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In search of a thrill in Orlando

Wedged into my cheapo airline seat next to my wife and daughter bound for Orlando, I thought I knew what was ahead. Theme parks and long lines. Lots of them. Here come the peanuts. Oh boy.

It was my family's first trip to the mecca of Mickey. And I was - OK, I admit it, - a bit snooty about being among the last on my street to go. Once I got there, though, I found myself wondering why these crowds were standing patiently in line - and loving it? What was I missing?

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Visionary Walt Disney put Orlando on the map with the Magic Kingdom in 1971. That single act transformed this once-quiet agricultural community with its miles of orange groves. Since becoming host to Walt's cartoon mouse Mickey, the city has mushroomed into a global playground. It now has 93,000 hotel rooms where roughly 35 million people flock annually to the region's 13 major theme parks and scores of other attractions.

During our visit we met tatooed bikers from Ohio feeding hungry gators at Gatorland; a dentist from Kalamazoo, Mich., and his family soaking up sun at Disney's Typhoon Lagoon; a Scotsman and son at Sea World itching to get splashed by a killer whale; and six sojourners from Rio de Janeiro resting under a palm at the Animal Kingdom. There was, too, the couple waiting to get on the treacle-sweet "It's a small world after all" ride in the Magic Kingdom - for the 50th time.

Gradually, I began to understand why so many come back.

Orlando delivers small joys in just the right intensity to suit every taste and age group. Universal Studios' disaster rides cater to a wild-and-wooly crowd that finds Disney's "Dumbo" or "Space Mountain" rides a tad tame. If you came to get your kid a hug from Mickey or an ice-cold splash from a killer whale's tail, or to toss frozen fish into the jaws of a croc, there's a good chance you and your kids will get that little thrill.

And that's why 6 million more people than live in California came to Orlando last year to endure hot weather and long lines for a load of fun.

Most popular destination

"There's so much to do in Orlando, especially for families," says Patty Hulbert, a spokeswoman with the American Society of Travel Agents in Alexandria, Va., representing 26,500 member agents in 170 countries. "That's probably why our agents last year named it the most popular domestic destination for the second year in a row."

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Nobody vacations in Orlando for its natural beauty, though. This fast-growing area built on land that a century ago was swamp and pine forest is today home to 1.5 million. Kevin Brickey, an economist with the state Department of Labor in Lakeland, calls Orlando a "job machine," having produced 37,000 jobs last year. Universal Studios is hiring 9,000 workers for its new Islands of Adventure park.

But Walt Disney World is still the region's biggest employer with 51,500 workers. To find enough workers, the company reportedly sends its recruiters as far away as Puerto Rico.

As Orlando draws in millions of new tourists, congestion has grown, frustrating some long-time residents who remember it before Disney came to town. Gridlock and mile-long lines of cars are common.

Still, there's more to Orlando than theme parks. Tourists who tire of congestion and concrete can head for three national parks an hour's drive away that offer canoeing, swimming, biking, and trees and wildlife to satiate the most ardent ecotourist.

Visitors looking for souvenirs that don't come with Mouse ears attached can try Winter Park or Orlando's Antique Row. And for some cheap fun in the sun, the beach is less than an hour away.

They come to meet the mouse...

Still, out of all there is to do the big draw remains Disney - whose four theme parks pulled in an estimated 41 million visitors in 1998 compared to about 9 million for No.2 Universal Studios, according to Amusement Business Magazine.

The depth of Disney World's attraction is hard to underestimate. It's more than just fun. For many people, it involves a serious emotional connection to Disney's beloved cartoon characters.

"For a high percentage of our guests, they're not as happy with their stay if they don't have some contact with the characters," says spokesman Dan Higgins.

At Mickey's House in Toon Town, a recorded message tips harried parents waiting with their youngsters to meet the mouse king that a "character hotline" is available. It can help them locate any character in the park that their son or daughter just must meet.

... and tie the knot

But its not just kids who have to meet the characters. Hundreds of young couples travel each year from Japan to get married at Disney World - even if it means few or no family members will be present to witness the event. The compelling rationale: To meet Minnie and Mickey personally at their reception - something nearly impossible to arrange in Japan's smaller version of the Magic Kingdom.

For other visitors, like Norman Kubilis, a bearded biker who rode his Harley-Davidson "hog" from Warren, Ohio, Disney's attraction is more cerebral.

Epcot Center is "the most interesting," he says -and it's where he's headed next. Today, however, he is standing on the "swamp walk" boardwalk at nearby Gatorland, a theme park a few miles from Disney. "Epcot is educational - just like this is educational," he says nodding at a phalanx of 12-foot alligators sunning on a mud bank.

Frank Arcangeli, the Kalamazoo dentist, takes a break from lolling in the sun on a pure, white sand man-made "beach" at Disney's monster water park, Typhoon Lagoon. His wife and three children frolic in tsunami-size waves created by a huge wave machine.

"I was awestruck," he says, of returning this year after a decade-earlier visit to Orlando and Disney World. "It was a lot bigger than I remembered it. It changed my view. I was kind of negative. But it means so much to the kids - that's why we're back."

On the downside, he's a little unhappy that on his third visit to Disney, he's feeling family pressure to return even more often.

"It's become a pilgrimage for a lot of people," he says. "If you don't take the kids to Disney World these days you're considered a bad parent."

To dilute the Disney dose a little, he and his family are making a special effort to drive to the "real ocean" for a walk along the real beach. "Still, you've got to give Walt credit for his vision," Mr. Arcangeli muses. "The state of Florida owes him billions."

With so many people really enjoying themselves, I began to realize a day and a half after I arrived that it might be me, not the rest of these people, who needed an attitude transplant. I began to think less about the long lines and more about the little thrills waiting at the other end.

Disney World, still Orlando's premier attraction, has four theme parks (really small cities). It boasts 10 new attractions this year, including Cirque du Soleil, an avant-garde "circus" of choreographed acrobats. Universal Studios just opened Islands of Adventure. And Sea World is building a new park so visitors can swim with dolphins.

Weather: a mixed blessing

Orlando's weather is also a big part of the appeal. A Montreal couple and their children at Disney's Animal Kingdom park said they fly south each spring to experience Disney - and to thaw out.

Of course, like all wise patrons they were packing ponchos just in case.

From December to February the weather can be cool and rainy. In fact, it can rain any time. So a poncho comes in handy, even in the summer. That's the time when most people go. Guide books warn of "blistering" heat, but families still come out in droves to wait in the longest lines of the year.

For Leroy Faigan, and his wife Bernice, fun has a lot to do with courtesy and neatness. The pair, celebrating their 55th anniversary at Disney's Magic Kingdom, are waiting for "The Legend of the Lion King," a staged snapshot version of the movie. It's their third visit.

"What strikes me about this place is that it's immaculate," says Mr. Faigan, a Del Ray Beach, Fla., retiree. "Everyone is so helpful and efficient. There's no pushing or shoving like some of the other places."

And on this point Disney World rockets above the rest of the big theme parks. The attendant at "Lion King" tells - no, orders - the crowd to keep things clean.

"No chewing tobacco, please," she hollers across the folks to one man who is moving into the theater. "Not here. Not anywhere in the park."

"I like that," Mrs. Faigan whispers.

*Send e-mail comments to claytonm

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