Saturday, April 12, 2008

An Orlando Guide About Orlando

Pauline Frommer's Walt Disney World and Orlando (1st Edition), by Jason Cochran; Pauline Frommer, Series Editor. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 2007; 330 pp.

Hello. My name's Paul and I'm addicted to theme park guidebooks. (Hi, Paul!)

For some unknown reason, I've read and I own a large collection of guidebooks to the Disney theme parks - official and unofficial. I don't know if there's a good reason for it; I've probably been to Disneyland and Walt Disney World enough times that I don't really need to refer to a guidebook, but I keep reading them and buying them - new and used. Maybe it's because they're the easiest books about the Disney parks to find. Maybe it's because they provide a snapshot of the parks at a particular moment in time. Maybe it's my way of going to the parks without actually visiting them. Whatever the reason, I'm going to review them here, and my first victim... er, subject... will be the Pauline Frommer's Guide to Walt Disney World and Orlando.

For those of you who read the above title and said "Pauline who?", Pauline Frommer is the daughter of travel expert Arthur Frommer (the author of Europe of $5 A Day and the founder of the Frommer's Travel Guides). Pauline's apparently no slouch as far as travel knowledge is concerned, and she's started a series of travel guides under her own name, which are being published by the same company that prints the Frommer's Guides. In the case of the WDW guide, just because Pauline's name is in the title doesn't mean she wrote the thing; she's the editor of the series, which I guess means she's responsible for coming up with and maintaining the overall concept and philosophy of the guides.

In any case, I was really impressed by Pauline Frommer's Walt Disney World and Orlando. Jason Cochran, the author of the book, really seems to know his stuff about central Florida and the Disney theme parks and has done a great job of writing a thorough and opinionated guide to what's out there for the visitor to see. Jason's well-versed in the history and the workings of the Disney theme parks and other places, and he's not one of those people who looks at Disney through Mouse-colored glasses; the end result is a guide that provides unabashed opinions about what Disney management (and other theme park operators and hoteliers) are doing right and doing wrong, and that points you toward the places and things that he feels deserve your time, money and attention.

One of the things that most impressed me about Pauline Frommer's (sorry, but I'm not writing the full title over and over again) is its coverage of what there is to see and do and where there is to stay outside the realms of the Big Three (that's Disney, Universal and Anheuser-Busch, in case you're wondering). Where many guides to WDW and Orlando pretty much only discuss the major theme parks and provide a smattering of information about the major tourist corridors and a quick word or two about stuff in downtown Orlando (and some only talk about stuff on Disney property), Jason touches a variety of topics, such as second-tier attractions, parks and wildlife refuges, museums, areas and places where locals go to have fun or get a good meal or do a little shopping. Jason recognizes that there's more to Orlando than the theme parks and the tourism corridors, and encourages you to really take some time to experience it.

Have I mentioned that Jason is opinionated? Even if I have, it bears repeating. If it's a given to you that the WDW experience - particularly if you're staying on-property - is pure Disney magic, Jason's gonna tick you off. But that doesn't mean he's anti-Disney -- based on the information that he shares about Walt Disney World's history and details, I'd say he's pretty passionate about WDW, but he doesn't cut Disney much slack when he feels that parts of the Disney experience don't live up to the blissful picture painted by the marketing folks at WDW.

If it makes you feel any better, Jason's just as opinionated about the non-Disney stuff he covers in the book; this is probably the first Orlando guidebook I've read that argues that none of Orlando's many accommodations - even the best ones - offer a truly world-class experience, and that folks coming to visit the Mouse should seriously consider staying in a vacation home or even - gasp! - off the WDW property to get the most bang your your tourism buck.

If you're a die-hard Disney fan who sees any negative comment about Disney or the Disney theme park experience as bashing, this probably isn't the guidebook for you. The same is true if your goal in getting a guidebook is to use it to lay out your plan of attack for most efficiently visiting the WDW theme parks; Pauline Frommer's not going to provide you with touring plans. If you've pretty much made up your mind that the only time you'll be off the WDW property will be to drive to and from the airport, a lot of the information that's in this book isn't going to be of any use to you; if you're looking for lots of information about what you'll find at WDW or other parks, you'll probably either want to give this book a complete pass or use it on conjunction with another guidebook (I'd recommend The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World or Passporter Walt Disney World).

If you want to get a feel for what central Florida has to offer and you're not averse to going off-property, consider Pauline Frommer's Walt Disney World and Orlando - it's better than a lot of the guides to Orlando put out by most of the major travel publishers. You'll get a guidebook that provides you information about options you might not have considered (or even known about) as far as accommodations, attractions, and dining, and it's an entertaining and informative read. I'm glad to add this guidebook to my already way too large collection.

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