2014 Winter Break in Orlando January 4, 2015
2014 Winter Break in Orlando
I took my kids to Orlando Florida over winter break. They are 10 and do a lot of reading and play a lot of iPad. Here's the report.
Caribe Royal Hotel
We stayed at the Caribe Royale in a two bedroom suite. The room was almost 1,300 sq. ft and really nice. The kids had their own room with two queen sized beds. I had a room with a king bed and a jacuzzi tub. The room had a full kitchen and a washer/dryer.
In terms of utility, the room was perfect. I did a grocery run the first night and we ate breakfast and some dinners in the room.
The 42" flat screen TV in the living room had an HDMI port and we hooked up iPads and watched movies. Very, very cool. The couch in the living room pulled out into a bed, so we lounged on the couch/bed and watched movies and played iPad in the evenings.
The hotel had an excellent pool with a water slide. We did a bunch of night swimming. The air and water were both warm enough at night to make swimming comfortable. The water slide was good, not great, but it was included with the room and there were no "resort charges" or other surprise fees.
Internet connectivity was about $10/day. I brought a HooToo Wifi adapter which plugged into the wired Internet connections and we all had connectivity. The connection was reasonably fast.
For the price, the Caribe Royale was excellent. The room had everything, the pool was fun, we had good Internet, and the hotel staff was super friendly and helpful.
The experience was a disappointment... and given the $200 per day per person I spent, it was a a huge disappointment. I recommend against Universal. Why?
- The rides were not great. Yes, they were marginally better than Great America, but none of the rides struck any of us as "wow, that was spectacular." The quality of the rides was not worth the price.
- There were too many people. Yes, it was the height of the season for the park, but they should have sold tickets by the day rather than letting too many people in the park. This resulted in long lines, even with the express pass for rides that were not really excellent.
- The food pass was a not a good deal. First, the economics only work if you buy the most expensive things on the menu. Second, most of the cashiers we had didn't know how to ring up the food with the passes in order to use all the credits on the passes ("is the fruit salad an entree or a snack?" "can you buy a snack with an entree?" etc.) Paying for food as you go is both cheaper and faster.
- The Harry Potter stuff was nicely imagined, but not worth the price of admission... and the express pass didn't work with the Harry Potter-related rides.
My advice: Skip Universal... even in the off season. There are plenty of amusement parks that cost less, have interesting rides, and don't have the vibe of "how much can we soak these suckers for?"
Oh... and they take your fingerprint when you enter the park. You can raise a fuss and they will relent and ask for photo ID... but WTF? And given the recent Sony breach, there's no way I'm going to let an entertainment company have my biometric information.
I bought a one day park-hopper for Disney. I went on their FastPass + site two days before we expected to go to Disney and there were no good rides we could reserve a place on, so we punted and spent the day at the pool.
But Disney cost $150/person per day. The FastPass + only lets your reserver for 3 rides. So, basically, Disney is charging $50/ride and using the rest of your time as a marketing opportunity.
I will avoid Disney on both coasts in the future and see what I can do to recover some of my money.
Side Note about kid destinations
Far and away, my favorite kid park is PlayMobil FunPark. It's a huge park with life size PlayMobil sets. The kids can run around in castles and pirate ships and all kinds of other excellent buildings. And there's a huge room full of PlayMobil sets for the kids to play with. PlayMobil FunPark creates an environment where the kids use their imaginations rather than putting the kids into the imagination of the ride designers.
I also really like LegoLand. It's a really nice mix of rides and exploration activities. It's not quite as imagination-driven as PlayMobil FunPark, but it's a place the kids don't want to leave.
For ride-oriented destinations, I like Great America and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Both have fun rides, arcades, tons of junk food, etc. Neither is tied to expensive characters, so the rides and about the rides and the experience is the experience rather than trying to shoe-horn characters into rides.
We had dinner one night at Delmonico's. It's an Italian style steak house. The food was excellent. The prices were reasonable ($85 + tip for the 3 of us and I had a cocktail). The service was good. I highly recommend it, especially if you have an appetite.
I had my birthday dinner at Johnnie's Hideaway. It was more expensive than Delmonico's. The food was interesting, but the food quality was in not line with the prices... especially the steak which was not at all tender. On the other hand, the service was excellent (better than any San Francisco restaurant I can think of), the wine selection was very good, and it was near our hotel. It's worth checking out.
Orlando Science Center
The Orlando Science Center was totally awesome. The kids were fairly grumpy about getting dragged to a science museum... but they had a total blast. The museum is very hands-on. There are tons of exhibits that are fun, fun, fun... like the soapbox derby, the paper airplane making, the "build a bridge", etc. We went on New Year's Day, so the museum was not very crowded. After 4+ hours, I was bored and had to drag the kids out. I highly recommend the Orlando Science Center as long as there are not too many crowds.
Traffic and Tolls
It seems Orlando charges you a lot to drive on their streets and they are very weak at managing traffic.
There are tolls almost every mile between the airport and the hotel area. The tolls varied in price... seemingly randomly. It was irksome to have to pull over and pay tolls over and over and over. If you go to Orlando, bring rolls of quarters.
The traffic in general was terrible. Everybody drives well under the speed limit. Everybody does the gridlock thing so each traffic light cycle, only a few cars get through the light because the folks making left turns block the intersection. And the only cops I saw were pulling people over for unknown reasons rather than keeping traffic flowing.
Kennedy Space Center
I totally loved the Kennedy Space Center. My kids... not so much... but they sucked it up because it was my birthday.
We had lunch with an astronaut. It was about 400 people, a reasonably high quality buffet lunch, and a presentation by an astronaut. He talked about space and all sorts of cool stuff... including how to use the toilet in zero-G. He answered questions, and generally put on a wicked fun show. The son of one of the Apollo astronauts was in the audience with his family and they traded some interesting stories about the space program. We also got a photo opportunity with the astronaut. It was a really cool, really awesome experience for me... I grew up with the space program and remember watching the moon landing. Shaking hands with someone who actually went to space was really, really awesome.
We did a bus tour of the launch pads. I thought it was really interesting. The tour guide had a really nice sense of communicating the complexities of the space missions to us. I had a really good time. My kids were tired and grumpy and slept through it.
We skipped the Saturn V center and movie. We didn't go on any of the rides/movies/etc. at the visitor center.
Personally, I could do two days at the Kennedy Space Center. It was a tremendously well done experience for the space geek. If you're into the realities of space travel, book lots of time at the Kennedy Space Center.
I will not likely take my kids to Orlando again. I think finding a hotel with a water slide and a good Internet connection is what they really groove on for vacation.
I might go back and do a couple of days at the Kennedy Space Center myself or if the kids ever get interested in space travel.
The Orlando experience, especially contrast with LegoLand and PlayMobil FunPark, is a stern reminder that I'm not going to be a mark for Disney or Universal in the future. There are much better ways to entertain people... and much more cost-effective ways to take kids to amusement parks.