Stops not on the theme-park tour
With all the wonders Disney's imagineers can concoct at your disposal, is there a reason to go exploring? Orlando today can seem like a concrete tangle of restaurants and mini-malls. But for those looking for fun that doesn't involve a $45 admission fee or an hour-long wait, it's time to hit the road.
High culture may not immediately spring to mind when one thinks of Orlando, but the downtown has a couple of museums that are well worth an afternoon of your time. For instance, if you want your child to learn more than "it's a small world, after all," the Orlando Science Center ($9.50 adults, $6.75 children) has four floors of colorful activities that combine science and play. Your eight-year-old can heave a Volkswagen Beetle in the air (with a little help from a pulley), pet a red rat snake, or run across a wooden bridge to learn about physics.
Take a seat in the eight-story CineDome for an Iwerks film or planetarium show. Or if you're visiting on the weekend, stick around for the laser-light shows. But be warned: The place is a popular choice for school field trips.
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in nearby Winter Park (admission $3) is a small jewel filled with beautiful glass creations. In the late 1950s, local art collectors Hugh and Jean McKean paid $10,000 for everything they could salvage from Louis Comfort Tiffany's Long Island home, which had been gutted by fire. The result is a collection of stained glass worth millions.
The highlight is a restored Byzantine-inspired chapel Tiffany designed for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, complete with glass mosaics and a cross-shaped chandelier that had been so damaged it took workers 10 years to restore the shattered panels of emerald glass.
One attraction that sounded great in the guide book but proved less than enthralling in real life was Splendid China. Hailed as a "superlative open-air museum," featuring traditional Chinese arts and crafts, it was practically deserted - of both personnel and sightseers - on a recent afternoon. The gardens are lovely and the handmade replicas of Chinese treasures, including a half-mile model of the Great Wall, quite nifty. But $26.99 seems rather steep for a gander at someone's model collection.
If you're tired of the city's crowds and concrete, serenity is just a short drive away. An added bonus for nature buffs: Florida's natural beauty lends itself to a budget far more easily than the manicured world of the theme parks. Just head east or west, and you'll run right into the ocean. If you've got more than a day to spend, the Gulf Coast has warm, calm waters and sand as soft as talcum powder. But if you've only got an afternoon to spend at the beach, Cocoa Beach has fun in the sun that's less than an hour's drive away.
Pine flatwoods used to cover more than half of Florida; today, the same can be said of hotel rooms. Ocala National Forest and Wekiwa Springs State Park in Apopka offer a chance to see what Orlando looked like before they paved paradise. Both places offer camping and hiking, and a canoe trip along the Wekiva River in the state park reveals scenery largely unchanged since native Americans first settled the area. The Florida black bear supposedly roams around here (although it's never put in an appearance while I've been visiting).
But there are plenty of turtles (and the occasional alligator) who hang out on logs soaking up rays. Bird-watchers may not even need binoculars - I saw a red-shouldered hawk in the parking lot and got within two canoe paddles of a great blue heron.
Another option is to visit Orlando's original tourist attraction -one of several that existed long before Walt Disney envisioned playgrounds amid the palmettos. Glass-bottom boat rides have been offered at Silver Springs, a 350-acre nature park in Ocala, since 1878. The park features animals from around the world and allows visitors to glide along waters that flow from the largest artesian spring formations in the world.