Friday, November 21, 2008

Orlando and Daytona Beach

On Halloween, we left Miami after our cruise and headed up the Atlantic Coast of Florida. It was a gray day, with rain threatening, so we didn’t embark on any major outdoor activities, but we did stop in Boca Raton at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, which turned out to be surprisingly cool. It’s a 20-acre section of a nature park that’s reserved for education and research. First we played a game of matching bird photos to their names in the nature center. We did remarkably well after our weeks in Florida. Then we walked along the nature trail through the tropical hardwood hammock, which was habitat that we’d seen many times before during our Florida travels. Next we headed to the research area where a gender study was being performed on sea turtles. There’s apparently no easy way to tell whether a sea turtle is a boy or a girl, so the study was testing a new technique.

Now it was time for the afternoon fish feeding, which turned out to be the highlight of the whole day. Outside the nature center was a set of large cylindrical tanks holding a variety of sea life. We got to see a pair of loggerhead turtles, Milton and FeeBee, which were soon to be released back into the wild, where they would roam the world, literally – apparently, sea turtles can range over thousands of miles during lives that may last 80 years. As it turns out, they were released within the week, and their tracking devices showed that they swam six miles in their first two days of freedom.

Next we saw a green sea turtle named Wiggie that was extremely lazy – the feeder had to poke it to wake him up, and even then, it would only eat food placed right in front of its face. It had been captured in 1971 and lived most of its 60- or 70-year life in captivity, so we figured it was entitled to be lazy. There were many other interesting sea creatures in the tanks, including several varieties of lobsters, but the turtles were definitely the highlight. The only disappointment was that they didn’t have any leatherbacks on hand – leatherbacks have been found weighing up to a ton! They’re the largest reptiles outside of some crocodilians.

After the fantastic nature center, we continued up the Atlantic to West Palm Beach, where we admired the multimillion-dollar homes and the gorgeous windswept beach. Then we drove on to Kissimmee, where we would spend two nights.

Our plan was to go to one of the Disney water parks, but a check of the weather forecast made clear that it was too cold for an enjoyable trip to the water park. So we played a thrilling game of mini golf whose outcome was decided on the final hole and went to downtown Orlando to check out Fall Fiesta, a weekend art festival at Lake Eola Park. The lake was quite pretty.

IMG_0782 by PunIntented
After that, we went to the discount theater to see Wall-E, which we found enjoyable but not quite as good as some of the earlier Pixar movies. We had to admit that the filmmakers had done a great job with the difficult task of making a compelling character out of a robot. That night, we went to Giordano’s for dinner. Giordano’s is a chain Chicago deep-dish pizzeria, and Brian’s favorite. We’ve never seen them outside the Chicago area except in Orlando, where there are several. We had a wonderful pizza of cheesy decadence before heading back to our hotel.

The next day we checked out one of several flea markets in Kissimmee. It was an impressive market – hundreds and hundreds of booths, all selling random crap like knock-off sunglasses, three-for-ten-dollars T-shirts, and cheap batteries. We paid a dollar for a sunglasses clip for our car that seems like it’s going to break any day.

After that, we drove to Daytona Beach, where we would stay in an oceanfront room for three nights! We’d found a great deal online, so a room that might be several hundred dollars during one of Daytona’s big tourist times (spring break, biker weeks, or race weeks) was less than $30 a night. Along the way, we stopped at the Southeast Museum of Photography, a small photography museum. It had several exhibits, including one really cool set of behind-the-scenes photos of American presidential life. The photographer was part of the White House press corps, but instead of just taking standard newspaper photos of presidents, advisors, etc., he photographed the entire scene – Secret Service guys, other members of the press – and in doing so, did a great job of capturing the scene.

After spending a long time enjoying the photos, we finally headed to our hotel, which was everything we hoped for and more. The exterior was a gaudy lime-green color, but the room itself was very nicely decorated and cheerful, and the view was absolutely fabulous. We didn’t wind up doing a whole lot in Daytona. The resort had DVD players available to borrow, so we got one and rented a bunch of movies from the nearby Redbox -- Sex and the City, The Bucket List, The Visitor, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The resort also offered water aerobics at the pool of their sister property next door, so we did that a couple of times. The pool was beautiful – it was in a tropically landscaped atrium and had a water temperature somewhere above 90 degrees! We went running on the beach each day, too, which was fun. Daytona was like a ghost town in the off-season, so the beach was lovely. We loved the sound of the ocean so much that when we were in our room, we mostly kept the sliding door to our balcony open so that we could hear the crashing waves.

After three nights in Daytona we hadn’t had enough, so we found a web deal for two more nights. We checked out the Angell & Phelps Chocolate Factory, which offered a free tour. They don’t actually make the chocolate there, but rather make all sorts of confections using chocolate from elsewhere. We were amazed at how labor-intensive the process was – for instance, we watched a guy open a huge bag of potato chips and then dip each potato chip, one by one, in chocolate. What a crummy job! They gave us free samples at the end, though, which were fantastic – then we were grateful for all the employees’ hard work.

We also checked out the downtown pier area, which was a bit disappointing. It was pretty small and, not surprisingly, very quiet. It would probably be an entirely different scene during spring break. But we mostly hung out around the resort. We’d moved to a different room due to some noisy construction work that was going on in a nearby room. Our new room wasn’t officially oceanfront – instead, it had an ocean view – but it also had a full kitchen, so Sarah enjoyed being able to cook real meals without having to use our camp stove. The view was still pretty good too…

IMG_6916 by PunIntented
After five nights, we finally decided we’d had enough and headed up to our next stop, St. Augustine.

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