Unknown Florida

Kissimmee, Land of Enchantment

Ask anyone outside of Florida to name Orlando’s landmarks and they are likely to reply with a litany of tourist attractions, most of which are not even in the same county. The real gateway to Vacationland Orlando is Kissimmee, once a quiet cattle ranching community in Osceola County, now a quiet cattle ranching community with a neon river called US 192 running through it.

The tourist stretch of 192 heads west from I-4, where you will find the Disney park entrances and their planned community of Stepford, er, Celebration. There’s a lot of cheese stuck between the Motel Sixes and All-You-Can-Eat Buffets. On your right as you travel east are the beckoning ferris wheels and bungee towers of Old Town, an otherwise unremarkable collage of gift shops once graced with Jimmy Velvet’s Elvis Museum. It’s now notable only for its Saturday Night Cruises, when locals roll out their custom cars and parade them down the mall. Old Town also features go-karts and other rides which bristle along the side of US 192. Mazes, mini-golf, factory outlet stores ad nauseum.

Jim Carrey fans will want to check out Medieval Times, where they can dine on tiny portions of food, watch color-coded knights joust, and recite their favorite lines from The Cable Guy. Then cruise down to the abandoned remains of Xanadu, Home of the Future. These stately pleasure domes were balloons sprayed with fibreglas, looking more like the Flintstones than the Jetsons. Sadly, all one can do today is drive past and dream of that future that awaits us …

Famous for Stinker the Monkey in its earlier incarnation as Alligatorland Zoo, JungleLand Zoo is best known as the home of Nala the Escaped Lioness. JungleLand’s gator show is locally notorious for the number of times the gators outwrestle the handlers, as well as a smallish collection of very depressed looking apes.

On the opposite end of the gator farm spectrum is the classic Gatorland, located on the north end of Kissimmee on Highway 17-92-441. One of the oldest gator farms, and home of the Gator Jumparoo Show, where chicken carcasses on a wire lure swampy behemoths to leap to frankly amazing heights out of the water. Swamp walks and a viewing tower give you a view of unspoiled Florida. Recommended. Next door is the Tupperware World Headquarters and Museum, where you can check out a Model Home of Plasticware and a Museum of Storage Containers through history.

After all this you’re gonna need a drink. May I suggest the Big Bamboo Lounge on 192 near Xanadu. A thatch shack in a muddy field to the uninitiated, inside is a wonderland of Tiki culture and Disney insider memorabilia. It’s a popular hang-out in spring training for the Houston Astros, as the framed shots of ex-Stros personnel like Nolan Ryan and Yogi Berra will attest.

Speaking of the Astros, further down 192 by the Florida Turnpike is Osceola County Stadium, the Astros’ spring home and the home of their Class A team, the Kissimmee Cobras (formerly the Osceola Astros – Kissimmee Astros was a little questionable). It’s a very fan-friendly park in spring, and more so in the summer minor league season when the crowds disappear. Ken Caminiti and Kenny Lofton are among the major league all-stars who’ve played for Kissimmee in the minors, and stars like Derek Jeter and Kerry Wood have passed through as visitors on their way to the bigs.

Next door to the ballpark is the Silver Spurs Arena, home of the Silver Spurs Rodeo, which seems to be held every six months or so, but don’t quote me. When they’re not bronco-bustin’, the arena hosts everything from Latino Pride festivals to ECW wrestling cards.

We leave Kissimmee with a look at what is perhaps its most well-hidden treasure; the Monument of States. Located off the old main street of Broadway near Lake Tohopekaliga, the Monument is a cement edifice studded with rocks and fossils from most of the Lower 48 states and more than a few foreign lands. The different facets are highlighted with what is apparently whatever colors of all-weather paint the store had on sale. Like the Walk of Fame at Rollins College in Winter Park, only on a cement tower and without Mister Rogers’ handprint. One can but gaze and wonder. No admission charge.


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