"I can't wait to get up there," Elizabeth says, clambering into the sturdy wicker gondola. "It's going to be a beautiful sunrise!"
We call ourselves the Dixie Divers—Rachel, Jake, Elizabeth and me—friends since college. By January every year we’re packed and ready for our annual winter Dive into Dixie for a warm weather recharge.
For us it’s all about Kissimmee, Florida. Daytime winter highs approaching 80, precipitation at half of summer levels, tons of subtropical scenery and outdoor fun—it all adds up to much needed warmth and enjoyment. Besides, we enjoy posting social media updates for our snowbound friends up north.
Elizabeth rolls us out of bed before dawn on our first day in a comfortable vacation rental in Kissimmee’s luxury community of Reunion Resort. The roomy four-bedroom vacation rental, complete with resort view and a private pool, quickly comes to life. I do the bacon and eggs, Rachel is in charge of coffee, and Jake—not a morning person—is encouraged to sit quietly on the sofa watching Al Roker’s Today show snow forecast. It’s early, but we are excited about our first activity.
“Looks like four inches and drifting by noon back home,” Jake says. I’m not ashamed to admit that we chuckle.
First light finds us watching the eastern horizon blush red while Captain Jeff and his chase-truck assistant, of Thompson Aire Balloon Rides, blast hot air into a vast, multicolored balloon.
“I can’t wait to get up there,” Elizabeth says, clambering into the sturdy wicker gondola. “It’s going to be a beautiful sunrise!”
Soon we’re silently drifting above the wide-open Florida landscape, the plump shadow of our hot air balloon sweeping across mist-threaded orange groves, marshes and clusters of homes filled with tourists sleeping through some of the best moments of the brand new day.
“Now see, Rachel,” says Jake, “you don’t mind being up high like this. Why won’t you do the zipline?”
We have this discussion every year.
Rachel just laughs.
"Most of our time is spent outside in the delightful Florida sunshine."
Brunch is at Market Street Café, in Celebration, where we dine on fluffy blueberry pancakes as well as guacamole, turkey and bacon omelettes in the warm sun. Later, the guys follow Elizabeth and Rachel from shop to shop in Celebration’s picturesque Town Center shopping district. Jake and I claim comfortable rocking chairs overlooking an azure lake, warm Florida sun on our upturned faces, scent of azaleas drifting by on a gentle southern breeze. We listen to the happy warbling of a resident towhee that knows nothing of winter—lucky bird.
“Think they’ll be done soon?” I ask.
“Hope not,” Jake murmurs, sinking further into his rocking chair.
Wandering Disney Springs in shorts and sandals joyfully reclaimed from packed-away summer duds, we dine on the dock at The Boathouse, watching pleasure boats putt-putt by as we sip wine and crack open delicious lobsters. Another night we revel in swordplay at the theatrical Medieval Times Dinner & Tournament.
Most of our time is spent outside in the delightful Florida sunshine. Rachel and I rent a canoe at The Paddling Center at Shingle Creek and wet our lures in this great example of Florida’s cypress-shaded streams, home to the state’s trophy-sized, long-growing-season bass. Another afternoon passes gently away at newly renovated Kissimmee Lakefront Park, where we play Frisbee and picnic on the shores of broad and beautiful Lake Tohopekaliga, Lake Toho for short.
Later we bravely face the many alligators residing at Gatorland, since 1949 Kissimmee’s prime destination for those who want to visit, learn about, feed, even “wrestle” with these top-of-the-food-chain reptiles. We pass on that wrestling part, but enjoy everything else.
Later we find ourselves skimming across Kissimmee area wetlands aboard a Spirit of the Swamp airboat, which our Coast Guard-approved pilot guides into close encounters with mama gators tending their mud-hump nests, great blue herons, purple gallinules and nesting sand cranes waiting patiently for their eggs to hatch.
“Looks like there’s already been some hatching around here,” our pilot says through our headsets. He points out a baby alligator next to the airboat, a mere six inches long but making purposeful headway, tail strokes leaving lazy S-shaped swirls in the still water.
Elizabeth sighs. "Well, we've got another year of great memories."
"Thanks to Kissimmee," I say.
The end of our winter escape approaches with a daylong visit to Forever Florida, where we give cattle wrangling a try. No casual trail ride, we’re dispatched to actually round up a herd. We manage to stay mounted, but on our own we would be little threat to the placid cattle.
“Good thing the horses and the cows pretty much know the routine!” Elizabeth laughs.
After that it’s time for some zipline fun, something Forever Florida has in abundance with its three offerings, the Rattlesnake Roller Coaster, the Panther Pounce, and the Peregrine Plunge.
“You going to try one, Rachel?” Jake asks, “or stick to the No Chance Nosedive?”
“Very funny,” Rachel says. “But you know, I think maybe this is the year.”
We stare at her, open-mouthed. Maybe compared to heading back to our snowbound homes, the thought of ziplining through the warm Florida air doesn’t sound so scary.
Moments later we’re 71 feet up on the Peregrine Plunge’s canopied platform looking down twin cables that together form the longest, fastest suspended straightaway in the state. Rachel and Jake strap in and make the leap, sliding away in this head-to-head racing zipline.
Elizabeth and I are next, streaking across the piney landscape at a breathtaking 30 mph, just like the peregrine falcons of the name. I hear a long jubilant howl along with the wind in my ears and realize it’s me! We catch each other’s eye and do a happy air high-five.
What a way to wrap up our midwinter break.
Sadly, wrapping up is much on our minds the next day at the airport, winter coats handy in our carry-on bags.
We’re a glum picture, especially watching arriving visitors just starting their own sunny winter getaways.
Elizabeth sighs. “Well, we’ve got another year of great memories,” she says.
“Sure,” Rachel says. “Spring doesn’t seem so far away now.”
“Maybe we’ll make it after all,” adds Jake.
“Thanks to Kissimmee,” I say.