The theme park capital of the U.S. continues to thrill our inner child, says Ashlee Starratt.
The first time I was ever on an airplane was on a family trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida in 1995, my parents saving up for two years prior to that just to book us in business class for our first foray above the clouds. For seven days, we braved the theme park queues, bought as many mouse-shaped souvenirs as we could handle, marveled at the palm trees we were seeing for the first time, and giggled at the Southern drawls echoing all around us – so foreign to our little Canadian ears.
A trip to Disney World was (and maybe still is) considered a seminal part of childhood – the ultimate make-or-break family trip. And of all the Disney theme parks worldwide, it doesn’t get any more epic than the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. In fact, it’s often the first thing that comes to mind when mentioning the ‘Sunshine State’ and the memories made there – a sense of complete wonder instilled at that crucial junction between childhood
It’s a force that’s strong – and is surely the reason behind the number of adults who also flock there to find the kid at heart as much as to introduce their own children to its magic. And while much has changed over the last 20 years, some things such as this remain the same.
To avoid the massive queues, your best bet to making sure you make the most of your time at Disney (and this goes for any of the state’s vast array of theme parks) is to arrive early just before it opens. A head-start will help you skip the massive queues that form later on the day and which can put a whole damper on the experience.
And while tickets and park passes can run you a pretty penny, they do offer up some great value-for-money deals online and also at authorized Disney Tickets retailers that are worth looking into. The 4-Days 4-Parks pass is a great option as it allows you access to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios – where the all-new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction is the new ‘it’ ticket. So, ride the Millennium Falcon’s Smuggler’s Run, or build your own lightsaber at Savi’s Workshop.
Theme park fanatics eager for a day-trip can also check out Universal Studios in nearby Tampa, where ‘muggles’ and wizards alike can embark on an epic adventure through Hogwarts, go on a thrill-ride with Hagrid and his Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, or ride the Hippogriff. Thrill-seeking adrenaline junkies can also test their mettle on the rollercoasters at Busch Gardens, while families with little ones can explore the world in miniature at Legoland.
And while theme parks may be Orlando’s bread and butter, that’s not to say its many other cultural attractions should be overlooked. Explore the headwaters of the Florida Everglades in nearby Kissimmee with Boggy Creek Airport Rides and see if you can spot some truly exotic local wildlife – including the American alligator. Or, head to Giraffe Ranch in Dade City – about an hour’s drive from Disney World – and interact with these gentle giants in a open grassland habitat.
My favourite place- The Central Florida Zoo & Botanical Gardens. This comprehensive wildlife park is the perfect outing for the whole family when you just can bear another day of line-ups at Disney. Kids can get up-close and personal with a variety of reptiles, mammals and amphibians through the zoo’s interactive education programs. You can also take part in giraffe feeding and rhinoceros encounters, cool off at the Wharton-Smith Splash Ground, and soar through the treetops on the Seminole Aerial Adventures zipline.
Highlights- The food. Truly. When you think of Floridian cuisine what comes to mind is a delicious mélange of Creole and Caribbean flavours with a touch of Southern Americana blended in for good measure. And you certainly wouldn’t be wrong. From classic tropical barbacoa (Florida barbecue) and Creole- and Cajun-inspired shrimp and grits, to fried gator tail – there’s nothing that’s off the menu in this melting pot of cultural gastronomy. In Orlando, head to The Rusty Spoon on W. Church St. for a true taste of local Floridian produce at this farm-to-table eatery. Sample a bowl of grits with shrimp harvested off Florida’s Cape Canaveral or indulge in one of their fresh salads and hearty sandwiches.
Lowlights- While it still remains one of the Sunshine State’s top five theme parks, think it over before deciding to spend an afternoon at SeaWorld. While the park has many aqua-adventure rides for the young thrill-seekers out for a splash, their live orca, dolphin, and sea lion shows remain contentious among members of the animal rights movement. And while the awe of seeing a 5,700 kg bull orca breaching a tidal wave is immediate…the stark reality quickly sinks in that these majestic creatures suffer an extremely poor life in captivity.
Souvenirs- It’s a cliché, yes, but Mouse Ears from Disney World and, also, seashells from Shanibel Island, sun-kissed Florida oranges, Cuban-style guayabera linen shirts, and your very own wizard wand from Ollivander’s Wand Shop at Universal Studio’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Getting there- Qatar Airways offers direct service from Doha, while most other regional airlines will get your there via connecting flights with local US carriers.
Where to stay- If Disney’s in your plans, a stay at their Grand Floridian Resort & Spa in Lake Buena Vista is the perfect blend of family-friendly luxury and true Floridian charm. All the world’s major hotel chains can be found in Orlando via booking.com, Trivago, Agoda, or Kayak.com and also be sure to check out Airbnb for more budget-friendly options.
1. Play a swash-buckling game of mini-golf at Pirates Cove Adventure Golf.
2. Test your team-building skills at America’s Escape Game.
3. Get your sweet-tooth on at Chocolate Kingdom: Interactive Factory Adventure Tour.
4. Paint the world in colour at the truly unique and family-friendly Crayola Experience.
5. Have a second heaping helping of Florida key lime pie.