With this year's NPE relocating to Orlando, Fla., you might already plan to arrive early or stay a little late for some built-in vacation time.
Whether you're traveling solo or your brood is tagging along, here are a few suggestions for how to make the most of your weekend time in the sunshine state.
Shows, museums and spas
For a touch of culture, visit the Orlando Museum of Art. Current exhibitions include “Picturing My Florida: A Grassroots Portrait of the Sunshine State,” “Currents in Contemporary Art” and the tail end of Barbara Sorensen's “Topographies.” Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for kids. The CityArts Factory, a large collective of art galleries, has free admission Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. in downtown Orlando.
If the kids moan and complain about the immobile pictures, take them to the Orlando Science Center to see Bob the Builder, DinoDigs, and Our Planet, Our Universe exhibits. The center is open every day 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except for Wednesdays, and general admission is $17 for adults and $12 for kids.
Bring childhood dreams to life by heading to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. From March 30 to April 1, have lunch with space shuttle astronaut Susan Kilrain and ask all the questions your heart desires. Visit the Apollo/Saturn V Center, Imax theaters and hop on the Shuttle Launch Experience. General admission is $43 for adults and $33 for children with activities at extra cost. Operating hours are from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“The Serious Art of Make-Believe,” from the Archives of Universal Orlando Resort, is an exhibition of more than 200 original detailed drawings, architectural plans and models from the resort's signature annual events, held Saturday and Sunday at the Orange County Regional History Center. General admission is $9 for adults, $6 for children ages 5-12 and free for children age 4 and under.
If you're in the mood to sit back, relax and take in a show with the family, catch a rendition of “Charlotte's Web” at Margeson Theater, or more adult-oriented fare such as “Hedda Gabler” or “Private Lives,” both held at the Mad Cow Theatre. Other shows include “Red” at the Margeson Theater, and performances of Stravinsky's “The Rite of Spring,” Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 “Pastorale,” as well as the ballet “Swans: Black & White,” held at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre.
Florida's unique flora and fauna are worth exploring in the Bok Tower Gardens, a subtropical garden with more than 100 bird species, a reflection pool and the pine ridge trail flanked by a bog garden, an open glade and a sand-hill forest community. Join Sebring artist Owen Jolly for watercolor classes, view the Central Florida Watercolor Society's “en plein air” paintings or take a spring garden tour over the weekend. The scenic escape is open every day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tickets for just the gardens are $12 for adults and $3 for kids.
Amp up your tranquility levels after family expeditions by visiting one of Orlando's many luxurious spas. The Spa at the Hilton in Orlando, Blue Harmony and L'Esprit Day Spa are just three of many options. Check with your hotel to see if they offer spa services — they may offer discounts to guests.
Festivals and sports
If you arrive on Saturday, March 31, before the commencement of the NPE show, you're just in time for the Annual University of Central Florida Book Festival. Admission is free and national and local authors such as keynote author James McBride and featured authors Jeff Ashton, Sharyn McCrumb, Ted Dekker and more will participate in author panels and book signings. Book sales, appraisals and children's activities will be available as well at UCF Arena on the main campus.
Also on Saturday is Funk Fest, held at Tinker Field from 3-10 p.m., featuring Bobby Brown, Charlie Wilson, Ledisi and KEM for a blend of R&B, hip-hop and funk. The five-city annual event attracts more than 10,000 people in Orlando, Jacksonville, St. Petersburg/Tampa, Atlanta and Memphis. Tickets range from $45 for general admission to $117.95 for platinum table seating and can be purchased online through Ticketmaster.
Catch spring training for America's pastime with a match between the Atlanta Braves and the Detroit Tigers at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee at 1:05 p.m., or wait until Sunday when the Braves play the Philadelphia Phillies, also at 1:05 p.m. Prices range from $25.75 to $51, including fees.
Finish off your Saturday with a rousing game of Arena Football between the Orlando Predators and San Antonio Talons at 7:30 p.m. Tickets go on sale Feb. 10.
The Orlando Magic square off against the Denver Nuggets at the Amway Center on Sunday, April 1 at 6 p.m. Prices range from $15 to over $275.
We've saved the most obvious for last.
Whether you've got kids or not, there is no shortage of concentrated fun in the theme parks in and around Orlando. Within the city, you can explore Discovery Cove, with its plethora of vacation packages like the self-explanatory Dolphin Swim Experience, an underwater walking tour called the SeaVenture or a relaxing exploration of exotic landscapes with the Wind-Away River. Prices range from $229-$319 per ticket and when tickets are purchased in conjunction with other theme parks, discounts may apply. But you must plan ahead because reservations are required and admittance is limited.
For a mix of rides and shows, visit Universal Studios Florida. Family-friendly rides include the Simpsons Ride, Revenge of the Mummy and the interactive Men in Black: Alien Attack. As for shows, check out the Blue Man Group, Fear Factor Live or Beetlejuice's Graveyard Revue. Showtimes vary. Keep the kids entertained with the storybook play area Curious George Goes to Town and enjoy a night out on the Universal CityWalk, a 30-acre entertainment complex with restaurants, bars, clubs, concerts, shops and cinemas. Admission: $85 for adults, $79 for kids.
Of course, there's the quintessential theme park: Walt Disney World. Choose between Magic Kingdom Park, Disney's Hollywood Studios, Disney's Animal Kingdom Park or Epcot for attractions like Space Mountain, It's a Small World, Disney character greetings, the American Idol Experience and Kilimanjaro Safaris. Though it may be hard to imagine now, if you feel the need to cool down, water parks are available as well. Prices per day for adults are $85 and for kids are $79, not including taxes. Other ticketing options include the Park Hopper, where you can visit multiple parks a day, the Water Park Fun & More option or the No Expiration option.
Other travel destinations just outside of Orlando include Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Legoland Florida. Lesser-known destinations include iFLY Orlando, where all ages can experience indoor skydiving and flying in a vertical wind tunnel, and Gatorland, where you can ride the Screamin' Gator Zip Line and see plenty of alligators and crocodiles, including rare all-white, blue-eyed alligators.
If you're not much of a planner, don't fret — there are plenty of discoveries to be made along International Drive. With more than 150 restaurants, 485 outlet stores and three stadium-style movie cinemas, you're bound to stumble on something entertaining.