By K.D. Wallis
For more than a decade, I have been forced to travel to Orlando,Florida, several times a year for business. I say “forced”, because quite honestly, I would never choose to go there for any reason other than business. Much as I love hot weather, they can keep the humidity, and despite the fact that I grew up adoring Disneyland, I am not a huge fan of non-stop Disney-this and Disney-that, which is what Orlando seems to be all about.
Then there’s the flatness. No matter how many times I’ve been shuttled from the Orlando airport to the various hotels I’ve been booked in, I know that my internal radar system simply will not work without so much as a tiny hill on which to focus and I’m certain I’d be wandering lost, perhaps forever, if I tried to drive myself. Having said that, I bet you’re thinking that I’m about to completely trashOrlandoand discourage you from even considering going there. Nay, nay, say I, and au contraire. There are many beautiful hotels if you can afford them and thanks to the people with whom I do business, I have stayed in several of the nicest ones over the years. I’ll get to that later, though.
First, let me tell you about the other face of Orlando. A couple of years ago, my friend Jackie and I gave ourselves an extra day beyond the usual time allotted to business, in order to visit the world-famous Orlando Zoo that she had seen featured on TV several months earlier. There was one little problem, however. There is no such zoo. I thought that perhaps she was thinking of the Wild Animal Park, but she was adamant that it was not a Disney attraction. Animal lovers that we both are, we weren’t about to let a little thing like nobody ever having heard of the place stop us. After much googling and investigating, we finally hit upon the Brevard Zoo, in nearbyMelbourne.
We rented a car and, map in hand, headed south toward The Kennedy Space Center. Once we left the confines ofOrlandoproper, we found some interesting and diverse terrain during the hour or so drive. Disney’s glamour faded into block after block of distressed commercial buildings, followed by miles and miles of vacant, lush grassland dotted with large ranches. We were hungry and feeling slightly lost by the time we reached the area just below Melbourne, so we stopped at the localCoco’s for a snack and some directions. Again, nobody we approached had ever been to this “world famous” zoo, but at least the restaurant manager was able to head us in the right direction. A couple of wrong turns later, there it was. If you ever go there, and I hope that someday you will, go slowly.
On my second trip there, I found the place very easily, because I knew which freeway to take and there is an exit about two blocks from the zoo. We weren’t so lucky on this first trip. The signage for the zoo itself is awful, even though the entrance is just off a main road. But the zoo…ah, the zoo. For Jackie and me, it was love at first sight. The Brevard Zoo opened in 1994, the result of a unique community volunteer effort to create a “conservation hub” where the animals would feel at home and the human animals could walk along jungle-like wooden pathways to visit them.
You find the usual suspects in residence – apes, big cats, giraffes, wolves, rhinos and countless birds, many of which are free range, i.e., uncaged. This is a zoo unlike any other I have ever visited, in fact, both in size (it gives a somewhat false impression of being tiny) and character (are those animals actually smiling?). We were so charmed, we had to drag ourselves away at closing time. Of course they have a website, www.BrevardZoo.org and I urge you to check it out.
By the way, Jackie finally recognized that this was not the zoo she had seen on television. I still believe she was thinking of Disney’s Wild Animal Park and while that, too, is fun, it can’t hold a candle to the Brevard Zoo. Going from the sublime to the ridiculous, we stopped at The Cracker House, a countrystyle bar, for a drink on the way back to our hotel. We had noticed it on the way to the zoo and thought it looked interesting. It certainly was! It’s hard to miss on the main drag between Melbourne and Orlando: A free-standing, old-fashioned, tin- roofed beauty, with bikers and ladies of questionable repute (no, not us!) coming and going.
Don’t go in if you’re snobbish or judgmental; you’ll spoil the fun – theirs and your own. For me, a trip toOrlandoisn’t complete without two things: Breakfast at a Waffle House and a few hours spent in the oddly named Village of Celebration. I can sum up the Waffle House experience in one short word: Fun. Loud also works, as do quick and cheap. If you’ve ever been anywhere in the South, you’ll be familiar with the Waffle House chain. They seem to be everywhere, but they haven’t arrived west ofArizona…yet. I’ll be the first customer if and when one shows up inL.A.!
While they do offer more than the name implies, waffles are, indeed, their superb specialty and that’s coming from someone who has never been particularly fond of them. Celebration can also be summed up in one word: Pretty. The town – a suburb of Orlando/Kissimmee – was created by the Disney people for their people – an idyllic place, reminiscent of small town U.S.A.circa the early 1900s. The first few times we visited there, we all felt there was a definite “Stepford Wives” vibe to the place, since there wasn’t a fallen leaf to be found on the ground, let alone a living creature, in or around the lovely houses.
No dogs, no cats, no squirrels, not even a sparrow in a manicured tree. There was a handful of nice restaurants surrounding a manmade lake and a beautiful small hotel, where we sometimes dined and where we still go to view the art that’s on display throughout the lobby. Apparently, something has changed over the last couple of years. Disney no longer controls Celebration and real life has appeared. We now see real people walking real dogs and having real celebrations in the public parks.
They put fake snow on the ground during the holidays and install a fake ice rink, where kids large and small can try out their skating skills. It’s kind of cheesy, but appealing nonetheless. All in all, Celebration is a breath of fresh air and well worth a short visit. It’s just a few minutes from the rest of Disney World, so you can easily find time to go. I mentioned earlier that I would fill you in on some of the more traditional attractions inOrlando, starting with the hotels. One of my favorites was The Swan, where I stayed several times, years ago. It’s one of the smaller hotels, with warm Disney-esque décor and several very nice restaurants.
We especially liked the intimate Kimonos for excellent sushi and karaoke. Of course, the excllence of the karaoke depends on the guests, but no matter how awful the singing might be, it’s always fun. One of the nicest things about The Swan is the fact that just a few steps from the back door is the boarding dock for the small ferry boats that deliver you to Epcot Center, my favorite Disney attraction.
If you’ve never been, plan to make a couple of trips here, because there is really too much to see all at once. Half of Epcot is devoted to futuristic rides and inventions, which my husband found fascinating. I, on the other hand, am crazy about the other part: A half dozen or so foreign countries are represented in a semi-circle around a large man-made lake. Within the space of a few hours, you can visit France, Norway, Japan, England and Italy, each with its own shops and restaurants and staffed by personnel from the actual countries represented, which adds to the authentic atmosphere. In the evening, there is a spectacular light show above the center of the lake, which is definitely worth waiting for.
Recently, I’ve been staying at the gorgeous Gaylord Palms Resort in Kissimmee. Kissimmee is to Orlando what Van Nuys is to the San Fernando Valley, so don’t let the name throw you off. The Gaylord is an atrium-enclosed mini-city and if you have business to attend to in one of their convention centers, you’re in luck. There is no need to ever leave the hotel. Why, it even has its very own alligators!
The Gaylord houses four very distinctive restaurants – a sushi bar; a fabulous Mediterranean (make that mostly Italian) buffet restaurant with a constantly changing menu; a fish house set on a stationary sailboat (that’s a great place for a cool libation and appetizers); and the piece de resistance, Old Hickory Steakhouse. Old Hickory is designed to make you feel like you’re dining on the bayou, right down to the hanging Spanish moss. It’s expensive, but well worth the price.
On my most recent trip, two of my friends and I decided to split the equivalent of one meal. We shared a very generous appetizer of incredible fried oysters, followed by a huge rib-eye steak, mashed potatoes and asparagus with hollandaise. There was so much food, we actually had trouble finishing everything – and trust me, we all have very healthy appetites. I recently discovered one thing that the Gaylord offers which I find utterly delightful. During the winter holidays, children can be tucked into bed by one of their favorite Disney characters.
They used to have Mrs. Claus doing it, but apparently, that stopped when new owners took over. Either way, if I had kids, I’d be sure to order this service for them. Speaking of service, I have found that it is almost always warm and inviting, no matter which hotel I wind up in.. In fact, the vast majority of service personnel I’ve encountered inOrlandohave gone out of the way to be welcoming, without being stodgy or arrogant.
Even at the brand new Waldorf Astoria, where I stayed a few weeks ago, I was really astounded by how pleasant everyone was. When I was too stupid to figure out how to work the in-room espresso machine (hey! all I wanted was a cup of hot water for my tea!), a delightful young man came to my rescue and we had a good laugh over the silly machine with no instructions. On my final night at the Waldorf, when my friend and I had intended to go out for dinner, there was such a summer storm brewing that we instead decided to order room service in my suite (we all were given suites and they were simply sumptuous) and watch HBO all evening.
Ahhh, there’s nothing better than a big, fat, juicy hamburger and a nice glass of red wine in a lovely hotel room, especially when you know you don’t have to clean up after yourself! I suppose you could say I have “forgiven”Orlando for its flatness, humidity and uniform prettiness, but it took a long time. We Angelenos really don’t need Florida’s beaches or their palmettos (trees or insects – you pick!), and we have our own “we were the first” Disney attractions, but still…if you’re into fancy hotels and/or expensive theme parks, it’s a good place to visit. Just be sure to save room for a waffle and a half-day trip to something…real.