DREAMSCAPES Spring/Summer 2017
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ORLANDO HITMAKERS
 
(2017 - Spring/Summer Issue)

Writer: LAURA BYRNE PAQUET



Yes, you can visit Orlando with children, see the big-eared mouse and come home both sane and solvent. All it takes is a bit of planning.

If sanity is your primary goal, book a room at one of the 36 resorts within Walt Disney World itself. Yes, you read that right—the Disney property, which is twice the size of Manhattan Island, includes more than 30,000 hotel rooms, as well as nine timeshare properties, and a campground with 799 campsites and 409 cabins.

There’s an accommodation style for just about every travel fantasy and budget: Disney’s Wilderness Lodge for national park fans, Disney’s Yacht Club for Cape Cod types, and properties with Caribbean, sports or Old South themes—you name it, they have it. And prices run the gamut; in the off-season, rooms at “value” properties such as Disney’s All-Star Music Resort are available for as little as US$100 a night.

One of the key advantages of staying at Disney is that you don’t have to drive to Disney. Instead, you can take complimentary transportation (bus, boat or monorail) from many properties to Disney’s four theme parks and other sites, such as the Disney Springs shopping and dining area.

My daughter Stephanie and I checked into the Walt Disney World Swan Hotel, which is a bit hard to pigeonhole; “deluxe convention hotel” sort of covers it. It is also within walking and boating distance of Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. In combination with the adjacent Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel, it offers five pools, meeting space and 17 restaurants and lounges, ranging from coffee shops and sandwich bars to upscale spots that wouldn’t look out of place in downtown Toronto or Vancouver.

CELEBRITY CUISINE

On our first night, we had reservations at celebrity chef Todd English’s bluezoo at the Dolphin.

The restaurant’s signature dish is “dancing fish”—fish cooked on skewers over an open flame and filleted at your table—but Stephanie opted for chicken while I chose Hawaiian mero, which is similar to Chilean sea bass but more sustainable. Everything was tasty and the service—as everywhere at Disney—was friendly and kind. Even though entrées are US$28 to US$60, families with kids abounded. (For parents who would rather have dinner à deux, each adult reservation includes two hours of free fun for a child aged four to 12 at the hotel’s kids’ club.)

INTO THE PARKS

Well fed and well rested, we were ready to tackle the parks the next day. Trust me, you will need your energy. That day, I logged almost 17 kilometres of walking on my Fitbit. (Granted, I squeezed in three parks and a parasailing ride, an approach I recommend only for masochists.)

Experts write entire books about the almost infinite number of attractions available in Walt Disney World’s parks, so I won’t attempt to be exhaustive here. One highlight for us was the accurately named Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It cranks you up to the top of a dark, 60-metre tower on an elevator-like platform, drops you many storeys, then does it a few more times until you are trembling and hoarse. You have been warned.

Stephanie’s favourite was the Wishes fireworks show at Magic Kingdom. The 12-minute display is a clockwork-perfect Disney marvel, complete with singable songs (you may never get “Let It Go” out of your head) and Tinkerbell flying through the air above Cinderella Castle.

The fireworks show runs every night, and is just one of several nightly pyrotechnic extravaganzas at Disney. You’ll also find countless song-and-dance shows, strolling Disney characters and many other entertainment options. What you will not find is a single squiggle of graffiti or a fallen wrapper that stays on the ground longer than a minute or two. Disney employs more than 70,000 “cast members” throughout the parks, resorts and elsewhere in the complex to keep everything humming along with pristine precision.

Parasailing at Sammy Duvall Watersports at Disney’s Contemporary Resort is a way to literally fly above the hubbub. At the end of 183 metres of rope, dangling from a harness and parachute high above Bay Lake, you can see the landmarks—Epcot’s golf-ball-like Spaceship Earth, the spires of Cinderella Castle—but you’re gloriously alone (unless you’re flying tandem with a friend) and the only noise is the breeze in your ears.

BEYOND DISNEY

Unless you’ve recently won the lottery, you likely won’t be spending every day of your weeklong vacation at Disney’s parks. Nor would I recommend it, as there is so much more to see and do in the Orlando area.

Stephanie and I really enjoyed the Aquatica water park at SeaWorld. For a truly relaxing day, spring for a private cabana, where you can sip on cold water from your personal fridge and store your gear in a bamboo-style locker. You can also sign up for unlimited all-day dining at the Banana Beach cafeteria. It’s not exactly bluezoo, but the endless supply of pizza, hot dogs, salad, fruit and cookies will keep the kids from tugging on your sleeve every five minutes seeking sustenance.

Again, they’ll need their energy, because the water park is packed with fun activities, including two wave pools, two lazy rivers and eight waterslides. The place has an Aussie/Kiwi theme, with announcers on loudspeakers urging guests to “Have a g’day, mate” and “kia ora.” If your kids like thrills, it may be a better deal than Disney, as it’s cheaper and the lines are shorter.

Another fairly affordable destination for families is I-Drive 360, a shopping and entertainment complex that opened in 2015. We came mainly to ride the Orlando Eye, a huge Ferris wheel, but it was closed due to a thunderstorm. Undeterred, we decided to check out two other attractions on-site: Madame Tussaud’s wax museum and the Sea Life aquarium. Both were more fun than we’d expected. We ran around the wax museum like over-sugared toddlers, taking each other’s pictures with quite believable replicas of Taylor Swift and Barack Obama. At the small but engaging aquarium, we stood mesmerized inside walk-through tanks filled with gliding sharks, schools of angelfish and scores of other marine critters.

POSH SUBURBIA

If you really want to escape the Orlando bustle, take a day trip to the suburb of Winter Park. This is mainly a grown-up destination, so if you smile nicely, perhaps your partner will hang with the kids for a day while you explore.

As the name implies, Winter Park began as a cold-weather retreat for rich northerners, who came here by train and stayed in custom-built vacation homes. A commuter train is all that stops here these days, but the money remains: many of the older houses have been torn down to make way for even more opulent year-round properties. Scenic Boat Tours offers enjoyable trips on pontoon boats through the area’s mansion-fringed lakes and canals.

Winter Park’s main drag, Park Avenue, is lined with sleek shops, as well as bistros filled with ladies who lunch. I can highly recommend Boca, where the dishes highlight local ingredients. Across the street, the intriguing Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art is a private institution dedicated to the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany and his contemporaries.

In Orlando, you’ll find hotels, motels and campgrounds for all budgets, as well as just about any type of fast-food establishment known to humankind. And you don’t have to spend every minute hurtling down a roller coaster or waterslide; Florida’s balmy weather means that many days are perfect for just settling down poolside with a cool drink and a good book.

TRAVEL PLANNER

For more details on Orlando, go to visitorlando.com.

 
 
 
 
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