There's more to Orlando than theme parks

By LOGAN D. MABE • Special to the Times

ORLANDO — The challenge was simple enough. Have lots of fun in Orlando without setting foot inside Walt Disney World, Universal Studios or Sea World. • The idea was to find adventure beyond the predictable, to find fun in funky places. With a little imagination and the occasional leap of faith, we found plenty to entertain ourselves in a little place we call Weird Orlando.

Richard Petty Driving Experience

I'm going really fast. I'm riding shotgun in a NASCAR race car. The guy behind the wheel says we're doing about 140 mph. It's like riding with the sketchy guy in high school who goofs off in class, gets all the girls, has really cool hair. And drives way too fast.

Speed is edgy, which is probably why NASCAR guys like their jobs and why NASCAR fans like watching them.

If you want a taste of that edge, you can drink deeply at the Richard Petty Driving Experience near the front gate of Disney. (Though it is officially on Disney property, it's not really Disney. We didn't even have to pay the $11 parking fee to get through the gates.)

David Corbett, 19, got that taste. The Vernon, N.J., resident paid $450 to drive his own race car for eight laps around the speedway. He left the track literally gassed.

"Please let me go faster," said Corbett, reflecting on his Richard Petty experience. "It felt amazing. It was an adventure rush. I never felt a car stick like that to the road. It was totally amazing."

If you don't want to drive (and you need to be able to operate a manual transmission to do so) you can ride along for $116. That gets you three laps of "holy-cow-watch-out-for-that-wall" and then you're back to the stop-and-go traffic of everyday life in your own non-NASCAR car.

Adventure accessories provided: helmet, jump suit, instructions on how to get out of the car alive in case of a wipeout, plus a cool photo of yourself looking all NASCAR-y ($17).

3450 N World Drive; toll-free 1-800-237-3889 or www.1800bepetty.com. Cost: $116 ride-along, $450 to drive eight laps solo.

Mega-McDonald's

I'm going really slow. Like this-is-going-to-take-all-day slow. It's 10:30 a.m., that seemingly dead time between breakfast and lunch, and the line to the register is 20 deep.

The world's largest McDonald's also has the world's longest lines. And with good reason. This place is like no other McDonald's.

First, check out the menu. This one features the "bistro gourmet" lineup including custom pizzas, fresh pasta dishes, wrap sandwiches and all kinds of stuff you wouldn't expect to find at McDonald's. We dug the grilled chicken burrito served on an actual plate.

While Dad is waiting for the food, Mom and the kids can get their game on in the arcade and play space. All the latest video games are here and reasonably priced at 25 to 50 cents a play. We gravitated toward a version of Skee-Ball and later onto a cool soccer game where you get to kick the heck out of a real soccer ball that then shows up on a video screen.

For highest and best use, this McDonald's experience is the kind where you might need to kill a few hours before a flight out or before your hotel check-in without having to buy an admission ticket to some place that's just going to wear you out.

Adventure accessories provided: garbage can that says "Thank you!," redemption center for tickets accumulated while playing games, drive-through — but that would be missing the whole point

World's largest entertainment McDonald's and play space, 6875 Sand Lake Road; www.McFun.com. Cost: Standard menu items priced like any other McDonald's. Bistro Gourmet items are mostly between $5 and $10.

Hawaiian Rumble Adventure Golf

I'm down a stroke and we're only on the first hole.

Teeing off at one of Orlando's niftier mini-golf courses, my partner in all things, Charlotte, has just drained her first shot of the day for an improbable hole-in-one.

Yeah, I know, it's just mini-golf (or "adventure golf" as they call it now) but an ace is an ace. If I wanted to be a stickler for tradition, Charlotte would have to buy a round for the house at the 19th hole. (And Hawaiian Rumble has a very nice 19th hole with a coffee shop, Internet cafe, soft drinks and snacks and a highly recommended bucket of beers for $10.)

But that wouldn't be a problem here this morning. There are only a few groups out on the twin 18-hole property and it's February in Florida. The perfect time to play golf. Even if your only club is a putter.

There are plenty of mini-golf places in the greater Orlando-Kissimmee area and some are better than others. Hawaiian Rumble is the cream of the crop. The putting surfaces are straight and true. The streams come into play nicely. The "sand traps" (beige carpet) are fair.

And the volcano — oh yeah, I forgot to mention the volcano — is a delightful backdrop but unfortunately, inactive. There's a helicopter tour place across the street and spewing lava and flame can be an impediment for the whirlybirds.

This course (and there are two of them) is both fun and fair. You'll be tested on virtually every hole, but you'll enjoy the scenery even when you're hunting in the stream for your ball.

Adventure accessories provided: real metal head putter, selection of multicolored golf balls, daily beer specials.

8969 International Drive; (407) 351-7733 or 13529 S Apopka Vineland Road; (407) 239-8300 or www.hawaiianrumbleorlando.com. Cost: Greens fees are $10 for adults and $8 for kids, but the best deal is the $4 a head special before 4 p.m. You'll need a coupon, but coupon books can be found virtually everywhere.

Skyventure indoor skydiving

I'm flying. And now I'm soaring. And, abruptly, I'm plummeting like a rock. And then I'm sort of flying again and James Welsh, above, my skydiving instructor and recent University of South Florida graduate, is using the hand signal he showed us earlier that means "relax."

I'm trying to relax, really I am. But I'm falling and flying and flopping around in the 120-mph breeze trying to do as well as the 4-year-old kid who did so well in the flight tunnel just before me.

Of course, the kid had help from Welsh, who grabbed onto her cute pink jumpsuit and whirled around through the artificial windblown sky. Welsh is all Peter Pan (this is his last day at Skyventure after six years) and the kid is picture-perfect pixie.

Me, I'm a sack of potatoes tumbling through the air. Apparently I have yet to master the "Superman" pose employed by my yoga-loving partner in all things who is cruising through the 120-mph breeze like, well, Superwoman. But am I having fun? You better believe it.

I've always wanted to skydive but thought better of it, what with jumping out of a perfectly good airplane and all. Skyventure is skydiving without the legitimate fear, or mathematical probability, of death. This is skydiving lite, but it's still pretty good fun.

And if you don't want to thrust yourself into the wind-driven vortex, spectators are given a seat in an observation area to view all the fun they're missing.

Adventure accessories provided: helmet, jumpsuit, goggles, instructions on how to stay alive, photo of yourself flying (prices vary).

6805 Visitor's Circle; (407) 903-1150, www.skyventureorlando.com. Cost: About $45, with various photo and video packages additional.

Wonderworks

I'm going upside down, no really I am. The room is spinning and I am going right over the side of the gangway railing I'm trying desperately to hold onto in the "inversion tunnel. This is the very first scientific "wonder" at Wonderworks, if you don't count the turnstile at the ticket window, which I handled easily.

But this thing, this inversion tunnel, is flat out kicking my butt. I back out of it staggering and dizzy. Charlotte assures me that everything is going to be all right. I close my eyes, latch onto the back of her shirt and allow her to lead me to safety.

Wonderworks is more than just kid stuff.

The inversion tunnel (an optical illusion created by a swirling tube of lights) is one of what seems like thousands of fun, hands-on science exhibits where visitors get to interact with the weird and cool aspects of the natural world.

You sit at the controls of a flight simulator and try to land the Discovery space shuttle. You design your own roller coaster and then tumble through the video-inspired ride while sealed inside another topsy-turvy simulator.

Around every turn there's another chance to dance, jump, lie on a bed of nails, strike out a major-league hitter, play a tune on a giant piano (remember the scene in Big), make robots do your bidding, step inside the eye of a hurricane . . . It just goes on and on.

9067 International Drive; (407) 351-8800, www.wonderworksonline.com. Cost: $20 for adults, $15 for kids 4-12, with discount coupons widely available.

Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament

I am royalty. I'm noshing at the royal court and watching knights knock each other off horses.

Of all the offbeat adventures we mapped out for our wacky weekend, dinner at the Medieval Times joust-o-rama had the potential for being the zaniest.

I mean, think about it. A grand "castle" constructed out of Florida's best concrete block. Knights galloping around on horses in an arena no bigger than a hockey rink. Fair maidens in distress. A king who bellows in his best fake English accent that "the bars will remain open!"

Right there you're thinking you'll need a stiff drink to survive the evening. Turns out we couldn't have been more wrong and we couldn't have had more fun.

All it takes is a momentary suspension of disbelief. Once you buy into the fact that you and more than 1,000 other guests are in fact dining with royalty in the great hall watching brave knights do battle, it all starts to make perfect sense.

On any given night you'll find scores of high school kids on a mass field trip; little tykes and little old ladies whooping it up with equal fervor (everyone just hates the green knight; if you go, you'll know why); dads downing humongous margaritas in novelty glasses; moms getting hip to the idea of polishing off a chicken dinner without benefit of cutlery (eating with your hands is both historically correct and quite a bit of fun.)

In addition to the jousting, which is expert, there's a story line to the show that naturally involves good and evil. There's a bit of balletic battling with long, sharp objects. But there's also a lot of beautiful interludes, such as the part where the Andalusian horses show off their steps or the falconer who sends his bird soaring through the arena in its quest for prey.

And then there are the knights themselves, the true stars of the show. The arena is divided into six cheering sections for each of the six knights.

And it doesn't hurt one bit that, in addition to being great horsemen, most of the knights are also GQ-caliber studs.

Adventure accessories provided: paper crown, red carnation for the ladies, banners and light sabers for the kids (additional cost), lots of moist towelettes for after dinner.

4510 W Irlo Bronso Memorial Highway, Kissimmee; (407) 396-1518, www.medievaltimes.com. Cost: $59 for adults, $38 for kids 3-12, discounts for advance or online ticket purchases.

Freelance writer Logan D. Mabe is a former Times staff writer.

. ON THE WEB

More weird Orlando

Another offbeat attraction is the Terror in Orlando haunted mansion on International Drive. For more information, go to www.terrorinorlando.com. For a schedule of Orlando events and more places to visit outside of the theme parks, go to www.orlandoinfo.com.

There's more to Orlando than theme parks 03/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:00am]

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