One of the nice things about Orlando's status as a world tourist destination is that it's generally pretty cheap to fly there from almost anywhere. And Orlando has one of the most beautiful and efficient airports in America. Unfortunately, flying in also means that the first part of Orlando visitors are exposed to is one of the most hideous strips of fast-food joints, garden apartments, health clubs and strip malls ever created.
But there is no cause for despair. What's nice about central Florida is just beyond that strip.
Most of these destinations are best reached off I-4, the major expressway through the city. There is no way to function as a visitor to the Orlando area without a car.
DE LEON SPRINGS: De Leon Springs State Park (601 Ponce De Leon Blvd., P.O. Box 1338, De Leon Springs, Fla. 23028, 904-985-4212) is just north of the town of De Leon Springs, about 45 minutes from Orlando on State Rte. 17. The park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset every day of the year. Admission is $1 for the driver and 50 cents for each passenger.
The Old Sugar Mill (904-985-5644) is located within the confines of the state park, right next to the central spring. Meals are served from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays and from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on weekends; the mill is closed Mondays.
WEKIWA SPRINGS: Wekiwa Springs State Park (305-889-3140) is less than half an hour from Orlando at 1800 Wekiwa Circle, Apopka. The park is open from 8 a.m. to sunset every day of the year. Admission is $1 for the driver and 50 cents for each passenger. The park has canoeing, camping, 13 miles of hiking trails, horse trails (BYO horse) and a concession stand.
The Wekiwa Marina Restaurant (305-862-9640) is just outside the borders of the park at 1000 Miami Springs Dr., Longwood, and is accessible by both boat and car. It is open from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. during the week, until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, and 9 p.m. on Sundays.
WINTER PARK: Winter Park is tucked away northeast of Orlando, just 10 minutes from downtown. Boat tours are one of the best ways to see the town and are available from Scenic Boat Tours (305-644-4056), located at the end of Morse Boulevard at Lake Osceola. They are one-hour narrated cruises through canals and lakes, with views of estates, the Kraft Azalea Gardens, Rollins campus and other sights; the cost is $4.40 for adults, $2.20 for children.
At the Park Plaza Hotel (307 South Park Ave., Winter Park, Fla. 32789, 305-647-1072), room rates range from $65 to $100 a night per person double occupancy in the off season. Beginning Jan. 1, the rates rise to a range of $70 to $125 a night. Try for a room with a balcony overlooking Park Avenue -- it's well worth the price. All guests receive continental breakfasts each morning.
For more information on Winter Park, contact the Chamber of Commerce, 150 N. New York Ave., Winter Park, Fla. 32790, (305) 644-8281.
BUBBLE ROOM: The restaurant (305-628-3331) is located about 15 minutes north of downtown, at 1351 South Orlando Ave., Maitland. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations are not accepted, and there is frequently a wait.
SHELL WORLD: Shell World (305-351-0900), at 6464 International Dr., about 20 minutes from downtown, is open from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day of the year.
INFORMATION: Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce, 75 E. Ivanhoe Blvd., Orlando, Fla. 32802, (305) 425-1234.