CENTRAL FLORIDA:
More than Theme Parks

BY BARB AND RON KROLL

Central Florida Travel Guide - Free Magazine Subscriptions & Download

Dubbed "the vacation capital of the world," there is plenty more to the Central Region than its popular Orlando theme parks. In fact, the cornucopia that exists includes beaches, golf courses, shops, museums, galleries, parks, nature reserves, family-friendly resorts and fishing. Greater Orlando alone, an area encompassing Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Lake Counties, boasts more than 100 attractions (visitorlando.com). Other venues such as Kissimmee (visitkissimmee.com), Polk County (visitcentralflorida.org) and the city of Ocala (ocalamarion.com) likewise boast a healthy inventory of surprises and attractions.

CITY LIGHTS

The theme-park city of Orlando has more than 5,000 restaurants including dinner theaters where entertainment includes everything from buccaneers (piratesdinneradventure.com) to horses (arabian-nights.com), comedy (wonderworksonline.com/html), mystery (sleuths.com), jousting tournaments (medievaltimes.com) and gangsters (alcapones.com). Around town there is also an abundance of lounges, martini bars, dance clubs, sports bars, comedy clubs, wine bars and even an icebar (icebarorlando.com) where its interior is an ice-carved, Arctic-style wonderland.

In Kissimmee view classic car shows and cruises on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights in the community's Old Town section, a popular shopping, dining and entertainment complex (old-town.com). The Saturday Nite Cruise of hot rods and antique cars is the largest, weekly car cruise in the country.

Kissimmee's Latin Trail of restaurants satisfies appetites for South American, Cuban, Puerto Rican and Spanish cuisines. Nighttime entertainment ranges from Auggie's Jammin' Piano Bar at the Gaylord Palms Resort (gaylordhotels.com) to Vintage Vino, a downtown wine, beer and cheese bar (vintage-vino.com).

MUST SEE, MUST DO

No Central Florida visit is complete without experiencing one or more of Orlando's major theme parks: Walt Disney World (disneyworld.com), Universal Orlando® Resort (universalorlando.com) and SeaWorld Orlando (seaworldorlando.com).

Orlando's Official Visitor Center on International Drive provides free brochures, maps and travel advice. Free Orlando Magicards® offer discounts on accommodation, attractions, dining, nightlife, shopping, golf courses and transportation (visitorlando.com/magicard). Discount tickets for attractions, dinner shows and activities can also be ordered online in advance of a trip (orlandoticketsales.com/oi).

HERITAGE & CULTURE

The Orlando Museum of Art (omart.org) and the Orange County Regional History Center (thehistorycenter.org) are highlights of Orlando's eight-mile cultural corridor. There is also the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre featuring Broadway shows (broadwayacrossamerica.com/orlando) and international orchestras perform at the Festival of Orchestras in Longwood (festivaloforchestras.org). The Orlando Repertory Theatre specializes in children's performances (orlandorep.com) and the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra (orlandophil.org) and Orlando Ballet (orlandoballet.org) also have programs for young audiences.

At Kissimmee's Pioneer Village & Museum, visitors can explore early American homestead life as it was in the late 1800s. Exhibits include an authentic general store, schoolhouse and blacksmith shop (osceolahistory.org). In Lakeland (lakelandchamber.com), the Polk Museum of Art (polkmuseumofart.org) features a sculpture garden and a substantial collection of contemporary, African, American, Asian, European and pre-Columbian art. Ocala Civic Theatre, the second largest theater in Florida, hosts musicals and dramas (ocalacivictheatre.com) while the city's Appleton Museum of Art (appletonmuseum.org) is one of the premier repositories of fine art in the southern states.

FUN FOR FAMILIES

Central Florida attractions cover a variety of interests: zip-line safaris (floridaecosafaris.com), miniature golf (hawaiianrumbleorlando.com) and swimming with dolphins and snorkeling with manatees (floridadolphintours.com). At the Orlando Science Center, youngsters can observe stars and examine fossilized dinosaur eggs (osc.org). In Orlando's WonderWorks, hands-on simulators allow children to engineer space shuttle landings and experience at least a hundred other interactive activities (wonderworksonline.com).

Families can play cowboy on trail rides near Ocala at Double K Stables (double-k-stables.com) and Makin' Tracks Trail Rides (guidedtrailrides.webs.com). There's also plenty of western fun and adventure at the Westgate River Ranch Resort near Lake Wales (wgriverranch.com).

Hot-air ballooning is a popular aerial adventure offered by Orlando Balloon Rides (orlandoballoonrides.com) and Magic Sunrise Ballooning (magicsunriseballooning.com). In Polk County, Fantasy of Flight offers aerial displays, hang-glider simulators, biplane rides and tours of the world's largest private collection of aircraft (fantasyofflight.com).

CALLING ALL SHOPAHOLICS

Shop 'til you drop at the Florida Mall (simon.com), Central Florida's largest shopping mall in Orlando, which houses more than 260 shops and restaurants. The Mall at Millenia (mallatmillenia.com) is the place to go for high-end brands such as Cartier, Gucci and Chanel as well as upmarket goods at Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Neiman Marcus.

The city also has several outlet centers offering discounted prices on designer clothing, shoes and luggage (premiumoutlets.com/orlando; lbvfs.com).

SPA ESCAPES

Orlando's 19 destination spas include The Ritz-Carlton Spa, Orlando, with 40 treatment rooms and a fitness center (ritzcarlton.com/orlando) and The Waldorf Astoria Spa by Guerlain (waldorfastoriaorlando.com/spaandfitness/spa). The Spa at Orlando World Center Marriott Resort has packages for couples (marriottworldcenter.com) and chocolate body scrubs are featured at L'Esprit Day Spa at the DoubleTree Resort Orlando (lespritspa.com). Relax with a facial at The Spa at Buena Vista Palace Hotel & Spa (buenavistapalace.com). Infinite Massage (infinitemassage.com) provides mobile spa services.

WHAT'S NEW

WonderWorks Orlando, a 12-seat 4-D theater, features an extreme-motion ride, a sister attraction to the city's only indoor-ropes course. The big challenge on this three-storey rope-climbing adventure is navigating a variety of obstacles (wonderworksonline.com/html).

A new wing at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art is expected to be completed by winter 2011 and will feature 11 galleries and 250 objects from the Long Island Estate of Louis Comfort Tiffany (morsemuseum.org). The museum is already a premier repository for priceless stained-glass Tiffany works as well as other fine art.

The Amway Center, a new state-of-the-art concert and special events venue in downtown Orlando, will be home for Orlando Magic basketball, Orlando Predators football and Orlando Titans lacrosse matches (amwaycenter.com). It will also host a variety of big-name performers in the music field.

At the Kissimmee Air Museum, Warbird Adventures now offers helicopter flights over Central Florida plus introductory flying lessons (warbirdadventures.com).

FAMILY-FRIENDLY RESORTS

With 115,000 guest rooms, Orlando has everything from budget lodgings to condos and luxury resorts. Many family resorts offer free shuttles to theme parks, including the Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort Lake Buena Vista where kids eat free and there are a variety of suites designed specifically for youngsters (hisunspreelbv.com).

Other Orlando resorts are theme parks unto themselves. Nickelodeon Suites Resort has two water parks, live Nickelodeon performances, character breakfasts and a new 4-D theater show (nickhotel.com/ovg).

In Kissimmee, Holiday Inn Main Gate East has kids' suites, kids-eat-free dining, as well as a children's theater, pool and playground (holidayinnmge.com).

SPORTS SCENE

Families can cycle the West Orange Trail, Orlando's longest paved trail (orlandobikerental.com); amateur and advanced skateboarders can hit the courses at Vans Skatepark (vans.com); and tennis buffs can choose from among 800 city courts.

The Central Region also has golf galore. Named the North American Golf Destination of the Year 2010, Orlando alone has more than a hundred golf courses, including world-class venues such as Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club (bayhill.com) and Grand Cypress Golf Club (grandcypress.com). Great golf is also available in Kissimmee, Polk County and Ocala.

See NBA basketball in Orlando from October to April (orlandomagic.com), with Detroit Tigers spring training in Lakeland (floridaspringtraining.com/tigers.html) and Houston Astros spring training in February and March at Osceola County Stadium (houstonastros.com).

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Polk County, the Bass Capital of the World, has 554 lakes with numerous fish camps and fishing guides (visitcentralflorida.org/do/outdoors/fishing). In addition to fishing, Polk County's Lake Kissimmee State Park offers hiking, equestrian trails, canoeing and camping (floridastateparks.org/lakekissimmee).

ECOTOURISM

Several companies offer guided airboat, swamp-buggy and pontoon boat tours to view alligators, birds and wildlife in Central Florida's wetlands (airboatrides.com; bcairboats.com; captfreds.com; alligatorcoveairboatnaturetours.com) and the Kissimmee River and Dead River swamps (mildtowildairboattours.com). The tours also include sightings of ospreys, egrets and roseate spoonbills and, because Kissimmee is a reintroduction site for endangered whooping cranes, there's a high chance of spotting North America's tallest flying birds. The largest population of nesting bald eagles in the continental USA is in Osceola County.

With its weekend elephant encounters, insect zoo and aerial adventure course, Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens is a full-day outing (centralfloridazoo.org). Beautiful gardens plus a nature preserve and a 60-bell carillon draw visitors to Bok Tower Gardens in Lake Wales. Time visits to coincide with daily carillon concerts (boktowergardens.org).

Columbia County
Sunny Isles Beach
Florida Southern College
Royal Shell
SeaWorld
Navarre Beach
Crystal River
Franklin County
Greater Fort Lauderdale
Gainesville