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A visit to Central Florida should be on your calendar this year

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image A city scene made entirely of Legos. Jeanne O'Connor Photo

Central Florida offers visitors a veritable feast of attractions for their enjoyment.

By WARREN RESEN – North American Journalists Association

The Mouse looms large over Florida. A few years ago while on a birding trip to the jungles of Panama, a boy of about 12 years of age approached our group and asked, in Spanish, where we lived. We answered, “en La Florida.” A big grin spread over his face and he said, “Ah, la casa de Mickey Mouse.” No translation needed for that.

Even though the promotional juggernaut machines of Orlando have the world believing that THEIR theme park featuring man-made, animated, otherworldly fantasy attractions is the only place to be, there is a lot more to Florida then that, even in the Orlando area.

The newest major Orlando area attraction, LEGOLAND, opened in October 2011. It is the new kid on the block but is targeting a very specific market, children up to the age of 12. It was built on the site of one of Florida’s oldest tourist attractions, Cypress Gardens.

We owe the principals of LEGOLAND a debt of gratitude for preserving much of the magnificence of the original gardens. The famous Southern Belles are still there only now they are built from LEGOS. For anyone keeping track of these things, this is the largest LEGOLAND in the world.

The park is geared for children but of course adults are welcome to come, participate to some degree and take photos. There are no category 5 coaster rides. It is all for the kids.

The concept behind LEGOLAND can be summed up in four words: Science + Technology + Engineering + Math. This is quite a departure from the other theme parks. But parents need not worry about their kids being bored. As the song in the Mary Poppins movie says, “Just a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.” LEGOLAND was designed as a fun, interactive learning center for children. There are the Flying, Driving and Boating Schools, classes at the Imagination Zone, Lego Tech and more fun learning experiences. To demonstrate their commitment to education, all second graders in Polk County, Florida, where LEGOLAND is located, are invited to visit as guests of the park.

Of course, for just plain fun, there are the kid sized rides, exhibits, 4D movies, Star Wars recreations, and a water show at Pirate’s Cove. There are also the restaurants, gift shops, a new Water Park and many more features and attractions.

Unfortunately several hours after our arrival at LEGOLAND, the heavens opened up and we were drenched. Our visit was cut short not giving us time for an in-depth view of many offerings. I plan on returning at a later date to report fully on the park’s offerings. What I did learn during my time there was that the activities at LEGOLAND are extensive and on-going. It is strongly recommended that visitors do their homework before going through the gates.

Read the on-line information, brochures and anything else available about the events, times and sign-up instructions. If you plan on just a one day visit to LEGOLAND, the park is too vast to expect to visit all of the venues. Pick what you most want to see and do. Multi-day passes are available as are special Florida Resident offerings.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn, located in Winter Haven, only 3 miles distant from LEGOLAND. This is mentioned because there are local area motels participating in LEGOLAND’S “Bed and Brick” program. Guests at these properties can take free shuttle busses to the park and not have to pay the $14.00 daily parking fee.

Central Florida offers visitors a veritable feast of attractions for their enjoyment. From Natural Florida to highly technical man-made offerings, it’s all here. Whatever your tastes or your physical abilities, there’s something there for you.

Reporting on a slightly different attraction, one that does not require hours of walking or standing in line is Safari Wilderness Ranch in nearby Lakeland. This is a family owned 260 acre wilderness area that is not a zoo or theme park. It is a working game ranch specializing in exotic species of large animals and is an agri-tourism project accredited by the Zoological Association of America. There are no roller coasters here. The experience offered is that of being on a mini African Safari.

Visitors are limited in numbers and reservations must be made for the two-hour narrated ride through grazing herds of exotic animals from around the world, often stopping to hand-feed many of them; animals like water buffalo not the usual cute little goat in a pen. If you would like a camel or a horse drawn carriage safari through the park, they are available. Their web page is: safariwilderness.com

One last item, the all important question for adults is “Where to eat?” We always try for a memorable local experience and it is hard to find a place more local than Harry’s Old Place in Winter Haven. It’s been serving fish and steaks for over 16 years. They don’t take reservations and the wait can sometimes be long, but it is worth it. Their web page is www.Harrysoldplace.com

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