Orlando Travel Guide


If you're looking for Walt Disney World, look again - it's located in the entirely separate city of Lake Buena Vista. Believe it or not, Orlando's a city in its own right, and the locals would feel just fine, thank you very much, if all those ear-wearing yahoos would just get back in their cars and keep moving (except, of course, when they spend their money here).

Once the outta-town attractions are pared away, Orlando's main distractions comprise the Harry P Leu Gardens, an estate with over 2000 varieties of camellia and an 18th-century mansion; the Orlando Science Center, which has a gator hole and the physics-phriendly Tunnel of Discovery; and the Orlando Museum of Art, which showcases Mayan archeological finds. Given these heart-pounding highlights, most visitors use Orlando as a base from which to make excursions to nearby theme parks.

A combination amusement park, aquarium and beer garden, SeaWorld is fine family entertainment. If you like leaping dolphins, sliding sea lions and crashing whales, you're in for a treat. Highlights include the Kraken roller-coaster, dolphin nursery, Terrors of the Deep aquarium and the ever-popular otters.

Not quite as crass as it sounds, SeaWorld puts its money where its mouth is, sending out a SeaWorld Animal Rescue Team to rescue endangered manatees and restore them to health. It has one of the best animal rescue outfits in the country, and the team is partially funded by park admissions.

Universal Studios
Orlando's Universal Studios is a combination working movie studio and theme park. What this means essentially is that you can admire stars from afar and live vicariously through them. Some of the trademark attractions include Terminator 2: 3D, a spectacular 3D experience where you get to be Ahhhhnold, and Back to the Future, with phenomenal special effects.

Walt Disney World
This is a self-contained city. Apart from the four main parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom), there are three water parks, a shopping district, 22 hotels, countless eateries, a police force, transport systems, medical centres, even kennels for the pooch. Watch out for the mouse.

In its first year, Disney World saw over 10 million visitors, and it remains one of the world's top tourist destinations, now attracting more than 20 million visitors a year. It's also the world's biggest amusement resort, covering an area twice the size of New York's Manhattan. It would have made Walt very, very happy.

Off the Beaten Track

Blue Spring State Park
For hundreds of years the Blue Spring area was home to the Timucuan Indians, until settlers killed them off in the mid-1800s. Today, Blue Spring State Park is practicing karmic retribution by doing everything it can to protect a beleaguered resident of a different kind - the endangered manatee.

This park is the best place in the state to see manatees in their natural habitat, especially between November and March, when the St John's River to the north gets cold enough to drive the manatees to Blue Spring's warmer waters. There are campsites and cabins within the park, but book ahead as things get crowded and you can't see a manatee through somebody else's tent.

Blue Spring State Park is about 40 miles (65km) north of Orlando off I-4, near a town called Cassadaga. You'll need private transportation to get there.

Kennedy Space Center
To some people, the finest words ever spoken by an American were Neil Armstrong's 'One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,' spoken as he became the first man to walk on the moon in 1969. Since then, we Earthlings have had a longstanding love affair with space travel and the scientists who make it possible. There's no better place to stand in awe of the 'right stuff' than the Kennedy Space Center, off the coast of central Florida.

The centre draws 2 million people a year to its Gallery of Spaceflight, packed with real spacecraft and scale models. It was established in 1958, when the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) started Project Mercury to compete with the Soviets' successful launch of Sputnik. The US started launching its spaceships from Cape Canaveral, a stone's throw from the Kennedy Space Center, because of its weather, its proximity to the ocean (for splash landings) and the huge, unpopulated tracts of land available to the government for testing. Mercury was succeeded by Project Gemini, then Project Apollo, which landed a man on the moon. The Space Coast still maintains facilities for unmanned and space shuttle launches.

Titusville, the main gateway to the Kennedy Space Center and the wildlife refuge, hosts the Astronaut Hall of Fame, dedicated to exhibiting every detail of the astronauts' lives and boasting a shuttle-landing simulator ride and G-force trainer. Titusville also has excellent vantage points from which to watch shuttle launches.

The Kennedy Space Center is on Merritt Island, on the eastern side of the Intracoastal Waterway (called Indian River here). The NASA Causeway is the main east-west thoroughfare and begins at the junction of Highway 405 and Highway 1. The Banana River separates the main Kennedy Space Center complex from Cape Canaveral, the site of the first launches of the US space program. You'll need a car to get to the Space Coast. Greyhound buses only get as close as Titusville, 7 miles (11km) west of the Space Center, off Highway 405.

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
NASA only uses 5% of its land area for making things go boom. It turned over its unused land to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1963, who in turn established the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, where migrating birds stop on their way to and from South America. Manatees, alligators and turtles also inhabit the refuge. The best time to visit is from October to May. Black Point Wildlife Drive, a 6-mile (10km) loop, is a good road for self-guided tours. A two-hour bus tour leaves from the Kennedy Space Center, taking visitors around the coast.

Ocala National Forest
The Ocala National Forest is a gigantic, old established Florida park with several natural springs and lakes, and fantastic hiking, canoeing, fishing and swimming. You can camp anywhere in the park. Three major spring areas make up the park: Juniper Springs (at the park's center), Salt Springs (at the northern end) and Alexander Springs (to the southeast).

Juniper Springs are incredibly clear and beautiful and offer great canoeing. Salt Springs and Alexander Springs have trails through cypress forests. The Lake Eaton Sinkhole is 80ft (24m) deep and 450ft (135m) in diameter, and a staircase leads down into the hole. Nearby Lake Eaton is a good spot for swimming and sunning.

The Ocala National Forest is 10 miles (16km) east of Ocala, which is about 60 miles (96km) northwest of Orlando and is the best base for exploring the forest. Highway 19 runs north-south through the park and Highway 40 east-west. You'll need private transportation to get there.

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