Wednesday 24 May 2017

Kissimmee Quick! Travelling beyond the theme parks in Florida

American holidays

Brian O'Reilly

Brian O'Reilly

There's more to Orlando and florida than theme parks, says an alligator-dodging Brian O'Reilly.

Standing on a wooden platform 100 feet above an alligator enclosure, I'm wondering if I should have gone to one of Orlando's many theme parks.

Yes, they've been done to death - but there's less chance of me being torn asunder by a pack of hungry alligators in Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando, right?

I'm in Gatorland, Kissimmee (gatorland.com).

Set in the Headwaters of the Florida Everglades, I'm blown away by the natural beauty of an area I thought held little but motels and highways. The high winds aren't helping my nerves, but this zip line is the closest I'll come to being Indiana Jones.

I also get to go kayaking. Paddling through Shingle Creek, I nearly tip into the murky waters below, conscious it would put me in snapping distance of some of Florida's 2.5 million alligators. I steady myself, taking on a considerable amount of water in the process, and continue.

Florida is home to 2.5 million alligators.
Florida is home to 2.5 million alligators.

Should you really want to challenge yourself, it's possible to paddle through the state's extensive and intricate system of lakes all the way to Miami.

Florida attracts over 100,000 Irish holidaymakers every year - the vast majority of them doing the theme park jaunt in Orlando and its environs. Mickey Mouse's presence is quite literally etched into the landscape, but beyond the magical kingdom lies another, equally enchanting place.

A quick trip to Osceola County Museum further opens my eyes to the history of the region. It was the original home of cowboys, or cattle men as they preferred to be known. Apparently, referring to a Florida cattleman as a cowboy is derogatory (they believed their Texan counterparts had it easy not having to navigate the swamps and negotiate the humidity of the Sunshine State).

It's quite a basic museum, but a $5 admission fee is worth it to gain an understanding of the history of a region now dominated by Disney.

A balloon ride is a must to see the stunning landscape
A balloon ride is a must to see the stunning landscape

The best way of all to truly appreciate Florida's vastly varied landscape is by air, however - and the best way to travel by air is by taking a balloon ride. Orlando Balloon Rides offer daily trips to fully explore the scrubland, swamps and even Disney becomes a dot in an overwhelming beautiful natural landscape below.

You'll need to book ahead and, as I found out on a rare cold morning in Florida, it's best to set aside two days in case the winds aren't favourable. I'm probably Florida's only visitor that returned to Ireland with a cold, following the chilliest week of the year to date. I'm assured there's 246 days of sunshine per year - I, however, missed all of them.

Elsewhere, if you're looking for the appeal of a theme park with a little bit more educational value, the Kennedy Space Center (kennedyspacecenter.com) is a must - it would almost be sinful to visit the region and not pay a visit.

In a region dominated by fantasy, this is a living historical site where something once considered fantasy became a reality.

Speaking of living history, our guide Stan has worked for the Center for 40 years, and has the encyclopaedic knowledge to back it up, but the enthusiasm of someone on their first day.

Kennedy Space Center is still an active launch site, and as I gaze up at massive launch pads I can't help but be genuinely awe-struck, which I assure you is no easy feat. The interactive experiences are top of the class - the original mission control centre has been preserved and incorporated into a fantastic live display, complete with original audio and simulated vibrations of the rocket launch.

Having lunch with an astronaut is an optional extra, and they don't come more experienced than seven-time space traveller Jerry Ross.

As I'm pondering what insightful question I can ask him during the Q&A, I'm beaten to the punch by an eight-year-old boy.

"Did you ever see a UFO?" he asks.

"I've never seen a UFO, or any little green men with TV antenna sticking out of their heads," Ross replies with a chuckle.

However this future journalist won't be dissuaded, and retorts: "Or is that what the government wants us to believe?"

The chilly weather on my visit leads me to believe this 'Sunshine State' claim is a conspiracy, but I leave my Kissimmee adventure eager to return - a head cold my only unwanted souvenir.

The space shuttle Atlantis on display
The space shuttle Atlantis on display

Getting there

Aer Lingus fly directly to Orlando from Dublin three times per week. Tour America, American Holidays, Sunway and ClickAndGo.com, among others, do packages. For more information on Kissimmee, visit experiencekissimmee.com.

Eat like a local

The Columbia restaurant in Celebration is a foodie institution in Florida. The family-run business was founded originally in 1905 by Cuban immigrants, and serves traditional Columbian fare. The mojitos are made tableside, too... columbiarestaurant.com.

Where to stay

I stayed at the Omni Resort in Championsgate (omnihotels.com). To live like a Kardashian, try a 13-bed mansion from jeevesfloridarentals.com. The $10k weekly price tag is daunting, but with a party of 26 sharing, that's $55pp per night!

Car rental

For the uninitiated, car rental is a must in Florida. Public transport is almost non-existent outside the Orlando metro area, and where it does exist is patchy at best. Plus, if you plan on exploring the area, it's best to do it under your own steam.

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