A Magic Kingdom for Men

We usually think of Central Florida as a big playground for kids. Its theme parks, after all, are among the world’s most popular attractions. Yet within an easy drive of Orlando, you can find plenty of affordable adventures that are just right for full-grown men. So this Father’s Day, do Dad a favor and take advantage of what the area has to offer. His “fantasy mancation” awaits! Here’s a roundup of the best.

070606_Florida_Mancations_Brevard_Zoo_F.jpgIt’s a Jungle Out There

Interested in a different kind of safari? Whether your man is a Tarzan wannabe or a mild-mannered Marlon Perkins type, Brevard Zoo in Melbourne (about 30 minutes south of Orlando) has an adventure to suit his taste. That’s because this facility earns its reputation as “the small zoo that does big things” by offering up-close access to wildlife through unique “habitat experiences.” One cool pick is a quick kayak trip through Expedition Africa, a 10-acre area complete with savannah and man-made river (replicating the Zambezi Delta) that puts Pops within a paddle’s-length of rhinos, giraffes, and leaping lemurs. You can’t quibble with the price, just $10.50 for admission plus $5 for a 20-minute guided excursion. Sticklers for authenticity might prefer the zoo’s naturalist-led kayak tour through Haulover Canal (part of the ecologically diverse Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge). Positioned on the Atlantic Flyway, Merritt Island draws over 300 bird species, and the canal itself is the best place for spotting bottle-nose dolphins and endangered manatees. The four-hour tour, including lunch, costs $45.

To Infinity and Beyond

Men who grew up during the Space Race — or who spent their formative years immersed in SciFi — will have a blast at Kennedy Space Center. With a $38 ticket (valid for two days) fathers can marvel at aeronautic antiques, touch a moon rock, take a virtual shuttle ride on a new $60-million dollar simulator, and watch the Apollo VIII count down in a meticulously re-constructed control room that features original fittings. Better yet, they can add on lunch with an astronaut (chicken and corn dog buffet, $22.99; photo op with a NASA veteran, priceless!). Of course, if your big guy really has the right stuff, you might want to send him “out to launch” instead, courtesy of the Astronaut Training Experience. It involves rigorous exercises that mimic real flight training and culminates in a faux mission aboard a full-scale model of the space shuttle. Worried you might have to drop a few Gs for the g-force adventure? Don’t. The full-day ATX program, including a behind-the-scenes tour, souvenir gear and annual Space Center pass, is $250.

070606_Florida_Mancations_Richard_Petty_Driving_ExperienceF.jpgBaby You Can Drive My Car

More down-to-earth dads can get their motors running about 45 miles north of Kennedy Space Center in Daytona Beach. The area is justifiably called the “Birthplace of Speed.” Men like Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet raced their prototypical vehicles here, and the Daytona 500 continues to pull in huge crowds. So it is the perfect place for Pops to slip into a driving suit and then into the seat of a Winston Cup-style stock car. Simply sign him up for the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Daytona International Speedway. Racy options range from a $134 Ride Along (doing three laps, shot gun, at 150 MPH with a professional instructor) to the $2,099 Ultimate program (actually driving 24 hair-raising laps around the legendary 31-degree banked track). For a middle-of-the-road alternative, consider the Daytona High-Banks 8 package, priced at $525. It’s a three-hour car encounter that includes an amped-up version of drivers training, eight laps behind the wheel, and a commemorative time sheet.

Happy Trails to You

Admittedly, excessive speed isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. So if you think Dad would pick one horse over 600 horsepower, pack him off to Crescent J, a 1,500-acre ranch on the Forever Florida property, about 40 miles southeast of Orlando’s airport. It organizes Cattle Drive Weekends designed to turn everyday urbanites into intrepid “cow hunters” (whatever you do, don’t call them cowboys in this neck of the woods!). Since this working ranch boasts the world’s-largest herd of registered Cracker Cattle, keeping Pa busy won’t be a problem. In fact, he can expect to try his hand at riding, roping, and cow cutting; then bed down by the campfire in a cozy tent. Two-night programs, costing $299, include all activities and meals. Less intensive one-night versions are $199. But when saddle sores are an issue, it might be kinder to start him on the $89 half-day Rawhide Roundup. Straightforward trail rides are also available, priced from $37.50 for one hour.

070606_Florida_Mancations_Ron_Jon_Surf_F.jpgLet’s Go Surfin’ Now…

Cocoa Beach (about 47 miles east of the Orlando airport) is “Surf Central” for the Eastern Seaboard. While baby boomers may still remember it as the place where Major Nelson dreamed of Jeannie, Cocoa Beach is better known today as the hometown of surfing’s biggest celeb: Kelly Slater. He has won a record-breaking eight World Championships, and aspiring Moon Doggies can learn to emulate him at the Ron Jon Surf School. Run by Craig Carroll (himself a former US National Team member), the school offers group classes as well as semi-private and one-on-one lessons geared to different levels of expertise. Prices, starting at $45, include loaner equipment and most students get the hang of it after only a few attempts.

Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb