In the Shadow of the Mouse

Secrets of a theme park obsessed local who lives next door to Mickey, with annual passes to every Central Florida park

Adorable penguins and partying kick off Wild Days at SeaWorld Orlando

m1SeaWorld Orlando ushered in its annual Wild Days celebration on January 24 with Penguin Lovers Weekend. As the name implies, there were plenty of adorable penguins, and the day ended with a dance party where Puck the Penguin was joined by Shamu and a contingent of other friends to dance, greet, and schmooze with the crowd.

Julie Scardina was the star of the kick-off weekend show (Bindi Irwin comes out next weekend on January 31 and February 1, with Jungle Jack Hannah finishing things up on the final weekend, which is February 7 and 8). I always enjoy hearing Julie’s stories, as her passion for animals is very apparent. She chatted with the media before her show, telling us about some of her globetrotting adventures and giving us details of some successful rescues of penguins and other animals.

Julie also emphasized the rescue and conservation message in her show. As she pointed out, it’s not enough to love animals. So many species are threatened, and love alone won’t save them. They need people to take positive, concrete action.

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Many animal ambassadors made appearances during Julie’s show. Since it was Penguin Lovers Weekend, the cute little black an white critters obviously made an appearance.Pete and Penny Penguin had a fun time exploring the stage while Julie talked.

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However, my favorite part was getting to see a baby rockhopper penguin. Rockhoppers are my favorites, but I’ve never seen a fuzzy little baby. Talk about adorable!

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We also saw several different birds of prey, all of which were rescues that live at SeaWorld because they can’t survive in the wild. Talk about impressive animals! I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of their beaks and talons.

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There were flamingos, too, marching through the theater (you can also see them herded through the park if you’re in the right place at the right time).

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m6After the show, I headed over to the dance party, where Pete and Penny’s counterparts were wowing the crowd, along with Shamu and Puck from Antarctica, Empire of the Penguin. There were also rockhoppers, but of a different sort, and their stilts allowed them to do some very impressive hopping. The party was a big hit with both children and adults, as the characters make sure that everyone gets involved, no matter what your age.

The Wild Days shows and parties are included with your regular SeaWorld admission ticket, and you still have two weekends left to catch this special event. Be sure to arrive early for the shows, which take place in the Nautilus Theater, as they often reach capacity.

Brevard County’s always great, but Crab Smash/Oyster Bash brings extra fun

Brevard County is only about an hour away from Central Florida, and it’s a great place for both tourists and locals to spend a little time at the beach, exploring Kennedy Space Center, watching a launch, heading out on a cruise, or just making a spontaneous day of it. Any time is a good time to visit, but this Saturday, January 24, has an added bonus: the 3rd Annual Crab Smash and Oyster Bash, which runs from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and provides a feast of food and drink, with cooking done by culinary students from the Brevard County High School Pro Start Culinary Arts Program.

The event is an annual fund raiser for the school. You can find more information on the event’s Facebook page, but it takes place at 710 Scallop Drive in Port Canaveral, and tickets are $30 for adults and $5 for kids. Expect to dine on crab, oysters, shrimp, and fresh Florida fish.

If you can’t make it for the Crab Smash/Oyster Bash, don’t despair. Brevard County is home to delicious cuisine every day of the year. Click the video below for highlights of last year’s Off the Hook Foodie Tour, which hit some of the hot spots. It included food and beverages from Djon’s Steak & Lobster House, the Florida Beer Company, Crush Eleven, and Milliken’s Reef. At that last stop, we watched a breathtaking night launch of an Atlas V rocket:

The crab salad from Djon’s was among the best I’ve ever tasted, although the tuna and shrimp were delicious, too.

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Djon’s is within walking distance of the quain Port D’Hiver Bed & Breakfast, which is right across the street from the ocean if you’re heading out for a beach stay. I stayed there overnight before a cruise; you can read all about that here.

Crush Eleven had wonderful food, including seasonal options that change with the availability of fresh ingredients:

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My only regret was having to skip the dessert menu, but we had to head to Milliken’s Reef for the sweet stuff because that’s also where the rocket launch was taking place. We watched the rocket make its fiery way into the sky before settling down for a variety of tempting desserts while enjoying the live entertainment:

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If you head to the area, either for the Crab Smash/Oyster Bash or just for a general visit, I recommend swinging by the Exploration Tower at Port Canaveral to explore the displays on topics like space exploration and Florida wildlife and to take in the breathtaking view of the ocean from the upper floors. It stands seven stories tall, so it’s easy to spot.

If you’d like to visit Brevard County but are worried about finding your way, don’t worry. Just take I-4 to the Beach Line, better know as 528, and keep driving until you see the ocean! It’s only about an hour away.

Tin Roof brings great food, live music to I-Drive 360 at the base of the Orlando Eye

os6Remember the Mercado on I-Drive? If you’re like most people, it might have been a tiny blip on your radar, but its attempt to bring food and fun to I-Drive never really got off the ground. Nowadays, “getting off the ground” isn’t a problem. as the Orlando Eye wheel is soaring skyward in the old Mercado area and bringing a wide range of food and entertainment choices with it in the I-Drive 360 complex.

Tin Roof – A Live Music Joint is one of the additions that are set to revitalize this prime piece of property on International Drive. When I say it’s in the shadow of the Orlando Eye, I mean that quite literally as you can see by the photo.

By day, Tin Roof is a restaurant. By night, it turns into a rollicking entertainment venue. At first glance, it looks like the sort of place that would serve bar food, and indeed, you’ll find things like queso, burgers, wings, and crab dip…

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…but many have a unique twist. How about some waffles with your chicken nuggets? Wouldn’t Smore Pie taste even better with just a dash of hot pepper?

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I had the chance to try many of the Tin Roof’s menu items at a media event, and I give them a big thumbs up. It’s the sort of place where everyone can find something they like, even if you’re in a party of people with widely varying tastes. You;ll find the whole menu on the Tin Roof Orlando website.

os5So what did I like best among the eclectic offerings? Being a Southern transplant, I embrace chicken and waffles even though I didn’t know they existed for most of my life. But if I had to choose my favorites, I’d have to lean toward the seafood. Yes, I know that seems odd at a live music joint, but the tuna was so fresh and flavorful that I plan to have it again on a return visit.

Da Lox, a citrus cured salmon sandwich, ranked right up there as another fave. Despite its name, it’s not your typical salmon and cream cheese. Fresh veggies take the place of dairy, and the salmon’s citrus flavor is divine.

I’m all about anything with smores involved, so the Cowhorn Pepper Smore Pie was a gimme. Yes, it really does have pepper in it, just as the name implies. I know that sounds strange, and maybe even a bit alarming, but it’s just a pleasant bite that doesn’t detract a bit from the chocolate, marshmallow, and graham cracker goodness.

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Even though I was there in the afternoon, and the music doesn’t typically start until the evening, I got a taste of the music at the media event, too. Look for a variety of local and regional acts to be playing at the venue. It’s a great spot to hang out and enjoy the entertainment while sampling libations from the liberal drink menu. Snack on bacon popcorn…just another example of the old adage that bacon goes with everything.

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os7Being a local, I’m gunshy about going near I-Drive during the peak tourist season, but Tin Roof and the I-Drive 360 complex are located close enough to Sand Lake Road to make the trip tolerable at all but the busiest times. You can easily take I-4 to Sand Lake Road, which puts you just a couple of blocks away from I-Drive, or head over from the convention side. There’s a free parking garage right on site, which makes things even easier.

I expect this venue to really heat up once the Orlando Eye and the other attractions are complete this spring. It’s a perfect lunch spot to fuel up before you hit the Eye, SeaLife, the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, and the other attractions, or else you can have a nice dinner after a long day exploring all that International Drive has to offer. I think convention goers will also discover it as a place to unwind with a drink and some live music after a long day of conferences and exhibitions at the Orange County Convention Center just down the street.

In the meantime, I recommend checking it out while it’s still relatively unknown. I can easily see it becoming a favorite hang-out for locals who want a smaller, more friendly alternative to some of the bigger, more crowded tourist entertainment spots. Yes, it will draw its fair share of tourists, but as you can see by the sign below, it’s lookingto become a local hot spot too. I know that I, for one, will definitely be coming back.

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Gwazi says goodbye Feb. 1, best Busch Gardens Tampa roller coasters stick around

227It was with mixed emotions that I learned today about Gwazi’s imminent demise at Busch Gardens Tampa. On one hand, it’s one of a rare breed: wooden roller coasters in Florida. On the other hand, there’s a reason for that. Wood, summer rain, and non-stop humidity don’t mix very well. Gwazi has kept Tampa area chiropractors in business for as long as I’ve know it, with a brief respite in 2011 when its trains were replaced. Alas, it was soon back to its old bone-jolting ways.

I’ll miss the Lion and Tiger sides of the venerable racing coaster, but I have to admit that I’m not too distressed at the news. Busch Gardens Tampa is the best place in Florida to find great coasters, and all of my favorites are sticking around. Which coasters do I love the most there? Here’s a run-down:

Montu

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I was lucky enough to live in Chicago when a then mostly unknown company called B&M erected a prototype called Batman at Six Flags Great America. That slick little coaster paved the way for bigger and better behemoths like Montu. I miss Batman because it’s a rare bird: a coaster with no brakes until the end. Even though Montu does brake mid-run, its length and wicked elements more than make up for the brief slowdown.

Cheetah Hunt

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I’m a huge air-time fan, and Cheetah Hunt is built to pop you out of your seat. It’s long, fast, and smooth as butter, and I love feeling my butt go airborne as it crests the hill. Add in the rocket-fast launch and you’ve got a real winner. It’s a perfect balance of enough thrills for a roller coaster enthusiast and a tame enough ride to entice more timid riders to give it a go. Funny thing is, it has one inversion, but I’ve spoken to people who’ve ridden it and swear it never goes upside down. That’s how stealthy that twist in the track is.

SheiKra

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This is my ultra mega favorite roller coaster at Busch Gardens Tampa. I know it’s been around for a while, but it still feels as great as the first time I ever rode it. Here’s a little secret for the true thrill seekers: ride in the back row. Yes, I know the front has a great view, but I’m all about air time, not observation. If I want an aerial view of Tampa, I’ll go on the Falcon’s Fury drop tower.

240For Sheikra, I strap into one of the end seats on the back row, but I try to leave a little space between my shoulders and the harness. Just before the drop, I use my hands to hold the harness so gravity won’t abruptly tighten it and keep my legs straight out. That’s the penultimate air time pose, and your butt will go airborne on both drops if you do it right. Add the section of float time into the mix and you’re got a coaster ride that’s just about perfect. SheiKra has no inversions, and it doesn’t need them.

I’m such a big fan that I even have a cat named Sheikra, although it’s because the coaster saved his life rather than being a tribute to its greatness. I was stuck at the top of the second drop for 20 minutes one stormy summer day. That delay caused me to be on I-4 at just the moment some scumbag tossed a skinny black kitten onto the rode. I captured him, adopted him, and now, several years later, he’s safe, sleek, and spoiled rotten.

Scorpion

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SheiKra is my number one, but I have to give honorable mention to Scorpion. There aren’t many Schwarzkopf coasters left, nor are there many that go upside down without a shoulder harness. Scorpion falls into both of those categories, and it’s mild enough to act as a “starter coaster” for kids who are ready for their first real coaster ride by are still hesitant about Cheetah Hunt.

I’ll probably head out to say goodbye to Gwazi, since it’s the passing of a classic that I enjoyed (tolerated?) many times over the years. I’ll miss it a bit, but that feeling will quickly pass as I indulge in screams and thrills on all my remaining favorites.

Jack Hanna and Bindi Irwin are coming to SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa

Jungle Jack Hanna and young conservationist Bindi Irwin are heading to SeaWorld Orlando soon, then making their way to Busch Gardens Tampa. Their first appearances will be at SeaWorld during the park’s Wild Days celebration, which starts on January 24.

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SeaWorld Orlando

The first weekend at SeaWorld Orlando, on January 24th and 25th, is devoted to all things penguin. SeaWorld’s Animal Ambassador Julie Scardina will be on hand to talk about all things penguin.She’s an expert on the cute little black and white critters and can tell you everything you’ve ever wanted to know about their behavior and care.

The fun continues all day, capped by the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin Block Party, which runs from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. It will feature live penguins, plus a DJ and other entertainment.

I like to visit the SeaWorld penguins at any time because their new habitat makes it a very intimate experience. Yes, it’s cold, but it’s worth it to tough out the temperatures to watch them swim, frolic, and play with nothing but a low glass wall between you. Here’s some footage of the habitat:

222If you’re looking for Bindi, she’ll be there on January 31 and February 1, hosting the Generation Nature LIVE show. It’s geared toward empowering kids to take concrete steps to help nature and animals. The shows are included with park admission, and you can add a Wild Days picnic package for a BBQ buffet on the 31st or go all out with the Bindi Irwin VIP experience. That allows you to dine in a private area and personally meet Steve Irwin’s vibrant daughter. You also get a complimentary photo and reserved seating at Bindi’s 3 p.m. show.

Jack heads out to SeaWorld on February 7 and 8 to host several shows. They’re included with admission, and upgraded experiences Breakfast With Jack Hanna on Saturday or Sunday or Dinner With Jack Hanna on Saturday only. The breakfast is held at Dine with Shamu and includes a meet and greet and photo with Jack and reserved seats for his 11 a.m. show. The dinner is also held at Dine With Shamu, and you get a meet and greet, photo, and 3 p.m. reserved seating.

Jack Hanna’s shows are always great. I love to hear his stories and see the fascinating animals he brings out. Here’s footage from one of last year’s shows:

Busch Gardens Tampa

February 7th and 8th are also the days at Bindi will appear at Busch Gardens Tampa, with three daily appearances in the Stanleyville Theater. You’ll have to wait a little longer to see Jack Hanna there, as he’s not heading to Tampa until April 18 and 19.

Busch Gardens is really hopping this spring, as it’s also kicking off its first ever Food and Wine Festival on March 7 with a concert by Gavin DeGraw. The following day Fifth Harmony takes the stage, and more musical acts will be announced soon. The music and culinary goodness will run every Saturday and Sunday from March 7 through April 26, and the shows are included with park admission.

Elsa’s doing magic at Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom til January 12th

Elsa’s been lighting up Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom every night since Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party started in November, and she’s not done yet. The other Disney holiday activities have been put to bed for another year, but Elsa, along with Anna, Kristoff, and Olaf, is still on vacation in Florida and she’s not going to stop her work until January 12th.

You can see everyone’s favorite ice princess use her powers to ice the castle through this coming Monday. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the show (I particularly like it because it has a walking, talking Olaf):

Even if you miss her performance, she and Elsa will still be on hand to greet guests at Princess Fairytale Hall (whatever you do, get a FastPass+ to avoid the long waits). They’re a lot of fun to meet, as I discovered earlier in 2014:

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Given all their Frozen fame, the sisters have had a busy year at Walt Disney World. They also brought a chill to the summer at Disney’s Hollywood Studios with a parade, the Frozen sing-along show, a local branch of Oaken’s Trading Post, and even ice skating and a snowy play area. Here’s their special welcome parade that ran each day:

This overview of the whole event features scenes from the show (yes, I know you’re probably tired of hearing “Let It Go,” but I promise that it’s actually a lot of fun, and not just for the kids…there are plenty of laughs interspersed with the songs):

You can still catch the show, but Elsa and Anna’s horse-drawn carriage and float moved over to the Magic Kingdom just in time for the Christmas festivities. See them in the Christmas parade here:

And if that’s not enough Frozen fun for you, remember that the ride in Norway is currently under refurbishment and will eventually debut with a new Frozen overlay, Hopefully that means the trolls will still be around.

Yes, I know that’s a lot of Frozen, but you have to admit that it’s still wildly popular. Eventually their fame flame will burn out…or would that be melt down? Either way, soon enough a new Disney hit will take its place, but Elsa and Anna fans are getting lots of changes to meet their heroines in the meantime.

3 reasons why free SeaWorld /Busch Gardens pre-school passes are perfect for your family

5SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa have brought back their free Pre-School Passes for 2015. That means Florida resident kids age five and under can visit the parks all year for absolutely no admission cost.

I recently wrote about how Busch Gardens is a wonderful park to visit in the cool weather, so this gives you a good excuse to go right now with your family. Then you can return later in the year and also throw SeaWorld Orlando into the mix. Like Busch, Seaworld has lots of animals to enthrall the youngsters, as well as rides and show.

Here are the top three reasons why SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Pre-School Passes are perfect for your family:

1) Admission is free. If your child is five years old or under, his or her admission is free throughout 2015. You just have to sign up on the website here. How can you beat a free 2015 pass? Granted, you’ll have to purchase admission to go along, but with day ticket deals or seasonal Fun Cards that run around $165, it’s an amazing deal. I recommend getting an annual pass or Fun Card so you can bundle off the family to either of the parks any time the mood strikes you. That segues nicely into reason number two…

152) They give you an easy getaway option. When you don’t know where to take the kids, Busch Gardens Tampa and SeaWorld Orlando are always good options. They both have animals, rides, and shows, so your kids will find something to entertain them. Better yet, if you want to wear them out, you can do lots of walking at both parks. Busch Gardens Tampa has a trail with animal habitats, as well plenty of places to hike around in Jungala. The Sesame Street area is downright adorable, and kids love the madcap musical Madagascar show if they need some time to take a break.

SeaWorld Orlando has lots of indoor and outdoor animal exhibits where you can stroll, from the dolphin and orca underwater viewing areas to Wild Arctic, the Manta aquarium, and the shark exhibit. They can also run off lots of steam in the play areas at Shamu’s Happy Harbor, which also features rides. If you want to be sure the kids sleep soundly, take them for a day at one of the parks. That leads nicely into reason number three…

3) You don’t have to feel bad if the kids crash early. Who wants to pay full price for theme park admission, then have the kids crash early and turn into walking zombies or crankiness personifications after only a few hours? Thankfully, with the Pre-School Pass, you’ve only paid for your own admission.You can let the kids call the shots and head back home when they’re done for the day without feeling like you wasted your money, whether they last through closing time or only for a morning or afternoon.

If you bought an annual pass or Fun Card, it’s even better. You didn’t waste your own day’s admission, as you can return with your brood throughout the year.

I won’t even get into the seasonal events that the kids will love, like the Halloween and Christmas celebrations at SeaWorld. Those are just icing on the delicious, chocolate Pre-School Pass cake. If you’re a Florida resident, it doesn’t hurt to get your kids their passes, even if you don’t buy one for yourself yet. It doesn’t cost anything, but it opens up a priceless variety of options.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Busch Gardens are perfect cool weather parks

The cold wave is coming to Florida, with “cold” being a relative term. Floridians will be shivering in their winter coats, while visitors from the north will shrug and say “meh” as they maybe don a sweatshirt. Either way, cold weather doesn’t last long in the Sunshine State, so I always take full advantage of it to enjoy two theme parks in particular:

Disney’s Animal Kingdom

2Disney’s Animal Kingdom has lush tropical landscape that’s pleasing to the eye, but it also seems to multiply the heat and humidity factor in the summer. I visit the park year ’round, but winter is an especially good time because it’s so much more comfortable to enjoy the two walking trails, where gorillas and tigers are highlights (although I’ll admit to loving the timid little meerkats).

Of course, there’s also Kilimanjaro Safari, where the animals seem to be more active on cool days. The safari takes you through habitats populated by so many fascinating species, from elephants and giraffes to lions, crocodiles, rhinos and even warthogs (“Hi, Pumbaa!”).

If the line isn’t long, or if you can snag a FastPass+, I recommend riding the safari a couple of times at different times of the day. That gives you the best possible chance to spot all of the animals, since different critters are active or hanging out in different parts of their habitats throughout the day.

7If you want to kick things up a notch, opt for Wild Africa Trek. It’s a bit pricey ($189 to $249, depending on the season), but it’s a true VIP experience. Not only do you get to walk through the safari area, but you also ride in a private vehicle that takes you in spots where the usual Kilimanjaro ride vehicles aren’t allowed to tread. Hopefully you’re not afraid of heights, as you’ll trek over suspension bridges with hippos and crocodiles below. A Disney photographer captures lots of great photos throughout your journey; they’re included in the price of the tour, so you download them later at your convenience.

Here are some highlights from my own Wild Africa Trek adventure a few years back. I loved the whole tour, but my favorite parts were the suspension bridges and getting to lean out over the water and watch the hippos getting some veggie snacks. The African-themed luncheon was delicious, too. It’s served in a special area out of the savannah.

And here’s the food:

Busch Gardens Tampa

11Disney’s Animal Kingdom has some fun rides, too (I love the view of Epcot from the top of Expedition Everest), but if you want to combine your love of animals with a penchant for thrill rides, head out west to Tampa and spend a day at Busch Gardens. There are plenty of animal habitats you can view on foot on a nice, cool day, where lions, hippos, tigers, orangutans, and other critters are all out and about. Check out the cheetah habitat and you might get to see the talented cats show off their sprinting skills. You can also hop on board the train to go out on the savannah or book a safari trip.

The Serengeti Safari is an extra cost experience, but it’s well worth the $29 to $39 price tag for the giraffe encounters alone. You ride on an open air truck to view the savannah animals up close. Then, as the highlight, the giraffes surround your truck while you hand feed them lettuce and capture wonderful photographic memories. How can you beat a selfie with one of those long-necked critters?

As for the rides, Busch Gardens Tampa is the home of SheiKra, my favorite Central Florida roller coaster, and I’m a huge fan of Montu (suspended coaster) and Cheetah Hunt (air time extraordinaire). But if you want a different kind of thrill, hop aboard the Falcon’s Fury drop tower, which opened in 2014. Below is my first experience on the tower. Yes, it really does tilt you face down for added terror factor:

You’ll get an amazing view of Tampa and catch a cool breeze if you ride it on a brisk winter’s day.

Really, any of the theme parks are good cool-day options, but given a choice, I opt to visit the animals. The weather’s perfect for leisurely strolling and animal spotting, along with some favorite thrill rides thrown in for good measure.

Legoland Florida has full year of fun events ahead

I live next door to Walt Disney World, so it’s not a surprise that the majority of my visits are to the Orlando theme parks. Still, I venture out pretty regularly to a couple of my favorite attractions that require a bit more of a drive. One of those is Legoland Florida, a haven for lovers of all things Lego out in Winter Haven, Florida. It’s less than an hour’s drive from the Orlando attractions area and well worth a visit if you have younger kids or if you’re a Lego fan yourself. As an added bonus, it’s built on the site of the former Cypress Gardens park, so you can still enjoy much of the original garden area, including the famous banyan tree and the Florida pool.

So what lies ahead at Legoland for 2015? Here’s a quick summary:

Feb. 21 and 22 – Lego Club Weekends Featuring Lego Star Wars Miniland: If you’re a Star Wars fan, you already know that Miniland features a Star Wars area (see it in the video below). Head out on Feb. 21 and 22 to kick the themed fun into high gear with building activities, costume contests, giveaways, an interactive guided Lego Star Wars Miniland Tour, and photo ops with Lego Darth Vader.

March 28 – LEGOLAND Water Park opens for the season. Take a tour of the park below:

April 11 – Brick Dash 5k Run and Fun Walk: This event benefits the Winter Haven Hospital Foundation’s Fund for Women and Children and is suitable for runners and walkers of all ages. You get discounted admission to the park after the event.

July 3, 4 & 5 – Red, Brick & Boom: Celebrate the 4th of July with a traditional fireworks display enhanced by special glasses that turn them into a scene of millions of exploding bricks.

Select dates in OctBrick-or-Treat: Little ones can safely collect candy on the Legoland trick or treat trail and participate in themed activities like the building of the world’s largest Lego jack-o’-lantern, a haunted scavenger hunt, and a costume contest.

Select dates in Dec - Christmas Bricktacular:  Before you know it, the Christmas season will return, and Legoland Florida will celebrate with a 30-foot tall Lego Christmas tree made of 270,000 LEGO bricks. There’s also a life-size Lego Santa, reindeer and sleigh, and other festive decorations. Participate in a building activity and the Lego Santa Scavenger Hunt, and get your photo taken with Lego Santa and the Lego Toy Soldier. Select nights will also feature fireworks over Lake Eloise, culminating in a New Years Eve display at 7 p.m. on January 31 (a much more kid-friendly time than midnight!). Get a flavor of the event in this prep video from 2013:

As you can see, there’s plenty of seasonal fun to choose from throughout the year. Don’t forget, the Legoland Florida hotel opens this summer if you want to make a multi-day trip to the park.

Shhh, don’t tell anyone, it’s the slow season at the theme parks

As a local, I’ll admit that I’m spoiled. I don’t wait in long lines for theme park attractions. At Disney World, I grab a FastPass+ for a couple of my favorite attractions during the busy season, visit my park of choice for a couple of hours, then hightail it home when my crowd tolerance reaches its limit. At Universal, I go late in the day, since my Premier annual pass gives me Express access after 4 p.m. At SeaWorld, I arrive at opening time and head to the farther-back attractions while the arriving hoards are dazzled by the likes of Manta and do things closer to the front gate.

But every few months I get a real treat: a tiny bit of off-season time. The most notable periods are those right before Memorial Day and Labor Day, but there’s also a nice chunk of slow time right after the mad holiday rush. The crowds head home, their credit cards and energy levels depleted, and don’t think about another vacation for at least a few weeks. Meanwhile, I can enjoy Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, and SeaWorld Orlando at a more leisurely and spontaneous pace than I’m normally able to do.

What are my top three favorite parks to visit during this rare period of quiet time? Here they are in no particular order:

Epcot

2You have to be careful at Disney, since marathon weekend falls in this period, but otherwise Epcot tends to be quiet until the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival starts in early March. The lines can be a little long in Future World right around opening time, since World Showcase doesn’t open until 11 a.m. I like to come a little later, take a leisurely global tour in World Showcase, then head back to Future World where the lines have typically died down to enjoy Soarin’ and Test Track a few times, then hit Nemo and Spacehip Earth on my way out.

If you’re a Flower and Garden fan, I advise coming out early in the festival. The crowds pick up throughout its run, although it’s fun to visit at both the beginning and the end so you can see how the displays change over time as the season gets warmer.

SeaWorld Orlando

1There’s so much to do outside at SeaWorld, and January weather is usually perfect to do it. The chance of rain is rare compared to the summer, and it’s generally cooler and much less humid. Normally a day at SeaWorld means working around the show schedule to make sure you get to each arena with plenty of time to get a good seat.

Lower off-season crowds means you don’t have to get to Shamu Stadium 45 minutes early or to rush to Blue Horizons long before showtime. That means more time to enjoy underwater viewing and the rides and exhibits like Turtle Trek, the sharks, and Wild Arctic. It also means shorter lines at Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, where you must do the ride to get to the amazing open-air penguin habitat.

Universal Studios Florida

3Actually, while I love all of Universal, my big recommendation for the off season is Diagon Alley. It’s still the new kid on the block, and as such, it’s wildly crowded at busy times of year. You can’t fully appreciate all the detail in this area when you’re too busy trying not to get run over by a stroller or otherwise trampled in the crowd.

Thankfully, the off-season lull gives Harry Potter fans a chance to take it easy and really explore all the shops, noting the fun details of the displays and the amazing architecture of the buildings outside. It’s also fun to buy an interactive wand and take some time to cast spells. There’s a line to do so during the busy season, but you won’t have to wait for other wizards to practice ahead of you when you visit in the rare lull.

There is a time when Harry fans will find themselves in the midst of a crowd. A Celebration of Harry Potter runs for three days, starting January 30, but it’s worth braving the mob to see exhibitors like Pottermore and Scholastic and attend panel discussions with some of the movies’ stars.

These are my own personal choices, but this is a great time to visit any of the theme parks. Just beware of the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, as students generally have a long weekend, which means a reprise of the crowds.