Top Places for Florida Family Fun
Monday 23rd April 2018
We arrived in Orlando, Florida and were greeted by my lovely dad who has a house there - it was fantastic to see him as we hadn't been together since we left in August and I was looking forward to some home comforts (not to mention his home cooking!) in a place that has many happy memories for us.
We have been lucky enough to stay at dad's place many times over the years so we have fond memories of the girls as toddlers and many funny videos of them when they were little which we all love watching.
We spent almost three weeks with Dad, the girls caught up on a lot of school work, Nikki and I were running most days and Dad kept us all fed with delightful treats.
We really enjoyed the downtime and the normality of being "home" for a while. We went on a few day trips listed below before embarking on a road trip around the Sunshine State.
Blue Springs State Park
Famous for its manatees we visited twice having made the error the first time of failing to check the park's twitter account prior to visiting to make sure that there were actually manatees present. There weren't. So we went back a second time very late in the season for manatees and were lucky enough to see a small group in the water.
Aside from the manatees there is a lovely nature trail and it's a historical area as it was built on old Native American wasteland. It had a playground which the girls loved and also runs nature boat trips from the dock. In the summer months you can swim and kayak here.
Formerly known as Downtown Disney this free to all Disney themed area has expanded massively since we were last here. As well as the largest Disney store on the planet it also now has a huge array of shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
It was great to wander around although extremely busy and the girls enjoyed having fun in the Disney store given that we had decided against visiting the Disney parks on this occasion.
There is also a massive cinema here and Goofy's candy store as well as a Christmas shop! It's great fun to spend a few hours and all completely free - as long as you don't buy anything!!
Disney's Blizzard Beach
We were actually really lucky to get here as it closed the next day as the temperature plummeted!
We decided against doing any of the Disney theme parks but we all love water parks so decided that we would make the trip - Nikki loves Typhoon Lagoon for its huge wave pool but it was closed for refurbishment but we all love the rides - especially the family ride - at BB.
It's decorated like a crazy ski resort and the chair lifts up to the top are just like ski lifts, there's the usual lazy river and various slides as well as a huge toddler area, older kids play area and the family ride where all four of us can sit in a big round float and whizz down the ride.
It was chilly when you were wet but we all still had a super day in the park, I'd definitely recommend it more in the summer months though!
Universal Studios & Islands of Adventure
Our one extravagance in Florida was dual park tickets including Express Passes to these two theme parks. Buying both tickets gave us the opportunity to go on the Hogwarts Express train ride between parks and even though we only had one day we decided to pack in as much as we could.
We started in Islands of Adventure and cashed in our fast passes for the Incredible Hulk ride. With the Parent Pass it meant we only used two fast passes as the parent not riding (who stays with a child too small to ride) can swap with the parent rider at the end of their turn. It is a great system and meant that Darcy got to go twice in a row! She definitely had jelly legs afterwards!!
We whizzed around the park, taking in the amazing Wizarding World of Harry Potter before catching the train to Universal Studios on the Hogwarts Express. It's phenomenal - incredible technology and effects and it really is worth it. Truly magical.
We hopped off and explored the new Harry Potter area open in this park including Diagon Alley and the brilliant Gringotts ride before picking out our top attractions to fit in - namely ET, the Minions ride and Transformers.
We had one last go on the Incredible Hulk ride (using the other two fast passes - sneaky hey!) as we popped back in Islands of Adventure before joining Dad for a birthday dinner out at Red Lobster. Phew! What a day!
Our time with Papa came to an end so we hit the road to see what else Florida had to offer.
We decided to make the drive up to Daytona to see the famous race track and of course the beach - known for the race scene in Days of Thunder. I had never seen the film so Nikki and I watched it which was brilliant as we were staying at a beachfront motel so I actually ran along towards to the pier where the race takes place.
Our visit coincided with Bike Week so the town was buzzing with bikers everywhere. It wasn't intimidating though and we loved counting the bikes we saw after our walk on the beach (we stopped at 100 after five minutes). As we left the next day we stopped in at the free show at the race track. We had a go on some Harley Davidsons, met the Geico lizard and were blessed by the Christian Bikers Group!
We all loved the Slingshot bikes, they look like the Batmobile and were great fun to watch racing around.
It was fantastic and although we didn't see many other children it was a totally different experience for us and something we would never do at home!
Kennedy Space Center
Having never been here as a family despite our many holidays to Florida we were all excited about this trip - actual real life rockets and astronauts!
It's a super day out, very reasonable and there's tons to do. We visited as much as we could in the time we had and the girls really loved it - prompting many (unanswerable) questions. What else really is out there? Are we alone? Did the moon landings really happen? Could we really live on mars?
There's so many exhibits and we were also interested to see the secretive hangar run by Elon Musk's Space X as we were taken on a coach trip out where the rockets actually launch.
We found it so fascinating, all learnt so much and paid our respects to those lost at the memorial. We also saw an ACTUAL ARMADILLO on the way out just snuffling about in the grass which was thrilling for us as we love those funny creatures and they're so hard to spot in the wild.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Beach
We headed across the state to Clearwater, and paid a visit to the beach. The sand was so soft, like baby powder and we spent a few lazy hours here enjoying the sunshine while the girls played.
The following day we visited Clearwater Marine Aquarium. It has some mixed reviews so we weren't sure what to expect but the girls are huge fans of the Dolphin Tale films so we knew we had to come and meet Winter - their famous dolphin who doesn't have a tail.
We would all hugely recommend this place - it was absolutely superb. Yes it's a little tatty in places and not quite so shiny as it is in the film but all their money is spent on rescues and their animals. Some of them have the saddest stories and to see them happily swimming is wonderful.
We did the behind the scenes tour so we learnt more about the work that the center does and more about some of its inhabitants - including a sperm whale that was once a resident before being released! We decided to go on the boat trip as well which was excellent as we spotted a wild dolphin before Nikki's spotter skills really came up trumps as he saw a bald eagle on the roof of some buildings - even our boat host was nearly in tears as she'd never seen one before! The girls loved learning more about the reality behind the film and also really enjoyed meeting the heroes of the film, Winter and Hope.
Sawgrass Recreation Park
One of Nikki's "bucket list" items has been to go on an airboat in the Everglades so we decided to do just that as we made our way across to Miami.
We had a great time on their evening boat trip out spotting alligators, learning the difference between them and crocodiles and why you shouldn't worry that one of these alligators will eat you. They probably won't. Probably.
We also visited their rescue park and despite being dismayed by the size of the enclosures we agreed that the animals had a better life here than they had in their previous homes and that we would not like to see healthy animals put down.
We visited Miami Beach on a Sunday thinking it would be a nice chilled vibe and we could relax a while. Ummmm no! It was PACKED! It took hours to even get across to the beach let alone find a car parking space that didn't want a million pounds for 5 minutes and it was teeming with people.
We have truly never experienced anything like it. The smell of cannabis was strong (a theme we've come to notice as many states have relaxed their cannabis laws), the beach had music pumping, as well as the highest concentration of police we've ever seen and the girls were goggle eyed at the teeny weeny thong bikinis!
We spent some time on the beach, we litter picked (awful amount of rubbish here) we enquired about jet skis (booked up for days) and we people watched of course!
People ride around in crazy cars, the passengers sit on the sides of the convertibles (seatbelt laws don't seem to apply here) and music is blasted out. Guys drive around and girls just randomly hop in! We saw two well endowed thong clad ladies riding electric scooters much to the girls hilarity and we saw so many "pimped" cars. Maybe this is ordinary of Miami, maybe it's not but it was an unforgettable experience for sure!
Sea Turtle Hospital, Marathon
In the Florida Keys (yes we sang the Beach Boys song non stop) there's a turtle hospital. Yes you heard it right. Turtle. Hospital. We obviously had to visit and if you make the trip to the Keys do make sure to visit.
The drive itself through the Keys was wonderful and it's so picturesque. In some places it's such a thin strip of land and so exposed, you can see how a hurricane here would do so much damage.
You can only attend the facility on one of its tours (they take place hourly) which starts with a talk about turtles and was truly fascinating.
You then get to visit the turtles, see the different types and learn more about the history of the center, including how it was devastated by a hurricane.
I didn't think that we could love turtles any more than we already do but it turns out we could. Especially when you meet tiny baby ones. All the money goes back into the center so if you can, do visit this place, it's doing a wonderful job.
Our last full day was a long drive from our base in Florida City up to Orlando and we realised we've become excellent road trippers! This 5+ hours journey wasn't bad at all and we made it to our hotel as the skies darkened only to hear on the radio that a tornado warning was in place! Yikes! Luckily nothing materialised and we spent our last morning mooching around the Florida Mall before heading off to the airport ready to begin a West Coast adventure!