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Orlando Family Vacation Makeover

Escape to the exciting Florida city for some relaxing time with your loved ones.

By Darcy Jacobs

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Lately it feels like my family vacations have lost their getting-away-from-it-all vibe—in other words, we rush from place to place, checking off items on a lengthy must-see list (which then feels no different than an average weekend). Being a mom has sent my Inner Itinerary Creator into overdrive, and I get really caught up trying to do everything, thinking, "Who knows when we'll be here again?" These action-packed trips are memorable, true—but for me, not always fun. And so that's why, while working with the team at Visitorlando.com on our recent vacation makeover contest, I realized I too was a redo waiting to happen. Here's what I learned on my almost-summer vacation.

Resist Overplanning

The so-called problem with a great destination like Orlando is the temptation to schedule something every second. My usual MO is to head to a big-name attraction straight from the airport. But in my newfound Zen state, my only goal was to check in to the JW Marriott Grande Lakes. My son joined a pickup game of pool basketball, my turbo-charged husband and daughter raced around the lazy river pool and I had blissful time to read. We purposely chose a hotel with wonderful amenities—tennis, volleyball, kayaking—even if I had to remind myself to take advantage of them.

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Establish a Democracy

My two kids make Mars and Venus look like a match made in heaven. So instead of running ourselves ragged trying to keep everybody happy, we each picked one can't-miss activity. (Mom and Dad retained veto power.) This led to only one crazy day: the Disney double-header, made possible by a Park Hopper ticket and well-planned Fast Passes. My son got his morning choice of riding the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster at Disney's Hollywood Studios (though the family favorite was casting our vote at The American Idol Experience). We then headed to Magic Kingdom for our princess-in-training, where my daughter's dreams came true at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. My husband's request was the Kennedy Space Center—especially unforgettable as the Endeavour was positioned for its final mission. Bonus points: My kids had a blast and it launched an interest in the moon and space travel. La Nouba: Cirque du Soleil was my perfect pick. Beyond amazing—we were transfixed—and a welcome change since we don't usually do "cultural" on our vacations. The all-around pleaser was SeaWorld—my adrenaline junkies satisfied their need for stomach-flipping thrills with the Manta and Kraken roller coasters, while my daughter and I were equally awed by the shows and interactive exhibits that kept our feet firmly on the ground.

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Plan Accordingly

Even when you're trying to dial it down, as I was, it's always best to map out a rough itinerary. I checked in advance all the attractions' opening, closing and show times, and avoided the most popular parks on the weekends. I also front ended the agenda—our busiest and earliest day was at the beginning of our trip, and the longest drive right after in case the kids needed to nap or just chill.

Embrace Change

Originally we blocked out time at the end of each day to hang at the hotel. All was keeping to schedule until SeaWorld, when we happily stayed later than expected—which meant we were still in bathing suits at dinnertime. The obvious fix was to cancel our reservation and eat poolside. And the last morning we jettisoned our anticipated kayak around Grande Lakes in favor of a final dip.

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Splurge If You Can

The more you can do that feels different from your ordinary day-to-day, the better. For me, it was an Eco-Rooftop Hammock massage (a truly awesome birthday gift!) at the sister Ritz-Carlton Spa and then dinner for two at JW Marriott's Primo by Melissa Kelly. (My son and daughter were psyched for video games and art projects at the Kids' Nite Out.)

Savor the Little Things

One of the most cherished moments of our getaway was sandwiching s'mores at the firepit beside the lake. We hadn't planned this, we just noticed people congregating. Dormant camping skills came into play as I showed my kids how to create a crispy, molten marshmallow and layer it between a slab of chocolate and graham crackers. Sticky fingers, sweet memories!

Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.

This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.

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