Travel Series: Destination – Orlando, Florida

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DestinationOrlando, Florida

It was getting a bit rainy and chilly here in Nebraska, so we decided to take a little trip to the sunshine state: Orlando, Florida. Plus, we had the wonderful opportunity to bring Maria, a foreign exchange student from Italy, along with us. We felt like it was important to show her “the happiest place on earth” during her time here in the United States.

As a popular travel destination, Orlando has a lot to offer. There is Disney World, of course, (and we definitely did Disney!) but there are some fun things to do outside of the parks as well.

ORLANDO TREE TREK ADVENTURE PARK  | (407) 390-9999 | www.orlandotreetrek.com

Our adventure began at Orlando Tree Trek Adventure Park, Orlando’s zip lines and ropes course. We were really excited to give this activity a try! We figured that the only thing better than seeing Tarzan at Disney would be embracing our own inner Tarzan, swinging through and climbing up trees at Orlando Tree Trek.

Orlando Tree Trek Adventure Park is a progressively challenging aerial obstacle course through a natural pine forest in Kissimmee (just 2 exits from Disney!). Each course is a little more challenging than the last. There are four courses with a total of 97 challenges, with a separate two-part kid’s course featuring 21 challenges of its own.

From the second we arrived, every staff member at Orlando Tree Trek was helpful and friendly. Nichole greeted our group at the check-in desk and had us fill out waivers, which all climbers are required to complete before enjoying the adventure park. Close-toed shoes are a must as well.

The paperwork was quick and easy, and then we were ready to go! Nichole hooked us up with climbing gloves (you can save $3 if you bring your own) and sent us out to the course. The Tree Trek guides helped us get fitted into our harnesses and took us through a brief training session to make sure we knew how to operate the equipment. The guides were all great—they made us laugh a lot! Two of them actually had the same birthday, which happened to be the same day we were there. We were glad we could be a little part of their birthday celebration!

After we were done with training—literally learning the ropes—we began the first course. It didn’t take long for us to realize that this was going to be quite the work out. Plus, it was really hot, so we were feeling the heat from the course and the sun. It wasn’t your average work out, though. Besides the fact that we were immersed in nature, surrounded by beautiful tall pines, the challenges were thrilling! If crossing high suspended bridges, crawling through swinging logs, leaping into hanging nets, and soaring down exhilarating zip lines sounds like a good time to you, you’ll be very pleased with all Orlando Tree Trek has in store for you.

The great thing about Orlando Tree Trek Adventure Park is that it can be an intense experience for adults, but it can also be a fun, family-friendly outing for kids and their parents. There were a few youngins in our group and they were navigating their way through the course better than we were! We could tell they were having a blast. If parents prefer to cheer their kids on from the ground instead of doing the courses themselves, there are nice walking paths through the trees. We saw a lot of parents following along, taking pictures.

Overall, it was a fun experience! The highlight was definitely the Giant 425’ Zip Line at the end of the course—so thrilling! It was a great activity to kick off our Orlando travel adventures.

THE POLITE PIG AT DISNEY SPRINGS | (407) 938-7444 | politepig.com

After scaling from tree to tree all morning, we worked up quite the appetite. Luckily, we made dinner plans at The Polite Pig in Disney Springs, a popular outdoor shopping, dining, and entertainment district at the Walt Disney World Resort. The Polite Pig is locally-owned by culinary legends James, Julie, and Brian Petrakis, Disney Springs’ only local chef presence. It’s fun to dine at a restaurant that is unique to the area you’re in!

The Polite Pig has a very laid-back, farmhouse atmosphere. It’s designed to feel like a fast food joint; guests order up at the counter, seat themselves, and their food is then delivered to their table. However, the quality of food screams fine dining with a menu that is inspired by the best seasonal food that Florida has to offer.

We started off with a Hop Salt Pretzel to share. It came with a beer cheese fondue and an IPA mustard, both of which are made in-house, like all their sauces. We heard that their pulled-pork sandwich, the Southern Pig, is a fan favorite, so we gave it a try. It did not disappoint. Other highlights on the menu included every single thing listed under the ‘From The Smoker’ section. From coffee-rubbed prime brisket and baby back ribs, to cedar plank salmon with maple-Dijon glaze—let’s just say, The Polite Pig does not mess around when it comes to serving delicious meats. Guests also have the option to order the Butcher Board, which includes a hearty array of their signature meats. This is a great option for groups and families.

We were able to taste most of the market sides while we were at The Polite Pig. They truly all sounded too good not to try. We wanted to write home about their BBQ cauliflower and crispy Brussels sprout—WOW! So good. The tomato and watermelon salad was a breath of fresh air, as well. After spending a day in the Florida heat, it made for one refreshing side dish. Speaking of refreshments, we recommend washing down your food with either their Sweet Tea Old-Fashioned or homemade vodka lemonade; both delicious cocktail choices.

Our group really appreciated the friendly service and open-air floor plan at The Polite Pig, which created an easy flow between the ordering counter, dining area, and bourbon bar. That’s right, there is a bourbon bar folks. It can be accessed from outside and inside the restaurant, and it boasts over 60 selections of bourbon, plus various Florida craft beers and wine. Their Polite Pig Flight features year-round favorites, include Lone Palm Golden Ale, Red Drum Amber Ale, Five Points IPA, Working Man Porter, as well as a rotating selection of limited editions from Cask & Larder Brewery. You’ll get a kick out of their pig-shaped flight sampler tray, complete with a top hat and spectacles! A very nice touch. Well done, Polite Pig, we see what you did there.

We were able to meet the manager of The Polite Pig, Nicolette. She was very welcoming to our group. (Bonus points—she’s from Nebraska!) We enjoyed chatting with her and learning more about The Polite Pig’s history and current happenings. The restaurant has really gained a local following, in addition to the recognition they see from travelers. A niche market they appeal to is, in fact, brand-loyal bourbon drinkers. Nicolette showed us two bourbon selections that are actually exclusive to The Polite Pig, aged in their very own private barrels—the Whistlepig 10-Year Rye and the Elijah Craig Bourbon. Another name that carries a lot of weight amongst bourbon drinkers is Pappy Van Winkle. Once a year, The Polite Pig gets in a bottle of the 10, 12, and 23-year reserve. We’ll let the bourbon enthusiast in your life tell you how much a 2 oz pour from one of these bottles is worth.

If you’re looking for a place to “pig out” in Disney Springs, we definitely recommend The Polite Pig—and say hi to Nicolette if you can! She loves meeting Nebraskans who visit the restaurant. If you’re reppin’ Husker gear, chances are she will come say hello to you.

DISNEY IN A DAY

Whether it’s your first time at Disney World or your hundredth time, you’ll find something around every corner that will make your eyes open a little wider and your jaw drop a little lower. Disney has four main theme parks: Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom, and Epcot. With the limited time we had, we were only able to explore three of the parks during our trip (sorry, Epcot! We’ll be back!).

Any veteran Disney-goer will tell you that the best way to “do Disney” is to spend one day or more in each park. This way, you can really take it all in. In our case, we had to do a little rushing as we only had one day to fit in as much magic as we could. We know our readers will appreciate this approach to Disney because, let’s face it, the majority of us can’t afford to take a bunch of days off from work to fly to Orlando, see and do everything there is to see and do, and then fly back to Nebraska. It’s a tall, expensive order. That being said, don’t feel discouraged if you’re only able to spend a few days in the parks. You can still experience a lot, but it does require some strategic planning. That’s why we’re here to highlight the main attractions that you’ll want to add to your agenda, especially if it’s your first time in Disney.

DISNEY’S ANIMAL KINGDOM THEME PARK | disneyworld.disney.go.com/destinations/animal-kingdom

Photo: Courtesy Disney

We started our Disney World experience at Animal Kingdom Theme Park. After arriving, we made our way to the middle of the park where the majestic Tree of Life Awakenings makes its lofty, 145-foot presence known. Underneath the tree is a theatre where It’s Tough to be a Bug! can be viewed. This eight-minute 3D show will give you a new appreciation for bugs, and it will definitely wake you up for the day! The next couple must-see attractions we visited were Expedition Everest where we rode a fast train through the Himalayan mountains and DINOSAUR, which took us on a scary, prehistoric tour aboard a rip-roaring time rover to save a dinosaur from extinction.

The most mind-blowing part of Animal Kingdom was definitely Pandora – The World of Avatar, the newest edition to the park. Expect to hike amid floating mountains, glowing fauna and flora, a native drum circle, and many other wonders. The first ride we went on was Avatar Flight of Passage, which was INSANE! This virtual reality experience was unlike anything we had ever done before. It really felt like we were flying on the back of a banshee, through the beauty and grandeur of Pandora’s lavish moonscape. We could feel the wind and waves as we soared over the sea, and we could smell nature’s fresh scent as we dove deep into the wooded dwellings of the Na’vi. It was spectacular—well worth waiting in line for.

Our next Pandora escapade, and the final stop for our group in Animal Kingdom, was the Na’vi River Journey. Another attraction with a long line, which is to be expected with all the hype around these new park features, but also worth the wait. This attraction took us on a peaceful river raft ride, deep into a bioluminescent rainforest. If we didn’t know any better, we would have thought we had floated right into a euphoric Pandora night. We were amazed by the advanced, almost futuristic, visual effects that could be seen from start to finish.

DISNEY’S HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS | disneyworld.disney.go.com/destinations/hollywood-studios

Photo: Courtesy Disney

Disney has a bus systems that provides free transportation to and from parks and resorts, so that is what we used to get from Animal Kingdom to Hollywood Studios, the next themed park on our agenda. While here, you have to hit up the classics—Rock ‘n’ Roll Roller Coaster and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. These are good ones to reserve Hopper Passes for ahead of time. Our group also took in a short musical play of Beauty and the Beast, performed live on stage at the outdoor Theater of the Stars. Aside from being swept away by some of the beloved vocal talents from the hit film, it felt pretty great to just sit down and take in this heartwarming production. Be sure to check the Times Guide at Disney’s Hollywood Studios for the show schedule when you enter the park so you can plan accordingly!

Photo: Courtesy Disney

Before we bid adieu to Hollywood Studios, we of course had to check out the new Toy Story Land. This recent edition to the park allows you to “become the size of a toy” longside Woody, Buzz Lightyear, Jessie and the rest of your Toy Story pals. We were surrounded by giant building blocks and classic board games, and it was fun watching people zip around Toy Story Land in the Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster. Other attractions at Toy Story Land include Toy Story Mania where you ride around and blast moving targets in a midway-style, 4D shooting game (very fun if you like to get a little competitive), and there is also Alien Swirling Saucers which will take you on a spin through space in a toy rocket.

DISNEY’S MAGIC KINGDOM THEME PARK | disneyworld.disney.go.com/destinations/magic-kingdom

After checking two parks off the list, we carried on to the third—Magic Kingdom. Yes, the one with the giant castle that you see in basically every Disney picture. Magic Kingdom really is magical though; there is no denying it. The popular rides at this park include Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Both of these attractions will fill you with excitement and a healthy dose of adrenaline. Splash Mountain features three dips in anticipation for the five-story waterfall drop at the end. We definitely got a little wet. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was fun too; we enjoyed racing through a haunted gold-mining town while aboard a rinky-dink runaway mine train. Another staple attraction is Space Mountain, located in Tomorrowland. This roller coaster blasted us right off into outer space, zooming us through the stars and galaxies.

Photo: Courtesy Disney

The magic definitely peaked during the Once Upon a Time show and the Happily Ever After grand firework finale. The Once Upon a Time production drowns you in nostalgia as scenes from your favorite Disney animated films are projected onto Cinderella’s Castle, complete with a dazzling mix of special effects and moving music, and the Happily Ever After firework showcase that immediately follows the production really does bring it all home. It’s not every day you get to live out a real life fantasy.

We left Orlando with a few blisters on our feet and a couple more Mickey Mouse hats than we came with. It was tough saying goodbye to the warm weather, but we were proud of all we accomplished in such a short time. From climbing trees to skipping through an enchanted world, Orlando sure has a way of bringing out the kid in you.