Think of Florida - and Mickey Mouse, sunshine and alligators probably spring to mind – possibly even Miami and a cruise?
But there is so much more to Florida away from the razz matazz of the theme parks, shopping, eating and playing golf – everyone can probably find something to interest them.
Here are 7 alternative things to do in Orlando:
Ornithologists head on down to Circle B Bar Reserve (4399 Winter Lake Road, Florida 33803) with a pair of binoculars to spot wading birds, herons, egrets, white ibis, roseatte spoonbills and even a bald eagle or two around Lake Hancock. You may even come across this bad boy, crossing or laying in your path!
Rivers like the St Johns River at 310 miles long, the longest river in Florida and 3 miles wide at its widest point, not only offer excellent fishing grounds (it is the Bass fishing capital of the word), but more importantly the opportunity to hire a 24’ pontoon boat to pilot yourself along large waterways and smaller canals, looking out for alligators, turtles and even manatees (Blue Springs State Park, which is an inlet off the river, is a Protected Manatee Refuge). There is even a troop of Rhesus monkeys living where the Wekiva River joins the St Johns River (thought to have been left behind after the local filming of ‘Tarzan’ in the 1930’s). Drive up to Deland and hire a boat from Hontoon Landing (www.hontoon.com Hontoon Landing Resort & Marina, 2317 River Ridge Rd, DeLand, Florida 32720). Its cheaper during the week and do take out the optional damage cover!! Then off you go with a picnic or BBQ…
Lake Eola (512 E Washington St, Orlando, Florida 32801) in the middle of Downtown Orlando, was formed as a result of a sump hole expanding in the late 19th century. It is now over 23 feet deep at the deepest point and one lap of the lake is just under a mile in circumference. It is now a public park with an amphitheatre, fountains, swan boats, a Chinese pagoda and swing park, but minus alligators. On most Sunday mornings it hosts a Farmers Market which also draws people to dog walk, take yoga or exercise classes or just soak up the downtown ambience of the lake. For a spot of brunch wander round to World of Beer (431 E Central Blvd Ste B, Orlando, Florida 32801)
Automobiles abound at Old Town Kissimmee (5770 W Irlo Bronson Memorial Hwy, Florida 34746) on Friday (Muscle Car Show & Cruise) and Saturday (Classic Car Show & Cruise) evenings. Cars and trucks dating back to the 1960s are on display during the afternoon and then parade around Main Street from 8.30pm. There can be up to 200 vehicles taking part. There’s also live music, restaurants, bars, shops and a fun fair with some seriously adrenaline junkie type rides.
Now a conundrum: Orlando lies practically in the centre of Florida. Head east and you hit the waves of the Atlantic Coast and places like Melbourne, Cocoa Beach (home of the famous Ron Jon’s surf shop) and Kennedy Space Centre. Further north is Daytona where you can take your car on the beach or head on up to historical St Augustine. Come east for great surfing. The more tranquil Gulf of Mexico awaits if you travel west from Orlando. Head for Tampa and turn south for beautiful sunsets, sand you can hardly walk on, its so hot and sea that is like a warm bath. Watch the majestic pelicans catching fish or search for sharks teeth down at Casperan Beach. Big resorts like Clearwater, St Pete’s Beach (St Petersburg) and Fort Myers give way to quieter, more luxurious areas, running south along the cays like Ana Maria, Sanibel & Captiva Islands, Sarasota and Naples.
Disney’s ‘magical American hometown’ – Celebration (Florida 34747), was built in 1996 and advertised as having a small-town idyll but built to the Disney corporation's lauded high standards. It does feel a bit like being on ‘The Truman Show’ but deliberately lacks any trace of Disney characters. Walk round the lake, striking off along boardwalks to view the backs of sumptuous houses (one even has its own water slide careening down from a bedroom window to the pool), eat in one of the many independent restaurants there or sip a cocktail at the Bohemian Hotel, sit on the lakeside in rocking chairs and spot small alligators and turtles, or watch children play in the fountains. Seasonal activities (including fake snow pumped out of the lamp posts at Christmas) give Celebration a feeling of serenity and peacefulness amongst the hustle and bustle of touristy Orlando.
Old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant is a replica of a 100 year old sugar mill, situated in De Leon State Park (601 Ponce Deleon Blvd, De Leon Springs, Florida 32130), one of seven state parks around Orlando. All the parks offer an affordable (approx. $5/car entry charge) and more natural alternative to the theme parks, where you can hire canoes or walk nature trails. De Leon state park is reminiscent of a Huckleberry Finn watering hole, where the fresh water is a bracing 68F. Never mind, warm up at the restaurant where you cook your own pancakes from a jug of batter, poured onto a grill set in the middle of your table. Finish off with a selection of either sweet or savoury toppings. There is always a queue to get in here and beware – there is no air conditioning!!