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Orlando

The Mickey Mouse draw card has turned Orlando into the third-ranking US destination for overseas travellers, after Los Angeles and New York City. The city 'built on the peel of an orange' has also established itself as part of Florida's high-tech corridor.

While everybody knows the big-name theme parks - they've spawned smaller versions in most of our home countries - the real treasures of Orlando's psyche are the sidekicks: Holyland is peddling God; Reige's Firearms rent out real semiautomatics for a blast; and Skull Kingdom is endearingly low-tech.

Orlando boasts not only the space technology industries focused on the Florida Space Coast but a healthy dose of bits and bytes makers as well. So you'd better watch your step in this 21st-century boomtown: according to a 1998 study, the stampede to Orlando has made it the most dangerous place in the US for pedestrians.

Area: 174 sq km
Population: 176,500
Country: USA
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -5 (Eastern time zone)
Telephone Area Code: 407

Orientation

The biggest city in central Florida, Orlando is dominated by Lake Eola in its northeastern downtown quadrant. The most famous downtown icon is Church Street Station, a collection of restaurants, bars and shops located between I-4 and the railroad tracks. Orlando is 6km (4mi) from Universal Studios, 16km (10mi) from Sea World, and 32km (20mi) from Walt Disney World, all located southwest of downtown in an area appropriately known as the Tourist Quarter.

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Events

Orlando's festivals are not exactly major league, though it must be hard to organise a brouhaha in the shadow of a theme park that wants you to believe that every day's a holiday. Locals step out of Fantasyland long enough to celebrate some of Florida's traditional pastimes like gardening, rodeo and golf.

The Silver Spurs Rodeo has been putting on a fine show since 1944, drawing 50,000 spectators and some of the top rodeo athletes to Orlando in mid-February and again in July. It's the largest rodeo in the eastern US. The Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival is a big to-do at Walt Disney World in mid to late April. The highlight of October is the Oldsmobile Scramble, when 100,000 amateur golfers putt it out at the Walt Disney World Resort. The Oldsmobile Classic for pros follows. Although Gay Day at Disney is not officially recognised, it's very popular. In 2002, over 125,000 gay and lesbian visitors descended on Cinderella's Castle, making the Magic Kingdom into the gayest place on earth on that bright June day.

Public Holidays
1 Jan - New Year's Day
third Monday in January - Martin Luther King Jr Day
third Monday in Febrary - Presidents' Day
Apr/Mar - Easter
last Monday in May - Memorial Day
4 Jul - Independence Day
first Monday in September - Labor Day
seconday Monday in October - Columbus Day
11 Nov - Veterans Day
fourth Thursday in November - Thanksgiving
25 Dec - Christmas Day

Attractions

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.


 

Downtown

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.

SeaWorld

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 Florida

So you want to be in pictures and the only offers you've had are for 'experimental' films made by creeps? Then Universal Studios may be more your style, a place to live out your wildest film screen fantasies while remaining fully clothed.

Like Universal Studios in Hollywood, 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 best attractions for relieving star-envy include Terminator 2: 3D, a spectacular 3D simulator experience where you get to be Ahhhhnold; Back to the Future, which has phenomenal special effects; and Earthquake - The Big One, which hits 8.3 on the Richter scale. Popular shows include the Animal Actors, Dynamite Nights Stuntacular, Ghostbusters and the Universal Horror Makeup Show. The Hitchcock 3D Theater is a tribute to the master of suspense.

Universal Studios is 4mi (6km) southwest of downtown Orlando near the intersection of I-4 and the Florida Turnpike.

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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.

Activities

If simultated water slides and dancing dophins are wearing a bit faux, nearby national parks offer real wet 'n' wild adventures. You can dip into crystal clear rivers and warm water springs at Blue Spring State Park, plunge your body into gentle surf and your toes into soft sand on Merritt Island or glide through pristine wilderness in a canoe or on a bike at Ocala National Forest.

History

Disney's 'Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow' (EPCOT) had a brutal beginning. Originally named Jernigan, Orlando was nothing but a rudimentary settlement tacked on to Fort Gatlin, a military base for American soldiers during the bloody Seminole Indian wars. At the close of the Second Seminole War, settlers moved in and renamed the region Orlando after Orlando Reeves, a soldier killed by Indians at Lake Eola.

By the turn of the century, Orlando had become a thriving farming community - the 'city built on the peel of an orange', as it was affectionately known. The citrus boom was succeeded by intermittent railroad and real estate booms, but the late 1950s brought a cash fountain that was to last: the beginnings of the Space Age. The Glenn Martin Company (now Martin Marietta Defence Systems) began missile production, and the creation of the Cape Canaveral and Cape Kennedy Space Centers on Florida's east coast brought infusions of cash and jobs to the area.

With the establishment of Walt Disney World in 1971, the area became a theme park megalopolis. But it's not just the theme parks doing all the attracting. While nobody was looking, Orlando established itself as a high tech corridor, the Silicon Valley of Florida.

All in all, you'd have to say that trading in their oranges for tourism and high tech was a good move for the residents of this one-time backwater. The 'community of tomorrow' has proven itself to be forward-thinking, and in so doing became an uber-achieving success today.

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Getting There & Away

Orlando International Airport (MCO), in the far southeastern corner of the city, is the largest in Central Florida. It's served by almost all major airlines, as well as charters and discount airlines. If you get to Florida by package deal you'll inevitably end up in Orlando, roped in by cross-marketing plans between theme parks, hotels and airlines. To get to Disney World from the airport by car, take Hwy 417 to Hwy 536.

Amtrak runs direct services from Orlando to Miami, Gainesville and points to the north. The Amtrak station is 1.6km (1mi) south of Central Orlando.

The bus station is in the middle of nowhere out on Hwy 423, but the Greyhound buses will take you to every major city in Florida. If you're arriving by bus, factor in the cost of an expensive cab ride into town.

Getting Around

Orlando runs a highly efficient and inexpensive city bus system, including a free downtown circuit. Pick up schedules and route maps at the Lynx Bus Center, which is is one block east of Orange Ave. You can catch buses from here to the Disney parks, but it's a long ride.

You can catch cabs around if that's your style, but you'll have to wave one down with your mobile since taxis here ignore kerb hailing - no matter how frantic.

Driving within the city of Orlando can be tricky: most streets are one-way and ticket-happy meter maids lie in wait. However, if you want to do any travelling outside of Orlando you'll need a car. From downtown Orlando, take I-4 south. There are a handful of car rental companies at the airport and many more downtown.


 
Further Reading

  • The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe: A fictive chronicle of the exploits of the space jockeys from their sound barrier-bursting days to their triumphs at Cape Canaveral.
  • The Green Guide: Florida by Marty Klinkenbergh & Elizabeth Leach: This guide is particularly good on details and practicalities for travel in state parks and wilderness.
  • Adventuring in Florida by Allen de Hart: A guide to the many natural parks in the Orlando region.
  • Vinyl Leaves by Stephen Fjellman: Anyone interested in the cultural politics and the possibly mind-altering consequences of a trip to Disney World should read this book.
  • Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation &Theme Parks by David Koenig: A cultural history of the Disney corporate world.