Last year 62 million people visited Florida, mainly Orlando. That’s one heck of a number isn’t it? The truth behind these visits is people want to create memories. Sometimes they don’t even realise it until much later but memories are what get when you visit Florida. Travel is all about adding to life’s experiences and taking your loved ones to Disney, SeaWorld, LEGOLAND or Universal Studios can be the pinnacle for many families. Those unforgettable stories handed down over the generations, the pictures that remind us of those happy moments. But there is more to Florida than sunshine and theme parks, as I found out.
I thought I’d break myself in gently. Looking out over the 1500 acres of grounds from the 10th floor of my Hyatt Regency Cypress hotel room space was what I craved. Florida has more than one type of space. I hooked up with Tom Jones, no not that one but the veteran of 135 shuttle missions at the Kennedy Space Center. If you have the slightest interest in space this is THE place to visit. I remember watching grainy black and white footage of moon landings as a child and wondered at the ingenuity and bravery of the first space pioneers. Now I was actually talking to one!
Tom’s knowledge of space is incredible. He casually drops into the conversation that Mars’ moons are really suitable for sub bases as there is little gravity. He is convinced that colonisation of space will happen indeed it is necessary for the survival of our species. He is also convinced that there is some form of other life out there in one of the solar systems. We need to be a multi species life force. Tom is the sort of teacher we all wanted at school. He effortlessly explains and informs without you even realising it, a joy to be with.
Where the Space Center really brings things to life is in the simulation theatres. Re-enactments of key events are performed all day long with multi-screen augmentation that makes you feel you are in the control room as launches are taking place. Along with Apollo rockets and more space artefacts that you could imagine they have their new exhibit on display, Atlanta the last space shuttle to fly out of the Earth’s orbit. This is an impressive sight. Firstly it’s enormous and secondly as you look at it with its pay doors open you can imagine what it was really like to work in space as Tom did. Space walks were the highlight of any mission for him. That freedom and view! You get to see sunset and sun rise every 90 minutes while orbiting the Earth. It takes a bit of getting used to apparently!
Shopping is the other worthwhile pursuit in Florida especially in Orlando. The Simon Group are the largest retail real estate owners in the world. You might not have heard of them but I bet you’ve purchased something in one of their shopping malls. Bringing quality high street brands at discounted prices is their forte. They have some regular malls that offer a couponing system that with a bit planning can save you a fortune. Then there are The Mills they offer food, fun and fashion – really something for everyone. And finally the premium outlets, which offer a whopping 25 – 65% discount on names like Hugo Boss, Gap, Brooks Brothers, Victoria’s Secret and a stack more. These different profiles are key to understand in terms of what you want from a days shopping.
Will the kids be happy as we trundle around? Why not take them to the enormous Crayola Center, just opened in The Florida Mall. It is a place where you can buy any colour you care for but here’s the really great thing it has a craft centre like no other. Imagine placing your young ones with dad for a couple of hours here where they can try clay modelling, electronic art and there’s even a theatre! This 100-year-old company has organised visits to typically last 2 – 3 hours and is aimed at 2 – 12 year olds. The cost is a very reasonable $19.99 including all your materials and you get to keep whatever you make.
There are over 200 shops it’s the biggest shopping experience in Florida with rest zones. Free Wi-Fi, giant TV screens and restaurant eating and it’s only 10 minutes from the airport. If your daughter wants to join the latest craze for dolls then head to American Girl. You can buy a doll that looks just like you and all the clothes she’ll ever need then have lunch at their in house eatery and if you like your doll can have a special seat that clips onto the table (lots of people do it)! The food is great as well, a word of warning though it’s very pink and people do talk to their dolls … a lot!
After the Hyatt I wanted to be part of the fun in Florida so where better to check into than Cabana Bay Beach Hotel. This bang on trend 60’s retro hotel is perfect for families. It’s run by Universal (with a regular free shuttle bus to the theme park). The rooms or suites have a kitchenette, sliding door to separate the two giant beds from the living area (that has a convertible sofa) and there are separate loo and bathrooms – essential when travelling with your brood. The large foyer where you get everything from an Old Fashioned in Swizzles the cool retro bar to tickets for the parks will satisfy most needs. There is also a fab dining room where you can self serve any number of dishes and watch old 60’s adverts on giant screens. The whole place has been exquisitely designed to look authentic but have all the mod cons of today. I’m sure I saw Don Draper in the bar one night!
I loved this hotel because it’s fun, you feel like you’re on holiday the moment you step into the place and it’s great value for families. The pool is large with plenty of loungers it’s really safe and just for that final touch they play 60’s music quietly in all the public areas. Perfect.
The premium outlets are full of high-end players such as Prada, Calvin Klein, DKNY, J Crew, Tommy Hilfiger and the like. The one on Vineland Avenue in Orlando has 160 stores. And it’s an outdoor shopping experience, there is shade between the shops but it’s nice to be in the sun as well. This is a haven for ‘pro’ shoppers. I lost count of the times I heard people talking about their ‘last’ trip or their ‘next’ visit. Many fly in with a small case and buy a big empty one to fill up (me included) I had no problem in fulfilling the long list of requests from the family, something from Brooks Bros, Converse Baseball Boots, Calvin Klein purse, Gap shirts … the list went on. With a bit of focus and planning you can easily save your airfare with the discounts on offer.
Shopping though does take it out of you so where better to go for a change of scene that Dick’s Last Resort. A seemingly ordinary burger joint but with a twist, the staff are incredibly rude! This is of course part of the plan, you are asked if that’s OK when you arrive (although I don’t think you have great deal of choice in the matter) and from then on it’s a roller coaster ride of hilarity. Our whole table were humiliated at some point or other. They make giant paper hats that you have to wear with personalised ‘rude’ messages.
If you dare to go to the loo (as a couple of ladies from our table did) the waiter came up to them on their way back to the table and shook their hands. Shouting to the whole restaurant that they had not washed their hands and they were wet with something else. I asked for a glass of water and was presented with a thimble of water.
Another ruse was to take hundreds of pictures on your mobile if you leave it lying around. It sounds strange but it was the expectation of what was to come that made it so funny. Think Basil Fawlty crossed with Animal House and you’d be along the right lines. The group on my table laughed the whole lunch through. If you fancy a less ‘amusing’ lunch I can recommend Vinitousa, a straight laced, honest, no jokes made at your expense Italian.
Of course a visit to Orlando wouldn’t be complete without a theme park or two. Disney is the big steak holder here but for my money (and the slightly more mature holiday maker) it’s Universal that stands out as the best all rounder. Not only have they cornered the market with superb rides like Spiderman and Transformers they offer an absolutely brick for brick replica of Harry Potter’s world. The detail is stunning and the rides? Well there’s something for all tastes. Escape from Gringots and the Train journey were my favourites. But just wandering around this realised imagination of J.K. Rowling’s mind is in itself a treat. It is so good that you start to believe it. The start of the Potter world is heralded by what America does best, an over the top depiction of a condensed London where Leicester Square is next to King Cross Station oh and there’s a strange triple-decker blue London bus as well. It’s super fun for Potterites and non-believers alike.
A week or so in Orlando can go very quickly (remember you’re storing up those lifelong memories) so allow enough time to cover the ground you want to. Hire a car and expect to drive just about everywhere (unless you are in a hotel near a resort then catch the shuttle). And whether your interest is Prada or Potter, Madmen or Moon shot you’re sure to find what you’re after. And don’t forget to take lots of photographs (it’s our best memory aid) to stack up those moments of family fun that you can look at for years to come … or until your next visit that is.
I flew with British Airways and stayed at:
Cabana Bay Resort Orlando
6550 Adventure Way