Go Florida with LEGO says ANDY GIBBONS
ONE of the world's most famous toys is giving the tourist hotspots of Orlando, Miami and Tampa a run for their money.
LEGOLAND Florida opened its doors with a big fanfare this month, providing theme park lovers a new reason to visit the Sunshine State.
Aimed at visitors aged two to 12, and the largest of the five LEGOLAND theme parks around the world, it has 50 rides, shows and attractions across 10 zones.
There's the Camelot-esque LEGO Kingdom which includes The Dragon, an indoor and outdoor steel rollercoaster, and the Royal Joust, where children get to ride LEGO-themed horses.
There is the interactive Imagination Zone in which visitors can build their own LEGO car and test it against the competition on digitally-timed track.
Pirates' Cove houses a waterskiing show where families can help the Imperial Guard fight off the treacherous Brickbeard.
Meanwhile in Duplo Village, little ones can buckle up and drive through the desert in the Big Rig Rally or join the Junior Fire Academy to extinguish some very realistic flames.
While youngsters get their thrills on the "pink knuckle" rides such as the wooden Coastersaurus and adventurous Flying School, parents will love Miniland.
This section houses LEGO recreations of some of America's most famous landmarks including The White House, complete with Obama family, The Capitol Building, The Golden Gate Bridge and Florida's Kennedy Space Center, all built out of thousands of plastic bricks.
And, of course, the shops offer every kind of Lego to take home.
For die-hard fans there is the Factory Tour in Fun Town, which shows how Lego bricks are made.
Retreat The site, based in central Florida, also boasts stunning gardens which are left over from its former life as Cyprus Gardens theme park.
The grounds offer tranquility away from the excitement of the park and serve as a nice retreat for mums and dads. The star of the show is an immense, sprawling banyan tree and this botanical escape could make all the difference for those looking for an alternative to the traditional Floridian mouse trap.
After a full day playing at the park, I popped to downtown Winter Haven, a mile or two down the road. Dinner at Arabella's, a gorgeous Italian restaurant, proved that despite the town's comparatively modest size, its standards are high, while a few drinks at the lively Jessie's Bar gave a flavour of local nightlife. The party was still in full swing at 1am.
After my late night, I blew away the cobwebs on an airboat ride. Central Florida features 554 lakes and I chose the beautiful Kissimmee for my adventure. I took an early morning trip with Captain Darald Meyers of Alligator Cove Airboat Nature Tours to explore this huge wetland and try to spot some of Florida's famous gators in their natural environment.
Dancing across the water at speeds of up to 45mph, you get a real sense of adventure. Darald's expert knowledge of all the wildlife and plants on show was impressive. Plus I managed to see a healthy 2ft gator winding its way through the marsh.
From there it was on to Flight Of Fantasy, a must-visit for anyone with a love of air travel. Owned and run by the wonderfully named Kermit Weeks, this is a love letter to all things aeronautic.
The vast hangar houses over 40 rare and vintage aircraft, many of which are still airworthy. As well as regular flying demonstrations, visitors can take to the skies and man the controls of a Boeing Stearman PT-17 or take a ride in New Standard D-25 biplane as I did, courtesy of Waldo Wright's Flying Service. They also do a mean burger in their beautifully art deco Rose Compass cafe.
After all the action of the day, a spot of retail therapy was needed to wind down so I drove for 45 minutes to Orlando Premium Outlets Mall to make the most of some seriously reduced prices.
Steaks This is one of the more upmarket malls around, with big names like Burberry, Hugo Boss and Armani attracting some very big spenders. But don't panic, those with a more reserved budget are catered for too and the savings on top of the exchange rate make it well worth a visit if shopping is high on your list.
Dinner that evening was at Manny's Chophouse in Winter Haven. It's a lively place, popular with the locals and pretty busy.
It offers more steaks and cuts of meat than I've ever seen in one place. I can also highly recommend the onion rings and the amazing turmeric sauce accompaniment.
The final day of my flying visit was spent exploring the Bok Tower Gardens.
They are an idyllic retreat in nearby Lake Wales. The work of publisher and philanthropist Edward Bok, this sprawling 700-acre estate is a joy for nature lovers.
At its heart is the magical neo-Gothic Singing Tower, a 205ft folly which houses a set of carillon bells which ring out over the gardens. Recitals are held regularly and audiences can watch the carillonneur playing high up in the tower thanks to a carefully positioned webcam.
There was just time for a tasty late lunch at the Terrace Grille, part of the historic Lakeland Terrace Hotel, before heading back to Tampa airport.
Central Florida has plenty to enthral the discerning tourist and with its new theme park, it now has every base covered.
TICKETS for LEGOLAND Florida cost £144 for a family of four. Under-threes free. Go to Attraction Tickets Direct on 0800 975 0002 or visit attraction-tickets-direct.co.uk. For Bed and Brick packages offering family-friendly hotels, see legoland.com, or see visitcentralflorida.org.
British Airways flies seven times a week from Gatwick to Tampa, with return fares from £380 including taxes. See ba.com or call 0844 493 0787.
For details on restaurants and activities, see the following: arabellas.us; mannyschophouse.com; terracehotel.com/terracedining.asp ; alligatorcoveairboatnaturetours.com; fantasyofflight.com; waldowrights.com.
Orlando Premium Outlets operates a shuttle service to LEGOLAND Florida. See premium outlets.com/vineland. For Bok Tower Gardens see boktowergardens.org
Book cheap car hire in the USA at rhinocarhire.com. Prices from Tampa, Florida, start from £14.50 per day or £102 per week. For a special Daily Star reader offer visit rhinocarhire.com/pricebuster/Daily-Star-Discount.aspx