Life Before (and After) the Theme Parks

By: Mark Robinson

Discover cowboys, crappies and nature's magic in Kissimmee.

We gasped as, skidding sideways on water and air, we came to a wet, roaring stop beside a tangle of swampy grass where an 8-foot alligator stared us down beady-eyed, hissing menacingly.

Which theme park ride was that, you may ask upon hearing the Kissimmee setting? But this is life before the parks and, luckily for families like those of us aboard Boggy Creek Airboat Rides that day, it's still here as a juicy alternative to the parks.

Okay, face it: Disney, et al, are the reason the kids have been nagging you about Kissimmee. Another fact of life: theme parks can overload the senses, for kids and parents alike. To balance the fantasy portion of your vacation, head to the back roads and downtowns for affordable lessons in heritage, real-life critters and shared moments away from crowds and queues.

Stroll through Celebration

Much of the area's past marinates in the waters of the world-famous Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, where fishing is legendary. Its three main towns -- Kissimmee, St. Cloud and Celebration -- hug lakeshores. We headed first to the newest of these, model-city Celebration -- a real live town where kids run down brick-paved streets and browse shops of dolls, stuffed bears, baby clothes, pastries and ice cream. Take in a movie, stroll around the lake or stop for pizza. The fountain is also a prime spot for little ones to burn off energy while Mom and Dad relax.

Kissimmee's Amusements

From there we kept up the momentum along Kissimmee's strip of sights on U.S 192. From our hotel, we could walk to Old Town, a child's dreamland of midway meets mall. From an old-fashioned Ferris wheel to a heart-stopping slingshot, Old Town appeals to all ages, abetted with specialty shops, a pizza parlor, Friday and Saturday night classic car cruises and other family-appealing gestures. If that's not enough, check out the world's tallest Sky Coaster ride and multi-level go-kart tracks.

Get out on the Water

Mornings are prime for airboating because the wildlife is active. Our Boggy Creek captain knew exactly where to find 'gator nests guarded by protectively hissing moms. On our boat, a 6-year-old was wide-eyed at the speed and rawness of nature, while his 2-year-old brother clung tightly to Dad. but protested the requisite ear protection.

Follow that up with a drive around East Lake Tohopekaliga (mercifully shortened to Toho) and into sweet little St. Cloud, an erstwhile sugar-growing town that could be a model for those quaint hometowns theme parks simulate. Grab sandwiches to go and picnic at Lakefront Park, which has a marina, boat ramp, fishing pier, playground and restaurant.

Downtown Diversions

Antiquing is the other great sport in both downtown St. Cloud and Kissimmee. Worlds away from the theme park realms, Kissimmee grew up along sister Lake Toho, where another Lakefront Park entertains families with a fountain splash pool and a caboose selling snacks and ice cream. Our favorite spot, the Monument of States, delivers a free and easy geography lesson, made of minerals from every state and many nations. From there you can walk to the stores and eateries of pretty downtown, decorated with murals depicting Kissimmee's cow town heritage.

Animal Attractions

For a more potent taste of that legacy, take the kids to Green Meadows Petting Farm, where they can actually milk a cow and ride a hay wagon (during October, pick a pumpkin from the patch). Silver Spurs Rodeo, the biggest east of the Mississippi, takes place in February and June at Osceola Heritage Park with other events throughout the year. You can also watch venomous snakes get milked at Reptile World Serpentarium and look for birds at the Disney Wilderness Preserve.

Local Heritage

Our other favorite thing to do in Kissimmee: On rainy days, you can explore Florida in microcosm inside the glass-domed world of Gaylord Palms Resort.

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