Getaway: The other Orlando: Extreme adventures
I had a little trepidation when the small airplane pulled us - my instructor and me - way above the ground. But then I found soaring like a bird was the greatest thrill and wondered why I had never tried hang gliding before.
The rides at Disney World and Universal Studios aren't the only places to feel a rush of adrenaline in Orlando. The city and its surrounds offer a wealth of experiences for those who like their adventures extreme, from flying in the air to swimming with sharks.
Flying and Falling
At Wallaby Ranch in Davenport, a short drive from Greater Orlando, try a first-class hang gliding experience in a secluded field surrounded by woodlands. A tandem flight with an instructor costs $120. After learning the basics, you are comfortably secured, lying face down in a harness like a sleeping bag, attached to a large kite-like tandem glider with your instructor next to you.
A small airplane tugs you up into the air, and releases you at 2,000 feet. Then you leisurely glide, maneuver and enjoy the scenery. For details call 800-WALLABY or visit www.wallaby.com.
For more adrenalin pumping, SkyVenture Orlando will give you all the excitement of skydiving without having to jump out of an airplane. It's fast, fun, indoors and $44 will buy you an hour's class, with two-minute flight rotations equal to two real skydives per person. It's so realistic that professional skydivers come to fine-tune their free-fall techniques.
Your instructor will first show you basic body movements. After you put on your one-piece flight suit, goggles and earplugs, you are taught to fall into a 125 mph wind tunnel where you are held up in midair and can manipulate your movements with a mere flick of your wrist. If you are not relaxed, you will tend to bounce about, but once you get the hang of it, your instructor might twirl you up and around the giant SkyVenture tower in a breathtaking leap and fall. Your two minutes here will certainly feel much longer and more intense. For details call 800-SKY-FUN-1 or check out www.skyventureorlando.com.
Sharks are fascinating predators with intimidating weapons, namely, their teeth. You can see just how many up close if you decide to brave the Sharks Deep Dive. SeaWorld Orlando's most daring animal encounter program at $150 per person is certainly a lifetime experience for the thrill-seeker.
You get basic instruction, including common-sense suggestions like "Don't stick your hand out." The hardest part is getting into a tiny wet suit, putting on a heavy underwater helmet and stepping into the cold seawater. But once you are acclimated, the thrill begins with a giant step into a shark-proof cage that is plunged into a 125-foot-long underwater habitat – like a giant aquarium open on top - teeming with more than 50 sharks, including sand tigers, sand bars, black tips, sawfish and hundreds of tropical fish. If you are lucky, some of the more curious ones will swim by, inches away from your face.
While you ogle the sharks, diners in the adjacent Sharks Underwater Grill restaurant will be ogling you through the glass walls. For reservations, call 800-327-2424 or visit www.SeaWorldOrlando.com.
For a back-to-basics nature experience, the eco-tour at Grande Lakes Orlando resort offers a glimpse into the area's wildlife. The relaxing two-hour canoe or kayak trip takes you up Shingle Creek, which leads to the Everglades. You may be surprised to find such unspoiled wilderness so close to civilization. Your guide will narrate the creek's history and point out native birds, fish and wildlife and you will marvel at the call of passing ospreys, bald eagles or the endangered wood stork. Glide under an unused bridge to hear the steady chirping of bats and watch out for the stray badger on shore. If you are lucky, you might even spot a crocodile in the water or glimpse a wayward buck in the woods. It is $80 per adult and $50 per child for guests at Grande Lakes. For details call 800-576-5750 or visit www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/mcojw-jw-marriott-orlando-grande-lakes.
Like speed? Forget roller coasters and book yourself the real NASCAR experience at Disney World's Speedway, one of many Richard Petty Driving Experience locations. If you are bold enough and can drive stick-shift, you can attend a class, take the wheel and zoom around the race track in a V8 NASCAR race car for $339-$449. Prefer to ride shotgun? For about $110, you can enjoy three hair-raising laps on the speedway in a two-seat car driven by a professional, burning rubber at 160 miles per hour. You might be a little shaky as you climb out of the window (yes, that's the only way!) but it will be another unique experience to cherish. Call 800-BE-PETTY or go to www.1800bepetty.com.
Try these other Orlando-area adventures, sure to thrill.
Zero G provides a chance to experience weightlessness via a parabolic flight (in a specially modified aircraft) from the Kennedy Space Center, about 40 minutes from Orlando, for $4,150. 800-937-6480, www.gozerog.com.
Get up in the air on a hot air balloon ride, $175 per adult. 407-894-5040, www.orangeblossomballoons.com.
Try skydiving and hang gliding at what is billed as the world's tallest SkyCoaster, $40. 407-397-2509, www.skycoaster.cc.
Have a simulated space experience without leaving your seat at Mission SPACE at Epcot Center, Disney World (included with admission), www.disneyworld.disney.go.com.
Check out The Incredible Hulk and Dueling Dragons, Universal Studios' newest, coolest roller coaster rides (included with admission). 407-363-8000, www.universalorlando.com.
Interact with Beluga whales or be a marine mammal keeper for a day at SeaWorld - $179 and $399. 800-327-2424, www.SeaWorldOrlando.com.
Feed alligators or watch trained professionals wrestle them or be trainer for a day at Gatorland, $10 and $125. 800-393-JAWS, www.gatorland.com.
Swim with dolphins at Discovery Cove, $270. 877- 557-7404, www.discoverycove.com.
If You Go
Staying there: Grande Lakes is home to both a Ritz-Carlton and a JW Marriott hotel. Spread over 500 acres, the resort is unique to central Florida for both its natural setting and conservation efforts - it has even been recognized by the Audubon Society. Guests will find luxurious amenities from an 18-hole Greg Norman Signature golf course to a world-class Ritz-Carlton spa. Five swimming pools including a lazy, manmade river for tubing.
The majestic, 26-story JW Marriott is built Spanish-style with 1,000 rooms, while the 14-story Ritz-Carlton is an opulent oasis with 564 rooms.
The resort truly offers something for everyone. Nature lovers can partake in eco-tours (see above) and fish with the Orvis Fly Fishing School. Sports enthusiasts have access to the golf course, three lighted tennis courts, a bocce ball court, a fitness center and jogging trails.
Foodies can sample anything from sushi to steak at 11 dining venues, including renowned Chef Melissa Kelly's restaurant Primo, featuring Italian cuisine using the day's freshest herbs and vegetables from its own garden.
Spa enthusiasts can try treatments from shiatsu to a steaming hot stone massage.
Both hotels offer all-day children's recreation programs including pool activities and carriage rides, afternoon tea and even a course in etiquette.
Overnight package with breakfast, from $189 per night at the JW Marriott, from $239 at the Ritz-Carlton.
For details, call 800-707-9066 or visit www.grandelakes.com.