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Hogwarts, space facilities: Orlando offers a lot besides Disney World

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Taking your older teenagers to Orlando for spring break might seem like an odd choice — aren’t they a little old for Disney? Yes, our 16- and 18-year-olds are a bit jaded for Mickey Mouse, but we saw a last-minute trip to Orlando as a chance to hold our kids hostage for some family fun.

We set out to have an authentic experience in a manufactured environment, and decided we would alternate theme-park days with real-world fun.

Staying in a condo on International Drive (near Sea World) gave us more space than a hotel room and a chance for family dinners — a rarity even at home. We agreed to skip Disney World, opting to focus on Universal Studios’ newest attraction, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Orlando,

We had heard from avid Potter-ites that the park is true to the movies, and more importantly, the books. We were not disappointed. It helped that our first day at the park was a rainy one, adding to the magical atmosphere. A replica of the Hogwarts Express train welcomes visitors as they step through the iron gates into the narrow alleys of Hogsmeade, where the butterbeer flows (it’s super-sweet) and the shop windows overflow with whimsical details.

The main attraction, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, takes visitors into Hogwarts castle, where the wait is nearly as entertaining as the ride itself. Just as in the books and movies, portraits talk and move within their gilded frames. The ride came as close to flying on a broomstick as muggles will get. The only disappointment — and a big one, at $116 per person for a two-day pass — was that it was out of order on our second day at the park.

Bob Marley A Tribute to Freedom Restaurant

Universal City Walk, Orlando

This incongruous combination (Bob Marley in a theme park?) offered relief from the relentless noise of roller coasters and bass-boosted pop music inside Universal’s Islands of Adventure. Modeled on the reggae star’s Kingston home, the restaurant serves surprisingly good Jamaican food while a local band plays in the courtyard.

Kennedy Space Center Up-Close

Orsino, Fla. (about an hour straight east of Orlando); 877-313-2610

Although you have to enter and exit through the gift shop at the visitor complex (it’s a Florida law, jokes our guide) the special tour of the Vehicle Assembly Building is well worth the extra $25 on top of the $43 entrance fee. Even the coolest kid won’t resist craning his head back to take in the 52-story building where the shuttles came for their final prep.

Colorado’s own astronaut Dottie Metcalf-Lindenburger took off from Kennedy aboard Discovery on April 5, 2010, so we were thrilled to see the same shuttle parked diagonally inside the bay like a vintage car. Visitors have until April 17 to see Discovery, which will depart for Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., on that day. This tour will be offered through this summer, but not indefinitely.

The Up-Close tour concludes at the Apollo Saturn V Center, where you can stroll under an actual Saturn V rocket, and see the actual control room so familiar to children of the ’60s who saw the Apollo launches on television.

Canaveral National Seashore

Titusville, Fla.; 321-267-1110

Protected by dunes and the space program, these 24 miles of shoreline comprise some of the cleanest public beaches anywhere. The southernmost beach, Playalinda, is the closest to Kennedy Space Center. After the three-hour tour of Kennedy, we spent the late afternoon playing in the waves and watching a couple of surfers ride the rip tide. Then, we made our way into Titusville for dinner at Dixie Crossroads, famous for its rock shrimp.

Dixie Crossroads

1475 Garden St., Titusville, Fla.; 321-268-5000

Before we’d even ordered drinks, the waitress plopped down a paper tray of deep-fried dough dusted in powdered sugar. When I said the corn fritters seemed more like dessert, she said, “You’re in the South now, hon.” We downed the golden nuggets with Yuengling amber lagers while waiting for our shrimp platters, but still had room for apple cobbler and ice cream. (It’s the South, hon.)

Blue Springs State Park, St. John’s River Cruise


Although the teenagers might be a bit jaded from encounters at Universal’s Jurassic Park, those robotic dinos couldn’t beat the thrill of their first gator sighting.

This low-key boat tour lets the river speak for itself. Alligators eyeballed the boat as we putted by herons, anhingas and hawks. A bald eagle swooped down right in front of the boats, caught a fish and carried it up to his partner, waiting in a treetop.

The highlight of the two-hour tour was a manatee sighting. A mother and twin babies lolled in the 72-degree water, the last of the spring visitors to the warm river waters.


2000 N. Volusia Ave., Orange City, Fla., 386-774-9116

A great place to stop for a pulled-pork or Cuban sandwich and a Blue Bell milkshake before heading back to Orlando. This independently owned fast- food joint has a tidy play area for little ones and a kitschy vintage feel that will appeal to hipster teens.

Kristen Browning-Blas

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  • comment avatar Andie April 1, 2012

    I went almost two years ago and LOVED it. However, I also love Harry Potter. If you go, make sure your try the frozen butterbeer. You have to go into the Three Broomsticks to get it but I think it’s better than the regular butterbeer.

  • comment avatar Christine April 1, 2012

    My daughter is DYING to go!!! We’re waiting at least a year though–she’s not tall enough for the rides yet.

  • comment avatar Kayla April 1, 2012

    Our four year old wants to go but I think she’s still too young for most of it. We really enjoy discovery cove:)

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