Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Punting the parks

Plenty to do in Orlando outside of Disney, SeaWorld mega-sites

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There are many ways you can ignore your surroundings and pretend you're somewhere else. Prison inmates must do this all the time, I reason, as I'm about to enter my own form of incarceration.

I'm in Orlando -- Downtown Disney, to be exact. Our family is attempting to manage a week at the epicentre of the theme-park universe, without actually colliding into one. I'm about to have a near-miss: lunch at T-Rex, an over-the-top, dinosaur-themed restaurant. I pray it provides sufficient entertainment for the kids while I catch up with an old friend. It does.

Not that I'm opposed to theme parks. It's just that this trip is about sneaking in a dose of vitamin D for my daughter, Eve, and I, on the back of hubby's business trip, and not about kids, crowds or a certain mouse. So far, we've avoided costumed characters of any kind by staying at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando. This swank resort nestled on 194 hectares within the Bonnet Creek nature preserve demonstrates a family stay needn't be synonymous with lumpy mattresses and kids tearing down the hallways.

It's definitely not Disney, but it is a playground of sorts -- for adults and families. This opulent oasis offers top-notch amenities such as a spa offering customized treatments from the famed Parisian skin-care company Guerlain; private cabanas flanking a formal swimming pool, and a Rees Jones-designed golf course named Golf Digest's 2009 best new public golf course.

Starting at $269 a night, cheap, it's not. But bypassing gate admission, parking and the obligatory souvenirs that accompany such endeavours allow us to wallow in these swish surroundings.

Attached to the Waldorf Astoria is the more affordable Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek Hotel ($209/night). While not as luxurious, it's more suited for families, with free fare for kids at breakfast and dinner and a warm, zero-entry pool.

We crazy Canucks floated along the lazy river into the lagoon-style pool to the amusement of hotel staffers, who thought 20 C, was too cold to take an early-morning dip. Eve and I relaxed poolside in canopied loungers, rising only to participate in the daily activities of the WA Kids children program, accessible to guests at both hotels.

To escape amusement parks totally, it's best to leave Orlando. You don't have to go far to find a different sort of attraction. While there are numerous beach towns to choose from, we were looking for warm water, white sand and a not-too-touristy destination without straying far from the convenience of the Orlando airport. Clearwater, a short drive from downtown Tampa, on the Gulf of Mexico, fit the bill perfectly.

Ever since the early 1900s, Clearwater's population has doubled in the winter, and we could see why. Here, it's not about the theme parks (there are none) or the shopping. Wide sugar-sand beach fringed with palm trees provided the perfect backdrop to watch dolphins gracefully dive for dinner at sunset.

While seeing such majestic mammals in the wild is a sight to behold, Eve was not easily impressed. She was on a mission to meet a movie star. It was at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium where we met Winter, the dolphin without a tail and star of Dolphin Tale. If you're looking for the bells and whistles of SeaWorld, you're in the wrong place. More animal hospital than kid attraction, this not-for-profit facility rehabilitates injured animals with a goal of releasing them in the wild.

Only two hotels boast beachfront access, the Hilton Clearwater and Sandpearl. To thoroughly decimate our HHonors account, we went with the Hilton, adjacent to Pier 60, a park that celebrates the end of day with festival activities such as street performers, outdoor movies and live music. Here, Eve successfully evaded her parents, hiding out at the hotel's Kid's Zone.

Being in the Gulf, one thing you don't want to miss is sampling local specialties such as gumbo, grits and grouper, served inventively in tamales, buffalo-style and Parmesan. Sitting on the patio of Crabby Bills, where main courses with two sides are $8, we regretted being so greedy after forgetting just how large portion sizes are in the south. That was soon forgotten when we joined the regulars on Monday night at Cooters, a local dive, for all-you-can-eat crab legs.

You might be successful in dodging the theme parks, but it's difficult to escape $1.50 light beer. We toasted our successful family vacation -- relieved it didn't take an amusement park to amuse this family.

 

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

WALDORF ASTORIA: waldor-fastoriaorlando.com

HILTON BONNET CREEK: hiltonbonnetcreek.com

SANDPEARL: sandpearl.com

HILTON CLEARWATER: hilton.com/clearwaterbeach

CLEARWATER MARINE AQUARIUM: seewinter.com

COOTERS: cooters.com

crabbybills.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 D3

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