CENTRAL FLORIDA ATTRACTIONS FOR HOMESCHOOLERS
I-Drive 360 has three main educational activities for kids of all ages. They’ll enjoy the SeaLife aquarium and Skeletons: Animals Unveiled museum and learn something while they’re having fun. Madame Tussauds Wax Museum is in the same complex, and while it might not seem educational at first blush, it mixes history lessons in with the pop culture. All of those attractions are located in the shadow of the Orlando Eye, so kids have an added incentive to visit the educational spots if you add in a 400-foot-high tour of Orlando and beyond. You can even toss in a simple geography lesson if you ride the Orlando Eye on a sunny, clear day by playing landmark-spotting.
Here are the other I-Drive 360 educational attractions; you’ll find links to their websites on the main I-Drive 360 site at www.i-drive360.com:
Skeletons: Animals Unveiled
Skeletons: Animals Unveiled gives an educational opportunity from the inside out…literally! It’s a museum of real skeletons from various types of animals, including humans. One of the most interesting is the massive orca skeleton from one of the SeaWorld parks. Many of the bare bones critters are even set up in real-life scenes to put them into perspective. If kids are curious about how the skeletons are cleaned and prepared for display, they can meet the bugs who do the task firsthand. Skeletons prepares bones for display at other facilities, so if you’re lucky, you’ll actually get to see the busy will insects at work.
SeaLife is a kid-friendly aquarium housing over 5,000 animals from the oceans and other watery habitats. It’s very much geared to children, interspersing hands-on activities and a scavenger hunt of sorts to keep them entertained while they learn. They can play interactive big-screen games, explore facts about each of the habitats represented, and collect embossed seals in very spots. If they find every one, they earn a prize at the end. There’s even a playground and touch pool at the end. Let the kids burn off some energy in the playground, then let them touch living aquatic creatures like starfish and anemones to make a firsthand connection with the sea life they saw as they passed the tanks.
Depending on the time of day you visit, you might catch a presentation by the underwater divers who clean and maintain the tanks. They have an audio system so they can communicate with the guests while they’re under water.
If you’d like to add an extra educational component to your visit, time it to coincide with one of the extra-cost backstage tours. The tours are reasonably priced and allow kids to see the systems that keep the animals alive and healthy, as well as witnessing a feeding.
Madame Tussauds Wax Museum
Older kids, like tweens and teens, are often hard to engage when you take them to educational attractions. Madame Tussauds is the perfect opportunity to draw them in with likenesses of their favorite pop culture icons and work in some history lessons. They can whip out their selfie sticks and pose with pop stars and TV sensations, and they can’t help but get drawn into interactive historical opportunities like seeing themselves on TV taking part in the moon landing with Neil Armstrong or seeing a figure of Madame Tussaud herself and reading about her fascinating life. They can even make a wax model of their own hand for an extra cost. There’s even a wax figure of Walt Disney; after all this is Orlando! The kids can touch all the figures, and many even have props to make their selfies more fun.
OLD FLORIDA EXPERIENCES
Most people think of Florida is the land of Mickey Mouse. They forget that Walt Disney World was once a massive plot of swampland and that many of the existing housing developments sit where oranges once grew. Wild Florida is a throwback to Florida’s old days, with airboat tours through the swamps and close encounters with a wide variety of animals. In honor of Florida, you’ll meet alligators and a panther up close-up, but Wild Florida is also home to lemurs, sloths, zebras, and other fascinating animal species from around the world.
It’s great to see the animals up close at Wild Florida’s Wildlife Park, but kids get the biggest thrill from seeing the gators out in their natural environment. While spotting them on an airboat ride isn’t guaranteed, the captains know all the best places where lazy gators hang out, so the odds are in your favor. Even if you don’t see one, your family will get a thrill from zipping across the water’s surface in a real airboat that beats any theme park attraction limited by a track.
Clermont was once a hot spot for orange groves, but rampant population growth, coupled with the brutal 1989 frost, slowly but surely pushed them out. There are still a few around the area, and the Citrus Tower still overlooks the town as a 22-story historic reminder of what was one at the heart of Florida’s economy. True to its name, it started out as an observation tower from which people could observe the orange groves. Today it’s a piece of Old Florida history that still welcomes visitors up to the observation platform for a panoramic view of the Clermont area and beyond.
If you visit the Orange Tower, swing over to nearby Lake Louisa State Park, which is just down the road on Highway 27. It’s a relaxing opportunity to connect with nature, and it you really want to go rustic, it has a camping area and cabins for rent. You’ll find everything the park offers on its website: www.floridastateparks.org/park/Lake-Louisa
Disney Wilderness Preserve
People normally associate the Disney name with crowded theme parks and resorts. The Disney Wilderness Preserve shares a name with Walt Disney World, but that’s where the similarities end. It’s a little slice of nature run by the Nature Conservancy, with walking trails where you might spot sandhill cranes, gopher tortoises, or even a majestic bald eagle. Rare Florida panthers have even been known to make an appearance. The preserve also has a variety of environments like a cypress swamp and freshwater marsh, with a lush variety of plant life. You can chose from one or two and a half mile hiking paths, depending on how much time and depth you plan to spend on exploring.
CULTURE IN ORLANDO
Orlando Science Center
The Orlando Science Center helps you bring STEM to life for your children. It’s geared toward drawing visitors in with hands-on experiences that lets them see how science and technology apply in real life. The center hosts themed exhibits throughout the year on popular topics with kid appeal, like the Wizard of Oz educational exhibit, and is home to permanent experiences like Nature Works, where visitors get acquainted with the world of reptiles, and the Science Park, where lasers, electricity, magnets and more are explored firsthand. Information about the center, including the latest traveling exhibits, is posted on the website: www.osc.org
Orlando Museum of Art
The Orlando Museum of Art is home to several collections of artwork, including American and African pieces and a contemporary collection. It also hosts exhibitions throughout the year. You’ll find information on the latest exhibitions on the museum’s website: www.omart.org
Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts
The newest entry to the Orlando cultural scene is the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, right in the heart of the downtown area. It has a Broadway in Orlando series that brings big-name shows to the City Beautiful, and it hosts other plays, shows, and musical performances throughout the year. Many are specifically family-friendly, offering a perfect opportunity to introduce your children to the theater in an entertaining and enjoyable way. The performance schedule and ticket information is listed on the website: www.drphillipscenter.org
A TASTE OF HISTORY
Osceola County Pioneer Village
Kissimmee is mainly know as one of the gateways to Walt Disney World, but the Osceola County Pioneer Village gives a little taste of what life was like back in the old days, before theme parks and even modern cities existed. Back then, cars were unheard of, as your kids will learn as they visit the blacksmith’s shop. They can tour the Partin Family Caretaker’s House, Tyson House, and Lanier “Cracker House,” as well as the Cadman Complex, to see what life was life before modern conveniences. Harkening back even further, they’ll learn about the Seminole and Miccosukee Indians who once called Central Florida home before the Seminole Wars of the early 1800s.
Museum of Military History
The Museum of Military History is located on Highway 192 near 535 in Kissimmee, not far from the attractions area. It covers military actions by the United States from the Civil War through Gulf War, as well as current conflicts. Most kids only know about wars from what they read in history books. The museum lets them see real artifacts, including weapons, photographs, uniforms, medals, aircraft, and more. It brings the past to life in a very personal way, with firsthand accounts from soldiers to put real faces on the exhibits. It captures several important periods in American history all in one place and offers you an opportunity to tie in past events with the conflicts going on today as you experience the museum with your children.
Chocolate Kingdom offers a taste of history…literally. It’s always a family favorite because the kids learn the history of chocolate while they nosh on several sweet samples. It’s conveniently located right in the midst of the 192 attractions area, adjacent to Old Town and Fun Spot and not far from the Museum of Military History. The historic journey is framed with a cute story about a prince and his dragon friend on a quest to find a chocolate slipper for the princess. A live guide interacts with the characters and leads the journey through the history of chocolate, how it used to be made, and how it’s done today. As an added bonus, you can pay an extra cost for the kids to create their own designer chocolate bars. It’s a souvenir that likely won’t even make it out to the car.
BEYOND THE ORLANDO ATTRACTIONS AREA
Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex
Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex is a little over an hour past Orlando, and it’s well worth the drive, as it offers a universe of educational opportunities for families. Not only does the complex cover the history of space exploration from its earliest days and bring it to life with hands-on exhibits like the actual Atlantis space shuttle, but it also inspires kids to get excited about the next generation of space exploration. There’s an inspiring Imax movie and plenty of hands-on activities and experiences, including a simulated space shuttle launch ride, a multi-story slide, and a crawl-over of the Atlantis shuttle. Your family can even have lunch with a real astronaut who’s personally visited outer space.
Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex is a perfect educational spot if you want to inspire your kids in STEM because it lets them see exciting applications firsthand. Subjects like math and science can seem boring until youngsters realize that they’re the key to getting humankind to Mars and beyond. And yes, curious kids even get the answer to the burning question “how do astronauts use the bathroom in outer space?”
If you don’t mind venturing out toward Tampa on I-4, Dinosaur World is a hidden gem just off the expressway in Plant City, Florida, a spot best known for its annual Strawberry Festival. You’ll only find the strawberries in late February and early March, but Dinosaur World is open all year. Kids are fascinated by dinos, and they’ll find life-sized models of the ancient creatures here, as well as an educational shows and hands-on activities like a fossil dig and a geode cracker. If your kids are older, there’s even a creepy carnivore trail, but it’s easy to avoid for families with younger and more sensitive children. Pack your own lunch or plan to stop at an eatery along I-4, as Dinosaur World doesn’t have food service at the attraction. It does have a comfortable picnic area for those who bring their own food, and well-behaved dogs are welcome, too.