We just returned from a jam-packed six days in Orlando, Florida, with our daughters, Anna, 8, and Avery, 6. We had been contemplating a trip to Disney next year, thinking our girls were finally at the right age to make the trek, but when this opportunity came up to visit several family-friendly places around Orlando, it really became a vacation dream come true for us.
Read more: Going to Disney! How to prep your family>
If you’re thinking of planning a holiday in Orlando (and you should!) I’ve gathered some tips from our travels.
Book an apartment-style hotel room: Obviously, a big draw for a trip to Florida is the weather and you want to spend as much time outdoors as you can. We lucked out with sunny skies and warm breezes our entire trip (November 2-7) and were so grateful for the room we got at Buena Vista Lake Resort & Spa. It had two separate bedrooms and bathrooms, a full kitchen with a big dining table and a living room. It gave our family of four lots of space, and better yet, we were able to pick up groceries to make meals and prep food to take on-the-go so we weren’t constantly eating out. (Our room also had a washer and dryer!) My girls loved the giant pirate ship with water slide in the pool, and they couldn’t get over the excitement of sharing their own private room. Even well after lights-out, I heard them giggling and whispering to each other.
Enjoy Disney: Everyone has different feelings about—and a different approach towards—Disney. There’s no one way to do it right, and it’s best to take your children’s ages and interests as your guide for how to tackle this mammoth attraction. The best advice I received was “Disney is only as stressful as you make it.” So true. We only had two days to spend there, so we decided to only visit Magic Kingdom (Walt Disney World also has three other parks—Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Epcot—plus water parks), knowing this is where our girls would find the things that would make them happiest (namely, princesses). I knew that trying to cover more ground would mean rushing them through the Happiest Place on Earth, which didn’t feel right. We used our Fast Passes to schedule meet-and-greets with some of their faves and go on some rides, and figured the rest was gravy. We made a full day of Day 1 (staying for the 9 p.m. light show and fireworks; even though kids are exhausted by this point, it’s well worth it—just be prepared to piggy-back them home!) but shortened Day 2. And it all worked out… magically. We saw and did enough to fill our hearts with those special memories Disney is famous for, surprisingly—thankfully—without any meltdowns. (See the March 2015 issue of Today’s Parent for my ultimate Disney cheat sheet, with insider scoop on making your Disney trip the best it can be.)
Read more: The ultimate guide to Walt Disney World>
Take a break: Orlando is overflowing with awesome things to do, but pace yourself. After two days of Disney, we learned the hard way that the kids needed a day to just chill at the pool, rather than get up and tackle another attraction. So if you can, plan a day in the middle of your trip to enjoy your amenities and give yourself a little break, too. (A colleague wisely said, “A vacation like this isn’t a holiday—it’s a trip.” Wise words.)
Explore Orlando: As I said, there is just so much cool stuff to see and do beyond Disney. We were lucky enough to visit three other attractions that the kids loved. (I’ll be writing about them in more detail in the magazine in early 2015, but I’ll give you the highlights here.)
Kennedy Space Center: About an hour’s drive from Orlando, this is a fascinating place for families with older kids (I’d say about six and up), full of cool history and interactive exhibits, featuring a fun tour, a shuttle launch simulator ride and, of course, the actual Space Shuttle Atlantis. Amazing. Unfortunately, we visited on that day we should have chilled out, and the kids were exhausted and cranky. I wish we’d had a chance to explore it when we were more refreshed because it really was awesome and we had to rush through. (Avery spent her vacation fun money in the gift shop on an astronaut Barbie, so at least we left with smiles.)
Gatorland: We all had a great morning here meeting ‘gators of all kinds—even petting baby ones and seeing rare white alligators—and watching alligator wrestling and feeding. There’s a very relaxed, backwoods Florida vibe to this place, so it was a fun break from the busier, more scheduled places we’d visited. Bonus: No line-ups!
Read more: A survival guide to amusement parks>
Orlando Science Center: We loved this place and it’s definitely worth a visit, especially if you have a rainy or scorching hot day and want to spend some time indoors. My girls were obsessed with the hands-on orange grove activity. There is also a dino dig, weather centre, a new bat exhibit and a science park that enthralled them. We had to drag the girls out so we didn’t miss our flight home!
T-Rex Café: We felt so lucky to have a reservation for this extremely popular restaurant in Downtown Disney (you don’t need a park pass to visit this area of Disney) and it was one of my girls’ trip highlights. The different prehistoric eras are represented with amazing effect—jelly fish hanging from the ceiling, an aquarium, a glowing ice room, overhead meteor showers, and lots of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures that “come to life.” Everyone enjoyed their meals, and they were reasonably priced. For once, I couldn’t reprimand my kids for constantly jumping out of their seats to look around—I was joining them.
Read more: Drinking the Kool-Aid at Disney>
For our last two nights, we stayed at a fantastic hotel on the Universal Studios lot called Cabana Bay Beach Resort. It’s designed ’50s-style and very kid-friendly with pools, a splash park, water slide and lazy river, as well as a bowling alley and nightly outdoor movies. We especially loved the groovy vibe. “Johnny Angel” is still stuck in my head.
So that was our very full, very fun trip to Orlando. As I said, look for more details in upcoming issues of Today’s Parent. There are hundreds of other places to visit in Orlando (Universal is the hotspot for Harry Potter fans), so do your research and find the attractions that are the best fit for your family. And most of all, try to relax and enjoy. You’re making memories here! I kept reminding myself that my kids would have no idea if we skipped certain things (even awesome things) that might push us into meltdown territory. Besides, you can always use your next trip to Orlando to hit the places you missed. I know we will.
Follow along as Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell shares her refreshingly positive take on parenting her two young daughters. She’s been blogging her relatable experiences for our publication since 2005. Read more of her Tracy’s mama memoir posts and tweet her @T_Chappell.