The first time I visited Florida was in 1995 when I’d just landed the job on Blue Peter.
It was my first ever trip to the States and I remember being wowed by the place and in love with the blue skies and sunshine! Everything just felt so fresh, clean and there for the taking and I spent four days in total awe at the Kennedy Space Centre.
So when Visit Florida asked if I fancied heading back with my kids, I said YES and booked the flights faster than you could blast in space and orbit the earth! Here’s the first part of our epic sunshine adventures:
The joy of staying in a villa is that you can enjoy a leisurely breakfast, before heading out for the day. No need to “dress for breakfast” and no need to drag sleepy heads to a hectic shared experience – breakfast on our verandah at Magic Village Resort was a great start to the day.
Our first stop was Gatorland – located between Orlando and Kissimmee on the South Orange Blossom Trail, it has been educating the world on alligators for the past 60 years. We had a private tour and our guide, Donny Aldarelli, gave us an in-depth insight into the world of the gator. Who knew, for example, that you could get albino alligators? And, more importantly, who would actually guess that I’d find myself heading into a pen of 15 footers AND with my BACK to the bad boys? I KNOW!
Donny was a legend. I LOVE people who are passionate about what they do and Donny totally is. You can sense his pure fascination and affection for alligators and we had an incredible few hours feeding off of his enthusiasm. The kids were hanging on his every word and as a parent, you’re genuinely SO grateful to anyone who brings the world to life for your kids - especially someone who has such passion that you can see your children wanting to learn more and hanging onto their every word.
Having a private tour was amazing and I totally recommend going the extra mile to book the experience. We learnt so much and the access to the gators was pretty mind blowing. Getting up close to the two biggest – the aptly named Predator and Chester - was pretty spectacular!
Our tour also took us behind the scenes and the kids loved getting to hold some baby alligators, crocodiles plus get up close and personal with a tarantula and scorpion when I was MORE than happy to be behind the camera!
In addition to the gators the place has an aviary and the "Screamin'Gator" - a 1,200 foot long zipwire for the brave - which actually dangles you over a pool of alligators! There's also a splash zone which would be perfect for young kids - and the place was spotlessly clean and beautifully presented.
A total recommendation for schedules in Kissimmee – the temptation to max out your time is great as there’s so much to do, but you have to pace yourselves, especially if you have a family with you. So retreating back to our villa to chill was just what was needed before our evening outing to…..
“There were no utensils IN Medieval Times, hence there are no utensils AT Medieval Times”!
With the Cable Guy quote playing in my head, the kids were slightly jet lagged when we arrived at Medieval Times for our 8pm show, but they soon perked up with the excitement of it all because, arriving in the dark, with torches outside the “castle” was spectacular.
We were issued with crowns to cheer on the Red Knight and set about exploring the Great Hall and all the merchandise on offer. I tried to convince my gang that we all (mummy!) needed to buy those gorgeous princess hats with veils at the back, but they were having none of it! (boo!)
It wasn’t long before we were being ushered to our seats in the auditorium – think Horse Of the Year Show meets medieval banquet! Bench seats rang alongside the arena, with tables adorned with gorgeous metal goblets and plates. The event was really well organised and the food was GREAT. My vegetarian curry was divine and everyone loved the lack of utensils and eating with their fingers!
The show itself was seriously impressive. I’ve seen jousting before but this was so well organised and you really sensed the competition between knights and their supportive spectators alike. Six knights spent the evening competing and there were impressive shows of horsemanship, not to mention the odd bit of eye candy in armour (don’t judge!). It all made for a really impressive evening. The kids LOVED it and I could tell they were fully immersed in the event.
After a leisurely breakfast at our villa, we set off for the Boggy Creek Airboats which took us through lots of beautiful Floridian countryside and arriving felt like going back to a simpler time.
A one hour airboat ride on a passenger boat for 20 was a cool experience as a family, taking in alligators in the wild (always slightly odd when you’re sat by the edge of the boat!) and some stunning scenery. We were sat at the back near the engine, so the ear defenders provided were a must! Bursts of acceleration made for a fun trip for kids and the whole thing was really well done
Windswept and sun-kissed, we drove back to, what was to become our top spot in the whole of the area – Celebration.
The town was originally founded by Walt Disney – his plan was to give families the complete Disney experience and he wanted people to be immersed in Disney from the minute they got on the plane.
His plans to build a runway and complete the experience never fully came to fruition, leaving a stunning and beautifully built town in its wake. Celebration was a revelation. All so clean, all so stunning – houses with white picket fences and postcard perfection, we were glad to be heading back later in the week to explore and headed to the stunning Columbia Restaurant on Front Street for lunch.
We had a gorgeous Spanish-style lunch under huge whirring ceiling fans, enjoying a bit of people watching and somehow managing to avoid ordering one of the mammoth pitchers of Sangria which would have led to a very different afternoon! The kids thought they’d died and gone to heaven when they spotted churros on the menu, which turned out to be the best churros any of us had ever seen – and I could see why the place has been going since 1905!
Having got totally caught up in the atmosphere, it’s amazing we managed to leave without any of the tiles, sangria jugs or house numbers in the restaurant gift shop and just 10 minutes later we arrived at, what felt like, ANOTHER of Kissimmee’s best kept secrets…..
Shingle Creek is home to The Paddling Centre– tucked away out of the hustle and bustle of theme parks, hotels and general entertainment, this is a MUST DO! The lovely Rich, who, with partner John, is the brains behind the operation, checked us in. He was calm, chilled and an all-round lovely human being, which should have given us a hint of what joy was to come. We already knew this place would be special.
Armed with kayaks and paddles, we set about exploring the creek and what followed were two blissful hours, during which we laughed so hard I’m surprised we could paddle! Ethereal reflections in the mirror-like surface, that feeling that we were exploring unchartered waters, the whole party cites THIS as the absolute highlight of our time in Kissimmee! It was truly special.
We saw turtles, beached ourselves lots and had unintentional showers with creek water – courtesy of our co-pilot! It was magical and safely stored in all our memory banks.
The route twists and turns under the shade of the overhanging trees and kids and adults alike loved the whole thing. This is a total must if you’re headed out to Florida – the calm in the midst of the business is like an oasis – like a two hour battery re-charge!
Which was just as well, because we headed straight to Fun Spot America, which reminded me a lot of the UK funfairs that would come to visit your village – think candy floss and rides, except that it’s permanent. Fun Spot America is massively popular in the evenings, when the big theme parks have closed but people are still wanting MORE.
It was a fun end to an incredible couple of days and lovely to watch the sunset from the top of the ferris wheel!
THE FINE PRINT:
We were in Florida on a press trip as guests of VISIT FLORIDA and EXPERIENCE KISSIMMEE. All views are my own.