Find Orlando Family Magazine on Facebook! Follow Orlando Family Magazine on Twitter!

Sun-Kissed Adventures

Visitors and residents alike find much to love about life in Kissimmee.

Wild Florida Airboats

Want to pilot your own airboat or zipline over hundreds of alligators? Perhaps a high-end staycation is more your thing, with near-immediate access to some of the best restaurant and entertainment options to be found in the Greater Orlando area? Or are you more of a history buff who would rather examine the past than spend time at theme parks?

Good news: No matter which of those categories you fall into, Kissimmee has you covered.

“Experiences abound in Kissimmee,” says Vice Mayor Jim Fisher. “Just visit our lakefront, downtown shops, the oldest working hardware store in Florida, a modern civic center, antique stores, and plenty of eateries and restaurants.”

“We love taking weekend trips [to Kissimmee],” says Orange County resident Teresa Pierson, referencing her husband and two children. “We try to make it at least twice a year. There’s just so much to do, and it lets us ‘get away’ without having to fly or take a long car ride.” Pierson also notes that the money saved on travel arrangements can instead be spent on having fun—which means their only dilemma is deciding on which of Kissimmee’s many offerings to pursue.

“I always say, there’s nowhere else in the world where, in the morning, you can be standing in the shadow of the world’s most famous castle,” says D.T. Minich, chief executive officer of the city’s tourism board, Experience Kissimmee, “and in the afternoon, just 30 minutes away, you can be kayaking on the headwaters of the Everglades in the shadows of 200-year-old cypress trees.”

To be sure, a perfect blend of theme parks, natural wonders, intriguing history, and topnotch entertainment and dining are all part of the formula that makes Kissimmee such a memorable place to live or visit.

“We have a great abundance of manmade attractions, and then we have a really great variety of Mother Nature’s attractions where you can experience the outdoors and go kayaking or ziplining or horseback riding,” says Minich. “So, there’s a lot of different eco-type tours and opportunities as well.”

Kissimmee also offers a wealth of airboat-tour experiences, including Wild Florida Airboats and Boggy Creek Airboat Rides, with the latter giving customers the chance to do something most only dream of: pilot an airboat.

“[Each boat has] two sets of controls,” says Minich, “so you have a licensed, experienced airboat driver at one set of controls, but you can sit there and operate the airboat on your own, and he’ll just jump in if you start to do something wrong.”

If you do decide on an airboat ride, you stand a good shot of catching some beloved national icons in action. “People don’t realize, but down where the airboats operate, that’s the largest population of American bald eagles in the continental United States,” says Minich.

“Our son has a huge fascination with birds,” says Pierson, whose family has taken multiple airboat tours over the years, “so getting to see so many eagles in one spot is a real treat for him. And [my husband and I] enjoyed it because we got to kick back and relax. It’s beautiful out there.”

Zip-lining over Gatorland

Taking a hot-air balloon ride or hitting off-road tracks on rented ATVs are other options, as is zip-lining at locations such as Orlando Tree Trek Adventure Park and Gatorland. “They not only have the gator park,” Minich says, “but you can actually zip-line over the alligator swamps.” If that sounds a little too exciting for your family, you might prefer a visit to Kissimmee’s historic Pioneer Village.

“They’re bringing historic buildings from 100 years ago or so that are threatened to be torn down in different parts of the county,” says Minich, “and they’ve constructed an entire little village. They’re adding quite a few things, such as a church where people can do weddings, but it’s very historic. It’s a nice place to get out and learn about the ‘Florida cracker’ era and the cattle industry.”

History buffs will also want to visit the Osceola County Welcome Center and Historical Museum, which sheds light on numerous aspects of Kissimmee’s history. Furthermore, downtown Kissimmee has a plethora of historic neighborhoods perfect for leisurely strolls.

While in town, make time for one of Kissimmee’s oldest attractions—figuratively speaking. Founded in 1986, Old Town USA is a re-creation of a turn-of-the-20th-century Florida community, boasting historical architecture and distinctive storefronts. Shopping and dining opportunities abound, and kids and adults will find thrills and chills at the Great Magic Hall, Rootin & Tootin’s Shootin’ Gallery, Happy Days Family Fun Center, and “haunted” Mortem Manor.

If you’re looking for a place to stay in Kissimmee, you’ll find that the area offers everything from value-oriented, moderately priced mom-and-pop hotels to luxury accommodations at hospitality giants like the Gaylord Palms Resort & Convention Center or the nearby Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate. However, as Minich points out, “If you’re talking about visitors taking overnight stays, we’ve trademarked that we’re the ‘Vacation Home Capital of the World.’”

Currently, high-end vacation rentals available in Kissimmee offer as many 14 bedrooms. They’re a great option not only for large local families who want to stay in town without getting separate hotel rooms, but also for residents who want to invite relatives down for a visit—and don’t want to deal with the bother of putting those guests up in their own home. Not to mention the fact that these homes offer far more features than your standard hotels.

“They have a lot of high-tech amenities,” says Minich. “Most of them have a theater in the house, they have game rooms, they have children’s bedrooms that are custom created— everything from Frozen themes to Harry Potter themes. … They’re really unique, and these are all within 20 minutes of Disney.”

Also, don’t forget about Kissimmee’s wide variety of dining options. “It’s really diverse because we have a lot of smaller family-owned, ethnic restaurants,” says Minich. “We’ve got great Indian food and Mediterranean food, and we even have a really authentic British pub. And then we also have fine-dining options in some of the resorts.”

Minich points to two restaurants as particular standouts. “The Old Hickory Steakhouse [at Gaylord Palms] has great Old Florida ambience, but the steaks are incredible,” he says. “The Zen Restaurant at Omni is a very authentic Chinese experience. The chef is from China, the dishes and serving pieces are from China— he goes over every couple of years and replaces all the serving pieces.”

More than just an interesting place to visit, Kissimmee has much to offer residents, too. “Kissimmee is still a great place to live, work and raise a family,” says Fisher, citing the city’s excellent schools, parks, creeks and downtown lake, which includes Kissimmee Lakefront Park.

At the end of the day, says Minich, “Even though we’re kind of a part of Orlando, I think it’s almost a small-town feel when you walk in places or greet people on the sidewalk.” He also says that Experience Kissimmee is about to launch a new advertising campaign focusing on younger visitors.

“Kids love all these really unique experiences, from meeting a knight at Medieval Times to zip-lining or touching a baby alligator,” he says. “There’s a lot of great opportunities for children, not just to have fun, but also to learn something about our history, about Florida’s history, and about Florida’s nature and animals and wildlife. It is a really good kid destination.”

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s February 2017 issue.