After leaving the kids last year for three weeks to go on Honeymoon, we decided that it was only fair to make it up to them. So we planned a mega holiday, a tour around the UK. We were starting by driving to Gatwick airport and flying to Belfast, then flying back and having a few days in Scotland, some time in the Lake District and finishing in the south of England. For weeks leading up to the holiday we had a board up where the kids could make suggestions of things they wanted to do- so we had castles, walks, Tayto Land (not with much enthusiasm but it was the only theme park in range!); we had the zoo, the beach, and as much swimming as they could fit in. So on the first day of the holiday we packed up the car and drove to Brighton, where we wandered around and went on the pier before staying overnight at a friends house.
The next morning we got up early, caught an uber to the airport and prepared to check in. However, before we could check in, we had to sit down with the kids and explain to them that we wouldn’t actually be able to do any of the things on their list because we weren’t doing the UK tour, we were actually going to Florida for two weeks.
Having been worried that the eldest had already worked it out, we were pleased to find that none of them had any idea, and once we explained to the youngest that his idea of Florida being filled with old people and beach huts wasn’t entirely accurate, they were excited and raring to go.
We did so much while we were away that I’m not going to attempt to cover everything in a single blog post- it would be too long to read and definitely too long to write. So instead, this post is going to talk about the general Florida stuff that we did and there will be three more posts- one on the Disney parks, one on the Universal parks, and one on the Seaworld/Busch Garden parks. I’ve got a busy few weeks coming up though so just bear with me as I start to put them together!
To start off though, I think it’s probably worth mentioning the V Room at Gatwick Airport. Due to a helpful refund elsewhere in the holiday, we decided it would be worthwhile to book into the V Room before we flew. I get very nervous about missing flights when I travel- or trains for that matter- and always like to be at the airport at least 2 hours before the plane is due to take off, I’m not quite that bad with trains though! The benefit of the V Room was that we could arrive at the airport nice and early and not have to worry about the kids getting bored, but also that you also had priority check in so the security queue was a lot shorter. The boys were kept occupied by the X-Box and various video games that were available, Katy-Grace spent the holiday engrossed in Harry Potter so she was happy reading in a corner, and there was plenty of food to keep us going. Sam was particularly excited by the pancake machine and endless hot chocolates! Annoyingly, I wasn’t able to make the most of it as I managed to pick up food poisoning the day before and spent most of the day feeling nauseous, and wasn’t able to keep anything down for a couple of days. I can tell you now that a 10 hour flight with food poisoning is no fun at all!
Other than my own stomach issues, the flight went well, the kids were kept happy the whole way by the in-flight entertainment system, and I’d packed enough snacks that they coped with not eating much of the plane food! When we arrived at Orlando airport everything was pretty smooth. There was the anticipated long line for security, but it was no worse than expected. The bags came out with no problems, getting around the massive airport was straightforward, and checking out a car was so much quicker than in LA last year. Getting used to driving on the other side of the road and finding our way out of Orlando was more complicated but we got there in the end!
Our holiday was booked with Virgin Holidays so we had a villa with them as well. We’d heard different reports on the quality of the villas as they are all owned by different rental agencies, so we weren’t sure what to expect. Apart from being a bit further from the parks than we would have liked, the place was perfect. The kids loved having their own pool, and we wouldn’t have survived without the fridge and the washing machine! Also, coming from a massive vicarage, it was definitely nice having two bathrooms, so the kids could be sent to a different one!
The first couple of days we were quite lazy- and I was still ill- so we stuck with take-aways that we knew, Burger King and Pizza Hut primarily. For the rest of the holiday we pretty much only ate a main meal at home once. Most of the time we would eat breakfast at home- pop tarts and Lucky Charms are always a good way for kids to start the day!- take snacks and sometimes sandwiches around for the day with us, and either eat out in the evening, or decide we weren’t that hungry and continue with the snacks. We had a couple of meals in the parks, which I’ll come to later, but also tried to go to some of the chains the kids were excited about that we don’t have at home. Chick-Fil-A was a definite favourite, Cici’s Pizza was good value but not quality, and we got very confused with Taco Bell!
As the kids are now at the perfect age to enjoy theme parks- 14, 11 and 9- we ended up only having 2 full days outside the parks. The first was a trip to Clearwater Beach, which was about an hour and a half drive from the villa. After a couple of issues trying to work out which side of the bay we needed to be on, we ended up parking in the Hyatt hotel, which was very central to the tourist area. The first thing we did was jump on a Little Toot dolphin watching trip out into the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve been on trips before and not seen anything, but we were confident on this one as they had such a good track record. Sure enough, after about half an hour we were joined by 4 or 5 dolphins swimming along the slipstream of the boat. They followed us for about 5 minutes, jumping in and out as we went along. I’ve seen dolphins on boat trips before, but that was definitely the closest to a boat that I’ve seen them.
When we got back we grabbed some lunch at Subway then headed to the beach. The kids were disappointed that the water wasn’t as clear as they expected from the name, but were at least relieved at how warm it was compared to the UK. We’d taken goggles with us so they had fun splashing around, swimming to the bottom to pick up shells (which the dog is now eating), and chasing each other around. The water was actually quite clear, but they didn’t factor in the sand getting moved around with the waves and the people! It also seemed to be a lot saltier than the sea at home, which was weird. We had a break to rehydrate as our lips looked like they were being sucked inside, then Steve and the kids headed back in while I stayed on the beach to read for a bit. That time round they saw some little fish in the water as well.
Eventually they got tired and we headed back. On the drive you go along a stretch of road with the water on both sides. After learning what to look out for on the boat trip, we did notice there were loads of dolphins in the water as we drove back, as well as large shoals of fish. You could also tell who were the locals as they were parked along the sand bar with huge coolers, splashing dogs and fishing rods!
Our second day out was one that I had been looking forward to ever since I found out it was a possibility. About an hour drive was an attraction called Wild Florida. The main selling point is that they do airboat rides through the swamp, however these weren’t running as the weather was so awful. Despite the fact Florida had been in a dry spell before we arrived, it made up for it by raining every day we were there, to the extent that water parks and rides were closed as it was so heavy and for so long. Fortunately, we weren’t there to do an airboat ride. Wild Florida have a large selection of animals, primarily alligators which are rescue alligators that have become too used to humans and therefore dangerous. But we weren’t there to see them either, even though you could feed them and hold them. They also had a walk in aviary with a number of birds who have become tame enough to be fed by hand.
The main attraction was that Wild Florida have a selection of sloths, and more importantly, a sloth encounter experience. Sloths are my absolute favourite animals, weirdly they make me think of my best friend Amy, as when we’re together we follow a similar routine of napping and moving around slowly! The sloth we met was called Guy, and when we arrived he was looking very damp and sitting inside a pot. He was slowly coaxed out with a piece of corn, and made his careful way across a sloth climbing frame to hang contentedly chewing his corn. While he was eating he wasn’t at all fussed about what was going on, giving us an opportunity to come and stroke him, give him a hug, or take a slothie. We were in a fairly small group with two other families so there was plenty of time for all us to have some contact. We were just warned to move away when he dropped his corn in case he tried to eat us instead! Meeting Guy was definitely one of the highlights of our holiday.
As I said, those were the only full days we had outside the parks, but we did grab a few hours here and there. We spent a bit of time shopping- which none of us particularly enjoy, but there were a few things we wanted to take home. We stocked up on Disney gifts in a couple of the numerous gift shops outside the park; Katy-Grace was very excited to be able to go to Justice- a girls clothes shop we don’t have in the UK; I wanted to buy some Converse to replace my falling apart shoes, which are a fraction of the price as at home, and Ryan found a couple of pairs that made him look very grown up!; and the younger two kids were excited to go to a massive Nike store. We also spent a few hours driving around Kissimmee in the (very heavy) rain, to find a phone charger for Ryan, and the next Harry Potter instalment for Katy-Grace. It was definitely reassuring to see the Americans don’t cope with rain any better than we do!
After the pace of going around the theme parks we had a couple of mornings staying at home with the kids in the pool- for a small pool they were able to spend hours amusing themselves in it- or watching rubbish American TV like Fear Factor, Jerry Springer, and America’s Got Talent. On one of our last mornings we decided we’d have breakfast out and went to find an IHOP (International House of Pancakes), however, for the first time in 2 weeks we couldn’t see one anywhere so we went to Waffle House instead, which was definitely a good substitute and the kids were stuffed!
The rest of the time was spent in the various theme parks around Orlando, but to find out which ones we enjoyed the most, you’ll have to wait for the next instalment!