When it comes to adventure, I'm no Evel Knievel – but I do like to think of myself as more devil-may-care than Disney. I therefore assumed that Orlando, which draws more than one million Canadian tourists every year, wouldn't be my cup of iced tea.
It was intriguing, then, to learn that the self-described Theme Park Capital of the World is positioning itself as a go-to destination for "soft" adventures. That's shorthand for adult activities that deliver extreme-sports adrenalin, but without the contusions.
Let's be honest with ourselves: Jumping willy-nilly out of airplanes, racing cars at death-defying speeds and roaring through swamps hunting for predators are not usually on the agenda for the average quivering Canuck. But when I'm on vacation, tamer versions of these options offer just the right level of excitement – a chance to break free from my staid everyday life for boast-worthy experiences, albeit in a friendly city with plenty of hand-holding, cushy accommodations and celebratory dinners that include buttermilk panna cotta with pink peppercorn cashew brittle. Soft adventures are like having an affair, but without the emotional carnage and baffling new underwear.
So I head to Orlando, and with the city's sleek, art-filled Alfond Inn as my base, sign up for activities that cater to my sort of provisional desperado. I paddleboard on a nearby chain of lakes; attempt to body surf during an indoor skydive; and brave a brisk air-boat ride through the wetlands of East Lake Toho, eyes peeled for hungry alligators. Each outing offers a thrilling frisson of danger.
Then I'm faced with my next challenge: riding shotgun in a lethal mass of rubber and steel – a 600-horsepower NASCAR racer. The oval track at Walt Disney World Speedway was built in 1995 to play host to the Izod Indy Car Series. It's on Disney property, but run by a company called the Richard Petty Driving Experience.
I clamber into the requisite hideous coverall and don my helmet. I'm in a lineup of other paunchy adults, along with a couple of wide-eyed adolescents celebrating a birthday with their heavily tattooed, sparkle-enhanced mother. In another waiting area is a bunch of sports-car buffs who have elected to drive an "exotic supercar," such as a Lamborghini. If I want to do that, or drive the NASCAR vehicle myself with the instructor in the passenger seat, I'll have to enroll in a training session. And grow cojones the size of papayas.
As I watch and hear the outrageously loud cars zoom by, I have a bout of jitters and consider peeling off my giant onesie and running for my life, like Will Farrell's Ricky Bobby character in Talladega Nights.
Next thing I know, though, I'm climbing awkwardly through a glassless passenger window. A handler straps me firmly into my seat with a five-point harness, and I'm greeted by my high-octane chauffeur, a professional race-car driving instructor. He shoots me a satanic grin, hits the accelerator and off we go.
Within a few heart-stopping seconds we reach 225 km/h and rocket around the 1.6-kilometre track three times before coming to a stop. The driver asks how I liked the ride; I pretend to stifle a yawn. Then I squeeze out the window, my tender psyche scrambled as hard as eggs at a truck-stop diner.
The point of any adventure, clearly, is living to tell the tale. I shake off any vestigial fear and start wondering which of my friends will most appreciate this yarn, which – now that I've survived it – might as well feature me fearlessly urging the driver to put some real lead in his foot and bump up the RPMs.
"That beats Splash Mountain all to hell," I say to myself as I swagger out the door.
IF YOU GO
Consider yourself dared. The Richard Petty Driving Experience Ride-Along at Walt Disney World Speedway is $105 (U.S.) for riders 14 and up. The rookie experience, where you drive eight laps yourself (instructor in the passenger seat), costs $450. drivepetty.com
To rekindle your spirit of wonder, pay a visit to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, indulging in a simulated shuttle launch experience and an up-close look at the retired space shuttle Atlantis. A total of 156 astronauts set sail in the belly of this great starship. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, prebook Lunch with an Astronaut, which offers a presentation by a real live spaceman alongside buffet vittles. Admission starts at $52; kennedyspacecentertours.net
IFLY Orlando offers indoor skydiving. After an information session, each of us achieved a mock free fall into a "flight chamber," a vertical wind tunnel with a trampoline floor. The tunnel operator cranked up the wind speed, which is generated from above by high-efficiency axial fans, then directed down the tunnel's sides and up through the chamber's base to provide an air cushion. The first round was baffling, but during the second, most of us got to the point where we were fully aloft, almost two metres in the air. Earn Your Wings introductory package, $60; orlando.iflyworld.com
The leafy, century-old Winter Park neighbourhood, home to the stylish Alfond Inn (rooms from $189; thealfondinn.com), is blessed with a chain of lakes connected by modest canals. It's a perfect body of water on which to paddleboard. A brief lesson from the instructors at Paddleboard Orlando, and you're getting a full-body workout as you glide past stately homes. If balance is not your forte, simply sit down and pretend you're kayaking. Same buzz. Friendly First Timers session, $35; paddleboardorlando.com
Stare down alligators as you traverse the headwaters of the Florida Everglades with Boggy Creek Airboat Rides in Kissimmee. I only saw one but could have handled encounters with many more: By comparison with the other forms of transport I'd experienced that week, the boat felt blissfully, predictably sturdy. Scenic Nature Tour, $27 for adults; bcairboats.com
The writer was a guest of Visit Orlando. The agency did not review or approve the story.