Doing Disney and More


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Let's just say up front: visiting Orlando is not exactly a "relaxing" vacation. It involves a lot of planning, and strategic timing and placement to see as much as you can. There's not a lot of sleeping in because you need those early mornings to beat the crowds. And you stay out late for fireworks and shows.

But what this vacation lacks in relaxation, it makes up for in entertainment and excitement. You will never be bored. And as soon as you return to your much less "magical" home, your kids will start asking to go back — before you have even rested up from this trip!

The Logistics

The first week in April, my husband Kelly and I, with our two boys — Joseph (age 2 1/2) and Wills (age 5) — drove to Orlando from Winston-Salem. MapQuest estimates the drive at around 9-1/2 hours. It actually took us 10 hours with three stops, two for bathroom/gas breaks and one dinner stop. Gas for the round trip cost t less than $200, so it was much more economical than traveling by air.

We left at 2 p.m. on a Saturday to get the maximum amount of sleeping time from our kids. They both conk out in the car in the afternoons, so we had a good first leg of the trip from Winston-Salem to Columbia, S.C. Joseph fell asleep again after dinner around 9 p.m. Wills was so excited that he was determined to stay awake until we got there. He almost made it and then fell asleep around 11:30 p.m. before we pulled into the Nickelodeon Hotel at midnight!

We stayed in Orlando for more than a week, which gave us seven full days to experience everything. And let me tell you — seven days is still NOT enough.

Lodgings

During our trip, we stayed at three different sites that were not on Disney World property. Since we had a car with us, this was not a problem at all.

Our first residence was the Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn. This is the hotel that Wills informed me almost a year and a half ago that we absolutely had to visit. (He saw the commercial for it on TV.) We stayed in a two-bedroom Nick-themed KidSuite® (ours was Rug Rats) that had bunk beds for the kids (very cool, according to both), as well as their own TV and even a gaming station. The suites have a kitchen area with microwave and refrigerator, which is extremely handy for quick breakfasts on the go and storing bottled drinks.

It is important to note that Nickelodeon Family Suites is very close to Disney World and provides free transportation to the major theme parks, including Universal Orlando, Sea World and Wet 'n Wild. In-room Internet access is also free, so you can e-mail photographs to envious friends and family back home.

There is so much going on at the Nickelodeon Family Suites that you could tell your kids you are at a theme park, and they would believe you. For our first day in Orlando we stayed around the hotel after a delicious character breakfast with Sponge Bob and Dora at the Nicktoons Café (a great way to get your child warmed up to various characters). We played in the pool at one of the two interactive water park areas and watched live Nickelodeon shows in which kids get "slimed." Wills got a temporary tattoo applied by the staff of the Kid's Spa, which is located in the hotel's Mall. Also found at the Mall is a large arcade, a gift shop, a food court and Studio Nick, a state-of-the-art theater with nightly interactive entertainment. The show we saw at Studio Nick featured two families competing, with the inevitable slime/pie-in-the-face finale!

After four nights, we moved on to luxury accommodations at the Renaissance Orlando Resort at SeaWorld, a four-diamond resort. If SeaWorld is your primary destination, this hotel is a fantastic choice — you simply walk across the street the theme park. Kids receive a stuffed Shamu (Sea World's killer whale) upon check-in.

This Renaissance hotel is stylish and sophisticated, with a beautiful lobby featuring a fish pond full of Japanese koi and a Venetian aviary housing colorful tropical birds — both of which were very entertaining for the kids. The hotel rooms are extremely spacious, with luxurious bedding and turn-down service with chocolates. The boys loved the "Shamu" water squirters they could play with in the bathtub or pool.

Staying at the Renaissance is quiet and relaxing, but there is still plenty for the kids to do in Shamu's Game Room or in the outdoor, all-sand play yard. The pool is an Olympic-sized Mediterranean-style swimming pool with two whirlpools, which were much needed after spending two days on my feet in Disney World theme parks.

After three nights at the Renaissance, we moved to an even quieter place (a great relief toward the end of the week) when we stayed our last two nights in an All Star Vacation Home. If you have a large family, or your extended family is coming to Orlando, renting one of these homes is a great option. You get a lot of luxury for a relatively inexpensive price.

All Star offers more than 120 upscale rental properties within four miles of Disney World, ranging from two- and three-bedroom condominiums up to seven-bedroom private pool homes. We stayed in an Acadia Estates home with five/six bedrooms (three of which were masters), 4.5 bathrooms, a game room with a pool table, a private pool with a little kiddie pool and a spa. The property had a big-screen TV, and you can check out movies at no cost from the All Star Welcome Center. The kids loved this house and spent all of one day playing in the pool and watching movies while Mommy and Daddy rested up for our last big day at Disney World. I cannot stress enough how easy, convenient and luxurious it is to rent a home through All Star ESPECIALLY if you are bringing down a large group of people. But you do need to have a car available to get around.

The Theme Parks

I love hotels (and so do my kids), but if you don't build in some down time in Orlando, it is very likely that you will actually spend very little time in your room. You really do spend the majority of the time at the theme parks.

The key to having a successful Orlando vacation is to plan ahead, but not to the degree that you have every single moment of your day mapped out. (That is a guarantee for meltdowns among your kids.) Have a general plan, so you're not standing around going "I dunno, what do you want to do next?" That is just wasting time and no good for anyone.

Because there is so much to do, here are the theme parks we visited in order, as well as some highlights from each. We chose not to do Universal Orlando, which has a lot of rides geared toward older kids. We'll wait a few years to visit that one.

Walt Disney World

There are four theme parks within Walt Disney World: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom, Disney's newest park. We had the type of four-day park-hopper passes that allow you to go to more than one park in a day, as well as go to Disney's water parks and the DisneyQuest indoor interactive theme park in Downtown Disney.

We began our theme park adventures with Animal Kingdom, and I'm glad we did. The characters are easy to find here, and we got many autographs and pictures because the lines aren't as long as in Magic Kingdom. We spent a lot of time viewing animals in "Africa" on the Kilimanjaro Safari, the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail (Wills was very excited to see his first Naked Mole Rat) and then took a train called the Wildlife Express to Rafiki's Planet Watch where there was also a petting zoo. In Dinoland U.S.A. I convinced Wills to ride Dinosaur with me — needless to say he was terrified and wouldn't ride again with his father. The thing we absolutely loved the most in Animal Kingdom was the Festival of the Lion King, a stage production that is funny and very entertaining for kids.

We actually visited Magic Kingdom three times — two full days and one evening. The first day we spent most of the morning in Fantasy Land, which has many delightful rides, such as Dumbo, Peter Pan's Flight and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Wills and Joseph loved It's a Small World.

Kelly's favorite thing in Magic Kingdom was Mickey's PhilharMagic, a 3-D movie that is truly magical for little children. Joseph sat in his lap, and Kelly said that to see a 2-year-old reach out and try to touch something that wasn't really there was absolutely priceless. Wills' favorite ride was the Space Mountain roller coaster. Both kids loved Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, and Joseph ended up riding it twice. Wills rode Big Thunder Mountain Railroad twice. Unfortunately, I couldn't talk Wills into going on Splash Mountain, perhaps because you hear the screams of the riders as they go over the big waterfall!

I'd have to say that my favorite in Magic Kingdom was the SpectraMagic Parade. I get teary eyed at princesses, parades and beautiful light shows — and this parade has all three!

Disney-MGM Studios is a must for little boys. This is where the Power Rangers show up in their very cool car, stereo blaring. We waited in line for pictures and autographs of every single one of the five Rangers. The absolute must-see in this theme park is Beauty and the Beast-Live Onstage — another princess show that brought me to tears.

My biggest regret from this trip is not spending more time in Epcot. We only went there two evenings, and we really should have spent a day. The Living Seas Aquarium was fascinating, and we loved the hilarious show "Turtle Talk with Crush" (from Finding Nemo), in which Crush interacts with the audience. Wills was intrigued by being a world traveler in the World Showcase. Each country has a Kidcot Fun Stop, where kids can color and make crafts, and the cast members at the stop will stamp autograph books and write in their native language. Epcot's dramatic IllumiNations fireworks show is the best I've ever seen. It did scare Joseph, but Wills was thrilled.

One of the most important things to remember about Disney World is to use the Fast Pass system and use it efficiently. For example, check the wait times and insert your ticket to get your Fast Pass to Space Mountain and then go ride Buzz Lightyear or another ride close by. When it's your Fast Pass time, you go and get in a MUCH shorter line to ride. Also, parents can use Switch Passes, and we did this quite a bit since Joseph wasn't tall enough for many rides. I would stand in line with Wills and ask the Disney cast member for a Switch Pass. Then when we got off the ride, Kelly would take the Switch pass and go with Wills (or go alone if Wills was too scared to ride again) and go get in the Fast Pass line.

Another important thing is to be there when the parks open. You may think that everyone else is doing this, but they're not. The day we entered Magic Kingdom at 9 a.m., we went straight back to Fantasy Land and rode four rides in the first hour. People who stay at a Disney World resort have it even better because they are allowed into the parks before they open to the general public.

Gatorland

In the middle of our week, on a day we were transitioning from one hotel to another, we spent a few hours at Gatorland, a 110-acre theme park and nature preserve. We fed alligators with gator chow (turkey dogs) and rode the Gatorland Express Train through the park. And, of course, the big gator mouth that functions as the entrance to the park is one of the best picture taking spots in all of Orlando! Gatorland is committed to preserving the "Old Florida" tradition. No fancy rides here — just gator wrestling, gator shows and a lake area rife with wild birds and 130 gators.

SeaWorld Adventure Park

You could easily spend two days at SeaWorld seeing everything. The park is beautifully landscaped, and the animal exhibits are fascinating. We particularly loved the polar bears. Unfortunately, we only had one day, and the park got extremely crowded in the afternoon, so it's wise to go right when it opens at 9 a.m.

We did see the three main shows featuring the sea lions and otters; the dolphins; and Shamu and the killer whales (the park's icon). For the latter, we got a little wet while sitting on the edge of the splash zone. Joseph still can't get over the fact that "Shampoo" splashed him. My favorite show was Blue Horizons, a theatrical presentation that includes acrobatic dolphins and whales, and beautiful tropical birds.

Downtown Disney

Technically, this is not a theme park, but there is plenty going on here. It is also a great place to introduce the kids to Disney World, purchase your autograph book or start your Disney pin collection. We had a particularly good time at the Lego Imagination Center where we filled up a container with all kinds of Legos for about $12.

Dinners and Dinner Shows

There is no lack of of places to dine in Orlando, and it's even more fun if you add Disney characters or a dinner show into the mix. Here were some of our favorites.

• The Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue plays at Pioneer Hall in Disney's Fort Wilderness resort. We filled up on ribs and fried chicken while watching a lively and hokey vaudeville act that encouraged audience — and even wait staff — participation. Wills loved the juvenile humor, and the singing and dancing were superb. And a visit to Fort Wilderness is a fun attraction in and of itself!

• The character lunch at Cinderella's Castle in Magic Kingdom is even entertaining for little boys whose mommy loves princesses. Boys are given a sword and a magical (light-up) wishing star, while little girls receive a princess crown. We had a professional picture made with Cinderella and then got visited at our table by her "friends" such as Belle, the Fairy Godmother, Mary Poppins (who admonished Wills to stand up straight) and Wendy from Peter Pan.

• There are many dinner shows outside of Disney World. We tried Medieval Times in the middle of the week and thoroughly enjoyed it. The premise for the show is that you are in the Middle Ages, and you gather in the Great Hall of the King for a feast and a jousting tournament. The food — soup, bread, roasted chicken, spareribs, potato and pastry — is tasty, but beware that there are no utensils. During the "feast" you cheer for the knight whose color you have been assigned. For the boys, it was like watching Medieval Power Rangers, and they enjoyed every minute of it.

• In Downtown Disney, we dined at both the RainForest Café and Planet Hollywood. Rainforest Café captures children's attention with its beautiful aquarium, and its periodic "thunderstorms." For chocolate lovers, I highly recommend the "Volcano" dessert. Planet Hollywood was tons of fun with movie memorabilia and a live disc jockey who also focuses the camera on the crowd. Wills was very excited to see himself on TV!

• On our last day at Disney World, we had a character breakfast at Chef Mickey, located in Disney's Contemporary Resort. Chip and Dale, Mickey, Minnie and Pluto all visited tables and danced during the delicious buffet breakfast. We had a great time, got great pictures and finally got Minnie Mouse's autograph to make our autograph book complete!

Tips for Your Trip

Things We Did (or Wish We Had Done)

• Before you go to Disney World, do your research on pin trading. Visit Web sites such as http://eventservices.disney.go.com/pintrading/index, and learn about this tradition. Some people buy some pins inexpensively online before they go to Disney World, and then they have them to trade with cast members. I wish we had done this, but we started buying them after we were there. Wills and Joseph both loved their pin lanyards, and we collected special pins throughout the trip.

• Pressed pennies are another great souvenir from the trip, and you can buy special books to put them in at many of the Disney stores.

• Buy your autograph books and special pe before you go to your first theme park. (We bought ours at a store in Downtown Disney). You want to be ready when you suddenly happen upon Mickey Mouse!

• Pack a handheld video game, or two, for the trip. Not only do they make the car or plane ride much more pleasurable for the kids, they ease the waiting time in the long lines. I was very pleased when Wills and I could actually wait in a 50-minute line, and I heard no whining. It was the Game Boy that saved us.

• There is no getting around the fact that if you have little ones, you will need a stroller. My husband and I disagree on this point, but I wish we had brought our umbrella stroller, particularly since we drove. He thinks it was easier to just rent a double stroller for the four days we visited theme parks. I would have rather spent the money on trading pins and let the kids alternate riding in our one-seat stroller. Anyway, if you do rent strollers, rent for the number of days you will be at Disney World, and you will get a price break.

• Bring your cell phones so you will be able to communicate with other members of your party. It is inevitable, especially with more than one child, that you will split up and go in different directions or have one person waiting in line while the others go elsewhere.

• Be prepared for your children to ask: "When can we go back to the hotel and swim?" Don't get frustrated — just make sure you make some time for them to do that during your trip.

• Disney's monorail that takes you from the Ticket and Transportation Center to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot or some of the resorts, is a great ride unto itself. Ask to ride up front with the driver. You get a fabulous view and a special co-pilot card. For the kids, this was one of the highlights of the trip!

• If you are going to be in Orlando for a long time, purchase a "Go Orlando" card, which offers fully pre-paid entry to more than 50 attractions and tours. Visit www.GoCardUSA for more information.

• Be sure you make time for the unexpected pleasures. One of our most special moments was when we happened across a mother duck and her babies as we were walking through Magic Kingdom. Don't rush off to get to the next ride when your children are having a good time right where they are.


Numbers to Know

Nickelodeon Family Suites by Holiday Inn
www.nickhotel.com/bro
(866) GO-2-NICK (462-6425)

Renaissance Orlando Resort at SeaWorld
www.RenaissanceSeaWorld.com
(800) 327-6677

All Star Vacation Homes
www.AllStarVacationHomes.com
(800) 592-5548

Disney World
http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/wdw/
(407) W-DISNEY
(407) WDW-DINE (for priority seating at restaurants)

Gatorland
www.gatorland.com
(407) 855-5496

SeaWorld Adventure Park
www.seaworld.com
(800) 327-2424
Smart Destination Inc. (Go Orlando Cards)
www.SmartDestinations.com
www.GoCardUSA.com
(617) 742-5950 clearpixel.gif Leigh Ann McDonald Woodruff is a Winston-Salem mother and writer.
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