The theme parks are world famous, but there's plenty more going on in Orlando

If you had to name just one family holiday destination guaranteed to put silly smiles on everyone’s face, then Orlando would probably be it. There’s the weather, for one thing. Coming here, you’ll very quickly get why Florida is known as the Sunshine State. And that’s just as well, because you’ll spend almost your whole time in Orlando in the open air, whether you’re exploring the iconic theme parks or heading out into the wildlife-filled wilderness.

First up, those theme parks. The one most associated with Orlando is Walt Disney World Resort, a sprawling wonderland which is really several different theme parks in one. Most iconic is the Magic Kingdom, where the fantasy spires of the Cinderella Castle reach out into the sky – a symbol of all things Disney. If one location sums up Orlando in most people’s minds, it’s this one. It’s here that you can enter a nostalgic vision of folksy American life on Main Street USA, and experience classic rides like Big Thunder Mountain and the Haunted Mansion.

Then there’s Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a separate park where you can get poignant views of majestic creatures from elephants to giraffes to gorillas. You can even meet animals from another planet in the special attraction which plunges visitors into the world of Avatar. There’s the Na’vi River Journey, which will take you through caves filled with luminous plants and playful Pandoran animals. You can also take to the skies in Pandora with the Avatar: Flight of Passage ride, which will make you feel like you’re hitching a ride on a mountain banshee.

Star Wars fans should make a beeline for Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which has a number of exhibits and attractions devoted to the world of the Jedi, as well as an eerie landmark in the form of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, which is set within the “Hollywood Tower Hotel”. Watch your step in there, because there are very dark forces at work behind it’s decaying façade.

As well as the various domains of Disney, the other big, big theme park in the Orlando area is Universal Orlando Resort. This, too, encompasses separate sections, each packed with exhilarating experiences. Want to go on a Simpsons ride, watch the Transformers clash or enter the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? This is the place to be. Special mention has to be made of the Marvel Super Hero Island in the Islands of Adventure zone, where you can whoosh around the nerve-shredding Incredible Hulk rollercoaster, and test your bravery on Doctor Doom’s Fearfall.

Universal’s Volcano Bay is an ideal spot for those hot Orlando days. It’s a water park like few others, built around a towering make-believe volcano, with cascading waterfalls, lava effects and a multitude of water slides to surge down.

Away from the theme parks, there’s plenty more to grab your interest around the Orlando area. A short drive away is the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, which takes visitors on an odyssey through the history of NASA and space travel. Imagine coming within touching distance of a real space shuttle – that’s what’s in store here, when you step close to the Atlantis orbiter.

There’s also the Shuttle Launch Experience, which uses state-of-the-art effects to make visitors feel like they’re lifting off into space, and you can experience a spine-tingling simulation of an Apollo countdown, right in front of the actual consoles used during the Apollo missions. Speaking of which, you’ll also be able to see items from the glory days of the Space Race, including space suits and capsules.

You can also just kick back and take things easy in Orlando. The natural beauty of the region lends itself to lazy days out, while there are more golf courses around these parts than you can swing a putter at. Disney boasts 4 of the best courses: Palm, Magnolia, Lake Buena Vista and Oak Trail, offering sculpted, undulating, emerald-green expanses to play on.

If you’d rather see the wild side of nature in Florida, then head down to the headwaters of the Everglades for airboat swamp tours. It’s amazing how you quickly you can go from the glossy, developed world of theme parks and restaurants to the untamed world of Lake Kissimmee and its surrounding wetlands. The airboat tours will thrust you through the wilderness, while expert guides talk you through the rich, fertile landscape and point out alligators, wild pigs and soaring bald eagles. It’s certainly a far cry from Mickey Mouse…

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