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What's New and "Unexpected" in Orlando
by
Christine Roberts

The last time I saw Orlando was 20 years ago. In June, last year I revisited the area and was astounded by all the changes. While it now has even bigger, better, mind-boggling attractions, thrill rides and theme parks it also has an unexpected side - culture, eco-tourism and several delightful smaller towns in the vicinity.

My reason for visiting the region again was to attend the annual Travel Industry Association of America's annual International Pow Wow, the biggest event of its kind in the world, attended by around 6 000 international buyers and sellers of USA's tourism products, all meeting for business under one roof.

Orlando is not just ideal as a holiday destination for the family and kids, is geared for every age. Each year over 8 million mature travelers flock there to have the greatest time of their lives! 

I'd previously experienced their first Disney Park and found that the Walt Disney World Resort includes The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney's MGM Studios and a new Animal Kingdom theme park where you encounter wild animals and have the opportunity of seeing spectacular animal shows - great fun! Seaworld, Universal Studios Escape and Gatorland were immensely enjoyable, too.

The new Disney Boardwalk area with waterfront villages is reminiscent of the 1940's. A live show has opened at Disney-MGM Studios - "Who wants to be a Millionaire -Play It!!" - which recreates the magic and thrills of the popular TV blockbuster, in a replica of its famous high-tech set.

Disney's newest resort, Animal Kingdom Lodge, overlooks 30 acres of savannah, with 200 mammals and birds.

At Universal Studios Orlando's all-new "Islands of Adventure", one can take an amazing journey through five islands and sample the world's most state-of-the-art rides and attractions, including experiencing The Lost Continent, Toon Lagoon and Jurassic Park.

Animal Planet Live! is a permanent attraction at Universal Studios and live demonstrations include some of the cleverest, dexterous animal stars around. Also, video presentations from Animal Planet television network's popular programs such as "Emergency Vets" and "The Planet's Funniest Animals" are given.

Definitely the most hilarious new show is SeaWorld Orlando's, "Pet's Ahoy" with stunts performed by a menagerie of 100 dogs, cats, birds, pigs and other talented animal athletes. Most of these four-legged celebrities have been rescued from animal shelters.

Trainer for a day

It is possible to arrange with SeaWorld to be "a trainer for a day", experiencing the daily care and training provided for marine mammals. The typical day would start off with an orientation after which you would don your wet-suit, meet famous killer whale Shamu, help with chores such as food preparation and area clean-up, learn training techniques and interact with sea lions, otters, walruses and whales. Only three learner trainers are permitted at a time. Minimum age is 13 years and a good physical condition is an essential requirement.

Alligators rank among the top viewing wish list of many first-time Florida visitors, hence the popularity of the new reptile display at "Gator Gulch" and its awesome 50 alligators. Visitors are allowed to interact with the gators and feed them pellet food from self-service machines. However, gators reputedly prefer turkey hot dogs!

My highlights

* Watching a 70-year old tradition taking place twice daily, namely the

"March of the Peabody Ducks" at the Orlando hotel where our group stayed. Four female mallards and one drake appear every day at 11am in the hotel lobby lounge, marching down a red carpet from the elevator to the fountain pool. They return to their duck palace on the Recreational Level late afternoon, escorted on both occasions by their devoted duck master. Their special diet includes (four times a day) chopped Romaine lettuce and a special poultry mix feed.

The hotel has three teams of trained ducks and after three months' duty, a new team arrives from the hotel's privately-owned duck farm, giving the others a chance of rest, relaxation and reproduction! After four years they retire to "duck cottages" at the farm.

* The Kennedy Space Center, with a Saturn V rocket, was the perfect venue choice for the opening night's party. And several of the famous astronauts such as Buzz Aldrin and Wally Schurra, who attended the function, signed photos for the delegates. .

* Viewing an exceptional folk art exhibition featuring Earl Cunningham at the Mennello Museum of Folk Art in suburban Winter Park.

* The fantastic Killer Whale show with lovable Shamu in action!

* And the oh so graceful Beluga Whales in the enclosure at Sea World.

Cypress Gardens, located between Orlando and Tampa, is the site of stunning water-ski shows and has 200 acres of lush tropical gardens. Unforgettable, is the only way to describe their unique artistic Victorian Garden Party topiary display. There were more than 30 life-size topiary figures covered with luxuriant creeping fig. Also, a topiary horse and carriage, carousel, band-stand and musicians along with Victorian ladies, gentlemen and children, in a countryside setting, complete with an English knot garden.

Unexpected Orlando

I never imagined to find abundant bird life along the Florida Space Coast, near to the Kennedy Space Center. Plenty of herons, egrets and red-winged blackbirds were spotted as we drove around this conserved land.

Orlando, surprisingly, has a quaint downtown area, the highlight being the 1927 Orange County Courthouse.

Smaller towns in the area such as Winter Park and Titusville had delightful antique shops, cosy restaurants and cafes, museums and unusual architectural gems.

I'd like to have stopped at the Flying Tigers Warbird Restoration Museum, where the emphasis is on restoration and display of WW II aircraft. Apparently, rides and instruction can easily be arranged. 

See http://www.warbirdmuseum.com.

Eatonville, north of Orlando, is America's oldest incorporated African-American municipality and the former home of Zora Neale Huston, a charismatic 20th century American writer, folklorist and anthropologist. Some of the history of this town can be gleaned from its churches and historically significant buildings.

The Wells' Built Museum of African-American History features exhibits, artifacts and memorabilia of African-American artists and musicians who once entertained in downtown Orlando. And it is housed in the former Wells' Built Hotel in the Paramore District.

New Day Enterprises offer ethnic heritage group tours of the Central Florida area highlighting local landmarks, streets and structures named in honor of African-Americans. One of Florida's largest collections of art, ranging from Renaissance to Contemporary, is housed in the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College.

Seven Florida State Parks are found within an 80-km radius of downtown Orlando. They are Wekeiwa Springs, Blue Spring, Tosohatchee, De Leon Springs, Hontoon Island, Lake Louisa and Lake Griffin, where camping, hiking, canoeing and fishing are recommended.

One hundred and fifty golf courses are situated within a 45-minute drive of downtown Orlando, a region where US Open Champions Ernie Els and Lee Janzen set up their home.

Useful websites:-

The Orlando/Orange County CVB http://www.orlandoinfo.com

SeeAmerica.org 

http://www.insidecentralflorida.com 
http://www.thehistorycenter.org   

(Most of the contents of this article first appeared in a travel feature published in Tribute Magazine, 2001)

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Email:  Christine Roberts

 

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