With so much happening in and Orlando the area you owe to yourself to discover what is out there beyond the big 3!
Blue-collar oriented Daytona Beach as a destination has never risen to the higher standards of its richer rival, Orlando, and its closest associations are probably with auto racing, spring break, bikers and beer. But visitors to theme park-rich Orlando might want to consider taking the less than one-hour detour drive to Daytona.
For one thing, Daytona has what Orlando does not: a real beach, once termed the “world’s most famous.” Sure, Orlando has water parks, rivers and lakes but not a real ocean beach with big-time surfing and genuine sharks.
In the past, the biker reputation has clouded Daytona’s image as a family destination. In fact, USA Today recently awarded Daytona among its “Ten Best Reader’s Choice” as a favorite spring family beach break hideout.
Daytona in addition to its beach has other advantages over Orlando: Less cost. Not always, of course, but both entertainment and hotels tend to be far less costly here than in Orlando. Restaurants are also often less expensive (and the best offering seafood tend to be stand-alone rather than chains).
So we will save restaurants and hotels for another time, but here are a half dozen recommended free or inexpensive reasons for families (couples also) to visit the area:
Life’s a Beach. Daytona Beach is 23 miles long, and you can’t drive it as much as you used to, but selected areas still allow your vehicle. Access points are clearly marked. Not everyone is in favor of this idea, as seen by the fact that miles have been restricted in recent years, but if this is your dream, have at it. Warning: be careful of sunbathers.
Museums that even children love. Four of the best museums include the Ormond Memorial Art Museum at 78 East Granada Blvd., in Ormond Beach. Showcase paintings and drawings. Adjacent to the museum are lush tropical gardens with nature trails and fish ponds. Free admission. Visitors can see how the rich lived at the winter home of multi-millionaire John D. Rockefeller at the Casements, which has art and historical exhibits. The Daytona Museum of Photography on International Speedway Boulevard in Daytona Beach is one of only a dozen specialized museums of its kind in the U.S. It’s the state of Florida’s official museum of photography. For smaller children, one of the best treats is the Charles & Linda Williams Children’s Museum of Arts & Sciences. One of the biggest hits for young and old: a Crime Scene Investigation exhibit that teaches basic forensic investigation such as fingerprint and fiber analysis, ala TV. Also a race car station where kids can build and race motel cars. Other hands-on exhibits let children pretend to be doctors and pizza makers. Admission: $12.95/adult, $6.95/child ages 6-17, free for kids 5 and under)
Walking the plank.You’ll find the locals at the 1,000-foot-long Main Street Pier, an advertisement in itself for the longest pier of its kind on the east coast. You can fish here without even a license. Admission is $5 for adults and $3.50 for children. But there’s also amusement rides nearby such as roller coasters and ferris wheels and go-karts. Reasonably priced. And food too, including ice cream and pizza, of course. Note to adults: tropical drinks with a view can be found at the nearby and aptly named “The Roof.”
Sweet treats, free. Once named the “best food find” by Southern Living Magazine, the Angell & Phelps Chocolate Factory delivers just that. After a short tour, samples. Free. So is the 30-minute tour. Available from 10 a.m. Monday through Saturdays.
Parking it. There are lots of parks around here. But two of the best are the North Peninsula State Recreation Area (5 miles north of Granada Boulevard on Highway AIA in Ormond Beach). It is a sprawling 900-acre park with two miles of sandy beaches with palmetto dunes and sea turtles. Some of the best surf fishing anywhere is found here. Free. Not far away at 1800 Ocean Shore Boulevard is Ormond Bicentennial Park, stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Halifax River. It covers five ecological systems while offering such down-to-earth activities as tennis and racquetball courts, a fishing and exercise pier, and picnicking facilities. Open daily from sunrise to sunset. Free admission also.
More edible history. During the Civil War, The Old Spanish Sugar Mill provided grain to Confederate forces. Today it is a tremendously popular griddle house where the specialty is grill-your-own pancakes. The pancake batter is made from grain that’s been ground on site with French millstones. Each table is equipped with a griddle; you pour and flip your own pancakes right at your table. (601 Ponce DeLeon Blvd., DeLeon Springs State Park, DeLeon Springs). Prices start at about $20 for a family of four. ###
Joining the two often-mentioned “inevitable” things always with us of death and taxes is a more modern addition: family-oriented theme parks during spring break will always, always be crowded. So what can you do short of staying home to avoid crowd frustration?
As you can imagine, there’s lots of advice out there. And it can be a lot of reading. But let’s keep it short. Let’s divide this into two categories: what you can do for free and what you can do if you want to spend more money (other than buying tickets).
In the free category, here are three pieces of good advice.
---The single best piece of advice is No. 1 Arrive at least 20-30 minutes before a park’s opening. Head for the busiest rides as early in the day as possible. Wait times early can be as little as 15 minutes for even very popular attractions. The second best advice is perhaps arriving late just before closing when crowds thin out (and tired families -- particularly with small children -- go home to retire to bed). Do keep in mind that weekdays are the best time because Fridays and Saturdays often bring out local couples, often dating. A bonus is that it is cooler at night during the warm Orlando climate.
---Make a park itinerary. What do you want to see no matter what? What are your priorities since you can’t visit everywhere in a single day. Write notes or use your phone to form a plan. How many experiences should you expect? Try three to seven. Part of this plan should be to get your tickets in advice to save time there. Make dining reservations as well if you plan on eating there. But don’t over plan. Be realistic and flexible. Consider a long-tested family favorite of arriving early, then leaving for a break in mid-afternoon, and returning later.
---You probably know most theme parks try to appeal to the widest possible age group. And that’s fine if you have a dozen children ages six through sixteen. But you really don’t want to be stuck in a park with only wild roller coaster rides that are fine for teenagers but scare the you-know-what off very younger riders. So pick your park so as not to waste your time standing in line for rides you don’t want.
When it comes to spending money, two options are the most obvious:
Stay at a theme park hotel, where there are various extra perks such as free shuttles to the park and early morning access to certain areas (depending on the park). Staying off-site will probably be cheaper, but if you are driving, you will have to navigate busy parking garages before even getting to the park.
Secondly, buy express or fast passes. These let you get to the front of the line in select rides. Most observers agree it’s worth the extra cost to avoid the lines. Take a good look at whatever pass you buy, however, to make sure it has what you want.
Also, keep in mind that the major parks (Disney and Universal) have children switch programs where parents with small kids can let one person stand in line and ride, while the second parent waits. Once the first parent it done, a second parent can cut to the front of the line to immediately ride. ###
In fact, I-Drive has become such a single attraction that visitors might want to spend their entire stay right here. Is that a serious option?
Thrill rides. Here. Shopping. Here. Dining. Fast food to gourmet. Daytime entertainment? Nighttime? Both here and constantly expanding.
So where do you stay when exhausted by all this activity? You don’t need to find a friend’s bed when there are upwards of three dozen hotels advertising that they are near I-Drive.
The latest moves to I-Drive: a new supermarket and a 1,500-foot-long zipline.
Then later will join Skyscraper, the world's tallest roller coaster under development on I-Drive.
Convenience stores have been common on the drive but they will be joined by the first brand-name grocery store here. It’s a 17,000-square-foot supermarket to be built in the Orlando Crossings Mall behind Perfumeland and the Nascar indoor kart-racing track.
Here’s is how one amazed blogger describes a first-time experience at the Drive:
“There is the Festival Bay Complex now rebranded as Artegon Complex (local artists, shops & movie theater). Going south there are more complexes of stores on the left & right,” etc.
The description then goes on to detail the watery theme park Wet ‘n’ Wild, a skydiving experience right here on earth, a large complex of restaurants including one with its own winery, Madam Tausaud’s Wax Museum, a tavern with 120 choices of beer, miniature golf, helicopter rides, movie theatres, and finally outlet centers.
The area is also home to the Orange County Convention Center, the Pointe Orlando entertainment complex and Sea World Orlando.
I-Drive itself says it offers “six of the world’s greatest theme parks,” which is not entirely true because they a short distance away, 100 “fantastic” hotels and resorts, 485 stores, 150 restaurants, three stadium style movie theatres, and more. The biggest complaint about the 11.1 mile-long drive has been traffic. But the former four lane drive has been extended in parts to six lanes. There’s also bus transportation that helps ease traffic, and a shuttle, the I-Ride Trolley
Orlando’s other major theme park, Universal, is so close to the area that some visitors walk (not recommended with traffic as it is).
I-Drive dates back to the 1960s when attorney Finley Hamilton laid out the route for his Hilton Inn South Hotel. Hamilton imagined that motorists traveling I-4 to Walt Disney World, opening in October of 1971, would detour to his offer of a more inexpensive hotel. Hardly anyone believed him. “Finley’s Folly,” it was called..
Today, the best advice for residents and visitors is to park and take the I-Drive trolley. You can’t buy a pass on the vehicle itself but you can purchase one at over 100 locations along the drive. It’s only $5 per person.
You won’t find a bigger bargain at any theme park.
Speaking of which…sure, you could spend your entire stay here, but would you really want to miss out on Disney and all the rest of what the area has to offer? ###
After Walt Disney World opened here in the 1970s, the Orlando area became known for its theme parks. But today, it is perhaps becoming better known for watery attractions? So just what does that mean for park-goers?
First, a wave of water parks is sweeping into the area to give a lot more choices. Consider:
---Universal Studios has announced plans for a water plark (We will just it call Universal Studios Waterpark for now) with a volcano feature, a wave pool and “lazy river,” among other features. It is expected to be open late next year.
---Orlando’s newest water park at seven years old is Aquatica, famous for its “Dolphin Plunge” that takes swimmers through their habitat. Aquatica's water is heated to the perfect year round temperature.
---Walt Disney World already has two successful water parks: Blizzard Beach, perhaps best known for the world’s tallest speed slide, and Typhoon Lagoon, which stars the Crush ‘n’ Gusher, a state-of-the-art water coaster. Did you know Disney built the world's first water park? The now defunct River Country holds many memories for us old timers.
---The most hands-on water experience here is SeaWorld’s Discovery Cove. The park restricts attendance to 1,300 guests a day for an intimate snorkel-style swim with tropical fish and rays, and others. There’s also a 30-minute Dolphin Interaction, a chance to swim with real fish (dolphins).
---All this comes after Wet ‘n’ Wild, which includes pools, water slides, water cannons, “soakers,” and even a four-lane water drag race. The park has been very successful since its opening in 1977.
Orlando’s four existing water parks are already in the world’s top ten attractions, according to Themed Entertainment Association. From the standpoint of the parks themselves, the goal is to have more visitors who will stay longer and spend more money. But what does it mean for visitors?
---Two quick tricks for visitors to water parks: arrive early and late. Early before opening times gives you a chance to get a locker and your own uncrowded spot. Late in the last hour or two before closing means all those sun-burned northerners are lined up to leave. Rides also have shorter lines.
---One thing everyone needs to know about water parks is that business often does not slow down for winter weather. Some parks take a hiatus during some winter months, but it’s often business as usual except when there’s a few days of really uncharacteristically cold weather. The upside for visitors is that nearby hotel rates are sometimes reduced.
---Bad news about more parks: higher prices. But it is not often realized that price hikes are not necessarily for the park owners to make more money. An equally compelling reason is often to deter the crowds that sometimes prompt closing.
---Thrill rides are no longer confined to general amusement parks. Water attractions are increasingly common in offering wet roller coasters.
---Increasingly, there’s more interaction for park-goers with marine specimens. Typhoon Lagoon, to use one example, already lets swimmers snorkel with sharks and stingrays at “Shark Reef.”
---The emergence of thrilling slides continues. Wet ‘n’ Wild already has 15 of them. “Lazy Rivers” are fine but expect more active and hands-on rides such as water slides.
---As newcomers arrive, existing parks will be less crowded with the intensified competition. Users will find fewer lines.
So there probably won’t be a time soon when the area is known more for water than general theme parks. But outdoor water parks are clearly emerging as popular favorites. And Orlando is on a path, or call it a wave, to becoming an area that used to be known just for its theme parks. ###
Spring training is again in the air for baseball. The state of Florida hosts seventeen spring training sites -- the most of any state -- an annual rite which began in 1888. But you don’t have to go far from Orlando to find the game.
Daytona Beach, 60 miles away, is well-known for the minor league’s Jackie Robinson ballpark located on City Island, about one block east of downtown. The park overlooks the water and a bridge. There’s also a picnic area. The atmosphere is similar to minor league ballparks everywhere, but prices are reasonable. There’s a $10 all-you-can eat package on Monday nights with typical not always-tasty ballpark food. Parking is free. Daytona’s famous Riverwalk features numerous plaques and activities dedicated to the first black player to crash the Big Leagues. A timeline of Robinson's accomplishments on and off the field can be found on the western wall of the Daytona Cubs clubhouse. The plaques touch on such subjects as his visit to Daytona Beach in 1946 and his meeting with Dodgers GM Branch Rickey. There’s also a Jackie Robinson Museum that is free to the public. Interactive displays allow visitors to compare their skills in basketball and track and field, sports in which Jackie Robinson competed and excelled in while attending Pasadena Junior College and UCLA.
Only about 90 miles away, the St. Petersburg Museum of History has designed two prime rooms to display what is known as the “World's Largest Collection of Autographed Baseballs” (something like 4,818 of them). It’s like a little Cooperstown here in Florida. Try naming almost anyone important to the sport and you'll find an autograph here. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams among them. Not everyone represented here is associated closely with baseball, however. There’s a baseball signed by both Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio in 1952 (she gave it to him as a gift while they were dating). Another ball is signed by legendary aviators Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Just not at the same time (there's no rule that a baseball gets autographed in one session -- some take decades to complete). Some names may surprise visitors. For example, many may not know the name William "Dummy" Hoy -- a deaf major league player from 1888-1902. The display around his autographed ball tells how Hoy was instrumental in teaching teammates’ sign language and making umpire "hand signals a part of the game." Autographed balls also help tell the story of the Negro Leagues, as well as the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (fictionalized in the movie "A League of Their Own," but with real teams such as the Rockford Peaches, Racine Belles, and the Milwaukee Chicks.).
Alas, one local memorial to the past, Tinker Field in Orlando may be striking out at long last. Tinker - the man, not the stadium - is perhaps best known as a member of the double-play team of Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance. After a successful career in baseball, Tinker moved to Orlando in the 1920s to manage a team. He also got into real estate.
Tiinker died on his birthday in 1948 at age 68, and he’s buried less than five miles from Tinker Field at Greenwood Cemetery near downtown Orlando. Tinker Field was dedicated in his honor in 1963. Several Major League Baseball teams played their spring training games at the field. But those days are long gone. At this writing, city officials are planning to raze the field. ###