I’ve always thought that – when it comes to trips and holidays – my favourite thing to do is discovering new places. That thrill of the plane touching down somewhere I’ve never been, or getting off a train in a city or town I’ve yet to explore. But I’ve discovered something else I love: going somewhere with my family, that I went to, as a child. It brings the most amazing double hit of joy – a mix of nostalgia and watching your child experience the place for the first time.
This is why our recent trip to Florida was so special. Walking into a Disney park on the first day of our holiday, my heart was a flutter and memories of my childhood came flooding back. Everything, from the staff members (or cast members as they’re called here) with name badges that tell you which town and country they’re from, the music, the merchandise shops selling Mickey and Minnie Mouse ears… all felt so familiar to me. Isn’t it amazing how it can feel like you were somewhere just last week, when it’s been years?
Back when I was 12, and we first went to Disney World as a family, we stayed in motels on International Drive, but for this trip we wanted to be in a Disney Hotel – that way, we wouldn’t have to hire a car as Disney hotels provide a free airport shuttle service called the Disney Magical Express, and the transport around Disney World is free and frequent. “Are you JUST doing Disney stuff?” a few people asked me before the trip, and the reality is that despite Orlando having a lot more to offer, with just a week there, we barely had time to fit in all the Disney World fun, never mind trying to squeeze in anything else.
This trip had been a long time in the planning – around 13 years ago, my mum announced that she wanted to celebrate her 70th birthday at Disney World. We quickly worked out that my brother’s 40th birthday fell in the same week, and little did we know at the time that I’d have a six-year-old and that the big birthdays would happen during the school October half term. It’s like it was always meant to be and a couple of weeks ago, we headed to Florida – me, Mr P, the six-year-old, my mum and my brother and sister-in-law.
The Boardwalk Inn was the perfect base for us – I’m writing a full review of the Boardwalk Inn, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but I loved how close it was to Epcot (10 minute walk – faster if you don’t have children with small legs with you!) and Hollywood Studios (10 minute boat ride). It made it so much easier to pop back to our hotel for a tactical rest, in the afternoon, which meant we maximised how late we could keep up the six-year-old, at night! The actual boardwalk area of the hotel was fab – picture pretty vintage shops and cafes, a bakery selling amazing cakes and sandwiches, a pizza window and an ice cream shop which served the BEST ice cream ever.
Our week was a whirl of exploring the Disney parks, rides, shows, gorgeous food, meeting Disney characters, resting weary feet over coffee, shopping and catching up with family – all in the gorgeous Floridian sunshine. Can you ask for a better holiday?
One thing that surprised me about our trip was how stress-free it was. Disney really do everything so well – they seem to think of everything and make it all so easy, from getting around on free transport to being able to check queue times on the My Disney Experience app. You don’t even need to worry about carrying cash or cards – when we arrived, we received MagicBands which are wristbands that act as your park admission, hold your FastPasses and if you link your debit or credit card to it, you can pay for goods and drinks/food with it too. So clever! Plus, because pretty much all of your planning is done before you even get to Florida (more on that in another post), so by the time you are actually on your holiday, you just need to enjoy yourselves.
My favourite Disney Park was Magic Kingdom – when I was a kid, I remember loving Epcot, and while I did love Epcot this time around, Magic Kingdom just beat it. What can I say…. it’s magical. And when you’re with a six-year-old, it’s all about the magic, right? As we walked up Main Street USA towards Cinderella’s Castle for the first time, I had tears in my eyes. It was just such a moment. Admittedly, this was only enhanced by the speakers playing the song from the movie Up at that moment (you know, the song that plays with the couple’s love story montage – heartbreaking!) I remembered being wowed by the castle, as a child, and being back there was a spine-tingling moment. Highlights of Magic Kingdom included the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in Fantasyland (a brilliant rollercoaster with a cute seven dwarfs bit in the middle and the end) and Splash Mountain (a log flume ride where it’s impossible not to get wet). We also loved meeting lots of the Disney princesses and doing some of the tamer fun rides like It’s A Small World (I’ve still got the song going around in my head) and Pirates Of The Caribbean (the boat ride that inspired the movie).
Epcot was as amazing as I remembered. If you haven’t been, the best way I can describe it is: it’s a bit like walking into an 80s film about the future. It has a brilliant retro futuristic feel to it, and my FAVOURITE thing about it is the World Showcase – where you walk around a huge lake and visit areas dedicated to different countries around the world. The UK section has a pub called The Rose & Crown, red phone boxes and fish and chip shop – I kid you not. We ate at the Rose & Crown on my brother’s 40th birthday (I had our national dish: a chicken tikka masala) and we had my mum’s 70th birthday dinner at Monsieur Paul, in France (which has a fab view of the Epcot Illumi-nations so if you’re eating dinner there, try to get a window table). But the ride at Epcot that blew me away was Soarin’. A blogging friend Amanda mentioned Soarin’ to me before we went, but I didn’t know why it was good, or what to expect. Well! Imagine sitting on a chair which is then suspended in the air, in front of a huge cinema screen which shows scenes from around the world and makes you feel like you’re flying over them. It’s honestly breathtaking and incredible. Test Track was also fantastic (design a car, then sit in it as it’s taken through various tests including a 70mph speed test) and a really special moment was the Princess Storybook Dining at Akershus Royal Banqueting Hall in Norway. We booked a character breakfast there, as a special treat on our last day, and it didn’t disappoint. The six-year-old met Belle, Cinderella, Ariel, Aurora and Snow White, who all came around the tables as we ate. Then (top tip!) we dashed out of the restaurant and started queuing next door at the Frozen Ever After ride, which has HUGE queues for the whole day. Because you get into the parks early for breakfast reservations, it allows you to beat the crowds at the popular rides. Sneaky, right?
Back when I was a kid, Hollywood Studios was called Disney MGM Studios, and my favourite thing was the Studio Backlot Tour, which had a tram ride through the ‘backstage area’ of a film set (and included the totally retro delight that was the exterior of the Golden Girls house). That’s gone now, but the renamed Hollywood Studios had loads that I did remember – like the Tower of Terror – and new attractions which I loved. Toy Story Mania was BRILLIANT if you love playing video games and trying to beat your opponent, and For The First Time In Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration was funny and topical as well as touching as everyone sang along to the songs we know so well. I’m looking at the guide map I picked up from Hollywood Studios now and thinking there was so much we didn’t do, like the Disney Junior – Live On Stage and eating at the 50s Prime Time Cafe!
Animal Kingdom was the one Disney park that I didn’t know what to expect from. The last time I was at Disney World, Animal Kingdom wasn’t there. But unsurprisingly, it didn’t disappoint! It has a really different feel to the other Disney parks, and not long after we arrived, the six-year-old was given a little safari passport book, which allowed her to walk around collecting stickers from different areas, once she had listened to a short talk on things like habitats or conservation. It was a lovely touch and really encourages the kids to learn something, as well as having fun. My Animal Kingdom highlights were Festival Of The Lion King (an amazing stage show that will give you shivers!) and Finding Nemo: The Musical (so so good – an original score by the writers of Frozen). I also loved the Dinoland USA area, with a retro funfair feel and old-fashioned rides.
On one of the days of our trip, Mr P took the six-year-old to Typhoon Lagoon, one of the Disney World water parks, while my mum and I went shopping in Disney Springs. It was good to get a change of pace for a day, and with Anthropologie, Kate Spade, Zara, Sephora and more, it’s easy to spend a whole day at Disney Springs. We also headed there one evening for dinner – totally recommend T-Rex which is a (yep, you guessed it) dinosaur themed restaurant where a meteor hits every half hour. And don’t leave Disney Springs without checking out Sprinkles, the legendary cupcake cafe which has an actual cake ATM.
I don’t tend to do regrets, but I did leave Florida with one: that we hadn’t gone for longer. We realised that the ideal way to do Orlando is with a one day on / one day off tactic. If we’d been there for two weeks, we could have done a pool lounging or beach day (or even a Disney miniature golf day!) in between the theme park days. We were exhausted by the end of the week, so some down time would have made it a more chilled experience. But then, I suppose, you don’t go to Walt Disney World for a chilled experience, do you?
This post has been written in conjunction with Walt Disney World. Huge heartfelt thanks to them for providing accommodation at Disney’s Boardwalk Inn and park tickets. As always, all views are my own.