Breaking away from the usual theme park entertainment, my family and I discovered our new favorite “ride” in Orlando: a quiet and scenic boat tour of the area’s off-the-beaten-path waterways.
During a recent Orlando getaway, my family was afflicted with a common vacation ailment: Theme Park Exhaustion. We had waited in long lines for rides, spent hours queuing up for thrills and then fought our way through crowds to get in line again for dining (even with reservations).
My husband and I were hot and tired, and even my tween son — a lover of high adrenaline rides and the reason we were on a theme park vacation in the first place — had turned into Grumpy. Hoping to find a remedy, we set off for a vacation from our vacation, seeking some green space away from Orlando’s whirling theme parks.
Winter Park to the Rescue
Winter Park is a favorite destination for locals because of its charming downtown filled with independent boutiques, wine bars, coffee shops and eateries. Since I was traveling with my 11-year-old son, though, shopping and wine sipping weren’t on the agenda.
Luckily, I had another idea for our day trip away from the parks: exploring Orlando’s quiet waterways. Just a few blocks from the town’s main street, we found the entrance to Winter Park’s Scenic Boat Tour, a bit of classic Florida that focuses on nature instead of thrills.
Setting Sail on the Scenic Boat Tour
Stepping from the rickety dock onto the gadget-free pontoon boat, with its open top and bench seats, was a little bit like stepping back in time into another Orlando. No piped in music, no flashing lights, no 4-D imaging — just sunshine, water and a very merry captain, a retiree who told super corny jokes for old-fashioned laughs.
I looked nervously at my son: What would he think after the high-tech adrenaline of the theme parks? He smiled at the captain, at the blue sky and the sparkling water, and relaxed onto his perch overlooking at the glassy lake. He cracked up at the jokes (I wish I could tell you the setup, but I only remember the punch lines, most of which involved the word “DUCK!” because of the low bridges we encountered). Along the way, he started to transform from Grumpy back into my smiling son again.
Bring sunscreen and a hat for the scenic tour — there’s no canopy on the boat due to the low bridge clearance.
Floating Along Winter Park’s Peaceful Waterways
Our moods continued to lift as the low boat splashed along the water and our captain pointed out a variety of birds and trees, including a ghostly looking cypress, moss dripping from its branches. While traversing from lake to lake, the boat tour floats down through several canals that are so narrow, we could have reached out with both arms and touched the sides. We also passed under low bridges and branches — DUCK! — which provided an old-school thrill for my son and the other kids on board.
At Lake Virginia, we looked at stately old homes and the beautiful 19th-century campus of Rollins College (everyone’s childhood favorite, Mr. Rogers, is a graduate). I loved hearing about roaring 20s parties and marveling at historic homes; my son and husband were more interested in the wildlife all around us. We searched for alligators along the banks and spotted a graceful crane trying to snag a fish from the water. One highlight of the journey was a tree that had lost its leaves, and instead was adorned with leftover Christmas baubles — and birds acting like decorations themselves.
A Classic Orlando Attraction
It turns out that we’re not alone in seeking out some quiet time on the lake. The Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour has been operating since 1938, winding its way along the narrow canals that connect Lake Osceola, Lake Virginia and Lake Maitland, the largest of the group. And it’s an old-fashioned bargain to boot: Just $14 for adults, and $7 for kids 2 to 11.
After an hour on the water enjoying this Orlando classic, we were re-energized and relaxed. Instead of jumping into the car and heading back to hustle and bustle, we meandered around Winter Park, enjoying some treats and dinner without long lines or high prices. Now that we know the cure to Theme Park Exhaustion, we’ll definitely be back to float along the Scenic Boat Tour on our next trip to Orlando.