Orlando is world famous but let's be honest, most people go for one thing only – the theme parks. While I do love the parks, dealing with the never ending line ups, the crowds, and kids driving parents crazy just didn't feel all that appealing for my most recent trip.
On a quest to do something a little different, I was looking for a Mickey-Mouse-sized adventure that you'd never think to do in Orlando. So off-the-beaten-path I went and here's what that day looked like.
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When being full of hot air is anything but nonsense
Despite my fear of heights, I think that was overtaken by my excitement for being in a hot air balloon for the very first time. The realization that I'd be THAT high up in the air didn't really kick in until I looked down from our basket.
So how did it all go down?
In the pitch of black, we arrived at the Orlando Ballon Rides center at 6AM. With a large group assembled, we received a quick briefing and split into two groups. Heading out just as the sun was starting to stretch out its arms, we got into the van and with the giant ballon basket in tow, we drove out an open field 15 minutes away. We weren't the first ones there though as it looked like there was going to be a few others joining the party.
On the dew filled grass, we watched the skilled crew unfold the giant balloon from its pouch and with the basket on its side, two giant fans were pulled to the left and right to start fill up the balloon with air. At the perfect moment, the basket was tipped up right with burners flaming on. Just being on the ground with the sun rising above the tree line and watching the half dozen balloons come to life was a treat in itself.
The rest of the experience was where pure exhilaration kicked in. Without much of a moment's notice we were given the orders to jump into our assigned corners of the basket. You could feel that the balloon was itching to take off and it was only with our talented pilot, Damien, that we were able to make a controlled ascent.
The feeling of floating up high and higher is as majestic as it sounds. With several balloons ahead of us, the sun sparkling as if to say hello, and a few other balloons right behind, there was a flood to the senses. Look down and you could see the glades, orchards, natural preserves and our shadow following us around. Look all around and you could see on and on for miles.
We skirted at low altitude before gradually climbing up to 2,800 feet. From those heights we could easily spot the ball of Epcot and other distinctive features of Disney. The views were absolutely stunning. Within the basket, a lot of selfies were taken and we even witnessed a proposal.
At one point we swapped with our neighbours to take some photos from the corner of the basket and that's when I realized that we were really high up in the air. Jello legs proceeded to take over.
Our pilot, Damien was damn hilarious, joking around the entire time and I have to say that's what made the whole ride that much more enjoyable. Hopefully you get Damien too when you go with Orlando Balloon Rides.
The landing was even more impressive than the take-off. Imagine piloting the largest balloon in North America, being at the mercy of the winds, and only having the ability to control the amount of hot air you add in or let escape. Somehow Damien was able to spot a landing site and nail it. We had to brace for impact in the basket but it was a barely a bump when we touched the ground.
Once the gear was all packed up, the Orlando Balloon Rides crew popped a bottle of champagne and raised a glass of mimosa to toast a successful flight. To round out the experience, they even provided free coffee, juice, and snacks back at the office after we were driven back.
Flying in a hot air balloon was a once in a lifetime experience that I'll never forget. Aside from jumping out of a plane I'm not sure if there's any other way to get the kind of views we did that morning. If safety's holding you back, I came back to retell the experience :). I never felt that safety was a concern throughout the experience and neither will you.
- If you're looking to get a good spot in the basket, the order in which you jump in matters. If you want to stand at the corner, make sure you get in last.
- Mornings could get very dew-ey so I would try to wear shoes that don't soak too easily.
- If you want to use a GoPro like I did, the jaw clamp worked very well for the side of the basket. There were no other good mounting points considering you have to jump in and get set up right away.
- Our first reservation was cancelled due to rain in the morning but luckily we had enough flexibility in our schedule to try again the next day. Keep the weather in mind when you're booking. They send out e-mails the day before to let you know whether the flight is a go or not.
- Total flight time is approximately an hour and the whole experience takes 3-4 hours so budget your time accordingly.
If you go:
- Address: 44294 US Hwy 27 N, Davenport, FL, 33897
- Phone: 1-407-894-5040
- Website: www.orlandoballoonrides.com
- Price: Adult: $225 Anytime and $195 Weekday. Child: $109 Anytime and $99 Weekday
Thrills that'll make you scream
The real Florida is not about concrete buildings, artificial landscapes, or caged up animals but it's out there in acres of natural flora, fauna, forested wetlands, and pine flatwoods. It's in there that you get a glimpse of the Florida wilderness that most don't get to see.
Welcome to Forever Florida. Amidst 4,700 acres of eco-ranch and wildlife conservation lands in St. Cloud is the wildest ziplines you'll find anywhere in the world. Although a little bit of a drive, you'll see below just how much fun we were able to have.
After checking in at the front desk for our Thrill Pack reservation, we waited for our giant 4-wheeler safari truck to roll in. This beast powered through all sorts of terrain as we made our way to the zipline center deep in the ranch. Along the way, our driver pointed out alligators, bird, deer, and wild turkey. It's the real deal out here.
When we reached our destination, we got off and strapped into our harness and popped on our helmet. We got a quick briefing from our guide, Tony, and off we went into forest of thrills.
In the midst of the forest are three towering giants that look like something out of Peter Pan. Each tower houses one of the three zips we were supposed to do and each is connected via a suspension bridge.
Reaching the base of the middle tower, we started climbing the stairs to the top. From here you start saying to yourself that you just left perfectly good solid ground to be brought back down in the most unconventional ways possible.
My first mistake was not looking into what I got myself into because I was totally unprepared for what we'd be facing. Let's just say I may have gotten yelled at by my girlfriend for not telling her about zipline #2.
Zipline #1: Rattlesnake Roller Coaster
I'm no stranger to ziplines but I was truly impressed with this one. Think roller coaster but in zipline form. There are only 3 of these types in the world and so we were in for a real treat.
Typically ziplines go down straight taut cables. The Rattlesnake Roller Coaster is anything but straight. Once you jump off the platform you're introduced to twists, turns and mega drops.
I seriously couldn't contain my laughter when I finished because it was THAT crazy. And while this was the first zipline, I will say that it was definitely my favorite.
Zipline #2: Panther Pounce
When I found out this would be a complete vertical drop my heart sank. I've done drops like this in the past but this was way higher than anything before. Too late. There was no turning back.
Imagine being up 8 stories, walking to the edge and just taking that leap of faith. What made it even more terrifying was that when it was my turn, Tony made me walk to the edge, peer over the ledge to see “SPLAT!” etched in the ground, contemplate my life, and then step right off. Just think about that.
That initial drop is a feeling like no other. Sound can't even come out of your mouth when you're going that fast. But truth be told, it's all mind over matter. What you realize after is that it's not a complete free fall because the automatic belaying pulley grabs you midway through and starts slowing your ascent.
It's 2.5 seconds of I-can't-believe-I-just-did-that feeling.
Zipline #3: Peregrine Plunge
I call this The Superman and I haven't seen this type of zipline anywhere else either. While the zip is a straight line acceleration to the other side, what raises the stakes for this one is that you are able to go toe to toe with another buddy. I love how this really brings out the competitive spirit to ziplining. Being able to build speeds up to 30 miles per hour, it's the longest straightaway zipline in Florida.
Before take off I put dinner on the line with my girlfriend. See who the ultimate champion was.
Just like Damien with Orlando Balloon Rides, our guide, Tony, was so much fun to be around. Having a good guide makes all of the difference between having a good and bad experience. I would totally recommend the Thrill Pack to anyone looking for some serious adventure. I promise you that you're going to come out of it with an end to end smile on your face and wishing you could do it again.
If ziplines aren't your thing, Forever Florida also offers horseback riding, coach adventures in the safari truck, and treetop trekking.
- Don't underestimate the drive to St. Cloud. Budget an hour to get there from Orlando.
- If for whatever reason you'll be late or can't make it, the folks at Forever Florida are pretty accommodating. We missed our original time slot but they were totally willing to move us over to the next hour.
- Orlando is notorious for its tolls and you'll encounter quite a few on your way to St. Cloud so get that change ready. Luckily all of them have manned booths.
- Although this is in the e-mail confirmation you get from Forever Florida, remember to get to the ranch half an hour beforehand.
- If you have your GoPro, make sure you ask for a helmet with mounts attached. The only other way to capture some good footage is with something like the GoScope pole.
If you go:
- Address: 4755 N. Kenansville Rd., St. Cloud, FL 34773
- Phone: 1-866-854-3837
- Price: Thrill Pack is $69.99
Have a fantastical evening
To round out the day we decided to catch a show in Orlando. What better way to end the night than to watch Cirque du Soleil's La Nouba in Downtown Disney. Take a journey into a new world where imagination, the bizarre, and the marvellous clash into a whole new world.
I've been a huge fan of Cirque du Soleil for a long time and have seen most, if not all travelling productions that come into Toronto. I was excited to see this one because after a day of “OMG!”, I needed a little sit-back-and-relax. I've also never seen Cirque on a permanent stage like this one so I knew that would be a bonus too.
Without giving too much away, I enjoyed the show for its slapstick comedy and decent acrobatic acts. I say decent because while the performances were flawless, I didn't feel incredibly wow-ed by any particular one. That may be due to the fact that I've seen a lot of Cirque shows these past couple of years. The stage was impressive with its hydraulic-controlled platforms but I was hoping they would be incorporated into the performances a bit more. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed the comedy between the two clowns that reminded me so much of the minions in Despicable Me. The four stooges in the show also provided some brilliant relief comedy.
There's also no real bad seat in the house. Whether you're in the lower or upper section of the theater, there's a good line of sight to everything on the stage so I wouldn't worry if you decide to buy the cheaper tickets.
I know my standards have gone up a lot in recent years so take my criticisms with a grain of salt. Overall I was quite entertained from beginning the end. The focus of La Nouba is definitely on smaller circus acts infused with a grand dose of hilarity. If you're with kids, they will have an absolute blast.
- Make sure to show up 30 minutes before the show to get settled in.
- You can take photos and videos of the prelude comedy show and at the very end when all the characters come out for their final bow.
If you go:
- Address: Walt Disney World® Resort – Downtown Disney
- Phone: 407-WDW-SEAT (407-939-7328)
- Website: https://www.cirquedusoleil.com/en/shows/lanouba/default.aspx
- Price: Tickets start at $51.12 for children 3-9 and $62.84 for 10+ (+ fees and tax)
There's more to Orlando than just Disney, Universal, and Seaworld. While I'm not saying that you shouldn't go to those but if you're looking to go off the beaten path, consider the above 3 activities to inject a little bit of over-the-top thrill and excitement.
This trip to Orlando was sponsored by the Visit Orlando, however the opinions expressed in this post are my own.
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