By Bruce Kemp
Chip Litherland PhotographyIt’s like one of those tales from Hans Christian Anderson. You know the one about the village toy maker who brings magic to his work. Only this one is true.
The humble little plastic brick invented by Ole Kirk Christiansen in 1947 was responsible for the launch of Central Florida’s newest theme park attraction – LEGOLAND®.
As a theme park, this one is without precedent in the United States. It’s not based on the standard thrill-a-second formula, but on the imaginative use of 50 million tiny plastic bricks – the kind that appeal to kids who spend less time in front of the TV and more time playing and making things with their friends.
The attraction covers 60 hectares on the shore of Lake Eloise in Winter Haven and offers 10 themes zones and 50 family-oriented rides.
Kids get to visit places like Lego Kingdoms – a theme area complete with castles, princesses and dragons. They get to storm the castle and joust with each other on Lego-themed horses. No visit to the Kingdoms would be complete without a roller coaster ride aboard The Dragon, an indoor/outdoor steel roller coaster that offers a hilarious, behind-the-scenes view of life within the enchanted LEGOLAND Castle.
For the more swashbuckling kids, Pirates’ Cove offers high seas adventure and fun. The Lego “mini-fig” characters perform in a live-action, water stunt show that will keep the kids brandishing their snickersnee’s for days afterward.
DisneyAnother wooden roller coaster beckons youngsters, this time in the Land Of Adventure. It zips and dips around a life-sized dinosaur built completely out of Lego blocks. The adventure continues for the kids in the Lost Kingdom and African Safari Trek where the startlingly life-like savannah animals are also made from Lego bricks.
LEGOLAND opened last October in a surprising location. The park, which is geared to children ranging in age from two to 12, encompasses the venerable, 75-year old Cypress Gardens as one of its 10 theme areas.
When LEGOLAND Florida was conceived, the park designers and operators – Merlin Entertainments – knew they wanted to preserve Cypress Gardens and the botanical environment it represented and so the old was incorporated into the new including the world-famous sentinel Banyan tree that was planted as a seedling in 1939.
Above It All
No one can visit Central Florida without a pilgrimage to the Big Kahuna of theme parks – Disney World. It’s like a musical counterpoint to LEGOLAND and deserves at least three days to explore and enjoy.
Kissimmee CVBDisney World lies east, along Interstate 4, of Winter Haven in Orlando. But before you get to the Magic Kingdom® Park, take a short detour to Kissimmee – ten minutes off the interstate.
Kissimmee is an old Florida town with a population just shy of 60,000 and a forward-thinking outlook. It’s close enough to Disney World to be a bedroom community for visitors, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some pretty neat local attractions.
One of the coolest adventures based in Kissimmee is Orlando Balloon Rides. The company’s flagship is a new, 24-passenger balloon towering higher than an 11-storey building. It’s the tallest hot air balloon in the United States and it dwarfs the other 16-passnger balloons in the fleet. The balloons take off everyday, weather permitting, from a variety of locations around Kissimmee and finish each flight with a champagne brunch.
X-treme adventurers aren’t forgotten here either. Kissimmee offers Florida Eco-Safaris at Forever Florida, a 1,890-hectare working cattle ranch and nature preserve.
The attractions here are all low-level aerial features. Florida Forever opened its unique Cypress Canopy Cycle adventure last year to allow families with kids as young as 10 to explore the natural environment from a cycle suspended above the forest floor. Riders pedal their way along steel cables over wildflowers and wetlands. There’s even a good chance cyclists will see George the 60-year-old, four metre-long alligator from the safety of the forest canopy.
Kissimmee CVBIn addition to the Canopy Cycle, a new Zipline Safari opened last fall and four new attractions provide a load of thrills and spills to adventure seekers.
Panther Pounce tests adventurers’ nerves with a nearly 23-metre drop while connected to a harness; Rattlesnake Roller Coaster, a zipline coaster with all the dips and slips of traditional coasters with the added excitement of doing it on a zipline; Peregrine Plunge, a 425-metre straight zip at 50 kph through the forest; and Swooping Crane, where guests are hoisted 20 metres before they decide when to begin a freefall that finally settles into a gentle swing.
Parks, Parks & More Parks
At Disneyworld, you can discover the New Fantasyland, the largest expansion in the Kingdom’s history, nearly doubling the size of the existing attraction. Multiple development phases will see the expansion continuing through to 2014.
Disney takes you back to the fabled era of the great American circus with the introduction of its new Storybook Circus. Big top tents feature clowns, acrobats and daring stunt people.
Visitors arrive at Fantasyland Station, the newest depot on the Walt Disney World Railroad and can either head to the midway right away or indulge in three new additional attractions.
Barnstormer offers visitors the chance to take to the sky with The Great Goofini on a spiraling stunt plane adventure high above the Circus grounds.
Dumbo The Flying Elephant makes a reprise with an all-new ride that takes families high above Storybook Circus with Dumbo putting a new twist on an old favourite!
For the little ones (and not so little folk) there’s the Casey Jr. Splash ‘N’ Soak Station a fun-filled water park where future Mouseketeers and their families can cool off and enjoy a variety of refreshments.
2012 Universal Orlando Resort.Later this year, Fantasyland Forest will open. Inspired by some of Disney’s most beloved films like the Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, the forest will reveal a pair of majestic castles, a magical village and a lush, friendly forest.
This summer’s blockbuster action movie, Spiderman, is the inspiration for a reanimated update of Universal Orlando’s popular The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. Visitors will feel like they’re taking a real web-slinging flight through the streets of New York through the technological magic of several new and highly sophisticated Infitec 3-D projection systems.
SeaWorld Parks & EntertainmentIf you ever wondered what it’s like to be a sea turtle, check out Sea World Orlando’s latest offering – TurtleTrek. This new saltwater environment contains 1,500 fish and more than a dozen sea turtles.
Ahh, The Beach
You can’t visit Florida without going to the beach and beaching only means one thing – The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel.
The region is a curious mix of sophisticated nightlife and eco-preserve. There are hundreds of restaurants in the region like Doc Ford’s Rum Bar on Sanibel and The Mad Hatter serving everything from right-out-of-the-ocean snapper and grouper to Hudson River Foie Gras and Chocolate Truffle Terrine.
You can golf until you drop at championship courses like the Hyatt’s Raptor Bay Golf Club or the Fort Myers Country Club where Thomas Edison and Henry Ford used to play.
Accommodations throughout the region range from five-star like the Diamondhead Beach Resort and Spa (2000 Estero Blvd., Ft. Myers Beach) to the quaint Anchor Inn and Cottages (1245 Periwinkle Way, Sanibel Island).
But the real pleasure of Ft. Myers Beach/Sanibel Island is the raw natural splendour.
Almost nightly between late spring and the end of October, loggerhead turtles make their way up the sand beaches to lay hundreds of eggs. Hotels and resorts working with Turtle Time Inc., a volunteer turtle conservation organization, conduct guided turtle observing expeditions.
The J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, one of Florida’s most impressive, is situated on Sanibel Island. With 2,585 hectares of mangroves, it’s the largest undeveloped mangrove system in the entire United States. The Refuge is home to 220 species of birds and hundreds of mammals, amphibians and reptiles like the rare American crocodile and the gentle, grass-munching manatee. Families can take a picnic and make a day long, self-guided walking tour.
But visitors always return to the mild sandy beaches with their silky warm waters after a day of exploring.
Orlando Balloon Rides
Florida Eco Safaris
Walt Disney World
The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel
Raptor Bay Golf Club
J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge