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What will we do with the kids after Christmas?

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Still in my Rearview Mirrors column

By Rog Patterson

It’s a few days after Christmas,the grandchildren are still with us for the holidays and their new toys have lost their novelty. What can we do to keep ‘em occupied and happy?

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Disney World will be an obvious choice … if you don’t mind the drive or the cost. It’s now a pretty stiff tab for two adults with two children under 10 and the tariff goes up rapidly for more adults, older kids and so forth. Plus more dollars for essential extras, like souvenirs, snacks, drinks and meals. But if it’s a once-in-their-young-lifetime event, you may not have much choice. Plan ahead at http://disneyworld.disney.go.comor call the Support Desk at 407/939-7765.

Next in line is more local; Silver Springs Attraction right down the road on State Road 40. Hop on your Internet for details at www.silversprings.comor phone 352-236-2121 to learn the current ticket prices, check out added costs like parking and confirm dates for their spectacular evening lights. Here again, if your grandchildren have never experienced the glass-bottom boats or taken the safari cruise up the river lined with monkeys, it’s a no-brainer. Consider amortizing the price by combining both daytime and evening adventures.

But there are several less expensive options for enjoying Christmas lights. One is to just drive around your neighborhood and others to see what folks have done to light up their homes. Marion Landing has an annual home outdoor decoration contest for residents and I suspect other communities might do likewise. Another is to check out the square in downtown Ocala. Get out of your car and spend a few minutes walking under those lights. I’m told there are several thousand bulbs twinkling overhead and it sure looks like that many. And, if you must spend a little bit of money, I suggest Rainbow Springs State Park just a few miles north of downtown Dunnellon off U.S. Highway 41 is the best deal around. From 6 to 8:30 p.m. during December 10-12 or 17-19, for exactly $2 per person, young or old, you’ll spend several delightful evening hours wandering the many pathways with multicolor Christmas tree bulbs lighting your way. Storytellers, troubadours and other entertainments, plus maybe a stop for ice cream or a soft drink, keep youngsters occupied ’til Santa arrives. Yes, Santa and Mrs. Claus will be ferried across the spring and hike up to their hilltop abode where they greet each and every visitor. Check what time Santa is expected to arrive by calling 352-465-8555 or go to www.floridastateparks.org/rainbowspringsfor info.

Kids want to go swimming? They’ll find 72-degree water year ‘round at Juniper Springs State Park out on SR 40 less than 40miles from the Corridor. Expect a moderate carload admission, but the park is civilized enough to have changing rooms, picnic tables and grilles, plus a well-stocked convenience store for campers. We’ve enjoyed the facilities many times and it has never been crowded. Phone 352-625-3147 or see www.floridastateparks.org/juniperspringsfor more info. There’s also more rustic Devil’s Den for the same water temperature just a few miles northwest of Williston on Alt. U.S. Highway 27. Swimming and picnic facilities here, too, and the skillful can rent scuba diving gear, as well. For more info see www.devilsden.comor phone 352-528-3344. But if the kids long to go back north and brag about dipping their toes in the nearby Gulf of Mexico, Fort Island Beach State Park is not that far away, either. Just take your favorite route to Crystal River, turn off U.S. Highway 19 at the Plantation Resort onto State Road 44. At the end of the twisty scenic road there’s the very nice, sandy beach. It’s free, there’s a nice boardwalk, fishing pier and rest rooms. No hassle, no phone, no website, either.

Two more freebies that should drain away some youthful exuberance are Liberty Park and the Greenway trail to a most unusual bridge over I-75.

Kids 10 and under will have the most fun at Liberty Park on Southwest 103rd Street Road just a half mile east of the Southwest 62nd Avenue crossing. There are swings, one of those multiple slides, climbs and hidey hole contraptions kids love to crawl around, as well as rest rooms and picnic pavilions, too. The other exercise option might be better served to kids over 10 and adults who’d like to walk through the piney woods to a “land bridge.” I believe this is still the only one in eastern states, too. It is intended to allow hikers, bicyclists and adventurers on horseback to cross over I-75 along the section of Greenway trail between County Road 475A and Southwest 49th Avenue with entrances on both roads. But I recommend taking County Road 484 under I-75 to a left turn at the 475A light and look for the parking area and entrance on your left. From there, the easily followed, flat trail meanders for “a mile or so” to the land bridge. Foliage lining both sides of the land bridge is intended to shield skittery horses from being startled by cars passing underneath.

And model train buffs of any age will get a kick out of the free “Trains at the Holidays” right up ‘til late January at the CF Webber Center. This will be the 16th year for the traditional display which occupies all but just enough room in the center for visitors to explore the extensive railroad displays.

Another one for the younger visitors could be Uncle Donald’s Farm down Lady Lake way. Not only are all kinds of farm animals to see, but your kids can actually feed cows during a hay ride, ride a pony or even milk a goat. It’s worth the tricky drive, so click www.uncledonaldsfarm.comor phone them at 352-753-2882 for directions, fees and other information.

The Weeki Wachee mermaids are real and their underwater performances can be watched though windows of a submerged 400-seat theater. Located near the intersections of U.S. 19 and State Road 50, they are closed on Christmas Day but will open the day after. Mermaids, and mermen too, will perform from Dec. 30 to Jan. 2, so plan accordingly. Hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., adult tickets are $13 and children 6-12 only $4. Call 352-592-5656 or see www.floridastateparks.org/weekiwacheefor details.

Then there are several more places I’ve covered in previous day trip articles that your 10-year plus visitors and even hard-to-please teenagers could find of interest. Don Garlits Drag Racing Museum also features antique, vintage and just plain fascinating cars of all sizes and shapes. The museum website is www.garlits.com or phone 352-245-8661. The Florida Carriage Museum has an amazing collection of horse drawn conveyances from sleds to an emperor’s carriage and everything in between. Click on www.fcmr.orgor phone 352-750-5500. Then don’t forget the Appleton Museum of Art with both a fraction of Arthur Appleton’s collectibles always on display. There will also be “Paintings of Florida” and “The Unseen Eye” photos on display ’til early January. Their phone is 352-291-4455 or click the website www.appletonmuseum.org. Marion County Museum of History behind the Government Center is filled bits and pieces of county history make it very much worth a small donation. No website and odd hours, so best to phone 352-629-2773 for info.

So there you have over a dozen distractions to keep youthful visitors amused or entertained and, most important, happy until it’s time for them to head back home again. And introducing them to these destinations could very well keep you happy, too.