What to do in Orlando if you wanna avoid Mickey
I have to confess, Florida didn’t work out the way we had intended. Having finished our mini road trip through New England, we had decided we were ready to slow down and slob out for a while. We booked ourselves into a self-catering villa at superb resort - a steal at a little over $50 dollars a night - hoping for a week of sitting by the pool, book in one hand and cocktail in the other, and watching the world go by. Long story short, seven days go by and we had done nothing of interest. This sucked, naturally, so we decided to extend our booking at the resort, and hired a car so we could actually go out and see something of the state.
Note to any females reading this:
Beware of letting your fella choose a hire car by himself; you never know what you’re gonna end up with! We booked online, and a rental company agent collected Pete at the resort and drove him to collect the car. He came home half an hour later, obviously very pleased with himself.
“I got a convertible!” he told me, excitedly. “And for only $6 dollars a day extra.”
Me, being completely clueless about cars, asked the only two questions that sprang to mind:
1) “What colour is it?”
2) “Is there room in the trunk for our backpacks?”
Pete had the good grace to look slightly guilty at this point, and confessed that he has no idea what size the boot was. Typical bloke! Gets all excited about the fast, swish-looking box-on-wheels without a second’s thought as to whether the thing is going to be practical or not. It wasn’t, as it happened (one of the packs had to be stored on the back seat), but it did look good. Here:
Pete absolutely loved this car; me, I wasn't so keen at first. Actually, I think that convertibles are over-rated. If I must have streaming eyes, hair whipping in my face non-stop and zero temperature control, I'd rather be on the back of a motorcycle!
So, now we had transport and could get out and about. The question was, where were we going to go? To be absolutely honest, I have no idea why we ended up in Kissimmee. I did have reasons for wanting to go there at one stage - I distinctly remember once seeing a website that listed a couple of dozen cool-sounding things to do in the Orlando area - but I had long since lost the link to that webpage, and could no longer remember what it was that had appealed to me in the first place.
Kissimmee, as it turned out, was a disappointment. After the charm of Boston and the vibrancy of New York, this place was a real let-down: it was just roads of hotels, gift shops and fast food joints, as far as the eye could see. ‘Soulless’ is the best word I can think to describe it. The place is intended to leech cash from tourists as quickly and as often as possible; you can almost feel your wallet getting lighter as you walk down the street!
The theme parks are a rip-off as well, charging $75 - $100 per person for a single day’s pass. This caused something of a dilemma for us, ‘cos we really couldn’t make up our minds whether or not it’d be worth it. Unusually the Internet was no help, as the reviews for these attractions were mixed: some people loved ‘em, others hated ‘em, so we were really only left with our gut feelings to help us decide.
In the end we decided against visiting any of the major theme parks in the area, partly because of the cost, but also because we really weren’t convinced we’d have a good time. I know I sound like an old Grinch (*) who’s hatin’ on Mickey Mouse, but I’m really not. Let me explain: I think that Disney, Busch Gardens and the like are excellent for people with kids, or adults who are amusement park addicts themselves. Pete and I don’t mind queuing for rides (we had a great night at Tivoli Gardens in Denmark), but our patience for such things is limited. I could easily see us getting irritated by the heat and the queues in no time at all, and heading home without feeling like we’d had value for money.
(*) I assure you I am a not-quite-middle-aged Grinch, thank you all the same. (And, yes, I do know Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt!)
Instead we decided to focus on the other attractions in the area. Here are the highlights:
The one thing we have been continually on the lookout for on this trip is anything that is weird or unusual. Gatorland hit this criterion because of this fella (and three others just like him):
White ‘gators with blue eyes! Who’da thunk it? White alligators are extremely rare; their colouring makes it difficult for them to hide, for one thing. Apparently they are also exceedingly antisocial, so the four specimens at Gatorland have to be kept in separate enclosures.
There were plenty of other things to keep us busy in the park, too; ‘gator wrestling, for example:
They also taped the poor critter’s mouth closed and charged people $10 to have their picture taken whilst sitting on its back.
Part-way through the show the commentator asked the wrestler whether he was handling a boy ‘gator or a girl. “It must be a boy,” the wrestler replied. “If it was a girl I’d never have got its mouth shut!”
Another somewhat bizarre event was the Jumparoo in which the alligators were encouraged to jump out of the water in order to grab raw chickens.
Have you ever shouted, “Jump!” at an alligator before? No, me either. (Come to think of it, I reckon it was strange for the alligators, too. I bet that the word they most usually have screamed at them is, “Arrrrrgh!”)
This was made into a competition in which two Gatorland employees, Bub and Cooter, compete to become a ‘gator wrestler. The first person to feed all their chickens to the alligators wins. It was a beautifully put together little show, with some very silly moments. For example, after losing the first round, Cooter starts to cry.
Compere: What’s the matter, Cooter? Why are you cryin’?
Cooter: I can’t lose, Boss.
Compere: Why not?
Cooter: ‘Cos if I lose, Bub’s momma will dump me.
Compere: I’ve seen Bub’s momma. If she dumps you, that’s a good thing.
Cooter: But, Boss, she got this hairy back that keeps me warm at night...
Cue fighting between Cooter and Bub, with some rather unusual boxing gloves...
This upside-down theme park was great fun!
Every exhibit is interactive, and many of ‘em are loud and messy, too, so we were right at home. During the three hours or so we spent there, we:
- Made giant bubbles
- Played a bloomin’ difficult shoot-‘em-up virtual reality game
- Played virtual air hockey
- Controlled a ball using brainwaves
- Found out how cold the water was when the Titanic sank
- Experienced a hurricane-strength wind, and an earthquake registering 5.3 on the Richter scale
- Landed the Space Shuttle on a simulator (If I’m being honest, Pete landed the space shuttle; I crashed it four times!)
This place got some really appalling reviews, but we think that if you’re inquisitive, don’t mind getting your hands dirty and have a sense of humour, you can have a lot of fun even if you are an adult!
Boggy Creek Airboat Rides
Although I wasn’t terribly impressed by Florida’s cities, I absolutely loved being out in the Everglades. There are many companies offering airboat rides; we choose Boggy Creek Airboats, who offer tours lasting between 30 minutes and 1 hour.
The airboats themselves are insanely noisy. We were given ear protectors, for which we were grateful.
One very loud airboat. Of course, it’s not really surprising, given that they are powered by aircraft/automotive engines.
Our guide stopped every now and again to point out items of interest. We didn’t get to see any wild ‘gators, unfortunately, but we did see an unexpected bald eagle.
Bald eagles were declared an endangered species in America in 1967; they were removed from the endangered species list in 2007 as their numbers had risen sufficiently, but they are still protected under US law.
It’s very pretty and very peaceful in the ‘Glades (when the airboats aren’t running). This tour was definitely one of the highlights of our stay in Florida. Go see the wildlife, if you get the chance!
Kennedy Space Center
I saved the best ‘til last, here. This was one of Pete’s must-see places while we were in the area, him being a science and technology nut, and I was happy to tag along and keep him company. I’m really glad that I did. The KSC was amazing, and we didn’t even get to see it all! There is so much to do here that one day isn’t enough, and your entrance ticket is actually valid for two visits (within seven days).
The thing that Pete really wanted to do was see the rockets on their launch pads, so we made the guided bus tour our priority. This took several hours, and stopped at 3 different locations:
The LC 39 Observation Gantry
This gave great views of the two giant Shuttle Launch Pads, 39A and 39B. They were both occupied that day: one with a Space Shuttle, and the other with the new Ares rocket.
The nose of the Space Shuttle (left), and the Ares-1 rocket (right). We were going to stay in Florida and watch the Ares launch, but changed our plans at the last minute. As it happened, the launch was cancelled anyway, so we didn’t miss anything. Still would have been cool, though...
The Apollo / Saturn V Center
After an introductory film telling the story of the moon landing, we were taken to another room containing the actual furniture and computer consoles which were used to monitor the first Saturn V launch. They recreated the lift-off with a pretty impressive light and sound show (and even made the windows rattle during take-off, which we thought was a nice touch).
These things look so old-fashioned now that it’s hard to believe they were ever used for an actual rocket launch.
The International Space Station Center
We actually thought that this part of the tour was going to be pretty lame at first, and then we walked through a door and found ourselves looking into the workshop where the actual Space Station modules are constructed. That was unexpected and impressive!
Back at main site there was plenty to see and do, including: robot displays, talks by an astronaut, IMAX movies, a Hubble telegraph exhibit and an outdoor Rocket Garden. The best bit as far as I was concerned was being allowed a peek inside an actual Space Shuttle. (I had to draw one for a technical drawing project at school back in the Good Old Days, and I’ve been interested in them ever since.)
In conclusion, the Kissimmee/Orlando area has a lot of interesting stuff to do that won’t cost a fortune, and does not involve being accosted by grown men and women wearing cartoon character costumes!
This entry is way too long already, so I’ll continue our Floridian escapades another day.
‘Bye for now