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Kissimmee quick; Jake Murtagh discovers thrills and chills down the road from the theme parks.

Byline: Jake Murtagh

Orlando is justifiably the theme park capital of the world and tens of thousands of Brits head there every year. But there's much more to the Sunshine State's action-packed heartland than thrill rides and a certain mouse.

Only a stone's throw away lies the tranquillity of Kissimmee. As well as being within striking distance of the theme parks, this is also in a prime location for visitors to explore Florida's great outdoors.

You could do no better than heading 30 minutes by car south-west of Kissimmee to take in the sights from the skies on a hot air balloon ride (orlandoballoonrides.com).

The one-hour trip takes you above the treetops to take in the stunning views of central Florida and while it is slightly pricey ( from $195 adult/$99 child), it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

If flying in a basket a couple of thousand feet in the air isn't enough to get your pulses racing, a visit to Gatorland (gatorland.com $26.99 adult/$18.99 child) just north of Kissimmee is essential for any thrill-seeker.

The wildlife park is home to rare alligators, crocodiles, lizards and snakes, and adrenalin junkies can even ride high above the reptiles on the 1,200ft Screamin' Gator Zipline.

For those scared of heights, a leisurely paddle through Shingle Creek west of Kissimmee centre may be more your thing (paddlingcenter.com from $26 for 2hrs). You can explore the natural beauty of the creek by kayak, canoe or paddle board, either on their own or on the guided tours available.

If more time on the water floats your airboat, then glide through the headwaters of the Everglades at Boggy Creek, 30 minutes south of Kissimmee (bcairboats.com from $27.95 adult/$21.95 child). You may be lucky enough to see an alligator or bald eagle on your ride.

Once you're back on dry land, a trip out to the Atlantic coast to tour the Kennedy Space Center (kennedyspacecenter.com from $50 adult/$40 child) is unmissable.

You can see the mighty Saturn V, the largest rocket ever fl o w n , touch a moon rock, stand nose-to-nose with the shuttle Atlantis and even meet an astronaut! You can take a tour of the complex or see it at your own pace.

Kennedy is a fun-filled, action-packed day for all the family, so make sure you check it out - it's about an hour by road from Kissimmee.

After rockets and rodeos, you might fancy something more down to earth. I'd suggest a trip to the family-owned Kissimmee Sports Arena near the airport and see real-life cowboys in action (www.kissimmeerodeo.com. Adult $25/child $10).

Of course, America is famous for its grub, and foodies in this neck of Florida will not be left disappointed. My tour group tried Columbia (columbia restaurant.com), based in Celebration, 10 miles west of the centre. It serves up Spanish-style cuisine and is definitely worth checking out. However, booking in advance is essential.

More traditional US fare on the hoof can be found at the local branch of Shula Burger (shulaburger.com).

So, you're sold on Kissimmee, but where should you stay? Omni Orlando Resort at ChampionsGate is a great base on Interstate 4, about 20 minutes from the theme parks and 30 from central Kissimmee and a world away from all the hustle and bustle.

The hotel boasts an 18-hole international standard golf course, tennis and basketball courts, fitness centre, several pools and spa on site if you need a bit of pampering. And for refuelling after a that long day, there's Trevi's, a flavour of Italy, with delicious pizzas and pastas on offer.

The Omni has hosted a series of football teams for pre-season training camps, such as Brazil's Corinthians, New York Red Bulls and Bayer Leverkusen from Germany, so you might spot a star walking through the lobby or waiting to tee off behind as you ping your drive effortlessly down that pristine fairway.

Get there

Virgin Holidays has 7nts r/o at the 5* Omni Orlando Resort at Champions Gate from PS480pp inc car hire and Virgin Atlantic flights from Gatwick or Manchester on Sept 14. Price based on 2 adults sharing. virginholidays.co.uk or 0344 557 3859

1wk Park & Ride airport parking at Gatwick with APH costs from PS70 on selected dates in Sept; Manchester from PS46. aph.com 01342 859536.

Tourist info: experiencekissimmee.com visitflorida.com visittheusa.com

TIME ZONE UK -5hrs

CURRENCY US$. PS1 = 1.40

BEST TIME TO GO Great autumn gator-way

You can touch moon rock at Kennedy Space Center

CAPTION(S):

FLYING HIGH Viewing Florida from the serenity of a hot air balloon

HISSSSS Jake and a snake at Gatorland

YEE-HAH! Fun at the rodeo (left) and the Omni Orlando Resort (right)

GO WILD Up close with reptiles at Gatorland

REACH FOR THE STARS Massive Saturn V rocket at Kennedy Space Center and (below) airboat on the Everglades
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:May 21, 2016
Words:824
Previous Article:Cruise news.
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