Friday, 8 April 2011

Adventures in Orlando - More Than Theme Parks

by Pam Stellini

My recent visit to Orlando was intended to learn a little more about what the area had to offer Canadians and when our WestJet flight landed early on a Tuesday morning, it was the beginning of five days of unexpected pleasures in a city known more for its thematic treasures.

I didn’t need to be sold on Orlando. It was a destination I had shared enthusiastically with my children when they were young, and then again when they were teens. I had visited on an incentive trip and I had also hosted a team of Canadian travel agents. I once did a secret handshake with Pumba. I was familiar.

Relaxing at The Peabody Hotel

As guests of the Peabody Hotel we were privy to the volume of conference business this city hosts in the adjacent convention facility. With 1,641 rooms the hotel is the largest non-gaming four-star in the nation and it serves the business guest with flawless consideration.

Our evening started with a drink at the Rocks Lounge. If there is an example of this bar catering to a professional clientele it would be with the beverage menu. Rocks offers an expansive wine list and creative cocktails with ingredients that are more savoury than syrupy, including Serrano ham, peppers, cucumbers, watermelon, sage and dill.

Our dinner at Napa ,was described as ‘farm to fork freshness.’ Ingredients are grown locally by a number of farms in central Florida exclusively for the restaurant. Produce, such as kale is delivered within four hours of harvesting and served with distinction by staff as proud as if they had planted the gardens themselves.

Outdoor Adventure: Forever Florida

For past investors of “swampland in Florida” we checked out your real estate. It looks fine. In fact it is all part of the 4,700 acres of conservation area of Forever Florida where we partook in the Zipline and Coach safaris.

I opted not to take the Zipline, but regretted it once I saw the calibre of the facility, the training, and the guides. The brave ones who made aerial visits across the wetlands got to zip past the iconic resident who was apparently purring in anticipation of mating season. George is a 13’ gator and his bellowing sound caused ripples in his pond that could be seen from the height of the zipliners.

Once George was distracted by his view in the sky, the rest of us boarded the coach that travelled across nine ecosystems hoping to not be greeted as ‘meals on wheels.’ We came across stunning fauna, herds of cattle and sunning gators.

Outdoor Adventure: Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour

Winter Park feels like good manners, argyle sweaters and classic novels, and makes so much sense when you know that it is the location of the summer home of the late children’s television personality Mr. Rogers.

Our capable skipper navigated us through the calm waters and canals with compelling stories of the town’s origin. For a peaceful hour we passed manicured estates and historical properties sharing the tranquility on the lake with sailboats and students among palm trees and cypress and an unexpected garden of bamboo.

Outdoor Adventure: Boggy Creek Airboat Rides

Boggy Creek Airboat Rides began as the original airboat company in Central Florida with just one six-passenger airboat in 1994. At that time, it was unheard of to stay in the Orlando area and take an airboat ride.

The Florida Everglades in south Florida are known worldwide as the location to go out on an airboat tour. It took years, according to Boggy Creek’s Airboat Rides, to make visitors aware that the headwaters to the Florida Everglades actually start right in Orlando, and the chance to visit the "Real Florida" is only minutes from Orlando's attractions.

We boarded boats propelled by large fans that skim over inches of water to see the natural habitat of many bird species as well as the famed Florida ‘gators.

Culture: The Morse Museum

The most comprehensive collection of work by Louis Comfort Tiffany is housed in the Morse Museum.

The Tiffany collection includes the leaded glass windows and lamps the artist is known for, as well as jewellery, pottery, paintings and art glass all displayed in a building as captivating as its collection.

The Laurelton Hall exhibition includes many architectural features rescued from Tiffany’s Long Island home including his original marble terrace that looks out to the garden.

Entertainment: The Blue Man Group

If I told you that the evening ended with giggling people in the audience passing along toilet paper in long unbroken sheets over our heads to the people in front of us you might think our evening was silly.

Image the competence of the Blue Man Group whose performance before the TP came out made it feel okay for us to pass toilet paper. And we didn’t just pass it, we owned it.

Entertainment: Cirque du Soleil, La Nouba

It was my first Cirque du Soleil. I will have to be forgiven the chronic gasps I emitted throughout the performance. I marvelled at all the harmonies: the human forms linking and unlinking and the energy powered by the music; gravity being defied in juggling, inertia defied in cycling. Rope skipping was a momentous event.

After the show, another joy as we met ex-Montrealer BenoƮt Jutras, the Musical Director since 1998 responsible for composing the music and insuring its harmonious delivery technically in sync with movement from all levels of the stage.

Theme Park: Universal Studios, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

The place is magic; from imposing historical buildings; the steam engine train, the flying car wedged in a field with a simulated engine running you are captivated by the Harry Potter aura.

At the end of a long day of magic I highly recommend the refreshing supplement of a Butterbeer or pumpkin juice, both non alcoholic. Though after my first one I thought the people in the paintings of the Portrait Gallery were talking. It may have been my imagination.

Indoor Pleasure: The Spa at The Peabody

I had the purifying facial. I didn’t want to leave. My skin was so soft and I smelled so good and the treatment room was lovely and tranquil and my towels were heated. In a sophisticated place like the Peabody, they are too refined to ask you to leave. Of course I did leave, but only after I followed a woman who prepared me a delightful beverage infused with lemon.

Shopping: Premium Outlet Shopping

There are 150 stores at this outdoor shopping centre. I highly recommend a map and a plan. I would also encourage a zigzag pattern and a speed of increasing intensity, because just when you think you have hit all of the stores you have wanted to, you will come across a new desire.

Getting there

And remember folks, WestJet, Air Canada, Sunwing and Air Transat all fly to Orlando from various Canadian gateways. Be sure to check out the cheap flights to Orlando that make amazing vacations possible!

Reprinted with permission from Travel Industry Today

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