Blog · Unexpected Orlando Amusement Parks You Need To Visit: Gatorland and ICON Park

Unexpected Orlando Amusement Parks You Need To Visit: Gatorland and ICON Park

April 9, 2024
Orlando Icon Park

Sure, you’ve heard of Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando. If you’re into theme parks or visit Florida often, you probably know SeaWorld is here too. And let’s be real — these places are loads of fun.

But what about when you don’t want to spend a 14-hour day schlepping around a theme park? 

Or when that $150 per person price tag (give or take) isn’t in your budget?

Or when you just need a break from spinning teacups? One can only take so much.

I’m here to tell you Orlando has plenty of places that scratch that amusement park itch, offering thrills, entertainment, and food all in one location. Two of the best are ICON Park and Gatorland.

  • ICON Park: This is billed as an entertainment district rather than an amusement park. There’s no admission fee, but it has attractions that include lots of kitsch (looking at you, Madame Tussauds) and major thrills. Ergo, amusement park, I say.
  • Gatorland: This is the oldest theme park in Orlando. The OG, if you will. Opened in 1949, Gatorland celebrates Florida wildlife with a special focus on teethy crocodilians. Beyond the animal exhibits, there are shows, ziplining, a splash pad, train, boardwalk, and more.

While popular, both of these parks aren’t as well-known as Magic Kingdom or The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. That means fewer crowds and less time spent waiting in line. And both have free parking!

Here’s what it’s like visiting these two unexpected Orlando amusement parks.


Credit: Gatorland

If you don’t see an alligator, were you even in Florida? 

At Gatorland, you will see alligators. You can feed them, zipline over them, and watch them leap from the water for raw chicken. You can get a tiny sculpture of you on top of a gator. You can watch a man get chin to nose with a gator. 

This is the “Alligator Capital of the World,” y’all. 

Among the thousands of gators and crocodiles, see internationally famous Jawlene, a rescue with the top of her jaw missing, and a white, blue-eyed leucistic alligator, one of only eight in the world.

Rare leucistic alligator at Gatorland
Credit: Gatorland

But there’s a lot more here besides crocs and gators. Other fun includes:

  • A petting zoo
  • Train ride
  • Splash pad and playground
  • A capybara encounter
  • Snakes and a snake show
  • Free-flight aviary
  • Flamingos, cows, emus, bobcats, panthers, giant tortoises…
  • Boardwalk and observation tower over the breeding marsh
  • Restaurant and gift shop

In the aviary, birds will land on your finger like you’re Snow White. If that isn’t theme park magic, what is?

And then there’s the ultimate upgrade — you can zipline over a swamp filled alligators. That’s right. Bring that up next time you’re at a party. I plan to. “I ziplined over alligators” has a nice Indiana Jones ring to it.

The experience includes four ziplines of varying lengths and speeds, stretching 1,200 feet in total. We went in the morning when the weather was cool, and it was a blast. The guides are hilarious, and they do all the hard stuff so you just — wheeee!

Gatorland also runs a conservation program to protect and conserve alligators and crocodiles both locally and around the world. As you read the information posted and listen to the people who work there, you’ll learn a lot about these incredible creatures.

Gatorland Entrance
Credit: Gatorland

trangely enough, one of my biggest unexpected highlights was holding a 5-month-old red-tailed boa constrictor. He was just hanging out with his handler, and a small crowd had gathered. We asked lots of questions (“we” meaning me and mostly other people’s kids), but all ages were clearly fascinated. 

His skin was so smooth as his tail wrapped my fingers. I think it’s something I’ll never forget — that and looking down at a swamp of gray-green alligators as I flew through the trees above them. Of course, this was just a normal day at Gatorland.

ICON Park and the Orlando Starflyer

Museum of Illusions at Icon Park
Courtesy of Visit Orlando

There are sedate, tot-friendly rides like the carousel and train. There are arcade games and a VR arena if you want indoor thrills. 

On the more adrenaline-pumping side, you’ve got the Orlando SlingShot, where you’re launched into the air at 100 mph before freefalling back to the ground and doing it all over again. This wasn’t my speed (quite literally). Yet neither was the carousel. I struck the right balance at the Orlando Starflyer, located next to ICON Park.

Orlando StarFlyer
Credit: Orlando StarFlyer

At 450 feet high, it’s the world’s tallest swing ride, which is enough of a reason to put it on your bucket list. There’s no age or weight limit (with 75 tons of steel and 140 truckloads of concrete at the foundation, this thing is solid, let me tell you). And you can sit comfortably alone or next to a fellow flyer. Kids at least 44 inches tall can ride, and while it’s a big thrill, it’s still family-friendly.

Fun fact: The Orlando StarFlyer was designed to complement the Orlando Eye — the city’s two tallest attractions side by side.

All told, it’s a pleasant ride. My husband, who doesn’t go in for those teacup spinning rides, enjoyed it. It can be super windy, but it’s not dizzying — it really is a swing: a big, tall, better-than-you’ve-had-before swing. 

And the views are impressive.

Starflyer at Icon Park
Courtesy of Visit Orlando

For dining at ICON Park, there are almost too many options to choose from — familiar chains like Outback Steakhouse, carnival-style food from vendors, the celebrity-endorsed Sugar Factory, bars with live music. We stopped into the food hall, Wheelhouse Market, which had several fast-casual selections for diners on the go.

What else? Build-A-Bear, an oxygen bar, a 7D motion theater, shopping for quirky Florida souvenirs… 

You can’t do it all in one day so just pick and choose. I also recommend checking their calendar for nightime entertainment or special events if you’ll be visiting around the holidays.

Unexpected Orlando thrills

So now you know a little about how much more Orlando has to offer than you thought, from the world’s tallest swing ride to ziplining over gators. 

All that high-adrenaline fun will have you hungry. Check out my roundup of the top cafes in Florida, all budget-friendly and including two right here in Orlando.

Feature photo courtesy of Visit Orlando