I stand at the top of a shaky wooden tower, heart pounding, mind racing. Below me are dozens of alligators, just waiting for me to fall into their massive jaws. The guide lets out a loud whoop, his signal to his partner that it is time for the next victim. I try to steady my nerves as my fearless leader prepares me for the drop. He hooks my series of ropes that are attached to my harness to the steel cable above. I am terrified. I am not moving. And then, with a sudden bump of my guide’s hip into mine, I’m flying. The leap from the platform of the park’s lowest zip line takes me over a pit of alligators and crocodiles that reside at Gatorland, a 110-acre theme park in Kissimmee, Florida. This quaint city of over 64,000 is only one mile away from the gates of the Walt Disney World Resort, drawing in tourists from around the globe.
From the rooftop of the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center, I can see the Magic Kingdom. But it’s not just the promise of Disney magic that draws people here – Kissimmee has all of the perks of Orlando’s attractions with a more natural feel. It’s less touristy, more genuine but still filled with sunshine and, of course, plenty of entertainment. It has the beautiful weather without any of the crowds, chaos or over-priced food and attractions.
Located at Shingle Creek, right inside the city, within the Florida Everglades, The Paddling Center offers single-handed kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding. Nestled in amongst daunting trees is the inky black ribbon of water known as Shingle Creek. While novice kayakers may find themselves stuck between several trees, more experienced rowers and paddlers won’t have any problems. Those who prefer a less taxing way to enjoy the water can take an electric boat tour, complete with a canopy to shield you from random, intensely quick storms. Or, if you prefer a slightly cooler boat trip, you can travel CSI: Miami style on an airboat at Boggy Creek Airboat Rides. Located at the headwaters of the Everglades, the area is ripe with flora, including lily pads and gorgeous American lotuses. Gliding above the waters and wild grasses, you might even spot an American bald eagle – or likely, two, as they mate for life. As the boat slips silently into some of the nooks of the water and trees, the occasional alligator can be seen bobbing beside you.
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When you return to dry land, seek out Revolution Off Road, an off-the-grid outdoor adventureland, where you can get your heart pumping by off-roading on an ATV through trees and mud or sit quietly with your feet and a pole in the lake. The adrenaline rush as you swerve your ATV through the paths of trees and puddles big enough to swallow you whole is unbelievable. And, if you get stuck, your guide will pull you out without judgement. For riders who prefer something a little slower, there are Mucky Ducks, six- or eight-wheeled quad-like vehicles that are amphibious. I hate haunted houses, but my friends can’t resist dragging me to the Legends Haunting at Old Town, a funeral parlour where the dead don’t stay dead for long … instead, they haunt us at every turn we take through the dark, twisting house. I lead the way as five of us rush through the viewing room, up the creaky stairs to the crematory and down through the funeral parlour, shrieking as we go, genuinely afraid we may not make it out alive. The haunted house tour goes year-round, with the special effects and creepy factor being updated regularly. We leave alive, hearts pounding, throats sore from screaming. After an intense evening, the next day is all about relaxing. In Kissimmee, that means heading to the suburb of Celebration, which is so cute and quaint it could be mistaken for a movie set. Main Street is filled with cozy local shops and a boutique hotel with a view of the nearby lake. Celebration is also where some of Kissimmee’s best restaurants are found. The majestic castle-like Bohemian Hotel houses the Bohemian Bar & Grill, an elegant restaurant with a creative menu. The chopped Greek salad is so beyond what I expected that any salad I eat from here forward will pale in comparison. It’s zesty and hearty, with a tangy green goddess dressing. Cuba’s cultural influence has asserted itself over the cuisine here, and there is no shortage of excellent restaurants, such as the Columbia. The Columbia’s roots can be traced back to 1905.
Our waiter squeezes fresh citrus into the batch of sangria he has just mixed up, right at our table. My Palomilla is an example of traditional Cuban cuisine at its best. A thin piece of top sirloin grilled and topped with a tangy, addictive mixture of mojo crudo – chopped onion, parsley and lime juice. The platanos (plantains) on the side are so sweet and crispy, and are gone way too soon. The Kennedy Space Center is only a 70 minute drive from Kissimmee. Just a quick road trip and you’ll arrive in Cape Canaveral, where you can eat lunch with a veteran NASA astronaut, see actual space shuttle launch pads and the Space Shuttle Atlantis and the Saturn V, the largest rocket booster ever made. Just another way to feel like you’re flying through the air, no harness required.