Orlando, Florida – Closer Than You Think
Dreaming of a warm weather vacation this winter? Well it is closer than you think! Like a direct flight close, which is something a bit unusual for Vermonters. To escape our winter blues, we planned a quick, long weekend getaway in January. When choosing a hotel for this trip, we wanted a place that would allow us to explore Orlando. Because as much as we love Disney there is so much more to do than just the theme parks.
The Holiday Inn Club Vacations at Orange Lake Resort was the perfect spot for us to call home while we stayed and played in Orlando. This resort is made up of four villages that cover more than 1,450 acres. We stayed in a two bedroom villa in River Island. It had a king-sized bedroom, a room with two doubles, plus there was a pullout couch in the living room. This spacious unit could easily accommodate one large family or two families of four.
Now, normally I don’t like to do laundry on vacation, however the weather wasn’t as warm as we would have hoped for at the beginning of our trip. Needing to wash our only pairs of jeans, I was able to make good use of the full sized washer and dryer in our villa. And as much as I don’t love to cook while on vacation either, we liked having a kitchen. I was able to conveniently pick up breakfast and snack items at the Publix Grocery store right at the entrance to the hotel complex. Plus there are little markets within the property, like The Marketplace in the River Island complex that have fruit, cut up carrots and even hard boiled eggs if you are looking for some healthy snacks while playing at the pool.
Not wanting to make dinner after long days out and about, we tried out the River Island Grilling Company. Dinner was a mix of chop house choices, flatbreads and sushi. A surprising nice touch at the end of the meal were the $2 small dessert choices — just right for kids!
There are seven pools at the Orange Lake Resort. If you want to tube in the Lazy River you will need to purchase a ‘Play Pass’ (1, 3 or 7 day). This will get you unlimited access to mini golf, tube rental and the fun zone located within River Island. Just right for little ones, this pool also has zero-entry pools and an interactive fountain that “dances” along with your child. If you head over to the Splash Lagoon pool in the North Village you will find that the slide is smaller and less steep. This is good for younger kids.
Another great feature at this resort is that Kids golf free every day at the Par-3 Legends Walk course. This includes rental clubs, balls and tees (with a paying adult). My husband took advantage of that and spent a morning playing 9 holes with the kids. They were finished in less than 1 1/2 hours. It was the perfect way to start the day before we went to the pool.
Things To Do in Orlando
SeaWorld – Have you ever wondered what dolphins feel like or how they learn to communicate with their trainers? My children have, so I signed us up for the Dolphins Up-Close Tour. We began by meeting our tour guide and members of the animal care team at the at the dolphin nursery. After a brief overview of dolphin life and dolphin care, we were given an opportunity to feed the dolphins…ewww! We got throw cold, wet, slimy, fish out to them. Glamorous? Hardly! Cool? Definitely!
Next we headed over to Dolphin Cove. Here we were paired off by family with an individual animal trainer and 2-3 dolphins. This was a great opportunity for curious kids like mine to get all of their questions answered. For instance we learned all whales are dolphins, but not all dolphins are whales and dolphins do in fact sleep. The kids touched the dolphins, rubbed their bellies and their backs. They learned various commands to make them clap, talk (well squeak) spin, and more.
While SeaWorld is a very educational marine life theme park with some excellent rides and exhibits, the Dolphin Tour was the highlight of our day.
Kennedy Space Center – If you are at feeling guilty about your kids missing school to vacation in Orlando, don’t. Just visit the Kennedy Space Center. Spending a day here is worth a semester in the classroom. Definitely plan to spend at least 6+ hours here. This place is huge.
While you arrive at the Visitor Complex the first thing you should do is get on the bus tour that takes you out to the LC-39 Observation Gantry and then the Apollo/Saturn V Center. You will be hopping on and off the buses so try not to carry a lot with you. There are free strollers (and wheelchairs) available at each of the stations so you don’t have to worry about bringing your own on and off the bus.
We spent quite a bit of time at the Apollo Center. After lunch at the Moon Rock Cafe, it was back to 1969 to relive the Apollo 11 mission in which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. The recreation of this historical moment is so well done using actual news footage and recorded conversations from that day, that it is easy to feel as if you were there.
Back at Visitors Complex we strapped in for a ride on the Space Shuttle. This simulated launch experience was really cool from start to finish. While waited in line for our turn, we watched great footage from prior crew members explain exactly what it would feel like to launch ourselves into space. Plus they gave us a little history lesson of the Space Shuttle program too. After that we spent time playing in the Rocket Garden. Here kids can stretch their legs and run around. There are lots of things to climb on and touch. There is a children’s play dome as well as shallow water feature if it is a hot day.
Disney World – We happened to be at Disney at the same time my son turned 13. He picked up one of these complimentary buttons from the staff when we got our tickets. The well-trained Disney staff all over the Magic Kingdom made sure to greet him by name. They all wished him a Happy Birthday, making his day even more special. You can get these celebration recognition buttons for just about everything: First Time at Disney, Celebrating Your Anniversary, Family Reunion or even that you there part of the celebrating party.
For kids who like to collect autographs like my daughter, but don’t want to wait in those really long lines (umm, an hour for Ariel, really?), we had a plan. We filled our parade watching quota early in the day. We had already seen the Move It Shake It! Street Party and the Celebrate A Dreams Come True Parade. So as the nighttime Main Street Electrical parade began, we headed right into the Town Square Theater. This is very close to the park exit. Here we could meet n’ greet Mickey and Minnie and get their coveted signatures. With everyone outside watching the parade, our wait time was less than 5 minutes! The perfect end to our day.
There are a multitude of resources out there that provide tips and tricks like these that make a trip to Walt Disney World a little easier. Erin Gifford of @Kidventurous put together this stellar list of Disney Twitters. Follow them to get the inside scoop on savings, deals, ‘hidden Mickeys’, making dinner reservations and even recipes from the Disney chefs!
iFLY Orlando – My 13 year old son has wanted to jump out of plane for as long as I can remember. Being the cautious Mom, yet also the ‘not wanting to squash his dreams Mom’, I was able to find a solution that would make both of us happy–indoor skydiving.
Arriving at iFly Orlando approximately an hour before flight time, we were able to observe other “jumpers” from the observation room who were already in the wind tunnel. After a short while our instructor came and helped us change into our flight gear – jumpsuits, goggles, helmets and earplugs. You should wear long pants and lace up sneakers. Although if you forget your sneaks they have some there you can borrow. After a short training session, we headed to the flight deck.
Each of us got two turns to fly. The first time was to get the feel for it. The kids admitted the 110+ MPH wind pushing their cheeks out like a chipmunk felt a bit weird. We also learned that the slightest tip of the chin or stiffening of your hands would cause you to go higher or lower, stay steady or bump into the wall. The second time the instructor, Nevin, came in and did tricks with us. He took us high up to the top of the tunnel (30+feet). Surprisingly this was not scary at all. There are no words to accurately describe the feeling of flying, but we all agreed it was AMAZING! We ranked this as one of our best family travel experiences. It was right up there with the Zip Line at Smugglers’ Notch last winter.
Downtown Disney – Downtown Disney is home to restaurants, nightclubs and shopping adventures. You will find that it has the same souvenir shopping experience, including a Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique salon as you will find in the Kingdom. So if you are trying to maximize your theme park time, you might save some of that for here. Even if you are just a window shopper, there is a very cool Lego store with some fantastic Lego sculptures on display.
We came here twice. Both times for dinner. Both times we took a chance without reservations. I wouldn’t recommend this at all, especially on a Saturday night. However if you find yourself in this situation, we managed to score bar seating at Portobellos.
We crammed a lot of fun into 5 days. We had hoped to try out indoor surfing too, but regrettably we found that we did have to cut somethings out. One thing that was easy to skip was the $15 per person entrance fee at ESPN Wide World of Sports. We thought we would take our major league sports fan to have dinner at the Sports Grill one evening but you can’t get even get to the restaurant with out paying the entrance fee. $60 for four before I have even had a drink? No thanks.
After long days of “making memories” together at the theme parks, it was great to be able to come home to a full sized villa rather a single hotel room and have some “space” from each other. I would highly recommend going this route if you are planning a trip to the happiest place on earth anytime soon.
Disclosure: My trip was sponsored by Holiday Inn Club Vacations, who provided a two-night stay. We paid for most of the activities outside the resort. This post is solely my opinion and based on my experience without outside influence.