I’ve long wanted to take my family to Florida and Kissimmee (pronounced Ka-SIM-mee) in central Florida checks all our boxes – year-round sunshine, easy access to theme parks, spring training baseball, nature tours, and outlet shopping. With something for everyone in the family, we cannot say enough good (so, so good) about this fun in the sun getaway. Here’s what we’re crushing on;
Wonderfully Wild with Wild Florida
Wind whips through my hair in the front of a 15-seat airboat speeding through Cypress Lake, a 4,200 acre nature preserve surrounded by 100,000 acres of protected swamps, marshes and rivers. Within seconds we’ve spotted bald eagles, ducks glide by, and all eyes on this Wild Florida eco-ride are scanning the horizon for gators. “Look!” someone cries as a dark head emerges from the waters to our left and passengers breathe a collective “wow.” Gators may be the star attraction on Wild Florida airboat rides, but I tell you it’s mighty peaceful too, weaving in and out of the wetlands, which feed into the headwaters of the Everglades. With no development and 100 per cent pure Florida wilderness, we’re wholly immersed in the natural world, watching the flight of herons, cranes and long-necked Great White Egrets. And when Captain Alec revs up, this Coast Guard certified airboat can motor. “That’s how you do it,” he says, turning and stopping on a dime to admire hundreds of year old Cypress trees, dripping with Spanish moss, ringing the lake. Beyond is ranchland. Free-range cattle graze near the shoreline. The alligators don’t bother them, Captain Alec says. “Too much work. They want something they can swallow whole.” Plan several hours to visit. Back on dry land, Wild Florida offers a wildlife park with over 200 exotic animals and a BBQ lunch available at Chomp House Grill. “Would you like to hold Fluffly?” manager Eric Bonesteel asks. “Fluffy is an alligator?” the kids cry in surprise and delight. Afterward, we stroll to a nearby pond, home to 50 gators, and Bonecrusher, the biggest, a full-grown alligator at over 1,000 lbs. “You’d be able to tell when he comes,” Bonesteel says.
The crack of the bat, the chatter of fans, solid sun, hot dogs and cold drinks as big as Buicks – truly there is no better place to be on a March afternoon than in the stands of a spring training baseball game. Spring training is an institution in these parts, and though I’m the only real baseball fan in the family, we all dug settling into front row seats over the third base line at Osceola Stadium to watch the home team Houston Astros pummel the Pittsburgh Pirates. “Peanuts, popcorn, crack-er-jacks,” yells a young man patrolling the concourse. “Get your water, soda, ice cold beer.” Catching world class players in a relaxed setting is a hit. And not all the action takes place on the field. The fans and atmosphere in the stands hold appeal. “Are you wearing sunscreen?” “Do you have plenty of it on?” the crew in the row behind us, blinded by our Canadian paleness, ask as we strike up a friendly conversation. Soon we’re jockeying for position as music blasts and Astro workers get set to fire free merchandise into the stands. My daughter nabs an Astro t-shirt thrown right into her seat with a smile as wide as a world series win.
From the moment we parked in Ursula 97 in the Villains parking lot (‘yeah villains!”), the kids were on board with making memories at Magic Kingdom. Arguably the most magical of Disney’s parks, a visit to Kissimmee is not complete without a trip to stand under the glow of Cinderella’s Castle. Good time, practically guaranteed. In fact, I did nearly everything wrong and still managed to pull off cherished family memories. I ignored the advice of pro pals to arrive early before the heat of the day and larger lines, and instead took a page from the Europeans to savour a much-needed sleep-in morning to arrive fully rested. We went on a 32C hot Saturday (busy) in Spring Break (even busier) and still made dreams come true. The source of this magic? FastPass+. If you do nothing else, buy your tickets, download the My Disney Experience app, and take advantage of FastPass+ (trust me, it’s easy), where for free, you select online three rides/attractions up to 60 days beforehand if staying on a Disney resort and 30 days if staying elsewhere. Kiosks are also available in-park to make selections. Your reservations give you a one hour time window to skip to the sometimes instant FastPass+ line. “FastPass is the way to go!” raved the kids, who bypassed lengthy stand-by lines to scream down Splash Mountain, zip around Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, ride with the Pirates of the Caribbean, and get their scare on at the Haunted Mansion. With six ‘lands’ to explore, the Magic Kingdom has much to discover. Don’t skip a raft ride to Tom Sawyer’s Island, full of fun caves, a fort, and even rare quiet, an empty rocking chair to sit for a spell and watch the Liberty Square Riverboat cruise by. From Mickey’s PhilharMagic 3D film to iconic It’s a Small World ride, we loved it all. The nightly Wishes spectacular over Cinderella’s Castle will make you believe wishes really do come true.
What has four bedrooms, three bathrooms, a pool, hot tub, and a pool table? Your new favorite home away from home. One of the great advantages of Kissimmee is the range of accommodations available. We opted to rent a three-bedroom premium vacation home through Air Transat Vacations, and the Alexander Florida Holidays Home in the Emerald Island gated community was a huge hit. Staff were incredibly helpful (thanks Lorraine!) and with a family of five, the home gave us a chance to stretch out and relax in our own bedrooms, prepare meals in the full kitchen, and take advantage of a washer and dryer. The vacation home was also a great money saver. After a trip to the grocery store, we ate breakfast al fresco every morning on the pool deck. Often we’d spend the morning “at home.” While the kids challenged each other in pool games, we’d cook lunch, enjoy an ice cream cone, then head out to explore. Come twilight, we’d be back out by the pool or enjoying the hot tub, night cap in hand. Heaven.
I admit it. I love shopping, and I love bargains even more, so I loved seeing two major outlet malls within a 10-minute drive of each other. Orlando International Premium Outlets International Drive and Orlando Premium Outlets Vineyard Avenue have all the big names. Finding a parking spot can be a bit of a challenge, but after that, the only challenge is narrowing down the stores you want to hit up.