Archive for the ‘Off-the-Beaten-Path’ Category

Orlando’s Best Kept Secret I–Fantasy of Flight

September 2, 2009
Fantasy of Flight--Orlando's Best Kept Secret!

Fantasy of Flight--Orlando's Best Kept Secret!

Today we introduce a new heading, “Orlando’s Best Kept Secrets.”  These will be posts that focus on places that are relatively unknown but absolutely worth a look-see.

The first one actually won the Orlando Sentinel’s award as the “Best Kept Secret” for the last two years:  Fantasy of Flight.

This small, half day attraction located just a half hour down I-4 from Disney World,  is the vision of Gold Medal World Aerobatic Champion, Kermit Weeks. His fascination with flying and an unexpected inheritance enabled him to acquire the largest collection of vintage aircraft in the world.

The attraction begins with an immersion experience where you walk through several areas that utilize multimedia displays to give you the feel of being in the middle of the action during early flight attempts up to WWII. This culminates with the opportunity to walk through an authentic B-17 Bomber as if you were on an actual WWII flying mission.

After this experience, you enter the airplane hangers where there are over 40 vintage airplanes, most restored to their original flying condition. You can board a Short Sunderland, have a close encounter with the only B-26 Marauder that still flies, get up close to a B-24 Liberator, a Curtiss TP40 and two P51 Mustangs.

I am not very familiar with the field of aviation. But I can tell you that just walking around these aircraft and reading the informational displays was a real thrill.

Ford Tri-motor

Ford Tri-motor

Of course, being a movie buff, I gravitated to the Ford Trimotor–The actual plane that was featured in the beginning of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom!

Beyond the hangers are rooms where you can watch genuine craftsmen restoring vintage aircraft.

Flight Simulator

Flight Simulator

Flight simulation machines, balloon and hang glider simulations, multimedia displays in tribute to aviation pioneers and much more can be found in this one of a kind attraction.

By now, you are ready to take a break in the art deco Compass Rose restaurant glimmering with the bright silver decor and serving food reminicenst of a 30’s diner. But you are not done yet!

There are behind the scenes tram tours, vintage aircraft flights and the opportunity to fly in Waldo Wright’s biplane. (There will be a separate post about this!) You can even schedule an early morning balloon ride.

While the biplane, balloon ride and some simulators have an extra fee, the main attraction is less than $30 for adults and $15 for children.

Landing a balloon is not as easy as you think!

Landing a balloon is not as easy as you think!

Unlike theme parks that charge “adult” prices for 10 year olds, Fantasy of Flight charges youth rates from 5 to 15 year olds and allows those under 5 to get in for free.

Fantasy of Flight is hands down Orlando’s “Best Kept Secret” but it does not deserve this designation. I hope the well informed readers of my blog will spread the word and give this attraction the recognition (and business) it has earned!


West Orange Trail–A “Rails to Trails”

April 19, 2009
Riding Through Winter Garden

Riding Through Winter Garden

“Why didn’t I think of that?”

Every now and again you encounter an idea that is so simple, yet so brilliant, you instantly know it is truly genius.

That’s how I felt several years ago when I first heard of the concept of “Rails to Trails.”  It’s a pretty simple idea–Many railroads are going out of business.  There are a huge number of railroad tracks that are being abandoned.  These tracks are already graded, level and designed so they skirt around obstructions as much as possible.  Wouldn’t they be perfect for walking or bike paths?  Since railroads have connected the entire country, wouldn’t it be possible to connect large portions of the country with bike or walking paths?

Unlike the Appalachian Trail, that intentionally provides a more rustic contiguous path from Georgia to Maine, rail trails can provide more locally interactive community experiences as rail lines were designed specifically to transport from one community to another.  Along the way, those utilizing these trails can get exercise and enjoy the great outdoors in environmentally friendly ways.

Slowly, quietly, communities–mostly in the Midwest at first–would begin converting the old rail lines into healthy, environmentally friendly trails.  In 1986 the rails to trails conservancy (RTC) was born.  Although it was co-founded by Peter Harnik and David Burwell, I had to do a lot of research to uncover these founders.  Instead, the RTC website identifies an expansive network of grassroots activism that worked together to develop the concept.

It’s an impressive website that seems to indicate an impressive organization.  One of their success stories is the West Orange Trail that connects the town of Clermont, FL to the town of Apopka, FL.

One of the essential underlying themes to my blog is that there is so much more to do in Central Florida than to simply visit our world class theme parks.  (which, by the way, are fabulous.)  As members of the LanceAroundOrlando community read and share about their Central Florida experiences, it is my dream that the little, “off-the-beaten-path” nooks & crannies will gain a measure of popularity among the well informed travelers.

One such place would be the West Orange Trail–a 22 mile rail trail that goes from Clermont, FL (just a few miles north of Disney) to the community of Apopka.  The trail features numerous “stations” and “outposts.”  A station is a full service facility offering restrooms, water fountains, benches and so forth.  An outpost  may simply offer access to the trail.

One end of the trailhead starts at Killarney Station, Clermont.  Here you can find bikes and blades rentals, a children’s play area and a covered picnic shelter.  Less than a mile later, the trail traverses the covered Old Rail Road Bridge across the Florida Turnpike.  In a short distance, you come to the xeriscape/butterfly garden about a mile east of the Oakland Outpost.

Winter Garden Wheel Works

Winter Garden Wheel Works

A few miles further along the way, the trail passes through the downtown medium on Plant Street in Winter Garden.  Here there are two bike stores, various restaurants and other small shops line a street reminiscent of a scene from “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  The Winter Garden Historical Museum is another feature on this section of the trail.

A few miles further along is the Clarcona Horseman’s Park.  This public equestrian park offers show rings with bleachers, judging towers and horse stalls.  It is also a staging area for equestrians to link to the equestrian path of the West Orange Trail.

After the trail skirts some beautiful scenic views of Lake Apopka, it comes to the other trailhead at Welch Road in Apopka.

The trail has won several awards including one from the National Department of Transportation as one of 25 of America’s Best Enhancement Projects.  Someday, it will be part of what will be known as the Central Florida Loop–A 200 mile regional trail connection.

It’s just one of the many fantastic attractions in Central Florida that cost little or no money and are discovered only by well informed travelers looking for “more than a mouse!”™

Free Fun While at Disney–Wekiwa Springs State Park

April 7, 2009


Wekiva Spring

Wekiva River at Wekiwa Springs State Park

When I was much younger–And much thinner–I used to enjoy hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

One of the real treats while hiking is a stop at a spring.  Often, this would be a thin pipe of fresh water spouting up out of the ground.  After a long hike, the cool, clear water is an oasis.  Sometimes the spring would be so large that the water was like a fountain pouring into a pool maybe two or three feet wide.  How refreshing!  I would dunk my entire head under the cool water and drink in gulps of refreshing liquid to cool my hike-weary body.

I have lived in Florida for a dozen years.  I have heard about Wekiwa Springs State Park.  In fact, my good friend Dave Scrivano and his wife Colleen were going to go backpacking there with my family in 1994, but we had to cancel at the last minute because Number One Son got sick.  Both Mrs. LanceAround and Colleen were pregnant and this turned out to be the last opportunity we would have had to enjoy a primitive camping experience as our subsequent domestication eliminated the further possibility of a camping hike together.  I feel so sad we could not go on that trip.  And, until yesterday, I had never been to the Wekiwa Spring.

So imagine my surprise when I go to the spring and find, not a fountain of water, but a huge body of water that is about 40 feet wide, pumps over forty million gallons into the Wekiva River every day, and maintains a cool, clear 72 degree temperature year round–The ultimate swimming hole!

[Ed Note:  The name of the river is “Wekiva” and the name of the spring is “Wekiwa.”  This is not a misspelling.  I never noticed this and my friend, LizTheFair, discovered I was misspelling the name of the spring.]

Perfect Picnic Spot at Wekiva

Perfect Picnic Spot at Wekiwa

This natural paradise comes complete, surrounded by large oak trees dripping with hanging moss; a smooth, sandy spring floor ranging in depth from one to five feet; one large rock in the center that is a excellent playground for the curious; a grassy hillside perfect for a family picnic; and, best of all, it feeds into the Wekiva River allowing one to go on a canoe, kayak or boat trip 30 miles northwards to the St. John River.  Disney could not have planned a better swimming hole!

All this for a cost of only $5–Per carload!

So many tourists come to Central Florida only to find that the cost of accommodations are the least of their expenses.  Tickets to theme parks, meals, small attractions and souvenirs run into the thousands of dollars.  Yet here, right on Disney’s doorstep, is a low cost alternative that allows visitors to experience the REAL Florida.  By packing a picnic lunch and buying a drab of suntan oil, you can have vacation paradise for just pennies.  It provides the perfect respite to a long, hot and tiring day in the theme parks.

Canoeing and Kayaking at Wekiva

Canoeing and Kayaking at Wekiwa

For just a little more money, you can rent a canoe or kayak for two hours, half day or full day.  You can even rent one for two days and camp overnight in the wilds of Florida.  There are guided canoe, kayak and pontoon boat options and guided horseback rides for additional fees.  There is a shuttle to a drop off location that allows you to canoe or kayak back to your car.  Most of these activities are much cheaper than spending a day with the mouse.

The state park has bicycle trails, full facility camping, RV camping, primitive camping, horseback trails, hiking trails and pets are welcome.

The reason for yesterday’s visit was the annual Wekiva Riverfest.  This event is produced by the “Friends of Wekiva.”  According to their website, “Since 1982 the Friends of the Wekiva River have worked to protect, preserve, and restore the natural functions and beauty of the Wekiva River system. As a result of our leadership and the cooperation of our river partners, the Wekiva is designated a Florida Outstanding Water, a Florida Canoe Trail, a Florida Wild and Scenic River, and a National Wild and Scenic River with over 70,000 acres of state-protected lands in the basin.”


Number One Daughter and friends enjoying Wekiva

Number One Daughter and friends enjoying Wekiwa

Number One Daughter’s Middle School provided community service at this event by helping to staff the Equinox Documentaries booth.  Their website states “Equinox Documentaries was created by veteran producers and writers who care deeply about our natural world—particularly Florida and the wider region in which we live.  We feel the best way to protect a wild place is to forge a connection with it, and to build an ethic from that connection. It’s our goal to bring viewers engaging images and thoughtful stories that allow that connection.”

Yesterday, as Number One Daughter, her two school chums and I were floating, fully clothed (we didn’t know we had to bring a swimsuit.), in the refreshing Wekiwa Spring, we understood what it meant to “forge a connection to a wild place.”

For the well informed traveler looking for “more than a mouse”™ Wekiwa Springs State Park brings the the best of the natural beauty of Florida that allows your family to also form such a connection.

C’mon in, the water’s fine!

Orlando On A Shoestring

March 25, 2009

What to do when your vacation money lives here

What to do when your vacation money lives here

Central Florida, with its world class theme parks, has become the vacation capitol of the world.

The major theme parks include the four at Walt Disney World: Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios) and Animal Kingdom; Two at Universal Orlando:  Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure; Sea World and its sister park in Tampa, Busch Gardens.  In addition there is Discovery Cove, Cypress Gardens, Kennedy Space Center, Blizzard Beach, Typhoon Lagoon, Aquatica, Wet and Wild, Old Town and Fantasy of Flight.  This does not even include the plethora of mini golf courses; minor attractions such as WonderWorks, Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum and the Water Ski Museum; or cultural venues such as the Orlando Science Center, Museum of Art, Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, Mennello Museum of American Art and the list goes on from there…

But let’s face it, these places are EXPENSIVE.  Yes, they are worth the price of admission.  But when you have to pay $75 per person for one day in a theme park (not to mention all the food, souvenirs and beverages) it can take a huge chunk out of your vacation budget.

Yet, amidst the chatter and shouting of the major attractions, Central Florida has so much more to offer–And you might be surprised to learn how much of it is free or very low cost.

The primary purpose of this blog is to expose the underrated or off-the-beaten-path destinations that get drowned out in the clutter of the major attractions of Central Florida.  These are often wonderful vacation spots that many guests don’t find because of the sirens‘ calls of the big boys.  Still, you can vacation to this area on a shoestring if you want.  And since there are so many major attractions, it is relatively easy to have a fabulous vacation with world class accommodations and service on a very limited budget.

Here are just a few ideas of things to do.  There are many others.  And I have (or will) devote entire blog posts to most of these off-the-beaten-path attractions:

Rent a vacation Home with a private pool–No, I’m not just saying this because I own the vacation rental home company, I own the vacation rental home company because I sincerely believe it is the best way to vacation.  If I thought a hotel or RV park was better for my guests, I would sell this business and buy one of those.  Taking a day to relax by the pool in your own, private vacation home is a real treat and a real money saver!

Caladesi Island State Park–This pristine island beach is ranked as one of the top beaches in the entire USA!  Perhaps it retains its natural serenity because no vehicles are allowed on the island–It can only be reached by boat or ferry.  It is on the gulf coast, near Tampa, so there are not many waves.  But there are white sand beaches, kayak trails, picnic tables, shelters and Florida wildlife.

Ocala National Forest–Huge springs, twisting streams, lakes for fishing and water skiing plus you can walk the trails that will remind you of Gregory Peck’s classic role in The Yearling!

Cocoa Beach or Daytona Beach–Located on the Atlantic Ocean side of Florida, these popular tourist destinations are perfect for all the usual beach-loving activities (and better waves than you find on the gulf coast!)

Wekiwa Springs State Park–This huge spring provides the perfect, old fashioned watering hole for a cool dip in year round 72 degree water.  Or enjoy a kayak or canoe trip down the Wekiva River.

Spook Hill and Bok Tower–Spook Hill is a curious anomaly–An optical illusion makes it seem as though your car is rolling uphill.  Nearby Bok Tower is a beautiful Carillon built by Edward Bok and set in a colorful garden where peace seems to emanate from every corner.

Geohashing–This is not indigenous to Florida.  You can geohash anywhere.  But this link to my blog post will explain how I found an unexpected vacation that cost nothing and helped me to de-stress when Number One Son introduced me to the concept of geohashing.

West Orange Trail–This 22 mile “rails to trails” biking or walking trail goes from Clermont to Apopka passing through quaint towns, like Winter Garden.

These are only a few of the many excellent vacation choices available to the well-informed traveller, on a budget, who is looking for “more than a mouse!”™

Seeking Nothing in the Middle of Nowhere

March 3, 2009
The Spot

The Spot

I had a very rough day yesterday.

It was so rough, that early in the morning I finally just threw down my office phone, walked five miles home (Mrs. LanceAround had the car) and laid on my bed and cried.

After a few hours, I asked Number One Son if he could go out with me.  “Where?,” he asked.  “Don’t care,” I replied, “I just want to go on a walkabout.  You can take us wherever you want.”

Turns out Number One son has been reading about “geohashing.”

Geohashing was invented by Randall Monroe who writes a webcomic called xkcd.  Using a complex algorithm randomly based on the opening value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, it creates a set of coordinates for each one degree by one degree graticule in the world.  (Wow, our Grammy didn’t understand any of those words at all!)

So, let me translate for Grammy:  Randall’s system gives you the geographic coordinates (longitude and latitude) for a single point somewhere within 50 square miles of where you live.  There are thousands of these specific points throughout the entire world.  So everyone is within 50 miles of a point.  This point changes every business day, based on the stock market opening.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to physically go to that geographical point within the graticule (50 square mile area) where you live.

What are you looking for?  Nothing.

Where are you going?  Often, to the middle of nowhere!

Using his trusted Tom Tom GPS, Number One Son drove us to a dirt road 30 miles from home and approximately one and a half miles from the location of the coordinates within our 50 Sq. mile graticule.  There, we encountered a locked gate.

Ignoring the geohashing’s guideline to not trespass, we climbed the gate and walked down the dirt road until the reference point was about three quarters of a mile due west through the wild.

We had to ford a stream, jump several barb wire fences, orienteer through cow pastures, through several wooded areas and past a lot of undergrowth.

Finally, the marker on the Tom Tom indicated that we had reached our coordinates.  We opened the bottles of water we brought along and toasted our success.  We had managed to get to nowhere and found nothing.  I was tired, hungry, sore and felt as though I was going to faint.

But I also felt better than I have in a long, long time.  Number One Son and I just smiled and laughed as we gazed around at the open pastures, woods and cow herds.

On the way back, we found truck tracks that made it easy to navigate to our van.  The adventure took so long that the sun was setting, sending pale streaks of vivid tangerine across the horizon and revealing the bright planet Venus in the southwestern sky.  We also encountered a roving skunk and heard the increasingly loud cow calls from the neighboring fields.

My business is to help people have the vacation of a lifetime.  But how do I vacation?

Usually, I don’t.  But thanks to Randall Monroe and Number One Son, I discovered a wonderful, quick and no cost vacation by seeking nothing in the middle of nowhere.

It was just what I needed.

Florida Everglades National Park

January 15, 2009


Map of US National Parks

Map of US National Parks

Is the answer, “advertising?”

Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot to ask the question. The question is, “Why don’t I hear more people talking about taking a vacation to one of America’s National Parks?”

I often hear people talk about their trip to Disneyland, a theme park, a NASCAR event, a water park or some other touristy destination. But rarely do I hear someone talking about the incredible experience they had at one of our nation’s 380 plus national parks–These include the well known, large national parks such as Yosemite, Grand Canyon, The Blue Ridge Parkway (the most visited national park), Yellowstone National Park (the granddaddy of them all), as well as the National Landmarks, National Historic Sites, National Battlefields, National Seashores and over 20 other national designations.

Did you know that at over 13 million acres, the Wrangll-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska is our nation’s largest National Park? At .02 acres our smallest National Park is the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Pennsylvania? I grew up about 20 miles from this memorial and had never even heard of it until listening to an NPR special several months ago. I’ll let you follow the link to find out why we have a memorial to Thaddeous, a rare and remarkable person!

National Parks are truly one of the crown jewels of our nation. They provide a phenomenal, unique and educational experience for a modest cost. They are open and accessible to all and have something of interest for everyone of every age, physical ability or educational background. Their employees are knowledgeable and dedicated. Their facilities are top of the line. Their educational programs and displays rival the best museums and science centers of the world. So why don’t I hear more people talk about their trip to a national park?

Is the answer, “advertising?”

View of the Everglades

View of the Everglades

I don’t know about that, but I do know that the Florida Everglades National Park is a fantastic place for you to experience. Did you know that the Shark River Slough, that flows through the everglades, can be as wide as 20 miles? That the flat topography of Florida means that the river can flow as slowly as 1/4 mile in 24 hours? That it could take a drop of water over four years to go from the top of the Kissimmee chain of lakes to the southern tip of Florida?

The Everglades National Park is huge and has four different visitor centers. Mrs. LanceAround, Number One daughter and I visited the Ernest Coe and the Shark Valley visitor centers.

Observation Tower

Observation Tower

At Shark Valley, the main attraction is a 15 minute round trip tour that goes deep into the vast Shark River Slough. Since the water is so slow moving, this area is often misnamed as a marsh or swamp. You can walk, ride a bike (they have them for rent) or take a guided tram tour seven and a half miles to a very futuristic looking tower that allows you as much as an 18 mile 360 degree panoramic view of the wilderness river slough. It is easy to take in this view and imagine what it must have been like for the first native settlers of this land to encounter such a harsh wilderness.

Even Number One daughter, who had resumed her teenage angst after the exhilarating time we had snorkeling the coral reefs that morning, perked up considerably as she leaned out of our tram to grab a photo of the seven foot alligator sitting with mouth agape just in front of our tram.

Alligator on the side of the road

Alligator on the side of the road

Along the tour, you will see many alligators who use the macadam road to catch some additional heat, lots of bird species, and perhaps other wildlife such as a turtle or the elusive Florida bobcat. Yes, if you are on a bike you could even come face to face with a gator. You will discover that if you follow Florida law and do not feed or harass the gators and you stay at least 15 feet away, they are no trouble.

Forty miles away, The Ernest Coe visitor’s center is more like a museum. There is an excellent movie that teaches about the natural diversity of the Everglades but also gives a sobering picture of how man’s attempt to alter the Florida environment for the sake of development has almost destroyed this essential habitat and how we are now scrambling to save it. After the movie, you can take a short walk with an park ranger and view many of the diverse wildlife, including lots of gators and birds, while the ranger expertly teaches you about what you are seeing.

Mrs. LanceAround was not in the mood for the brief walk along the boardwalk pathway with the park ranger. She gamely went along anyway and by the end of the walk she and Number One daughter were excitedly snapping photos of the multiple alligators lying heaped upon one another in the wetlands below the boardwalk.

This blog tells only of our modest, car riding experiences within the park. For the more adventurous, there are multiple campsites, canoe or kayak routes, boat tours, walking paths and campfire programs.

National Parks don’t engage in flashy advertisements in an attempt to entice the almighty tourist dollar. But for the savvy traveller wanting a well rounded experience, they are worth putting on any travel itinerary.

Robert is Here Fruit Stand

January 11, 2009

Like many men, I don’t like to shop. I am blessed in that I married a wonderful woman, who also does not like to shop, providing one less opportunity for contention in our marriage. However, I have had two shopping experiences in my life that I have found astonishing.

Several years ago Mrs. LanceAround and I took a trip to London. I was dumb enough to order new shoes for the trip. When they were a wee bit too tight I was even dumber to believe that the leather would stretch. Walking around the Victoria & Albert Museum, however, my feet finally lost and the shoes won. We asked one of the guards where the nearest shoe store was. She told us that Harrods was just a few blocks down the road.

I painfully walked those few blocks, dreading the shopping more than the pain in my feet. I was not prepared for just how incredible a place Harrods was. We bought new shoes (actually walking sandals), browsed the bookstore, found the chocolate shop, marveled at the Egyptian department, ate at the cafe, bought souvenirs and even bumped into Mohamed Al Fayed and his bagpipe band in a back stairway.

Harrods was a remarkable place.

My second great shopping experience

My second great shopping experience

Turn the clock ahead to this year and we find ourselves with another remarkable shopping experience. This time we are driving down a back road to Everglade’s National Park when we encounter a building with the words “Robert is Here Fruit Stand” in large letters across the top.

About ten times larger than your typical roadside fruit stand, Robert is Here features large square tables piled high with fresh oranges, watermelons, avocados, papayas and other assorted fruits and vegetables. There is also a section of packaged foods such as rum cakes, honey, jellies and a wide selection of Robert is Here branded sauces. There is an enclosed section with a counter that makes fresh milkshakes in such exotic flavors as passion fruit, guava and their local favorite, key lime. And, reminiscent of a scene from the movie Pulp Fiction, every milkshake was priced at five dollars.

Look at the pretty bird

Look at the pretty bird

Walk out back and the store becomes a mini tourist attraction. There are large Macaws and parrots, some of which greet you with a “hello.” There is a free petting area featuring donkeys, emus, various other farm animals and a couple of roosters who frequently crow. Beyond the farm animals are cultivated farmland that appears to provide much of what is sold.

I asked one of the employees how much of what they sell is actually grown there. He noted that it is important to keep the store stocked, even in the off season, so they do need to frequently import items from far away. He did say, however, that their mission was to buy as much local food as possible to support the local farmers and they also grow a small amount of what they sell themselves.

The literature at the store notes that Robert was six years old when, approximately 50 years ago, he set up a stand to sell food at this very corner. Business was not good the first day, so his father made a big sign that said “Robert is Here” the next day and, as they say, the rest is history.

I did not see Robert on either occasion that I visited his stand. But I did note that whoever is in charge of the fruit stand has an incredible entrepreneurial knack for advertising. There are large, brightly colored signs everywhere that do a great job of making customers feel welcome, hungry and wanting to try the various items. Even the birds and the farm animals have wood carved signs telling you who they are. There are several old farm vehicles strategically placed around the building to give it a nostalgic, homey feeling. One tractor can be used to sit on to pose for pictures beneath a sign proclaiming, “Still plays with tractors.”

Petting Zoo Goat

Petting Zoo Goat

Mrs. LanceAround wondered if I was going to write a positive review of this place. I noted that I was and she was a little disappointed mainly because she felt as though the cage animals looked lonely and sad as they were put on display for the public. I agreed with her and said I would mention both that and the fact that this place may present an image of a small, local fruit stand, but the reality is that they are like most stores, stocking wares imported from all over the world.

Still, I found the place relaxing, entertaining, delicious and worthwhile. One thing I am certain of, however, is this:

This blog will be the only review in the entire world where a writer recommends two places for shopping and one is Harrods in London and the other is Robert is Here Fruit Stand just outside the Everglade’s National Park!

Thanks for visiting!

Thanks for visiting!

Snorkeling the coral reef at John Pennekamp State Park

December 1, 2008

Welcome to John Pennekamp State Park

Welcome to John Pennekamp State Park

It was time for some father-daughter bonding as I attempt to maintain a positive relationship with number one teenage daughter. Mrs. LanceAround and number one daughter were nice enough to indulge me as they accompanied me to watch one of my favorite teams who was playing a game in south Florida. So I decided to do something nice for both of them in return.

After the game, I drove them down to Key Largo, the first of the extensive Florida Keys that go from just south of Miami to “mile 0” at Key West, more than 100 miles from Key Largo.

For Mrs. LanceAround, I purchased one night in a nice hotel. Even though it was the off season and I informed the hotel that I worked in the hospitality industry, I could not get a room in the keys for less than $135. Although the outside of the hotel looked more the worse for wear, Mrs. LanceAround loved her room. It featured a thick, firm mattress on the king bed, a pull out sofabed for number one daughter, tiled floors, heavy granite end tables and desks, an upgraded shower with exquisite bathroom fixtures and a large, flat screen TV. At 8:00am the next morning, number one daughter and I snuck out for our morning adventure while Mrs. LanceAround got to enjoy the plush hotel room for a quiet morning respite. She was happy! (And she got some great ideas for the homes we manage for our business.)

For number one, I had planned a snorkeling trip to the large coral reef off the east coast of southern Florida. The trip sailed out of the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The park was only a half mile up the road from our hotel. We paid $3.00 a person entrance fee to the park and proceeded to the gift and snack shop to purchase our snorkeling tickets. There was also a nice sized visitor’s center that, alas, we did not have time to explore.

Our ship at port

Our ship at port

The park features rental boats as well as the group snorkeling trips, scuba trips and trips on a glass bottom boat. The staff in the park were very friendly and helpful. Number one daughter was in a frolicy mood as she played along with her father’s usual, feeble attempts at humor. When the person at the counter said that the waves were two feet high and we had to be good swimmers I looked at daughter and expressed concern that she had only a few minutes to learn how to swim. Daughter responded by appearing surprised that swimming would be a requirement for a snorkeling trip. The shocked expression on the counter-woman’s face was quickly replaced with a mirthful laugh as she caught on that she was just witnessing a father-daughter moment of bonding. And when she charged us the $72 for the trip for both of us including snorkel (that you get to keep) fins and mask rentals, everyone behind us in line had a chuckle as I gave my credit card to the woman and instructed number one to remember this moment the next time she is tempted to accuse her father of not loving her!

After picking up fins and masks at the outdoor rental counter, we immersed ourselves in sunscreen and embarked on The Encounter with about 20 other passengers, one of whom was wearing a tee shirt advertising the maiden voyage of the Titanic. I wondered aloud whether anyone on board had seen the movie, Open Water. Only one other passenger and Captain Barry laughed, indicating that most had not!

Who are those handsome people?

Who are those handsome people?

After a five minute, very bumpy boat ride where passengers could enjoy standing on the top level or at the bow of the boat, we arrived at the coral reefs. The crew was pleasant, efficient and knowledgeable as they immediately gave clear instructions, got the seasoned swimmers into the water and provided a mini snorkeling lesson for the newbies. Number one daughter and I soon donned our snorkel, fins, mask and emergency inflatable vest and jumped off one of the two back ladders that were dropped into the ocean. A crew member was kind enough to snap a photo of us using the immersible camera number one daughter had purchased in the gift shop.

The water was a balmy 77 degrees and felt fantastic. Number one daughter impressed me with her agility in the water and we were soon swimming above the shallow coral reefs. In some places it was so shallow your knees could scrape the coral. In other places, it was deep enough that it was difficult to dive to the bottom.

Although we encountered some luminescent jellyfish, a couple of barracudas and a few schools of fish, I would have to say that the marine life was not very abundant. One of the other passengers later told us that she had seen a harmless shark, but no one else made such a claim. The reef itself was wonderful to look at. I have seen other reefs that had more color and more abundant sea life but my daughter was clearly having the time of her life as she would excitedly spot things and point them out to me. She took some excellent pictures.

Number One Mermaid

Number One Mermaid

After an hour or so of snorkeling, we were feeling tired so we headed back to the boat which was never more than a few yards away. The crew gave us some books to help identify the fish and coral we had spotted and the 20 minute trip back to the dock was smoother than the bumpy, wavy trip out to the reef.

After turning in our masks and fins, we drove back to the hotel for a quick shower before the noon check out time. Mrs. LanceAround had made the most of her morning, enjoying the quiet elegance of the hotel room as number one daughter and I regaled her with tales of our trip as we each took turns getting a quick shower.

As we traveled to Robert is Here Fruit Stand and the Everglades National Park that afternoon, number one daughter resumed her more typical teenage angst as she sat in the backseat of the van moodily reading her favorite novel, Twilight, and momentarily forgetting just how much her father loves her.

But for one glorious morning father and daughter had a memorable experience that transcended the ordinary–Far Off-the-Beaten-Path and much, much “more than a mouse!™”

Historic Bok Tower Gardens of Edward Bok

November 4, 2008

Bok Tower at Sunset

Bok Tower at Sunset

Do you know who Edward Bok was? I never did. At least, not until Visit Florida–The tourism agency for the state of Florida–invited me to visit the Historic Bok Tower Gardens on behalf of the Polk County tourist industry. It was a good idea–I walked away very impressed!

As an entrepreneur, I have read a lot of management books. But very few have had such a positive impact on me as the book, The Americanization of Edward Bok. Funny thing is, it is not even a business nor management book. No, it is the Pulitzer prize winning autobiography of Edward Bok. A man who immigrated to this country from the Netherlands in 1870 at the young age of six and had a profound impact on this country. I had never heard of him, or this book, until I toured the Bok Tower and purchased the book from the gift shop. I’m glad I did.

Bok Tower

Bok Tower

Before he left the Netherlands, his grandmother admonished him to “make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it.” Edward took these words to heart and although he was a very successful businessman, he never failed to live up to his grandmother’s ideals.

As a youngster, Edward would read an encyclopedia, then write letters to the famous people mentioned in the book asking them about the information he learned. He received numerous responses and even met several of the people he wrote to–Including a couple of presidents! Such initiative served Edward well as he grew and engaged in several entrepreneurial activities. Most notably, he became editor of the Ladies Home Journal, headquartered in Philadelphia. Under his tutelage, the LHJ became the first magazine in the world with a circulation of over one million.

During his lifetime, Edward, recalling the words of his grandmother, did his best to make the world a better and more beautiful place. In his autobiography, he talks about how dismayed he was over the vulgar way that homes were springing up around the nation. He commissioned several famous architects to create blueprints for beautiful homes that could be built inexpensively. The LHJ provided these blueprints and thousands of beautiful homes across the country can thank Edward Bok for their existence.

Perhaps his most notable public service was to offer a $100,000 “American Peace Award” for the person who could come up with the most practical plan to ensure peace and get the congress to act on it. I would love to share with you the details of this plan and dozen of other interesting stories from Bok’s book, but I am consciously working on keeping my blog posts shorter and more to the point. My goal is to whet your whistle enough for you to explore further.

Bok Tower Gardens

Bok Tower Gardens

Upon retiring, Edward built a carillon on the tallest point in the Florida Peninsula in Lake Wales, Florida. This bell tower is the centerpiece of the Bok Tower Gardens. Every day at 1pm and 3pm the bells are played. Edward died in January 1930 less than a year after President Coolidge dedicated the tower and surrounding gardens. He is interred at the base of the tower.

The Bok tower garden is definitely off-the-beaten-path and much, much “more than a mouse.”™ You won’t find tacky, tourist stuff, rides, or cartoon characters here. But you will find beautiful gardens, peaceful tranquility, a splendid carillon and a perfect place for meditation and quiet contemplation.

Maitland Art Center

October 28, 2008

Maitland Art Center

Maitland Art Center

Amber’s Montessori School asked Mrs. LanceAround and I if we could help drive the students on a field trip to the Maitland Art Center. Since Grammy is visiting us for only two more days, we thought she would really enjoy having a day with her granddaughter and her school friends.  The purpose of the trip was to see an exhibition of Puerto Rican Carnival Masks.

I love art centers. Yet, sometimes little hole-in-the-wall art centers can be tedious. A display of Puerto Rican masks did not sound very enticing. At times like these, I try to remember the words from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream—“Never anything can be amiss, when simpleness and duty tender it.” Hmmm, didn’t work. I prepare for a boring morning.

Luckily, I was able to distract myself from the impending boredom.  Grafton, one of the students I am driving, forgot to buckle his seatbelt upon our departure so I was able to spend the forty-five minute drive to the art center consumed by a hilarious, witty, yet poignant lecture to Grafton, in front of his friends, about seatbelts and safety.  (My insightful exposé is further enhanced when we exit the van and a police officer serendipitously comes by with her windows down.  I pretend that she was summoned at my beckoning and the officer gleefully plays along and gives Grafton a further lecture on the value of wearing one’s seatbelt.)

I believe I am being ingenious and erudite.  My daughter just thinks I embarass myself.

Towards the end of our trip, as we turn onto Packwood Avenue in Maitland and bob along the narrow red brick road, I notice a large, wall-enclosed area on both sides of the road dotted with the most beautiful and tranquil Spanish style cottages decorated with Aztec and Mayan sculptures and bas relief cement blocks. This is my first clue that I could be wrong about my preconceptions of this day.

It would only get better.

The education begins when the 25 students ranging in age from 8 to 14 gather in a small outdoor theatre adorned with Hispanic carvings of various catholic symbols. The speaker is Nancy Rosado, a local aspiring artist who was born in Puerto Rico and spent 25 years in the NYC police force. She gives a short history of Puerto Rican culture and influences, including the many religious festivities, leading up to the fusion of Spanish, African, and Caribbean folk art tradition of masks and costumes. Although the talk was interesting and just the right length for such a young audience, I was musing on the inscription on the threshold of the theatre entrance that said something like, “Let your thoughts focus in a tranquil moment of love.” I know that is not exactly the correct quote, but in that small outdoor theatre adorned by Hispanic symbolism and covered by a canvas of ancient oaks dripping with Spanish moss, I was too focused on “being” rather than “thinking and remembering.”

The Masks

The Masks

Yet, It would only get better.

The main gallery of the art center displayed the most fantastic masks, paintings, costumes, and educational displays of how the art was made. I was mesmerized. So were the students. Small notebooks whipped out as the students took notes. Pictures were taken and you could see young minds at the height of engagement as they quietly and eagerly whispered and pointed at the displays.

Still, it would get even better.

Our guide for the day had prepared blank miniature masks made of acorns for the students to use to create their own works of art. We left the gallery and walked through an ancient, artistic gate, to an inner courtyard. Here, old brick walkways meandered around fountains with colorful, floating sculptures, past more gated archways weaving in and out of small Spanish-style cottages with bright red tiled roofs. In two of these were tables, chairs, small masks, and art supplies. The students quickly and eagerly went to work.

Mrs LanceAround and I took a stroll through the rest of the courtyard. I wish I were a good enough writer to convey the feeling. I wish I were a good enough photographer to capture the mood. Suffice it to say, that simply being in that environment inspired an artistic side of myself that has sat dormant too long. The courtyard complex was dotted with places to sit, nooks and crannies, sculptures, water features, intricately designed gates, brick paths, beautiful landscaping, small artistically designed buildings. There were studios (both indoors and out), areas to do welding, ovens to fire works of art, occasional containers of art supplies of various kinds. Every now and again we would happen upon someone engaged in work. Was it administrative? Artistic? Contemplative? We did not know, but we knew enough to not disturb. At one end of the courtyard was a very large lake. The entire area was, in itself, a fine work of art.

Literature at the center informs us that the Maitland Art Center was founded in 1937 by Jules Andre Smith with an additional gift from Mary Curtis Bok (later Mrs. Efram Zimbalist, Sr.) Normally, I like to research and post more detailed information about the topic of my blog. However, there is something about the Maitland Art Center that is calling to me to not focus on the history or factual. I will only report that in 1982 it was entered on the National Register of Historic Places and one critic has called it one of the “important examples of Fantastic architecture in America,” whatever that means.

It is a place designed for experience. Look at the photos, as imperfect as they are, and then close your eyes and imagine yourself here. If you want to know what the Maitland Art Center is really about, when your eyes are closed, imagine the most artistic experience you can. That is what the Maitland Art Center is all about. “But, “ you might ask, “How can I know that I got it right?” Like the wise sensei from the movie, The Karate Kid, I can only paraphrase, “If it comes from within you, it can’t be wrong.”

That is the Maitland Art Center. Definitely off-the-beaten-path and a Must See for the well informed traveler looking for More Than a Mouse™.