Get Away With Your Best Girlfriend to Orlando, Florida
Rachel L. Miller
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.
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
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.
Ritz-Carlton spa at Grande Lakes.
photo © Rachel L. Miller
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.
with the Fishes, er
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.
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
for the Senses
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
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.
Nouba - Cirque du Soleil
photo © Copyright 2002, THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY
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.
Time - and Shopping!
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 on Park Ave. in Winter Park - photo © Winter Park City of Culture
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.
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.
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?