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Orlando, Florida: Great escapes from the theme parks

Sometimes you just can’t take another minute in a theme park — the lines, the humidity, the jostling crowds, the screaming kids (and sometimes screaming parents) or too many renditions of “It’s a Small World.” What else to do?

Plenty. Orlando, Florida, and its surroundings aren’t only about princesses and wizards. Here are some favorite escapes, most within an hour’s drive of the parks.

Get close to a bald eagle

This bald eagle is a permanent resident of
Credit: Miami Herald/Marjie Lambert

The Audubon Center for Birds of Prey rehabilitates eagles, hawks, osprey, kites and falcons that have been seriously injured or aren’t able to take care of themselves in the wild. Birds who will be able to fly and hunt again are rehabilitated with release in mind. They have very limited contact with humans and spend much of their time in the Flight Barn, which is off-limits to the public. But some of the birds with injuries that will leave them unable to hunt or protect themselves remain at the center, where they make public appearances. Visitors can’t touch them, but they can get within a few feet of birds in the aviaries or tethered to outdoor perches. Check out the fierce glare of the bald eagles — the birds are mesmerizing.
INFO 1101 Audubon Way, Maitland, Florida; 407-644-0190, 

Visit vintage war planes

Retired war planes on display at the Valiant
Credit: Miami Herald/Marjie Lambert

The Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum in Titusville stretches the one-hour drive-time limit, but it’s a gem worth visiting — especially if your trip includes the nearby Kennedy Space Center. The museum’s 45 or so aircraft, which date from World War I to the present, will be of special interest to history or aviation buffs. 

The plane the museum calls its flagship is the Tico Belle, a Douglas C-47 Skytrain that served in Europe, including on D-Day. Other highlights include a Grumman TBM Avenger, the Navy’s primary torpedo bomber; and an F-86 Sabre jetfighter from the Korean War. Most of the warbirds are from the United States, but the museum also has foreign aircraft, including a replica Fokker Dr. I, a German World War I fighter triplane made famous by the Red Baron.

INFO Space Coast Regional Airport, 6600 Tico Rd., Titusville; 321-268-1941,

Escape by train

SunRail is a commuter train that runs north
Credit: Miami Herald/Marjie Lambert

SunRail makes 36 trips a day between Orlando and DeBary, 32 miles north, with stops at several small cities that provide a few hours of lunch and leisurely escape. One favorite stop is Lake Mary, an affluent suburb 18 miles north of Orlando, where the Lake Mary Historical Museum offers free admission and exhibits on the town’s history. Walk a few blocks to the commercial center and have lunch at 4th Street Bar & Grill or Lonnie’s Fusion Cuisine.

Another good stop is Winter Park, where visitors can find within an easy walk the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art with its collection of art glass by Louis Comfort Tiffany, a scenic boat tour of the town’s chain of lakes, and upscale shopping and a good variety of restaurants.

INFO SunRail runs from about 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Route and schedule at

Ride a zip line

A first-time zip-line rider takes off on the
Credit: Miami Herald/Marjie Lambert

If you find the theme parks’ thrill rides too tame, a zip line might get your heart pumping. Forever Florida, set on a 4,700-acre wildlife conservation area south of Orlando, has three zip lines plus Zipline Safari , with seven zip lines and two suspension bridges that take almost 2 1⁄2 hours to complete.

Forever Florida also offers safaris by horseback, a cattle drive, cowboy-for-a-day adventure, camping and rides on a trail buggy. The property has a working cattle ranch, and there is wildlife throughout. Some zip lines and other activities are available by moonlight. Address is 4755 N. Kenansville Rd., St. Cloud, but it’s closer to Holopaw, 45 miles and about an hour’s drive from Orlando. 

INFO 866-854-3837 or 407-957-9794,

Explore a black history site

This sculpture was placed at Eatonville's Town Hall
Credit: Miami Herald/Marjie Lambert

Six miles north of Orlando is Eatonville, the first all-black town to incorporate in the United States. Last August commemorating it’s 1887 incorporation, the town launched a yearlong celebration of its 130th anniversary.

The town was the childhood home of the author Zora Neale Hurston, a writer of the Harlem Renaissance; some of her writings, including the novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” are set in Eatonville. The local library and a tiny art museum (407-647-3307) are both named for her.

The Eatonville Historical Trail is a self-guided walking tour of its oldest buildings and historic district, which is on the National Register of Historic Places. Every January the community puts on the Zora! Festival, a celebration of arts and humanities. (

Go Kayaking

Kayaks lined up for a moonlight tour of
Credit: Miami Herald/Marjie Lambert

Central Florida offers a wide variety of kayaking opportunities from the St. Johns River to the north to Cape Canaveral on the east coast, and on Shingle Creek in Kissimmee, close to the center of the theme park action. A few spots to consider are Shingle Creek, Wekiva River, St. Johns River (including the end of the Blue Spring run, where manatees come and go), Merritt Island or Indian River Lagoon, pictured, Blackwater Creek and Cocoa Beach. Many outfitters offer guided tours as well as equipment rental for DIY tours.

Visit a singing tower

Bok Tower and Gardens, Lake Wales, Florida. (Marjie
Credit: Miami Herald/Marjie Lambert

The 205-foot Singing Tower, also known as Bok Tower, houses a 60-bell carillon that plays short concerts daily. The gardens that surround it — known for their blaze of spring color from blooming azaleas, camellias and magnolias were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.

The Singing Tower is in Lake Wales, 55 miles southwest of Orlando, 43 miles from Disney’s Magic Kingdom and just 12 miles from Legoland. Edward W. Bok, a Dutch immigrant, author and publisher of Ladies’ Home Journal, who bought the land and opened the grounds to the public. It is now designated as a National Historic Landmark.

INFO Bok Tower Gardens, 1151 Tower Blvd., Lake Wales; 863-676-1408,

Learn to fly on a trapeze
Orlando Circus School teaches a few skills that might qualify you to join the circus. Most notable is the trapeze class, a swinging two-hour class open to all. On the day I observed, the only students were kids who were first-timers, but later in the session, two experienced adults took a few turns.

If you want to learn serious trapeze skills, it will take more than one class, but a single session is a fun way for an out-of-towner to get a taste. Other classes include aerial silks, aerial hoops and tumbling for kids and adults. 

INFO Orlando Flying Trapeze, 6809 Visitors Circle, Orlando; 407-965-1552,

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