To escape the cold weather and a record 12 inches of snow in Dallas, we packed some adventure clothes, golf clubs, Advil, sunscreen, koozies, and party hats and headed to what has to be the vacation capital of America where in one week we:
Wow, I'm tied just thinking about all the fun adventures and golf that we packed into a one vacation week. I must admit, we came back tired and sore and ready for a nap! Orlando is unbelievable and you could spend a month there and still not visit all the attractions - in fact, it would probably take a week or more to visit just the Disney attractions. And what a golfers heaven - there are over 120 courses in the Orlando area and most are lush and plush with beautiful landscaping and color and very reasonable priced during the summer which is the off season. You can play a demanding shot makers course where the pros play or a $30 muni course that has a fantastic layout in excellent condition or a resort course with perfect service, a Mickey Mouse shaped bunker as well as a Mickey Mouse Golf Cart, and wide and forgiving fairways lined with palms, water fountains, and lots of colorful landscaping. And if you get tired of attractions and Orlando, you can be sipping a margarita on a nice sandy beach or dipping your toes in the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico within a couple hours drive.
Our goal in heading to Orlando was to play some golf and try some of the more unusual attractions and adventures. So we purposely stayed away from Disney World, Epcot Center, SeaWorld, Universal City, and all the other well known attractions and theme parks. But if you're taking the kids with you, you best attend at least one of the biggies.
We arrived on a Friday, stretched our legs, stuffed our bags and clubs in the rental car and immediately headed to our first Disney golf course - Lake Buena Vista. Typical of all of the Disney courses we played, Lake Buena Vista was in very good condition, despite the previous week of harsh weather. It is a fun track with meandering fairways that wind their way through pastel villas, pine forests, palmettos, and around sparkling lakes with water fountains and across canals taking tourists on boat rides. Lake Buena Vista offers a little bit of everything and most notably tough approach shots to well bunkered elevated greens and a challenging island green. Great way to start the trip - read our review of Lake Buena Vista. This was the first of several rounds of golf where we got to hear the sounds and see some of the sights from Disney attractions including the Disney balloon ride as we were trying to focus on hitting the ball straight - not sure I can blame the ascending balloon ride for several lost balls, but it's as good an excuse as any!
After a disappointing score, it was time for a margarita and they don't get any better than what you can find at Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville! Not only do they have fantastic margaritas, they've also got good appetizers, pretty good food, and live music - an excellent way to forget my first round of golf. Margaritaville is in- a huge area with several nightclubs with music ranging from reggae to jazz to dueling pianos to heavy rock, outdoor concerts, restaurants, shops, arcades, and lots more.
After a couple good margaritas, we strolled along the boardwalk, listened to some live music near the water, and checked out a couple bars and finally drug ourselves home to catch a few hours sleep before our 9:00 tee time at Disney's Osprey Ridge.
We spent way too much time singing at the dueling piano bar and I knew I'd pay the price when I stepped up to the tee box - and sure enough, I saw some stars (not Disney stars or actors) and immediately topped the ball and watched it dribble about 20 feet down the Osprey Ridge tee box. By the 5th hole I was back on track and enjoying Disney's Osprey Ridge which is rated four and a half stars by Golf Digest - this 18 was one of our favorites. It's a Tom Fazio design and we love his courses - he builds them tough but fair and with lots of variety - which is what he did at Osprey Ridge. This course will throw a little bit of everything at you - water on ten holes, mounding and elevation changes, lots of soft sand bunkers most of which I got to experience first hand, dog legs, forced carries, risk reward shots, and some dramatic golf holes that cut through stands of live oak, pine, palmetto, cypress and bay trees. Fun and challenging round of golf - here is the link to read our.
From Osprey, we rushed to the drive thru at McDonalds for some fuel and then to our tee time at Disney's Palm Golf Course. The Palm is home to the PGA tour and it was fun playing where the pros play and reading the "memorable moments" plaques at each hole that highlight a moment from one of the tournaments. Regardless of how hard I tried, I couldn't birdie #18 like Vijah Singh did to win his millions and a trophy. Nice course and this review of Palm Golf Course will tell you more about it. The back nine is fantastic - fun, challenging, and very pretty.
The front nine at the Palm got us excited about our upcoming ride at Indy Driving Experience which is across the road from a couple of the Palm's holes and as we teed off we could hear the varooooom of the Indy cars doing 140 miles an hour around the track. The Palm pro shop is also the pro shop for Disney's Magnolia Course which features elevated tees, spacious greens, tranquil water hazards and championship fairways populated with strategically positioned Magnolia trees.
While we were golfing at the Palm, my brother (Scott) and his friend Lori took the balloon ride at Disney and went parasailing on Bay Lake at Disney World's Pleasure Island. According to them the balloon ride, which is a tethered helium balloon with a huge gondola that rises 400 feet above Disney World, is a little too touristy. It was a short 10 minute ride with long lines and a tad pricey, but it does give you some fantastic views of the golf courses and a lot of the Disney World attractions. Young kids should love it.
Scott and Lori did have a blast at Sammy Duvall's Watersports Center flying tandem 600' above Disney World's Bay lake. They were strapped into a double harness, hooked to a line, and were quickly lifted into the wild blue yonder as the boat accelerated. And for the next 15 minutes they.....Is the suspense killing you? If so, read the Parasailing In Orlando article to learn more.
After our enjoyable round of golf at the Palm, we picked them up and started the decision process - "what kind of food do we want and where should we go!" Orlando has a plethora of choices so you shouldn't go hungry or have any trouble finding a cuisine of choice from Asian to Greek to Moroccan. Here is a link to Orlando dining to help you narrow down the choices. If you'll be eating out a lot, you should consider getting an Eat & Play Card which offers discounts on meals, shopping, car rentals, attractions, and amusements. The restaurants aren't just fast food and in our 2010 coupon book they ranged from Arabian Nights to Tony Roma's, attractions included golf courses to driving an Indy race car, shopping included Macys and the Reebok Outlet Store, and you can even save money on an Avis or Budget car rental. Discounts range from 10% to 50% for up to four people. The savings from using the card two or three times should more than pay for the cost of the card.
We decided to head over to Point Orlando, another one of Orlando's hot spots with restaurants, shops, and nightlife. Using the Eat and Play card we stopped in at Cube Libre for a drink and appetizer, then got a good meal at Millers Ale House (a fun and lively sports bar) and shot some pool. Stuffed, we wobbled back to Point Orlando to check out the music at B. B. King's Blue Club - another fun evening in Orlando.
Sunday morning we were up bright and early to make it to our tee time on another recommended course - RedTail Golf Club, which is about 25 miles north of Orlando. RedTail is a links style course that is nestled among 100-year old oaks in the rolling hills of Lake County and with it's scenic panoramic views it may be the finest natural golf setting that Florida has to offer. Plus it is an excellent layout that includes: elevation changes, huge natural sand areas, berms, swales, ravines and undulating hillsides, forced carries, blind shots, plenty of sand and grass bunkers, water, dog legs, well protected greens, and more. What a fun and challenging track! Here is the link to our review of RedTail Golf Club. It is a private club but offers a "member for a day" option that was very reasonable - well worth the drive from Orlando.
RedTail was followed by a rush to Wendy's drive thru to keep our stomachs from growling on our next adventure - more fast food, more wrappers littering the car floorboards (along with all the sand from the sand traps), and some additional odors to contribute to what was already there - at this rate, the fast food odors were going to attract dogs, bobcats, and other wild life hoping to get some scraps. Speaking of wildlife, you can't come to Orlando and not make an attempt to see an alligator - be aware 'cuz you may just spot one about where you were trying to retrieve your wet golf ball. On a previous golf outing in Florida, we couldn't tee off on a short par 3 until the greens keeper shooed the 8' gator away from the pin - apparently, every day at 4 he meanders up next to the pin to sun himself! Only in Florida.
Orlando is home to several alligator farms including Gatorland, Internationally known as the Alligator Capital of the World, where you can see 1000's of alligators in a theme park and wildlife preserve setting. You can even catch an alligator wrestling show - all for the low family price of new Volkswagen Beetle. We already have car payments, so we decided to try and spot an alligator in it's natural environment on an airboat ride with Boggy Creek Airboats through central Florida's everglades. We didn't have real high hopes for Boggy Creek as it sounded sort of like a tourist trap - but we were pleasantly surprised and really enjoyed the ride. Read about our to learn more about why we recommend that you try this experience.
From Boggy Creek we rushed to Sky Ventures to free fall sky dive in a 140 mile per hour wind tunnel. Our knees were shaking a little as we thought about it walking up the stairs. We entered the waiting and viewing area and saw a 4 year old sky diving - if she can do it without crying surely we can do it! We did it and flying with Sky Ventures was probably the highlight of our trip so far - a very fun adventure at a reasonable price. And they give you pictures of your flight to show all your friends and family! Read more about sky diving with Sky Ventures. This is a "must do" if you visit Orlando.
And I swear the instructors at Sky Ventures had as much fun as we did - they always had a big smile on their faces as they were helping us try to learn how to fly and when our turn was over, they went crazy. They spent a good five minutes showing us all of their tricks and acrobatic free fall moves - they would do circles, flips, fly upside down, and all sorts of other amazing stunts. Sure made us want to sign up for a lesson!
Monday was another fun filled day - 18 holes of golf at Falcon's Fire which was followed by more fast food in the car - when am I going to have a slow relaxing lunch with a cold beer on a deck overlooking the golf course or a nice lake? During lunch we rushed to Metro West Golf Club for another 18 holes and then a quick dash to the dinner and magic show at WonderWorks. Falcon's Fire Golf Club, located in adjoining Kissimmee (was it founded by a person who stutters?), is recognized as one of “Florida’s 50 Finest Golf Courses” by Golf & Travel. This is a challenging course with plenty of water hazards, over 140 sand bunkers (most of which I found and a lot of the sand is still in the rental car), fast greens, and extensive mounding. Quite frankly, I haven't seen so many humps since my neighbor's dog attached himself to my leg. To learn more about this great course, read our review of Falcon's Fire Golf Club.
After emptying the pockets, shoes, gloves, and shaking the head vigorously to get rid of the sand, we were off to play MetroWest which has won a number of accolades and awards as Orlando's "best golf experience" and #1 Public Course in Orlando. A round at MetroWest includes spring-fed lakes, mature native trees, expansive rolling fairways with dramatic elevation changes, and large undulating greens surrounded by sculpted bunkers. It's a fair, yet demanding challenge, and a real pleasure to play. To learn what we liked about this course, read our review of MetroWest Golf Club.
36 holes of golf will make a fellow hungry and very thirsty, so I was excited about our evening plans at WonderWorks' dinner and magic show which included all you can eat salad and pizza with free beer or wine. In addition to the food and drink, the price of admission included a comedy magic show during dinner and entrance to the exhibits, games, and rides after the show! Our expectations were low thinking that the pizza would be cold, the beer warm, the service slow (meaning only one beer and a couple slices of pizza), and the show a little amateurish and touristy! We weren't even close - the pizza was hot, the beer very cold, the salad and dessert were tasty, and we left laughing and sad that the show had ended. Tony Brent was hilarious and amazed us with his magic tricks and other stunts. But when Tony got Scott on the stage, put a mask on him, donned a wig for himself, and started singing Sony & Cher's "I Got You Babe" while moving the mouth on Scott's mask with a string to mimic the words, we were almost, along with the rest of the audience, rolling on the floor with laughter. After the show, we went upstairs to enjoy the exhibits and rides. This is good clean family fun that everyone should enjoy - click here to read about a fun evening at WonderWorks.
It just so happens that WonderWorks is located next to another Orlando hot spot that has shops, several restaurants, and some fun and lively bars with music. Which means we got up the next morning a tad groggy and wishing we had come home earlier since we had to hit the road at 7:00 AM for our next adventure - hang gliding at Wallaby Ranch. We also found that we were getting very low on Advil thanks to having played 108 rounds of golf in three and a half days! But we did have lots of sand which we could use to build a new sand box for the grand kids!
A day with no golf - would we be able to make it without having serious withdrawal symptoms! We were really looking forward to getting some air at the World Famous Wallaby Ranch. We were scheduled for a tandem flight at Wallaby Ranch which is long established as the world's premier aero tow hang gliding flight park. When we arrived it was overcast with low clouds and windy - making it too risky to take off. And it's hard to explain how disappointed we were when we had to depart for the next adventure without flying and after waiting two and a half hours for the low clouds and winds to dissipate making it safe to fly. We missed our opportunity to soar with the eagles.
We did enjoy talking to a number of dedicated hang gliding pilots, student pilots, and Malcolm who is a very passionate and experienced pilot as well as the Wallaby Ranch owner. And the free breakfast buffet was excellent - finally a relaxing meal with no left over food wrappers for the car. We enjoyed looking at the aero tow planes and the various hang gliders and learning more about them. We learned that since there are no cliffs or mountains in Florida, aero planes attach a tow line to a single or tandem hang glider and then off you go to 2000 or 3000 feet to ride the currents and thermals for as long as you can. I can imagine it's exhilarating and addictive.
Disappointed, we left Wallaby Ranch and headed back to Disney World to their Indy Car Experience. The wife and I were scheduled to ride in a $1 million dollar modified Indy car at up to 140 miles per hour and my brother Scott decided that he would rather drive than ride. Anybody that knows Scott, knows that he's a tab bit wild, crazy, and reckless and that there is no way in the world that you would let him drive your motorcycle, ATV, waverunner, or any similar toys - there's a high probability that it will come back damaged or he'll come back injured! Of course the guys at Indy don't know this and they were going to let him drive a $500,000 Indy race car 8 laps around an oval track at 130 miles per hour! I wanted to warn them and I was tempted to get in the car and hurry on out of there, but our ride was after his so we were stuck. You're going to have to read Disney's Indy Race Experience to learn what happens.
On Wednesday morning, we downed more Advil, stretched the sore muscles and headed out to tee off on our 109th golf hole for the week. I started to question if I could make it for another 54 holes! We had to leave early so we could stop at the local golf store and load up on more golf balls and sun screen - turns out that all the time I spent in those white sand bunkers had contributed to a very nice sunburn and the gators are surely enjoying all my new golf balls! Speaking of sand bunkers, every course that we played had hundreds of them and they all seemed to be where our ball wanted to land - I began to wonder if the Florida beaches had sand left. I may have been imagining it but I swore I saw a lawn chair and an umbrella in one of the many huge traps at a Disney course!
Our first stop for the day was to play Grand Cypress which is home to 45 holes of Jack Nicklaus Signature golf. The North, South, and East Nines offer a variety of mental and physical stimuli that test accuracy rather than strength and distance. The original North-South combination, which we played, is marked by sharply ledged fairways, tall shaggy mounds, and plateau greens perched above water or sand - this 18 was a demanding, target-style test of my golfing skills. Which means I lost more balls than I found, enjoyed several traps, and found the woods to be thick and dense. The sportier, more wooded East Nine is more generous, with less bunkering (particularly in front of the greens) allowing for more run-up shots - maybe I should have played this nine! Here is a link to the review of Grand Cypress North Course and to the review of Grand Cypress South Nine. The South Course is fantastic and our top rated Orlando course
The other 18 at Grand Cypress is the New Course which is Jack Nicklaus' tribute and homage to the famed Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland. This Scottish links masterpiece is complete with double greens, stone bridges and walls, course mounds, burns, and pot bunkers as deep as 12 feet... all in the spirit of true Scottish original. It looked fantastic - guess we'll just have to schedule another golf outing to Orlando.
After the South Nine, I was able to add a lot more sand to our collection thanks to spending a little too much time in one green side bunker that was school bus size and was deep and steep enough that the Olympic gold meter ski boarder, Shawn White, wouldn't have tried to board up and down it, but if he did, he would have gotten some fantastic air. Another dash through the fast food drive thru - more wrappers to add to the car's collection of fast food trash, broken tees, smelly socks, soggy golf balls, empty Advil bottles, and plenty of sand. - and we were off to play ChampionsGate.
ChampionsGate has two premier 18-hole championship golf courses designed by accomplished architect and golfer, Greg Norman. The International 18 is an authentic links style golf reminiscent of the great courses of the British Isles and the National 18 is a more traditional American style course. We played the International Course which got a lot of "wows." What a fun and challenging course in excellent condition and talk about soft sand bunkers of all shapes and sizes, ChampionsGate has over 180 of them - a new record for us and I may have set a personal record for "most traps played from in one round.". I began to wonder how much American Airlines would charge for my several bags full of white sand. Norman crafted the International to play hard and fast, forcing you to not only consider what the ball might do in the air, but how it will roll once it lands - way too much thinking for me. The end result is a true links layout that demands both distance and accuracy and a whole lot of confidence - which I find my clubs seem to lack. The International features small greens and fairways bounded by heavy rough and bunkers that look as if they were carved by the onshore winds off the coast of Scotland. We rated this a close second favorite Orlando course. A great round of golf - read our review of ChampionsGate International Course to learn more. You can see how we rated each course at Florida Golf Course Reviews.
I swore that after 36 holes of golf, we would enjoy a Bloody Mary and a couple appetizers at one of Disney's many boardwalk restaurants and be back in bed by 11 p.m. - never happened! Disney's Boardwalk is set along the shores of Crescent Lake and has over 9,000 square feet of shops, restaurants, and fun nightlife! We did have a great Bloody Mary and appetizers but we couldn't leave without checking out the Atlantic Dance Hall (a nightclub showcasing cool bands and hot DJs and a place to dance the night away) and Jellyrolls which is a lively piano bar with dueling pianos and audience sing-alongs - both of which made it another short night.
It was off at 7:30 the next morning for an hour and a half drive to swim with the manatees in the Crystal River on Florida's west coast. Of course Scott slept the whole way after complaining that he was sore, sunburned, tired, and a little hung over!
We met our tour guide, Capt. Joe, the owner of Fun 2 Dive, squeezed into a wetsuit, jumped in his boat and headed up river for an enjoyable and unique swim with a bunch of manatee in their natural environment. These lumbering and peaceful gentle giants are endangered and it was amazing to get nose to nose with some of them and swim in the cool crystal clear river that they enjoyed every day. Check out Swimming with the Manatees to learn more about why we loved this adventure.
Scott not only took a nap on the boat but also snored all the way back to the villa. A quick shower and we were out the door for what turned out to be a very good meal at a small Indian restaurant and then a nightcap at Orlando's Ice Bar.
What were we thinking! Who needs an Ice Bar when we came to Orlando to escape the freezing cold weather and snow in Dallas! But it's unique and different so we had to try it. They bundle you up in an overcoat, gloves, and hat and then admit you to a good sized room that is all ice (50 tons of it) and a constant 27 degrees Fahrenheit. Inside is a bar - you guessed it, a bar made entirely of ice - where a very cold bartender serves you a very expensive shot of Vodka in an glass made from crystal pure ice. The bartenders work in 15 minutes shifts and we noticed that they are a little slow and blue towards the end of their shift! All the walls are solid ice and the room has some ice chairs, ice tables, and ice sculptures. It didn't take long, only one shot, before we had had enough of the cold and were ready to warm up in the Fire Lounge with much warmer drinks and a hot dance floor.
After more Advil and more sunscreen, it was off to Warbirds Adventure to fly in a vintage fighter trainer for what turned out to be a very fun and unique experience. Shortly after I arrived, I was strapped into the front seat of a T-6 Texan which was the premier fighter-trainer of WWII. Over 70% of the Allied pilots received their fighter training in these aircraft. We took off with another T-6 and it was exciting to fly in a very close formation at 150 miles per hour with the other T-6 only 5 feet off your wing tip, then suddenly appearing over the top, and then settling over to the opposite wing tip. I felt like a slow low flying Blue Angel, so I named us the Yellow Birds of Orlando and dreamed of doing air shows around the world. Man was I having fun flying around at 3000 feet pretending I was Top Gun in good ole Yellow Bird. I was enjoying the scenery, when my pilot, John, said "ok it's your turn to fly it." And after 30 seconds of instruction I was flying a T-6. Now that's trouble! Click on the link to learn more about my flight and this very fun and unique adventure with Warbirds Adventures.
When I came back down to earth with a huge grin on my face I was ready to sign up for my first flying lesson - I was addicted! But as usual, there no time to fool around we had to get in 18 before our flight back to the big D.
I was a tad nervous as we pulled into Grande Pines Golf Club - it had been over 28 hours since we last played golf, would I remember how to play! Grande Pines Golf Club was the perfect course to end a fun week of golfing and new adventures - excellent layout, very fun and challenging, great conditions, and I played well for the first time all week. Grande Pines is one of Golfweek's Top 100 "America's Best Resort Courses" and it is nestled among lakes, tall pines, oaks, and palms with contoured, rolling fairways and well-bunkered, multi-tiered greens. Strategic shot making and course management are what it takes to score well here - in my case it took a couple mulligans, moving up a set of tee boxes, and lots of lucky shots! What a way to end a jam packed vacation! Read our review of Grande Pines Golf Club.
From Grande Pines we reluctantly had to check our car in at the Orlando airport and leave all the white fluffy sand that we had collected in Orlando - American Airlines want a fortune to bring it home with us.
As I took my American Airlines seat, the stewardess gave me a strange look before I immediately fell asleep - was she thinking "another sun burned, tired, sore, slightly hung over tourist with sand in his hair is departing for home after a good time in Orlando!" What a fun filled week.
If you're heading to Orlando for a golfing vacation, you're going to find it tough to decide which courses to play. Prior to leaving, we did quite a bit of research and talked to a number of the golf course head pros to get some recommendations on which courses to play. The answers were pretty consistent and the top ten typically included: Shingle Creek, Southern Dunes, Grand Cypress, Championsgate, Bay Hill, the Disney courses (Palm, Magnolia, Osprey, and Lake Buena Vista), Hawks Landing, Eagle Creek, Grande Pines, Metro West, and Grand Lakes at the Ritz. Turns out that these are not only some of the best courses in Orlando but also the most expensive and of course we visited during prime golfing season. During the season, prices at these courses ranged from $85 to $225. Go during the summer and you can play the same courses for $30 to $100! And the greens, fairways, and landscaping are more lush, plush, and colorful during the summer.
If you have time, there are hundreds of other attractions and things to do, some of which include:
Before you head out, do some research and you'll find lots of coupons and discounts on golfing, attractions, food, shopping, hotels, and more. The Orlando Visitors Bureau has several coupons to save you some money.
You shouldn't have a problem finding some place to stay when you visit Orlando. There are over 115,000 rooms in Orlando and they range from upscale and first class luxury resorts like the Ritz or Omni which are loaded with amenities to low priced budget standard hotels with no pool or amenities. Or you can stay in villas or condos or private homes of all price ranges. Disney alone has over 25,000 rooms (hotel rooms, tree houses, villas, or condos) on their property for you to choose from plus a fantastic RV park if you want to camp. If you're visiting Orlando for a golfing vacation, you'll find plenty of choices with most resorts and several hotels offering stay and play packages. We stayed in my brother's time-share at the Marriott Palm Vacation Villas in a two bedroom, two bath villa with a living room, fully equipped kitchen, and screened patio overlooking one of the holes on the Marriott Palms golf course.