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Family fun in Orlando without the cost and crowds of Disney World

There is more to Orlando than Disney World. And that’s a good thing, because increasingly, the only people who get to rub elbows with Mickey Mouse are rich ones.

I say this with a heavy heart since I spent nearly every summer of my childhood immersed in the Disney universe. Disney talks about giving visitors a “magical” experience, and if you can afford it, it really does. To this day, Disney remains unrivaled in the travel, resort and amusement park world when it comes to exceptional customer service, imaginative experiences and downright friendliness.

For all that, you pay a price that’s enough to make any parent cry.

For instance, right now, in the middle of Easter break, Disney is now charging “peak” ticket prices. A family of four (two adults and two children age 9 or younger) that wants to spend just one day in the Magic Kingdom can expect to pay $484 for the privilege. If they want to spend three days visiting different Disney parks? That will be $1,124, please.

The cost of Disney theme park admission goes down the more days you stay, but after the first few days of visiting Disney parks and shelling out Disney prices for food and lodging, you might very well be broke. And tired. Peak times at Disney World mean big crowds and long waits unless you pre-plan your trip to Disney theme parks the way military generals prepare for war.

This past winter break, as my husband and I weighed our finances against the odds of a Disney trip, we made the decision to limit our time at Disney World theme parks and resorts to two days. The rest of the time, we decided, we’d find cheaper accommodations, restaurants and attractions beyond the Disney World boundaries.

There was plenty to choose from. Not that it’s easy to tell if you start out on Disney property.

We did some research and rented a car. We discovered there is easily enough to do in the Orlando resort area to occupy any family for a week or two that doesn’t involve Disney at all. Here are some best bets. Most offer ticket discounts online.

Full-day theme parks

Universal Orlando: Universal is one of the few Orlando theme parks that has managed to invest, expand and upgrade enough over the years to be considered serious competition to Disney World, adding world-class rides and tempting resort packages. With its Marvel and Harry Potter themes, Universal caters not just to young families, but to older children and thrill ride seekers.

It’s not a terribly cheap alternative to Disney World if you plan to spend only one day there, however. A family of four would still end up paying $410 in ticket admission to the Universal Studios theme park alone. And that doesn’t include Universal’s sister park, Islands of Adventure, where the extraordinary Wizarding World of Harry Potter was built and opened in 2010. A single-day park-to-park ticket costs $610 for a family of four.

As with Disney World, the cost of theme park tickets to Universal goes down the more days you stay. If you haven’t yet been to Universal, go and see why Disney views this resort park as its most serious competition.

SeaWorld: Despite the controversy regarding its treatment of animals, SeaWorld is a world-class marine life attraction that blends thrill rides and interactive exhibits with dolphin and orca whale shows that are unrivaled at any other theme park or aquarium in the country. Best of all, on most days, you can enjoy the park without enduring the long lines and crowds experienced at Disney World or Universal. The up-close-and-personal interactions families can enjoy with living marine creatures gives visitors renewed appreciation for the living world beneath the waves. SeaWorld also has a sister park, Discovery Cove, that emphasizes one-on-one interactive animal experiences and dolphin swims. Of course, it costs extra.

But the 2013 Blackfish documentary movie, which raises serious questions about the harm caused to animals and people by raising and keeping killer whales in captivity for theme park performances, has gravely harmed SeaWorld’s reputation, popularity and bottom line.

A one-day visit to SeaWorld is $99 at the gate per person for ages 3 and up, or $79 per person online, $316 for a family of four.

Legoland: For Lego lovers, this theme park is a dream come true. Filled with stunning visual Lego wonders, this new theme park works great for younger children, and some older ones. It features impressive Lego brick structures, construction zones, rides, shows and a seasonal water park, which costs extra.

Ticket prices depend on how far in advance you buy them, but to give you an idea, prices range from $74 to $89 per adult and $67 to $82 for children ages 3–12. Tack on $20 more per ticket for water park access.

Orlando Flex Ticket: After decades of Disney World putting other Orlando theme parks and attractions out of business, the major players have finally wised up and started packaging their non-Disney attractions together in an effort to woo vacationing families looking to fill a week or more. The result is Flex Ticket, which provides unlimited, 14-day access to five major non-Disney theme parks in the Orlando area (six if you choose the Flex Ticket option that includes Busch Gardens in Tampa). The five-park ticket includes admission to SeaWorld; Universal Studios; Islands of Adventure; Aquatica, a SeaWorld-themed water park; and Wet ‘n Wild, another major water park that will close at the end of this year and become incorporated into Universal’s future water park plans.

The five-park Flex Ticket costs $355 for adults and $337 for children, or $1,384 for a family of four.

Part-day attractions

Here’s a short list of unique Orlando resort-town offerings that attracted us. Check online for ticket discounts.

Gatorland: If you visited Orlando in the 1970s and 1980s, there’s a decent chance you saw your first alligator out in the open at Gatorland. And guess what? This roadside attraction is still around and doing fine. Covering 110 acres and featuring a new zip line, which of course costs extra, Gatorland still features alligator shows and wrestling, along with breeding marshes, a zoo and splash park, among its various offerings.

Tickets are $26.99 for adults and $18.99 for children ages 3–12.

Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition: A must-see for Titanic buffs, this attraction features many actual artifacts from the wreck. This attraction might be a tougher sell for younger children, though the format is quite engaging. A costumed tour guide presents himself or herself as a passenger aboard the Titanic and takes visitors on a roughly 90-minute tour of the museum. Visitors each get a ticket, also bearing the name of a Titanic passenger, and learn at the end whether their passenger lived or died.

Tickets are $21.95 for adults and $15.95 for children ages 5–12.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Orlando Odditorium: Yes, there’s one of these in Niagara Falls, Ont. But this is still worth seeing. We spent a surprising amount of time there one afternoon, goggling at everything. A staffer there informed us that 80 percent of the collections at each Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Attraction is different and that the collections regularly rotate among all the Ripley museums worldwide every few months to keep visitors coming back. We particularly enjoyed watching cue balls roll upward, seemly against gravity, on a pool table and staring at an image of the Last Supper created out of dryer lint. Be aware that some displays feature implements of fertility and torture that might lead to unwanted questions from young ones.

Tickets are $19.99 for adults and $12.99 for children ages 4–12.

Escape rooms: This is not one attraction, but a new bumper crop of attractions that have sprung up in recent years in the Orlando area. Geared toward adults and families with older children, these places are properly described in the book Beyond Disney as “part scavenger hunt, part live-action video game, and part pen-and-paper brain teaser.” These attractions stick a group in a closed room with an unresolved plot. Participants are encouraged to ransack the rooms in an effort to find clues that unlock other spaces that ultimately result in solved puzzles and participants saving the day (if they don’t fail or quit in the meantime). Escape room scenarios range from prison breaks to the Oval Office. The whole escape room concept seemed a little too intense for our family, so we passed on it, but we can think of lots of other people who would love it.

Tickets generally range from $20 to $30 per person.

This is a very small taste of everything that the Orlando resort area has to offer beyond Disney World. If you want to learn more, may I recommend the book Beyond Disney by Bob Sehlinger (the same guy who co-wrote the Disney travel bible “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World”) and Seth Kubersky.