Editor’s Escape: The Other Side of Kissimmee
My daughters and I recently made a super fun trip to Orlando to check out Universal’s Volcano Bay™ (you can read about it here). Always wanting to make the most of every road trip, we decided to spend a few extra days exploring parts of Kissimmee we’d never experienced. I’m so glad we did!
There are lots of fun diversions and great restaurants, and we made the most of our limited time in Kissimmee. We made our home base at the Meliá Orlando Suite Hotel, and it provided plenty of room for us to spread out. The girls really loved having their own sleeper sofa in the living area so they could binge watch old episodes of Friends late and not keep me up.
Our room included a well-equipped kitchen with a full-sized fridge and stove, which is ideal for families wanting to make the most of their Walt Disney World® vacation budget by preparing their own meals. Their onsite restaurant, 360 American Bistro and Bar, offers a varied menu of American and French Mediterranean dishes as well as a nice selection of craft cocktails. The expansive vanishing edge pool looked amazing, though we didn’t have enough time to enjoy it.
In addition, the Meliá is a Walt Disney World Good Neighbor® Hotel, which means you’re close to all the Disney® action and enjoy transportation to Disney® Theme Parks and other perks. AAA Members also receive a discount on their stay here!
We spent the first part of our visit in the town of Celebration. The town was founded by the Walt Disney Company in 1994 as a master-planned community. Hoping to resurrect the neighborliness of small town America back in the day, they created postcard-perfect homes with picket fences and manicured lawns. It reminded me a lot of Disney’s Main Street U.S.A. They have a city ordinance in place banning franchises and billboard advertisements, which I love.
We fueled up with breakfast at Sweet Escape, located on Market Street. This European-style bakery and deli offered all kinds of yumminess — fresh baked breads, desserts and pastries. They’re open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I ordered the steel cut oats topped with fruit and nuts. My daughters both enjoyed their breakfasts of a toasted bagel, and an egg and cheese bagel. The fresh, locally roasted coffee was the perfect pick me up. I was kind of bummed they didn’t have almond milk or another substitute for people who don’t do dairy, though.
After breakfast, we explored Celebration the best way possible — on bikes! Our guided bike tour with Mary Kratka, owner of Celebration Bike Rental Tours and More was fantastic. Mary was super friendly and informative. We learned a lot about the history of the town while rolling along the lovely neighborhoods and through wooded boardwalks. They have more than 150 bikes you can rent, including three-wheel adult bikes, tandem bikes and bicycles for kids.
We worked up quite an appetite, and lunch at Columbia Restaurant was the perfect next stop. Situated on the corner of Front and Market streets, Columbia Restaurant has been a Florida go-to for 112 years. And with a string of accolades almost as extensive as their menu, it’s not surprising. It began as a small café in Tampa in 1905, and today is considered Florida’s oldest restaurant (and the largest Spanish restaurant in the world). Our lunch was on point — Cuban black bean soup, gazpacho Adalucia, black bean cakes and Columbia’s original “1905” salad.
Well sated from our delicious meal, we were ready to tackle our next activity and headed to The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek. The girls had never been paddle boarding, so they were anxious to try it out. There’s a lot to do here — from leisurely kayak, canoe and paddleboard eco tours through a cypress forest to adventure challenges, skill enhancement tours and camping on Makinson Island. If water excursions aren’t your thing, the Paddling Center includes hiking and biking trails. You can even rent your bike there if you didn’t bring yours.
Our close proximity to Orlando made it easy for us to pop over to Disney Springs® for shopping and dinner. Our 8 p.m. reservations afforded us ample time to check out the shops and outdoor events. Anthropologie, Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, Disney’s Days of Christmas, Disney’s Pin Traders and Zara were some of our favorites.
Dinner was phenomenal. There was so much to choose from, and our waiter was patient and helpful. He also used to date a vegan, which was a real plus for us. He was extremely knowledgeable on the best options for my veggie loving daughter and made suggestions we wouldn’t have thought of. Among the three of us, we sampled sushi (vegetable and California), wok sautéed Chinese vegetables and chicken fried rice.
Opened as a 16-acre roadside attraction in 1949, Gatorland was born from Owen Godwin’s notion that people want to see three things when they come to Florida: beaches, Walt Disney World® and alligators. Two of those lures were already in place, so creating an alligator-centric theme park was a no brainer. Still family owned today, Gatorland spans some 100 acres and features a petting zoo, animal shows, a free-flight aviary and, of course, thousands of alligators and crocodiles.
The park also touts the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line, where guests can glide seven stories above the treetops and over the Alligator Breeding Marsh where over 100 alligators watch you from below. This zip line was also the first wheelchair accessible zip line in the U.S., which has made a big impact on many Gatorland guests.
“During one family’s visit, the dad (who is paralyzed) was able to zip line with the rest of his family,” explained Tim Williams, the Dean of Gator Wrestling at Gatorland. “When the dad reached the landing at the end of his zip line, he was sobbing. He said every time their family travels, he only gets to watch them do the activities. This was the first time he actually got to participate.”
Their newest attraction, the Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure takes guests on a high-octane ride in a 12-foot tall, custom made off-road vehicle alongside swamps, through ponds and over hills.
After our exciting morning filled with high-flying antics and up-close encounters with alligators, we headed to historic downtown Kissimmee for lunch at Nadia’s Café. Mediterranean cuisine is probably my favorite type of meal, so I was in heaven. Our food was freshly prepared, and the staff was friendly and efficient. We noshed on the hummus platter served with warm pita bread, then enjoyed our meals of the vegan platter, the veggie wrap and a gyro.
There were several shops that beckoned us, so we spent some time strolling around downtown. I found the perfect cardigan at Branded B Boutique and several vintage postcards in Lanier’s Historic Downtown Marketplace. I also enjoyed perusing Ella’s What Not Shop, which teemed with antiques, home décor, vintage accessories and other items.
Boggy Creek Airboats
For a unique tour of Florida’s natural wonders, we took an airboat ride with Boggy Creek Airboat Rides, a Central Florida attraction since 1994 (and the area’s first airboat company). We whisked along from Lake Tohopekaliga through the wetlands and Everglades headwaters. During our tour, we spied alligators, eagles and other wildlife as our guide shared the area’s ecosystem and history.
After our ride, we spent time with Little Big Mountain at Boggy Creek’s Native American Village and living history camp. It was probably our favorite part of the day. The son of a Comanche father and a Mohawk mother, Little Big Mountain is a fourth-generation singer, dancer and educator on Native culture. He and his wife share what life was like for Florida’s ancient tribes through hands-on cooking demonstrations, tool-making and story-telling. We also got to see pottery shards and other artifacts dating back some 4,000 years. You can learn more about Little Big Mountain and his programs by visiting Go Native Now.
Capone’s Dinner and Show
We’re suckers for a good dinner and show combo, so a night at Capone’s Dinner and Show was right up our alley. Upon arriving, we received our secret password that gained us entrance into Al Capone’s night club. The buffet was extensive and offered something for every palate. As we ate, we were transported to the 1930s-prohibition era. It was easy to become wrapped up in the antics of Al’s mobsters and dames as they did their best to conceal their questionable goings on between musical numbers and dance routines.
Want to plan your Kissimmee visit? Make sure to stop by your local AAA office for our Central Florida AAA TourBook®. Experience Kissimmee, the tourism authority for Osceola County, is another great resource!