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Kissinamee .. and tell; There's more to Florida than Disney, as Lindsay Sutton discovered on a trip to Kissimmee.

Byline: Lindsay Sutton

* T'S not often you get the chance to do four "first-evers" in just four days flat.

But that's what was on offer in central Florida - and it had nothing to do with Orlando's Disney World.

Turning our back on the undoubted thrills of Disney, my wife and I looked to the very different attractions of the Kissimmee area just a few miles away.

What a find it was too as we soared above the Florida countryside in a hot air balloon; co-piloted a private plane high above the lakes and the Disney parks; hurtled around the Cypress tree canopy on zip-lines; and witnessed alligators, turtles and the abundant bird life first-hand from the comfort of a fan-driven airboat in Florida's Upper Everglades. It's nature on your doorstep and it's every bit as exciting and exhilarating as the more expensive world inhabited by Minnie and her pals but without the queues or hassle.

Kissimmee can also be an ideal base for an all-round trip to Central Florida. One day Disney, next day the real Florida. A natural for both kids and adults, it's just an hour from the Atlantic beaches and Cape Canaveral's space attraction.

So what about those Kissimmee crackers? It's not every day you can feel like a movie star or a media mogul as you roll up at private Kissimmee Airport, stroll onto the tarmac and alight on your own private plane trip. Minutes later, you're up, up and away.

A 30-minute flight with can-do company Mauiva Air Tours sees you circle Sea World, take in Animal Kingdom and the rest, before floating gently over the Florida countryside, touching down at Kissimmee Airport again.

Mrs Sutton was even allowed to co-pilot the plane for a spell, while I acted as excess baggage in the seat behind.

Next day, another tall order. At the Forever Florida experience on the Cresent J Ranch, just half an hour from Kissimmee, we found ourselves up for another first.

Oh yes, hurtling from timber tower to tower, above the 70ft tree canopy, held by a harness clipped to steel zip lines that stretch up to 700 ft on the longest run.

It looks a bit hairy but when you've done it once, under expert instruction and guidance, it really is exhilarating.

Doing it again the next day, over alligator-infested lakes at the Gatorland attraction, was nothing for an old hand! Well, what can happen? After all, you've got a second safety line hooked up to your harness.

Even if you don't fancy rope bridges and zipping about, the on-the-ground observation of alligators is fascinating. We stayed all afternoon. Shows, feeding frenzies, close encounters of a Deep South kind - at a safe distance or through glass - and a petting zoo and a children's train.

Back at the ranch you can mix with the semi-tame Cracker horses that escaped from the early Spanish colonists, lived wild for centuries, and are now struggling for survival as a breed.

There's even the chance to watch a horse trainer and a psychologist in action, and, if you wish, see damaged or abused children learning about themselves and regaining confidence through their relationship with the horses.

The next "first" is the Boggy Creek Airboats experience on the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes.

It is not just a speed-freak trip on the open lake, with a huge fan driving the boat, but also a slow or engine-off observation of the wildlife in the heart of the swamps.

We found ourselves 20 feet from a huge alligator, a few feet from diving turtles and had a clear view of a bald eagle on its nest.

Next day, another amazing "first" was the hot air balloon at dawn. Okay, you have to rendezvous at 6am with the Orlando Balloon Rides staff, travel to the take-off site before sun-up, then watch the balloon being blown up as you're still rubbing sleep from your eyes. But when you clamber into the basket, then slowly take off, skimming the first line of trees, it's a fantastic experience seeing the sun come above the horizon and spread its light over you and the countryside below.

Cars are another big attraction in Kissimmee. There's the Saturday Night Cruise of the muscle cars at Old Town Kissimmee. But this is nothing compared to what is virtually the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of thousands of rare, antique and lovingly restored vehicles up for auction at Kissimmee's Mecum Auto Auctions.

You don't have to be a petrol head to be impressed by the event which attracts 70,000 people over six days to view more than 2,200 vehicles, from Ford Ts to 1930 classics to post-war beauties with big, shiny fins.

Downtown Kissimmee is a joy in itself. Nothing sensational, just real America.

It's a town where you can still find the butcher, the baker and the candlestick-maker, so to speak.

There's Lanier's Historic Market, a cornucopia of curios and Breck's Gourmet Cookies, the Natural Health Emporium, three real American diners, and the all-American low hoot and clang, clang, clang of the train drawing into the adjacent station.

Kissimmee gives an authentic insight into small-town America that many thought had been obliterated by the shopping mall and the fast-food outlets.

Evening entertainment can include Medieval Times, or the Arabian Nights spectacle just off the main drag. Food was understandably not gourmet standard but the showmanship and horsemanship were quite something.

Entertainment, a spectacle, and child friendly.

So where to stay in Kissimmee? Choices galore.

Push the boat out in a top-end hotel like Kissimmee's Gaylord Palms Hotel, complete with its enclosed steel-and-glass atrium in the centre of a ring of high-rise, hi-spec rooms.

Or rent a week or two at the good-value, every-mod-con, family-style apartment such as those at Global Resort where homes are in manicured and peaceful garden surrounds.

More lively is the Star Island Resort just off the Avenue of the Stars. Well-appointed, self-catering accommodation with lakes and wildlife all around you and a restaurant and bar on site.

TRAVEL FACTS Lindsay Sutton travelled as a guest of Kissimmee Visitors' Convention and Virgin Atlantic.

For tourism information: www.visitkissimmee.com * Virgin Atlantic flights from London Heathrow direct to Orlando - pounds 418.50 return - www.virgin-atlantic.com * Dollar Car Hire - $293 for Platinum Package. www.dollar.co.uk * Global Resort Homes - www.globalresorthomes.com * Gaylord Palms Hotel - www.gaylordhotels.com/palms-home * Star Island Resort - www.star-island.com * Mauiva Air Tours - www.mauivaairtours.

com * Boggy Creek Airboats - www.bcairboats.

com * Orlando Balloons - www.orlandoballoonrides.

com * Florida Eco Safaris at Forever Florida - www.foreverflorida.com * Gatorland - www.gatorland.com

CAPTION(S):

* Clockwise from top: Taking to the Everglades on an airboat; high times on the zip slide and up close with an American alligator
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:Mar 3, 2012
Words:1124
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