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Hidden Orlando and beyond

Orlando could capture your imagination for weeks on end with its theme parks -- but you can get away for brilliant side trips.

Car hire is a must -- and driving in Florida is dead easy, but do bring a satnav as the myriad freeways can be confusing.

I picked up a car through Alamo, which has two convenient locations -- at the Sheraton, near Universal Studios, and at Orlando Airport.

Booking a medium-sized car through www.touramerica.ie, adjusting to automatic took a matter of minutes, and the ease of driving would put you off stick-shift for life.

The one must-see outside of Orlando is Nasa's Kennedy Space Center (www.kennedyspacecenter.com). Admission prices are $41 for adults, $31 for kids, and you could spend hours on the various tours around the sprawling complex.

If your kids are space mad, it's worth booking ahead and paying the extra $22.99 adult/$15.99 child for the Lunch With An Astronaut experience, where you get to quiz a real-life space explorer about their experiences.

Further afield, Busch Gardens (www.buschgardens.com) is a must, if you want to try a roller-coaster park with a wildlife experience.

About an hour and a half's drive towards Tampa from Orlando, it's got plenty of animals on view, and thrills. Whoever designed the SheiKra ride missed his calling as a professional torturer. It starts off with a 200ft climb (great views of nearby Tampa's skyscrapers) and takes you to the edge of a 90-degree drop. And leaves you there. The four seconds seem like an eternity, so if you're the nervous type bring a change of underwear.

Mums and dads are well catered for in Orlando, with two massive outlet malls at either end of the main International Drive.

Premium Outlets is at the bottom end of the strip, with more than 150 stores including Nike, Adidas, Gap and Timberland. If you have no car, it is connected to the rival Prime Outlets on the top end of I-Drive by the local I-Ride Trolley.

Prime Outlets has had a $250m makeover and has great bargains from the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and J Crew and some good restaurants.

For a regular mall experience, look no further than Millenia.

But for something uniquely Floridian, you have to get yourself down to the Everglades (and some enormous alligators) at Boggy Creek Airboats (www.bcairboats.com).

Half-hour tours in cool, fast airboats are $25.95 for adults and $19.95 for kids, and well worth it.

Suggested reading: The Brit guide (okay, the title grates) to Orlando and DisneyWorld is a must, packed with info. It's available from bookstores or www.britguideorlando.net