The middle of Florida is packed with lakes, and Kissimmee lies at the north end of one of them: Lake Tohopekaliga. Located just south of Orlando, Kissimmee is divided by Highway 192 into north and south sections, then continues west to Old Town and the master-planned community of Celebration. Generally overlooked by Disney-bound travelers, Kissimmee is every bit as family-friendly and outdoorsy, and is even more laid back than its more famous neighbor to the north. It even has its own amusement park.

The main part of Kissimmee is a mere 13 miles from Disney World. The local theme parks and attractions may not be as grand as those in Orlando, but they are definitely more accessible and affordable; they’re entertaining for kids and adults alike and provide a great retreat away from the Disney World complex. Whether you plan to spend your days exploring Epcot and Magic Kingdom or simply want a relaxing trip to Central Florida away from the masses, here’s why we suggest staying in Kissimmee on your next visit to the area.

Kissimmee has its own amusement park, and it’s as Americana as it gets

Orlando

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Just off the highway on the other side of Interstate 4 from Disney World, Old Town is an old-time Amusement Park with a county fair type of feel. Their theme is “Classic American Fun.” In fact, you can actually see the Ferris Wheel and aptly named Vomatron from the highway as you pass by heading to Disney World or Orlando. Their Mine Blown Coaster is completely unpretentious-looking, yet it’s the only upside-down wooden coaster in Florida. Between the different rides are dozens of quaint and quirky shops. As you walk past the old-fashioned arcade, British and Egyptian souvenir shops, and Post Mortem Horror Boo-Tique, it’s easy to imagine what Central Florida may have felt like before Disney World opened in 1971.

Accommodations are cheaper in Kissimmee

On average, Kissimmee ranks below Orlando in terms of tourist expenses. Orlando is slightly above the national average, while Kissimmee is slightly below. As of this writing, several chain hotels and resorts are available for under $100 per night in and around the town. Most are located along Highway 192. The prices do climb as you head west (i.e., closer to the Disney attractions).

If you are looking to splurge, we suggest the Bohemian Hotel Celebration, which is located in Celebration, along the western shore of Lake Rianhard. Here, you’ll be surrounded by water, bike and pedestrian trails, and upscale dining options along Front Street. Rooms start at about $150 per night, a good price for a 4-star hotel in the Disney World vicinity.

Those traveling in a group should consider the Magic Village Resort, where you can have your own four-bedroom townhouse with a full kitchen, dedicated parking, an outdoor patio (complete with a grill and sink), and a shared recreation area — enough to sleep up to nine — for under $400 per night. If you don’t want to dine out every night, Publix supermarkets are everywhere in Central Florida. Stop there, buy whatever you need, and have your own cookout.

Kissimmee outdoor activities for all fitness levels

People canoeing

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Celebration prides itself on having something to remind every American of home. To really understand what this means, grab a bike from Celebration Bicycle Rental and try their suggested seven-mile scenic loop, which will take you past more than a dozen lakes and ponds. In less than two hours, you can see architecture that will remind you of Brooklyn, New England, New Mexico, and Washington, DC.

There are more outdoor experiences to be had in Central Florida than you might think. Among them, the Paddling Center at Shingle Creek is located off the busy Highway 192. It does not make sense that such a serene place could exist less than two miles from a local airport and nearby souvenir shops and chain restaurants. But this three-mile round trip journey will impress you with the near-perfect reflection of the cypress trees and surrounding shrubbery on the crystalline water.

Wild Florida is an ideal day trip from Kissimmee but still located in Osceola County. They have a drive-thru safari park near the eastern shore of Cypress Lake. Most visits to the park start with a one-hour airboat ride across the Headwaters of the Florida Everglades. Here, you’ll see partially submerged cows grazing, often just a few yards from large gators. We suggest doing the drive-thru safari last. Between the boat ride and safari, check out Alligator Park, where you’ll meet not just the largest Florida gator, but an albino alligator, sloths, lemurs, and other fascinating creatures.

While they aren’t physically demanding, air balloon rides are another great way to get outdoors and are a major attraction throughout Central Florida. We recommend booking these in advance because there’s always a chance that your morning ride will be canceled due to rain, wind, or other weather-related factors. Pilots will likely cancel the night before, depending on the forecast. This will give you time to make other plans. If you’re planning a balloon ride, try to schedule it for your first morning. This way, you’ll have the maximum number of days for a possible takeoff.

Kissimmee has a better food scene

Estefan Kitchen Orlando

Photo: Estefan Kitchen Orlando/Facebook

While coastal food snobs may be put off by the national chains that line Highway 192, these are not your only options. Supposed “Orlando” locations for local chains like Columbia Restaurant and Estefan Kitchen (yes, that would be Gloria Estefan) are actually located in Kissimmee. Both of the aforementioned are in areas that are destinations in and of themselves. For example, Columbia is located in the quiet, upscale enclave of Celebration, along Lake Rianhard.

Columbia is part of a local Spanish-food chain, of which its Tampa location, opened in 1905, is the oldest restaurant in Florida. Estefan Kitchen, for its part, feels and sounds like a party. With an upscale Cuban menu, live performances, and dancing — which is not limited to the small dance floor — you’ll get the sense here that everyone around you is celebrating something.

Estefan Kitchen is located at Sunset Walk, which is sandwiched between Highway 192 and the Margaritaville Resort. The Promenade at Sunset Walk has some of the quirkiest restaurants in Central Florida, including the British pub-themed Yeoman’s, whose Big Ben replica towers above the rest of the walk’s restaurants and shops. Next door is the 1920’s service station-themed Ford’s Garage.

The key to enjoying the Kissimmee food scene is to embrace the kitsch. If you’ve ever wondered what Brazilian-style pizza is like, check out Villaggio. World Food Trucks has dozens of Caribbean and Latin American-centric food trucks. There are a wide variety of Mexican restaurants, and taco stands all over town. A trip to Kissimmee is also a great time to find out if gator meat really tastes like chicken.

Getting around Kissimmee

Kissimmee train station

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Kissimmee Gateway Airport (ISM) does not offer commercial flights. If you’re heading directly to Kissimmee, Orlando International Airport (MCO) is much closer than Sanford (SFB) and has more options.

There’s an Amtrak station downtown, which is also served by the local SunRail train, but you really need a car to get the most out of your time in Kissimmee. Like most of Central Florida, the area is very car-friendly, with most attractions having large parking lots. If you do want to go without a car, be prepared to use Lyft or Uber at least some of the time. SunRail, Central Florida’s commuter rail service, is doable for getting around the metro area but note that it does not operate on holidays or weekends. Lynx is the local bus service and operates to Disney World every 30 minutes from Kissimme for $2, while an Uber from Kissimme to Disney World runs about $40.