Every year millions of Americans and pretty much the entire population of Great Britain descend upon Orlando. They come to spend. And spend they do. Multi-day passes at Disney. Multi-park passes at Universal. Sea World, Legoland, Cypress Gardens, the list goes on and on and on. The cost for a single day ticket to any one of these places is $100. For a family of 5 over the course of a week, well, you can do the math.
And they miss the whole point of going to Florida. You should come here for one of two reasons:
- You want to escape from brutal winter weather in the God-forsaken arctic wasteland you call home
- You want to fish/surf/dive/play in the sand on a nice stretch of beach since you don’t live anywhere near any sort of coast
Orlando fails on both. Technically, it is in Florida, which means that the temperatures are going to be much warmer than the frozen north, but nobody vacations here in the winter. The only reason to come here is for the kids to go to the parks and the kids are in school. So when do people come? The dead of summer when it’s 95F and 95% humidity all the time, with bugs the size of Apache helicopters dive bombing you. Second, Orlando is about as far from the ocean as you can be in the state of Florida. The closest beach is a couple hours away in Daytona or St. Petersburg. They have had to make beaches on local lakes to try to fool the tourists into thinking they’re actually at a beach.
So why is it here, the town of Orlando? Up until the late 60s, it was a farm town. Center for the orange growing business in the state. A sleepy town of about 50,000 virtually surrounded by orange groves. It’s the county seat of Orange County for crying out loud. I came here with my uncle in 1969 to visit my aunt’s family on our way to watch the Apollo 11 launch at Cape Canaveral. There was nothing here. And surely no reason to come for a visit.
This is what attracted Walt Disney. He had a modest success with his Disneyland in southern California, but expansion was out of the question as he was hemmed in by the urban sprawl that is Los Angeles. What’s more, only the fool-hardy east coasters (like my parents) would pack their kids in the car for the week-long trek across country to visit Mickey & Co (think- National Lampoon’s Vacation). He could buy a couple of hundred square miles of orange trees and build to his heart’s content in central Florida. Thus, did Orlando transition from the sleepy orange juice capital to the undisputed king of the family vacation in 1971. Today, there are over 2 million people in the greater Orlando area and many of them are part of the great engine that is the US vacation industry. Yeah, yeah, I know they have an NBA team, but who really wants one?
My point is this, if you want to go to Florida, don’t go in the summer, and don’t go to Orlando. If you daughter is an aspiring Disney princess, you may be flat out of luck. At least there is more than Disney there. Universal Studios theme park is equally huge and expensive. It does have much better rides in my opinion. It does not have princesses, but it does have Harry Potter. My nephew Dan is an entertainer there. He plays Elwood Blue in the Blues Brothers. He is absolutely excellent. More about Dan at the end. There is also Legoland, Sea World and no end of smaller establishment where you can kill a day and most of your next pay check.
Ok, enough Orlando-bashing. Wait, one more bit of Orlando-bashing. When the place was all oranges, the only road through here was Interstate 4. I-4 is one of our shorter interstate highways stretching from Tampa to Daytona Beach right through downtown Orlando. It really isn’t an interstate at all since it never leaves Florida. As Orlando grew and spread, it became necessary to expand the roads to handle the traffic. Spur lines off I-4 were built to connect all of the surrounding communities. Very nice roads, but with a catch; every one is a toll road.
Now we in Pittsburgh have the country’s first toll highway, the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It is a necessary evil if you want to go east and west. In recent years, they’ve invented the EZPass which is a small electronic box that is capable of paying your toll electronically without you having to stop. To encourage you to use EZPass, they even made the tolls cheaper than if you paid with cash. Many states also use EZPass, so I can go on the New York Thruway, the Ohio Turnpike, or the West Virginia Turnpike. It won’t work in Florida, though. You can drop a TON of quarters on these roads. The only one that isn’t a toll road is I-4, and boy does that frost them to see you driving on it for free.
So for all its warts, let’s assume that you’re going to Orlando because your kids have beat on you and you have no choice in the matter. After reading this, you might want to escape for a day or two. I got some good places for you to go, far away from the maddening crowds, (most of) the toll roads, and any sign of mouse ears.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post , Florida is perched atop a huge fresh water aquifer. Bazillions of gallons of pure, fresh water flow out of springs and create rivers. The springs make great places to visit if you like to swim, boat, or just hang out in nature. Such a place is Wekiwa Springs near Apopka about an hour northeast of Orlando. It costs $6.00 per car which is roughly the price of….well….you really can’t get anything for six bucks at the theme parks. A long sloping lawn connects the parking lot to the spring. There are steps to enter the water for swimming. Nature trails ring the spring, and a river, formed by the outflow provides a great place to canoe or kayak.It is just a gorgeous place to commune with nature. The water is 72F year round, so it can be a bit bracing. But it is so cool to swim through the entrance to the spring and feel the power of the water as it rushes from the ground.
Since it is a state park, Wekiwa has park rangers that will acquaint you with the local wild life. There are all kinds of birds raccoons and lots of squirrels. Like all of Florida, basking gators and snapping turtles can be found sunning themselves along the river.
We rented a canoe since that was the only thing that would fit all three off us and took off down the river on a 2-hour odyssey. Twenty minutes into our cruise, a 6-foot gator jumped into the water not ten feet away from my wife. Probably got wind that Max was posing with one of his kids. That marked the end of the cruise as we set speed records getting back up-river to the rental place.
Gators not-with-standing, this was a wonderful place to spend a day, and not an animated mouse anywhere in sight. After a pleasant day, we headed back to the Orlando resort on the toll road.
Our second day trip was a bit further afield, but still a lot of fun.
St. Augustine is about two hours northeast of Orlando. You take I-4 east toward Daytona, then take I-95 north. I like history. Florida is very historical if you go to the right places. St. Augustine is the right place. The town is celebrating the 450th anniversary of its founding by the Spanish. This makes it the oldest town in the new world if we conveniently forget that there were millions of native Americans already here. It was founded because of a mistake. After Columbus showed everybody you wouldn’t fall off the earth if you sailed west, the likes of Hernando Cortez and Francisco Pizzaro came looking for gold and lands to conquer. Meanwhile, Ponce de Leon went looking for immortality. He heard from another Spanish sailor of a “fountain of youth” in what is now northern Florida. He founded St. Augustine on the site of a spring. He lived to the ripe old age of 46, so I think he might’ve got it wrong.
The Spanish also built a fort to guard the harbor, the Castillo de San Marcos. The fort has walls that are 8-ft thick in places made of coral rock. Cannon balls tend to just get sucked into the wall with no visible damage, so nobody could wrest control of the fort although several countries tried. The US obtained Florida in a round-about way. Spain traded Florida to the Brits for Havana, Cuba and a player to be named later in 1763. After we won the War of Independence, the sore British losers gave Florida back to the Spain just to spite us. Spain was required as part of the deal to periodically yell “Nyah, nyah, nyah” over the border into Georgia. They tired of this in 1821 and just gave it to us.
Today, there are loads of things to see, and no small number of cheesy attractions including the aforementioned fountain.
We decided to rent bikes and tour the place from our hotel which was right in the historical section of town. We rode along George St. which is a large pedestrian mall with lots of great places to eat. This includes Pizza Time, a New York-style, by-the-slice pizza place that was determined to have the second best pizza, not in St. Augustine, not in Florida, but in the whole US. They weren’t far off as the pizza was pricey, but excellent.
After lunch, we rode across the bridge in search of the St. Augustine lighthouse. I’m a sucker for lighthouses and I generally have to go see any I get near. You ever notice how tall things like lighthouses always look a lot closer than they turn out to be? And the amount your family resents you for making them bike there is directly proportional to how hot it is outside? Well, you get the picture.
Our last stop was a good one, the old fort Castillo de San Marcos. This was worth the price to get in, and is administered by the US National Park Service, so your annual pass (if you have one) is good here. The place is remarkably well preserved and was built in stages with the first construction about the time of the Spanish colonization. It was a pretty Spartan existence and you had to wonder who you had to tick off to get stationed here.
Back to Orlando
After a day in St. Augustine, we drove back to the Orlando airport for our trip back to the frozen north. Rather than taking I-95, we drove down A-1-A along the coast, stopping in Flagler Beach for an ice cream and a walk along the pier.
We managed to get out of Orlando for a couple of great days, and we managed to extend our summer by a week or so. So next time you find yourself in theme park hell, take a deep breath and drive away from the crowds. Unless you can score free tickets to Universal from your nephew.
We got to Orlando airport with a bit of time to kill before our flight. My son, Max thanked us for taking him on the trip. I told him that there was one little thing he could do for me “for my blog post”.
Bonus – My Nephew Dan
Every family has one. The talented entertainer that is languishing away in southwest PA, but doesn’t have the guts to go out into the world and seek his fortune. We have my nephew Dan, but he is far from gutless. Dan is my sister’s son, was a decent hockey player growing up, and always seemed to be carrying around a guitar. His mother wore him out pointing out that “he wasn’t going to make a living playing that guitar” so he’d better concentrate on school. Dan had other ideas and lit out for Florida right out of high school. He got a job as a roller-blading, guitar-playing sultan in a show in Busch Gardens in Tampa where he could live with my parents. After a while, the gravitational pull from Orlando was too much for him and he landed in Universal Studios where he has played Elwood Blue of the Blues Brothers for about ten years now, as well as a stint as the Night Bus Conductor in Harry Potter World. Dan is married to Martha who he met at Universal, and has two of the cutest twin girls, Penny and Isabelle that you’ll ever see. He sets us up with tickets every couple of years which is just great.
One time Ellen DeGeneres, who was known for quirky opening sequences to her shows, was in Universal Studios and commandeered the 1974 Dodge Monaco Bluesmobile as Jake and Ellwood looked on in amazement. Every time Ellen used this opening, my nephew got a royalty check. He would call my sister and tell her that he was coming home. The Ellen check had just come in.