Orlando: Playground or City?
by Anthony Ottomanelli
I recently had the opportunity to visit Orlando for a few days with my 5½-year-old son, Christopher. Now, Christopher has heard of Disney World and its reputation for being one of the greatest, most fun places to go in the world. He hasn’t, however, heard of some of the other places that we planned to visit, and for a one-track-minded 5-year-old, that presents a problem. The very idea of going somewhere other than Disney World, when you’re right in the neighborhood, seems absolutely ludicrous to a child. Luckily, as adults, we know things. We know that a dime is worth more than a nickel, even though it’s smaller . . . we know that no matter how much fun we are having at the moment, eventually we must sleep . . . and we know that there must be more to Orlando than just Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. And, I can prove it!
While in Orlando, I had the opportunity to talk to some of the locals: Bob and Nancy (I didn’t ask their last names), with their daughter and granddaughter. Bob had moved from NYC to downtown Orlando in 1981 and couldn’t be happier. They say they still visit New York, but feel like Orlando life is more their speed. “It’s like living in the country,” said Bob’s daughter, Barbara, when comparing it to New York, “This city is perfect for me.” According to Nancy, they really don’t go to the theme parks on weekends; there’s lots of other stuff to do, many costing much less than the cost of a theme park ticket.
A little research can reveal tons of things to do in this city where everyone seems to smile. In New York, we have lots of theaters, parks, playgrounds, sporting and cultural events going on throughout our city, but it never before occurred to me that Orlando would boast many cool places of it’s own. It was a fantastic revelation to find out that I could spend a day out in Orlando, with my family, and have a fantastic time without buying a single theme park ticket! My son and I both had a great time, and wished we’d had more time to explore the city, but we’ll get back to all that. First, let’s talk about what’s new at the theme parks, and take a look at the Nickelodeon Hotel!
Slime Loving It!
I, personally, don’t get the whole “slime” thing. I’m not knocking it, but to me, it’s just some vague flashback of Nickelodeon in its early days (I didn‘t have cable, so I only saw “Nick“ commercials, and had no idea what Nickelodeon was all about at that time). That said, there is a whole lot to love about the Nickelodeon Hotel in Orlando, Florida, a place that simply exudes happiness and youthful energy as soon as you catch sight of it. My son, Christopher, was very excited to see all of his favorite “Nick” characters all over the building’s structure, windows and interior. Our room was decorated with Danny Phantom, and apparently that was an excellent choice of décor. We received a very warm greeting, literally, from everyone we encountered, enjoyed a wonderful, kid-friendly meal at the food court, and then spent time in the comfortably warm lagoon pool.
Attach:florida_2009_05.jpg Δ | A Bit of Nick Fun
The Lagoon Pool is a very kid-friendly pool, sporting a “zero-depth” entry on the shallow side of the pool, lots of cool fountains, and a short glance from the water slides and sliming area. There is another pool in another section of the hotel called the Oasis Pool , which was also really nice, and also had a kiddies’ area.
Now, don’t sell slime short, everyone seems to love it here! We were at the lagoon pool, swimming and watching poolside entertainment, when it happened. Every day, sometimes twice, both children and adults actually crowded into the pool area for a “mass sliming” where four hundred gallons, yes,four hundred gallons, of green slime would be dropped onto the eager crowd from a huge orange bucket that resides over the water slides. The crowd was actually chanting: “We want slime! We want slime! . . .” for several minutes before being rewarded with lots of green goop that seemed to disappear as quickly as it was dumped, as it is somewhat less goopy than the slime they use in the slimings and shows at Club Slimeand Studio Nick.
Studio Nick includes events like karaoke and Nick Live , interactive game shows that let the whole family join in the fun! They cast the players for the show, daily, at the lagoon pool. Whipped cream pies-in-the-face are part of the interactive entertainment here as well, and while I really had no intention of getting slimed, myself, I couldn’t help getting into the messy fun. There’s something charming about the old-fashioned, messy, pie-in-the-face humor here. I couldn’t resist purchasing extra slime, at the gift shop, so that my Christopher could slime the rest of the family at home; he’s looking forward to it. Club Nick is located in the Mall , along with a 4-D Experience movie theater, gift shops, restaurants and food court, and an arcade game room, and while walking through the mall, you just might run into the Splat Pack , a talented trio of entertainers who seem to broaden the smiles of everyone they run into. Their sole purpose seems to be to sing, dance, and interact with all guests to encourage everyone to get a tiny bit silly, maybe a little messy, and set your inner child free! While you’re at it, look around for your favorite Nick characters like Dora and Spongebob, who can also be seen dancing and hobnobbing with the guests at character breakfasts at the Nicktoons Cafe , where there’s a really good breakfast buffet with lots of freshly made breakfast foods from which to choose. They also serve lunch and dinner - I like to think of myself as a bit of a gourmand, and was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the well-prepared and nicely presented meals at the Nicktoons Café, where I enjoyed a really good filet mignon with mashed Yukon gold potatoes, and asparagus with some crumbled blue cheese and, I believe, a bordelaise sauce. Other dining options, that were more to Christopher’s taste, included Pizza Hut Express, Subway, and The Grill. There was also a Breakfast Buffet, Barnie’s Coffee & Tea Company and the poolside snack shop.
Attach:florida_2009_05-1.jpg Δ | American Idol
Christopher was impressed with finding all his favorite foods on the premises, and loved interacting with all the Nick characters, staff and guests. I was impressed with the energy and the high level of talent displayed by all of the entertainers. One more thing that I liked about the Nick Hotel was that, while most everything there is geared toward the kids, there are a few things that the adults can enjoy too! Poolside massages are available, there is a Drink of the Day, also available poolside, and don’t forget about Nick After Dark ! Nick after Dark is a special service where you can drop the kids off for an evening of supervised activities and dinner, while you go enjoy a quiet evening in the company of adults! That can be a welcome treat after a few days of kid stuff, and the kids can really have a great time too! Christopher couldn’t wait to show me the t-shirt and stuffed animal that he’d made, and told me that he had a burger for dinner, played with the Wii, and made lots of drawings. There is also something called Club Slime , where you can experience food, drinks, dancing, activities, family photo opportunities, messy games, and you guessed it, slime!
I asked Christopher what things he liked best about the Nick Hotel, and as he was answering, “The pool,” a 5-year-old named Jordan offered: “I like the pool, the slides, the slime, the room, the characters, the EVERYTHING! ” She was a swimming commercial! It didn’t take long before her enthusiasm became infectious, because a few minutes later, Christopher wished, aloud, to live there forever. But, of course, we couldn’t. We had more of Orlando to explore!
New (and old) Attractions!
As you may have guessed, there is always more stuff to see at Disney World. Disney’s constant building and improving never ceases to amaze me. The same can be said of all of the theme parks in Orlando – new roller coasters, virtual rides, water parks, and attractions are constantly being added, built or improved. Here are some of the things that we loved.
New, at Disney’s Hollywood Studios , is The American Idol Experience . Just like the television show, the audience gets to have the final say in who will win the competition. The high-tech theater seats 1,000 guests, and is wired so that you can vote for your favorite performer - Christopher really liked that part. The winner of the show we attended received a ticket entitling her to move to the front of the line at the actual “American Idol” auditions. Pretty cool stuff, if you’re as big a fan as I am. You can even sign up yourself! You can go through a short screening process, pick your song, and even be one of the three singers on stage. Maybe you can get that golden ticket and move on to be the next great singing sensation! From there, I wanted to check out Toy Story Mania , which involves an interactive, “Toy Story” competition game, but my son wanted nothing to do with it! Go figure! But, I soon found out that he wanted to see the “Indiana Jones” Stunt Show which included fight scenes and “real fire,” in Christopher’s words.
Due to open this summer, at Universal Studios , is a ride that promises to break new ground in high-tech, customizable thrills. It’s called the Hollywood Rip, Ride Rockit , and it promises to combine a 65 mph coaster with customizable audio and high energy visual displays (both on and off-board), so that you can pick the songs and the video that you’d like played for your ride, and get it all on video to share with your friends! It’s the most technologically advanced coaster in the world! I gotta go back without the kid. . . .
Speaking of Christopher, he loved every ride we went on at Universal, especially “The Simpson’s” ride, and “Jimmy Neutron’s Nicktoon Blast.” Things got even better when we headed over to Islands of Adventure and the “Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man” ride, because, to Christopher, anything super hero related is great . . . especially Spider-Man. I kinda forced him onto the “Cat in the Hat” ride; then he wanted to go on again, just like every other ride we rode.
Sea World is sporting a new roller coaster, too. The Manta is opening on May 22, and may be as much fun for non riders as for those who will climb aboard! This coaster will have you flying head first, and face down at 56 mph through a pretzel loop, a waterfall close-call, and a wing-dip ( the wing of the ride actually skims the water. Aquatica is SeaWorld’s new water park featuring rides, slides, wave-pools, beaches, animal exhibits and a lot more! It’s designed, or so I’m told, to minimize wait times. Sounds good to me! Discovery Cove is SeaWorld’s, reservation-required, 1,000-daily-guest-limit paradise! I wish I could’ve gone; we didn’t have time. You get there and you can swim with the dolphins and rays, enjoy the pool, beaches and waterfalls, meals, drinks, and all kinds of cool stuff! Wow! Look into it! I wish I could’ve.
Do you have a tight schedule? Most, or possibly all, of the theme parks offer special VIP Tours of the park, so you can see more of the park in less time, and skip to the front of the lines at all of the rides! That just might be worth it!
After a long day of rides, ice cream, and refusing to purchase most of the “Indy” merchandise at Disney‘s Hollywood Studios, we needed to go to dinner, so we headed to Downtown Disney’s T-Rex Café . That is one cool restaurant, sporting huge realistic-looking, moving dinosaurs and sea creatures, prompting Chris to ask me if they were real, while cowering slightly behind me. Once he realized that they weren’t actually alive, we toured the restaurant several times that evening. I looked around at the gargantuan-sized burgers, and other large, manly meals, then I salivated a little more before ordering a kid-size burger for Chris, and an excellent entrée salad with grilled steak for myself. We had a great time, we filled our bellies and then headed back to our kid-suite to recharge for the next day of exploring. I regret that we didn’t get to build-our-own “stuffed dino”; Christopher didn’t want to.
Sweet Tomatoes was another favorite of ours. For one low “all-you-care-to-eat” price (some locations were running a $5 special), we consumed huge amounts of what might have been the healthiest, and tastiest food of our trip! Check it out at www.sweettomatoes.com.
Speaking of Budget Friendly . . .
All of the resorts and theme parks are running extraordinary deals right now! Theme parks are offering annual passes, resorts -- extra free nights, free dinners. Now is the time to go! I even saw specials for Disney’s Tree-house rooms . . . I didn’t even know they had such a thing! That’s so cool!!! Check out "[[http://www.VisitOrlando.com/smile" for a new “Deal of the Week” through June 30. You’re also not stuck with just going to the theme parks, there are theaters, museums, parks, and all kinds of recreational activities to be found if one only looks through a visitor’s guide. Go Fishing! Go on an airboat ride! Ride in a wind tunnel! Take a chance and go out on a casino boat! It’s all there! Here is a short list of just some of the attractions that are free, or pretty close to it:
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art - MorseMuseum.org
City Arts Factory - CityArtsFactory.com
Black Hammock Adventures - TheBlackHammock.com
Harry P. Leu Gardens - LeuGardens.org
Winter Park Popcorn Flicks (free movies at the park!!!) - Enzian.org
Fleaworld and Fun World (really cool) - Fleaworld.com
Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards - LakeridgeWinery.com
Orlando Brewing Company - OrlandoBrewing.com
Scott’s Maze Adventures - LongAndScottFarms.com
Congo River Golf and Exploration Co. - CongoRiverGolf.com
Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Orlando Odditorium - RipleysOrlando.com
One of my favorite places to go was Gatorland . Christopher got a kick out of the reptile show, where park guests got to see, learn about, and even touch many different reptiles and snakes (some guests ran and screamed like little schoolgirls). We also saw an alligator wrestling show, after which some guests actually got to sit on a live alligator! Christopher didn’t want to . . . but I did it, and took a photo on it while I held its tightly bound mouth with my hands! The toddler that went before me seemed to be a pro.
Remember when I said we’d get back to some of those “off-the-beaten-path” things to do? Well, I was pleasantly surprised about just how much there is to do. All of which was not what a 5-year-old wants to do when in theme-park-land, but he enjoyed one of the best days of our trip! After Gatorland, we went to a show called “Holes” at the Orlando Repertory Theatre , where we both enjoyed an excellent performance of the play which is based on the book by Louis Sachar. Then we took a relaxing walk at Lake Eola Park in downtown Orlando. We spent most of our time there at the playground, directly across the lake from the swan-shaped paddleboats, which Christopher enjoyed every bit as much as the theme parks . . . and it was free.
I wish we’d had time to explore Orlando more.
It didn’t surprise me that Christopher wanted to go and live there. With such a great climate, so much to see and do and so many new businesses and opportunities popping up all the time, many grown-ups I spoke to down there did just that.
On our way home, I asked Christopher if he was ready to go home. He said he was, then added, “Can we go back again?” We can. We will. Right, mom?