In Orlando for the PGA Merchandise Show? Here's your can't-miss guide to the area

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

ORLANDO, Fla. -- So, you're attending the PGA Merchandise Show along with thousands of other golf nuts.

PGA Merchandise Show
In Orlando for the PGA Merchandise Show? Don't spend ALL your time at the convention center.
PGA Merchandise ShowBay Hill Club & Lodge - 18thGrand Cypress New Course - 2ndShingle Creek Golf Club - 17th
If you go

Maybe you've been to the tourist phenomenon known as Orlando, maybe you haven't. If it's been a while, trust me, it's changed. Some of us old-time Florida natives remember when Orlando was little more than orange groves and alligators. The orange groves are gone but the gators are still there, though they've pretty much been reduced to window dressing in theme parks.

Orlando no longer even remotely resembles the place it was when Walt Disney World exploded in 1971. It's evolved into one of the biggest tourist destinations on earth, with some 44 million people arriving every year from nearly every point on the global compass. Like pilgrims to Mecca, these visitors are drawn by the lure of the Mouse and all he encompasses.

There are, by the latest count, at least 100 attractions here, big and small, from the wildly weird and technologically advanced to the cheap and cheesy. And, of course, the related tourist infrastructure has developed along with it -- adults have to have something to do besides sing along to "It's a Small World."

It's impossible to list all the things to do and see in Orlando, especially since you'll probably only be there the last part of January, but in this guide we hit the highlights.

Golf in Orlando

You'll probably want to put that fancy new equipment to use on some area golf courses, if you can break away. You're in a good place to do it. There are between 100 and 150 courses in the Orlando area, depending on who you ask. Here are a few of the best bets.

Bay Hill Golf Club & Lodge: Arnold Palmer's home course and the site of the Bay Hill Invitational. Palmer whipped Jack Nicklaus in an exhibition match here back in the 1960s and was so impressed he ended up buying the place. Bay Hill is a semi-private course with guests at lodge able to play at reasonable rates.

Grand Cypress Resort: All Nicklaus, all the time. This is the golf epicenter of Orlando, with three original nines and the New Course, inspired by the Old Course at St. Andrews..

Shingle Creek Golf Club: Lying just a half mile or so from the Convention Center, this David Harman designed track has undulating fairways and interconnected waterways. Conditioning is impeccable and the service is top-notch. A great option for those who are dying to get out into the fresh air but don't want to stray too fair from the action.

Orange County National: Maybe you don't have time to play, maybe you just want to practice with your new sticks. The Golfer magazine called Orange County National's range the best in America. It's 42 acres with a 360-degree hitting area, with 600 total tee spaces. There is a 25,000-square-foot lighted putting green with an 18-hole putting course, and a short-game practice area. The facility also has two acclaimed 18-holers, Panther Lake and Crooked Cat, and a short course.

Orlando restaurants

Criminy, the place has more than 5,000 restaurants, from world-class to low-class! Speaking of low-class -- easy, I'm kidding -- for you barbecue lovers, here's an inside tip: Try Cecil's Texas Style Barbecue, with locations downtown and on West Lee Road at Interstate 4.

For sports bars, try the ESPN Club at Disney's Boardwalk, Friday's Front Row Sports Grill and NBA City at Universal City/Walk Orlando.

For fine cuisine, head to Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton, Grande Lakes, named after chef and cookbook author Norman Van Aken, featuring new-world cuisine. Primo, also at Grande Lakes, offers farm-fresh produce and organic gardening.

For carnivores, there's the Old Hickory Steakhouse at the Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center, with certified Black Angus beef; Charley's Steak House on International Drive; and Ruth's Chris Steak House.

For seafood, try McCormick and Schmick's Seafood Restaurant, where the fresh seafood menu changes twice daily; Bonefish Grill; and the Venetian Room at the Caribe Royal All Suites Resort and Convention Center.

For the more refined

Enjoy a little tipple at the Lakeridge Winery and Vineyards in Clermont.

Orlando has a number of museums, including the Orlando Museum of Art, the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, featuring a comprehensive collection of Tiffany pieces, and the Maitland Art Center with its traveling exhibitions.

Other Orlando attractions

No self-respecting Orlando visitor can skip Gatorland, the self-proclaimed "Alligator Capital of the World." The Wallaby Ranch Hang Gliding Flight Park in Davenport will tow you into the sky by ultralight airplane then release you to god knows what. Drive to nearby Winter Park for the Winter Park Scenic Boat Tour, a slow float through lakes and canals, or go to downtown Orlando's Lake Eola Park to paddle giant swans around and pretend you're in some sort of British movie.

For the outdoorsmen

Most of Orlando has been paved over, but there are still 300 lakes, springs and rivers. There are also parks, gardens, wildlife sanctuaries and zoos. If you really work at it, Orlando still has some great places to fish.

For the kids

Of course, there is always the Walt Disney Resort or SeaWorld Orlando, but there are dozens of easier-on-the-wallet attractions too, like miniature golf, water rides and go-karts at places like Magical Midway or FunSpot Action Park.

For those needing retail therapy

Orlando has nine shopping malls, including The Mall at Millennia, the Florida Mall and Festival Bay Mall at International Drive.

For those in need of a laugh

What, you're bored with all the spiels about the latest golf gizmos? Get a does of improve or stand-up at The Comedy Warehouse at Disney's Pleasure Island, SAK Comedy Lab or The Orlando Improv.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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