by ANNE BRALY
In the shadow of the busyness of Orlando and the dizziness of Disney World lies Kissimmee, a town that has, without a lot of fanfare, built a tremendous following of folks looking for Florida’s wild side while staying within a stone’s throw of Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando Resort and other attractions.
Here’s a taste of the sounds and sights around Kissimmee and Osceola County, an area not to be missed the next time you decide to take off to Florida and visit The Magic Kingdom. It offers a different side of life –– a little magic in itself.
Get Out And Go
- Pedal Power: Celebrate the outdoors in Celebration, a planned community in the heart of Kissimmee. Built by the Disney Company in the 1990s as place where people could live and work in a quasi-Utopian neighborhood, all homes are now privately owned but retain the charm of Walt Disney and Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s dream. The best way to see the homes and parks of Celebration is on foot or by bike. Bring your own or rent a bike from Celebration Bike Rentals and pedal your way on paved paths, boardwalks and sidewalks through town. Take off on your own or make reservations for a guided tour. Plan for about 90 minutes as knowledgeable guides tell you all about the flora and fauna found in Celebration as well as its history. For more information, log onto celebrationsurrey.com.
- Paddle Power: One of the best ways to see an untouched Florida is by paddling through its waterways. See a different side of Kissimmee, away from all the glitz and glamour of everything Disney, by renting a kayak, canoe or paddleboard from The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek. Or, better yet, book a guided tour for a remarkable two hours that show the diversity of the creek as it transitions from a wide, open waterway to a path with just enough room for you and your vessel to creep your way through. Expect to see bald eagles, anhingas, herons, pileated woodpeckers, hawks and possible sight an endangered wood stork. On the creepy side, you’re bound to see snakes warming themselves on outstretched branches. And possibly a gator or two. On the playful side, river otters might entertain you with their joyful antics. Tours take about two hours and may be booked, along with rentals, at paddlingcenter.com.
- Air Power: Visit Cypress Lake, part of the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes that flow into the Florida Everglades, on an airboat with one of the guides, such as Lauren Harris, from Wild Florida. She’ll lead you on a wild ride in and out through watery avenues seemingly on air as a guide keeps a lookout for gators lurking in the tall grasses. Along the way, you’ll see numerous birds in a habitat that hasn’t changed much in the last several hundred years or so. Wild Florida is also home to Alligator Park where visitors can see and learn about animals native to Africa, Australia and South America, such as sloths, giraffes and lemurs. There’s also The Chomp House Grill with surprisingly good food, including a platter of, yes, fried gator tail with a side or fries and housemade aioli. For more information, visit wildfloridairboats.com.
Photos by Anne Braly
When Day Is Done
If you’re going to Disney World and nowhere else, it may make sense to stay within the park in one of its numerous hotels. But you’re missing out if you don’t step outside the park to experience Kissimmee.
- Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center, which is like a park in itself a waterpark that comes with the Flowrider, Crystal Springs Rapids and water slides. You may not get the kids to leave. In addition, there’s an arcade and a state-of-the-art fitness center to keep in shape while you’re eating all those wonderful foods at Disney and throughout Kissimmee.
Gaylord is a massive Marriott property spread over 63 acres in the shadow of Disney World. There are more than 1,400 guest rooms and nine dining possibilities that range from The Coffee Bean coffeehouse to Wreckers, a sports bar with a great blackened chicken sandwich, Cobb salad and more; the poolside Sandbar where you can sit in the sun and sip an icy-cold pina colada; and Old Hickory Steakhouse where the steaks are aged and the selection of wines, whiskeys and Scotches is outstanding. It’s a glorious selection of tastes.
- Omni Orlando Resort is in Osceola County and is an excellent choice with a setting inside Champions Gate, a premier planned vacation community. The hotel is luxurious with every attention paid to detail, from the rooms to the restaurants — all nine of them. David’s Club, in particular, is a top choice. It’s a sports bar on steroids with an upscale menu and atmosphere. The restaurant is known for its bourbons, so take a sip and relax in the surroundings or watch the game on the 90-inch video wall. The bourbons, craft beers and other spirits at David’s are only matched by its hand-cut aged steaks, fresh seafood and personal service.
From the resort’s world-class spa to its location overlooking 36 holes of golf designed by Greg Norman, this is the place to come relax or play. It’s your vacation, so make the most of it in the luxurious surroundings you’ll find at this Omni property.
- On the other end of the spectrum are the rental properties where you can make your own meals or have them delivered if you choose to eat in. You can always go with VRBO or Airbnb, but just ask Jeeves and let them do all the work you. Jeeves Florida Rentals manages homes in some of the area’s most-exclusive neighborhoods, such as Reunion, Encore and Champions Gate. Some homes sleep up to 32 people and might have a bowling alley, home theater, arcade, or themes, such as the James Bond Home with a classic Alfa Romeo at ceiling level. Others are more modest, such as condos with just two or three rooms. But rest assured — the level of comfort you’ll experience is far above the average vacation home rental. Check them out and take an online tour at jeevesfloridarentals.com.
For a complete rundown of all that Kissimmee has to offer, visit www.experiencekissimmee.com