ORLANDO, FL. – Until last week, I’d visited Orlando twice. Once, when I was about 5, and once on my way back from spring break when I was 21. Neither really prepared me for the Florida family vacation we took with my wife and 5-year-old daughter, but it turned out to be as perfect – maybe more so – than I could imagine.
We lucked out at every turn. Short lines at the theme parks, beautiful weather throughout, and the rare, mellow traveling attitude exercised by our, um, high-strung family.
Still, I learned a bunch that I’d like to share with you. Here are my 11 tips for a smoother family vacation to Florida:
- Make a plan: People assume that Disney World and the other theme parks in Orlando are a chaotic adventure that conjures images of Clark Griswold. It doesn’t have to be. If possible, do as we did and go during low season, but more importantly, make a plan. Download the parks’ apps in advance and pick the five attractions you want to see the most. Get there at "rope drop." Try to stick to your plan, but leave room for improvisation. Remember that your young children don’t have expectations as high as you do. They’ll be thrilled no matter what.
- Throttle your pace: With advice from my cousin who lives in Orlando, we altered high-energy days will more leisurely days. That meant: Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure, Gatorland, Magic Kingdom, beach day and Sea World. The big three theme parks were intense, and we’d have collapsed if we did each in a row. To us, the mellow days were just as great as the "big" days.
- Turn your mind off: Don’t look for culture in Orlando. It’s there, but part of doing this iconic trip is surrendering to the cheesy touristy stuff. You will eat at chain restaurants. You will spend $40 on a mediocre lunch. This isn’t the time to consider the politics of Disney or the local service industry; we heard about "Blackfish," regarding Sea World, but my cousin, who was an animal trainer there for eight years, personally disputed its claims – I didn't investigate further. Also, we never travel all-inclusively, and we didn’t this time, either, but it’s important to suspend your disbelief for a few days. If you can't do that, this trip isn’t for you.
- The word "resort" is tossed around loosely: You can spend big bucks and stay on the Disney properties, but if you plan on moving around, that’s not necessarily a benefit. However, pretty much every place in Orlando calls itself a resort. We were lured in by low prices at an alleged 3.5-star hotel called the Avanti Resort. It was more like a 2.5-star motel. Thankfully, it had a nice pool and hot tub, but just like every other property, you get what you pay for. Next time, I’ll stick with the national chains.
- Rent a car, but watch out: Lots of people skip the car and use theme park shuttles, but I’d recommend renting a car, since Orlando is quite spread out. But be careful, Orlando drivers are unusually aggressive. Put your blinker on, and without fail, the driver behind you speeds up. It’s insane. And bring change. There are tolls everywhere.
- Drink bottled water: Orlando tap water tastes likes a family of turtles pooped in it. Speaking of which ...
- Look down and up: Embrace the native animals in Orlando. Egrets, vultures, bobcats, tiny lizards and armadillos ... these are all actually out there wandering around.
- Venture beyond Disney: I know plenty of people who spend an entire week at Disney World. That’s too long, and really, too expensive. There are a zillion ways to extend your time at Disney, but for us, one day at the Magic Kingdom was enough. We liked Universal Studios, and especially Sea World. But the old-school – and cheap – Gatorland park was amazing. And for a child who’d never seen the ocean, the 100-minute drive east to New Smyrna Beach made a wonderful, memorable diversion, too.
- Don’t trust weather.com: Without exception, the weather forecast was wrong every day. Even when it was projected to be cool and cloudy, it got warm and sunny by afternoon. This I can’t explain, but I’m not complaining, either.
- High-end outlets: After a week of nonstop kids’ entertainment, Mommy and Daddy deserve a treat. Orlando has two very crowded, high-end outlet malls on both ends of International Drive. It’s a unique opportunity to shop at Prada, Barney’s, Armani and a bunch of other stores that you won’t find in Wisconsin.
- Keep calm and carry on: This can be an intense trip, so keep your cool and give your spouse a little space. For us, that meant my wife took a yoga class one night; I soothed my jangled nerves in the hot tub myself the next evening. If you can let it ride, even just a little, Orlando can be a trip the family will remember forever.
Andy is the president, publisher and founder of OnMilwaukee. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.