Central Florida offers visitors affordable options to theme parks
By Dawn McDowell
What's not to love about Central Florida? After all, Orlando is the home of Mickey, Shamu and terrestrial ET. But while the attractions are fun and entertaining, and offer first-time visitors much to do and see, the theme parks tend to quickly drain your hard-earned vacation cash. The next time you arrive from points north, know that here are a thousand and one different and less expensive things to do if you step off the well-worn path to the theme parks' gates. There is always, always, something going on within an hour's drive of Orlando, and many of these "goings on" can be done for under $10!
In addition to the multitude of sightseeing opportunities, one of the major plusses of this area is that the weather in Central Florida is always near perfect. During the first few months of the year, cool-to-warm days, followed by balmy evening breezes will give you the incentive to forge ahead in your journeys - even after your weary body is ready to quit. And because 85% of the people who populate this area are tourists, everyone is usually in a great mood. And who wouldn't be? After all, this is the vacation Mecca of the world! But even aside from the weather and the people, there are so many off-the-beaten-track sights to see and adventures to be had that, with a little planning, your days will fly by without having to spend a small fortune.
If you've never visited the Central Florida, the late-winter/early spring months are an excellent time to visit this part of the state. During March and through about mid-April, rates for lodging are lower and the influx of peak-season visitors is lessened. When making your reservations, be sure to avoid Spring Break, unless your idea of a good time is a cacophony of students partying without restraint. If your timing is right, you'll be able to truly enjoy your vacation without the hassles of long lines, crowded restaurants and excessive traffic jams.
Once you arrive, a good way to start your sightseeing adventure is with quick day-trips that are within an hour's drive of your hotel room. These alternative excursions can also be a godsend on those days when the weather turns bad and an unplanned day of rain hampers your outdoor activities. If you hop on I-4 and head east, you can begin your journey to see the "other side" of Orlando.
In the downtown Orlando area, there are several out-of-the way hidden treasures that are worth exploring. If you're an antique buff, a shopping district extends from Lake Ivanhoe down Orange Avenue. Here the adventurous buyer will find stores that are chock-full of antiques, bric-a-brac and funky decorative items that are hard to pass up.
This area is also filled with great architecture that truly represents "Old Florida." If you venture on to any of the side streets off of Orange Avenue and drive into the nestled neighborhoods, you'll find a variety of styles of homes that were built several decades ago. The brick paved streets and Spanish moss-draped trees become a pathway to houses and buildings that reflect a variety of architectural styles - from elaborate Spanish to the area's signature funky pink stucco.
Following Orange Avenue to East Princeton Street, you'll pass the new Orlando Science Center. The center offers hands on exhibits and houses an eight-story domed theater. Not only is this fun for the younger set, it also gives adults the opportunity to be a kid in a safe, hands-on environment! Also located in Loch Haven Park is the Orlando Museum of Art, which hosts a collection of local and international works of art.
Travel down US route 1792 and take a break from rushing around to stop and smell the roses at the Harry P. Leu Gardens. Creatively designed for leisurely strolling through their well-maintained rose gardens, lush palm collections, bountiful annual floral garden displays and a colorful butterfly garden will round out your botanical journey
Heading further east on I-4 is Mt. Dora, a charming village nestled away from the hustle and bustle of the touristy side of town. The streets are lined with trees dripping with Spanish moss; their branches bow as if to greet you into their downtown area. There are shops galore and an old, working trolley line. If you're in the area during the first week of February, be sure not to miss the Mt. Dora Arts Festival. It's well worth the trip!
Heading further east on I-4 in Orange City is Blue Spring State Park. Blue Spring is home to manatees - those incredible sea mammals - from November through March. Seeing these wonderful creatures in their crystal-clear natural habitat is sight you'll long remember. The manatees return to the St. John's River in March, so call ahead if you're planning a visit later in the season.
Ready for some wine tasting? Believe it or not, Central Florida is home to the 45-acre, Lakeridge Winery in Clermont, where daily free tours reward you with an opportunity to "taste" the region's award-winning wines.
Visiting Central Florida doesn't mean you're locked into the frenzy of theme parks with thousands of other tourists. With a little planning, you can minimize your vacation costs, maximize your vacation experience and allow yourself to experience and discover the hidden treasures of the greater Orlando area. Whatever you do or wherever you decide to go, be sure to pack your walking shoes! But most of all, enjoy your visit and have fun!
More on Central Florida