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Experiencing Natural Florida
Exploring Nature Near Orlando

A Subtropical Auto Tour
Along with Hints to Enjoy Orlando

Starting in Orlando, this itinerary visits beautiful gardens, several subtropical forests, almost pristine springs and swimming holes, two wild rivers, beaches without development (a rarity in Florida), salt marshes, orange groves, and the famed Kennedy Space Center, site of voyages to the Moon, set adjacent to a wildlife preserve.

On this scenic one to four day trip, you see a large variety of animals, reptiles, and birds in their natural settings. Driving directions are given throughout, but those without cars get help, too. Orlando is not ignored. You receive hints on how best to enjoy it, also.

Too many Florida travellers just focus on the man-made Florida--the planned theme parks, the big hotels, the manicured beaches--and do not experience just how beautiful this state is. With Dr. Voyageur, you will transcend the artificial and have a natural experience that will be remembered for a lifetime.

Allow one to four days. Spending just one day is worthwhile.

Tent camping from June through October may be unpleasant due to frequent heavy rains, but the usually brief rains should not otherwise spoil enjoyment of this trip during the wet season, unless nature provides the most truly memorable Florida natural experience, a hurricane, which seldom reach this area.

On the first day, bring along some items for a picnic lunch at one or more of the springs described below, as on site food is limited, but remember to pack food that will not spoil quickly in the heat.

Dress lightly. Long-sleeved t-shirts and light trousers made of natural fibres are fine for everywhere we will visit. If you do not plan to take the long canoe ride described below, short-sleeved t-shirts and shorts are fine. Have mosquito repellent, comfortable shoes, a hat, a swimming suit and a beach towel, and during the wet season a light rain parka. If travelling during November, December, January, or February, take along a light sweater or jacket, but hopefully you will not need it.

Starting out from Orlando

To avoid much of the traffic congestion of Orlando, we will zoom northwest on the the Florida Turnpike, which charges a small toll. Study the map of Orlando that your rental car company gave you to determine how best to reach the Turnpike from where you are.

Orlando area voters were given a choice between spending tax monies on better schools or on better highways, and they favoured their children. God bless them for this, but it's a decision that you may not appreciate if caught in local traffic.

So, if travelling on weekdays, try to head out before the morning "rush hour" between 07:00 and 09:00 or immediately after it. In any case get an early start, or plan on spending the first night in the Mount Dora area described below.

As mentioned, from Orlando, head northwest on "Florida's Turnpike", as its signs are marked. When driving in Florida, always carry coins, especially quarters, which you may throw into bins at toll booths, instead of waiting in longer queues for change.

From Florida Turnpike exit 285, go north on State Route 19 to just before U.S. Highway 441.

Turn right onto "Old Highway 441" and follow it along the scenic lake into Mount Dora.

Otherwise, if you miss this turn, continue north a short distance to U.S. Highway 441.

Turn right on Highway 441, as Route 19 joins it travelling eastbound.

Ignore the junction where Route 19 heads north from 441, and instead continue on Highway 441 eastbound.

Take any turn marked "Mt. Dora" and drive down toward the waterfront and the Mount Dora business district.

Use some time to drive and walk around this most pleasant small resort town with its charming shops and bed and breakfast places that hark back to another era. Historic buildings, small cafes and restaurants, ceramics and other art shops, quilt, and antique places abound, and the parks along the lake add to the charm.

The Chamber of Commerce (1 352 838-2165), near the lakefront, at 341 North Alexander Street, has a helpful Internet site, as does another local merchants association. Be sure to ask the Chamber for its free self guided historic tour brochure.

When leaving Mount Dora, drive away from the lake on any street up to U.S. Highway 441.

Turn left.

Ignore the signs that say Route 19 bypass, and instead continue to the junction with State Highway 19.

Turn north on Route 19, and pass through Eustis, another pleasant small town and retirement centre.

Viewing nature at Alexander Springs

Continue north on Route 19, and enter the Ocala National Forest.

Soon on the left you see the entrance to the U.S. Forest Service visitor information centre. Its very pleasant staff gives excellent advice and free maps and guides. You may wish to make a small donation in the box provided.

Continue north on Route 19 until you reach the marked turn off to Alexander Springs. Turn right. (If you reach State Highway 40, you have gone too far).

Alexander Springs, a wonderful natural preserve, comes up on your left.

Enter and pay the small entrance fee.

At Alexander Springs, a large spring gives birth to a real river in a fabulous natural setting.

Swimming in the large pool formed by the spring surrounded by semi-tropical vegetation is super. The water temperature is perfect for warm days. If certified, you can scuba here. The large sand beach accommodates many without crowding.

Change rooms come with hot showers. Camping, too, is available, as well as pleasant picnic areas.

Usually, tourists are few. The poor creatures are back in Orlando waiting in queues at the amusement parks and paying dearly for the privilege of doing so (Dr. V loves the theme parks, but not when he can be in Ocala National Forest).

Here, wildlife and bird observation is superb. You may take marked paths to observation decks to view wildlife, including at times eagles and other birds. If you see brown bears (called grizzly bears in the western U.S., Alaska, and Canada), do not approach them.

The paths are interesting, but the big deals are the canoes that can be rented to travel down river. Approximately $26 gets a group a canoe for a day, and a pick up from some 7 miles away with transportation back to the spring. Contact the U.S. Forest Service Visitor Centre, 1 352 669-7495, near Alexander Springs to verify the current availability of boats and pickup.

However, you must be brave! After signing a form at the boat rental stand that releases the owners from all liability in case of accident, you are given a boat and a heartfelt goodbye and good luck, and off you go.

Almost immediately, you see alligators sunning themselves on the banks, looking at you, and thinking of dinner.

Do not approach these reptiles! Even the small ones can do serious damage to capsized boaters.

Any fear is forgotten, however, as the beauty of the river is stunning.

A profusion of birds fly overhead, including eagles at times. Because the water is so pure and clear, river life too will be easily visible. This is a wonderful place.

Take the time to enjoy this spectacle, but do not take foolish chances. If your children are not mature enough to behave themselves and follow simple instructions, do not attempt this canoe trip with them.

Otherwise, go for this wonderful opportunity to canoe here, as travelling a short distance on this wild river may be one of your most memorable American experiences. Nevertheless, if you do not want to, Dr. Voyageur offers a beautiful but less demanding alternative later on.

Enjoying Juniper Springs

When done, exit Alexander Springs and turn left.

Continue to the "T" junction, and turn right.

Drive on a short distance to State Highway 40, and carefully turn left, watching out for the fast traffic on Route 40.

Go west on Highway 40 to the entrance to Juniper Springs. Be careful, as its sign is on the left side of Route 40, but the actual entrance is on the right.

Juniper Springs, another excellent swimming spot, was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a wonderful programme during the Great Depression that gave youth employment, often in natural settings. Even after some 65 years, you still see their public works in parks throughout the United States.

The more tamed Juniper Springs is usually more crowded than Alexander, but it is very pretty and very worthwhile visiting. Picnic tables are available in a pretty setting.

During your drive through the Ocala National Forest, you have crossed the marked Florida National Scenic Trail several times. For this very sandy trek, you should bring boots and should not walk alone.

If you are interested in group nature hikes in Ocala National Forest and other scenic areas of Canada and the U.S., check out the chapters page on the Sierra Club site. This group, which includes Dr. Voyageur, has a new member special, including a subscription to its fine magazine. Join Sierra Club for $15 and receive a FREE expedition backpack.

Visiting Ocala and Silver Springs

Now, some readers have done the canoe ride at Alexander Springs, and it is getting late. Others may be getting hungry.

In any case, from Juniper Springs, continue west on Highway 40 into the city of Ocala. Numerous restaurants line Route 40, Silver Springs Boulevard, as it passes through Ocala, while others are found along the side routes like U.S. Highway 441 and State Highway 200 that branch off Route 40.

If you did not do the canoe ride at Alexander, by all means visit the Silver Springs park, one of the largest springs in the world on the left side of Route 40, just east of Ocala. Do not worry about missing the turnoff, which is well signed.

Silver Springs is a commercial development, albeit a nice one. The first major theme park developed in Florida, back when Orlando was merely a small trading centre for the local citrus growers, Silver Springs still has a wholesome, natural charm that some man-made parks lack. It cannot compete in excitement, however, with a Back to the Future-type ride at Universal Studios.

The setting of Silver Springs has been much more modified by man than the other springs in the area, but the springs--there are some 12 of them, including the largest in the state--create a river as wild and beautiful as any in Florida.

The rather steep admission fee, just under $30 with auto club discount, plus $5 for parking, includes a fascinating glass bottom boat ride that views the various springs that form the river. Numerous species of fish are seen, and we experience the power of the huge outflows that create the river. The glass bottomed boat gives views as good as you would have donning a scuba driving outfit.

Wonderful nature cruises (the "Lost River" cruises), also included in the admission, glide along the river, where knowledgeable guides help you identify the profusion of animals, reptiles, and birds seen.

The boats stop at Silver Springs' animal rehabilitation centre, where, if possible, injured birds and animals from all over Florida are conditioned to return to the wild. Otherwise, they live their last days in an environment of loving care.

One of the most popular attractions at the park is the birds of prey show held periodically throughout the day.

Other attractions exist, especially for smaller children, so you can easily spend a half day or longer. Note that the park closes early.

Those without cars can reach Ocala from Orlando by Greyhound each morning, and return in the late afternoon or evening. You transfer by taxi between the Greyhound station and park.

If you must return to Orlando by car today, continue west on Route 40 through Ocala to Interstate 75. Take I-75 southbound to Florida's Turnpike. Then drive southeast on the turnpike into the Orlando area. Do not worry if you must drive from Ocala after dark, as this route is not super scenic.

Otherwise, Ocala with its numerous motels and motor inns and restaurants makes a good place to spend the night. You may tap in to Hotwire.com in order to find out the discount hotel prices available.

With Hotwire, you choose quality and price, but don't learn the name of your hotel or motor inn until after you pay. (This allows hotels to get rid of excess inventory at deeply discounted prices without their full paying customers knowing.)

One warning. Ocala, a major retirement community, offers little excitement in the evening. Younger travellers may wish to head north on I-75 to Gainesville, the home of the University of Florida, to spend the night. The next morning, they may head east from Gainesville on State Highway 20, and join the rest of the group at Palatka.

Exploring St. Augustine and the Palm Coast

Once rested and fed in Ocala, wake up early, and head back east on State Highway 40 into the Ocala National Forest.

Then travel north on Route 314 to the village of Salt Springs. If you wish to swim, the Salt Springs Recreation Area here offers another opportunity in a pretty semi-natural setting.

From Salt Springs village, go north on Route 19 to Route 20.

Turn right on State Highway 20, and enter Palatka, a regional trading centre for this rich agricultural area.

At Palatka, head east on U.S. Highway 17 and State Highway 100.

Just over the large bridge across the St. John's River, turn north on State Route 207.

Continue north and east to Interstate 95.

Head north on I-95 a short distance to State Highway 16.

Take Route 16 eastward toward St. Augustine.

Ignore the signs for U.S. Highway One, and instead continue east to Business Highway One.

Turn right.

Just past the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, the St. Augustine and St. John's County Visitor's Centre pops up on your right. Drive to its back and use its inexpensive parking.

This large information centre has a really helpful staff that sells discounted tickets to local attractions and suggests places to visit. Let them provide you a inexpensive ticket on one of the horse drawn carriages of the St. Augustine Transfer Company and a free map of the centre city. From the visitor's centre, you are within easy walking distance of the historic area and the Transfer Company tours starting point.

Your one-hour guided tour shows the highlights of this, the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States (Santa Fe, the charming town in New Mexico, is the oldest European settlement west of the Mississippi and the oldest state capital in the U.S).

After your tour, spend time walking around the historic section and fortifications, including the plaza and St. George Street areas. You will find the setting on a beautiful bay exhilarating.

On your guided tour, you passed the Lions Bridge, where Route A1A branches off Business Route One to cross the bay. When done in St. Augustine, drive across this bridge to St. Augustine Beach.

Well-signed Anastasia State Park here offers good ocean swimming in a child friendly environment.

Continue south on Route A1A.

At first we drive along a typical Florida coast highway, where often buildings and sometimes just dunes block most views of the sea.

At the Fort Matanzas National Historic site, turn left into the parking area just prior to the long bridge across the inlet. Here a marked nature walk leads you through the dunes to an almost pristine beach.

True, you can see some buildings to the north in the distance, and true some vehicles drive along the hard sand of this beach, but overall this is a pleasant and natural spot.

Beware, however, that currents are said to be very strong here, which makes swimming dangerous. Remember, also, to not bring glass bottles or alcohol onto the beach, which can lead to fines.

From a turn off the main highway at the north end of the historic park, the remains of the fort itself can be reached via a free ferry across the Matanzas River. Since the founding of the fort during the Eighteenth Century, the outlet to the sea that the fort guarded has shifted far to the south.

Continue southbound on Route A1A.

Washington Oaks State Gardens, next on our route, has a rocky coastline, very unusual in Florida, but its gardens are what attracts most of the visitors. Be sure to stop here for a pleasant hour or so, and perhaps use the picnic facilities.

Next comes Flagler Beach. The town of Flagler Beach itself lacks charm. It certainly lacks the influence of wealthy residents to create the great mansions and public buildings found in some Florida coastal communities.

Something even more precious, however, has been structured here. Nearly unique in Florida, very metre of the Flagler Beach sea front has been preserved for public use. No privately owned buildings block the view.

Viewing the deep blue Atlantic while driving along Flagler Beach and the northern portion of adjacent Ormond Beach is exhilarating. You miss this experience later on, with minor exceptions such as a portion of Fort Lauderdale's beachfront.

Almost continuous development mars the coast between Cocoa Beach and the Miami area. Unlike the Pacific Coast of the United States in California and Oregon, very little beachfront land has been set aside for public use, a terrible shame.

Florida has shot itself in the foot, so to speak, as lack of beach access lowers the value of inland properties close to the shore and thus reduces property tax revenues. In Miami Beach, areas close to beach that were denied easy access to the sea actually became crime-ridden slums. Even today, Miami Beach struggles to redevelop out of this situation.

Travellers to southern Florida are better off taking Interstate 95 (or the Florida Turnpike) most of the way, and exiting the interstate just periodically to visit some of the towns enroute such as Palm Beach.

In southeastern Florida, a few cities charge rather stiff fees for visitors to enjoy their municipal beaches. In most cases, do not spend your money in such selfish places. No town on the Pacific Coast of Canada or the U.S. charges such fees, although there are nominal fees to enter organized parks along the Pacific coast, such as Pacific Rim National Park in British Columbia, and modest fees for parking.

An exception in southern Florida worth the price of its fee is the Boca Raton beachfront, which to a large degree has been left in its natural state. "Boca", a very wealthy community along the "Gold Coast", south of Palm Beach, even has one of the few remaining coastal forests fronting its shoreline. This natural park includes many interesting trees and plants indigenous to this area.

Florida, to its credit, is becoming more ecologically conscious. For example, recent years have seen important expansions of the Florida State Park System. Sadly, however, so many opportunities have already been lost to uncontrolled and often unwise development.

Anyway, back to our tour. Periodically, Dr. Voyageur rants.

Just past the undeveloped beachfront in northern Ormond Beach, turn right on State Highway 40, and cross the bridge over the Halifax River, the Intercoastal Waterway, staying in the right lane.

At the end of the bridge, turn right.

Go north on this very scenic drive past the lovely homes and private gardens along the waterway.

Continue north through the subtropical forest of Tomoka State Park, where you may picnic for a small fee.

Your route, a marked Volusia County scenic drive, slowly winds towards the west, and reaches Interstate 95.

Go south on I-95 toward Daytona Beach.

Experiencing Daytona Beach

If you wish to see the famed "Spring Break" resort of Daytona Beach, exit east on U.S. Highway 92, and head to the beach and boardwalk area.

On the way, you pass the Daytona International Speedway. The hard sands of the Daytona and Ormond beaches attracted auto racing early on, and this area remains one of the main centres of the sport in the United States.

If you want budget accommodation, old Highway One in Daytona Beach, which runs inland from the shore, offers bargains, although some neighbourhoods require caution. During the cooler months, all of Daytona has low prices. Retired Canadians fill the town during this season and often can pay the U.S. prices for lodging with Canadian dollars, a super savings at current exchange rates.

University Spring Break time, February, March, and much of April, on the other hand, has astronomical rates and no vacancy signs everywhere, as groups of fun-loving students fill every available room.

However, in any season, students seldom stray away from the beachfront to jam the venerable Piccadilly Cafeteria, 1 904 258-6396, at 200 North Ridgewood Avenue (U.S. Highway One, north of U.S. Highway 92) in Daytona Beach. On the other hand, the rest of us can enjoy well-prepared old-fashioned southern cooking at reasonable prices away from the crowded beach scene.

Enjoying Canaveral National Seashore

Once you have had your fill of the highrise beach life of Daytona--After all, this is a nature tour--continue south on I-95.

Travellers who need to return to the Orlando area today may turn off Interstate 95 onto westbound Interstate 4 in the Daytona Beach area. However, to avoid central Orlando congestion, instead go south on I-95.

Then at Exit 78, head west on the State Highway 407, which runs into the "Beeline".

Continue west on the "Beeline", State toll road 528, toward Orlando. For detailed directions as you near Orlando, please see below.

Otherwise, for the lucky rest of us who have more time, head south from Daytona Beach on Interstate 95.

At the State Highway 44 exit, drive east to New Smyma Beach.

This old beach town has been overrun by Orlando area visitors, but still has some charm.

From New Smyma Beach, go south on the shore drive, and enter the northern section of Canaveral National Seashore.

At Canaveral, we find the first (and last) truly pristine beaches on this trip, nature walks, and limited beach camping. Check out the Internet site for details of this super national park.

The southern section, accessible via Titusville, offers similar pleasures, but is more subject to closures due to missile launches and preparation for same at the Kennedy Space Center, as is the adjacent national wildlife refuge. Since the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, this area has been closed much of the time.

Visiting the John F. Kennedy Space Center

Travelling to and from the visitor's section of the Kennedy Space Center, we take the roads most likely to be open. At times, however, shortcuts may be available, but these make little difference in the time used.

From the northern section of Canaveral National Seashore, go back to New Smyma Beach, and then head to Interstate 95.

Drive south on I-95.

At exit 79, take the well-signed road into the John F. Kennedy Space Center. President Kennedy and his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson, more than anyone else, gained the needed economic, political, and public support for the later great achievements of the United States space programme. Hence the appropriate names for this centre and the newer Johnson mission control centre in Texas.

After crossing the Intercoastal Waterway, the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex comes up on your right.

Nothing at the space centre costs you very much. American taxpayers have already paid dearly for all that is around you. The National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA), the civilian government agency charged with running much of the U.S. space programme, depends on public support to promote its funding, and consequently a "red carpet" is rolled out for visitors.

Always, NASA must defend its programme against those who say the money should go instead to fix America's problems: the national debt, cancer, failing schools, substandard urban housing, etc. Opponents ignore the huge potential benefits of exploring space.

Therefore, NASA works hard to impress us here. A huge IMAX theatre screen displays the exhilaration of outer space, indoor and outdoor displays of space programme artifacts dazzle, and a gift shop of far more than usual interest beckons.

However, the big deals here are the organized tours. Perhaps the most interesting one, if you have time for just one, highlights the former command centre. "Failure is not an option."

The second lets us see the launch sites themselves along the Atlantic shore. If you are lucky, you see close up rockets being prepared for take off. Some launches continue, especially for military purposes, in spite of funding cutbacks.

The space centre becomes more and more crowded as the day goes on, so try to arrive early to avoid the worst queues and booked up tours. During busy times like school holidays, you may wish to enjoy Canaveral National Seashore after your space centre visit.

Tom Wolfe's fine book "The Right Stuff" about the early space programme was made into a great movie that you should enjoy prior to visiting. In addition, see the film "Apollo 13" before your trip, or read an excellent book about Apollo 13, as this will deepen your appreciation.

Once we have paid our respects to the brave astronauts who pioneered what President Kennedy called part of a "New Frontier" and all the dedicated people who helped make the dream come true, let's hit the beach.

Although there may be a shortcut open, exit the Space Center the way you came and continue to Interstate 95.

Go south on 95 to the intersection of State Highway 528, the "Beeline Expressway"

Turn east toward the town of Port Canaveral, which has become an important cruise ship terminal.

At State Highway A1A, turn south to Cocoa Beach, a bit of southern California surf culture transplanted to Florida. Be sure to visit Ron Jon's Surf Shop on the main strip in Cocoa Beach. Do not let the word "shop" mislead you. This place is larger than most Wal-Marts, with entertainment to boot.

Park yourself along any beach that you fancy along this strip.

For those without cars, Gray Line of Orlando offers full day tours to the space centre or to the Cocoa Beach area with a stop at Ron Jon's Surf Shop. In addition, Greyhound serves Daytona Beach from Orlando. This trip takes 65 to 100 minutes each way, depending on the number of stops, and you must transfer by taxi to the boardwalk area.

If driving, continue south on A1A to Patrick Air Force Base, where many of the first astronauts lived.

Returning to Orlando

Just south of Patrick Air Force, turn right, and go west on State Highway 404.

Cross a bridge over an arm of the Intercoastal Waterway, and then turn right onto County Route 3.

Travel northbound on County Route 3, which runs on a narrow strip of land between two waterways.

Turn left onto State Highway 520.

Go westbound on 520.

When you reach the toll route State Highway 528, the "Beeline", drive westbound toward Orlando.

This highway goes across a flat subtropical shrub savanna, typical of southern Florida.

Speaking of flat, asteroids larger than five kilometres (some two and one-half miles) across have fallen to earth.

If a five kilometre one were to strike in the Atlantic, midway between Europe and the United States, the initial wave (with more to follow) to hit the eastern shore of the U.S., including Florida, would be over 300 metres (more than 900 feet) tall. This would wipe out eastern shoreline cities such as New York, Boston, and Charleston, as well as cities as far inland as Washington, D.C.

On the other hand, because Florida is so very flat, with only a few small hills in its northern portion, the initial wave would wash over and destroy the ENTIRE state. Whoa, the ultimate wave! Sleep tight, Disney visitors.

Some may doubt Dr. Voyageur. Nevertheless, an asteroid crater wider than the state of Rhode Island sits on the southern Gulf coast of Mexico. Until mostly filled in by erosion, this crater was some 33 kilometres deep.

Dust from the impact that created this hole completely blocked the sun around the earth for more than 1000 days, wiping out most life, according to fossil records. Creatures near the impact died almost instantly from tidal waves, the fireball and the shockwave created by the hit, white-hot debris raining from the sky, or the impact itself. Those more distant died more slowly from starvation, as most plants used for food could not grow without sunlight.

Unlike most countries, the U.S. government funds research at NASA and elsewhere to help prevent these disasters. Each year, it spends less than the cost of constructing one Interstate highway interchange.

As you approach Orlando--presuming normal surf conditions--you reach the "Greenway", State Highway 417. Signs point you to go north on the Greenway to Orlando, and south on it to the airport. Ignore these. If you are heading for Kissimmee, however, go south on 417.

Continue westbound on the Beeline.

Exit southbound on Semoran Boulevard, State Highway 436, if dropping off someone at the airport. Exit northbound on Semoran if returning a car to most airport area rental companies, including Alamo, Hertz, and Thrifty. You may buy fuel several lights northbound on Semoran to save on what the rental companies charge when you do not return with a full tank.

Carry on westbound on the Beeline if you are staying in the Disney World, Universal Studios, and International Drive areas.

Enjoying the Orlando area

Tried of thinking of asteroids? Enjoyed enough nature? Let's have fun in the Orlando area.

Below, Dr. Voyageur gives a few helpful tips based on his many trips to the Orlando area, which supplement more detailed information found elsewhere.

First, international visitors should definitely try to make Orlando their first stop in the United States, especially if they have never visited the U.S. Here we find urban America at its freshest and finest. People new to the U.S. feel comfortable in the Orlando area, in contrast to many large U.S. cities.

Nonstop and direct flights arrive from both Europe and Latin America, and convenient one connection flights are available from Asia, Australasia, the Middle East, Nigeria, and South Africa (both Jo'burg and Cape Town).

Interestingly, Orlando International Airport, the best in the U.S., was more fun when alligators basked by the lagoons next to its runways. How the kids on flights loved to see them after landing!

Unfortunately, some airport manager must have wondered about the role of these creatures during a possible crash. The gators are gone, but this airport still offers a fine welcome to Orlando.

Second, by all means stay near Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, an uplifting area. Otherwise, you waste too much time in Orlando's notorious traffic.

If your budget allows, book one of the Disney World hotels, especially one connected by Disney monorail or boat to various Disney parks. Universal Studios, too, is adding hotels on site, including a new Hard Rock Hotel. Moreover, the hotels on International Drive are close to both parks.

If on a budget, the town of Kissimmee stands close by, as does a well-run Hostelling International facility. Amtrak and Greyhound serve both Kissimmee and Orlando.

As mentioned earlier, Dr. Voyageur does not recommend tent camping in Florida during the wet season from June through October or November. Also, nights without air conditioning during this time may be too warm to sleep well. In addition, from November through February some nights may be too cold, even a little below freezing. Therefore, book a roof over your head.

American or Canadian Automobile Association members can check rates on the AAA Internet site.

If you have a good idea of standard prices, really excellent savings come via bidding on accommodation at Priceline.com Hotels. Check it out. You may save more than 40 percent, if you have a U.S. billing address for your credit card.

You cannot select a specific motel or hotel, but you can choose the quality range you want and one or more of ten metro Orlando neighbourhoods (Disney World, Universal Studios, airport, Kissimmee, downtown, etc.). Be careful, however. Dates cannot be changed, and there are no refunds.

Also, be sure to check Hotwire.com for discount hotel rates. These can be really low, even during busy seasons.

Next, when travelling with small children, save Disney World for the last. Otherwise, everything else seems anticlimactic to them.

For example, on a one-week holiday, an active family with an eight year old child might enjoy

  • Universal Studios (The "Back to the Future" ride may be too intense for young children, however)
  • Universal Islands of Adventure with early evening dining at Universal Citywalk
  • The first day of the nature tour, including a visit to Silver Springs
  • Kennedy Space Center plus an Atlantic Ocean beach such those found at Canaveral National Seashore
  • Sea World in the morning with Wet 'n Wild in the afternoon, or most of the day at Sea World
  • Relaxing by hotel pool in morning; early lunch, and visit to Disney's Animal Kingdom in the afternoon
  • Disney World

On the other hand, an energetic family with a 15 year old teenager might prefer

  • Universal Studios with lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, just outside the entrance. Ask, and if not too busy, one of the Hard Rock wait staff may give you a tour of the private rooms, including a VIP room stuffed with furniture and a piano from John Lennon's and Yoko Ono's former New York apartment. Be sure to give a nice tip
  • Universal Islands of Adventure with dining at the adjacent Universal Citywalk in the evening
  • Sea World in the morning with Wet 'n Wild in the afternoon, if have time for both
  • The nature tour day one, including the Alexander Springs canoe ride
  • Kennedy Space Center and Canaveral National Seashore or Cocca Beach with a stop a Ron Jon's Surf Shop
  • Disney EPCOT Center
  • Disney World (staying into the evening to enjoy the fireworks display)

If renting a car, the first day of the nature tour can easily be combined with a trip to the Daytona Beach, Cape Canaveral, space centre, or Cocoa Beach areas the next day.

From Ocala National Forest, drive eastbound on State Highway 40 to Ormond Beach, adjacent to Daytona Beach, and stay overnight in either city. Then head southbound on Interstate 95 per the itinerary described above visiting the space centre and the beach of your choice. During busy seasons--during school holidays--you may wish to arrive at the space centre first to assure a tour ticket and then head to a beach once done at the centre.

Fourth, try to arrive at the theme parks as early as possible. When entering the parks, head left and as far back as possible for your first ride. This avoids some of the crowds. And, of course, bring a hat and very comfortable shoes. In warm weather, dress as lightly as possible in natural fibres. Bermuda shorts and t-shirts are fine. During Summer, this area has a tropical climate.

Drink lots and lots of water on hot days. People from Canada, Japan, interior Columbia, New Zealand, the northern U.S., and northern Europe may not be in the habit of drinking sufficient water in this tropical climate, and thus may not feel well or even become sick.

If you are a member of a club affiliated with the American or Canadian automobile associations, buy discounted theme park tickets at any office of the AAA South automobile club in Florida. This saves both some money and standing in queues at the parks. In addition, AAA South also provides excellent maps, tours books, accommodation bookings, etc. without service charges to affiliated members.

In Orlando, we find a AAA South branch at 4300 East Colonial Drive (1 407 894-3333). From Interstate 4, take Exit 41, Colonial Drive/State Route 50 eastbound approximately three and one-half miles to the intersection of Colonial and Bennett Road. Turn right. The office is behind Bennigan's Restaurant in the west end of the plaza at the Colonial Promenade Shopping Centre.

Please enjoy your time in central Florida to the maximum! And, be sure to budget some time to relax and enjoy the more natural Florida near Orlando.

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