Exploring Central Florida

by Donna Fesel, contributing writer

When you stay at a Walt Disney World Resort, you are not only close to all the fun and excitement the WDW theme parks, and all the other must-do's on WDW property, but you are also in a centrally located area of Florida, in proximity to lots of other wonderful experiences.

This article is about  the fun there is to be had when you leave your wonderful WDW hotel, step into your car and leave WDW property (gasp!). Florida is a lovely, culturally diverse state, with loads of fabulous experiences in the offing.

One of the very best near WDW experiences my family had recently was a day trip to Tampa. Approximately a one-hour drive from WDW, Tampa is beautiful, historic and chock full of terrific family-oriented things to do.

Photo opportunity at the Florida Aquarium, starring my son. Photo by Donna Fesel.

We began our day with a visit to the Florida Aquarium. We are seasoned aquarium visitors, and the Florida Aquarium did not disappoint. Rated by Parents Magazine to be one of the top five kid-friendly aquariums, the Florida Aquarium has something for kids of all ages: A living coral reef with wall to wall viewing windows for up close inspection of marine life; a stingray feeding area; a nearly two acre outdoor water area (called Explore A Shore) with water cannons, geysers, and fountains to cool off in, and my favorite—a Journey To Madagascar, featuring an up close look at some very playful lemurs.

The see-through observation floor at the Florida Aquarium; my son peeks in. Photo by Donna Fesel.

My son had a blast with all the hands-on action, getting to touch and feel marine life, with helpful experts standing by to answer all questions, great and small.

My son makes a new friend at the Florida Aquarium. Photo by Donna Fesel.

When we were finished at the Florida Aquarium, we headed for the Columbia Restaurant in a part of Tampa called Ybor City. The Columbia is Florida's oldest restaurant, and the world's largest Spanish restaurant. Founded in 1905, setting foot inside the Columbia and exploring its many cool tiled spaces while being treated like family by the gracious staff, is like travelling to another world.

The food is fantastic—we enjoyed the Columbia's famous 1905 Salad, filled with tasty garden bits, meats and cheeses and tossed in a top-secret recipe garlic dressing, a delicious Cuban sandwich, some outrageous queso fundido (a Spanish cheese baked in a savory tomato sauce that you dunk into with toasts), and of course, churros (fried Spanish fritters, that you dunk in warm chocolate).

The tile nameplate for the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City, Tampa. Photo by Donna Fesel.

We were also spoiled by the great sangria that our waitress created for us tableside. We were seated in a room with a fountain in the center, and lovely music was being piped in. Between the ambiance and the delicious food, we did not want to leave.

The Columbia also has a great retail store nearby, where you can buy Spanish ceramics and Columbia souvenirs; it is worth a stop. The Columbia Restaurant has seven locations, including one at the Tampa airport.

One of the lovely dining spaces at the Columbia Restaurant in Yobor City, Tampa. Photo by Donna Fesel.

After our fun day of viewing sea life and our delicious authentic Spanish lunch, we rode the cable cars in Tampa. These cable cars, which ran from 1892 to 1946 continuously, were relaunched in 2002. The beautiful, authentic cars with the lovely wooden seats travel between Ybor City, the Channel District, and Downtown Tampa. For $5 for adults, and $2.50 for youth, you can ride all day, hopping off to dine, shop and sightsee. We found the cable cars a fun and unique way to see this lovely city.

My husband and son, riding the historic cable cars in Tampa. Photo by Donna Fesel.

Another great day trip from a WDW resort is Universal Orlando Resort. Comprising two theme parks—Universal Studios, and Islands of Adventure—and a dining and entertainment destination 9Universal CityWalk) and a mere 25 minutes or so from the WDW gates, Universal offers lots of unique attractions and experiences. The one you've probably heard the most about is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which now stretches between Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, and can be traversed by riding the Hogwart's Express.

We visited Hogsmeade at Universal before the second phase of Wizarding World opened. We selected a wand at Ollivander's, ate some crazy-tasting candy at Honeyduke's, and rode the thrilling multi-dimensional attraction Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. We also shopped for Harry Potter memorabilia at Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods—go Gryffindor!

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter transports you so completely to the world of Harry, Ron, and Hermione (and Hagrid, my personal favorite) that it truly has to be seen to be believed. We very much look forward to heading back to Universal and enjoying the newer Island's of Adventure Harry Potter attractions.

My son and I hang out at Universal Orlando Resort's Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Photo by Donna Fesel.

While at Universal, we also enjoyed Despicable Me Minion Mayhem 3D, a thrilling so-close-you-can-almost-touch visit with everyone's favorite adorable yellow guys, we got soaked on the wettest water attraction I've ever enjoyed on Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls, and stepped out for some nostalgic fun on the E.T. Adventure and The Simpsons Ride.

My son gets drenched at Universal Orlando Resort's Curious George Goes to Town. Photo by Donna Fesel.

There are lots of thrill rides and interactive rides, which are great to hold the interest of older kids (The Incredible Hulk Coaster anyone), as well as lots of engaging attractions for little ones—Curious George Goes to Town, which dumps buckets of cooling water on willing visitors, is a particularly refreshing one.

My husband takes advantage of a Simpson's photo opportunity at Universal Orlando Resort. Photo by Donna Fesel.

We capped off our day with a delicious Italian meal at Vino Italian Kitchen at Universal's CityWalk, a short walk from the theme park attractions. There were lots of food options (from Emeril's Restaurant Orlando to Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, and a favorite of mine The Cowfish) featuring everything from burgers to sushi, with something for everyone.

On our trip this summer, we are looking forward to a day trip to Kennedy Space Center on Florida's Space Coast. I'm excited to tour this incredible working facility where space exploration history was and continues to be made. Enjoy Walt Disney World, but if you're feeling adventurous—get on out there and see what else the big, beautiful state of Florida has to offer.