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Get wet at Florida’s best aquatic theme parks.

Travel + Leisure
April 05, 2012

Miles from the ocean, Orlando’s skill at reality warping extends to the state’s best aqua parks. Round up the family and head to SeaWorld, Discovery Cove, and Winter Park for a fun but laid-back experience (in comparison to, say, nearby Walt Disney World). Just be sure to plan ahead—you’ll want to go when the crowds are thin and the temperatures mild (so, not during school breaks, if possible) and have the option to take advantage of the latest package deals.

Related: World's Craziest Waterslides

Discovery Cove

Orlando's parks can make for a whirlwind vacation, but Discovery Cove offers a pleasing blend of adventure and relaxation. The park is all-inclusive and includes parking, beach gear, food, and drinks, which frees most visitors up to focus on the park's attractions: Dolphin Lagoon, the Grand Reef, Serenity Bay, Wind-away River, and the Aviary. The highlight of the park is a thirty minute visit with a dolphin: learn about their behavior, join them in the shallows, then enjoy a ride into deeper waters. The Grand Reef offers snorkeling with tropical fish and rays, while the chance to explore caves and waterfalls can be found on the river.

Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour

An education in the eccentricities of Old Florida, this hour-long pontoon-boat excursion winds 12 miles through a system of conjoined lakes, past glorious homes and the country-club atmosphere of the tidy Rollins College campus, as it has done for more than 50 years. Guides—often salty local retirees—call the town’s foibles as they see them, devoting particular attention to the architecture of James Gamble Rogers, who was much in demand during Winter Park’s mid-century heyday.

 

Tip: Boats are uncovered, so wear a hat and bring sunscreen.

SeaWorld Orlando

Mellower than other Orlando theme parks—though it has several rides, including Kraken, a thrilling, floorless coaster—SeaWorld is noted for its roster of elaborate stadium shows starring whales, dolphins, and the odd rescued puppy. The most famous headliner is Shamu, the killer whale who douses onlookers with each splash. The park’s low-key vibe may take a turn in the next few years: it opened Aquatica, a water park with 36 slides, in 2008, and in 2009 will unveil a multimillion-dollar ride that’s part animal attraction, part roller coaster.

 

Tip: Plan your day around the shows; a timetable is printed on the back of every park map.

Powerhouse

Go to this 30-year-old healthy café for a garlic-rich Med-meets-Middle East menu,

Hot Olives

Located just a few miles outside downtown Orlando in Winter Park, Hot Olives is a casual, family-friendly eatery serving Italian- and Mediterranean-inspired fare. The decor includes sleek black chairs and tables, crisp white walls, and paintings of olives around the dining area. Some of the most coveted seating in the restaurant can be found in the covered garden area, which has a bar and tables shaded by umbrellas. Menu offerings include pear and brie pork tenderloin, chicken piccata, and pastas like penne caprese.

Gaylord Palms

The hotel has a lush atrium and rooms, two on-site pools, a Canyon Ranch spa, golf putting course, and croquet lawn.

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