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Not Just Fries Anymore

Some of you may not be able to go your entire vacation without a trip to McDonald's for a Big Mac. If you just can't pass up a trip to Mickie D's for a fast-food fix, the good news is that Orlando has a handful of uniquely themed McDonald's unlike any you'll find in your neighborhood. All of them sport unique and eclectic menus, which, in addition to the usual fare, add (among other items) pizzas, turkey wraps, portobello and eggplant panini, and crème brûlée cheesecake.

The 24-hour McDonald's European Café, 7344 Sand Lake Rd. (tel. 407/264-0776), boasts two levels with plenty of glass to allow sunlight to pour in. You won't mistake it for a European cafe (it's still a McDonald's, so don't get too carried away), but neat features include a pool table and arcade games on the second level, plus fabulous views of the sand lakes.

The Ancient Ruins branch, 5401 Altamira Dr. (tel. 407/345-9477), is themed (wonder of wonders) to the ancient ruins of Greece, complete with broken columns, stone walls, and frieze-style moldings.

The Club Safari location, 2944 S. Kirkman Rd. (tel. 407/296-6265), boasts an African safari theme complete with rich wooden fixtures, African masks and artwork, crystal chandeliers, and animal prints galore. Animatronic toucan and Tiki figures sing jungle jingles, and you can't help but take note of the 13-foot bronze giraffe and two bronze tigers keeping watch.

Chrome shines everywhere you turn at the Motorcycle McDonald's, 5400 S. Kirkman Rd. (tel. 407/352-1526). Tail pipes, shocks, and various other bike parts adorn the restaurant's walls.

Finally, the world's largest McDonald's can also be found in Orlando, right on 6875 Sand Lake Rd. (tel. 407/351-2185). The location boasts a huge tubular maze with 25,000 feet of twists, turns, and sliding, crawling, and jumping space for kids to play in. Another unique feature: You can book hotels and transportation, buy attraction tickets, and get daily park information, all while enjoying your fries and a Coke (or, in this case, maybe a gourmet coffee).

For a complete list of themed McDonald's throughout the Orlando area (there are several), head to www.mcfun.com/restaurants.

Only in Orlando: Dining with Disney Characters

Dining with your favorite costumed characters is a treat for many Disney fans, but it's a truly special occasion for those younger than 10. Some of the most beloved movie characters seemingly come to life: shaking hands, hugging, signing autographs, and posing for family photos (most never speak, with the exception of the princesses and a very small handful of others, so forget about conversation). These are huge events -- it's not uncommon for Chef Mickey's to have 1,600 or more guests on a weekend morning -- so make your Advance Reservations (a must!!!!!) as far in advance as possible (when you book your room, if not earlier). Don't expect more than just a few moments of one-on-one, but what time there is will be sure to bring a big smile to your little ones' faces.

The prices for character meals are much the same, no matter where you're dining (with one exception: Cinderella's Royal Table). Breakfast (most serve it) runs $20 to $36 for adults and $11 to $24 for children 3 to 9; those that serve dinner charge $28 to $56 for adults and $14 to $28 for kids. The prices vary a bit, though, from location to location. Note that for character meals inside the theme parks, you'll also have to pay park admission fees and will be subject to the $14 parking charge.

To make reservations for WDW character meals, call tel. 407/939-3463. American Express, Diners Club, Discover, MasterCard, Visa, and the Disney Visa Card are accepted at all character meals. For online information, go to www.disneyworld.com.

Note: Lineups and booking requirements change frequently (as do menus and prices). I strongly recommend against promising children they will meet a specific character at a meal. And never mention dining with the characters unless your Advance Reservations are confirmed first; character meals book up quickly, and trying to make Advance Reservations too late in the game (or worse, attempting to walk in) will mostly likely result in disappointment. If you have your heart set on meeting a certain character, call to confirm his or her appearance when making your Advance Reservations.

Other Casts of Characters -- Not wanting to feel left out, Universal Orlando has instituted its own character dining experiences. Like Disney's meals, these are very popular, so be sure to reserve your spot as far in advance as possible.

At Islands of Adventure, the Confisco Grill is home to a character breakfast buffet where Spider-Man, Captain America, the Cat in the Hat, and Thing 1 and Thing 2 all join in the fun. It runs Thursday and Sunday from 9 to 10:30am. The cost is $18 for adults, $12 for kids 3 to 9, plus the required park admission. Call tel. 407/224-4012 for information or reservations.

Universal characters also make an appearance at the Kitchen (Sat 6-9pm at the Hard Rock Hotel), Trattoria del Porto (Fri 6-9pm at the Portofino Bay Hotel), and the Islands Dining Room (Wed and Sat 6:30-9:30pm at the Royal Pacific Resort).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.