7 June 2012
Florida is one of those travel experiences that just has to be done if you're raising a family. But does it deliver? And is there enough here for everyone of every age? What if you want more than rollercoasters and high-octane thrills? Happily, Wexas MD Steve Allen and his family of four discover there is much more to Florida.
Next stop adventure
The holiday began with much anticipation in the weeks leading to departure; the three older children were planning their rides and adventures at Disney and Universal, helped by the handy guides from Attraction Tickets (we booked a 5-day Disney and 2-day Universal collection through Wexas naturally).
Our youngest was briefed for the first time with just two weeks to go. The "letter" from Mickey Mouse one Sunday evening created an emotional roller coaster of delight and tears, not to be matched until he unwittingly rode on the Revenge of the Mummy three weeks later!
At the airport we were impressed by the recent investment in Gatwick's infrastructure and the speed at which we checked in. The BA flight was busy, full of families like us escaping the wet at home and heading to the world's playground capital and it's almost guaranteed sunshine. Once Stateside, we picked up our pre-booked SUV from Alamo, and before we knew it we were on the highway, heading for adventure.
Easter is a popular time for families to visit Walt Disney World and the many attractions that Florida boasts, and so we decided to base ourselves just south of the Parks and Orlando, to make access easy.
We also wanted to have a comfortable and private hideaway to escape to, after each excursion, with on-site restaurants and pools at hand. Reunion Resort was the answer - a top quality collection of apartments and houses, a Wyndham Grand resort, with three fabulous signature golf courses, tennis courts and a small water park ideal for younger families.
We rented a neat house, and became daily visitors to the local Publix supermarket as we decided to take fresh rolls into the Parks: a much healthier and cost-effective approach, and one we'd recommend.
In the evenings we'd eat at the resort; the Eleven restaurant on the 11th floor of the Reunion Grande Hotel was especially good although the highlight was a trip to Charley's Steakhouse in nearby Kissimmee, where we were well and truly educated about the world of steaks (and lobster). one tip - ask the hotel to make the reservation as the restaurant will then know that it's looking after more than your booking on the night.
Walt Disney World, Universal Studios and Epcot
All six of us had a great time during our week based near Orlando. We parents were pretty predictable: my wife loved exploring the curious cultural collection of countries at Epcot, plus the mix of fun and fascination at Universal Studios, and confirmed her belief that roller coasters were not for her - not helped by having her eyes shut tight throughout the excellent Expedition Everest ride in Disney's Animal Kingdom, which includes a lively bit of reverse. I, on the other hand, revelled in becoming a big-kid on the more exhilarating rides.
There are ways to short-cut the queues, using the Fast Pass options and the Single Rider lanes, but do be prepared for some queuing if travelling at busier times and after the early morning period of relative calm.
The 7 days flew by, and it was time to bid farewell to the eldest two children, whose studies beckoned. Whilst they set off for the 8-hour hop home, we drove across to the East Coast to explore the Atlantic resorts, spending a few days in delightful Delray Beach.
The resort is just south of Palm Beach, some 50 miles north of Miami, and has a laid-back charm in the day and a certain vibrancy at night, with the wonderful East Atlantic Avenue crammed with boutique shops and a wide variety of restaurants. The icing on the cake was a street market that brimmed full of goodies, meaning that I was able to escape to the sandy beach whilst the others shopped, in order to enjoy a beer at the Seagate Hotel's Beach Bar, overlooking the ocean.
Even though storm clouds had gathered with some thunder, our spirits remained positively warm, and we promised that we would return and stay longer in Delray next time.
We headed west along Alligator Alley to Naples, passing on Miami; we felt we might be a bit old for South Beach and our remaining children were too young for the ultra cool scene. Naples on the other hand is a place to chill out, and to enjoy 60 miles of white sand beaches that fringe the Gulf shore.
We rented a house from friends for this final leg, and found a spot on Barefoot Beach that soon became home. Much swimming, reading and various sand castles later, we were nearly ready to return.
The fashionable 5th Avenue, with its posh shops and restaurants set in an area with some superb homes, was worth a visit just to contrast it to the more worldly reality of Delray Beach. Definitely some Botox strolling by on the sidewalks here!
Before heading back to Orlando, we travelled down to the Everglades, and the eponymous capital, which is home to just 500 folk, surrounded by mangroves and not far from the Gulf Coast. We were in search of alligators.
We joined one of Captain Doug's Airboat Tours, and it was fun! We hopped on board and were joined by an inquisitive brown pelican. Once underway, we explored a section of the mangroves and discovered a family of manatees, and then an inquisitive alligator whose relatively rapid approach to our boat almost caused our youngest to leap off the opposite side!
The Airboats are noisy at speed and so earphones are provided, and boy do they move. We explored the narrow waterways snaking through the mangroves and executed a couple of manoeuvres that Jenson Button would have been proud of, rounding off our trip with another special memory.
All in all, what can one say about Florida? It really is what it sets out to be, and does it really well. The road system is efficient with traffic queues a rarity, and who needs to speed?! The people are genuinely friendly, the food and wine plentiful and good value, and the Disney/Universal adventures a winner with every age group.
It's a great place for pretty much guaranteed sunshine and fun, and a successful family holiday experience, enjoyed together. I have no doubt that we'll be back.
Find out more
if you're inspired to visit or would like to find out more about travelling to Florida, talk to a destination specialist on 020 7590 0622 and start planning your own tailor-made trip.