Ok, I admit it, I’m a creature of habit. Killarney is my repeat stay-cation destination and when we travel abroad for a family holiday it’s always to the same spot in the south of France. So when Peter and I realised that our girls were fast-approaching the age when they might be too old to appreciate the magic of Disney, or more importantly the company of their parents on holiday, we decided to go for the family holiday of a lifetime to Florida.
We kept the trip as a surprise until the last minute (leaving for Dublin airport). Their reaction was priceless. They were smiling and giggling from the time we locked the front door of the house until we opened the bedroom door of the hotel.
We decided to split our 10 day break into three parts – Part one, the endurance test that is the theme parks and outlets of Orlando, part two, the tranquility of a beach hotel on the gulf of Mexico and part three, the madness of Miami!
The B-Resort Hotel and Spa is a perfectly-located base for your time in Orlando. On arrival we took the glass elevator to our room and as the sun set, we got you an exterior view of the surrounding Disney parks and lakes – a perfect teaser for the days ahead.
Expecting jet-lag to be an issue we scheduled a day of outlet shopping for day one rather than a park. Tiredness didn’t seem to be an issue for them and we shopped like it was an olympic sport for a full day at the Orlando Vineland Premium Outlet – only 6 mins drive from our hotel and boasting more designer discount stores than I’ve seen in one location. Prada sunglasses for €80, DKNY boots for €40, New Balance trainers for €20 – you get the idea. With a wide range of restaurants and cafes to choose from, we had no option but to stay the entire day and fill that empty suitcase we brought ‘just in case’!
The sun was almost setting again when we reached the Icon Orlando – one of the world’s tallest observation wheels (think London Eye, but with a Florida sunset and champagne!).
Day two meant we were down to serious theme-park business. Universal Studios was about 30 mins drive from our hotel. At this point I need to give the first very important piece of advice – go for the Fast Pass option! If it means sacrificing a night out, a meal, a bigger rental car, just do it. The other bit of advice is suncream, but we’ll get to that later.
The wonderful thing about walking around Universal is that you do feel like you’re on a film set. Every street, building, sign and eatery is iconic. The Bubba Shrimp Company from Forrest Gump, the Butterbeer vendor in Harry Potter Land, even Moe’s Bar from the Simpson’s was a place where Peter felt instantly at home!
The highlight was of course the Harry Potter world. We took the Hogwarts Express to get there ( a genius idea incorporating a theme park ride into a shuttle between different parts of the park). Our girls were fascinated by the amount of adults dressed as wizards, complete with gowns and wands. The Other highlights include the Jimmy Fallon virtual ride/flight around, through and over New York and The Hulk rollercoaster.
With the fast-pass we didn’t have to queue for more than 10 mins for any of the rides, but most of the long queues are either indoors or in shade so sunstroke is not a factor.
Day three was Disney. We decided to get up early and do two parks in one day. First stop was the Animal Kingdom, Disney’s newest park. The clue is in the name – safari animals, dinosaurs, a jungle trek and a kayak adventure on the river. If you’re going for the safari, get there early as that’s when the animals are most active. It’s all about the animals and the fantastic shows for the younger visitors in this park but there are two incredible rides worth trekking across the park for. The first is Pandora – The World of Avatar, a magical 12-acre land based on the Avatar film.
This is an immersive 3D ride over, under and through the Avatar landscape and is highly recommended by all four of us. The other is the Expedition Everest rollercoaster – a real thrill but not for the faint-hearted!
In the evening there is a beautiful closing show called the festival of lights (a night-time water and light-show on a lake) and also comes highly recommended, but we were on a tight schedule to do two parks in a day so after four hours in Animal Kingdom we took the shuttle bus to Magic Kingdom and visited all the old favourites – Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain and the Haunted Mansion. Although most of the rides are for younger children, you help but be drawn in by the magic of Main Street USA, Liberty Square and Fantasyland. No-one is too old to enjoy the evening parade and fireworks. At the very end of the day, we got to experience the Kiss Goodnight – a beautiful show that most people don’t get to see as it happens after the fireworks display. Images of all the Disney characters are projected onto The Cinderella Castle, saying goodnight to the sound of When You Wish Upon A Star. It only lasts a couple of minutes but is truly magical and a perfect way to end the day.
By day four we were exhausted and in need of some relaxation on a beach. We drove two and a half hours west to Longboat Key – a beautiful barrier island between Sarasota Bay and the Gulf Of Mexico. We stayed at the Zota Beach Resort, a wonderfully chilled out, modern hotel right on the beach. We spent most of our time on loungers by the sea, but there is an infinity pool with a large deck and cocktail bar. The second important piece of advice comes now – use suncream at all times! We sat out for a couple of hours without SPF because it was cloudy early in the day and got very burnt. I forgot that Florida is much closer to the equator and as a result the UV rays are much stronger and roasted our pasty white Irish skin in no time. It gave me a good excuse to they the Zota margarita (medicinal purposes, a painkiller!).
The following day we drove 20 minutes to Bradenton Beach and took a wildlife boat tour with Paradise Tours. Our captain and tour guide were both very knowledgeable (they found dolphins within 20 mins) but also gave us a lot of information on the history of the area and some great restaurant recommendations. Thankfully we took their advice and ate at The Star Fish Company. Local knowledge is a wonderful thing, and these people know how to cook seafood. The setting is really unique – a dockside restaurant next door to the fish market, so you know it doesn’t get fresher than this. Calamari, gulf shrimp, grilled grouper and crab cakes, served in a cardboard box with some local craft beers made for one of my favourite meals of the holiday. The view from the dock was just as impressive – pelicans on the tops of the fishing boats with mangrove islands in the background. I would have gone back again to go back for dinner but they close at 8pm.
We had an early start on day six as we had to get to Marco Island for a wave runner trip with Marco Island Water Sports. A wave runner is a slightly larger jet ski for two people and is undoubtedly the best way to travel through the mangroves and see the wildlife from the water. We got up close with wild dolphins and manatees and as we were zig-zagging between the small islands a flock of pink spoonbills (we thought they were flamingoes at first) flew overhead and it was real ‘movie moment’. We spent most two hours on the water and loved every second.
Back on the beach we had lunch at the new Deck 560 restaurant in the Hilton Marco Island. Unfortunately we were only passing through but this newly-renovated hotel is so impressive that we’ve all agreed to come back and stay on our next visit.
Peter and I had visited the beautiful town of Naples before and wanted to show the girls the town with quite possibly the best ice-cream shop in Florida – Kilwins on 5th Ave.
A few doors up is our favourite restaurant, the award-winning Ocean Prime. Most of the holiday had been very ‘beachy’ up to this point so I was glad to have the opportunity to dress up and swap the sandals for heels! The adjacent hotel, Inn on Fifth is one of the most luxurious and best-located hotels in Naples. If only we had another few days to relax in the lap of luxury.
After dinner it was time to take the ice cream take-away to the Naples pier and watch the famous Naples sunset – another magical holiday moment.
Our batteries were well and truly recharged on day seven so we headed for the bright lights of Miami. It’s a very easy two hour drive. Another piece of practical advice, it’s worth getting an American SIM card if you have data-hungry teenagers, want to stream your own music for the long car journeys or have a car without sat nav (the Waze app on Peter’s phone was essential when navigating the cities). We picked up a Verizon SIM with more data than we needed for the holiday for only $50 (Target or most supermarkets/pharmacies).
As was the first visit to Miami for myself and the girls, Peter was our tour guide for the last 3 days and showed us the best that mid-town, Little Havana and South Beach had to offer. We got the full retro Americana experience when we checked into our accommodation – the Vagabond Motel on Biscayne Boulevard. This is a wonderfully kitsch, refurbished, two-storey boutique motel which was built built in the 1950’s. It was the famed hangout of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack and as we sat at the pool-side cocktail bar under the shade of the palm trees it was easy to see why. This place is a quiet oasis in the centre of historic midtown Miami and a perfectly located base to explore the city from. First stop was little Havana for some authentic Cuban food for lunch. The iconic Versailles restaurant on Calle Ocho is an institution and has been serving traditional fare since the early 1970’s. The large dining room is ornately decorated with chandeliers and etched glass mirrors. We feasted on a selection of empanadas (pasty), stuffed plantains (green bananas), Ropa Viejo (shredded beef), tamales (corn dough steamed in corn husk) and the most delicious slow-roast, spiced chicken. With drinks it all came to $85 which was incredibly good value.
We needed to walk off the lunch so we visited the Wynwood Walls, an area of huge, outdoor street art murals. Over the last ten years some of the world’s most talented street/graffiti artists have been commissioned to create original artworks on the blank canvases that are the walls and buildings in this thriving neighbourhood. This place definitely offered the most colourful photo opportunities of the holiday.
It’s amazing how a short stroll can work up an appetite, and against all odds we were ready for dinner at the legendary Joe’s Stone Crab in South Beach by 8pm. Another institution, Joe’s has been serving this Florida speciality to the great and the good for more than 100 years. It’s a great place to people watch and the food is superb. Don’t be put off by the expensive reputation. Yes, it can be pricey if you go for seafood, but the owners wanted to make it affordable to everyone so they included a fried chicken dish at $9.95. We were persuaded by our very attentive waiter to go for the famous key lime pie, something they’re almost as well known for as the crab and it’s easy to see why. Another famous Florida dish that didn’t disappoint.
Our last day meant a last chance to go shopping and I stumbled upon the most wonderful vintage shop just beside our hotel. Fly Boutique (7235 Biscayne Blvd) has a wonderful mix of new local designers and classic vintage pieces by everyone from Chanel and Dior to Gucci and Missoni.
It also has retro furniture, jewellery, vinyl, rotary phones and some wonderful up-cycled pieces created by the very friendly co-owner Jean Marie. I found a wonderful vintage white dress which was just perfect for a party at home, the week after our trip.
After an excellent sushi lunch at Moshi Moshi (the Dragon Roll was excellent!) we headed for south beach and some more people watching. It really is another world, full of crazy, colourful characters and the most incredible art deco buildings. We drove along Ocean Drive and Collins Ave admiring the architecture and shops and finally found a parking space so we could walk the pedestrian area of Lincoln and take a stroll along the beach. There is so much to see and do in south beach that you could spend a full week here and not get bored (we all made a promise to return and stay at The Delano when we win the lotto!).
The final drive from Miami back to Orlando was the longest (four hours) but the freeways are easy to drive and the scenery always provides something interesting to look at. The return flight with Are Lingus was a 9.50pm departure – a perfect time for the four exhausted travellers to get some sleep and arrive somewhat refreshed in Dublin the following morning (11am).
We covered a lot in ten days, it was definitely long enough to get to see all we wanted to see. The direct flights from Dublin made all the difference. Initially I had gone with the expectation of Disney and Universal being the highlights, but I was surprised by how much I loved all of the other aspects to this this Florida holiday and they will most definitely be the reason I come back.
You’ll find all the info you need on the Visit Florida website.
Aer Lingus, operates a direct service 4 times weekly from Dublin to Orlando, Florida with fares starting from €339 each-way including taxes and charges, when booked as a return trip.
American Sky offers a 9-night package, including 5 nights at the B Resort Lake Buena Vista (RO), 2 nights at the Zota Beach Resort (RO) and 2 nights at The Vagabond Hotel (w/ continental breakfast) from €999pp. To book visit americansky.ie or call 01 664 9900.