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Girlfriend Getaway in Orlando - Attractions for Women Travelers
Get Away With Your Best Girlfriend to Orlando, Florida

by Rachel L. Miller

The last time I saw my friend Leigh-Anne, I was hungover and exhausted, waving goodbye from a shuttle bus window the morning after her wedding in June 2002. She, on the other hand, was glowing and smiling, the diamonds on the left finger glinting in the mid-morning sun as I was whisked away to the airport. Keeping in touch since college was a breeze with the easy accessibility of e-mail and free weekend minutes on my cell phone - actually seeing each other, however, was more of a challenge. With my hectic schedule in Detroit and Leigh-Anne's move to Connecticut a few years ago, we discovered firsthand the difficulty (monetary and otherwise) of keeping a friendship afloat. And when we had seen each other after she left Michigan, the moments were rushed and wedding-related, not giving us much time to do the girly (and yes, sometimes silly) things we used to do back in college.

We figured since we initially met while traveling (in London during a travel abroad course), it might be fun to reconnect in the same vein. So we chose Orlando - an easy-to-reach sunny vacation spot known worldwide as the premiere family destination…and home to that infamous larger-than-life mouse. But instead of dodging in and out of theme park queues, we were going to see a different, more sophisticated side of Orlando.

Spa Time

Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes
The Ritz-Carlton spa at Grande Lakes.
photo © Rachel L. Miller

Our vacation started out with a bonding experience - catching up at 8 a.m. in the whirlpool hot tub of the Ritz-Carlton's 40,000 square foot spa. We roamed lazily from the whirlpool to the dry sauna, all the while exchanging her philosophies on newlywed life for my dating horror stories. We parted ways for our massages - perfectly relaxing and invigorating - and met up again to check out the spa's lap pool.

Swim with the Fishes, er…Mammals

One opportunity in Orlando that we simply couldn't pass up was at Discovery Cove, a theme park that differs from others in the city. Although related to Sea World, Discovery Cove limits the number of guests to 1,000 a day and focuses on one-on-one interactions with animals of all species. The main attraction, though, is an up-close meeting with one of 30 Atlantic bottlenose dolphins. Ours, a cutie named Diego, let us pet him and give him kisses - and then he performed a number of tricks for us while we clapped and exclaimed in awe.

And finally, the most exciting part of our experience - each person had the chance to swim with Diego. Leigh-Anne went first, holding on to the dolphin as instructed by a trainer. Diego then took off, pulling Leigh-Anne at his side while she smiled and laughed.

My turn was next. I simply couldn't stop grinning as I was told to place one hand on Diego's fin and the other on his front flipper. A command was given underwater by a trainer on the other end of the pool - and off we went! I slid through the water with ease as Diego made his way to the trainer's side. And as quickly as my dolphin swim began, it was over. We couldn't believe that we had just spent 30 minutes with an actual dolphin. Not only was a great experience, it was a perfect conversation fodder. There was no doubt what we'd be talking about for the next few hours!

Feast for the Senses

Our nighttime plans took us to Downtown Disney West Side for a meal at Wolfgang Puck Grand Café followed viewing La Nouba, a Cirque du Soleil production that's been an Orlando staple since 1998. We loaded up on appetizers of spring rolls and calamari before digging in to our pizzas (admittedly, it wasn't our healthiest meal of the trip - for healthy dining options in Orlando, click here). Everything was top-notch, the kind of quality one comes to expect from Wolfgang Puck restaurants.

Still smiling from our delicious dinner, we strolled a few blocks to the state-of-the-art theater. With a circular canopy that's a cross between a futuristic wraparound bat wing and an old-school Big Top, the theater is the first ever freestanding structure built specifically for Cirque du Soleil.

La Nouba, Cirque du Soleil,  Disney, Orlando
La Nouba - Cirque du Soleil
photo © Copyright 2002, THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

We piled in to the theater, where costumed members of the troupe were keeping the audience entertained. And just a few minutes later, the production begun - gymnasts, trapeze performers, clowns, cyclists, musicians and actors all jockeying for our attention. There was something magnificent to be seen in each corner of the gigantic set, which resembled, at first glance, an urban factory workplace. The floor was equipped with retractable power tracks that resemble moving walkways, but perform as a sort of trampoline, allowing performers to jump higher. The effect combined with live music, dramatic lighting and jaw-dropping stunts of the troupe is nothing short of magical. It's no wonder it's on Disney property.

Down Time - and Shopping!

A morning walk through Harry P. Leu Gardens - Orlando's lovely botanical gardens - brought us back down to earth. We snapped a photograph of ourselves (complete with evidence of Leigh-Anne's out-of-the-blue allergy attack) in the rose garden before heading off to Winter Park for shopping and lunch.

Shopping with Friends in Winter Park
Women shopping on Park Ave. in Winter Park - photo © Winter Park City of Culture and Art

The Winter Park community immediately reminded me of old Florida, before the days of strip malls and sprawling theme parks. Walking down Park Avenue and browsing the stores lining the road, we felt light years away from the tourist bustle of Orlando. Our lunch in a quaint restaurant - Park Plaza Gardens - gave Leigh-Anne a respite from her allergy battle. We talked about work over turkey croissant sandwiches and a few cookies before heading back out into the sun to do more damage to our pocketbooks.

On a different day, we managed to hit the Mall at Millenia, an upscale retail establishment that offers every store from Anne Taylor to Gucci, with the anchor department stores of Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. After grabbing a delicious lunch at McCormick & Schmick's, a chain eatery known for its fresh seafood, we headed back to our hotel, the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes.

Our time spent in Orlando certainly flew by, but we had a blast together - and even better, reconnected as friends. What more, really, could I have asked for?

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