More than just theme parks – what did our family of 3 under 5 really enjoy on a long-haul adventure to Florida?
There is so much to tell you about our Florida vacation it’s hard to know where to start! Well, what better place than with the best of the best – and there are some here you might not expect!
This post is part of our Discover the USA Series
Here are five fabulous Florida highlights that we didn’t expect from our Florida road trip:
1. Zoo Miami
I’m sure all seasoned parents and grandparents out there have ‘done’ the zoo before. Our expectations were not set overly high but with a scheduled day in Miami to recover from jet lag, we thought this would be a good opportunity to stretch the legs and test drive the new City Mini Double stroller we’d purchased before hitting the theme parks (and test our day-bag packing skills!).
There was so much more to Zoo Miami than just an everyday Zoo, I would certainly rank it among the top few I have seen around the globe.
To begin with, it is huge; until we started walking we had no idea how large! (no wonder people were renting the Safari Cycles at the entrance). Just when we thought we were nearly done there would be another side path with more exhibits and entertainment.
Added to the current experience is Dinosaurs Live! a very life-like display of animatronic dinosaurs scattered among the other regular exhibits. The kids really enjoyed picking out some of the obvious and not so obvious creatures.
We had great fun playing “find the animal” in a lot of the spacious enclosures and wonderful to see them fearlessly touching the snake after the Animal Tales show in the Children’s Zoo.
2. Fort Myers Beach
We decided to break up our journey from Miami to Orlando by driving up the Gulf Coast rather than straight up the Florida Turnpike. After struggling through a few days of jet lag in Miami and already sick of living out of suitcase, I was worried we had made the wrong decision, but far from it – we wish we had booked to stay longer!
Our accommodation, the Gulfview Manor looked a little understated from the outside but did not disappoint on the inside and in location. Walking right onto the beach we really felt transported back to holidays from our childhood in Australia despite being on the opposite side of the globe.
The sand is luxuriously soft but scattered with seashells for collecting. The ocean here is relatively warm for the time of year (early spring when we visited) and incredibly calm. A quiet and nicely heated pool is the perfect retreat for our little tots after a long day driving and at the beach.
But maybe it was the fact that after an afternoon in the sun, all three kids went to bed, on time, without a word of protest that I loved the most?
3. Space Shuttle Atlantis – Kennedy Space Center
We hadn’t intended to visit Kennedy Space Center on this trip to Florida as we had visited with our then Miss 2 before in 2012; interesting for us but she was fairly bored other than the awesome children’s playground designed by NASA!
Being the grandparent’s first visit, though and Miss Z had been learning about the solar system at school, we decided to give it another crack. With our theme park strategy-driven hats on, we rushed to be early in, strapped the baby on so the stroller wouldn’t slow us down, then we took off and raced to quickly ‘do everything’ before the queues hit.
What used to be a tin shed containing a launch simulator has been turned into a fabulous new exhibit. An interesting presentation on the Atlantis orbiter and a simulated ‘blast off’ experience, then the curtains are lifted to reveal the real thing!
Not only loads of interactive displays and information on NASA’s shuttle program, but some fun activities for kids too. You could sit inside a simulated capsule, attempt to land a shuttle, crawl through tunnels like they use to enter the shuttle, and slide down some amazing indoor slides.
For the big kiddies, there is still the Shuttle Launch Experience which is an experience I recommend everyone should try at some time in their life (even if you fall into the “I don’t do thrill rides” category like me).
This is one of the best non-theme park things to do if you’re staying in Orlando or traveling through central Florida.
4. The Lion King show at Animal Kingdom
I will admit, this particular trip to Florida with 3 small children and grandparents in tow turned me a little Negative Nancy about the “Magical Disney Experience”; or more so the crowds and queues have really dampened my attitude.
We were late to the game mastering the Fastpass and My Disney Experience system (more on these later) and disappointed that we had missed a couple of key choices for our day at Animal Kingdom.
We selected the Lion King show by default but I have to admit, it was spectacular! They do this show about eight times a day but the colour and energy of the performance was just amazing!
We had a multigeneration group for Disney, and we all absolutely loved the monkey acrobats and the stilt walkers. We were also particularly pleased to be sitting in the “Lions” section of the crowd rather than the warthogs, no offence to them, but we got to make the way cooler sounds! Don’t consider this an Animal Kingdom consolation prize, it’s a must.
If the idea of all the planning puts you off a Disney World experience, you may be curious to hear more about Disney VIP tour experiences. We were so late to the game in working out what an epic mission it would be with a big group of us, the idea of skipping the queues and squeezing in as many experiences as we could to one day makes even this pricey option feel very appealing!
You can learn more about all the Florida theme parks to choose from in Orlando here.
5. The ultra-long-haul flights
OK, I promise at some point to stop ranting about this aspect of our trip. I am an experienced long-haul flyer – with and without kids – but even I was incredibly nervous about the length of our journey in the sky between Abu Dhabi and Miami, via Doha.
The scheduled flight time out from Doha was 16 hours 40 minutes, all during the day, and returning from Miami 14 hours, all during the night.
I really can’t believe I am going to say this but our three kids were, well almost bordering on angelic given the circumstances.
I expected the day flight to be the hardest aspect of all with the children going utterly stir crazy, but in fact, they dimmed the lights, and windows were shut for much of the flight, meaning our children did actually rest and sleep for reasonable chunks of time.
They spent hours exploring the in-flight entertainment and the Sponge Bob kids packs proved a real hit (even though they had no clue who he is!) In the holy grail of seating scenarios, I had a bassinet seat by myself with bubba, while hubby took the older kids two rows further back AND I got a spare seat next to me.
Travelling mammas out there, I can tell you I nearly peed myself with excitement at this point. Then the expected arrival time popped up – they had shaved an hour and a half off the journey before we even left the tarmac!
The return journey ran equally as smooth with not only the kids sleeping for the vast portion of it but the parents too. Yes plural, I slept on a plane. Maybe for 2-3 hours by my guess. This has never happened before. Be it the nighttime cough medicine, the glass of red, or sheer and utter exhaustion, I overcame one of my personal travel bogies on this flight!
What else was great about Florida?
As always, these lists are never exhaustive.
I couldn’t fit in here our trip to watch the NBA basketball, the amazing beers at the Organic Brewery on Hollywood Beach, or some of the super friendly characters we meet at Universal Orlando and the amazing customer service we received, but these all went towards making our journey so enjoyable.
You will note the absence of much to do with Disney and the theme parks – there were certainly plenty more memorable moments had and I would still ‘do the theme parks‘ again (we did, in 2019, and we’re booked already for 2023!), but I really do believe the moments you treasure the most are those that catch you by surprise – Florida you stole a little of our hearts.
Do you have any Florida highlights that maybe the average visitor would overlook but are now on your “mustn’t miss” list?
More on Florida
- How to spend a weekend in Sarasota
- Family Things to Do in Florida – Highlights of the Sunshine State (guest post)
- Best family beaches on the US East Coast
- Best family beaches to explore in Florida
- Beaches you can reach on a day trip from Orlando
- The most beautiful islands and keys in Florida
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