More than Mickey – Sara’s Guide to Central Florida

Think of Florida and chances are that the first things that spring to mind are a whistling mouse, his friends and some thrill rides. But long-time, long-stay visitor Sara is on a mission to prove to the UK that there’s more than Mickey to this part of the USA.

The first time I came to Florida was in 1983. Disney’s Epcot had just opened, Ronald Reagan was president and the internet was just being born. I got sunburned, badly, in Clearwater, but the pain was forgotten when we travelled to Orlando and did the parks. I fell in love with Disney. It’s a love affair that has never let me down. Sure, it costs – hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands over the years – but I’m almost never happier than on a Florida vacation.

And my ardour is shared by my US citizen parents. They rang one year from Pittsburgh, where they’d been living on and off since 1980. “No more.” said my father. “No more snow. No more clearing three feet of the damn stuff from the drive each morning. We’re moving to Florida. This summer.” And they did.

Over the next fifteen years, I have morphed from visitor to (wishful) almost resident. My maternity spells of leave were spent here. We come every year. I never get tired of Disney World, but I have discovered there’s so much more to this part of Florida than queues and roller-coasters.

The Thrills and Spills

Ok, of course, I can’t not mention the theme parks. There are a plethora, and the crowning glory are the four plus two waterparks that make up Walt Disney WorldMagic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon and Disney’s Blizzard Beach. Disney World is followed closely by the two Universal parks and accompanying waterpark: Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay.

Then there’s SeaWorld, Discovery Cove, FunSpot America and Legoland to talk about. And I will, in a separate blog coming up in a few weeks. But for now, let’s find our thrills elsewhere within an hour’s drive from Orlando.

For the Love of Nature

You know about the ‘gators right? They walk around as if they own the place. Occasionally, they are the cause of tragedy, but mostly they keep to themselves if you don’t bother them. Where my parents live they live in the many lakes in the community, only being taken away when they reach 8ft. I keep my distance. Always. But if you’ve got a hankering to get up close and personal, then Gatorland is the place. You can zipline right over their snapping jaws. No joke.

But there’s other flora and fauna, perhaps less deadly or menacing, to behold. Wekiwa Springs State Park, Blue Spring State Park, Rock Springs Run State Reserve all offer plenty of scope for outdoor pursuits among relatively untamed nature. And there’s some magic too, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park holds daily shows featuring real live mermaids!

There are two large zoos too, the Central Florida Zoo and Botanical Gardens and the Brevard Zoo and the Busch Gardens Tampa Bay animal park.

 

Orlando Suburbs

Charming Winter Park

The saddest conversations I ever have with people who’ve been to Florida involve them telling me that there is nothing to Orlando but the parks. While it’s true that tourism is the number one source of income in the area, it is a real place where real people live and there are lovely parts to visit. Among the gorgeous suburbs to visit: College Park, Thornton Park, Dr Phillips and Winter Park. Shopping, holiday events, fine-dining and drinking are all on offer in these tree-lined streets, and you’ll rarely hear a British accent because this is where you’ll find well-heeled locals.

However, you’ll need a car to visit most of those locations. Although this very week progress (and something a touch European) has come to Orlando with much fanfare; a newly expanded railway network. Granted the SunRail only runs in a direct north to south line, and not at weekends or on holidays, but progress is progress and anything that gets cars off Orlando’s 60 year old freeway the I-4 (a road that makes the M25 look like a Norfolk B-road for traffic volume) can only be a good thing. Both for the environment and your sanity (and safety!).

 

Downtown Kissimmee

Cargo ships, citrus fruit packing and cattle-ranching all make up Kissimmee’s rich and varied history. If you’ve visited Orlando and the parks before, you’ll probably think you’ve been to Kissimmee. But the chances are that you saw the touristy, and in places, down-at-heel US Route 192 with its strip malls, chain restaurants and discount tat stores rather than the historic downtown Kissimmee. You’ll not need a whole day here, but it’s a stop on the SunRail, and offers lakefront dining, shopping and a chance to bump into some real-life cowboys. The largest rodeo this side of Mississippi dates back to 1944 and a there’s an annual cattle drive to promote rodeo events.

 

Cassadaga

If you’re into the occult, the bizarre meets apple-pie Americana at Cassadaga. A small town northeast of Orlando, according to folklore, the town lies on an energy vortex where the material and spiritual worlds meet. More than a hundred mediums and psychics practice here!

 

Mount Dora

Also further out of Orlando, Mount Dora is a colourful artists’ community billing itself as  “‘Someplace Special’ to Play, Shop, Dine, Stay”. A charming, one-hundred plus year old historic village on the shores of beautiful Lake Dora, it’s known for its annual festivals, bass fishing and old-fashioned charm. If you’re quick, you might get there in time to see the Starry Night house – the focus of a bitter fight over housing rights, rules and regulations.

If you want to get your shop on, and yes, I am aware that I’ve not mentioned the outlet malls, Mount Dora boasts Renningers Antique Market, housed on 117 acres of land around the Central Florida lakes. Be prepared to spend all day here; two large buildings and a number of open-air shopping areas house a wide variety of dealers from produce stands, clothing shops, and oddity vendors, to high-quality antiques and collectibles.

 

Others

Cherry Pocket – If you’ve never been to Cherry Pocket, you’ve never been to Cherry Pocket. A shak (sic) with ‘gator on the menu and key lime pie made by “mama”. I once went in matching Bermuda shorts and sweater and was asked if I thought I was having dinner with the Queen. ‘Nuff said. Run, don’t walk to this hidden gem. And don’t miss the blackened catfish.

Cherry Pocket Steak & Seafood Shak, Lake Wales, Florida

Enzian Theatre – Single screen arts cinema near downtown Orlando, showing the best films on offer with in-theatre dining and great happy hour at the outside bar.

Silver Moon Drive-In – 70 years old and one of the few remaining drive-in movie theatres in Florida.

The Weather

Of course the weather is a major player in any trip to Florida. And even inland central Florida isn’t immune to the worst of it: in 2004, three major hurricanes hit the Central Florida area: Charley, Jeanne, and Frances.

Having said that, the main threat in the area is the daytime thunderstorms during the summer, in particular from early June to early October. High temperatures, high humidity and sea breezes all combine to quickly develop cumulonimbus clouds over inland parts and result in short, sharp thundery downpours. With average daytime highs of 33°C, an afternoon storm will temporarily cool things down, but the freshness doesn’t last for long!

And Central Florida records more lightning strikes per area than any other region in Florida, and Florida records more lightning strikes than any other state in the USA, giving Central Florida the nickname of “Lightning Alley”.