Orlando's swingin'-club scene: The putts stop here

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Folks call it Goofy Golf, Pee-Wee Golf, Putt-Putt, Miniature Golf, Mini Golf and probably other things in different regions of the country.

Whatever, we at Team Cal road-tripped around Central Florida to rate a sampling of courses.

Our meager budget didn't allow us to travel far and wide or play every course, but we can give you a starting point -- and can suggest you check out "golf courses, miniature" in the Yellow Pages or google "miniature golf courses in Central Florida."

We went. We played. We sweated and swore. And we pretty much stunk up the courses. But we did take notes.

Putting Edge

The look: Behind a humble storefront in Festival Bay is a densely packed, 18-hole, glow-in-the-dark course. It's like living in a 3-D black-light poster.

The sound: Backstreet Boys and the ilk.

The skills: Although the balls and the psychedelic decor provide illumination, it's still too dark to pick up much about the slope of the holes. Basically, they're flat, and 17 of them are par 3.

The vibe: It's divided into a forest scene, an underwater look and a medieval theme, but we say it looks like SpongeBob on acid.

The extras: Buy a glow stick ($1) to keep up with your crew. Check out the souvenir shelves.

The bottom line: Being inside turns rain and heat into nonfactors, but miniature golf is best in the great outdoors. Still, it could be fun to throw a wear-white party here.

(The Putting Edge is in Festival Bay, 5250 International Drive, Orlando. The course is open until 8:30 p.m. daily. Cost is $8.50 adults, $7.50 youth, $6 children and seniors; after you're done, you can get another round for $4. Call 407-248-0700.)

Tiki Island

The look: It's a two-course mound of mini golf built around a volcano and roaming dinosaurs. Although it's called Tiki Island, there's precious little Tiki to be found.

The sound: Bob Marley, steel drums.

The skills: The Volcano Voyage course includes steep inclines, some of which seem impossible in the six-stroke limit. There also are a lot of stairs on that side. The Tiki Falls course is flatter but also features more dinos than Tikis.

The vibe: The bright lights can be blinding; there are areas of disrepair (dripping caves, patchy concrete, burned-out ground lights); and balls freely jump the curbs.

The extras: Scoring a hole-in-one on the 19th hole earns you a free game and makes the volcano blow. And, boy, is it a hot one -- you can feel the glow even from fairly far off.

The bottom line: Its winding design separates you from the hustle of International Drive. You could feel on vacation here.

(Tiki Island is at 7460 International Drive, Orlando. Hours are 10 a.m.-11:30 p.m. daily. Cost is $8.99 adults, $7.99 children for 18 holes; $12.99 adults, $11.99 for both courses. Call 407-248-8180.)

Bonanza

The look: Old West gold mine: Think water sluices, rustic wood and lots of Thunder Mountain-style rocks. The Gold Nugget course is for beginners; the Prospector is more challenging.

The sound: A mix of music, including steel drums (what's with steel drums and mini golf?), soundtracks and pop country.

The skills: Mountaineering experience would help -- both courses include a lot of stairs and climbing. Almost all holes are par 3, despite considerable difference in complexity, hole to hole. Also, too many shots are entirely blind -- you can see neither the hole nor the course.

The vibe: Lack of any landscaping to speak of means this would be one brutally hot course on a summer day. Graffiti artists have had fun with some of the mine's walls, but all in all, it's well-maintained.

The extras: The more-difficult course doesn't seem especially hard, but when we tried the other and immediately got holes-in-one -- more than once -- we knew we had a winner. Who cares about skill? It's all about seeing that little ball roll right into the hole on the very first try.

The bottom line: Not worth driving cross-county but fun enough if you find yourself in the area of U.S. Highway 192 west of Disney.

(Bonanza Mini Golf is at 7761 W. Irlo Bronson Highway, Kissimmee; hours are 9 a.m.-midnight daily; cost is $7.95 adults, $6.95 age 9 and younger, two-game packages are $9.95 per person; call 407-396-7536.)

Fantasia Gardens Miniature Golf Course

The look: Two 18-hole courses, two very different styles, one common theme: lots of imagination, not enough maintenance. We opted for the Gardens Course, a colorful Disney spin on classic mini golf with scenes from Fantasia. The Fairways Course actually looks like a pint-sized golf course.

The sound: Classical music, perfect for soothing frustrated golfers on the Lotus Blossom hole. Evil, evil hole.

The skills: Strictly par 3, but a few holes are so tricky, they should have been par 4. Little rhymes at the start of each hole offer tips for beating par -- not that they always work but points for the effort.

The vibe: Statues of dancing hippos, a pan-flute-playing satyr, Sorcerer Mickey and his cavalcade of bucket-wielding mops -- all in all, a pretty garden setting.

The extras: The course is blissfully flat (no more mountains for us). Each hole has small ramps that look as if they might be accessible to wheelchairs.

The bottom line: Fun for killing time between theme-park jaunts.

(Fantasia Gardens is across the street from Disney's Swan and Dolphin Resorts near Epcot. Hours are 10 a.m.-11 p.m. daily for the Gardens, 10 a.m.-10:30 p.m. daily for Fairways. The cost is $10 plus tax adults, $8 plus tax ages 3-9; second round half-price on same day.)

Pirate's Cove

The look: There is an easy course and a more difficult one. You got your waterfalls, a few caves, your humps (some looking like dinosaur droppings) and fakey sandtraps.

The sound: Islandy music, sort of repetitious. The accompaniment also includes the sounds of vehicles speeding by on I-4.

The skills: We did the easier course, which still has lots of climbing. Most of the holes are par 2 on this one.

The vibe: There's a Pirates of the Caribbean-type prison cell at one turn and a few gravestones a la Haunted Mansion.

The extras: We couldn't decide if the two loops on hole 10 were supposed to be a hidden Mickey. It might just be an accident because there aren't really any other clever touches on the course. Hole 16 is kind of fun because it has three levels.

The bottom line: Not worth a special trip to Tourist Land although, if you go, there are gobs of eatin' places at the Crossroads for those wanting to combine dinner and a date.

(The Pirate's Cove we putted around is at the Crossroads center at Interstate 4 and State Road 535. Hours are 9 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. The cost is $8.95 adults, $7.95 for children for 18 holes, more if you want to play both courses. Call 407-827-1242.)

Congo River Adventure Golf

The look: Rocks, caves and lots of water flavor this two-course manmade mountain that comes complete with zebra-striped airplane wreckage and live alligators in a pen out front.

The sound: UB40 pop reggae to Buster "Hot, Hot, Hot" Poindexter.

The skills: Both courses are hilly, full of water hazards and bordered by uneven rocks, offering real challenges to even the most confident putting pros.

The vibe: Tribal, tropical-party atmosphere.

The extras: Players can win scratch-off tickets good for discounts and prizes if they can spot clues scattered around the courses.

The bottom line: Two tough courses really tested our putting skills, but the gator pond's reptilian inhabitants weren't very enthusiastic.

(The Congo River location we putted is at 6312 International Drive, beside Wet 'n Wild. Hours are 10 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. The Florida-resident rate is $9.95 adults, $7.95 for children for 18 holes, more if you want to play both courses. Call 407-352-0042.)

Team Cal members: C. Dewayne Bevil, Linda DiBattista, Mary Frances Emmons, Dean Johnson, Eric Michael and Rebecca Swain Vadnie.

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