through wetlands which stretch in either direction in an airboat at Boggy Creek Airboat Adventures. Out on the water, we see alligators basking in the sun, their heads emerging from the murky depths. The children squeal with delight.

On land, there's a replica Native American village, where we learn about the Jororo Tribe, which once lived on the Kissimmee River, from a local. The children love his body piercings and tattoos.

To get close to the alligators, we head to Gatorland . The wildlife park has been dedicated to 'gators great and small for more than 70 years, and is 20 minutes by car from International Drive.

Enjoy a close encounter with a baby gator, but don't try it with the fully grown monsters!

We goggle at 14ft monsters in the breeding marsh, feed medium-sized alligators bait, and see the razor-sharp teeth of beady-eyed babies.

As if we were in any doubt, The Gator Jumparoo and Up-Close Encounter shows, where keepers show off the power of some giants, demonstrate only too clearly that alligators are not to be messed with.

They don't call Florida the 'Sunshine State' for nothing. Orlando has year-round sun. So for a day in the shade, we head to WonderWorks, an indoor 'edutainment' centre on International Drive, which promisingly offers exploration and learning at the same time.

I feel smug that I am ticking the 'good parent' box, in zones including 'natural disasters' and 'space exploration', where we experience a hurricane and earthquake and take on a glow-in-the-dark rope course.

There are no big rides at WonderWorks, but head to ICON Park, less than a mile way, and you'll find a 400-ft observation wheel, where the far-reaching views stretch to the East coast.

Old Town Kissimmee draws petrol heads every Saturday for the Classic Car Cruise

Nights out on holiday can be restrictive with children, but at Old Town Kissimmee we join petrol heads in a gleaming Chevy from across the region for the Saturday night Classic Car Cruise.

Get lucky and you'll see a real rocket launch at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex on Merritt Island, just under  an hour's drive from Orlando.

We get very lucky indeed, watching a satellite shoot into space. In the centre itself, there are enough exhibits to visit over several days. Walk underneath the suspended 364ft-long Saturn V, the largest rocket ever flown, and you feel very small.

Ella is particularly interested in the Heroes & Legends area, which documents the success of space pioneers. My husband is so impressed with the dramatic recreation of the 1969 Apollo 11 launch from the actual operation room used on the day that he goes back for more.

Meeting a 'real-life' astronaut at the Kennedy Space Centre

It was the children who spotted Epic McD, the world's largest entertainment McDonald's on West Sand Lake Road, not far from International Drive. It turns out to be a good find.

As well as a free soft play area, there's an arcade of 50 games with pre-loaded money cards.

Taking children shopping is an endurance test, but at Florida Mall the hands-on Crayola Experience helps a lot. Here we make personalised crayons.

Buying time for grown-up purchases of cut-price sportswear, my husband promises the children we'll later visit the huge M&M store.

Back home, Ollie has an alligator claw keyring from Gatorland, while Ella has a personalised Chevy number plate on her wall.

And no one asks why we didn't do theme parks.  

First published in the Daily Mail - February 2020

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