Taking the Mickey out of Orlando
Can you visit Florida and not experience Disneyland?
The Everglades: famous for its alligators. At Boggy Creek you can see them in the wild
Orlando is famous for the Disney attractions and a nightlife zone the size of Manchester. Together they attract British holidaymakers in droves. Yet, I couldn't help wondering whether the region of Orlando and Kissimmee is a destination in its own right? Or is Disney the only reason to visit?
Driving along Irlo Bronson Highway (a segment of the 75-mile long arterial Highway 192), doesn't inspire confidence. There are fast food outlets, Disney souvenir shops and several Flea markets selling tat in drab buildings. On the bright side though, you can buy 10 T-shirts for $5 and get your teeth whitened for $49. And every now and again there is a reason to stop or detour.
As hard as it is to imagine, the area was once a cow town. But this piece of cowboy history lasted less than a century stopping suddenly in the 1920's when Walt Disney bought up the lands in the name of Mickey Mouse making the ranch owners very rich.
'Those people were Crackers', said the curator at the Pioneer Museum on nearby Bass Road. She smiled at the surprised look on my face and explained: "the sound of their whips as they rounded up cattle made a cracking sound hence the nickname". Dotted around the open-air museum in Kissimmee are wooden buildings made from Cypress trees in board and baton method that depict life when cowboys ruled and lived off their land.
Apart from steak houses, there's no sign of them anymore except perhaps in Downtown Kissimmee. The shops are still owned by 'mom and pop' many offering cowboy or other antique collectibles and unusual souvenirs.
But what happened to all those horses? My guess is that they now appear in two shows that take place nightly along the highway. I enjoyed them both. In reality they are horse pantomimes where horses show off circus style tricks around a themed story: Arabian nights and Medieval nights. Both offer fantastic family fun, and come with dinner - both offer vegetarian dishes on request.
One Saturday night I checked out a different type of horse power in Old Town, an area of tourist shops, bars blaring out music and a huge fun-fare.
North America Travel Service offer a 7 night package to Orlando for £1135 per person. The prices Includes return flights with British Airways flying from London Gatwick to Orlando, 7 nights' accommodation at Reunion Resort in a one-bedroom deluxe villa (see review on page 42), seven days' car hire based on a compact car including all taxes and insurances.
Tel: 0845 1228899
But as the evening draws in the place turns into a classic car parade. More than 250 owners turn up and line them up, some with their hoods up showing off gleaming engines. "I've been doing this for 14 years" Bob announced "never missed a Saturday night yet".
Pointing to his 1932 Ford 5-window coupe he explains "this one is a fibre glass replica, it came with skinny wheels and fenders. I changed the horse power so I had to replace the wheels too." Will he sell it? "Sure ma'am, if I get an offer of $60,000 but that's not the reason I come. This place is known around the world. The atmosphere among the cruisers is great and we compare notes,."
A rock and roll band plays in the background almost masking the screams from the nearby fun-fare rides while owners strut their stuff and show off their cars to fawning visitors.
At 8.30pm the American national anthem blares out from speakers, owners ignite their motors and soon 250 classic cars of all shapes and sizes cruise around the town to howling onlookers. The noise is incredible.
The region is famed for its alligators. I could have zipped over them at the 110-acre Gatorland, the region's oldest attractions, or just viewed them in their breeding marsh.
But I chose to view them in the wild at Boggy Creek on board an airboat gliding through the Everglades. As I boarded alongside 16 other passengers, Captain John advised: "It gets windy so hold onto your dentures".
During the 30-minute ride over carpets of yellow water lilies, through bull rushes and cat tails, Captain John pointed out several alligators (whose sex, incidentally, is determined by temperature, the hotter it gets the more likely they are to be male), turtles and various birds in their natural habitat.
For me, the most surprising discovery happened when I turned off Highway 192 at Osceola Parkway. The landscape transformed from busy, noisy highway, to the most gorgeous idyllic little town of calm and beauty called Celebration.
It was built by Disney to create a place where people would live and work and unsurprisingly what he created is a stunning town with a pretty lake, fine restaurants, twee shops and appealing wood homes.
Finally, a spot of retail therapy is always welcome and Kissimmee offers opportunities to shop at a discount. The Nike store on the Old Vineland Road of Highway 192 has bargains galore in their warehouse, as does Puff Daddy's favoured denim store, the 13,000 square foot World of Denim (Irlo Bronson Highway) where you can get a pair of designers jeans by the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren at discounted prices.
The Orlando premium outlets just outside town is perfect for Barney, Burberry, Armani and a clutch of other factory stores offering their bargains.
Every night, it was good to retreat to my rental accommodation at Reunion Resort (see full review), a beautifully put together village 15 minutes drive from the bustle of the Highway. Mine was a three-bed (all en-suite) condo overlooking a golf course.
The question still remained, could I stay in Orlando and not be tempted by the beckoning call of Mickey. Truthfully, probably not. If I had kids in tow, what would be the point of missing out, however, its good to know that there are other options.