With so much happening in and Orlando the area you owe to yourself to discover what is out there beyond the big 3!
Did you ever go to Universal or Disney’s Magic Kingdom expecting to see live animals? Of course not. But there’s another smaller theme park here that might be a surprise. That’s because of the unexpected wildlife.
Would you go to a park called Gatorland to see the birds? Yes, for real.
Because the real stars here are not really the alligators.
They’re the birds. And they’re a very little-known attraction.
Whether or not you are a fan
So you’re not really a bird-watcher?
Maybe you are and don’t know it. Birds are so popular and common place in Florida that it’s no wonder tourists are commonly known not as visitors but “snowbirds.”
It does seem like a strange hobby for a few dedicated diehards.
Young People Among Biggest Fans
But there are 46 million people in the US who consider themselves bird watchers. The numbers are growing, particularly for younger people. And Florida is a central attraction.
By some counts, the state has 500 species of birds, 125 of them native to the Sunshine State.
It might surprise you, but birding is second only to beach-related activities as a form of outdoor recreation for both visitors and residents here.
The Gatorland rookery, which covers 10 acres and includes a winding boardwalk, was established in 1991. That was when Gatorland attraction dug the pond and began to breed alligators there. Over the years, more egrets, herons, wood storks, cormorants, anhingas and other birds flocked to it during breeding season.
No Binoculars Needed
You may already be familiar with the common mockingbird (a year-round Florida resident, and the state bird not only here but in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas). You not only see him/her frequently here but also hear them since they sing all night long. But you can also see the common and familiar white-colored egrets, the great blue herons, wood storks and sand kill cranes. All kinds of hundreds of wading birds easily found here with the naked eye (no binoculars needed).
You perhaps wonder why they are here at a theme park instead of out in the wild?
Birds Figure it Out
“The birds figured out that the gators act like a security system,” said alligator wrestler Adam Hall, Gatorland’s resident bird expert. The roughly 150 gators in the pond keep out raccoons, snakes and other predators that might otherwise devour the eggs and chicks. As a result, there are now hundreds of birds nesting there.
“They have learned to endure shrieking kids and snapping photographers in exchange for the safety the rookery provides — boisterous humans apparently trump ravenous snakes,” said the Washington Post in a recent story.
“It’s like the Galapagos, as far as being able to get really close to the birds and their nests,” said Larry Rosen, president of the Kissimmee Valley Audubon Society. And the Post newspaper account adds:
“And except for some savvy nature photographers, the rookery, which flourishes from February to early June, is still largely unknown, even by most visitors to the popular park, which features about 1,400 alligators in addition to many other attractions.”
The only other spot in the nation where birders can get reliably close to such a dense concentration of mating and nesting birds is the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. That’s about an hour and a half drive from Orlando. This is a smaller rookery and visitors say the birds here are not as chummy (often climbing aboard alligators) as they are in Orlando.
Where Else to Find Birds
One other place nearby to find great concentrations of birds: In Titusville, about 50 miles away, at the annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival, the largest event of its kind in January when birds flock to the area.
14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail, Orlando
Hours: Gatorland is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
Admission: Day passes for adults $26.99, children $18.99. A $10 upgrade buys an Early Access pass Thursdays-Sundays or a Late Access pass on Saturdays. (Season-long and combination photo packages are also available.
Save a few dollars, we got discount Gatorland tickets.
The latest Irish pub in Orlando is due to open this spring. It’s the 549-seat McFadden’s Restaurant & Saloon opening at International Drive. But while St. Pat’s day is done, this year at least, there are many reasons why Central Florida looks more and more like Dublin.
In part because some of the growing number of local Irish pubs also have Irish music. All have good beer worthy of their namesake.
And if you are near Disney and the theme parks, you are within a pub crawl of a taste of the Irish. A sampling:
Nothing fake Disney about this place in downtown Disney. It’s the real thing, built in Ireland, then shipped to Orlando. Great ales, lovingly poured, and if you get away from Guinness, try the Hacker-Pschoor Hefeweizen. Or the house made Bloody Mary, known as “the cure,” during the weekend brunches. Dishes such as oatmeal with steel cut oaks with apple sauce and brown sugar do not do real justice to the innovative creations of chef partner Kevin Dundon, who has been praised in international publications. Downtown Disney. Raglanroad.com. 407-938-0300.
Claddagh Cottage Irish Pub
Perhaps best-described as a “little hole-in-the-wall” far from the beaten track of tourism in south Orlando. Known for having some of the most generous Guinness pours in Orlando. Dark and rightly rustic with the usual memorabilia, it’s named after a fishing village near Galway. Drinking is the lure for Irish-born and kindred spirits alike, but the food is adequate. You can’t go far wrong with the Irish stew. 4308 Curry Ford Rd, Orlando. (no Website) 407-895-1555.
Harp and Celt
Go through one door and you’re in the Harp, an Irish restaurant. Go through the other and you’re at the Celt, a pleasant pub where homemade hardwood tables make the place look like it’s been here even before the Lepruchans. Staff members at both places tend to be very friendly with hearty good greetings. Try the ultra-thick potato and leek soup. Large number of imported beers, as a good Irish pub should have, but also an excellent Irish coffee. 25 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando. Harpandcelt.com. 407-481-2928.
Skip the Guinness and try the Mimosas and terrific Bloody Mary’s during a weekend brunch that includes a crab omelet and seafood crepes. No shortage of good beer but also offers all the classics: bangers and mash, corned beef and cabbage, and shepherd's pie. Four burger variations. You’ll find it by looking for that appropriately colored green building. 544 Fairbanks Ave., Winter Park. Fiddlersgreenorlando.com. 407-645-2050. ###
Question: What does the Orlando area have more than anything else (other than theme parks)?
Answer: hotel rooms.
More than 30,000 hotel rooms on Disney property alone, and more than 143,000 hotel rooms in Orlando. That is not only the population of an entire medium-sized city but also ranks Orlando with about as many hotel rooms as you can find anywhere in the country (the area is generally neck and neck with Las Vegas for the city with the most hotel rooms in the US).
There’s one exception to the rule here, however.
There are not a lot of hostels.
As everyone or just about everyone knows these days, the main advantage of hostels is low price. The major disadvantage is often a lack of privacy found in individual hotel-motel rooms.
When you look up the word “hostel” on the internet, the word “youth” often accompanies it. But these days, hostels have spread their appeal out to various other age groups. And youth is not a term anywhere that applies only to hostels.
Some hostels do overcome the privacy issue by offering single hotel rooms. An intangible benefit is also social. That is, meeting other like-minded guests who often share tips, as well as the usually friendly hostel staff.
Actually, anyone looking for an inexpensive place to stay here will find more choices by searching for “inexpensive” or even just “cheap” hotels. A variety of them are available.
But there are times when simply finding a hostel is a good choice. And perhaps the best known of them here (and one of the closest you can get to the theme parks) is the Palm Lakefront Resort & Hostel. Rooms can be as low as $20 per person. In an area where $500 a night is far from unusual, that’s a bargain. But a warning: room nights are very competitive there, so booking early is not an option but a necessity.
But even if you don’t get a room there, the Palm illustrates perfectly the types of features and amenities that will be desirable if you book a hostel somewhere else in the area. This is the case because the old bare bones concept of hostels is more and more giving way to the type of amenities expected at higher-priced inns.
Start with location. Since you may not have a car, vitally important. The Palm is located just four miles from the main entrance to Walt Disney World. The public (cheap, $4.50 for unlimited fares) bus system of Lynx runs regularly with stops right here.
Internet? Sure. Wireless is free.
Security? The police come by every night to check (or so claims the Palm’s management).
Supermarkets/and or convenience stores? Publix and others are nearby.
Added amenities? You can buy discounted tickets nearby or rent bicycles.
Photogenic chances? Regal-looking Sand Hill Cranes live on the property, as well as ducks named Lazy and Dazy. There’s also a hostel dog.
The hostel also has the type of amenities you would want in any type of temporary shelter. These include air conditioning (very important in balmy Florida), cable TV, ceiling fans, free parking, a games room, a gym, washing machines and even such small creature comforts as hair dryers. There’s even meeting rooms and a job board (if you decide to hang around for a while).
Some caveats? Small, minor ones. The first night at the Palm is automatically charged when you make a reservation and won’t be refunded if the reservation is cancelled before arrival. House rules require anyone under 18 years of age to have a written parents’ authorization to stay here. Also note the price does not include the 13% tax (state and resort tax). And, of course, the popularity of the place.
Palm Lakefront Resort & Hostel
4840 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy 192
Kissimmee, Florida 34746, USA
If you already hate traffic, you need no reminders that it is destined to get worse with new roadway additions to the area’s major artery, I-4. So one way to avoid the congestion is the city of Orlando’s new bike sharing program.
Be warned, however, it has two disadvantages: 1. It is only available in limited areas, mainly in downtown, which is about 20 miles from Disney and the theme parks. 2: You need to be at least reasonably fit to ride a bike.
Other than that, however, Orlando Bike Share is a cheap and easy way to get around.
This is fine if you are a resident but what if you are a visitor/tourist? What is there to do downtown?
No roller coasters or thrill rides, of course. But you can see a movie there at the Plaza Cinema Café 12 or shop for groceries at a very clean Publix or take in any one of the many bars and restaurants (heavy on pizza). There’s also the city’s newly opened arts complex showing Broadway plays and concerts. The area’s museum district is only a few miles from downtown. And so is the pleasant residential neighborhood of College Park with a small shopping district.
City officials have made it easy to get around to various events by riding a bicycle in a still-new program started in January.
First, you find and reserve a bike on a mobile app or at the web at app.socialbicyles.com. Once a bike is reserved, you enter a 4-digit PIN code on the keypad to unlock a bike. When you want to stop (for coffee or a beer), you press the hold button and lock the bike to a rack. You 4-digit code lets you unlock and ride away. At the end of your trip, you just lock the bike at any regular rack. Bikes can be rented at any time. The program utilizes GPS, smart phone capability, and website technology for membership access and rentals
Bikes are located at dozens of hubs in the Downtown core, Orlando Main Streets, and International Drive. Even though there are locations along tourist-rich International Drive, there are no reports so far about driving to the theme parks, which is impractical because riders would have to traverse major roadways. New locations are also underway.
So how much does this cost?
Rentals start at $5 an hour, plus tax. There is a $25 maximum per day. If you are going to be around for a while, memberships can be bought for $15 a month for 60 minutes, or 120 minutes a month for $20.
The only catch is you need to be at least 18 years of age. Oh yes, there’s also a simple and easy one: your ride time starts as soon as you reserve the bike. So a good hint: don’t reserve the bike until you’re walking towards the hub.
For more information about Bike Share, visit: orlandobikeshare.com. ###
The area is known for its massive sprawling theme parks, so the smaller ones sometimes get lost in the shuffle. So here’s one good example: the Orlando Tree Trek Adventure Park. It’s a 15-acre aerial adventure course that opened last year with far less fanfare than Disney and Universal.
Three elements of this park stand out: (one) far less cost than major attractions; (two): Tree Trek can be enjoyed by ALL family ages; and (three): the park is best enjoyed as a two-three hour activity rather than an all-day or several day attraction.
“Swing in the trees, enjoy the Florida outdoors and test your mental and physical skills” suggests operators of the park in Kissimmee near Disney.
Prices start at $29.95 for children 7-11; $38.95 juniors, 9-11; $49.95, adults 12 and up; and $39.95, seniors 65 and older.
The park has 6 color-coded courses. Each one has obstacles for kids, juniors and adults. Obstacles include Tarzan-like swings, ladders, suspended bridges, scramble nets, swinging logs, surf boards and more. Altogether the park has 97 games or elements for various challenge levels.
A highlight of the course is a pair of giant 425’ zip lines, to take adventurers through the Florida tree canopy.
Participants are clipped into a world class safety cable throughout the entire course. Each participant is given a safety demonstration by trained instructors before beginning the course.
“Designed for ages 7 to 107,” park officials say, it is open every day from 8 am to dusk, weather permitting. Some height and weight restrictions apply.
“Our intention is to provide guests with a pleasant entertainment experience that is both exciting and memorable. The park, something new in the Disney area, has been designed to include the most recent safety advances in an atmosphere that maximizes its unique aerial experience,” said Albert Barbusci, managing partner.
A French company is behind the park. Ala Disney, they have had some experience. In fact, they built 400 other parks. They say safety is a priority.
Some notable facets of the Orlando Tree Trek park:
Details: Kissimmee, 34747
Source and photo credit: Orlando Tree Trek