Orlando's airport, sleek and modern, set amid lush greenery and lakes, has the air of a huge elementary school just after the last bell has rung. There are children everywhere, far more than at most airports, and the children are generally giggly and talkative, intoxicated at the prospect of Disney World, or still a little stunned from actually having experienced it. (The parents just look stunned).
Returning home to Orlando recently, walking up the concourse toward the robotic trains that carry passengers from airplane to automobile, we saw a boy of about 6 who was surprised to see people coming down the concourse toward the plane he had just gotten off.
He turned to his mother and said with a mixture of panic and disbelief, "Mom, why would anyone want to leave Orlando?"
But it's hard for those of us who live in Orlando to imagine why anyone who came here as a tourist -- and did the typically touristy things -- would want to come back. Leaving aside the extravagant cost of many of the attractions (Sea World is $21 for adults, $18 for children under 11; a day at Disney World's Magic Kingdom costs $26 for adults, $19.50 for children under 11), most visitors who spend four or five days in Orlando never see anything of the real Florida at all. They quite possibly leave with the impression that all of central Florida is one large hotel/gift shop/theme park, and that before the tourist attractions existed there was nothing here but scrub and sand.
Indeed, the main tourist axis in Orlando is International Drive, a road constructed strictly for hotels and gift shops and fast-food joints. It leads from nowhere to nowhere, and Orlando residents generally go there only in search of a nice little Indian restaurant that has for some reason set up shop behind a Dunkin' Donuts.
But for those gutsy enough to come to central Florida and venture off the main tourist track, there is an authentic and beguiling and relaxing side to this area -- a side the natives know, a side the tourists almost never get to see.
Orlando has the dubious distinction of being not only one of the world's major tourist destinations but also one of the fastest growing regions in the nation. However, much of the growth has actually taken place outside the city itself, and much of the charm of old Orlando has remained unscathed. Tourists might well hoot in derision, given the sights they've seen, but Orlando's official motto, "The City Beautiful," is not mere public relations.
The older neighborhoods of Orlando, which still make up most of the city, are built around more than 50 lakes, and they appear settled and comfortable. Many of the city's streets are still paved with brick, particularly in the residential areas. Those lanes are canopied with trees and lined with old houses -- some classically southern, with front porches and screen doors, some pink stucco with red tile roofs. One measure of the success of recent immigrants in finding a truly charming place to live is whether they get a place both on a lake and on a brick street.
The city started out in the mid-18th century as a military encampment from which to fight Indians (it's named for Orlando Reeves, a soldier killed fighting Seminoles), and by the turn of the century served as a trading post for the large cattle-raising region to the south. The suburbs now are strewn with huge shopping malls and apartment complexes, but that sort of development has not yet dominated the charming neighborhoods at the city's heart -- it simply makes them a little harder to find. Downtown Orlando is only now experiencing the sort of dramatic growth that the outlying areas have absorbed for a decade -- there are half a dozen skyscrapers under construction or planned for a downtown that is all of 10 blocks long and three blocks wide.
And so the city of Orlando -- and all of central Florida apart from the confected tourist town concentrated to the southwest -- still has a somewhat sleepy and leisurely feel, like the finest of cool, sunny, lazy Sunday afternoons. The city's lakes are often as not rimmed with parks and jogging trails, and in the afternoons and on weekends, many of the lakes are crowded with water skiers and windsurfers. Further out, just a few miles either north, west or south of town, are what in Florida pass for hills -- the ground actually begins to roll gently -- and the hills are carpeted with precisely laid-out orange groves.
In fact, the nicest parts of central Florida are outside, around water. The area rests largely on limestone, and the landscape is punctured with springs that pour forth crystal clear water at a steady 72 degrees.
Perhaps the best place anywhere to have a pancake breakfast is alongside one such spring, De Leon Springs, 45 minutes northeast of downtown Orlando but a world away from International Drive.
De Leon Springs State Park is the sort of place a family or a couple can while away a day, including two meals, and hardly spend the price of a single adult admission to one of the more impressive theme parks.
At the heart of De Leon Springs is the spring itself -- a round, cool, clear black pool surrounded by a grassy sward -- and the old Spanish Sugar Mill, a building that used to be a water-powered mill and is now home to a griddle house the likes of which you're unlikely to have encountered anywhere before: The customers cook their own.
The Sugar Mill, run by the same family for the last two decades, grinds its own flour, and the small building that houses the restaurant is furnished with a large fireplace, long wooden tables and benches. Griddles are set into the tables. The Sugar Mill provides the batter -- one pitcherful made with stone-ground wholewheat flour and one pitcherful made with white flour -- for each table. All the pancakes you can cook and eat cost $2.15 a person (extras -- blueberries, banana slices, stawberries, apple pieces, peanut butter -- are 50 cents each). The smell, for those waiting their turn, is mouthwatering. The taste and texture of these griddle cakes may spoil ordinary pancakes for you for a long while.
And the Sugar Mill is run more like Aunt Mabel's country store than a state park concession. There are, for instance, no checks. At the end of the meal a representative from the table simply reports what was consumed, and pays the resulting bill. Waiters and waitresses are helpful to pancake-cooking amateurs without being patronizing. Children are more than tolerated, they are indulged. A mess is expected.
It's easy to eat just a little too much at the Sugar Mill, and it's wise to, as well. Because then you can stagger out to the edge of the spring, spread out a blanket and take a nap in the sun.
De Leon Springs has been a place for people to come, swim, sunbathe and unwind almost since the turn of the century; along one side of the main pool is a line of cabanas, all that's left of an old hotel. The wilderness runs right up to the edge of the springs, and at one time circus animals used to winter in pens surrounding the spring.
De Leon Springs has been a state park for only about six years -- before that it was privately owned -- and the state has been blissfully inattentive to it, so it has neither an overused feel nor any sense of having been recently rehabilitated. The park, in fact, is a little threadbare. The Sugar Mill has restrooms, but the springs area has no such facilities -- just a line of portable toilets behind the old hotel.
The main pool is circular, the edge finished with concrete poured long ago. The water is so clear you can see straight down 30 feet, and for Floridians it's cold, between 70 and 75 degrees (15 degrees cooler than the ocean most days). If you look closely, you can see a small bubble where the central flow of the spring first pushes to the surface.
The spring flows out into a stream that meanders away, shrouded with trees. There are canoes and paddleboats for rent and there are several short walking trails back into the woods around the springs. It's a fine place to horse around -- no one minds if the kids play with a Frisbee or a football. Should the family manage to work up an appetite for a late lunch, the griddles turn out wonderful grilled sandwiches on freshly baked whole grain bread.
Most of central Florida -- before the malling -- once looked like De Leon Springs. Now most of the area looks like Altamonte Springs -- a suburban development identical to Springfield, Va.
But hidden behind the garden apartments and shopping malls of Altamonte Springs is the sort of place the Disney folks have attempted to reproduce in their "jungle cruise": a slow-moving river running through a dense forest, the overhanging trees draped with Spanish moss. There is a sense that wildlife -- fish, raccoons, alligators -- is always moving about, just out of sight.
Wekiwa Springs and the Wekiwa River are real, though. The fish that leap out of the water are real, the trees are real, the animals are real, and you don't need a grinning guide to steer you through safely. You can canoe in languid serenity for an entire afternoon for $8 (that's what the canoe costs). There's no reason not to trail your feet or hands in the water, no reason not to leap into the water altogether.
Wekiwa Springs State Park is much larger than De Leon Springs, often more crowded, but it also has more to offer. The river is considered one of the most beautiful to canoe along in the state, but there are no rough spots, so even the most inexperienced can feel comfortable. One of the walking paths is a boardwalk that winds through what feels like a rain forest. The ground is swampy, the vegetation thick, and for the patient and the sharp-eyed there is wildlife: raccoons, herons, the occasional alligator. Horseback riding also is allowed (central Florida is serious horse-breeding country), but you have to bring your own horse.
The Wekiwa River slides out of the park boundaries about half an hour downstream from where canoes can be rented (this is the point at which canoers can and usually do break out the beer), and just beyond the park line is a place where all kinds of feeding goes on.
Lots of those who eat at Wekiwa Marina arrive by water one way or another, and the restaurant has plenty of space for tying up canoes. The rustic marina restaurant is the place to go ahead and try a mess of fresh, fried catfish. A waterside table provides a view of constant river activity. People on the piers and riverbanks are almost always feeding the fish, which leap dramatically from the water to get whatever scraps are offered. At dusk, on the bank of the Wekiwa opposite the restaurant, food scraps are set out by the restaurant, and raccoons come from all over the park to eat and be ogled. No one will try to sell you or your child a raccoon mask, though.
Diners who arrive by canoe need to preserve enough energy to paddle back up river to the park after eating, but a bit of vigorous canoeing after a hearty meal makes you feel as if the leisure has been paid for.
Wekiwa manages to combine a bit of Disney, a bit of water park (swimmers often hurtle into the river from ropes tied to trees along the banks), and a bit of a performing fish and wildlife show, without the traffic or the lines or the expense.
The closest thing Florida has to a college town is Winter Park, really a city all to itself bordering the northeast edge of Orlando. Winter Park is home to Rollins College, a small liberal arts school with a picturesque campus strung along a lakeshore.
Winter Park is old Orlando charm distilled and concentrated. The Amtrak train still pulls into the well-kept station in the heart of town each day. The station is half a block from the Park Plaza Hotel, an elegant old inn where breakfast is brought to each room each morning. Both the station and the hotel are on the main boulevard, Park Avenue, a street lined with boutiques and cafe's and ice cream stores.
It's a lot like Georgetown -- 20 years ago.
The sidewalks are passable, the restaurants are affordable, the town is eminently walkable. Park Avenue is canopied with huge oaks dripping Spanish moss, making it seem a bit cooler than a lot of places in Orlando, even on the hottest days. This is old Florida at its finest. There's a leisurely mood, which comes as much from a quiet sense of serious wealth as from the wide streets, old buildings and enormous trees.
The best way to see the most luxurious parts of Winter Park is by boat, in an hour-long water tour of the chain of three lakes and two canals that run through the city. The boats leave from a pier just off Park Avenue, and the tours provide a closeup view of the gardens and homes that are winter havens to the wealthy.
The only theme park hereabouts worth recommending without hesitation is really a restaurant masquerading as a tourist attraction. For this little excursion, one should be warned up front: Don't eat breakfast or lunch, and be prepared for a looney-tune of a dinner.
The Bubble Room is located just north of the city, well out of tourist range, and the few visitors who seek it out end up counted among the few and the fearless, not to mention the fat and happy.
The Bubble Room is pure silliness, 1930s to '40s vintage. Stepping inside is like leaping into Pee-Wee's Playhouse: The whole place is blinking, twinkling and bouncing. It's like eating in the center ring of a circus. The walls are lined with mechanical toys, trains run along the ceiling, show tunes are piped in, and the waiters and waitresses are dressed like scouts and have the bubbly manner of those aching to do good deeds.
There is almost always a line, but waiting in the lounge is as entertaining as eating, and the wait is well worth it. The lounge has an aquarium that runs the length of the bar, and a white-haired lady tickles the ivories of a piano shaped like a prone pig. There is a small marionette stage where a Howdy Doody puppet dances to the music of a band of mechanical monkeys.
The dining room is no less hyperactive. You may be seated in an old railroad car or next to an enormous stuffed giraffe. Each table is really a glass-topped museum case, filled with toys and gewgaws from the '30s, '40s and '50s.
The food ... well, the dishes have names like "Dem Bones, Dem Bones" (16-ounce T-bone steak), "The Henny Young-One" (baked chicken wrapped in bacon) and "Prime Ribs Weismuller" (roast beef described as "enough for Tarzan, Jane and Cheeta"). The food is as imaginatively prepared as the decor, and served in quantities that are simply ridiculous. Any single entree is more than enough to feed three adults, and no one leaves without leftovers.
Finally, there is at least one place on International Drive so unbelievable that it is worth the dangerous venture into the heart of tourist country.
Depending on your sense of humor, one of the best reasons to head in the direction of Disney is a remarkable place called Shell World. It is half an acre of nothing but shells. There are shell jewelry, shell lamps, shell planters, shell pictures, shell napkin holders, shell clocks, shell paperweights, shell jewelry boxes, shell pen sets and just plain shells for sale. There is shell sculpture -- shell men playing poker with tiny little beer cans scattered about; shell singers, adorned like little Liberaces, in front of shell pianos. There are shark jaws, too, and swordfish swords of various sizes. Well, you get the idea.
Even if you see nothing you simply must take home, Shell World is wildly entertaining, and not a little mind-boggling. Besides, it offers precisely the sort of souvenirs that will allow those who discover the hidden side of Orlando to preserve their cover. And imagine the look on Grandma's face when you hand her a prickly, dried balloonfish.
Santa Choplin is design director, and Charles Fishman associate editor, of Florida, the Sunday magazine of the Orlando Sentinel.