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08/20/2002 - Updated 11:47 AM ET

Orlando photo album

By Brian Friel for USATODAY.com

Legend has it that Orlando, Fla., was named for Orlando Reeves, an American soldier living in central Florida during the 1830s Seminole Wars. The Native Americans in the area didn't like Reeves and the other out-of-towners camped out in what is now downtown Orlando, so they killed him. These days, the locals are a lot friendlier to the 43.5 million visitors who arrive in town and pump $20 billion into the central Florida economy each year. You'll also find a wider range of accommodations than did Reeves and his party. The Orlando area has 445 hotels, motels and inns, ranging from simple, low-budget drive-ups to extravagant resorts. Walt Disney World alone has 22 resorts on its property and 52 total in and around the park. Universal Studios theme park has three on-site hotels; nearby International Drive has 91. Central Orlando has a smaller selection of 46 hotels, with major chain hotels clustered around Lake Eola Park, the city's version of Manhattan's Central Park (with a small plaque remembering the legendary Reeves). Quiet bed-and-breakfasts hide out in historic neighborhoods and along lakefronts throughout the area. Most visitors will spend an extra day in Orlando at one of the major theme parks: Disney World, Universal or Sea World. But Orlando and central Florida, where thousands of "snow birds," as the locals call northerners who escape to the area each winter, are home to many other diversions. Unlike poor Orlando Reeves, you'll depart his namesake with pleasant memories, and at worst a mild sunburn. Here are a variety of suggestions for ways to spend an extra day in Orlando...

Walt Disney World — The world's most popular tourist destination is marking its founder's 100th birthday this year with numerous added celebrations. Those who haven't been to this massive complex of fantasy and fun that was built on swampland miles outside Orlando in the 1960s likely have little comprehension of its size and scope. Even though attendance was down last year after Sept. 11, the Magic Kingdom theme park alone still recorded 14.7 million visitors. Officially opened in 1971, Disney World employs more people on one site than any other company in the U.S. During peak times, as many as 50,000 "cast members" (don't call them employees) don more than 2.5 million pieces of wardrobe items (don't call them uniforms) for their jobs. The entire facility covers 30,500 acres — 46 square miles — making it twice the size of Manhattan. What's filling all that space? Although 8,300 acres are kept in their natural state, the World is home to four theme parks, three water parks and 22 hotel/resorts that range from merely nice to outrageously posh. Admission to each of the theme parks runs $48 per day ($38 for kids age 3 to 9). The water parks cost about $25 to $30. A recent development at all the parks is a line hopper feature, in which you can stop by a ride or attraction and get a time-stamp that lets you come back a half hour or an hour later and skip to the front of the line; Lake Buena Vista, Fla. 32830 (Exit 25B off I-4); (407)WDW-MAGIC; www.disneyworld.com

The four theme parks of Disney World can easily take a day each to explore. So if you're only in the area for a day, select carefully:

• The original and most popular, The Magic Kingdom, is the heart of Disney World. Cinderella's castle stands at the center of five areas full of rides, shops, shows, places to eat and sights to see. Main Street, U.S.A., is the boulevard that serves as the Magic Kingdom's grand entrance. It's a wide street lined with shops that leads to the other areas. Liberty Square is dedicated to America's heritage (learn about America's leaders in the Hall of Presidents, with recent addition George W. Bush). Fantasyland is the kids' (and some adults') favorite area, home to world-famous rides like It's a Small World, Dumbo the Flying Elephant and the Mad Tea Party. Frontierland is home to two roller coasters, including Splash Mountain. In Tomorrowland, there are several futuristic shows and rides, plus the biggest roller coaster in Disney World, Space Mountain.

An interesting fact about the Magic Kingdom: It actually sits atop a vast underground network of warehouse-sized rooms, halls, offices and tunnels that are off-limits to the public. Underneath the sidewalks pounded by millions of tennis-shoe clad feet is the nerve center of the park's computer systems.

• Epcot was the second theme park built at Disney World and it's name is an acronym: Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. With the famous silvery golf ball-looking sphere at its entrance (which is actually a ride called Spaceship Earth), this first part of the park explores the worlds of science and technology. Epcot is twice the size of the Magic Kingdom, and generally takes more than a day to fully explore. The front part of Epcot consists of 8 "pavilions" that are sponsored by major corporations and consist of some type of ride or rides and educational exhibits, some of which are more interesting to adults than children. The back half of Epcot, separated from the front by a 40-acre lagoon, is called the World Showcase. There you'll find pavilions of 10 countries that include shops, exhibits, restaurants and "cast members" who are natives of the countries they represent. Stepping into the pavilions is a bit like walking into Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, Japan, Morocco, France, the United Kingdom or Canada, and though kids might find the going slow (no rides in most of these places) there's plenty for adults to see and buy. The Illuminations show over the lagoon at night is not to be missed if you can manage it.

• MGM Studios is the smallest of the four theme parks, and if you're efficient you can get through it in less than a day. There are 16 attractions on MGM's 77 acres, including the "backlot tour" where you can see how TV shows and movies are made (down to the special effects), the Great Movie Ride with re-created scenes from famous movies, Star Tours (a sometimes-stomach-churning Star Wars-themed flight-simulator) and the towering Tower of Terror, a thrill ride set inside a re-creation of an abandoned old hotel (this one may scare the kids but it's perhaps the best all-around ride at Disney). Beyond the rides, there are numerous shows and fun restaurants. At dusk each night a lagoon at the park serves as the backdrop for Fantasmic, a light-and-music show featuring Disney's most popular characters.

• Animal Kingdom, Disney's youngest theme park (opened in '98) is a tribute to Mother Nature, with a safari and numerous opportunities to meet some of the world's most interesting creatures, including lions, rhinos, tigers and Galapagos tortoises. The entrance is marked by the towering Tree of Life, a giant tree replica which houses a movie. A few rides dot the park, but it's well-known for its animals and shows, including the Festival of the Lion King. The park is big, so be prepared for a lot of walking. Animal viewing is said to be best early in the morning. The Kali River Rapids thrill ride in the Asia area and the Countdown to Extinction ride are said to be sufficient nods to the need for speed. Much of the Dinoland USA part of Animal Kingdom is aimed at little ones.

There are three water parks on Disney's grounds, and they're crowded during the heat of summer. Slides, pools and lazy rivers are the main ingredients of each, but the differences are in the details. Blizzard Beach has a winter wonderland theme and the largest number of steep slides. Typhoon Lagoon has the feel of a tropical paradise with one of the largest wave pools in the world (they offer surfing lessons there), and River Country in Fort Wilderness, the oldest and smallest of the water parks, feels like an Appalachian backwater. If you want to get wet, any of the three will do.

Lest you forget this is a "World," there's a lot more than theme parks at Disney. There is the large Downtown Disney area with lots of shops and attractions geared more toward teens and adults, plus there is golf, fishing. .. an endless list of other activities. In other words, just dedicating a single day to this place might just make you crazy.

Universal Orlando — As if Disney World wasn't enough, Universal Orlando is an eye-candy adventure that's giving Mickey Mouse a run for his money. Although dwarfed in size by Disney, Universal, which opened in 1990, is Orlando's second most popular tourist destination. There are two theme parks here: Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure (which opened in '99), and they're both about 100 acres. In addition to being a working movie and TV studio (and the home to Nickelodeon Studios), this is a thrill-ride junkie's heaven (that means there aren't a lot of shows). In "Twister" you'll simulate survival in a nasty tornado. On "Terminator 2" the ride mixes 3-D effects and live performance to put you in the middle of the action. For "Back to the Future," you speed along in a car that re-creates the movie's most memorable scenes. Then there's "Men in Black: Alien Attack," "E.T. Adventure," "JAWS" and many more. Islands of Adventure features roller coasters and thrill rides organized into five islands: Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, the Lost Continent and Seuss Landing.

After all those stomach-jangling rides, head to City Walk, a 30-acre entertainment complex with lots of live music and dance clubs, themed restaurants, bars, theaters and, of course, shops. Although Universal doesn't have the resorts that Disney can boast, there are three hotels on the grounds now.

Admission is $50 ($41 for children) per day; 1000 Universal Studios Plaza;(407) 363-8000; www.universalorlando.com

Sea World — Although not unique to Orlando, Sea World here offers a few twists on the standard watery theme. Set on 200 acres, and most famous for its dolphin and Shamu and pals whale shows, Sea World also features a fast, tall roller coaster called Kraken and a water-coaster ride called Journey to Atlantis with a 60-foot drop. There are lots of other water-related stops in the park, including a waterskiing show, simulated tropical rain forest and a penguin exhibit. But adjacent to Sea World is a high-priced second park called Discovery Cove, where, if you plan far enough in advance, you can swim with dolphins and rays and other sea creatures amid coral reefs. Only 1,000 guests a day are allowed into Discovery Cove, and although it costs $199 to swim with the dolphins, that price tag comes with 7-day admission to Sea World. If it's just Sea World you want to see, admission there is $45 for adults, $36 for children. Take Exit 28 off of Interstate 4 to get to Sea World; 7007 SeaWorld Drive;(407) 351-3600; www.seaworld.com

Elegant Americana — The world-renowned Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of Art houses the world's largest collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass and furniture, not to mention an extensive American art pottery collection, dozens of American paintings, and a reconstructed Tiffany chapel built for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. Tickets to the private museum are $3 for adults, $1 for students and free for children under 12. All visitors can visit for free on Fridays from September to May from 4 to 8 p.m.; 445 North Park Ave., Winter Park; (407) 645-5311; www.morsemuseum.org

Cute and folksy — The bright colors of American artist Earl Cunningham form the fulcrum of The Mennello Museum of American Folk Art's exhibits. Cunningham's sculptures and paintings are complemented by traveling folk art exhibitions. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors, $1 for students, free for children under 12; 900 East Princeton St.; (407) 246-4278; www.mennellomuseum.com

Art and nature — Loch Haven Park is the bucolic home to Orlando's fine arts scene. The Orlando Opera, Orlando Ballet and Shakespeare Theatre perform at facilities at the park. The Orlando Museum of Art's galleries include permanent exhibitions of artists Thomas Moran, Childe Hassam and George Inness, John Singer Sargent, Georgia O'Keeffe and Charles Sheeler. The park is at 2416 N. Mills Ave.; (407) 896-4231; $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, $5 for students, $3 for children; www.omart.org

• The Mennello Museum of Folk Art and Orlando Science Center are also at the park. The science center is at 777 East Princeton St; and admission is $9.50 for adults, $8.50 for seniors, $6.75 for children under 12; (407) 514-2000; www.osc.org

• After taking in the museums, stroll around Lake Rowena and visit the 49-acre Harry P. Leu Gardens' large camellia collection (The gardens have free admission on Mondays from 9 a.m. to noon). They are at 1920 N. Forest Ave.;(407) 246-2620; www.leugardens.org and admission is $4 for adults, $1 for K-12. To reach Loch Haven Park from downtown or from the theme parks, take I-4 North, to Exit 43 (Princeton Street). Go east to Mills Avenue. Turn left onto Mills and left onto Rollins Street.

Dinner and a show — In Orlando, dinner and a show means you park yourself in one spot to chow down and get entertainment. No need to book a dinner reservation and then call the theater to buy tickets. It's one-stop, albeit pretty kitschy, shopping in central Florida. The dinner theaters are admittedly cheesy and touristy and geared toward the family set. In Kissimmee, the low-budget tourist town 18 miles south of downtown Orlando and five miles south of Walt Disney World., there's Medieval Times, Capone's or Arabian Nights. On International Drive, there's Pirate's Dinner Adventure. Mark Two Dinner Theater is on the Northside of town. The typical price is $40 per person.

• Medieval Times Watch knights battle and jousters joust. 4510 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy., Kissimmee; (800) 229-8300; www.medievaltimes.com

• Capone's Dinner and a Show A comedy song-and-dance routine with a Prohibition-era theme; 4740 W. Highway 192, Kissimmee; (800) 220-8428; www.alcapones.com

• Arabian Nights A royal romance played out on horseback; 6225 W. Bronson Hwy., Kissimmee; (800) 553-6116; www.arabian-nights.com

• Pirate's Dinner Adventure A family-friendly musical about some swashbuckling sailors; 6400 Carrier Drive, Orlando; (407) 248-0590; www.orlandopirates.com

• Mark Two Broadway shows are the far at this dinner theater;. 3376 Edgewater Drive; (407) 843-6275; www.themarktwo.com

Gator grabbing — A bit of real Florida kitsch, Gatorland is a truly gaudy Florida landmark. The highly trained professionals at Gatorland wrestle the alligators for your amusement, but don't follow suit. There are 1,000 of them, not to mention 200 crocodiles. And they and their ancestors have been at Gatorland since it opened in 1949. The Alligator Capital of the World, Gatorland is at 14501 S. Orange Blossom Trail; (800) 393-JAWS; www.gatorland.com

Only in Orlando — Speaking of kitsch, there are a few other one-of-a-kind tourist attractions on the road to the Magic Kingdom. We didn't say they're fancy, just different. Splendid China replicates 60 of that nation's most important landmarks, including the Imperial Palace, the Terra Cotta Warriors and even the Great Wall; 3000 Splendid China Blvd., Kissimmee; (407) 396-7111. Titanic: Ship of Dreams is an exhibition at the Mercado shopping center that portends to give you the sense of what it was like to go down with the ship; 8445 International Drive; (407) 248-1166. Into weird stuff? Then Ripley's Believe It or Not is for you. They've got a Rolls-Royce made of 1 million matchsticks, a massive portrait of van Gogh made of 3,000 postcards and lots more; 8201 International Drive; (407) 363-4418.

Travel City Guides - What is worth doing in Orlando

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  Orlando is brimming with tourists every day of the year. Waits at restaurants can run two to three hours. So call ahead. Call a day or two ahead. Sometimes you should even call a week ahead.    
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