Too many visitors to Orlando make the mistake of taking in only those stops that require a ticket at the turnstile. But moving beyond the obvious are a wealth of overlooked outings. So step out. Get to know us a little. Man-made attractions have their appeal, but there is in Central Florida so much else to do. A few suggestions:
Yeah, yeah, yeah, Daytona's the racing capital of the world, the Daytona 500 is the best thing ever, NASCAR this and NASCAR that. They think they're so hot. What they don't realize is the best racing in town isn't anywhere near Daytona. It's almost not even anywhere near Orlando.
The most fun you'll have at a race track, unless you're doing stuff you're not supposed to do at a race track, is east of Orlando on Highway 50 in Bithlo at Speed World. Just look for the giant rattlesnake bearing its fangs on the billboard, and you'll know you're right at home.
The track at Speed World may be smaller than the big-shot, PRO-fessional track at Daytona, but the advantages this brings are almost too many to mention. First of all, you naturally get a better view of the action. Plus, the turns come quicker, which means what? That's right. What everyone goes to the race track for: More opportunity for crack-ups.
And aren't the cars at Daytona just a little slick? Wouldn't you rather see something with a little more character? At Speed World's Friday-night races, a lot of the cars have nothing but character. These are cars so beat up, if they crash, you might think it's a suicide pact.
And almost nowhere else can offer you the unparalleled thrill of a school-bus race.
You haven't experienced what some people call The Real Florida until you have been to a school-bus race in Bithlo. It's not just seeing these huge vehicles hunkering around a figure-eight track, broadsiding each other and performing a staggering amount of near misses. It's the crowd. It's just a guess, but for every 10 people there appears to be just as many teeth. And lots of camouflage wear, as though anyone would actually try to find these guys. Then there are the regular families just out to have a great night together -- hot dogs, boiled peanuts, beer -- cheering on their friends and neighbors (almost everyone in the stands knows a driver personally) and breathlessly anticipating what the weird race will be next month. We hear it's boat-trailer races. Wear camouflage so we can see you.
Speed World, 19164 E. Highway 50, Bithlo; (407) 568-5522. Races are scheduled at 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays, 4 p.m. Saturdays, and run year-round with short breaks at Christmas and New Year's. Admission $10, or $12 on the first Saturday of each month for special events; age 11 and under, free.
When the M&Ms people added blue to the time-tested mix of red, yellow, green, orange and brown, they added a certain Willy Wonka Golden Ticket expectation to the act of ripping open a bag: Would yours have the new blue ones inside? If you were one who marveled at the new shellac-like finish like a jeweler examining a sapphire, there is, at FAO Schwarz, an orgy of M&M color that may make you melt like the candy doesn't.
Pink M&Ms. Purple M&Ms. Teal M&Ms. Black, white, gray, harvest gold, forest green, lavender and turquoise M&Ms. There are so many colors of M&Ms that you might feel like you're standing in front of the paint-swatch display at Sears, except that you don't get to eat the paint.
Here the M&Ms are displayed one color per bin, so you can buy just as much of each color as you want. You could get white M&Ms for a wedding, black M&Ms for a funeral. If you're a Gators fan, you could fill a jar of just blue and orange M&Ms for your next game-day party. If you didn't want anyone eating your M&Ms, you could get gray ones and put them in a jar on your gray desk, where they'd camouflage themselves as well as a stick bug. With this much shading, you could do a self-portrait in M&Ms and get it into Ripley's Believe It or Not.
So FAO Schwarz is an elaborate place to go for candy that can be had at 7-Eleven. But those with a designer eye will appreciate having M&Ms to match every outfit, making the world not only a sweeter but also a more colorful place.
FAO Schwarz, 9101 International Drive at Pointe Orlando, Orlando; (407) 352-9900. Hours 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
On a trip to Disney's Animal Kingdom, while on the safari ride that travels through the pretend savannas of Africa, the tram was temporarily delayed under a bridge on which were standing a couple of elephants. It is seldom you get to look up and see a sight like that.
But there is one place where you can replicate the experience of gazing up at a big ass (and we don't mean at the office): The Loaded Hog. You'll recognize the downtown bar by the giant hog, who is loaded, on the wall above the entrance. Walk in and turn around to see the rest of the animal hanging there, kind of like mistletoe, if mistletoe looked like a giant butt.
If you position yourself properly in the bar, you get a splendid view of these gargantuan pink pig cheeks all night long. While the bar has never taken up our earlier suggestion of having the curly tail occasionally spin around, dropping prizes on the patrons below, it's still a sight one feels compelled to force upon out-of-town visitors who want to go out for a beer, and those who don't know any better. It's also one of the few places you are perfectly justified in shouting, "God, look at that ass!"
The Loaded Hog, 11 N. Orange Ave., Orlando; (407) 649-1918.
Go once, go twice
The little old man in the big Stetson hat with a jaw stuffed full of tobacco and a voice like a gravel parking lot seems to be the star of the show. "Whatsa matter, ainchyall got any money?" he asks the crowd. "Go ask my wife, she got a ton of it."
This man, as well as the guys in the mechanics shirts, the trailer outside selling $1 hot dogs and the sing-songing auctioneer would all seem right in place if this were a livestock show. But it's not. It's Berner's Auction in DeLand, and a reminder of the humble beginnings -- or mid-lives -- that some swank things have before they reach antique dealers' showrooms with a 300 percent mark-up.
Twice a week auctions at Berner's offer some great bargains in antique, retro and modern furniture if you're quick enough to bid. Some things go high, some things low at the show that is frequented by dealers, but it's really the show that counts here. The place is filled with old guys who didn't want to let their Elvis haircuts go, even though those sideburns are white as snow these days, and stoic women who eye every item that comes out like it was a tennis ball at Wimbledon. An ashtray full of butts has to be removed before you can sit in a stuffed, upholstered chair (they're all like that), and the cigarette smoke can get so thick you'd think this was a bingo hall. (A sign on a corner desk says, "Do not stand here and talk." )
And all the while the spotters, like the man in the cowboy hat, try sporadically to drum up the excitement level in the crowd, saying things you don't expect to hear out of an antiques dealer, like " 'squisite," and "dat says Meisen right dere." Showing off a beautiful Italian inlaid gaming table designed with layers -- backgammon, then poker, then checkers -- the cowboy says, "And when the preacher leaves you got a full-fledged casino" before removing the checkers layer to reveal a mini roulette wheel embedded in the bottom of the table. The words are quicker, but the voice sounds like you're buying your high-quality antiques from the guy in Sling Blade.
You might not be in the market. But aren't the best things always the things you didn't expect to find?
Berner's Auction, 1500 Jacobs Rd. (at Highway 92), Deland; (904) 738-0406. Auctions take place 6 p.m. Tuesdays and 5 p.m. Wednesdays.
Tango the night away
When there seem to be a million things demanding your attention at the office, it's a nightmare. When there seem to be a million things demanding your attention at Cafe Tu Tu Tango, it's a gift.
In this beautiful restaurant, your eyes are taken up by the decor, done in the warm colors of a Mediterranean villa, and immediately start to follow the trail of art that lines the walls, all of it by local artists who may have created their work amid the tables right in this very restaurant. Then you might find your focus falling to one of these artists, like the Egg Man who, at our last visit, greeted guests while painting tiny images -- from happy frogs to details from the Sistine ceiling -- into hollowed-out eggs. Once on the way to your table, your path might be interrupted by the sexy, snaky belly dancers, or your head turned to locate the chattering castanets of the flamenco floor show.
The menu has to be explained a little. It's all appetizer-sized portions, perfect for sharing. (You can't go wrong with the seared tuna sashimi, the "Tango salad" and the guava-strawberry cheesecake.) Order a couple, and then a few more. You're not going to be able to concentrate on that menu for long while someone walks up and down past the window twirling a fire baton.
Cafe Tu Tu Tango, 8625 International Drive, Orlando; (407) 248-2222. Hours 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday.
Tails of the deep
"I've Heard the Mermaids Singing." You've got to admit that movie had a catchy title, pilfered from a T.S. Eliot poem. And while you can't actually hear the mermaids singing at Weeki Wachee, you can see them lip synch, suck air out of thick black tubing, smile sweetly and do synchronized swimming. The point is that you can actually see them. And that's a pretty amazing feat.
Weeki Wachee is one of the old guard of Florida attractions, built when there was nothing but orange trees and alligators decorating the roadsides where there now stand hotels, condos and two-story T-shirt shops that look as though they were designed by an architect with a vendetta. Slow cruises down the river offer another view of this grand-dame nature park (they dumped the long-running bird shows this year), but the crowning glory is, of course, the mermaids, young girls in makeup and tails.
Visitors descend into the underground mermaid theater, which has a huge picture window offering a view into the clear spring water. Then begins the bevy of aquatic pulchritude. The girls swim out in their metallic silver tails to act out a story for you, sometimes even with the benefit of inflatable sea monsters and strong-jawed heroes. Retromaniacs and cheese lovers can't help but swoon at this heartfelt continuance of a 50-year-old tradition.
If watching an underwater talent show in the middle of nowhere is not your idea of a good time, though -- and to many of us this may signal that you were born without a soul -- there is a water park next door that will provide the more modern thrills you need. Those looking for a little more character and what amounts to a time machine back to the earlier days of Florida, however, know there's a different kind of thrill to looking through the glass at the long, silken, suspended hair and glinting flickering tail of a mermaid performing a water ballet while gulping air through a rubber hose, and smiling a beauty pageant smile the entire time she's doing it. The siren song of Weeki Wachee must have something going for it to have lasted this long -- a staying power that, in Central Florida, is almost as mythical as mermaids themselves.
Weeki Wachee Water Park, located 1 hour and 15 minutes west of Orlando (take Highway 50 west to Highway 19, then south); (352) 596-2062. Hours 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily except Friday, when the water park side stays open until 8 p.m. Admission $14.95 adults, $10.95 ages 3-10, includes both the historic springs attraction and the water park.
Bangs for your bucks
Orlando has a lot of billboards. Even God is now advertising along the I-4 corridor. With so much clutter that Universal's 3-D signs featuring E.T., King Kong and Kermit the Frog no longer merit a sideward glance, you have to devise something pretty alluring to make an impression.
One sign that manages to stand out like a wedding band in a Cheerios box isn't even a billboard. It's a low-key marquee, peering out of the junk pile of the International Drive tourist district. It says, "Shoot a machine gun."
If an offer like that doesn't get your attention, you should begin making funeral arrangements; your blood has slowed almost to a standstill. Gun ranges are, to the non-firearm-oriented, strange things in themselves. To advertise the chance to "shoot a machine gun" the same way Wet 'n Wild advertises its new water slide is just downright peculiar and, in many ways, typically Floridian. Never mind the mild, mild West; we are one of the gun-slingin'-est states in the Union, and also one of the most visited. Why not combine the two? Only instead of shooting the tourists, let the tourists do the shooting.
And given its location, much of the traffic at Shooting Sports of Orlando gun range does come from tourists, those who live in states with strict gun laws or countries where firearms are banned, and indeed on recent Sunday morning the only two customers home on the range were a pair of Englishmen.
Displayed for use with the handguns, single action Old West-style guns and shotguns (not for use until the range completes its expansion) are the machine guns: an MP5 9mm Heckler and Cotch that fires 900 rounds per minute, and a 1928 Thompson serial No. 4 45-calibre -- in other words, a Tommy gun -- that shoots a mere 600 bullets a minute. No one is firing them on this day, myself included (it was Shakespeare who said, "Know thyself -- if thou art clumsy, do not be shooting machine guns" ), but they do get a number of requests.
If you're over 18 you can shoot at Shooting Sports on your own -- in fact, if you're over 10 you can shoot there, but you have to bring along a parent or guardian. The range charges a fee of $12 for the whole day (yes, you can go out and come back, but you can't take the gun with you), plus firearm rental, ammunition, hearing and eye protection, and a fee for targets.
There's only one disturbing thing about having a gun range out in the tourist district: If they get any good at it, they might start firing back at us.
Shooting Sports of Orlando, 6811 Visitor's Circle (off International Drive), Orlando; (407) 363-900. Hours 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
Ladies' night out
Honestly, there aren't a lot of historical sights in Orlando. And while the transient nature of a man-made tourist destination is often the subject of a lot of bitching, no one seems to think anything that has been here for longer than 10 years (outside of Disney) should be left standing.
There are a handful of exceptions, and the richest in character is Wally's Mills Avenue Liquors. Wally's has remained, from the looks of it, unchanged since it opened its doors in 1954. The definition of the neighborhood bar, Wally's has hosted everyone "from the local wino to the mayor," one employee says, confirming that several days a week you can't even get a seat at the bar when it opens -- at 7:30 a.m.
But the most mesmerizing thing about Wally's is the wallpaper. Put up in the late '60s or early '70s, the walls depict amber waves of girl -- naked ladies as far as the eye can see, all melding together in gold and brown tones. Nothing gives you more of the warm, snuggly feeling of drinking in a friend's basement than this mural of monochromatic feminine beauty that calls to mind boogie nights, shag carpeted vans, Barbie Benton and "Afternoon Delight."
Retro is very cool right now, and the coolest retro is the stuff that never went anywhere to come back from. Orlando has very little of that left. Thankfully there's Wally's. If you blend into the wallpaper, you're one foxy lady.
Wally's Mills Avenue Liquors, 1001 N. Mills Ave., Orlando; (407) 896-6975. Hours 7:15 a.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday, 7:15 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday.