Orlando is the city for busy family vacations. With the dreams-come-true fun of Disney and the movie magic of Universal to start, you will never run out of cool stuff to do. I've been to Orlando with my family several times; the last time we drove the 2115 kms from Toronto to Orlando. This time we had the luxury of an invitation by Visit Orlando to fly down for a four day Florida family fun-a-thon.
For four nights we stayed at Travel + Leisure Americaʼs Best Hotel for Families, The Portofino Bay Hotel, a AAA Four Diamond property on the Universal Studios Resort. The hotel recreates the charm and romance of the famed seaside village of Portofino in Italy, right down to the cobblestone streets and outdoor cafes. As you walk out to the piazza filled with quaint restaurants, shops and replica mopeds, you actually feel like you're in Italy. Our fifth floor room had a stunning view of the piazza and man-made lake.
Inside our room was simple elegance, rich white duvets covered our uber-comfy beds crowned with off-white padded headboards. The marble bathrooms lacked for nothing. The rooms are gorgeous and extremely functional.
As lavish as the rooms are, there is too much going on in sunny Orlando to spend much time inside.
Staying on the Universal Studios Resort property is a treat. There are complimentary water taxis to take you to the Universal Studios, Universal's Island of Adventure and City Walk. It's all very civilized.
But even better, as a hotel guest, you are given a complimentary Express Pass (a value of up to $89 per person). Take it from me — you do not want to spend a day at Universal Studios without one of these. Unlike Disney's Fast Pass which allows you to book a time for a ride later in the day, this pass lets you skip the line on almost every ride on the spot. Our wait times were no more than five minutes for any of the rides, even the busy ones in the Harry Potter area. You also are privy to early park access which allows you to experience the park one hour before the regular folk.
My kids are almost 10 and 13 now, so Universal Parks hit the sweet spot for them.
Many of the rides are simulators, creating the illusion of extreme movement. For those who aren't fans of crazy rollercoasters (ME!!), these are doable and fun! The Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem was a big hit.
I had to close my eyes a few times whenever our spaceship seemed to be pummeling downward, but that's all part of the fun, right? And, by the way, why do kids have no fear??
Universal launched an area of their theme park dedicated to the Simpsons which we had to check out. It was definitely freaky walking through Springfield, with larger than life Homer, Krusty the Klown and Police Chief Wiggam.
You can drink Duff's Beer at the Moe's Tavern and snack on Homer's fave donuts from the Lard Lad. I even agreed to experience the Simpson's Ride through Krustyland. At the last minute, me and the mom beside me thought the ride was a ROLLERCOASTER and we both started freaking out. It wasn't. It was a simulator ride that is not for the faint of heart. My kids loved it. Hubby and I closed our eyes a lot.
My happy place? It's the Dr. Seuss section of Universal's Island of Adventure. It's a gentler area for kids of all ages.
Even my kids enjoyed the "kiddie" Goldfish ride.
There's no doubt that the highlight at Universal for the Ehm clan was The Wizarding World of Harry Porter.
It's our second time walking through the old magical town and this time we loved it even more — probably because this time we had the Fast Pass. I chickened out on the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, an amazing combo simulator/rollercoaster ride, which I am still regretting. My kids and husband went three times and were blown away each time. My kids' absolute favorite ride at Universal Studios was The Flight of the Hippogryff rollercoaster. Flagged as "family-friendly," the ride was just scary enough to want to ride it nine times in a row until the park closed.
Our favorite on-site restaurant at Universal Studios is Three Broomsticks in the Harry Potter area. Designed to look like an old tavern in Hogsmeade, there is counter service to order your "British inspired" meal. We devoured the family platter of chicken and ribs, corn on the cob, and roasted veggies. There was so much food and it was absolutely delicious. On tap you can order Pumpkin fizz drinks or Butterbeer. No pop at this place (which I loved). Also, the staff were extremely helpful with my daughter's allergies, and happily prepared her portion of our family platter separately.
Our long day at Universal ended with a night time show with freaky performance artists Blue Man Group. The room was packed, which made their kooky interactive set that much more fun. My kids really got into the feel of the show, and my daughter grabbed a photo opp with one of the Blue Men.
Can you believe we squished all of this into one day? And we still missed out on a ton of family fun throughout the Universal parks. If you go, I recommend a two-day pass.
The next day we were wiped!! Every family vacation requires down time. Stop the madness, the rides and the crowds. I put our itinerary on hold and spent some quality time at one of the three themed swimming pools the Portofino Bay pool.
The family-friendly Beach Pool has a built-in waterslide, a hot tub by a cascading waterfall, real sand and a live DJ blasting tunes from the '80s. A couple of pina coladas, sunshine and mummy is happy.
Once we were refreshed at the pool, we headed to SeaWorld for some exploration. There isn't much to report other than it was crowded and the three rides we wanted to go on were all closed in preparation for the upcoming Christmas season. So we cut our losses and scooted across the street to check out Aquatica, Seaworld's Waterpark. This was much more our speed. The park is filled with all different configurations of slides 'n rides to suit different thrill appetites. Walhalla Wave was a hit with my kids and Walkabout Waters is impressive for big and little kids.
Don't laugh. The best part of my family's visit to Aquatica was the family drying station. Not kidding. For $5 you get five minutes in this pod-like dryer that blows hot air. It's not a ride, but somehow we made it fun. Related: Don't forget to bring towels to the water park!
Our last day in Orlando was at Disney. Our focus for the day was Magic Kingdom.
We found Disney to be much more crowded than Universal, which definitely affected our enjoyment level. We heard about a new FastPass+ wristband being beta tested by the Disney team. They were close-lipped about it, but it appears to be a perk for those staying at a Disney Resort, allowing you front-of-the-line access. Which leads me to the lines at Disney. They were long. The Splash Mountain ride had a waiting time of 70 minutes. Sure you can use the standard Fast Pass and return 3 hours later, but that precludes you from going too far from the ride or moving on to another Disney Park.
We checked out the newly renovated Fantasyland and was pleasantly surprised to see the new addition to the Dumbo ride. In order to avoid waiting in long lines with little ones, Disney has created a big Dumbo circus-themed air conditioned rest area to allow kids to run around and parents take a load off on benches. You're given a reservation disc and when yours beeps, it's time to get back in line and get on the actual ride. Loved the innovation. Less waiting, more playing.
Rides we stood in line for and enjoyed: E.T., Pirates of the Caribbean, the classic Haunted House. But the days seem short at Disney. With all the walking and waiting, we didn't get to experience enough in one day. We missed out on visiting any OTHER PARKS even though we had a Park Hopper ticket.
As always, Disney was great about food allergies. My daughter was thrilled to be able to safely enjoy a nut-free Mickey House ice cream sandwich.
To compare our experience in general, it was a surprisingly unanimous vote. Based on our short visit to Orlando, this time Universal provided the Ehm family with slightly more family fun than Disney.
What about you? Did you have a similar experience in Orlando with Universal and Disney? What is your favorite family friend thing to do in Orlando?
Last year, I promised my daughter a new ski jacket. Bless her heart, she wore her last one for two years until it ripped. I was trying to put off the inevitable because kids' ski jackets are so expensive! Last year I had to buy my son a new one and I almost had a heart attack when I saw the price for a kids' ski jacket! So this year, I'm doing it smart. I'm starting early while there is a huge selection and I'm shopping from the comfort of my computer.
While I find online clothes shopping for myself challenging because of my curvy shape, my daughter is a perfect size 10-12. Trying on a new ski jacket isn't as important as finding a style and colour she likes (and a price I like). Buying clothing for kids is expensive, so you deserve a little something extra, right?
My suggestion is to do your online shopping through airmilesshops.ca. If you have an AIR MILES Collector Card, you are totally missing out if you don't go through their online shopping mall to make your purchases. Why not score extra reward miles for something you're already buying? And, to earn twice the reward miles, I pay with my American Express AIR MILES Card, so I earn even more rewards!
With taking advantage of reward miles in mind, I spent half an hour online and found four super cute girls ski jackets—all within my budget. Each style has been given the thumbs up by my daughter. But I'm not sure which one to go with. Since you're looking at them with fresh eyes, can you tell me which one you like the best and why?
1. LL Bean: Glacier Summit Waterproof Jacket $119.00 (plus, now earn 3X AIR MILES reward miles)
2. Sears: Northpeak 2-piece snowsuit $104.99 (it's a bonus that this comes with ski pants, plus now earn 2X AIR MILES reward miles)
3. Lands End: Girls Waterproof Squall Parka $96 (plus, now earn 4X AIR MILES reward miles and free shipping)
4. Sport Chek: Roxy Bring It On $144.99 (plus,10% off my first purchase)