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Orlando is not just about Disney


     Orlando is world renowned for the Disney theme parks.  There is plenty to do and see at these interesting places, and adults can have as much fun, if not more so, as kids in enjoying a variety of activities.  In February of 2012, Chan Ming Sang and I, together with our respective spouses, Helena and Margot, vacationed in the Orlando area.  We spent a full day each at EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow), Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studio.   If you like this kind of entertainment, Orlando also offers Sea World, Discovery Cove, Universal Studio, and a number of water parks.  After 3 days of Disney, we decided to head out of Orlando to catch some other sights.  These short excursions are the ones I am writing about.  To me, they are the little gems which most tourists tend to forget when they travel to Central Florida.

     On the northeast corner of Orlando lies the suburb of Winter Park.  During the late 1800's, the wealthy people up north began to move into this area to escape the cold months.  They built beautiful homes around 3 lakes.  By that time, these lakes were already connected by narrow channels which were excavated previously by loggers in order to use the network of waterways to transport logs to a central hub.  Nowadays, you can take a scenic boat ride on the lakes and gawk at all the opulent waterfront mansions.  Another thing not to be missed in town is the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum, which houses the largest collection in the world of stained glass windows by Louis Comfort Tiffiny.  A highlight is the Byzantine chapel Tiffiny designed for the 1893 World Columbia Exposition in Chicago.  This masterpiece includes a mosaic altar, multiple columns, a baptistry, and a cross-shaped chandelier.   The most fascinating part of the story is that the entire chapel alcove was painstakingly and meticulously salvaged from Laurelton Hall, Tiffiny's country estate on Long Island, which burned in a fire in 1957. 

     A short distance to the south of Orlando is a small town called Lake Wales.  This is the place where the Bok Bell Tower is situated on a hillock.  Edward Bok, a Dutch immigrant, built this marble and coquina monument as a gesture of gratitude to his adopted country.  In constructing the tower, Bok assembled a team of top-notch professionals in landscape design, architecture, bell manufacturing, and tileworks.  President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the tower, on behalf of Bok, to the American public soon after it was completed in 1927.  The tower, nicknamed the American Taj Mahal, sits in the midst of a 250-acre garden.   Everything is in perfect harmony.    Best of all, live concerts are given regularly from the 60-bell carillon.  

     Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral is about a 1-hour drive from Orlando.  By coincidence, this year is the 50th anniversary of John Glenn's orbit around the earth.  Our visit was most timely.  One section of this sprawling campus displays the rockets of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.  The Saturn V rocket, which was used to carry astronauts to the moon, is housed in a separate building.  This is the biggest rocket I have ever seen; it measures 110 meters in length.  We took a tour of the Vehicle Assembly Building - the place where the space shuttle is bolted to the rocket before the whole humongous contraption is hauled to the launch pad.  During the tour, we actually saw Atlantis being prepared for permanent exhibition at a future date.  The same tour also took us to launch pads 39A and 39B.  These are the complexes where rockets from the Apollo and Space Shuttle missions were launched.  Inside the Center, we saw two IMAX movies, one about the International Space Station, and the other about the repair of the Hubble telescope in orbit.  We could have taken a seat in a simulator which reproduces the experience at the moment of blast-off while you are jammed in a module mounted at the tip of a rocket.   We passed up the opportunity when we read the warning of extreme vibration and noise level.  I guess we are too old for this kind of adventure. 

     St. Augustine, as the oldest, continuously occupied European settlement in the United States, is about a 2-hour drive from Orlando.  Juan Ponce de Leon, in search of the Fountain of Youth, first landed at this location in 1513.  That site was subsequently seized by the French.  The Spanish explorer, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, destroyed the French colony in 1565 to establish the present day St. Augustine.  It is no surprise that the city has a strong Spanish heritage.  For the history buffs, Spain sold Florida to the United States in 1819.  We took a self-guided city tour which led us to the Castillo de San Marcos (the oldest masonry fort in the US), Government House, the Spanish Military Hospital, the Cathedral Basilica, the oldest school house, the market place and remnants of the city wall, among other historical landmarks of the Spanish era.   At the fort, we happened to come across a ranger talk (the facility is run by the National Park Service) and he gave us a brief history of the battles of the city between the British and the Spaniards. 

     If you are bringing your grandchildren to Orlando to the Disney theme parks, I encourage you to spend a little time visiting the other places that I mention above.

                                                                                                                                                              --- By Clement Ip

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