KISSIMMEE, Fla. — While it touts its proximity to Orlando and Central Florida's mega-theme parks, this city in many ways has grown into a worthy destination itself for spring break.
If you are among the 1.3 million expected to visit the Kissimmee area in March and April, you will find more than enough ways to fill your days and nights.
So whether you're staying here to be near the Disney metropolis or using it as a base to see other regional delights, block out time for Kissimmee. The place has stepped out of the Mouse's shadow.
When you need a break from the crowds of grumpy children and their even grumpier parents, drive deep into Osceola County to Florida EcoSafaris at Forever Florida (888-658-5662, floridaecosafaris.com). Built amid a stand of pine trees, the EcoPark complex of wooden towers and zip lines provides hours of adrenaline-producing activities that all start about seven stories off the ground.
Courses take you through treetops and above ponds where alligators live. You are in the middle of undeveloped Central Florida. The gators were here first.
EcoPark's centerpiece is the 21/2-hour Zipline Safari, made up of seven zip lines, which carry you up to 30 mph, and three swinging bridges that connect 10 wooden platforms. Then there's the Rattlesnake, billed as the first zip line roller coaster in the United States. Instead of cables, you are suspended from a rail that curves and dips through its 1,000-foot route. Four other zip-line-related activities make up EcoPark.
Florida EcoSafaris also offers horseback riding and guided tours of the 4,700-acre Forever Florida Wildlife Conservation Area. Rates range from $135 for all activities to $32/$28 adult/child for the Coach Safari.
No chance of shark attacks when you ride these waves at Fantasy Surf in Kissimmee (407-396-7433, ultimateindoorwave.com). Called flowboarding, the indoor water sport melds surfing, wakeboarding, snowboarding and skateboarding. Here's how it works: Two jet turbines continuously pump 55,000 gallons of water at 30-35 mph up an inclined, soft surface.
Fantasy Surf also offers cost savings for the social media crowd. Receive a 50 percent discount on 30-minute sessions on Facebook Fridays and Twitter Tuesdays.
A large observation window lets you stay dry and watch the action. Rental gear is available. Rates: $32 for 60 minutes, $20 for 30 minutes.
"That's the scariest thing I've ever done in my life." Pause. "I loved it." So went a young woman's unsolicited review that was intended as enticement (unsuccessful) to ride the SkyCoaster at Fun Spot USA in Kissimmee (407-397-2509, funspotattractions.com). Promoted as the world's tallest such attraction, it hoists three well-harnessed riders 300 feet into the Florida sky before they swing down and back to earth. Noteworthy comparison: That starting point is as high as a football field is long, which more than adequately explains the "scariest" comment.
The nine-acre park has a selection of other thrill rides, including four go-kart tracks. One takes racers up a four-story track and down and around a 32-degree embankment; the turns at Daytona International Speedway are a mere 31 degrees. SkyCoaster rates: $30 each for three riders, $35 each for two and $40 for one.
Now take a break
Next door to Fun Spot are more rides at Old Town (407-396-4888, myoldtownusa.com), but it's the four-block walking street of shops and restaurants and the Friday and Saturday night cruises of classic automobiles that give the attraction its name. There has to be something for just about everyone inside one of the 75 shops — a tattoo or manicure maybe? There's even a shop that sells puppets of people and pets. Or just sit on a bench and relax. Admission is free; rides are not.
Rides and activities include a Ferris wheel, go-karts, a zip line and rock-wall climbing.
Some of the eight restaurants have outside dining and live entertainment. Not a bad way to unwind. A cold beverage at a sidewalk table on a mild Florida evening goes a long way to finding that change in latitude, change in attitude.
Land of the gator
If you want to see more alligators than you can shake a stick at, there's only one place to go in Central Florida. Gatorland, just north of Kissimmee, holds the title as Central Florida's quintessential tourist attraction. Since opening in 1949, the all-alligator, all-the-time theme park (800-393-5297, gatorland.com) has entertained millions of visitors with its gator shows, not to mention that photo to show the relatives back home of you holding a baby gator in your lap.
Also, a zip-line course takes visitors on a tour above the gator grounds. Gatorland rates: $24.99 ages 13 and up; $16.99 3-12.
A few more choices
Airboat rides: A chance to see more of the real Florida, plus more gators and wildlife. Details: Boggy Creek Airboat Rides, 877-304-3239, bcairboats.com.
Hot-air balloon rides: An hour flight at sunrise with champagne and breakfast. Orlando Balloon Rides, 800-586-1884, orlandoballoonrides.com.
Chocolate treat: Who said spring break can't be educational? Learn how chocolate is made, from the bean to the chocolate bar. Chocolate Kingdom, 407-705-3475, chocolatekingdom.com.
For more ideas and travel information, contact the Osceola County Department of Tourism Development at 800-831-1844, experiencekissimmee.com., click on "Contact Us."