Parks, Paddles, And Playtime: Fun In Orlando With The Whole Family
What’s the greatest place in the United States to bring the kids on a vacation? Washington, D.C., with all that history and all those cool museums, is certainly in the running. Sunny, star-studded Southern California is always going to get a few votes. New York City, I see you raising your hand, but when it comes to picking the best family vacation spot, the place that’s going to leave the kids with the happiest memories while rewarding grown-ups, too, Orlando stands head, shoulders, and mouse ears above the rest.
Theme Parks — Something for Everyone
Orlando is, of course, best known for its theme parks, and that alone might be enough to cement Central Florida as the best family vacation spot. Orlando has officially been the Happiest Place on Earth since Walt Disney World opened in October of 1971. Nearly 11 million people visited in the first 12 months the park was open, and the numbers have only been climbing since then—annual attendance is now closer to 50 million.
With numbers like that, it’s possible that you yourself have fond childhood memories of Disney World — or one of the other area theme parks — and are thinking about introducing a new generation to the experience. If so, you may be worried that today’s plugged-in, multi-media empowered kids won’t be as impressed with a country bear jamboree or the small, animatronic world as you were.
But that’s the genius of Disney. The timeless, classic attractions are just as you remember them from years ago. And the new parts manage to capture the Disney magic while keeping up with the times. Somehow it all appeals to just about everyone, at least within certain age parameters. In other words, I’m not going to promise that your 15-year-old will squeal with joy at Dumbo the Flying Elephant the way you did when you were 5 — this is the happiest place, not the most miraculous. But I’m betting that he or she will dig Space Mountain just as much as you did if you were lucky enough to ride it in high school.
Part of what makes the theme parks such a great place to take the family is that the major ones are all so large that there’s got to be something that will amuse every member of the family. If you haven’t visited the biggies in a few years, you may be astounded to realize how sprawling some of them have become, with entire new sub-parks springing up over the years.
Take trusty old Walt Disney World, for example. (3111 World Dr.,Lake Buena Vista; 407-939-7679; DisneyWorld.Disney.Go.com) Once just the Magic Kingdom, the empire now has three other distinct parks under the Disney World umbrella: Epcot; celebrating human culture and technological achievement; Hollywood Studios, celebrating moviemaking; and the safari-themed Animal Kingdom, featuring dozens of live African animals. There are not one but two water parks (waterslide-happy Blizzard Beach; and Typhoon Lagoon, featuring one of the largest wave pools anywhere). There are also several other entertainment areas, most notably Downtown Disney, which with its music clubs, sit-down dining, and shopping opportunities is probably the most grown-up part of the Disney empire.
Similarly, the Universal Orlando Resort (6000 Universal Boulevard, Orlando; 407-363-8000; UniversalOrlando.com/Home.aspx), also covers a lot of ground, spread into three distinct areas. Universal Studios Florida is the original core of the resort, and is movie themed, with many rides seeming to drop you right into the plot of a number of beloved franchises. These rides tend to appeal to older kids; younger ones will gravitate toward the tiny roller coaster, playground, and Barney sing-along at Woody Woodpecker’s Kidzone.
If you have a Harry Potter fan in the clan, you’ll want to spend a lot of time on the Universal’s Island of Adventure side of the property. Here’s where you’ll find the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, including the brand-spanking new Diagon Alley attraction, which is getting a lot of buzz. Small children will love the tame (and timeless) Seuss Landing area, based on the books by the beloved doctor. Finally, like most resorts in this warm part of the world, Universal has a water park, Wet ’n Wild Orlando.
SeaWorld (7007 Sea World Dr., Orlando; 888-800-5447; SeaWorldParks.com/en/Seaworld-Orlando), too, has learned the trick of splitting up to appeal to as many people as possible. The park itself aims to please what seems like an almost impossible range, from those who seriously want to learn about, say, jellyfish and penguins in their natural environments to those who feel that dolphins and orcas are here primarily for our hoop-jumping entertainment. As if most of the world didn’t fall somewhere on that spectrum, the SeaWorld complex includes the much more intimate (and much more expensive) Discovery Cove (6000 Discovery Cove Way, Orlando; 877-557-7404; DiscoveryCove.com/?from=Top_Nav), where guests as young as six can swim with dolphins and reef fish. Finally, right across the street from SeaWorld is — wait for it — a water park, Aquatica (5800 Water Play Way, Orlando; 888-800-5447; AquaticabySeaWorld.com/Orlando.), where visitors tortured by looking into the blue all day can at last take a dip themselves.
City of Orlando
Don’t discount Orlando itself. It’s easy to make a theme-park circuit and never actually set foot inside the city limits, but this would be a shame. Orlando is a thriving place, with at least as much going on as any other mid-size city — and yes, Orlando’s not just for vacationers; more than 200,000 people live here year-round. On your trip, make like the locals and partake in some lesser-known activities including:
Fun Spot America – Orlando (5700 Fun Spot Way, Orlando; 407-363-3867; Fun-Spot.com/O_Orlando.aspx). Although the park is only 16 years old, it feels a little bit like what fun must have been like before the major theme parks came. This Fun Spot location has Orlando’s only wooden roller coaster, plus go-karts and classic midway games.
Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens (3755 North West Highway 17-92 Sanford; 407-323-4450; CentralFloridaZoo.org). The Greater Metro Area’s own zoo has over 400 animals on exhibit. Plus, because it’s Orlando, there is also a water park and an aerial adventure course with zip lines and rope bridges.
Medieval Times Dinner Show (4510 West Vine Street Kissimmee; 866-543-9637; MedievalTimes.com/Orlando.aspx). Also not technically in Orlando, but still part of the Metro Area is the Medieval Times experience, a dinner show full of all the jousting, falconry, and gallantry you’d expect. Almost every kid enjoys the trip back to the Middle Ages. Most adults do, too; anachronistic but blessedly well mixed cocktails help.
Dr. Phillips Community Park (8249 Buenavista Woods Boulevard, Orlando; 407-254-9038; Ocfl.net/CultureParks/Parks.aspx?m=dtlvw&d=66#.U5er6RbquUF). This is a great place for kids to blow off steam without breaking the bank. There are no rides or mascots, just acres of grass, playing fields, playground equipment, and a splash pad. There’s even a dog park, in case some of your family members have four legs.
International Drive (InternationalDriveOrlando.com). Sure, I-Drive, as it’s known, is touristy. But there’s a reason so many people want to visit: It’s a lot of fun. If you go to any part of the SeaWorld or Universal complexes, you’ll pass along this street, so why not get out and enjoy it. There is outlet shopping, a Ripley’s Believe it or Not! museum, and an upside down building, WonderWorks (9067 International Drive; 407-351-8800; WonderWorksonline.com/Orlando). Plus, a fun trolley runs up and down the length.
Paddle boats on Lake Eola (Rental spot is next to the Relax Grill restaurant at 211 Eola Parkway, Orlando; 407-425-8440). Lake Eola is one of the prettiest urban lakes around, 23 acres of water surrounded by gardens and ringed by a paved path just under a mile long. The kids might find that a little dull, but they’ll love being taken out for a ride on the swan-shaped paddleboats that can be rented by the half-hour.
If you’re willing to drive a little, a whole world of Central Florida attractions opens up for you and the family. Just for starters, the willingness to spend an hour in the car gets you more theme parks to choose from, including Busch Gardens, Tampa (10001 N. Malcolm McKinley Drive, Tampa; 888-800-5447; SeaWorldParks.com/BuschGardens-Tampa), and one of only two LEGOLAND (One LEGOLAND Way, Winter Haven;877-350-5346; Florida.LegoLand.com/en/) locations in North America.
An hour’s travel also gets you to the one thing that Orlando does not have: beaches. The sand on Florida’s Atlantic coast is generally fine, and the water warm and shallow. But if your little paddlers are very small, you might consider driving just a bit further still (about 90 minutes) to Florida’s Gulf Coast, where the water is even calmer.
Central Florida has lots of state parks and protected areas for recreation. One of the best for families is Blue Spring State Park (2100 West French Avenue, Orange City, 386-775-3663, FloridaStateParks.org/BlueSpring). Attractions here include St. Johns River cruises, where you’re quite likely to see live alligators and snapping turtles, and the namesake Blue Spring, which runs warm enough for year-round swimming and rafting. A bonus is that at any time of year, but between especially mid-November and mid-March, you may spot one or more of the hundreds of huge but gentle manatees that winter in the springs.
One more Central Florida attraction worth making a detour for is the Kennedy Space Center (SR 405, Titusville; 877-404-3769; KennedySpaceCenter.com). Budding astronauts can view the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which is permanently on display. They can also walk among rockets used by NASA, see the mission control room, and view an Imax film containing spectacular Hubble Telescope images. The Space Shuttle doesn’t actually fly anymore, but if you time your visit right, you might catch a SpaceX rocket launch — the center has a special viewing area 5 miles from the launch pad.
When to Go
Speaking of timing, it seems pretty clear that the question is not “Why should we go to Orlando?” but rather “When?” Obviously, consider anything seasonal or scheduled you want to see, such as manatees or a rocket launch. Next consider the weather. There’s no getting around the fact that summers can be sweltering. Winter and spring can be balmy, making Orlando an excellent Holiday or spring break destination — except for the fact that much of America has that same thought, making for packed parks during school vacations. When booking, you may have to do some serious thinking about what makes your family more uncomfortable: crowds or high humidity. One upside to Orlando’s land-locked location is that it’s less prone to hurricanes than the coast, so fall is a good time to go if you can get away then.
To book your family Disney World adventure, contact Eric Murken, Travel Advisors of Los Gatos resident Disney expert at 408-354-6531 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contract an original article, purchase reprints or become a media partner, contact editor [@] girlsthatroam [.] com.
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