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Orlando visitor highlights
March 2011
by Jeffrey Bouley  |  Email the author
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Feel a need for speed?
If the pace of the AACR meeting isn't fast enough for you, visit the Daytona Speedway

DAYTONA, Fla.—Even with all the breakthroughs and promising avenues of research in understanding and fighting cancer, there is no doubt that results of those efforts—in terms of drugs, diagnostics and more—often seem all too slow in being fully realized and made commercially available. So if you want to see more immediate and speedy results, consider visiting one of the most well-known car racing venues.

The Daytona International Speedway, known mostly for being home to the Daytona 500, is located about an hour northeast of Orlando and even though there aren't always major races taking place there, there is always something to do. For one thing, since 1996 the speedway has been home to Daytona USA, which was created to transform the Daytona International Speedway into a destination for tourists looking to acquaint themselves with the history of motorsports activity in the Daytona Beach area.

As "the Official Attraction of NASCAR," Daytona USA features a highly-interactive multi-million-dollar entertainment facility designed to broaden the entertainment and educational experience for visitors of all ages whether they are racing fans or not. Among the activities inside attraction are the Pepsi IMAX Theatre, which shows "NASCAR 3D: The IMAX Experience" and "Daytona 500: The Movie," as well as three different motion simulators, the Ford 16-Second Pit Stop and the Daytona 500-winning car.

In addition, you can arrange for tours with either a Speedway Tour or the All Access Tour. With the former, at a cost of $15 for adults and $10 for children ages 6 to 12, you can take a stroll through the infield and pass through NASCAR Nationwide Series garages as you learn about the history of Daytona International Speedway, as well as travel along Pit Road and discover how NASCAR's drivers prep for the largest motorsports event of the year. The All Access Tour costs $7 more and allows visitors to venture behind the scenes, with a roughly one-hour experience that includes exploring areas such as the drivers meeting room, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garages, Gatorade Victory Lane, and a trip inside the Houston Lawing Press Box seven stories above the Speedway.  

On the other hand, as heady as speed and power can be, there's also something to be said for sticking closer to Orlando and taking it easy—even enjoying nature rather than the roar of engines. For that, there are two very notable choices: Lake Eola Park and the Harry P. Leu Gardens, both of which are in Orlando proper.

Lake Eola Park is popular destination in the downtown area, particularly for walks at lunchtime or the evenings. The sidewalk that circles the lake is just under a mile in length, and for other mobile activities, the park also offers rentals of swan-shaped paddleboats and electric gondola boats. In addition, visitors can feed the real swans and other birds inhabiting the park, see a concert or play in the Walt Disney Amphitheater, get some food at Relax Grill or view Orlando's skyline while surrounded by flower beds.

The Leu Gardens, for their part, feature paved scenic walkways that take visitors through 50 acres of southern-styled gardens, seeking to "inspire people to appreciate and understand plants, the environment of Central Florida and the Gardens' historic significance." Leu Gardens include America's third-largest Camellia collection, three acres of idea gardens for weekend projects, the largest formal rose garden in Florida, a house museum dating from the 1880s, a two-acre tropical stream garden, vegetable and herb garden, a butterfly garden and palm, bamboo and cycad gardens. The attraction is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a $7 admission for adults and $2 for anyone from kindergarten age to senior in high school.



Get wild while you're in Central Florida
No, we don't mean with the folks in the Orlando nightclubs or your fellow convention attendees at receptions
 
ORLANDO, Fla.—Just being outside in Florida can put you face- to-face with interesting wildlife, depending on where you're at—from alligators in the swamps (or wandering golf courses every so often) to lizards darting out of the bushes and bugs that are sometimes larger than the lizards. Fortunately, in April, before the muggy heat of summer kicks in, you should be spared much in the way of flying pests.

But if you want to see indigenous creatures and more exotic animals from abroad in a more comfortable manner, you have several options in Central Florida, either in or relatively near the Orlando-Kissimmee area. To provide a range of highlights, we're going to give you a traditional zoo, a more specifically kid-oriented petting zoo, a Disney-fied version of nature's wonders and a truly distinct attraction that we're pretty sure could only exist in the Southeastern United States (or perhaps a Wes Anderson film).

Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens

First established as the Sanford Zoo in 1923 with a collection of donated animals held by the Sanford Fire Department, the zoo relocated in 1941 to new facilities in downtown Sanford, on the site of the present City Hall, and then again in 1975 to its current home, still within the confines of Sanford, Fla.

The zoo features some 400 animals (not counting the denizens of the Massey Services Insect Zoo) but that's not all. Visitors also can "take to the sky" by taking advantage of the zoo's aerial adventure course and ZOOm Air Adventure Park. The idea behind ZOOm Air Adventure is to allow visitors to explore the treetops from an animal's perspective. Families can move from tree to tree using rope bridges, zip lines, suspended disks and a variety of other unique systems.

On the other hand, you can also stay close to Earth to cool off in the Wharton-Smith Tropical Splash Ground.  The zoo also has domestic animals in its Animal Adventure Children's Zoo and displays the largest collection of venomous snakes and non-venomous reptiles in the Southeast United States in its herpetarium.

Do not, however, go to the zoo expecting some big-city style park. Visitors sometimes complain that in terms of animals, the zoo tends toward the modest end— even mediocre by some standards—and the food options don't sound that great for lunching or snacking, either. If you'll have your kids with you and you've already seen the bigger parks in the area or just want something quieter, this may be the place.

Green Meadows Petting Farm

Also geared strongly toward children and families, the Green Meadows Petting Farm in Kissimmee, Fla., operates on the philosophy "that learning can be fun" and provides hands-on guided tours to educate people about its more than 300 farm animals—including Elmer the Asian water buffalo—as well as give them the chance to touch many of them. The tour includes a chance for everyone to milk a cow, take a train ride, give the kids a pony ride, take a tractor-drawn hayride and enjoy the picnic areas.

Green Meadows Farm actually got its start in 1964 in Waterford, Wis., when Bob and Coni Keyes converted their 80-acre hog and cattle business into a pick-your-own vegetable and raspberry farm—a very new concept in produce marketing at the time. They later incorporated some of the farm animals as an additional way to draw in families. By the early 1970s the farm was hosting as many as 1,200 visitors a day during the spring and fall seasons. In 1982, one of their older sons, Dan, located a 50-acre ranch to lease about 40 miles west of downtown Houston to start up a similar petting zoo-style operation, which eventually moved to Houston itself but closed in 1991. The family opened up similar attractions on a seasonal basis in spots like Wheaton, Ill., Floral Park, N.Y., and Jessup, Md. The Orlando-Kissimmee area got the same treatment, but in year-round fashion, in the late 1980s when Bob and Coni moved to Florida to escape the Wisconsin winters and have a sort of working retirement.

Disney's Animal Kingdom Park

We're hoping the registered trademark symbol that appears after "Kingdom" in the name "Disney's Animal Kingdom Park" in official materials means that the company trademarked the first three words in the name together and not the phrase "animal kingdom" itself. It's one of the four "theme parks" Disney offers (in addition to two water parks) at the Disney World Resort and it is said to "reflect Walt Disney's dedication to nature and conservation" by serving as the home to more than 1,700 animals from 250 species sprawled across 500 acres of lush landscape, reportedly making it the largest animal-themed park in the world. And, of course, Disney characters—from the old standards to newer "Lion King"-oriented ones—also factor in heavily.

The park is divided into seven areas, which are the Oasis, Discovery Island, Camp Minnie-Mickey, Rafiki's Planet Watch area, Dinoland U.S.A. and the Africa and Asia areas. Safari-style tours are available, and visitors can get up close and personal enough with some animals to touch them. Broadway-style musical shows, parades, rides and other attractions also beckon.

As with any Disney park, you'll get visitor reactions that range from "it was a huge disappointment that wasn't worth the price" to "it's great and makes the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park look like a petting zoo." You can expect high admission prices and sometimes long waits for attractions, but you will best be able to judge your own risk/reward ratio.

Gatorland

On Highway 441, just north of the Orlando-Kissimmee line in South Orlando—roughly 20 minutes away from Walt Disney World, Sea World and the Orlando International Airport—lies what its owners advertise as "The alligator capital of the world" and Orlando's best half-day attraction: Gatorland.

For more than 60 years now, the attraction—which the owners say is Florida's oldest theme park—has drawn visitors by the millions through its gaping gator mouth entrance for what is billed as a "natural, low-tech adventure," providing a "unique and natural alternative" to the larger theme parks.

This 110-acre theme park and wildlife preserve features thousands of alligators and crocodiles, a breeding marsh with boardwalk and observation tower, an aviary, a petting zoo, a swamp walk and educational programs. Oh, and reptilian shows that apparently include such things as wrestling some of these toothsome creatures and gators leaping out of the water for proffered food from park staff. The place is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

You shouldn't have to worry too much about being eaten by the denizens of the park, though. As the Insurance Journal noted in 2009, "With over 100 employee roles, ranging from custodial and food handling to gator wrestling, the potential for injury is great; however, the incident of harm at Gatorland is very low." If they can keep their employees alive, you shouldn't have to worry too much that your kids will be eyed as potential appetizers.

(All photos above except for Disney Animal Kingdom photo courtesy of Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc.

A FEW OTHER ATTRACTIONS:
 
Blue Martini, which has 10 locations nationwide—most of them in Florida and one of those in Orlando—features more than 40 styles of martini, "big-city ambiance" and nightly entertainment, where visitors can enjoy both a patio bar and indoor entertainment and dancing. Some of the newer martinis being offered include the Razzatini, featuring Crop organic vodka, raspberry purée and sweet and sour; the Blue Agave Martini with Herradura Silver Tequila, blue curacao, agave nectar, lime juice and grapefruit; the Whipped Cream with Pinnacle Whipped Cream Vodka; and  the Skinny Rita with Milagro Silver Tequila, agave nectar and Finest Call Sweet & Sour Lite for a relatively low-cal 250-calorie drinking experience. Credit: Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Inc.



Located within relatively easy reach of Orlando, Daytona Beach and Miami, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex offers, among other things, the Shuttle Launch Experience. This $60 million attraction is the most technologically-advanced exhibit ever created at the complex and uses a custom-designed motion platform to recreate the sensations of blasting into earth's orbit. Also available at the space center are tours, IMAX films, the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, a Rocket Garden, Astronaut Memorial, Hubble Telescope exhibit and more. Credit: Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Inc.



With four theme parks and two water parks—as well as other offerings in the area—Disney remains firmly entrenched as the biggest kid on the block among the Orlando-Kissimmee area entertainment providers. Pictured here is the Summit Plummet at the Blizzard Beach water park, in which swimmers head almost straight down at 55 miles per hour. The idea of the park is for Walt Disney World Resort visitors to experience "the spine-chilling thrills of a northern ski resort in the middle of sunny Florida," but not all of the water slides are as potentially harrowing as the Summit Plummet. Disney's other water park is Typhoon Lagoon, which features everything from fast waterslides to a children's area with pint-sized raft rides, as well as the ability to catch six-foot waves in surf pool and snorkel at Shark Reef with real sharks. The theme parks are Disney's Magic Kingdom Park, with "enchanting entertainment, classic attractions, beloved Disney Characters and spectacular parades and fireworks in a place where fairytale dreams can come true" as the company puts it; Epcot, which features attractions and entertainment focused on technological innovation and the culture and cuisine of 11 nations; Disney's Hollywood Studios, with shows, attractions and tours offering behind-the-scenes glimpses of Hollywood-style action; and Disney's Animal Kingdom Park, which we talk about in the "Get wild while you 're in Central Florida" article in this section.



If you need a very striking counterpoint to the traditional fare in the Orlando area, and you can't fit in a visit to church, you can get a Christian-oriented take on the Holy Land with the theme park known as The Holy Land Experience. The owners bill it as "a living, biblical museum that takes you 7,000 miles away and 2,000 years back in time to the land of the Bible, adding: "Its combination of sights, sounds and tastes will stimulate your senses and blend together to create a spectacular new experience." Credit: Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Inc.



MEETING OVERVIEW: For information about the AACR annual meeting itself, click here.

 
Code: E031199

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