How To Experience Kissimmee If You Don’t Love Theme Parks

a taxidermied hog in the Osceola County History Center — Experience Kissimmee
Not the kind of wildlife some people expect to experience in Kissimmee, yet here he is. Or she. I didn’t check.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

In college, I lived oh-so-briefly in Kissimmee. It was quite the experience.

The Kissimmee Experiment (1994)

Despite attending UCF (go Knights!), I moved to the Kissimmee area because I had a part-time job at Disney and the commute from my apartment in Winter Park to Lake Buena Vista was not… ideal. Orlando, the saying goes, is an hour from Orlando — and neither Winter Park nor Lake Buena Vista were technically in Orlando.

In the early- and mid-90s, Kissimmee had a lot of “dinner-and-show” experiences, likely spurred by the popularity of Medieval Times. I never set foot in any of them while I lived there.  Kissimmee was close to my part-time job (which, at the time, was a lot more fun than some of the courses I had to take outside my major), and that was all that mattered.

On occasion, I would meander outside the touristy areas. I remember a lovely downtown that had almost no one wearing a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and a flea market in the St. Cloud area. A lot about this time in my life — my early twenties — is blurry now (for a lot of reasons but most of which I should work out in therapy, not here, so let’s move on, shall we?), but when, a few months into what I can only call the Kissimmee Experiment, I moved back to the coast, I wasn’t thrilled to leave Central Florida but I was definitely OK with losing the dinner-and-show vibe.

Experience Kissimmee (2024)

A few weeks ago, I decided to revisit Kissimmee. I wanted to see what I could find beneath the tourist veneer.

There’s plenty; so much so that I expect we’ll make another trip out there soon, because once you start looking at the area not as a tourist, but as someone who loves Florida, there’s plenty to experience in Kissimmee.

a gator hatchling in a tank at the Osceola County History Center
This little guy was quite real — and quite annoyed by my presence.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Top Three Kissimmee Experiences

  1. Osceola County History Center
    I cannot say enough about how well done this history center is. They start with pre-EuroAmerican history and move through present-day. You’ll find kid-friendly and adult-sensitive exhibits, respectable representation of Black Floridians, and nature education. Overall, it’s a top-notch experience for history buffs.
  2. Woodsby’s Cafe
    Woodsby’s took us about 20 minutes away from our resort, and about twice as far, metaphorically, from the tourists. I hope you listen to the podcast to hear what a visit here taught me about believing Florida’s mainstream media press, but if you don’t, know that I had a wonderful experience and a wonderful meal in a diverse, welcoming environment.
  3. Downtown Kissimmee
    Once again, real life trumps the idea that Florida doesn’t have history. Antebellum architecture and a sense of place pervade.

Kissimmee Lodging

Legacy Vacations hosted us (and the dogs) at one of their one-bedroom suites. My honest take: It’s comfortable, well-appointed, diverse, and committed to sustainability. The units aren’t new, but they’re well-maintained, and if I had kids, I’d easily book a week here and never leave the property.  It’s farther than you’d think from Disney, but most of the people there didn’t seem interested in Disney. Perfect for families, comfortable enough for couples, and at the end of the day, I’m happy to show love to a B Corp committed to making a difference in the world.

How To Do Kissimmee: The Podcast

Here’s the podcast Rick and I recorded about the Osceola County History Center, paddling the headwaters to the Everglades at Shingle Creek, and so many other things you can do there that don’t require theme park admission.

Get More Florida!

Finally, if you love Florida, please support my Florida travel habit, my dogs, and this website. Here’s how:

Rodizio on I-Drive: Worth the Traffic

a row of Brazilian steakhouse meats roasting at Rodizio on I-Drive in Orlando
Rodizio in Orlando is worth braving I-Drive.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

I-Drive in Orlando has its detractors. When I spend too much time near it — or too much time away from it — I’m one of those detractors.

However, every time I find a reason to meander towards I-Drive — at a measured crawl, as Orlando traffic dictates — I realize that, if you put a little thought into where you eat, you can find some gems among the canaille of eateries.

A few years ago, we stumbled into an excellent Ethiopian restaurant in a strip mall right off the main drag. Last week, we decided to try Rodizion, a small chain with a handful of restaurants in Florida.

A caipirinha at Rodizio on I-Drive in Orlando
A caipirinha at Rodizio.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Rodizio: a Brazilian Steakhouse.

Rodizio Grill bills its stores as “ambassadors of Brazil” and, according to our server, Michael — who, along with most of the staff, has Brazilian heritage — the way the restaurant prepares and presents the food is much like one would expect in Brazil.

We started with caipirinhas — regular for the long-suffering El Cap, spicy for me. Then we made our way to the salad bar. Although, truthfully, the phrase “salad bar” evokes images of Ponderosa and Ruby Tuesdays, and this was not that. We had yucca fries, heart of palm, spicy and mild pepper sauces (which made wonderful salad dressings), traditional potatoes, and other expected items.

They also had feijoada as one of the hot side dishes. When I read about the dish on the menu, it sounded like black beans and rice, an ubiquitous dish found throughout Florida. Feijoada, unlike many iterations of beans and rice I’ve eaten, has meat in it, and it’s traditionally served with farofa, a cassava flour seasoning (at Rodizio, it’s next to the beans and rice, so you can use it as liberally as you wish).

 

A salad bar at Rodizio on I-Drive in Orlando

Calling it a salad bar really doesn’t do it justice. Photo by Cathy Salustri

And Now the Meats.

Like many Brazilian steakhouses, Rodizio employs a red-and-green, stop-and-go system. When we finished with the hot bar and salad bar, we turned a small block on our tableside to green. This was the cue for the meat processional (my term, not theirs) to begin.  Gauchos bearing skewers of meat came to our table, one at a time, to offer different meats.

We sampled chicken, lamb, and steak, and we both loved the tri-tip sirloin steak the most. While Barry would love to have meat at every meal, I’m increasingly not a fan of too much meat. But this is where — unexpectedly — Rodizio shined. Instead of ordering a full steak, the gauchos would slice off a piece (or more, based on preference) at a time. That made it easy for me to sample a little bit of a lot of different meats, without waking up with what I call “steak belly” at 3 a.m.

For dessert, we tried orange-tinged creme brulee and acai with fruit and coconut. Both were delicious, but honestly? Next time I’ll skip the sweets and spend more time at the hot bar and salad bar (which is an option — you can forego the meats entirely for a lower price.)

Acai desert at Rodizio on I-Drive in Orlando

Acai! Photo by Cathy Salustri

The Moral of the Meal

I shy away from tourist-adjacent places. Sure, I’ll go to Disney World, but the tourist-clogged part of Kissimmee? Not so much. (Although I did live there for a hot minute in the ’90s). The meal at Rodizio reminded me that Florida’s a paradise of all sorts, not only the one I choose for myself.  I may gravitate to El Siboney on Stock Island, but that doesn’t mean I should skip Key West entirely. And I may love the outer edges of Kissimmee and Orlando, but that certainly doesn’t mean that, every now and then, it’s OK to brave the I-Drive madness.

Especially when it tastes this good.

Check Out Rodizio Grill

Rodizio Grill, with Florida locations in Pensacola, Orlando, Wesley Chapel, Sarasota, Fort Myers, Estero, and Fort Lauderdale. rodiziogrill.com


Note: Through Visit Orlando, Rodizio Grill hosted some of the food described in this experience. This did not influence the post; had we not had an amazing experience, I wouldn’t have written this post.

Florida’s 2024 Hurricane Season: Don’t Panic

Great Miami Hurricane barometer via National Weather Service
As Florida’s 2024 hurricane season begins, let’s remember how far we’ve come with forecasting. Pictured: Barometer from the 1926 hurricane.
Photo courtesy of the National Weather Service.

As Florida’s 2024 hurricane season opens, Rick Kilby and I talked about Florida’s hurricane history, hurricane prep, and — this is clutch — how to prepare without freaking out.

My forthcoming book, Florida Spectacular: Extraordinary Places and Exceptional Lives, has a chapter about how Florida forecasting and experience has made the world better prepared  for a storm. (Hey, if you want to pre-order that, please do so from an indie bookstore like St. Pete’s Tombolo Books. We all love Amazon but we having bookstores in our cities and towns more, right?)

It sounds odd, but I’m a huge fans of hurricanes. I’ve written before about the Hurricane of 1928, and wrote a series about the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in the Everglades and Florida Keys.

Why my fascination? Well, while no one wants to see loss of life, hurricanes are a vital part of the natural order of things. Without them, we’d have devastating forest fires, too many nutrients in our rivers and lakes, and less food production in the ocean. There’s a host of benefits — don’t take my word for it; check out this article — but it’s hard to appreciate those when there’s an oak tree in your living room and you suddenly have waterfront property that may have downed live power lines, right?

So, don’t fear hurricanes. Prepare. Rick and I talk about some ways you can do that on our podcast. Take a listen.

Florida’s 2024 Hurricane Season: Links We Mentioned

Hurricanes.gov

Oranges and Alligators: Sketches of South Florida Life by Iza Duffy Hardy

Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen

Hurricane prep suggestions: Turn off your TV and check hurricanes.gov, the least weather-terroristy source for real news. Instead of bottled water, buy five gallon reusable jugs (we suggest glass, but you can get plastic ones, too) and a USB-powered water dispenser (you can recharge it in your car if needed). You can also get a five-galloon cooler with a dispenser built in the bottom.

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