ORLANDO, Fla. -- There is magic in Orlando. And I don't just mean at the Magic Kingdom, where the long-awaited New Fantasyland just opened, or at Universal Studios' Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The real wonder of Orlando is there's so much to do, whether you're a kid -- or want to be a kid again -- at the theme parks or whether you want to test your inner Rory McIlroy on one of the area's topnotch golf courses, have a spa treatment, shop or take in the arts.
MORE THAN A FANTASY
When complete, the New Fantasyland at Walt Disney World Resort isn't just going to be double in size, it's going to be a kazillion times more fun.
The lion's share of the expansion opened last week, and had fans seeing double: The beloved Dumbo, the Flying Elephant ride, now has a second Dumbo flying alongside. The elephants are joined in Storybook Circus by the Barnstormer Coaster re-themed to the Great Goofini, the Casey Jr. Splash 'N' Soak Station water-play area and the Fantasyland Train Station.
Also making its debut is Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, where adventurers feel as if they are descending below the ocean's surface. And at "Ariel's Grotto," there's a meet-and-greet with the mermaid heroine herself.
Just up the hill from Ariel's new home, is the Be Our Guest Restaurant, which features a lavish dining experience in the stately ballroom, gallery and mysterious "West Wing" of the castle. Nearby in Belle's Village, guests find Gaston's Tavern and just outside the village is Maurice's cottage and Enchanted Tales with Belle. The adventure begins in Maurice's workshop, where an enchanted mirror is the doorway where guests are transported to the Beast's library to meet Belle and Lumiere, and share in a lively, interactive retelling of the "tale as old as time."
And there's more coming to New Fantasyland. Set to open in 2013, the Princess Fairytale Hall will be the new home for visiting royalty in the Magic Kingdom. When it's time for their audience with a princess, little subjects will proceed to elegantly finished rooms to meet Aurora, Cinderella and other Disney princesses, such as Tiana and Rapunzel. In 2014, The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train will take guests on a rollicking, musical ride into the mine "where a million diamonds shine." The coaster will feature a first-of-its-kind ride system with a train of vehicles that swing back and forth, responding to every twist and turn of the track. See disneyworld.disney.go.com/.
FOR CANADIANS ONLY
SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa are offering Canadian residents a free all day dining deal with the purchase of any single-day park admission now through April 30 (a $32 value). Guests can add a second park admission to their visit for just $50 more. See SeaWorld.ca.
Canadians visiting sister park Discovery Cove can take advantage of a free upgrade to the park's "Ultimate Package." Guests making reservations with their travel agent or tour operator now through Feb. 28 can save up to $80 for a party of four on the package that includes unlimited visits to SeaWorld, Aquatica and Busch Gardens during their stay.
New at SeaWorld Orlando is TurtleTrek, which is a blend of animal encounters with sea turtles and manatees and state-of-the art entertainment, featuring the world's first 3-D/360-degree dome theatre film. And at Discovery Cove Orlando, adjacent to SeaWorld, there's the new Freshwater Oasis that allows visitors to come face-to-face with playful otters and marmosets, and explore sparkling-clear springs below.
ASSEMBLE THE MINIONS!
Despicable Me Minion Mayhem -- Universal Orlando Resort's new blockbuster ride -- has opened. The 3-D ride takes guests on an adventure with their favourite characters from the film -- Gru, Margo, Edith, Agnes and an army of mischievous minions. Join Gru's minion army and boogie down during the world's-first minion-inspired dance party, complete with disco ball overhead and large projection screens so guests can see themselves partying with the minions to the legendary disco tune "Boogie Fever." See universalorlando.com.
ON PAR WITH THE BEST
Orlando is paradise for golfers with more than 170 golf courses, some designed by the likes of Nicklaus, Dye, and Fazio, as well as over 20 golf academies. It is home to more pro golfers than any other city in the world. A highlight is Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Club & Lodge, which offers a cozy, club feel in its rooms, lounges and restaurants, plus 27 holes of championship calibre golf. After all, the PGA Arnold Palmer Invitational is held there each March (March 21-24 next year), and attended by all the big names in golf. The spa is a bit small by today's standards, but I had an outstanding massage. For golf fans, the memorabilia lining the walls is fantastic, and when Palmer's in the house (which is often), no wants to be anywhere else. See bayhill.com/Home-1.html
This upscale nearby town showcases laid-back Florida at its best. Its main street -- Park Avenue -- is lined with outdoor cafes, restaurants and inviting specialty boutiques. The Saturday morning market is definitely the place to be as families cruise the stalls -- lattes in hand -- for local fruit and veg, baked goods and flowers. Situated on a system of inland lakes, Winter Park on Lake Osceola has long been considered a winter resort for the very well-to-do. A cruise with Scenic Boat Tour is a relaxing way to see all the lakefront multi-million-dollar mansions, and you may spot a 'gator or two. See scenicboattours.com, visitflorida.com/Winter_Park.
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park has an incredible collection of the work by artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, including his signature leaded-glass windows, iconic Tiffany lamps, as well as art glass and furnishings. A highlight is the restored chapel interior he designed for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Much of the collection is from Laurelton Hall, Tiffany's country estate on Long Island, which was destroyed by fire in 1957. Rooms from the estate have been recreated displaying how Tiffany used his artistic talents -- glass, rugs and architectural details -- within his own home. The elegant Mazarin Blue Rug is incredible, as is the restored Daffodil Terrace. See morsemuseum.org.
-- Beyond its cheeky name, Mad Cow Theatre in downtown Orlando is an outstanding company in its 16th season, now in its new home on West Church Street. I loved its production of The Drowsy Chaperone last year, and the schedule this winter includes Laughter on the 23rd Floor by Neil Simon, Mrs. Warren's Professor by George Bernard Shaw and the Orlando Cabaret Festival in the spring. See madcowtheatre.com.
OUTLET MALL HEAVEN
Let me count the ways to spend money in Orlando. There's Neiman Marcus, Macy's, Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, The Mall at Millenia and The Florida Mall, as well as the 180 stores at Orlando Premium Outlets on International Drive plus another 150 stores at the location on Vineland Avenue. For antiques and home decor items, check out the boutiques in Winter Park. There is so much pleasure in a new pair of shoes!
There are so many topnotch spas in Orlando -- Waldorf Astoria Spa by Guerlain, Mandara Spa at Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Ritz-Carlton Spa Orlando, Grande Lakes -- picking one could be a bit stressful. But once you've made your choice, just bliss out in these palaces to wellness and relaxation.
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