Orlando, Florida – without the theme parks

When answering the question of where we were going on holiday (Orlando, Florida), the automatic response of most people seemed to be “Oh, are you going to the theme parks/Disney?” To which our answer was consistently a resounding “no way”. Personally, I can’t think of anything worse than the theme parks with which Orlando has become virtually synonymous. My idea of a fun holiday is most certainly not traipsing around over-priced, crowded theme parks, dodging horrid screaming kids and queuing for hours on end for rides that are over in the blink of an eye. We were looking for an altogether more interesting and relaxing holiday, and that’s exactly what we got; as I suspected, there’s a lot more to Florida than Disney, and Orlando’s central location (and multitude of cheap villas and flights) makes it the perfect base for exploring this part of the state. We enjoyed ten days of glorious sunshine and all kinds of interesting activities. Here are the highlights… I’m going to write a couple of more detailed posts about some of the things we did, as there’s too much to talk about here!

The villa

I had been a bit worried about what the villa would be like. Though we’d booked through the trustworthy British Airways, all I had to go on was a handful of tiny photographs of a different, “representative” villa. After the disaster of our Tunisia holiday last year, I really wanted this year’s holiday to be in a whole other league. And it was. We arrived in the USA early evening, but it was dark by the time we reached the villa. Aptly numbered 777 (we’d just flown in on one), the villa was on a picturesque residential street with lots of palm trees. This is the view from the front door, taken later on the trip. It was always that gorgeous and sunny – 30 degrees everyday!

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As I turned the key in the lock and opened the front door that first night, I knew straightaway that I needn’t have worried. The villa was fabulous: palatial, spotlessly clean, and with every convenience we could possibly have wanted (including our own swimming pool and very effective air con, essential in the Florida heat and humidity). Lee filmed a little tour of the house, which you can watch by clicking the play button below:

We couldn’t believe our luck – it was so big that our entire house would have fitted into the master bedroom and bathroom with room to spare! We spent some of the holiday just chilling out in this beautiful space, reading by the pool and languishing in the lovely cool air conditioning. Here’s a photo of the pool.

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Kennedy Space Center

The real highlight of the trip – and indeed our primary reason for visiting Florida in the first place – was the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral – the place from which humans were sent to the Moon, and from which dozens of Space Shuttle missions were launched subsequently. I will do a separate post about the KSC, because there was just so much to see there, and it was full of interest. It felt surreal to be there, as I’ve always wanted to go. Among many other things, we got to see the launch pads, an original Saturn V rocket, and – the piece de resistance – the actual Atlantis Space Shuttle, which was one of the most awesome things I have ever seen. But more on that in a separate blog post, as I haven’t space to do it justice here.

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Float plane flying

Another very cool thing we did was to add ‘introduction to seaplane flying’ to our pilot logbooks. We flew from Tavares, a town to the north-east of Orlando that’s surrounded by a number of lakes. I’ll do another post about this, too, as there are lots of photos and videos to share. It was great fun, flying from lake to lake, and Lee and I did half an hour each at the controls with an instructor. After three take-offs and landings each, the instructor took control and took us on an exhilarating low-level flight along a river, which was fantastic! Here’s me at the controls when it was my turn.

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Kissimmee Swamp Tour

Towards the end of the holiday we drove to Lake Kissimmee, for a ‘swamp tour’. This was an airboat tour around the outskirts of the lake, where there are lots of lily pads inhabited by various interesting wildlife, including alligators. Here’s a photo with our trusty GoPro on a stick:

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We saw a bald eagle, lots of other bird species, and several small alligators, which we got really close to.

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This video will give you a good idea of what the tour was like.

Daytona Beach Wings and Waves

Just two weeks before we were due to go to Florida, Lee had been flicking through a pilot magazine in a service station newsagent on the way back from somewhere, and he’d seen advertised an airshow on Florida’s famous Daytona Beach. By happy coincidence, it would be taking place when we were in Florida, so another of the longer drives we did was to that. Just north of Cape Canaveral, Daytona Beach is famous for its racing track, but the Wings and Waves Airshow seemed a much more interesting attraction. The beach was pretty busy, and all the parasols were taken, but Lee ingeniously managed to get us the only free shady spot on the beach, next to a big truck that was pulling a burger van. It was a godsend in the blazing sunshine! The show was great: among other things, lots of brilliant aerobatic displays over the sea, a Harvard display team, an experimental biplane fitted with a jet engine, and the US Air Force Thunderbirds (a display team of F-16s, not to be confused with the Blue Angels). It was amazing to stand in the sea and watch an airshow, and the sea was wonderfully warm!

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I took this one so you can see our shady spot, where we spent most of the time as I was so paranoid about sunburn! One of my favourite moments was when a small flock of pelicans flew over in formation – they wanted to be part of the show!

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Clearwater Beach

We also found time to drive over to the West Coast of Florida, past Tampa, to Clearwater Beach, one of Florida’s best loved beaches. The beaches along this coast are lapped by the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and the white sand is incredibly soft. We saw brown pelicans and terns dive-bombing into the water in search of fish, and the water was so clear (hence the name!) that we were able to stand for ages watching shoals of various species of fish interacting with one another.

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We stopped for a refreshing drink at a beachside bar, from which this was the view:

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Mr Ripley’s Believe It or Not

One day we went to a museum called Mr Ripley’s Believe It or Not, which was in a building designed to look as though it were falling into a sinkhole. It was full of all kinds of odd things acquired by a 1930s collector of odd and otherwise unusual or remarkable things. It even had a section of the Berlin Wall!

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Wildlife

A more unexpected highlight of the trip was Florida’s wildlife. As well as the aforementioned alligators, pelicans and bald eagle, we saw lots of other interesting species. Eagles soared overhead wherever we went, and cute little lizards (of the sort seen at the beginning of Lee’s villa tour video, above) were a constant presence. On one of our more off-the-beaten track excursions we saw vultures feasting on road kill. But the best wildlife encounter we had was with a pair of Florida’s Sandhill Cranes, an endangered species. We’d seen a few pairs out and about, but the best one happened in the unlikeliest of locations: the petrol station! They were just standing around on the forecourt, completely unfased by the people and cars around them – one so chilled out that it was standing on one leg.

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Here’s a video, so you can see just how close we were!

The Food

As expected, everything in America was massive: the distances, the vehicles, but most of all, the food. I don’t need to eat much, so I knew that portion sizes would be an issue. Luckily they’re totally set up for doggy bags, so I saved a bit of money by taking away what I didn’t want and getting another meal out of it. We went halves on some things, too, like this BBQ pulled pork sandwich.

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We had a few meals at the villa, but it was surprisingly hard to find nice food in the supermarkets, so we ate out most of the time (fortunately it was pretty cheap to do so). We had most breakfasts at home though, with a couple of exceptions, including a Waffle House breakfast on Sunday morning.

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The food was tasty at pretty much every restaurant we went to, but not healthy or particularly good quality. It seemed to us to be rather difficult to eat healthily in Florida, which would explain one or two American stereotypes!

The flight back
A perfect holiday came to a lovely end with a surprise upgrade to ‘World Traveller Plus’, which is between economy and first class. It made a big difference to be in the next level up: we had newspapers brought to us, china dishes instead of foil for dinner, with proper cutlery and a menu, better seats and so on.

The holiday was everything we’d wanted and more, and I’d thoroughly recommend a non-theme park Orlando holiday!

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