Orlando option: Stay and play downtown

Like hundreds of other Wisconsin fans, we will head to Orlando this month, to cheer on our beloved Badgers during the Capital One (aka Citrus) Bowl on Jan. 1.

Unlike the typical visitor to this part of Florida, we’ll likely return north without spending much time – if any – on a Walt Disney World property. (Roughly 65 percent of all domestic leisure travelers to Orlando visit at least one theme/amusement park, and Disney easily leads the category.)

We also may not – outside of our trip to and from the airport – spend much time in the commercial jungle that is International Drive, a main thoroughfare that is bursting with hotels, restaurants and attractions.

What gives? The football game is downtown, and that’s what we’ll call home during most of this trip.

Downtown? “Yes, there is a downtown Orlando,” notes Yahoo.com’s travel advice, “although few who come to Orlando ever see much of it,” but the downtown “is, in fact, one of the prettiest parts of the city, blessed with tree-lined neighborhoods, attractive older homes and its fair share of (but not too many) shops, restaurants, lounges and entertainment areas.”
 
I am partial to the Courtyard at Lake Lucerne, where guests stay in one of four buildings that date back to the 1880s, an era of genteel living for citrus czar Philip Phillips. Bedroom décor stretches from gracious to outrageous.

Hardwood floors, fireplaces and marble bathrooms have been preserved. So has eclectic artwork, especially the art deco in the Wellborn Suites, which was bought around the world.
 
Room rates, which start at $120 per night, include breakfast and a carafe of wine daily. For more: www.orlandohistoricinn.com, 407-648-5188.
 
Nearby is the lovely Lake Eola, one of 31 lakes within the city limits, and much of the land around it is a public park. Year round, visitors absorb the ambiance and changing urban skyscape; it is a novelty to glide this water in charming, swan-shaped boats.

Also in the vicinity are the brick streets of Thornton Park, which has both an upscale and down-home feel. A tad north is the Antique Row of Orange Avenue, and a cluster of bohemian enterprises, in which White Wolf Café and other rebels thrive.

For more about Orlando: www.orlandoinfo.com, 800-643-9492.
 
The Courtyard at Lake Lucerne is two miles southeast of the football stadium. We can walk or take a free shuttle to the game. That said, we also may rent a car for at least a day, since the sprawling metro area can be pricey to navigate by taxi, and after-dark walking isn’t deemed safe in some circles.

Orlando is the largest rental car market in the world, but the prices are not cheap. With taxes and insurance, expect to pay around $100 per day for the smallest models.

That’s what we learned from www.mobissimo.com and www.kayak.com, two places to scour many travel providers and discounters at one time. Thanks go to John Webster of Madison, who credits Mobissimo with helping him nail down a great price on an obscure flight abroad.

We need a way to get to the Kennedy Space Center, 45 minutes east of Orlando, and the nearby Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, which also a NASA property. Walking under rockets and seeking manatees will make us truly feel like we’re away from home.

It will be a full day of tours of space shuttle launch sites, the Rocket Garden and Astronaut Hall of Fame, IMAX movies about outer space and space flight simulators. Also an option: lunch with a retired astronaut.

For more: www.kennedyspacecenter.com, 321-449-4444.

Great birding and hiking trails are what make the 140,000-acre wildlife refuge a lure. Up to 400 manatees make these marshes and estuaries their home in spring. For more: www.fws.gov/merrittisland, 321-861-0667.

How should you whoop it up on New Year’s Eve in Orlando? Charlie Daniels takes over Cypress Gardens (Winter Haven); Cyndi Lauper headlines at Universal CityWalk.

Best source for matching your mood to the music and setting: www.orlandoweekly.com, put together by the city’s alternative newspaper.

The Badger team hotel is The Peabody, a AAA four-diamond, Mobil four-star property on International Drive. For more: www.peabodyorlando.com, 800-732-2639.

Disney’s Pleasure Island, an entertainment complex for adults, will greet the new year with a fireworks show and street dance parties. It’s one price for admission to all clubs. For more: www.disneyworld.com, 407-934-7639.

New and of interest to families, but not necessarily on New Year’s Eve, is Epcot’s newest attraction: “The Seas with Nemo & Friends,” a take-off on the animated movie. At Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a “Finding Nemo” musical, described as the same caliber as “The Lion King,” makes its debut this month.

Maybe the thought of setting up your own Orlando flight, lodging, city transportation and itinerary sounds way too stressful. No problem. You’ll pay more when booking a Capital One Bowl travel package, but the hassles go away.

Two reputable options:

Funjet’s four-night packages include charter airfare from Madison, lodging, a game ticket, pre-game party, airport and game day transportation. The cost starts at $1,100 per person, and several lodging options are offered. For more: www.funjet.com, 888-858-4490.

The Wisconsin Alumni Association also offers package tours because of the bowl game. Two- and four-night options involve two hotels. Land-only and air-land packages are available. It’s $1,889 per person for a room for four nights, based on double occupancy and extras, such as a welcome buffet dinner. For more: www.uwalumni.com, 800-553-5527.

Both tour operators also offer optional excursions and event tickets in Orlando.