With a skyline dotted with towering Ferris wheels and spectacular roller coaster loops, it's no wonder Kissimmee is known worldwide as an epicenter of theme park thrills. It's all right here: Walt Disney World, SeaWorld and Universal Orlando plus Fun Spot America - Kissimmee and Old Town. Do the math and you'll find about a hundred of the world's best rides and roller coasters, making Kissimmee one of the best spots on the planet for those who love theme parks.
Yet more adventure awaits just beyond the sprawling parks where-tucked into the area's wild, palmetto dotted landscape-families can dive into outdoorsy adventures packed with pulse-pumping delights.
As a hub for family fun, Kissimmee uniquely offers contrasting, yet complementary experiences, which I recently discovered on a jam-packed vacay with my venturous brood. My family and I couldn't decide between satisfying our collective love of outdoor adventure and our thrill-seeking penchant. Lucky for us, Kissimmee allows for both. Comprised of a series of daytrips, our vacation was organized in two (call me a Type-A adventurer if you must). The first half was all about outdoor fun while the second half was theme park play!
Flying: Florida style
On a warm Monday morning with nothing but blue skies as far as the eye could see, our family foursome headed out to Forever Florida, where 4,700 acres of authentic Florida backcountry is now home to one of the area's coolest experiences. Besides horseback and coach tours, Forever Florida offers a slew of ziplining experiences, and these were what set the butterflies to flight in our tummies this fine morning. We were giddy with excitement as our car turned into this St. Cloud gem.
First up: the Rattlesnake Zipline Roller Coaster. Yes, you read that right-zipline and roller coaster. Combined. With squeals of delight and elated yahooooos, we soared above the treetops on this cutting-edge, 1,000-foot track with speeds reaching up to 20 mph. What a rush!
Then it was off to check out Panther Pounce, another unique attraction at Forever Florida. My heart was racing as I stood on the platform, 68 feet above the ground. "Jump!" my family called (so bravely from the comfort of solid ground). Looking down, I realized it takes more than a leap of faith to step off the seven-story platform. But with safety harnesses in place, I mustered up the guts to jump. Let me tell you: gravity works! I safely but speedily floated to the ground. Such an amazing free-fall! There's nothing like it in Florida.
It's been nearly a decade since Forever Florida began offering ziplining and now it's home to several zipline courses, including the new Peregrine Plunge, which takes riders on a falcon-like trip over the fastest and longest single straightaway zipline in Florida. We hit speeds of nearly 30 mph as we raced along the 1,300-foot track above the pristine conservation land below. By day's end we were exhausted by the nonstop adrenaline rush but vowed to return soon to check out Forever Florida's evening adventures, which take the brave on moonlight zips every Saturday night.
Off the beaten path
Next on our itinerary was Revolution Off Road, a place our boys had been dreaming about for months. Dressed in clothes ready for mud, we headed to the adventure park, awaiting with several courses designed for all thrill levels.
Our instructor set us each up with a four-wheeled ATV and gave us a rundown of safety tips. Then, with the need for speed in our hearts and our handlebars fiercely gripped in our clutches, we gunned it onto the dirt path through 220-acres of off-road terrain. Even from beneath our full-face helmets, we could all hear each other's giggles and yips as we bumped and dipped through the dusty landscape. 75 minutes later, we couldn't believe how much fun off-roading turned out be.
"Can we buy ATVs for home?" my son pleaded. "Not a chance," I told him, but my promise to return to Revolution Off Road was a welcomed compromise. Next time we'll be checking out Revolution Mucky Duck, which is off-roading on amphibious vehicles through muddy and watery terrain. Muddy? Yes. Awesome? Also, yes.
Far from adventured out, it was time for one last outdoor outing, this time via an airboat ride. This truly is a quintessential Florida experience since it's one of the only ways to safely catch a glimpse the state's most notorious animal: the Florida alligator.
Boggy Creek Airboat Rides takes guests out on multi-passenger boats all day long from their dock amidst the pretty Central Florida wetlands. While the trip can be educational, the speedy boat that zips atop the water at nearly 45 mph ups the thrill factor.
Seated on the boat with our life jackets and ear protectors on, a roar filled the air when the captain started the engine. Airboats are powered by a massive aircraft-type propeller and the engine can be quite loud. But once we started to glide across the water, we were so enamored with the landscape and the wildlife, the volume was quickly forgotten.
We gasped at the sight of turtles, herons, egrets and ducks, all of which reside here in droves. But it was our favorite reptile we came to see and we were not disappointed. Undisturbed by the raucous our boat made on approach, we spotted a six-foot gator, lazily napping on the shoreline and watching us slyly through tiny slits in his eyes.
It's amazing to see these powerful animals in their natural, wild setting. Just like on an African safari, this is one of Florida's big five and seeing the ferocious beast several feet away from the boat was beyond exciting. I'm told the night airboat rides are even more exhilarating. Not for the faint of heart, these tours zoom through the water with a small search light and the stars to guide the way while passengers scan the darkness to spot the alligators' red eyes staring back at them.
It's crazy to think of the over-the-top exciting experiences we've just had, yet we still have the theme parks to conquer.
Over the course of the next few days, we surmount the highest and most heart-stopping roller coasters the Kissimmee area has to offer, starting with the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, a music-themed coaster that raced 65 mph and 17 stories over Universal Studios. My oldest son, usually undaunted by any roller coaster, shook his head with amazement as we headed toward the exit. "That was amazing," he declared. I totally agreed.
What followed was our self-guided tour of the theme parks' best rides. With a little help from Harry, Ron and Hermione, we escaped the fiery beast on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. It began with goblins leading us through the ornate wizarding bank, but things soon turned sticky and we found ourselves dodging spells, armored trolls and even Voldemort himself.
We narrowly averted the clutches of the Abominable Snowman on Expedition Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Though the Snowman ripped up coaster tracks trying to get us to fly off the edge of a cliff, we survived by racing away backwards!
We laughed and screamed as we coiled our way through SeaWorld's mighty Kraken. This floorless coaster with its 100-foot loop left me breathless just looking at it! The ride itself is indescribable. After all, how can one explain total terror and complete delight at the same time?
And we survived the zero-to-40 mph launch on The Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal's Island of Adventure. It's impossible to choose a favorite, but this was definitely one of the best!
All told, my gang of brave adventurers triumphed over miles of speedy and loopy tracks for what proved to be an exhilarating couple of days of theme park merriment.
Who knew the scope of Kissimmee's amazing escapades!? From outdoorsy jaunts in the area's authentic Florida landscape to roller coaster sprees inside the best theme parks anywhere, Kissimmee has the adventure to keep me and my spirited family on our toes.