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Child's play

Taking the kids to Florida is a parent's duty, but there's a way to lessen the pain (if not the cost)

Issue: "A vacation from PC," June 3, 2000

in Orlando - When I was a child, I thought as a child. I thought the world revolved around me, and that grownups-especially my parents-experienced the world the way I did. So, when they took me to Orlando during summer vacation, I assumed they loved it as much as I did. When I became a man, I put away childish things. Including Orlando. Especially Orlando. My first trip back as an adult came as a shock. When had this city of my childish memories become so crowded, so expensive, and most of all, so incredibly, inexcusably tacky? Then it hit me: This had been torture for my parents as well. They had sacrificed perfectly good vacations on sugary beaches or in European capitals so my siblings and I could catch a glimpse of a guy in a mouse suit. Forget labor pains and private school tuition-I owed them big-time for suffering through all those Orlando getaways. Maybe this summer it's your turn to make the sacrifice. You've been putting it off as long as you can, trying to convince your kids that the local Six Flags is as good as Disney, any day. In a last-ditch effort, you even tried using the boycott as an excuse. But your 10-year-old pointed out that you watch ESPN all the time, and it's owned by Disney, so what's the difference? You're busted. Trapped. Looks like you've got to do the Orlando thing this summer. The question is, if you're going to spend all that money, shouldn't you enjoy the trip just a little? Here are some suggestions for wringing a few moments of adult pleasure out of the ultimate kiddie vacation.

Stay on-site. Sure, it's ridiculously expensive, but it can save your sanity in a city that's increasingly gridlocked. If it takes you 45 minutes to get to the park from one of the "nearby" hotels, you're going to feel like a captive once you're there. Even the most hyperactive 6-year-old can overdose on Donald Duck after a while. The easiest thing to do is jump on a monorail or a water taxi and go back to the hotel pool. Water and sun are a powerful antidote to Disney-induced sugar shock. After everyone re-charges in the pool, then head back and finish your day in the park. You'll feel like you got your money's worth, without holding the kids hostage at the park all day.

Which hotel? If your kids are young, the Magic Kingdom is going to be their top park pick, and the Contemporary Hotel-which opened the same year as the park itself-is literally across the street from Space Mountain. The rack rate for this convenience starts at about $200 a night, but packages and specials can lower the cost considerably. Disney wants the Contemporary to appeal to grownups as well. Because this hotel has the largest convention facilities of any Disney property, it draws an unusual number of adults without kids. They appreciate the six clay tennis courts, the spectacular view from the rooftop California Grill, and the motorized water sports on adjoining Bay Lake. Don't worry, the kids can still eat breakfast with Mickey. At nearby Universal Studios Orlando, there's only one on-site lodging choice-but it's a doozy. The Portofino Bay Hotel, operated by the upscale Loews Corporation, opened in September 1999. It's not only one of the best hotels in Orlando, it's one of the best anywhere. The 750 rooms are set in an uncanny reproduction of the village of Portofino on the Italian Riviera. Universal brought Italian craftsmen over to recreate the ambiance of the village in incredible detail. The ceramic tiles behind the sink are hand-painted by a family-owned company in Naples, for instance. And the crystal vases on every table in the signature Delfino Riviera restaurant came from the famous Murano studio (at $1,500 a pop). This is a very grown-up hotel that can easily make you forget you're in Orlando-high praise, indeed. But Portofino Bay doesn't forget the kids, by any means. The elaborate Beach Pool is a kiddie magnet, with its sandy banks and waterslide disguised as an Italian aqueduct. Neighboring Splendido Pizzeria has a great gimmick: floating menus that waitresses toss into the pool for hungry swimmers. Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are within easy walking distance, and there are no streets to cross. On the way back, be sure to take the water taxi: Rounding a bend in the tranquil lagoon and seeing an Italian village in the moonlight is undeniably romantic. Rack rates during the high season start just under $250. But again, no one pays rack rates, and this is a world-class property.

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