Orlando is the second-largest tourist destination in the country as nearly 50 million travelers visit this central Florida city annually. It ranks only behind Las Vegas in numbers of visitors. Like Las Vegas, Orlando never stops building. It had been a decade since I was last here and I did not recognize the place.
Obviously the main draw to Orlando is its theme parks. It is hard to believe that prior to 1971 when Disney World, an East Coast version of Disneyland opened, Orlando was a sleepy railroad town best known for its proximity to the nation’s best citrus groves. A decade later Disney World expanded as a second theme park, EPCOT was created, which conceptualized Walt Disney’s vision of the future with an emphasis on ecology.
While I did make a visit to the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, I was more interested in seeing Disney’s newer attractions, the MGM-Disney Studios, which was a work-in-progress when I was last there, and the Animal Kingdom. I’m not sure where the MGM comes from since I only saw one picture of Leo the Lion in the park, but MGM-Disney does a nice job celebrating the entertainment industry. When you go past the front gate you are immediately whisked back to the glamour of 1930s art deco Hollywood. Be sure to catch The Great Movie Ride which is a 20-minute World’s Fair-like celebration of a century of film-making. You also should not miss the condensed on-stage version of “Beauty And The Beast.”
The Animal Kingdom succeeds at providing a fine habitat for endangered species of African and Asian mammals. A safari truck takes you through a re-creation of Kenya as you get surprisingly close to giraffes, rhinos, lions, and perhaps a bit too close to the elephants. I was impressed that almost everywhere you turned in Animal Kingdom there was someone who could answer any question you had about the park’s inhabitants.
Five miles north on I-4 is Disney’s principal competitor for tourist dollars in the area, Universal Studios. Not surprisingly the emphasis here is strictly on films as one can experience Steven Spielberg magic on the “E.T.” ride, hop on the “Back To The Future” magic Delorean, look for extraterrestrial aliens masquerading as humans with Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones on “The Men In Black” ride, and watch Arnold Schwarzenegger take out the bad guys in a special 30-minute 3-D version of “The Terminator.” While the attractions are fun and worth the wait on line, I truly enjoyed the live entertainment of “The Blues Brothers Show” and the absolutely hysterical “Beetlejuice Graveyard Revue.” Rollercoaster enthusiasts will enjoy Universal’s newly-opened Islands of Adventure, which is located adjacent to the studios.
Sea World proved to be the most pleasant surprise during my visit to Orlando. Having visited other Sea World parks in the United States, I found that there wasn’t much memorable except for Shamu the killer whale jumping out of his pool at an aquamarine theater, and two playful sea lions, Clyde and Seamore, entertaining visitors with their comic routines at another show. Yes, Shamu and Clyde & Seamore are still performing, but Sea World has improved its Dolphin Cove, where you can pet and occasionally even chat with our favorite aquatic mammals, and they have added a terrific Antarctica exhibit, where you can observe walruses, beluga whales and almost every species of penguin known to man. They have also just opened Sharks Grill where you can enjoy fine cuisine while hammerheads and the like swim around in their tank.
Two years ago Sea World opened a new attraction across the street, Discovery Cove, where visitors are encouraged to swim with dolphins as well as other residents of the ocean. There is also an excellent aviary here and rare species of birds literally eat out of your hands if you have food. The grounds are reminiscent of an exclusive Caribbean resort and alas so are the prices as a day here can cost nearly $200. Discovery Cove limits the number of people who can enter on a given day and reservations made way in advance are a must.
While theme parks are the engine which drives Orlando, the area is also becoming a popular shopping destination as well. You will want to bring an extra suitcase if you plan on visiting the new upscale Orlando Premium Outlets, which is managed by the same company that operates Woodbury Commons’ an hour’s ride north of Queens, and Orlando’s original outlet mall, the Belz Factory Stores, located at the end of famed International Drive.
Nightlife is not Orlando’s strong suit but there is still plenty to do. Arabian Nights is a popular dinner theater show in nearby Kissimee, which features a circus-like horse show interspersed with comedy routines. You can also try some of the tasty bistros located on Church Street in downtown Orlando.
There is no shortage of lodging properties here and this makes it a vacationer’s market. The Orlando Renaissance Resort, located across the road from Sea World, is popular with both the business convention crowd and leisure travelers. Its Sunday brunch, which features a buffet of over 150 items, attracts the locals as does its four-star Atlantis Restaurant.
Practically every airline in the world flies into Orlando, including such famed discounters as Southwest, AirTran, Spirit, and Queens’ own JetBlue, making a flight to Orlando a bargain almost any time of the year.
If you are thinking of retiring, Orlando, unlike most Florida cities, does not have a lot of housing earmarked specifically for seniors. However, there is such a glut of construction there that you can lease a luxury apartment for a very reasonable rent, particularly measured by New York standards.
For more information call the Orlando Visitors Bureau at 800-551-0181.