by Sandi Pedersen
"Sofie, are you having a fun vacation?" "I'm having billions of fun," she said. "I'm having all the numbers in the world of fun!"
With the help of the Orlando Convention and Visitors Bureau and several well-known Florida vacation locations, eight of us set off with great expectations. Three generations of us: my four kids, my husband, my mother, my father and me.
For most of our stay, we were guests of the parks and the hotels. Our schedule was packed, so we could see and do everything in six days. Ideally, it would be better to do Universal Studios and Disney World on different vacations, or at least to plan for a couple of do-nothing days in between both.
When we landed, we checked in to the new Royal Pacific Resort on Universal's grounds and took off running for the theme parks. (Actually we ran to the waterfront and took a boat to the parks.)
Universal ($42.95 children; $51.95 adults) is trying to convince everyone who will listen that you can plan a vacation in Orlando and Disney ($40 children; $50 adults) doesn't have to be the only destination.
The first afternoon at Universal, we had a tour guide ($120 per person for 5 hours) who showed us around both parks and took us on seven rides in under three hours. We spent the next day in the park on our own. Universal is newer and more high tech than Disney. The rides are based on movies and most are amazingly 3-D. I came off the Spider Man ride thinking it was the best ride I have ever been on. Universal can be described as Disney with a kick. It is aimed at the older kids who may find Disney too tame. Sophie, our very daring 5-year-old, was thrilled to be tall enough for most of the rides. The Dr. Suess section was voted the family favorite. It is an adorable land taken right out of the books, not a straight line in sight.
Our next day was spent at Sea World and Discovery Cove. Discovery Cove tickets are steep, $219 a person, but it has a lazy river, a coral reef and, of course, dolphins. There is a waiting list for tickets during busy seasons. Everyone wears a wet suit and is given a snorkel and a mask. The kids had the opportunity to swim with the dolphins-an unforgetable experience. Alek says, "I liked using the snorkel and the mask to swim around and look at all the fish and stuff in the coral reef." After being in the water with the dolphins, Sea World ($42.95 children; $51.95 adults) was not impressive.
Our group then moved across town to the Holiday Inn Family Suites (kid suite $129), just a mile from Disney World, where we were captivated by the kid-friendly atmosphere. The kids' rooms come complete with their own TVs, boom boxes and Nintendo. This Holiday Inn goes all out to cater to families. Food, including a free breakfast buffet, is available throughout the day and night, and the kids always eat free. We used the heated pool even when the air temperature was in the 50s. A game room, mini golf, ping pong, bingo, and a small kid train ride around the grounds are all part of the lure this fabulous hotel. We were wishing we had another day of vacation just to spend more time here.
The biggest draw to Orlando obviously is Disney World.
This was our first trip there. And just like the commercial, we spent a moment in awe at the front gate just trying to take it all in. Yes, kids, we have finally journeyed to the land of magic. We spent one day at Magic Kingdom, one day at MGM and one day at Epcot. The kids chose Epcot over Animal Kingdom; I credit Brookfield Zoo with that decision. Magic Kingdom is, well, magic. We had an unforgettable day, most of our enjoyment stemming from the endless smile on Sofie's face. This was definitely her favorite part of vacation. Kati, 12, and Sofie both say their favorite ride was Tower of Terror. Kylie, 10, loved Space Mountain and Alek, 8, liked Buzz Lightyear, (you get to use a laser gun to shoot the aliens). Sofie and Grandma waited (one angry about being too short and one glad for the excuse) while the rest of us went on the Rock 'N' Roller Coaster. Grandpa was amazed to realize he did, indeed, go upside down. My husband, Dan, loved the backlot tour at MGM. He took more pictures of all the old war planes than anything else all week. On Kylie's list of must sees was the "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience" exhibit at Epcot. And yes, for those of you who have been there, we all fell for the mice crawling up our legs trick.
Universal and Disney each have their own version of the "fast pass." At Disney, the ticket gives a time to return to the line and get in faster. At Universal, the room key from an on-site hotel allows you to go to the head of the line. If you choose a busy season, anything you can do to avoid a 2- hour wait per ride is well worth it. I suggest visiting during off peak times when fast passes are not necessary. Both parks say the first week of January is the slowest time of the year. Also, hotels offer cheaper rates during slow times. On Jan. 6, when most kids had gone back school, we were able to walk on to any ride with virtually no wait.
Universal offers a baby swap system which allows the whole family to wait together. One parent rides, then takes the baby so the other parent can ride without waiting in line all over again.
It was a lot and by the end of the week we were pretty tired. Dan claims his favorite part of the vacation was sitting in the hot tubs. My favorite part was, of course, all the thank yous, hugs and smiles from my kids.
Sandi Pedersen is calendar editor and editorial assistant at Chicago Parent.
Grandparents don't miss out
One of the advantages to being a senior citizen is having the time to open the door when opportunity knocks. That was the case recently when we joined our daughter and her family on a trip to central Florida.
We didn't feel like excess baggage. We found hotels willing to accommodate us with plenty of bedroom space. Restaurants were not taken aback at the eight in our party. And when the knees began to ache, plenty of wheelchairs to help Grandma get around.
On one of the busy days Grandma and I took off by ourselves and found the quaint village of Mt. Dora, located one-hour drive north of Orlando. You can also reach Mt. Dora by rail from an Orlando depot, riding on vintage railroad cars. Mt. Dora is the Long Grove of central Florida. Lots of gift shops, crafts and boutiques, plus places to eat. The train allows three hours for shopping and lunch before heading back to Orlando.
We rode back in time along with our fellow passengers and enjoyed that day knowing we'd be back to reality with the family in a few hours.
Don't be afraid of being the fifth wheel. It really can be a lot of fun.
Just the facts Orlando
Disney World www.disney.com (407) 939-6244
Discovery Cove www.discoverycove.com (877) 4discovery Holiday Inn Family Suites www.hifamilysuites.com (407) 387-5437
Orlando Visitors Bureau www.orlandoinfo.com/cvb (407) 363-5800
Royal Pacific Resort themeparks.universalstudios.com (407) 503-3000
Sea World www.seaworld.org (407) 351-3600
Universal Studios themeparks.universalstudios.com (407) 363-8000
See more of Sandi's stories here.