If you are sailing during December from one of the four ports in Florida—Port Canaveral, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, or Miami--take time to enjoy the Christmas festivities in centrally-located Orlando. It’s a must-do to enhance the holiday mood or to wind down after a cruise. And don’t think ”Ho-Hum, another day with Mickey Mouse,” because I went in search for fun beyond the theme parks and found so much more going on in the area.
A not-to-be-missed experience is the spectacular ice show at the 2.1 million square foot Gaylord Palms Resort on West Osceola Parkway in Kissimmee. Two million tons of ice are trucked in and sculpted into such breath-taking sights as a lighted ice bridge that crosses to a snowy landscape featuring a life-size nativity scene, a towering Christmas castle, three ice slides, and many more amazing displays. The temperature is kept at a constant nine degrees. Hooded parkas are provided at the entrance, but long pants and closed-toe shoes are required. Prices are $16.99 adults, $13.99 for seniors, and $7.99 for children. Parking is $7. The exhibit runs through January 02, 2006 daily from 10 a.m.-8:30 p.m.. www.gaylordpalms.com/ice.
Staying at the Gaylord Palms Hotel is an adventure in itself, as the 4.5-acre, glass-covered atrium is themed to the Florida destinations of Key West, St. Augustine and the Everglades. And one of the more popular dining choices is Sunset Sam’s Fish Camp, with its 60-foot sailboat, where real salt air is piped in for additional atmosphere while watching the nightly sunset show.
Hotel rooms are decorated in the style of the themed section where they are located. Ours was in Key West, where Ernest Hemingway would have felt right at home, with overhead bamboo fans and a rustic balcony overlooking swaying palms and rippling streams. Also on the premises is the Old Hickory Steakhouse, Villa de Flora Mediterranean Market, scores of trendy boutiques, and a world-renowned Canyon Ranch Spa Club. Gaylord Palms is definitely an upscale hotel, but rates start at $199 per night for two, and sometimes there are specials. Phone 407-586-0000 for reservations or visit the web site at www.gaylordhotels.com.
Both adults and children will enjoy the two most popular dinner shows in town. “Christmas at Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede,” on I-4 between Disney World and Universal Studios, features top-notch riders, and singing and dancing performances with dramatic lighting, sound, and pyrotechnics. Everyone sits behind long banquet tables facing the arena and is served a four-course meal during the performance. Prices are $46.99 for adults, $19.99 for children 4-11; kids under four years are free as long as they sit on a parent’s lap and eat off their plate. For show times and reservations: www.dixiestampede.com or 407-238-4455.
Medieval Times is an experience in time travel back to the 11th Century, where armor-clad Knights of the Realm riding magnificent Andalusia horses engage in a colorful tournament, lances splintering against shields of steel, broad swords sparking, with a champion eventually emerging, all while legions of serving wenches in period costumes deliver a four-course meal in pewter bowls. It's all medieval-style, which means no silverware but plenty of napkins. Adults $48.95; $32.95 ages 12 and under. 1-888-WE-JOUST for reservations and show time or www.medievaltimes.com.
If you're searching for a quiet hotel away from the noise and traffic inside the thee park resorts, the Radisson World Gate at 3011 Maingate Lane is the perfect getaway. Less than a mile from the parks, it has free onsite parking (quite a savings), complimentary shuttle service, and ticket sales to avoid the long lines at the parks. There are two heated pools and nice restaurants where kids under five eat free. Rates start at $79, plus two free cocktails when you book online www.worldgateresort.com. Phone 407-396-1400.
Another great hotel is the Hyatt Regency at Orlando International Airport. Quiet, comfortable, with all-important 24-hour room service, the Hyatt is a traveler’s delight. Located in the main lobby of the airport, the elevator doors open right next to security check-in. And there is a bonus for cruise passengers who sometimes find themselves stuck in the airport for hours between flights: For $89 a whole family can enjoy a room, the use of the hotel gym and heated roof-top pool. In addition, the Orlando International Airport is now a mecca for shoppers with a nice variety of specialty shops. Phone 407-825-1234 for hotel reservations or www.hyatt.com.
For a taste of the islands while in the Orlando area, Bahama Breeze Restaurants located on International Drive and Lake Buena Vista offer Bahamian, Calypso, Cuban, and Jamaican food in generous portions at reasonable prices. I found the menu a delightful change from high-priced touristy places without having to indulge in fast food.
If you make your visit to Orlando before Christmas, be sure to take time for the fantastic Mall at Millennia, featuring Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales, Macy’s, and 150 luxury and specialty stores, all lavishly decorated for the holidays. For directions and hours call 407-363-3555 or www.mallatmillenia.com.
Other holiday events in the Orlando area include Christmas at SeaWorld, Holidays Around the World at the Epcot Center, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (check for specific dates) at the Magic Kingdom, and the Osborne Family Spectacle of Lights at Disney-MGM Studios. For maps, coupon books, and a complete schedule of events, visit the Orlando web site www.orlandoinfo.com.
I had a fabulous time exploring Orlando beyond the theme parks and feel that post and pre-cruise visits are truly worth the time and mileage between the Florida cruise terminals: Port Canaveral, 55 miles; Tampa 84 miles; Fort Lauderdale 200; and Miami 235.