Plan a thrill-filled trip to one of Florida's family-friendliest places.
By Darcy Jacobs
When selecting a hotel in Orlando keep one word in mind: Location, location, location. The JW Marriott Orlando Grande Lakes was our choice because it's an easy drive to many of Orlando's top attractions—including the Disney parks SeaWorld and Universal Studios. The only "drawback": There were so many on-site activities—incredible pool with a lazy river, tennis courts, 18-hole championship golf course, sand volleyball, guided kayaking tours, spa—that I wished we had set aside an entire day to play on the grounds.
If you have a must-do ride or two on your Hollywood Studio's list, arrive at opening—but first check the online calendar in advance as hours can vary. Extra Magic Hours allow those staying at Disney resorts special admission times. Terrific if you're at a Disney resort, but if you're not, better to avoid those days, as the lines will have formed before you have arrived. And in case you were wondering—yes, The American Idol Experience is really fun.
The key to the Magic Kingdom is the FASTPASS. While this is true for all Disney parks, it is nearly essential at MK. (Go to the link below to see how it works.) This is another time when, if you want to maximize your experience, you need to do your homework so you know beforehand which rides offer FASTPASS. My suggestion: If you hope to ride Space Mountain, go there first, as it often runs out of FASTPASS tickets and the regular wait can easily be 90 minutes or longer.
Theme park meets science museum doesn't do justice to this riveting attraction. It's hard to say what was cooler—seeing the shuttle Endeavour on the launch pad (space shuttle Atlantis will make its home here after its final mission in July), exploring the Rocket Garden, reliving the space race, or experiencing a simulated shuttle launch. Basically it was all incredibly cool. To quote Ralph Kramden out of context: "Bang! Zoom! Straight to the moon."
Admittedly I'm a Cirque du Soleil fan, loving its enchanting meld of circus antics and European-accented performance art. While the majority of acts in La Nouba stun you with their artistry and nearly inhuman physical feats, there were two that truly left us wide-eyed, mouth agape. First was the disarmingly young and nimble Chinese girls playing with their diabolo yo-yos. Then there were the flying men on the trampoline who made Spider-Man look like an amateur arachnid as they vaulted through the air and climbed on walls.
While SeaWorld is almost synonymous with Shamu and the animal shows (the newest one, which debuted this spring, is One Ocean), it has some really killer rides too. Kraken, Manta, Wild Arctic, and Journey to Atlantis are as stomach-flipping as any in Orlando. But equally thrilling is the awesome Jewel of the Sea Aquarium (hanging with the fishes is how my daughter and I happily amused ourselves while my husband and son were busy getting drenched on Atlantis), Penguin Encounter, Shark Encounter, and Stingray Lagoon.
Fine dining on vacation is not usually our thing. The activities for us are the splurge and a great restaurant meal is something to be savored at home on another occasion. But the meal we had at Primo Orlando may have changed the way we travel—or at least dine. The James Beard award-winning chef, Melissa Kelly, is known for her locally sourced menu—an organic vegetable garden is out back— and her Italian-inspired dishes were as memorable as any moment of the trip.
I happened upon this miniature golf course in one of the tour books—curiously, despite many visits over the years, this is a Disney attraction I had never heard of before. During the dark drive (it is right by the entrance to Blizzard Beach) we nearly turned around, which would have been a loss. The two 18-hole courses (separate admissions) cracked us up as much as they challenged us. The family favorite: Squirty the Snowman, who sprays as you play, and the snorin' Santa.
Except for the part where we couldn't find our car—made the classic mistake of not checking our row for the signs—Downtown Disney (also where Cirque du Soleil is located) is a fun evening destination. After a lovely meal at Portobello, we wandered around the marketplace, stopping to listen to the bands and popping into stores. Don't miss the display outside the LEGO Imagination Center, which includes Brickley, a 30-foot sea monster in the lake. And though we didn't feel like braving the crowds—nor the $9 sundaes —at the Ghirardelli Soda Fountain & Chocolate Shop, we did stock up on their caramel-, mint-, and orange-filled dark chocolate bars.
Admittedly, we did not make it to Universal on this trip (to my kids' disappointment). Still, I find it hard not to at least mention Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure when discussing Orlando. I highly recommend, if your budget allows, that you stay at the Hard Rock or one of the Loews on-site hotels for a multitude of reasons. 1. If you choose, you can easily walk—or take a water taxi—to both parks. No shuttles, no parking, and easy to go for a midday break back at the pool. 2. Your room key gets you front-of-the-line access to many of the most popular rides and you can use it as many times as you like, unlike the Universal Express Pass, which starts at $20 per person for one park, $26 for two (much higher during peak days). 3. You can enter the park an hour before general admission, which includes The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. When we were there in February we were at the gates at 7:50 a.m.; by the time the hordes of people were streaming in, we had already experienced the area and its rides in relative solitude. We were split over which was better—the frozen or the hot Butterbeer. Guess you just have to taste it to decide. To provide perspective: I like the Harry Potter books and movies though I'm far from being a fanatic, and I can honestly say The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is incredible. You truly feel like you have entered another world.
Copyright © 2011 Meredith Corporation.
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.