Photos by Perry and Brandi Montoya; Gatorland Photo.
Every decade or so (perhaps more if a windfall should occur) every family ought to plan and take a “throw caution to the wind” vacation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a firm believer in provident living, saving for what you want, and in only spending what you have. That said, let’s be honest. What you and I both have, once those precious heirs to the throne are born, is “borrowed time”. Don’t borrow $ to maximize the time, but make a true vacation happen, and happen often! Such was the case for the Montoya clan March of 2015 with Orlando, Florida as the benefactor of our hard-earned savings and us as the recipients of a Floridian uber-cation!
No vacay is complete without a few staples and a few surprises. For us, flying with Jet Blue www.jetblue.com is a staple. The red-eye to Orlando from SLC is new this year and a welcomed addition for the fleet that meets our fancy. Our kids were spoiled from the beginning with roomy seats and cabin, as well as a TV in every seat, unlimited snacks and drinks, and a staff that ensures those amenities are a standard and not just an exception.
Arrival in Orlando is always surprising, coming from the dry, fortress of mountain walls from SLC that noticeably give way to endless wet clouds and long horizons. Sunsets are prolonged here. Shadows hold form and fade slower. Local plant and animal life seem exotic and rare. Not hard for vacation mode to be in full swing and that’s just upon arrival!
Certainly there’s no surprise that there is homage to be paid in Orlando. One doesn’t fly to Paris to simply drive by the Eifel Tower or view the outside of The Louvre from afar. No one would hit NYC and shun the Statue of Liberty or Times Square. San Antone without the Alamo? Get a rope! Likewise, Orlando is for theme park dwellers and beach-goers. Our week of weeks was certain to be filled with plenty of these staples! Further, our Central Florida stay was best planned via Orlando’s convenient and seemingly all-inclusive Convention and Visitor’s Bureau which can be found here: www.visitorlando.com. Our vacation extraordinaire would never have been possible without consulting and working with all that Orlando’s amazing CVB has to offer. Order their Vacation Planning Kit and see for yourself! Our five days in Orlando couldn’t have been planned or carried out any better! And you know what they say about your good plans, “Don’t let them die of old age . . . EXECUTE THEM!”
Our execution went as follows:
Early in our week, Disney World https://disneyworld.disney.go.com is one staple we knew we’d hit and hit hard. How we’d hit it was altogether a different dilemma? With our daughter and two boys (ages 20, 16 and 12 respectively) anxiously engaged in the week’s festivities, we knew adventure was not only to be a possibility but certain to be a reality. We managed to squeeze 4 park visits into one single day! Again, we likely took for granted that our youthful children weren’t merely “in tow” but, rather, active participants in the foray.
What started at a Magic Kingdom “rope drop” early on a Monday morning, would end though those same ropes some sixteen hours later. In between we’d charted a fool proof plan to hit all the Magic Kingdom rides we’d desired to ride well before noon (making the most of Fast Pass +), loosing to Epcot (for a 3 hour walk around the world – I was so pleasantly surprised that my kids found the various countries and even Captain EO bearable), to Hollywood Studios for a Tower of Terror tribute and an Aerosmith Rocking Rollercoaster Romp. Dinner in Hollywood Studios at Pizza Planet was a plus; it filled any gaps left over from our Epcot turkey leg and Coca Cola’s “Club Cool” soda samplers “lunch” (who eats much when it’s hot)? We had just enough time for Fantasmic (Disney’s spectacular must-see show) and a final return to Magic Kingdom for a few late night sneaks on favorite rides while the parade and fireworks thin the crowds. Tired? Extremely. Content? If you leave Disney World and you aren’t content, you’ve messed with the “happiest place on earth” mojo and there might not be much in this world that will please you.
KENNEDY SPACE CENTER
As if Disney isn’t ample diversion enough to scream “we’re on vacation”, KSC www.kennedyspacecenter.com is truly out of this world! I can honestly say I didn’t fully know what to expect at Kennedy Space Center. We’d done just enough homework (literally and figuratively – as my sixth grader has also been studying space travel in school this year as we were planning our Florida fun time) that we knew KSC had to be a key stop for our family – and should be for every family who comes within several hours from Central Florida.
I left KSC a changed man. We began with a peek and pictures at the reflective Rocket Garden. Then, we segued to one of the two captivating IMAX films shown on site. With enjoyable stops in their Exploration Space and History of Space Exploration interactions and exhibits, we’d thought we’d seen it all. However, certainly the capper for our already wonderful day was the Atlantis Shuttle Exhibit. Again, all I can say (while overused and misused in a post 1980’s world) is “AWESOME”! This one exhibit would be worth you full price of admission. The chance to be up close and personal with this interstellar war horse is inexplicable. We’ll hurry back to either see a launch, or even just to take the bus tour out near the launch pad. KSC is a must-see for young and old, patriot and civilian, and all who wish to connect to the wonder of our world, the genius behind those who’ve managed to free from it, and the immensity of our universe together with galaxies without number.
GATORLAND & MEDIEVAL TIMES
Both of these Orlando staples were surprises to my family. Owen Godwin Sr.’s Gatorland www.gatorland.com might have been the original “theme park” for Florida. Gatorland is home to more fun than a teen-ager can manage to muster! My kids delighted in the rugged, raw animal power that Gatorland has to offer! We happened to be there during mating season which not only came with several gator to gator challenges but with deep guttural rumblings that invoked respect and bone chill all at once. Hard to say what my kids enjoyed more. Feeding the gators? Gator wrestling (including their own “rookie wrestling” of a gator)? Petting zoos? Animal encounters? Eating gator nuggets? The zip line over multiple gator “swamps” and ponds?
Why choose? Do them all! Gatorland is not only a unique experience, but a real life connection to a Jurassic era. Simply put, Gatorland meets every whit of its mission statement of providing their guests with “FUN, SMILES and SPECIAL MEMORIES.” Lucky for your family and ours, Medieval Times is just blocks from Gatorland and is a great way to top off an amazing day with a nighttime dinner show.
Medieval Times www.medievaltimes.com/orlando was surreal. I was so pleasantly surprised with the quality and quantity of both the show and food that I sat in delight throughout the night. Who am I kidding? I rarely sat – we were all up and cheering for our knight. I took more vacation pics of the kids’ bewildered and amazed faces at Medieval Times than at any other time during the week. I guess we’d expected the theme parks to be a blast. We knew the beach would be relaxing and rejuvenating.
But we never could have planned for the raucous and rip-roaring time we had enjoying medieval time period appropriate tasty food, majestic horses, spot on sport and even enjoyable acting from most every character in the show. I highly recommend this for any family who has kids who pretend “battle”, or who have a love for history, acting, or just plain want to be entertained.
UNIVERSAL STUDIOS ORLANDO
Wow, wow, and then wow some more! Universal Orlando www.universalorlando.com seems to have placed many an egg in the Harry Potter basket and I’d never remove those eggs if I were them! And, they’re hatching more than dragons and hippogriffs in Orlando! Universal truly has given birth to the world of Harry Potter. We opted for a 1 day Park to Park Pass to allow us to experience as much as we could of what both parks had to offer. Read closely on the internet and you’ll find that next to no one will recommend hitting both parks in only one day. I’d tend to agree and yet, as aforementioned, our 5 day sprint around Orlando only gave us this one shot and we intended to do it as best as could be done. Our stay at Universal’s Royal Pacific hotel www.loewshotels.com/royal-pacific-resort ensured both Early Entry and Express Unlimited Passes so our chances of maximizing one day were as good as they were going to get. We loved all things Harry Potter and still found time to conquer many a coaster! We even took in City Walk (lunch seemed to be cheaper there) and gave ourselves enough time to ride the Hogwarts Express several times and even make it back to the hotel in time to swim/hot tub off the aches and pains of the day. Get some Butter Beer. Splurge for an interactive wand for each kid. Take plenty of pictures (even though the mental image of being in the Wizarding World will not soon fade from your kids’ memories).
Perhaps much sooner than before another decade passes, it’ll be of a surprise to no one when we’ll return to Orlando to spend more borrowed time coupled with hard earned money – likely keeping to this very same itinerary. It’s hard to picture omitting any portion of this truly memorable and lasting “super vacation”. Until that time, one staple will keep us content: fond memories of Orlando and Central Florida as the treasured site of our “Spring Break the Bank” in 2015.