Photo: Courtesy of Spirit of the Swamp Airboat Rides
When most families plan their annual trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, the most obvious place to stay is at one of the many Disney resorts. While those offer great incentives (easy access to the parks, themed rooms and free parking), families travelling in large groups may want to consider staying in nearby Kissimmee, the holiday rental capital located at Disney’s doorstep.
Rental homes are prohibited in Orlando, which means families seeking more of a home away from home (hello, separate bedrooms and a kitchen) head to Kissimmee. Magic Village Resort is located 15 minutes from Disney’s Animal Kingdom and offers three- and four-bedroom contemporary-style flats, with ensuite bathrooms in every room, a fully-equipped kitchen, spacious living room, barbeque, balconies and a terrace overlooking the perfectly manicured grounds. Guests have access to a 24-hour clubhouse with on-call concierge, a full-service restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner (try the Brazilian-style pizza), a zero-entry pool—perfect for the little ones—and hotel-style cleaning services, upon request. The company will also stock the fridge ahead of time so you don’t have to grocery shop. Want to upgrade to something bigger? A night at a Jeeves property is an experience in and of itself. These luxury mansions have every imaginable kid amenity, including in-home theatres, gaming rooms, bowling allies and fully-stocked playrooms. At night, kids can cuddle up with Harry Potter, Star Wars or LEGO figurines in one of the themed kids’ rooms, while parents enjoy dinner prepared in-house by a chef or a glass of wine by the private pool.
Get their adrenaline pumping with a 425-foot plunge through the forest with Orlando Tree Trek. Your adventure-packed day will feature swinging on Tarzan ropes, leaping into hanging nets, balancing on suspended skateboards, hobbling over dangling logs and crossing wobbly suspension bridges. If the jumps make you a bit queasy, try focusing on the spectacular view 50 feet up, overlooking the picturesque forest canopy. There are four different courses to choose from (plus two specifically designed for kids) that will challenges guests of all skill levels. Go ahead and take a leap!
You’ll have to get up pretty early (sometimes as early as 4:30 or 5 a.m.) to take in the sights from above. Treat them to an unforgettable experience with Orlando Balloon Rides. You’ll start by meeting your pilot at a small base just off US Highway 27, where they’ll test the winds to determine the best place to launch. Next, guests will be driven to an abandoned field (in the dark) where the crew will set up the 210,000 to 310,000 cubic foot balloon, one of the biggest in the U.S. Prior to lift-off, balloon passengers will be briefed on take-off and landing positions before piling into the wicker basket ready to begin their journey. Just as the sun begins to peek over the horizon, the balloon will slowly drift up, up, up. Balloons typically travel between treetop to 4,000 feet high and will give your family a bird’s eye view of the entire area—you may even spot the forest shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head!
No trip to central Florida would be complete without a swamp tour. Kissimmee is called the Gateway to the Everglades, which makes it the perfect place to hop on an airboat and head to the swamp. Play spot the gator with a Spirit of the Swamp tour as your guide whips your boat over water lilies and tall grasses where alligators make their nests.
Just as much as kids love drawing with crayons, they'll love learning about how they're made at the Crayola Experience. Kids can explore art and technology through 26 different hand-on activities that let them melt wax, wrap their own crayons and try out a 4-D colouring experience. Skip the gift shop and let them create their own wax masterpieces. Budding scientists will love the Adventure Lab where they can use a "magic" tablet to solve riddles and puzzles or if you just want to relax, sit back and enjoy the live science shows in the Café Crayola while you grab a bite to eat.
Former Disney executive, Michael Eisner took a keen interested in the development of this idyllic town originally master planned by The Walt Disney Company. Kids will get a kick out of walking around the perfectly manicured streets or rent a bike and explore the more than 10 miles of flawless boardwalk bike trails that snake around the man-made lakes and picture-perfect homes (each with slightly different white picket fences). Don't miss the chance to wander down Wisteria Lane (rumoured to be the street Desperate Housewives was based on) before grabbing dinner at Columbia, a Spanish tapas-style restaurant that dates back to 1905. Be sure to pick up the white chocolate bread pudding for the road—it’s big enough to serve a family of four.
Florida's famous mascot, the alligator, is easily the biggest draw for families visiting Gatorland. The 110- acre park is home to thousands of alligators and crocodiles, native and endangered birds, a free-flight aviary, breeding marsh with observation tower, petting zoo, nature trails, a train ride, and splash park. Go for a ride on the Stompin’ Gator Off-Road Adventure jeep, an off-road "monster" vehicle with massive tires that lift you 12-feet above the ground—nice and far from the chomping 'gators you'll spot along the swampy journey. Or sit back and enjoy one of the many live shows including Gator Jumparoo, Up-Close Encounters and Gator Wrestlin’.
It's probably safe to assume you've schedule some time to visit Disney while you're staying in Kissimmee. Be sure to check out the Toy Story Land at Disney's Hollywood Studios, which opened June 30th of 2018, or the incredible Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney's Animal Kingdom, which opened in the Spring of 2017.
Some of the writer’s costs were covered by Experience Kissimmee.