Florida is by far the most popular choice for British families holidaying in the USA, so here are our top tips for surviving a trip to the Sunshine State…
Florida is the ultimate getaway for families – there’s guaranteed sunshine, familiar food and drink for the picky eaters, no language barrier (unless you’re asking for the loo, which is called the restroom over the pond) and, of course, Disney.
It’s the trip of a lifetime for many kids, but knowing where to base yourself, what to do and how to get around can be a challenge. After a week-long adventure in Kissimmee, here are our tips for a family holiday in Florida.
1. Book into a holiday home
Flying to Florida for a family holiday, you’re likely to come into Orlando. But staying in the city itself can be a challenge for families, financially and logistically. There are no vacation rentals in Orlando, and if you do stay in a hotel there you’re likely to be a little further from the parks than you might like.
Fortunately, Kissimmee has got you covered. There are hundreds of holiday homes here for all budgets, and staying in a rental place means you can save money for more fun activities by cooking for yourself. Book with a reputable company like Jeeves Florida Rentals and you’ll get easy-to-follow instructions on checking into your home.
They have the full range of homes, including ultra luxury mansions with movie-themed playrooms and bedrooms for the kids, swimming pools and gorgeous, large social spaces. We love this one in Reunion Resort, which is just a 15-minute drive from the main theme parks and 30-minutes from Orlando International.
2. Hire a car
There is something incredibly pleasing about driving in Florida. Good, wide highways and clear signposting for attractions, theme parks and resorts make it a stress-free experience. There really is no other way to get around unless you fork out on cabs, and so hiring a car is essential.
Top tip: Hire with ever-reliable Hertz and sign up to the Gold Plus Rewards before you book your car. You’ll breeze through the pick-up process: simply hand your reservation number over and they’ll point you to a row of cars waiting for you. You can choose whichever one you want, and drive away immediately. Perfect for keeping those jet-lagged, restless little ones moving.
3. But beware of the tolls
Florida’s roads are brilliant, but that comes at a cost which is passed onto the drivers. There are tolls for the major highways, so you’ll need to budget accordingly. In a hire car, you can breeze through the fast lanes without stopping and the rental company will add the charge onto your final bill when you return.
4. Know where to get your thrills
It pays to do some research on the theme parks in Orlando. The main attraction for many is Walt Disney World, but within that there are actually five different theme parks. The Magic Kingdom is where you’ll meet all the classic Disney characters, then there’s futuristic, tech-focused Epcot, Disney Springs for shopping and entertainment, the Animal Kingdom and Disney Hollywood Studios.
Then there’s Universal Orlando Florida, which has three parks to its name: Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure and Universal’s Volcano Bay water park. For Harry Potter fanatics, beeline for the Studios and Islands of Adventure (you can take the Hogwarts Express between the two).
You could spend days at each of the individual parks, but if you’re serious about making the most of your theme park visits, join a few Facebook groups such as this one to get insider tips and info from passionate visitors and locals.
5. Book fast passes in advance
Don’t make the kids wait in line. There’s nothing fun about queueing in the humid Florida heat. Fast passes are available at both Disney and Universal, and they’re well worth splurging on. It can get incredibly sticky in those lines.
It’s best to book in advance for Disney, and you’ll likely have to reserve spaces in queues in advance too. At Universal, you can buy fast passes on the day as you enter.
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6. But don’t just explore the theme parks
With kids in tow, it’s tempting to spend an entire fortnight at the theme park resorts. But to do that you’d be missing out on some of the fantastic things Florida has to offer nearby. Staying in Kissimmee puts you in prime position for getting to both the east and west coastlines – you could head to Clearwater Beach, the best in the USA according to Tripadvisor, or over to Cocoa Beach in the east, which sits on the Banana River Aquatic Reserve.
7. Do something educational
Learning and fun go hand-in-hand in Florida, and from Kissimmee there are a host of activities that combine the two. Head to the Kennedy Space Center for an incredibly educational day out. You can dine with a real astronaut who’ll divulge all their tales of being in space; over 10s can experience some real astronaut training; and there’s a brilliant shuttle launch simulator that’ll make you feel like you’re jetting off into space. For anyone remotely interested in space travel, this is a truly spectacular experience, and if you’re lucky, you might even get to see a SpaceX rocket launch from the old Space Shuttle program launchpad.
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If you want to get active, do a kayaking tour of Shingle Creek with a guide. You’ll spot all sorts of wildlife from alligators to snakes and turtles, and you won’t believe you’re just a hundred metres or so from the highway once you float out into the stunning cypress tree forest and swampland. For a more high octane experience, head to Wild Florida, where there’s an animal park full of rescued exotic animals and airboat rides on the lake.