An awesome family trip has less to do with draining your bank account, more to do with forethought and flexibility. While putting together our Orlando Adults Time Out Contest with the experts at Visit Orlando, I discovered how to tap into the unexpected (the stuff of special memories) and even conjure up a little romance.
Location, Location, Location
Before committing to a hotel, consider what you do—and don't—need. In other words, avoid paying for amenities you're not going to actually enjoy. Being centrally located topped our list. The Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek fit the bill. It's a short ride to the Mickey Mouse habitats, but also a quick hop to other attractions via I-4.
Beat the Clock
Acknowledge from the get-go that there are only so many hours in the day—meaning you can't see everything. Deciding on the must-dos frees you up for spontaneous fun. So yes, Disney World was on our list. Thanks to the trifecta of being early risers, staying just a short drive away, and having well-timed Fastpasses, we managed a theme park doubleheader (no mean feat): Epcot and Hollywood Studios. At the former, we zoomed to the newly redesigned Test Track Presented by Chevrolet and Mission Space. At the latter, the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster and The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror never disappoint, but The American Idol Experience is terrific. (You don't have to be a fan of the show to get caught up in the excitement.)
After lots of simulated thrills, we had a taste of the real thing at the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Walt Disney World Speedway. The kids suited and helmeted up to ride shotgun in a real-life NASCAR race car, whizzing by at over 100 miles per hour. My 14-year-old son exited rarin' for his driver's license.
We maxed out our day at the Universal parks by hitting the highlights. A morning at Islands of Adventure included Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man (new graphics made this family favorite even more incredible), and Jurassic Park River Adventure and The Incredible Hulk Coaster (twice) for my husband and son. Our Park-to-Park tickets meant we could stroll over to Universal Studios to check out the adorable Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, always hysterical Simpsons Ride, and alien-blasting Men in Black Alien Attack. But the big win of the day was when our daughter, who's 8, decided to brave Orlando's tallest coaster, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit—a musicthrobbing, heart-pumping 17-story drop—and then blithely headed for the fiery Revenge of the Mummy.
After all that, the night was still young. We oohed and aahed at Universal's Cinematic Spectacular show, which combines classic movie outtakes with pyrotechnics and synchronized fountains. Then we hit CityWalk's movie-themed Hollywood Drive-In Golf, filled with special effects and nighttime LED lighting, providing a storybook ending.
At SeaWorld we alternated high-flying rides—like Manta and Kraken—with more down-to-earth and below-sea-level pursuits like TurtleTrek, the One Ocean show, and Stingray Lagoon. Next was Ripley's Believe It or Not!, where the odd and occasionally gross exhibits intrigued my son but at times freaked out my daughter. (Stomachflipping free falls she can handle, but not an authentic shrunken human head.)
Take the Plunge
No matter where we travel, the trip usually ends the same way—at the pool. In this case, two pools. The Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek shares facilities with the adjoining Waldorf Astoria Orlando. While the Waldorf's pool was lovely and laid-back, the Hilton's, with its spiraling slide and not-so-lazy lazy river, was more our style. Even when chilling, we like to keep it action-packed.
Give Yourself a Break
Family vacations are amazing, but romantic getaways are important too. Most of us don't have the opportunity to do both, so build time for just the two of you into the itinerary. If you're traveling with another family, designate a night out for each couple and take turns watching the kids. On a multigenerational trip, ask grandparents (or aunt and uncle) in advance to entertain the kids one evening. Or stay at a hotel with a well-supervised program. My daughter was happy to hang with kids her age at the Waldorf Astoria Orlando's Kids Club, and my son loved his solo time in the hotel room watching basketball (especially since a few days later he saw the Orlando Magic in action at the Amway Center) while my husband and I broke away for dinner. Downtown Orlando has a vibrant restaurant scene, but we didn't want to stray too far. Luckily we were near the aptly nicknamed Restaurant Row. We headed to Vines Grille & Wine Bar for some top-notch live jazz and blues. It was a lovely treat—dining out on a Saturday night!—that left us recharged and reconnected, ready for more family adventure.
Originally published in the August 2013 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.