PLANNING IS KEY FOR AN EMPTY-NESTER TRIP TO ORLANDO THEME PARKS

Enjoy the Thrills and Magic without Kids in Tow

by Laurie Millman and Martin Rubin

Now that the kids are out of the house, how many of us would ever consider the Orlando-Kissimmee theme park haven in Central Florida with such well-known places as Walt Disney World, Sea World, and Universal Studios, as an empty-nester vacation? How many of us think that these parks are the realm of families with little kids? Perhaps you think you are too old to have fun at the theme parks, when all you remember is making the kids happy, with those long lines waiting for photos and signatures and hugs from Mickey, Pluto, and Snow White. Our answer is a resounding, “You are never too old to enjoy the parks!”

Seeing it through empty-nester eyes: the parade at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom (© 2009 Laurie Millman).

The mature side of us (at long last, age has its benefits) can appreciate the effort, talent, and creativity that goes into the theatrical productions and state-of-the-art rides, while our youthful, emotional side is energized with the nostalgia and excitement of being transported into magical and fantastic environments.

With this said, our ideal vacation to the theme parks did not include long lines with thousands of noisy teens and whining kids. Here’s where planning comes in – and while it might sound like work, it is really fun and exciting, as you learn about the parks and anticipate what you will be doing at each one.

Plan the Trip

The first thing you want to do is decide when to be in Central Florida. For a relaxing empty-nester experience, choose a time when there will be relatively pleasant temps and reduced attendance when most teens and kids are in school. A December trip prior to the Christmas holiday week is a good time to avoid crowds, while having the added benefits of holiday decorations and daily seasonal events. The first five months of the year are also good choices for the theme parks, but some attractions may be closed for maintenance, or the park staff may be working on new shows.

Before creating the itinerary, decide where you will stay in the area, as your choice may affect your itinerary. Accommodations are plentiful in the Orlando-Kissimmee area. Options include park-owned hotels, other commercial hotels and motels, and timeshare resorts. Some of the hotels on park properties offer free shuttles that bring you to their respective park entrances. However, if you plan to attend other parks, or want to come and go as you please, a rental car is still an attractive alternative to relying on taxis or waiting for shuttles that charge a fee per person.

We booked a week at Sheraton Vistana Resorts in Kissimmee, where we are timeshare owners. Timeshare units have the comforts of home (or apartment) in a resort setting: our unit had a living room, a dining area, a full kitchen, two bedrooms and two bathrooms (with bedding and towels supplied), free housecleaning one time during the week, and a washing machine and dryer. Many resorts are like mini-villages, with their own shops, restaurants, sports and activity centers, pools, tennis courts, and golf courses. Some of the resorts in the area will also rent units when there is availability. You can also go online and find timeshare owners looking to rent their unit or week. Believe it or not, the rental rates can be less than a hotel room. Plus, you can’t beat the value when you include all of the additional benefits, and the opportunity to save money or manage diet restrictions by preparing your own meals and snacks.

Parade at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom (© 2009 Laurie Millman).

All of the Orlando-Kissimmee parks are huge, which equates to a substantial amount of walking outdoors on a daily basis. Planning will make the difference between avoiding stress and physical discomfort, and having a miserable time. The planning phase is a great time to start a walking program to prepare for walking on miles of concrete. This doesn’t mean that if you are physically challenged you should reconsider vacationing at these theme parks. On the contrary, the major theme parks have made substantial efforts to provide for park attendees with physical limitations, including renting motorized wheelchairs for a nominal fee. While we walked around the parks, we noticed many people who took advantage of this service.

Create an Itinerary

Create your empty-nester, theme park itinerary using a grid of days, parks, and options. Research theme park web sites and other Internet resources to help identify attractions that seem exciting to you. We also referenced a wonderful paperback book whose title was apropos — Birnbaum Guides 2008 Walt Disney World Without Kids, Expert Advice for Fun-Loving Adults.

After we decided which parks we wanted to attend, we added the names for the four Disney parks at the top of four days in the grid, and set aside one day each for Sea World and Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure. With all of the walking we were going to do, and all of the park options we were anticipating, we didn’t want to waste time each morning deciding where we were going, or figure out what we should do next.

Identify potential attractions within the same theme areas in each park. We focused on selecting shows and multi-sensory attractions. Rides were rejected or placed on a secondary list if we felt they could be physically problematic for those with motion-sickness or back and neck injuries. We also investigated parade times at the various parks, and noted attractions along the parade routes. Lines into attractions close to the parade routes are usually the lightest during the parade.

Many of the parks that remain open after sunset provide multi-media shows at the end of the day. These spectacular productions run between 20 to 40 minutes long, and may include fireworks, a theatrical component, laser lights, recorded narration and music, and even video projected onto fans of water. Park sources recommend that you should get to the location of the show as early as ninety minutes prior to show time.

Add the evening shows to the itinerary to help you gauge when you should start making our way across the large park to the show area. It will also show you when you have available evenings to do activities outside of the theme parks. On one of the free nights, we attended Cirque Du Soleil’s show at Downtown Disney (cirquedusoleil.com). The unique, acrobatic and aerial acts in “La Nouba” were set against a background of ethereal, live music. The show seemed more geared to a mature audience than some of the other Cirque productions we’ve heard about. We found the production emotionally dark and depressing, reminiscent of a sci-fi techno thriller.

Include Meal Times, Reservations

Disney Hollywood Studios is a fabulous destination for empty-nesters (© 2009 Laurie Millman).

Most full-service restaurants in the parks require reservations for lunch and dinner, even during off-peak seasons. Make sure you book weeks in advance for these restaurants. Identify restaurant names, reservation times, and phone numbers on the itinerary, so you can plan where you should be in the park for the restaurant, or when you should leave the park to get there. By adding this information to the itinerary, the phone number will be easily accessible to reschedule or cancel a reservation..

We didn’t want to tie ourselves down to specific dinner times every day, so we opted for one full-service meal in one of the parks. Our choice was the Shark’s Underwater Grill at the Shark Encounter in Sea World (for reservations, call 407-351-3600). We ate a delicious seafood dinner (entrees range from $17 to $25) while watching the sharks, rays, and other fish swim in the large glass aquarium. The waiter was very knowledgeable about the 50 or so varieties of marine life, and assured us that these particular fish were not potentially the entrees on the menu.

Many of the parks now offer healthy choices, such as salads, fruit, and yoghurt at the cafeterias, fast-food and cart-style locations. The parks also allow attendees to bring food and water. This is certainly helpful if you have dietary or health restrictions, or just want to keep expenses down.

Our timeshare unit had a full kitchen, so we decided to shop at a local supermarket. We ate breakfast in our unit, and prepared lunches. We brought our lunches into the parks in the morning, and kept them in park lockers along with our jackets. Lockers in the parks are plentiful during an off-peak week. You have unlimited use of the locker for a rental price of $5 – $6/day, depending on the park.

The only drawback to visiting the Orlando-Kissimmee parks during the off-peak season is that many of them close early in the evening. We used this opportunity to take advantage of other dining options. Our resort concierge recommended two restaurants on International Drive in Kissimmee. We went to Vito’s Chop House for dinner (www.talkofthetownrestaurants.com/vitos.html), and made sandwiches the next day with the leftovers from the perfectly seasoned, on-the-bone aged steaks.

The second restaurant was Caf� Tu Tu Tango’s (tututango.com), a tapas restaurant designed after an artist’s loft in Barcelona, Spain. We were there on a Tuesday night when local artists come in weekly to paint and display their work at various art stations throughout the restaurant. We enjoyed Caf� Tu Tu Tango’s flavorful and zesty tapas so much, that we also ordered take out from the restaurant the next night to eat dinner on our patio, and had the leftovers for lunch on the following day at one of the parks.

During planning, we thought that seven days in Orlando during an off-peak, non-holiday week would be plenty of time. By the end of the week, we realized that ten days would have been a better length for us. There were many other Orlando-Kissimmee parks and attractions that we would have loved to visit, if we had more time (including Sea World’s Discovery Cove – we took a short tour of the beautiful tropical village park,which offers a day of swimming, snorkeling, and dolphin interaction for one entrance fee per person (check out pricing and the all-inclusive day package at www.discoverycove.com).

Our Favorite Attractions

Empty-nesters can take advantage of the holiday lights at Epcot Center before the onslaught of families during the school holidays (© 2009 Laurie Millman).

We are partial to marine mammals, so we recommend all of the shows at Sea World, which demonstrate the special relationship we humans can have with marine mammals. This Sea World also has a wonderful live exhibit about the fragile existence of Manatees in the Florida waterways.

The live performances of Disney’s animated movies (some with puppetry and singing animatronics), such as “”Voyage of the Little Mermaid” in Disney’s Hollywood Studios and “The Festival of the Lion King” in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, were like watching Broadway-level, Disney musicals.

One of our favorite multi-sensory movies was, “It’s Tough to be a Bug,” which is hidden underneath a 145-foot, man-made Tree in the center of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Part of the fun of this attraction, in addition to wearing 3-D glasses, is that you will feel physical sensations coming from the chairs that emulate bug activity.

The new “Toy Story Midway Mania” ride in Disney Hollywood Studios (this park used to be called “Disney MGM Studios”) is a perfect empty-nester ride. While wearing 3-D glasses (called Carnival Games Goggles), the car slowly moved us across five interactive screens that replicated classic carnival midway games, while we aimed our individual toy cannons and shot simulated projectiles at the virtual, moving targets on the screens. It is one of the most technologically sophisticated attractions developed by Walt Disney’s Imagineering team, costing an estimated $80 million to design and build. The ride tallies points, and measures accuracy, for each player. Laurie received more points, but Marty’s accuracy was better – so, we both won! What a hoot!

Check Out 2009 Information

Disney is offering free admission to one theme park on guests’ birthdays in 2009. Register birth dates on one of the Disney web sites (disney.go.com) and present the confirmation page and valid ID to the Will Call window at the park of your choice.

Rules and prices (which change seasonally) for parking, entry, park hoppers and park passports, as well as attraction information, can be found at each park’s official web site (for example, disneyworld.disney.go.com, seaworldorlando.com, universalorlando.com).

Do or Don’t Use a Fast Pass?

In the itinerary, we placed a check mark beside shows and attractions with a Fast Pass option. The Fast Pass is a ticket you retrieve at a particular attraction in the park in place of waiting in a long line to get in. You return anytime after the posted time marked on the Fast Pass ticket, and walk right into the attraction. It sounds like a great idea, especially when the park is crowded. However, there are some drawbacks with relying on a Fast Pass ticket: there is no central station for you to pick up the Fast Pass tickets, so you still have to walk over to the attraction, which could take up a lot of time just to get to that part of the park. Birnbaum’s Guide recommends that you pick up a Fast Pass early in the morning before the limited number for an attraction run out. By the time you can take advantage of the Fast Pass option, you may find yourselves on the other side of the park. Even with all of the pre-trip planning, you may find that by this time, you have no desire to walk back, or there might not be enough time to get back for the next show! Luckily, we we didn’t need to obtain Fast Passes, as we either walked right into a show, or stood in line for an acceptable wait time of under 30 minutes.

Empty-nester Checklist for Orlando-Kissimmee Theme Parks

The Shamu Show at SeaWorld – empty-nesters bring a new appreciation for the wondrous displays (© 2009 Laurie Millman).

When planning your trip to the Orlando-Kissimmee area, we suggest that you remember to take the following items into the parks:
1. Smiles - prepare for a wonderful journey into magic and fantasy.
2. Detailed itinerary - for a stress-free week, allow for spontaneity, but include first choice shows/attractions, meal ideas and reservation times, park closing hours, etc.
3. For those who have a tendency for motion sickness (like we do), consult your doctor for either an over-the-counter product or prescription to prevent motion sickness. As long as we remembered to take our favorite over-the-counter, non-drowsy brand before we left for a park, we never developed motion sickness after sitting through a simulator ride.
4. Sunscreen, hat, sunglasses. If it isn’t raining in Central Florida, then sunny days even in winter are usually bright and warm. Protect yourself from sunstroke, heatstroke and dehydration while walking around. Bottles of water are available for purchase in practically every shop and food stand. Or, bring your own bottles of water into the parks. You can always refill them with water from the cooled water fountains. For a reprieve from the sun, all restaurants, shops, and attractions are air conditioned.
5. Raincoat, long sleeve shirt, jacket. The parks don’t close with bad weather, so be prepared by bringing these items with you and throw them into a locker. Evenings can get cool; in fact, December temps can go from a pleasant 75 degrees during the day to a chilly 40 degrees when the sun sets. If you forget to bring a raincoat, you can always purchase a thin, plastic hooded rain poncho at the park shops.
6. Comfortable shoes. Each park has been developed on hundreds of acres. You will be walking on literally miles of cement. Make sure you bring shoes that provide good arch, calf, and back support! Motorized wheelchairs can also be rented at the parks (call or check the park web sites for prices).
7. Cell phones. When we separated, we called or text messaged our whereabouts.

 

Wednesday, 25 March, 2009

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Karen Rubin is an eclectic travel writer who has been spanning the globe for more than 30 years reporting on interesting, intriguing people and places to explore for magazines, newspapers and online. She publishes Travel Features Syndicate in newspapers and online including examiner.com, Huffington Post and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate and blogs at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com. "Travel is a life-changing and an interactive experience that mutually benefits travelers and community." Contact Karen at FamTravLtr@aol.com. 'Like' us at www.facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

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