After graduation, my buddies Tim and Eric went off to finance jobs in Chicago and New York City—I stayed in Central Florida to pursue my dream career as a travel writer. I’ve explored the United States and the world, but I’ve found that some of the most surprising attractions were in my own backyard all along. When we were in college, Tim, Eric and I did all the things college kids did—the theme parks, the bars, the outdoors, etc.
A few weeks ago, Tim called and said that he and Eric were flying to Orlando for a conference and that they wanted to spend their one free afternoon and evening with me. I couldn’t wait to show them the city’s quirky attractions and hidden gems I’d discovered since our undergrad days.
Our first stop was Eli’s Orange World, an “old-Florida” type fruit and souvenir shop, where I planned for us to stock up on snacks and supplies. We’d passed by a couple times in college but had never gone in, which is unfortunate. Eli’s Orange World is shaped like a gigantic orange, and is chock-full of Florida memorabilia, such as shark tooth jewelry, Florida conch shells, Mickey Mouse gear, citrus sipper straws and orange blossom perfumes. We also found classic Florida staples, including orange blossom honey, pecan log rolls and the freshest Florida juice oranges—we were in Eli’s Orange World, after all.
“I remember eating these during my family’s Florida vacations when I was a kid,” said Eric as he pulled a pecan log roll off the shelf. We filled our cooler with fresh-squeezed juice, lemonade and tangerines and pulled back onto U.S. Route 192 heading east.
“Nothing like a good sugar rush to get you ready for paddling down the creek,” I said after taking a bite of Eric’s pecan log roll as we pulled onto the dirt road leading to the tucked-away Paddling Center at Shingle Creek. Tim and Eric opened their car doors and looked up, gazing in awe at the unusually lush and ancient cypress floodplain along the banks of Shingle Creek, which flows south to feed the Florida Everglades.
We picked up our equipment. Our group had trouble deciding between canoes, kayaks or paddleboards, so we got one of each. I’d be balancing on a stand-up paddleboard, Tim and Eric flanking me on my left and right.
“DUDE,” Eric shouted from my side, “look at all those alligators!” As we drifted by close to a dozen rather large reptiles sunning along the shores of the creek, Tim shot a video on his phone, narrating in an Australian accent, “The wild Florida dinosaur ponders his next meal. Who will it be?”
“Everyone be quiet,” Eric commanded. “You’re ruining my tranquility.”
We paddled below snowy egrets in flight, beside gators slinking beneath the placid surface and among turtles basking on logs before paddling back upstream. Tim and Eric were beaming.
“I can’t believe we missed this—I mean, what else were we doing for four years?” Tim said.
“Homework, Tim.” Eric said. “Homework.”
As we returned the canoe, kayak and paddleboard, our growling stomachs pointed us toward Kissimmee’s next quirk.
Since it was the first Friday of the month, I insisted we couldn’t miss the downtown Kissimmee Food Truck Bazaar. It was like a street party when we got to Dakin Avenue, where two-dozen local food trucks served up delicious gourmet and ethnic foods, barbecue and desserts. We grabbed a table and gorged, sharing bites of this and that between mmmmms.
“Wow, I’m completely stuffed,” Eric said, plate before him empty as he held his middle. “A lot better than the microwaved noodles I found myself eating so often here all those years ago.”
To work off our heavy meal, I suggested we take a stroll to Lakefront Park where we found the Kissimmee Sculpture Experience. Tim and Eric gawked at the avant-garde and abstract works on display along scenic Lake Toho—then we came upon the Monument of States, something that even I had not known about.
The placard read that this original roadside attraction was dedicated in 1943 and rises 40 feet high into the air. It consists of stones collected from all 50 states, donated by visitors, governors, a prime minister and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“I’ve never seen anything so peculiar,” Eric said as he watched people posing for pictures in front of the pyramid.
“Come on, let’s find New York and Illinois,” replied Tim.
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For our final experience of the day, I thought we could do something particularly memorable—haunting, even. The Kissimmee Ghost Tour began in Kissimmee’s historic downtown district, where we met our spooky tour guides. All three of us felt the hairs on the back of our necks stand up as we listened to mysterious tales of murder and mayhem that took place in the alleys and shadows of this sleepy town. “All that time in History 101 and not once was this part of Kissimmee’s past mentioned,” Eric whispered.
“Don’t say things all quietly like that,” Tim hissed. “You’re freaking me out.” When the tour was over, I thought it would be nice to experience a different kind of chill—of the icy cold variety.
When we reentered the world of the living, we headed to 3 Sisters Speakeasy, a formerly secret bar run by sisters Ruth, Dodie and Fannie during the prohibition. The scene’s a little different now than it was when Ruth, Dodie and Fannie were around—for one thing, we didn’t have to knock and say a special password. For another, a live band was rocking a cover of “Take On Me” by A-ha when we stepped in. We actually used to love coming here before Tim and Eric moved—although we’d spent the whole day exploring new treasures, some things never change.
We reminisced over beers and talked about how great it was to catch up and reflect. It was with great reluctance when we closed the bill.
“I can’t believe we have to go back home tomorrow,” Tim remarked.
We were all laughing as we arrived at their hotel. “Can’t wait to see what off-the-beaten-path place you take us next time we’re in town,” Eric said as we said our goodbyes.
“Though maybe we could avoid the gators,” Tim laughed, giving me a bear hug.
“I’ll see what I discover next and I’ll let you know!” I said with a wave.