KIERAN MEEKE explores the attraction-packed county that's home to the new Legoland park
WHILE you might think the opening of the world's largest Legoland is the most exciting thing to ever happen in quiet Polk County, a 40-minute drive from Orlando, you'd be wrong. For one, it claims to be the Water Skiing Capital of the World and is home to the grandly titled Water Ski Experience Hall of Fame and Museum.
Kindly director Carole Lowe shows me around, pointing out the very first pair of water skis invented in 1922 by 18-year-old Ralph Samuelson, who used two planks and some scrap leather for his prototype. With 550 lakes in the county, Polk is a natural home for the sport.
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Polk also has another major claim to fame, the world's largest private collection of aircraft. Most men have had a selection of model aircraft but Kermit Weeks used an oil inheritance to build a life-sized hoard, most of them restored to full flying order. His creation, Fantasy Of Flight, has some 50 vintage aircraft, including such British gems as a Short Sunderland and Spitfire MK16.
An 80-year-old New Standard D-25 gives flying tours. Roaring over Interstate 4 in an open-cockpit biplane wearing helmet and goggles is an experience to compete with any theme park ride, I can tell you.
Airboat captain Darald of Alligator Cove Airboat Nature Tours is another character, a highly entertaining guide to the famous Florida swamplands. It's a real thrill to ride one of his boats on Lake Wales, skimming over thick vegetation, following waterways through tunnels of trees and speeding alongside birds taking to the wing. We creep up on an alligator dozing in the sun, which waits until the last possible moment before silently submerging like a deadly submarine.
My rented home in Polk County is a great base for discovering this quieter side of Florida. With its swimming pool and garage with pool table, the five-bedroom house is perfect for families and is a fraction of the cost of a stay in an Orlando hotel.
You also get to see the real America in diners and restaurants, bars and local malls.
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For an even better flavour visit Westgate River Ranch Resort where the nightly rodeo is a mixture of flag-waving patriotism and bronco-riding thrills and spills. It's easy to get swept up in the atmosphere, especially when the Star-Spangled Banner plays as a cowgirl races around the arena bearing a giant flag.
Miles away from the slickness of the big theme parks it's no less fun. Of course, this being the US, the attraction can't help boasting it is also the "World's Largest Dude Ranch".
Sunsplash Vacation Homes (dialling from UK: 001 863 424 6193/sunsplash.com) offers seven nights in a three-bedroom home from £530 (sleeps six), self catering. Price includes two children's tickets to Legoland Florida.
Virgin Atlantic (0844 209 7310/virgin-atlantic.com) offers return flights to Orlando from Gatwick from £399. Visit Central Florida: 800 828 7655/ visitcentralflorida.org