By Florence Beth Snyder

When you don’t have time to take in one of Orlando’s world-famous theme parks, visit the University of Central Florida (UCF) and see the kind of imagineering that has made it the largest public university east of the Mississippi River.

UCF offers a special view into the night sky at the Robinson Observatory, where they like to point out the Knight in the sky with the Pegasus constellation.

UCF offers a special view into the night sky at the Robinson Observatory, where they like to point out the Knight in the sky with the Pegasus constellation.

- Julie Fletcher for VISIT FLORIDA

UCF is known by its nickname, the Knights, and its symbol, the mythological winged-horse Pegasus. The university’s motto is “Reach for the stars,” and you’ll understand why when you visit the Robinson Observatory for one of its popular “Knights Under the Stars” open houses. UCF’s friendly physicists love talking about Pegasus, the constellation that resembles the horse, and other points of interest in the night sky.

For those whose tastes trend toward the bucolic, there’s lots to do at the 82-acre Arboretum. It began modestly in 1983 with 12 acres just east of the biology building. Today, it’s a focal point of UCF’s growing presence in the global marketplace of ideas for creating sustainable urban environments.

Take a self-guided tour any day between sunrise and sunset. You can hike or bike three miles of trails which exhibit four uniquely Florida habitats. The Oak Hammock is a favorite place to enjoy a picnic lunch. UCF asks only that visitors “take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints.”

The Arboretum features a Community Garden, where you’re likely to run into student volunteers and local supporters. Since the Garden opened in 2009, they’ve been tending the land for no compensation but the joy of learning, teaching and bringing home a share of the vegetables, flowers and herbs they produce. Have your camera handy. You’ll want a picture of the gentle and beautiful deer who poke around, trying to find a way past the fence that protects the Garden from four-legged gourmands.

As Orlando-area teachers and Scoutmasters know, with a little advance planning, Arboretum staff can customize an outdoor educational experience at a very modest fee, typically $3 per person per hour. Impromptu visitors can take advantage of the free tours available during the week.

Housing over half a million specimens, The Bug Closet is a fascinating space where tours can be set up ahead of time.

Housing over half a million specimens, The Bug Closet is a fascinating space where tours can be set up ahead of time.

- Julie Fletcher for VISIT FLORIDA

If someone you love is fascinated by creepy-crawlies and things that go bump in the night, give them the gift of a trip to UCF’s Bug Closet. The bugs ­­— more formally known as “arthropods” and studied by “entomologists” — are part of one of the world’s largest collections.

Outreach Coordinator Erin Barbeau is never bugged by requests to come see the critters up close. Email her at a week or two ahead, and make arrangements for a visit the kids won’t forget, complete with an opportunity to pet some live insects.

For a less tactile but equally intense experience, consider UCF’s calendar of musical and theatrical events. Students come from 152 countries and all 50 states, many drawn by the highly regarded performing arts programs. It’s a student body bouillabaisse that makes for rich and spicy productions, at prices that won’t bust the family budget.

UCF is home to the nation’s highest rated jazz radio station. You can listen online to what the Knights call “jazz and more” at WUCF 88.9 FM, or drop by the Communications Building where the state-of-the-art studio is housed.

Internationally known artists sometimes make surprise visits to brighten up the Knight air with a live performance on WUCF, or to record with the university’s in-house record label, Flying Horse Records. The UCF-Orlando Jazz Festival was launched in 2008, and has quickly grown into an annual spring semester highlight.

The Knights are as serious about sports as they are about academics. They dress to intimidate in their school colors, black and gold, and their 44,000 seat football stadium — the first National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I stadium to open in the 21st century — is known as The Bouncehouse because it shakes visibly when students jump during their unofficial fight song, Zombie Nation’s “Kernkraft 400.”

The earth doesn’t move quite as much in the CFE Arena, where both the men’s and women’s basketball teams play their home games. But the one-of-a-kind “blacktop” court took seven months to design and inspires Knights fans to dangerous decibel levels. If you’re watching courtside, earplugs are a good idea.

Ten bucks buys you a day pass to the Recreation and Wellness Center. It’s a wellness wonderland, a theme park for seekers of a sound mind in a sound body. The RWC welcomes students, faculty and visitors of every fitness level to partake of all the usual methods of burning calories — weights, cardio, a nine-lane lap pool and every kind of court sport — and also to explore the spiritual side of sweating, perhaps with one of the six different kinds of yoga classes offered. There’s a greater variety of Zumba, spinning and barre classes than you’ll find at the average neighborhood gym, and whatever the next big thing in fitness is, chances are the RWC will have it. The RWC prides itself on inclusiveness, and many of its activities, such as the luxurious “leisure pool,” are wheelchair accessible.

Discover the 41-foot-tall Climbing Tower in air-conditioned comfort. Students are standing by to assure a safe and happy experience, even for first-time climbers. For a good time at ground level, discover the more cerebral fun of geocaching and the joys of disc golf at the RWC’s nine-hole course.

The Knights love company when they Light Up UCF for the holidays with light shows, outdoor ice skating, an ice slide, holiday movies under the stars and carnival rides and attractions. The party begins in mid-November in Knights Plaza, and doesn’t stop until after Baby New Year settles in.

When you go…

University of Central Florida
4000 Central Florida Blvd.
Orlando, Fla 3281


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