Orlando and Kissimmee Area

The Orlando/Kissimmee area is best known for its theme parks, but there are small communities with quirky characters to explore, too.

Orlando needs no introduction. Its fame as a family destination for theme parks resounds around the world and draws visitors from every corner of said world. But this larger-than-life playground has more to offer than what lies behind turnstile gates. Visitors of all ages find shopping on scale with its other attractions as well as museums, sports, performance arts, green oases and outlying towns and neighborhoods with their own distinct personality.

Walt Disney World created the town of Lake Buena Vista, where its empire of fantasy continually grows. From Magic Kingdom in the beginning, the wonderful world has expanded to include futuristic Epcot, entertainment world's Disney's Hollywood Studios, and nature's Animal Kingdom. Throw in a couple of water parks, some miniature golf, a high-tech video arcade and golf and you have just about every entertainment base covered. Downtown Disney complexes provide the ultimate in shopping, nightlife and dining, using the same special effects and gimmicks as the parks. Resorts have kept up with the growth and many have themes spanning motifs from Caribbean to western lodge and from sports to music.

The propensity for over-the-top entertainment has infected the environs with a love for fun, faux, goofy and imagination. Disney spawned more and more theme parks small and magnificent and contributed to the old cattle and citrus town a show-biz, grand-scale sense of proportion. Universal Orlando Resort, with its two-part theme parks – Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure – furthered the city's reputation for state-of-the-art showmanship and thrills. Universal Orlando Resort is also home to three magnificently themed hotels and CityWalk, a 30-acre entertainment complex with a club and dining scene, expanding the appeal of the parks to encompass adult playtime as well.

Meanwhile, SeaWorld Orlando brings a marine attraction element to the scene but not without its own sense of drama and adventure. In addition to shows and exhibits starring dolphins, otters, seals, manatees, penguins, sharks and other denizens of the deep, SeaWorld thrills visitors with high-heart-rate rides and simulations. Its sister attraction, Discovery Cove, is the ultimate dolphin interaction experience, including a full day's regime of snorkeling and private beaching.

Water parks, dinner show attractions, hot-air balloon rides, an alligator farm, and an assortment of amusement parks keep up the momentum of non-stop fun. Resorts, mostly of the large and innovative variety, are destinations in themselves. For the more high-brow palate, art museums, a history museum, gardens, parks and theater satisfy the appetite. Head to downtown Orlando for lively shopping, an African-American heritage museum and entertainment in the Church Street area. Recreational opportunities abound in Winter Park, home to a multitude of parks and lakes. Nearby Eatonville was one of the first communities in America to be incorporated by African-Americans. It hosts the annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities, named for the eminent Harlem Renaissance author who grew up there.

Kissimmee does things in a slightly less showy way than Orlando, given its hometown sentiment and cow-town origins. Rodeos, in fact, are still a way of life in the historic downtown area. Horseback riding, a petting farm and a folksy historic park gauge the low-key temperament here, although themed family resorts, water parks and other such hyper activity centers share the turf.

Farther yet from Orlando's core attractions, parks, springs, canoeing waterways and small towns remember the area's roots. Some favorite off-the-beaten-path destinations surrounding the metropolis include the antiquing, biking town of time-stilled Mount Dora, where residents have willfully kept out chains and over-development from its historic and hilly, downtown lakefront shopping district. Sanford, a St. Johns River town, offers romantic rivership excursions, manatee snorkel tours and an opportunity to see endangered species from around the world at Central Florida Zoological Park.

Cassadaga is famous for its spiritualist community. Stop in for a sense of the town's unusual vibe. Near St. Cloud, a former cattle ranch has turned into an eco-attraction that embodies old Florida. In Polk City, you can take the wheel on a virtual reality flight, have a ride in a real biplane and tour the world's largest private aircraft collection at Fantasy of Flight.

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