— -- Theme park fans already know about Kissimmee.
The quaint city just south of Orlando gives visitors a straight shot to everyone’s favorite theme parks: Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando and LEGOLAND Florida are all a short drive away.
But its own bevy of attractions and its proximity to other Central Florida hot spots make Kissimmee its own destination for family fun.
Here are a few of our favorite things to do.
Skip the Hotel, Rent a Home
There are more than 700 hotels in Kissimmee, ranging from budget motels to sprawling resorts. Sometimes, though, you need a little extra elbow room. Kissimmee is home to a growing number of vacation rentals – villas, condos and private homes that have two or three bedrooms (or many more, in some cases), plus home-away-from-home amenities like washer-dryers, pools and game rooms. Full-size kitchens mean you can save some money on food, and some even allow pets, which means the whole family can come along. Kissimmee’s vacation home rentals work not only for theme park vacations but for getaways for golf, spa and shopping, too.
Skip the Roller Coaster, Take an Airboat
Kissimmee is known as the Gateway to the Everglades, a unique wilderness destination teeming with scenic swamps and remote marshes. Airboat tours combine the thrill of speed (airboats can reach 45 mph) with access to wildlife, from exotic birds to turtles to the Sunshine State’s most famous wild resident, the alligator. Spirit of the Swamp Airboat Rides offers all-age tours that range from one to two hours, using six-passenger boats and high-tech headsets that allow visitors to communicate with their guide throughout. Wild Florida Airboats and Gator Park features a wildlife park teeming with zebras and lemurs. Other airboat adventure providers worth exploring include Boggy Creek Airboat Rides, Kissimmee Swamp Tours and Wild Willy’s Airboat Tours.
Skip the Boat, Ride the Truck
Showcase of Citrus in nearby Clermont touts itself as the largest 4X4 outdoor adventure in the world. This is a 2,500-acre working citrus and cattle ranch that features several modified monster trucks – 14 feet wide, 16 feet tall and 40 feet long! These mammoth machines take guests on wild but mild rides through unspoiled swampland for up-close peeks at wild animals and native plants. Rides are geared toward all ages and take place 365 days a year. After your ride, stroll the sprawling orchards and pick your own citrus fruits, with more than 50 varieties to choose from. And visit the country store for handcrafted soaps, homemade jams and farm fresh eggs; tastings of citrus and berry wines are complimentary. For more off-road fun, head to nearby Road Revolution and ride the Mucky Duck, an eight-wheel amphibious vehicle that goes on both land and water.
Skip the Swamp, Go High
The best way to scope out Central Florida’s pristine landscape may be from above. Sunrise hot air balloon rides offer sweeping panoramic views (and plenty of selfie ops). Thompson Aire, a family-owned operation with close to four decades of experience, offers intimate rides for four to six passengers (some companies bring up to 20 people on board), and a full buffet breakfast comes standard. Bob’s Balloon Rides is known for customizable special occasion balloon adventures – birthdays, weddings and corporate events – at more than 100 takeoff and landing locations throughout Central Florida. Also check out Painted Horizons Hot Air Balloon Tours, Magic Sunrise Ballooning and Orlando Balloon Rides.
Skip the Balloon, Take the Wheel
Warbird Adventures sits you behind the wheel of North American T-6 Texans, classic military planes often called “Pilot Makers” because they were used to train most World War II Allied pilots. Flights last 15 to 60 minutes (with prices ranging from $209 to $790) and can be customized to offer acrobatic thrills or straight-and-level flying. You ride with professional instructors who record all your back-and-forth audio and even switch between three cameras during flight (take-home DVDs require an extra fee). After your nostalgic flight, visit the air museum, with more than 20 historic aircraft on display. For more high-flying action, check out Stallion 51.
Skip the Course, Hone Your Swing
Your next visit to Central Florida could be the best time to perfect your swing. The Celebration Golf Academy, about 15 miles from Kissimmee, is where budding golfers come to train: It offers lessons, clinics and various Junior Academy programs. At the onsite PING nFlight Fitting & Teaching Studio, you can sign up for 90-minute lessons that give you the same VIP attention that the pros get. State-of-the-art TrackMan technology evaluates all aspect of your game – club delivery, launch, ball flight and landing – and delivers a customized analysis video that you can take home. Ideal for beginners and advanced players alike, lessons come with range time before or after on a course designed by renowned architects Robert Trent Jones Sr. and Jr. You can also hone your swing at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy World Headquarters located in ChampionsGate.
Animal lovers, rejoice: There are plenty of animal-inspired activities here. At Al-Marah Arabian Horses in Clermont, the interactive Horse Experience gives visitors intimate hands-on access to Arabians, one of the most revered horse pedigrees in the world. Customizable tours throughout this 80-acre farm include pony visits, riding lessons and observing how horses are washed, groomed and trained. At Lazy H Ranch in Kissimmee, you can hop on the back of a horse and take a trail through hundreds of acres of unspoiled ranch land; riders must be 8 years or older and reservations are required. And at Green Meadows Petting Farm, you can touch and learn about more than 300 animals, and activities include milking a cow, pony rides, train rides and tractor-drawn hayrides.
After Disney, Visit Fun Spot
When you’re ready for a break from the area’s large theme parks, take the kids to Fun Spot America, a classic amusement park. Here you’ll find multi-level go-kart tracks, roller coasters and thrill rides for all ages, as well as a large arcade. If you’re feeling extra brave, you can ride the tallest SkyCoaster in the world (standing at a jaw-dropping 300 feet) or the Mine Blower Coaster (the only wooden coaster in Florida to go upside down), which opened this summer. Admission and parking are free, and you can save on combo ride tickets if you buy them online before you go.
Skip the Parks, Visit Outer Space
The Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is about an hour’s drive east of Kissimmee, and it’s a veritable pilgrimage for space enthusiasts. You can meet veteran astronauts, catch dozens of historic exhibits and see spacecraft like the Space Shuttle Atlantis up close. There are several immersion experiences: The KSC Launch Control Center Tour includes a visit to the Firing Room where the last 21 mission were monitored, and the two-hour KSC Explore Tour takes you to restricted areas like launch pads and the Vehicle Assembly Building. Tickets to KSC are $40 to $50, with extra costs for special experiences.
Gabe Saglie is Senior Editor for Travelzoo, which features exclusive deals on Kissimmee activities, hotels and vacations rentals at www.travelzoo.com.