Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

WESTJET FLYFREE: Florida paradise

The Sunshine State's many attractions an irresistable magnet for Canadians

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The search for sunshine is a primal urge.

Sunshine helps us produce Vitamin D, crucial for bone development and cell function. It can chase away the winter blues. And it's one of the most desired elements Canadians seek when planning a vacation.

It's no surprise then that Florida, the Sunshine State, continues to grow in popularity as a destination of choice for the beach- and sun-deprived traveller.

Much of Florida is a peninsula of land that juts between the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean; you're less than a 90-minute-drive from the ocean at any point in the state. It's a perfect place to catch some rays on the beach or indulge in everything from golfing and fishing to shopping and visiting theme parks.

Tourism is big business in Florida, employing one million people, and there's a plethora of attractions. In 2010, 82.6 million visitors arrived in the state, spending US$60 billion and accounting for 22 per cent of the state's sales tax revenue, according to visitflorida.com.

That year was also a record year for Canadian visits to Florida at 3.1 million, about half a million more than in 2009.

"Canada is a great partner, and we appreciate it," Florida Governor Rick Scott said earlier this year when the statistics were released.

Tourism has been the state's leading industry for job creation this year and "there are more people working in Florida tourism than any other industry," noted Tony Lapi, chairman of the Visit Florida board of directors.

It's no surprise that Florida continues to roll out the red carpet for visitors and is increasing its tourism offerings. Here are just some of the new attractions and travel ideas at three favourite destinations in Florida.

Orlando

Family fun abounds in Orlando, home to three big theme parks: Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Orlando and SeaWorld.

At Walt Disney World, newer attractions include the American Idol Experience (in Disney's Hollywood Studios), an extended African safari (in Animal Kingdom) and an updated Star Wars attraction now known as Star Tours 3D (also at Hollywood Studios).

New Mexican and Italian dining experiences can be tried at Disney's Epcot World Showcase. And to satisfy your sweet tooth, you can visit Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort, where you'll find creations from pastry chef Laurent Branlard. He is the only two-time winner of the World Pastry Team Championship.

Over at Universal, attractions and rides continue to evolve, with newer offerings including Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey (a 4-D thriller following Harry on a broomstick), the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man (its 3-D footage is getting a high-definition upgrade) and a new 3-D attraction based on Despicable Me, opening in 2012.

Meanwhile, at SeaWorld, a new killer-whale show has launched, emphasizing the theme that people and animals are all part of the same planet and we need to co-exist.

In addition to the three big theme parks, there are plenty of other attractions in the Orlando area. Relax for a day at the Wekiwa Springs State Park, featuring natural springs and lagoons. Check out the fun in the alligator capital of the world, Gatorland, complete with a new zip line. Or take a look at WonderWorks, "an amusement park for the mind," with exhibits housed in four storeys of an upside-down building.

You can get up close with a variety of ocean creatures, ranging from tropical fish and eels to rays and tiger sharks, at a new saltwater reef at Discovery Cove. Or try an underwater sea walk, complete with diving helmet.

Fort Lauderdale

Fort Lauderdale was once known as the hot spot for college students seeking a spring-break party, but much has changed in the last couple of decades.

Though the city attracted 350,000 students for spring break in 1985, that number dramatically dropped to about 10,000 by 2006.

At the same time, Fort Lauderdale has blossomed into a destination for visitors of all ages, filled with cultural, shopping, spa and sports pursuits.

Gondola rides, water taxis and sightseeing cruises are great ways to explore the city, nicknamed the "Venice of America" for its many kilometres of canals and waterways.

Or take a stroll in the beach area, which has undergone a $26-million renovation to improve landscaping, promenades and a curvy walkway called a "wave wall."

It's worthwhile to meander down the Riverwalk, which locals call Florida's most beautiful mile because of the plethora of shops, boutiques, restaurants, picnic areas, plant exhibits, gazebos and museums along the way.

One interesting stop is a special exhibit at the Museum of Discovery and Science, focusing on the world of animation. You can visit the cartoon museum and a screening room and discover how science, art and math combine in the creation of cartoons.

Unique points of interest in the city include the world's largest drive-in theatre with 13 screens, the International Swimming Hall of Fame, a fishing hall of fame, the largest indoor butterfly aviary in North America and Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop, a mega flea market that is a bargain hunter's dream.

For the active set, there's no shortage of opportunities for beach volleyball, snorkelling, diving, jet skiing, parasailing and sport fishing. You can also hike, canoe, picnic and camp at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park along the beach.

After a day's worth of activity, you'll need to refuel. Worth a taste is the fish soup and the stone crab ravioli at 3030 Ocean, home of the 2010 king of American seafood, chef Dean Max. Or spend the evening sampling the city's best tapas, including alligator bites, at Café Tu Tu Tango.

Tampa Bay

Like most other Florida destinations, Tampa Bay serves plenty of surf and sun. But you can also add great gardens, serene sunsets, shopping, unique architecture, theme parks, plenty of water sports and golf.

There are close to 100 courses in the area, and with its subtropical climate, almost every day is a perfect day for golf in Tampa Bay.

If you're looking for a pursuit to get your heart pounding quicker, Busch Gardens has launched a fast coaster called Cheetah Hunt, which propels riders up to speeds of 100 km/h. You can also watch live cheetahs being led in daily sprints by their trainers at the park.

For a slightly milder thrill, visitors can strap themselves into a high-wire bike nine metres above the ground and travel along a 30-metre steel cable (the longest such ride in an American museum), or brave Disasterville, an interactive exhibit where hurricanes, lightning, volcanoes, earthquakes and other natural disasters are simulated. Both attractions are part of MOSI -- the Museum of Science & Industry.

To learn more about this part of the United States, exhibits at the Tampa Bay History Centre feature 12,000 years of Florida stories, ranging from cattle drives to cigar stores.

An eerier educational opportunity awaits during a nighttime ghost tour of the city, led by candlelight.

There are also great options for shopping, from designer shops at the International Plaza to bargains at Ellenton Outlet Mall, and for dining, such as the Tahitian Inn, where Latin and Asian influences combine in the Kon Tiki menu.

If you head out of town to St. Petersburg, there are a couple of new attractions -- a Salvador Dali Museum and a Chihuly Collection -- that are getting favourable reviews.

Also located west of Tampa is the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where you'll find one of the world's most famous dolphins, Winter, who received a prosthetic tail after an accident with a crab trapline.

Winter's inspirational story is chronicled in this fall's movie, Dolphin Tale, starring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. Thanks to the release of the film, a $10-million expansion is taking place at the aquarium to accommodate an expected increase in visitors.

One of the movie's stars, Harry Connick Jr., says the movie has something for every member of the family, reflecting the myriad of choices Florida itself offers. There is truly something for everyone in the Sunshine State.

-- Postmedia News

Fun facts about Florida

F is for flora and fauna, because tropical plants and lush gardens are an attraction almost everywhere in the state. The state flower is the orange blossom, which is appropriate, as Florida provides the world with 30 to 40 per cent of its orange juice.

L is for lightning. The American city with the highest rate of lightning strikes per capita is Clearwater. As a result, a special website has been set up to monitor and detect lightning in the area.

O is for Orlando, which attracts more tourists than any other theme park destination in the U.S. Of the city's approximately 50 million visitors annually, two million are international visitors.

R is for river. Florida is the only state that's home to two rivers with the same name -- Withlacoochee. There's one Withlacoochee in the north and one in the central part of the state. They have nothing in common except the name.

I is for invention. Florida can lay claim to plenty of inventions, including mechanical refrigeration (1851), the world's first Snappin' Turtle riding lawn mower (1948), suntan cream (1944) and Gatorade (1965). The state was also home to the first automated banking machine, installed largely for the convenience of in-line skaters; this is also the place where the phrase "cool as a cucumber" originated.

D is for dolphin. Though the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is currently taking centre stage with the release of a movie that features its star dolphin, Winter, the Miami Seaquarium was home to the first dolphin star, Flipper, which was actually played by five different dolphins over the years.

A is for alligators, the official state reptile. Florida is home to a number of alligator farms and parks that allow visitors to learn more about this animal, such as the fact that they live for 35 to 50 years in the wild, but up to 60 to 80 years in captivity. Sometimes used in culinary pursuits, the tail of the alligator provides the best cut of meat.

Enter to win free travel

This fall, you can win travel prizes from WestJet and WestJet vacations. To win, keep the Fly Free game board from yesterday's paper, and then collect daily game pieces until Thursday, Nov. 3. More information is at winnipegfreepress.com/flyfree.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 29, 2011 D4

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