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Taking the Mickey out of Florida... The Sunshine State's not just about Disney - there's plenty more to see and do, as LINDSAY SUTTON found out.

Byline: LINDSAY SUTTON

IT'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 Disney attractions, my wife and I looked to the 'nature in your face' attractions of the neighbouring Kissimmee area.

What a find it was too as we soared above the Florida countryside in a hot air balloon; copiloted 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 birdlife first-hand from the comfort of a fan-driven airboat in Florida's Upper Everglades.

All this within a few miles of Downtown Disney.

Maybe they should market it as 'Kissimmee For Kicks?' It's every bit as exciting and exhilarating as the more expensive world inhabited by Mickey and his pals.

It's nature on your doorstep, and a readymade alternative to the tiring, day-in and dayout dip into Disney. No queues, no hassle, no hidden add-on costs. What you see is what you do and what you get.

You can have both Kissimmee Kicks and Walt's World into the bargain. In truth, Kissimmee is an ideal base for an all-round trip to Central Florida. You get the best of everything in a mix-and-match manner. One day Disney, next day the real Florida. A natural for both kids and adults, and 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 thirty 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 Crescent 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 700ft on the longest run. 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 alligatorinfested 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 expected to be there for an hour or so and 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 for youngsters. Pretty absorbing.

Back on the eco-farm, they're building an even-more adventurous zip line experience, complete with roller-coaster-style turns and inclines.

Cracker It's only the second one of its type in the world. The idea is to attract people "in a fun and engaging way," and use it as a "bridgehead into ecology". Part conservancy, part cattle ranch, part tourist attraction - and it seems to work well.

On the deck, you can mix with the semitame '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, seeing 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. 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 reeds and swamps. Twenty feet from a huge alligator, a few feet from diving turtles, a clear view of a bald eagle on its nest.

Next day, another amazing 'first' was the hot air balloon at dawn. OK, you have to rendez-vous 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 big-beast '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.

Evening entertainment can include Medieval Times, or the Arabian Nights spectacle just off the main drag. Food was understandably not gourmet standard but quite acceptable for a mass catering event. And although both nights were, of necessity, highly stage-managed, 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 steeland-glass atrium in the centre of a ring of high-rise, high-spec rooms. Or rent a week or two at the good-value, everymod-con, family-style apartment such as those at Global Resort Homes in manicured and peaceful garden surrounds (I know, I sound like an estate agent, but they are pretty hot).

More lively is the Star Island Resort just off the Avenue of the Stars. Wellappointed, self-catering accommodation with lakes and wildlife all around you and a restaurant and bar on site. Lots of American 'snowbirds' staying for the whole winter, karaoke some nights and pool-side entertainment. It's your choice. There's plenty of it in Kissimmee.

KISSIMMEE FACTFILE Lindsay Sutton travelled as a guest of Kissimmee Visitors' Convention and Virgin Atlantic.

For tourism information: www.visitkissimmee.com Virgin Atlantic flights from Manchester or 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.html 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):

REV UP: The Old Town motorcade. SEE YOU LATER...: The Gatorland resort. KISSIMMEE QUICK: See the real Florida of The Everglades on a Boggy Creek airboat ride. STAY IN STYLE: The luxury Gaylord Palms Hotel.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Geographic Code:1U5FL
Date:May 27, 2012
Words:1201
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