|Our group of divers at Epcot's DiveQuest, along with our new friends the sharks|
For many people, traveling to Orlando is synonymous with Disney's Magic Kingdom. But that's not all there is to the city. If It's A Small World and the Country Bear Jamboree aren't your thing, there are plenty of other ways to stay entertained in Orlando.
Epcot (the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow) was Walt Disney's vision of a Utopian city of the future focused on technological innovation and international culture. Today, its a mishmash of those things, though some visions of the "future" (like Ellen's Energy Adventure filmed in the mid 90s) leave a little to be desired. There is a handful of rides -- notably Test Track, Soarin and Mission: SPACE.
|Epcot's Mission: SPACE ride|
There is also lots to learn about and explore in the greenhouse and under the seas. On our trip, we hit pretty much every area of the massive park but spent most of our time in two places -- the World Showcase and under the seas. The Showcase features merchandise, food and drinks, exhibits and entertainment from 10 different countries from the UK to Morocco.
|The China Pavillion at Epcot|
The Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavillion also offers learning and entertainment opportunities. In addition to a Nemo ride and aquariums where you can see all types of sea life, Disney uses this part of the park to showcase their efforts through the Disney Worldwide Conservation Program, rehabilitating animals like manatees who can then be returned to the wild. I had the opportunity to dive in their main attraction -- a 5.6 million gallon aquarium -- through Epcot's DiveQuest tour, making friends with the sharks, rays and 80-year-old sea turtle Tolstoy up close and personal. Any scuba certified diver over 10 years old can participate, and Epcot provides all the equipment, so it's convenient for tourists. There are also snorkeling and dolphin adventures for those who aren't scuba certified or don't want to dive. It's a fun and unique spin on an afternoon at Epcot.
|Laura diving in the aquarium at Epcot (note the partial Mickey head in rocks on the bottom left)|
Orlando provides a number of options for beating the stifling heat and doing something other than waiting for a roller coaster. The Disney complex has two water parks (Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon), and there is a Wet 'n Wild near Universal and another waterpark at SeaWorld. Since we had been to Blizzard Beach before, we decided to spend the (phenomenally hot and humid) day at Typhoon Lagoon.
|Entrance to Disney's Typhoon Lagoon|
The park really caters to the whole family with pools fountains and slides for different age groups. Our main objective was relaxation, so we spent much of the day in the wave pool and the lazy river, which connects all the areas of the park. Be forewarned: that is one strong wave pool! In the middle depths, we found ourselves getting thrashed around pretty good when the waves came, so we ultimately swam out to the deepest part to catch the waves as they started -- much more fun. If you're going with small children, hold their hands even in the shallow areas.
One thing not to miss is the Shark Reef attraction. The 10-foot-deep salt water pool is home to a number of small sharks, rays and tropical fish in a manmade coral reef. Visitors are given a mask and snorkel and instructed to float along the top of the pool while watching the creatures below. It's a completely unique experience for a water park and a fun diversion whether or not you're a seasoned snorkeler.
|Relaxing in the lazy river|
Universal Studios Orlando
The Universal Studios area is composed of two theme parks -- Universal Studios and Universal's Islands of Adventure -- along with a "downtown" area full of restaurants and shops. Though there are many sections Islands of Adventure, including Seuss Landing, Jurassic Park, and Toon Lagoon, our primary destination on this trip was, admittedly, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. After exploring other areas of the park and getting utterly drenched on a couple of water rides, we headed to see Harry and friends.
|Prepare to be drenched on the Ripsaw Falls at Universal's Islands of Adventure|
The recreation of Hogsmeade is expertly done, featuring shops, locations and characters that any fan of the Harry Potter books or movies would recognize and appreciate.
|Entrance to Hogsmeade at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter|
Ollivanders wand shop gives you the feeling of being in the cluttered space of one of the most influential people in the wizarding world, and Honeydukes candy shop is filled with everything from Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans to chocolate peppermint toads.
|Honeydukes candy store|
A butterbeer and fish and chips at Three Broomsticks were also awesome. And yes, the hippogriff and castle rides are totally worth the wait. One tip: try the single riders lines for a much shorter wait time. The area is so popular that construction of Diagon Alley is now underway at Universal Studios, with a projected opening in 2014. We will definitely be going back.
|The Hogwarts sorting hat talks to you while waiting in line for The Forbidden Journey|
The greater Orlando area (including Orlando, Kissimee and Lake Buena Vista) offers an array of options from the most budget-friendly accommodations to the Grand Floridian and the Waldorf=Astoria. You don't have to stay at a Disney Resort or spend a fortune to have great amenities at a hotel. On this trip, we opted for the Hilton Orlando based heavily on its pool and lazy river.
|Who doesn't love a good water slide at your hotel?|
Hanging out at the hotel pool, restaurant and/or spa can be a smart use of a day or part of a day when you're looking to relax or have limited time and spending $100 for a few hours at a theme park just doesn't make sense. I spent my last half -day before heading to the airport reading by the pool, swimming, and indulging in their great cheeseburger and a mai tai poolside before hitting the road.
|Lazy river at the Hilton Orlando|
Have you been to Orlando? What was your favorite thing to do?