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Orlando Update - Day 1

by Pat Hagan

If you're cruising from one of Florida's four ports, Orlando is only a short flight or drive away, looming as a potential pre- or post-cruise destination. But many cruisers might not even consider this option, figuring there's nothing there but Mickey Mouse and a bunch of kiddy-oriented theme parks, with employees running around in oversized animal outfits.

I beg to differ. I recently spent four days in the Orlando area looking for other attractions beyond the thrill rides and kiddy attractions at the parks. I was pleasantly surprised to discover there is a lot more--fun things to do, good restaurants, nice accommodations, different kinds of entertainment, and, of course, shopping.

Tourism is a huge business here: Orlando receives more than 42 million visitors annually, with a total economic impact of $19.7 billion. Although it was hit hard by 9/11 and the recession, officials expect to see recovery in the second half of 2002.

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My traveling companion and I arrived on a Thursday afternoon at the beautiful Orlando International Airport. We rented a car, and, after fifteen minutes of easy traffic and $4 in tolls on Highway 417 heading southeast, we arrived in Lake Buena Vista. This is the heart of the theme parks--Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Typhoon Lagoon Water Park, DisneyQuest, Disney-MGM Studios, Disney's Animal Kingdom, SeaWorld, Universal Studios, Downtown Disney and Pleasure Island.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn Family Suites Resort for the first three nights. This 24-acre complex is a godsend for families with kids and a tight budget. A free hot breakfast buffet is served daily. Other amenities include a game room, nightly entertainment, and a Foodland Express court featuring Pizza Hut and A&W restaurants, as well as casual dining in the Club Car (where kids 12 and under eat free), and the Caboose Bar & Lounge for the over-21 crowd. The resort has two huge pools and a fitness center, and rates begin around $129.

I would recommend this resort for families, but I'd advise older couples and those without kids to request a room in a special adult-style suite or stay elsewhere. Unfortunately, our room was over the pool, which was filled with kids from as early as 6 a.m. to midnight, so we didn't get much rest. Moreover, the walls between rooms are very thin, and we had to listen to a crying baby all night.

We had heard so much about Downtown Disney and its 70 shopping, entertainment, and dining choices that we decided to put on our dancing shoes, unleash our appetites, and spend our first night on the town there. However, we quickly realized that we could have used a whole day plus the night. There was that much to see and do, beginning with the dazzling Cirque du Soleil La Nouba. Created especially for Disney, the 90-minute extravaganza should not to be missed. There are shows daily at 6 and 9 p.m. Admission is $67 plus tax for adults and $39 for children ages 3-9. And try to find time for DisneyQuest, an indoor interactive theme park with five floors of virtual fun for the whole family.

The House of Blues is a major venue for fun, offering Cajun-style cooking and live music. Prices are reasonable for the area. Additional restaurants include Planet Hollywood, Bongo's Cuban Cafe (where we had one of the best Cuban sandwiches ever), and the delightful Rainforest Cafe with its tropical ambience.

For more upscale dining, there is Wolfgang Puck's with its California cuisine offerings, and "Cap'n Jack's" with a nautical motif and delicious "fishbowl margaritas." We also stopped in at Fulton's Crab House and made a note to dine there on our next visit, because the menu looked great and reasonable in price.

Downtown Disney has an abundance of other food places, like the Candy Cauldron, where, after watching caramel apples being made, we could not walk away without sampling! Also tempting was Ghirardelli's Chocolate shop, the Gourmet Pantry and bakery, and a quaint place called "4Thirst", serving up freshly made coffee, cappuccino, espresso, fruit juice, and smoothies.

For shoppers, the Downtown Disney Marketplace has the world's largest LEGO store, as well as the biggest Disney store on the planet. All the many specialty shops and attractions here are centered on beautiful Lake Buena Vista lagoon.

By the time we walked over to Pleasure Island, we were pretty tired. But we quickly came alive as night approached, discovering still more exciting places to visit, like eight unique clubs and a loud, rollicking street party.

In the next page of our diary--Day 2--I will report on all the terrific offbeat shopping havens we found during the day and some more fun places to eat. And we'll check out what's available in the nightlife district of downtown Orlando known as Church Street Station.

continued...  Day 2
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