Fans flocking to the Orlando area to attend a University of Central Florida football game can be as versatile as a quarterback who can pass and run.
The area's diversity mirrors the many options of a spread offense, and the operative word in that sentence is spread, as in spread out.
People unfamiliar with the area may believe they can easily couple a UCF game with a visit to the tourist area's theme parks or a night out in Orlando's emerging downtown, home of the NBA's Orlando Magic and its year-old Amway Center.
It can be done, but you have to start with recognizing the area's varied activities are matched only by its sprawl. A visitor staying in the Disney theme park area in Lake Buena Vista will have to drive at least 30 minutes to reach downtown Orlando, and downtown Orlando is another 20 minutes west of the UCF campus and the Knights' Bright House Networks Stadium, where the team has played its home games since 2007.
It's a triple option for fans, and your choice will come down to what you seek: the convenience and collegial fanfare of being close to campus, the vibrancy of downtown or the touristy temptations of the Lake Buena Vista/International Drive area.
It would be a tight squeeze, but a Knights fan could arrive a day before the game and visit the spray of theme parks in the Walt Disney area over a short weekend. Disney's four parks – the Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot and Animal Kingdom – always make for exhilarating days.
SeaWorld and Universal Studios, with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at its Islands of Adventure theme park, also are great options, but it wouldn't be energy-efficient or cost-effective to attend on game day, even if the Knights have an evening kickoff.
Option No. 1
A better idea might be to stay in the International Drive area. Dozens of restaurants line both sides of the street for miles.
Cuba Libre, Funky Monkey, Texas de Brazil and Calla Bella are among the top choices, and Dave & Buster's, the adult version of Chuck E. Cheese, just opened on I-Drive. Buffalo Wild Wings, Brickhouse Tavern and the Tilted Kilt offer pub grub and plenty of televisions if you want to catch a game on Friday night or early Saturday.
In that same vicinity, in the Dr. Phillips area, you can visit what's come to be known as "Restaurant Row." These are the fine dining places that have loads of sophistication and great food. Among them: Seasons 52, Roy's, Chatham's Place and Antonio's. One of the best sushi places in town, Amura Sushi, has a location here and in downtown Orlando on Church Street.
For a night on the town, Downtown Disney offers Cirque de Soleil's La Nouba, and you will want to check the concert schedule for House of Blues. Downtown Disney also has a collection of themed restaurants – such as the Ragland Road Irish Pub, where servers often take to the tables for a jig – and the AMC Theatre now offers Fork & Screen, an in-theatre dining experience.
Restaurants and entertainment light up the night down the road at CityWalk at Universal. Renowned chef Emeril LaGasse (BAM!) has his restaurant here, Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville has fun fare, and for the reggae lovers, Bob Marley's is the spot. Hard Rock Live hosts a number of bands, comedians and parties throughout the year, and the restaurants and shops are always open.
Speaking of shopping, Orlando Premium Outlets has two locations, one on International Drive and one on Vineland Road in Lake Buena Vista. Both boast hundreds of outlet stores including Burberry, Polo Ralph Lauren, Prada, Hugo Boss and Coach. Neiman-Marcus and Bloomingdale anchor the nearby Mall at Millenia, where you also can find Blue Martini, a popular night spot known to be frequented by the area's top professional athletes.
While you're out there in the Florida sun, you may want to "beat the heat" at the Icebar, a drinking establishment made totally of ice. The temperature in the bar, 27 degrees, keeps the 50 tons of ice, carved into sculptures, furniture and glasses, from melting.
So the city's tourist area offers a lot, but you'll need to leave early to reach UCF for the game. It's an estimated 50-minute drive from the Lake Buena Vista/International Drive area to Bright House Networks Stadium on MapQuest, and our guess is that MapQuest may have had a police escort to get there that fast.
Option No. 2
Of course, staying in downtown Orlando can cut your travel time in half. Hotels are less plentiful, but there are enough options – the Courtyard Marriott, Doubletree and the Grand Bohemian.
Entertainment in downtown Orlando is as diverse at its restaurants. Enjoy a good laugh at the SAK Comedy Lab, which has two shows nightly, sing along to dueling pianos at Baby Grands or stroll along Church Street's bars and restaurants including Kres Chophouse, Ceviche Tapas Bar & Restaurant, Hamburger Mary's Bar & Grille or Urban Flats. Pine Twenty 2 offers more than 300,000 ways to make your own hamburger including topped with a fried egg.
Just north of downtown Orlando sits the small, historic town of Winter Park. The oak-lined streets are known for their multi-million dollars homes and you can jump on the Winter Park Boat Tour to see those homes on the Chain of Lakes.
The town also boasts the small liberal arts school Rollins College, a boutique shopping area on Park Avenue and great restaurants such as Brandywine Deli, The Ravenous Pig, Bosphorous and, if you want to stand in the long line, the 4 Rivers Smokehouse.
On Saturdays, the Winter Park Farmer's Market is packed with people browsing for fresh fruits and vegetables, plants, pastries and homegrown goodies.
Option No. 3
The final option is staying in the UCF area.
The hotels may be limited, so it's best to book in advance on a game weekend. The Hilton Garden Inn, Radisson and Holiday Inn Select are among those close by. For familiar shopping, movies and restaurants, head over to Waterford Lakes Town Center. You can have coffee at Starbucks, lunch at Macaroni Grille and dinner at Red Lobster. Grab a book at Barnes and Noble or browse the aisles at Best Buy, Super Target and Old Navy. Regal Cinemas has a 20-screen theater here.
Like most university areas, there are tons of fast food joints – Hot Dog Heaven, Backyard Burgers and Tijuana Flats. Don't miss First Watch, Lazy Moon Pizza and Jeremiah's for soft serve ice cream and Italian ice.
The proximity will allow you to park on campus and take advantage of some of the school-sponsored revelry.
The Knight Walk is a new tradition at UCF and takes place before select home games. UCF fans, along with the UCF Marching Knights, will be able to greet the football team as they make their way from IOA Plaza to Bright House Networks Stadium. The Knight Walk will take place two hours prior to kickoff as part of pre-game festivities. The first Knight Walk for 2011 will take place Sept. 3.
In the end, the Orlando options vary in style, but all three can help you score a good weekend.
Editor's note: This story was first published by VISITFLORIDA.com.