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How To Book A Holiday That You’ll All Enjoy

I really thought I’d planned the dream holiday. One of those “once in a lifetime” sort of affairs that the whole family would enjoy and treasure forever. A holiday we’d all love so very much we’d still talk about it years down the line, when the kids were teenagers – when they were adults with kids of their own. Do you remember when we all went to America? And Mummy had organised a whole roadtrip and researched all of those places to eat, and she spent every evening when we were there reading those guidebooks and looking at maps instead of actually having a break because she always has to be doing something?

We hadn’t really been big on holidays since having kids. Not ones outside of the UK, anyway. We’d taken them abroad twice (they are eight and seven, at time of writing) and both times were borderline disastrous. Because it’s not easy is it, getting family holidays right? Even if you can save up enough money and coordinate time off work and get someone to look after your dog/cat/guinea pig, a holiday is never a guaranteed success. Either you try and shoehorn the kids into your own idea of vacation bliss (a long lie down on a sunglounger, uninterrupted reading time, gastronomic delights) and they ruin the vibe by constantly needing snacks and pooing in the sea or you find a child-centric holiday, one with arcades and water parks and mini golf, where the kids have a cracking time but you feel like gauging out your own eyeballs with a teaspoon.

I decided to go the latter route, for this holiday, to selflessly go all out and book…the Big D. Disney World. The self-proclaimed “Most Magical Place on Earth”. I always said I’d go once – to the big one in Florida, I need guaranteed sun – to see what it was all about. I’d always wanted to tick it off the list, partly because I was faintly curious about it (there’s no way we could ever have gone when I was growing up, it would have been as outrageous a notion as flying to Mars) but mostly because I really did want to do something that focused wholeheartedly on the kids and their unfettered enjoyment.

Except that I got to the part where I had to pay in advance for the theme park tickets (Disney and Universal combined, it was quite the financial beating) and decided that my generosity only stretched so far. As the receipts piled into my email inbox, I began to feel slightly anxious. I wasn’t even sure whether I’d like going to Disney – could it possibly be as brilliant as some people had said, or would it actually be horrendous? Especially to someone who hates queues, crowds and organised fun. What an earth was I doing? I loved my kids but I wasn’t a saint! Two weeks was a lot of time (and money) to sacrifice purely for their unadulterated pleasure – what if constantly waiting in line to ride on rickety teacup carousels drove me out of my own mind? What if the Orlando theme parks broke me?

With that in mind, I decided to add a few things to the start of the holiday that would sweeten the pill: namely a bit of “quiet beach time” and a little road trip. Yes, I would tag a cheeky “Mom n Pop” pleaser onto the beginning of the All Play Vay-cay; hit the open road for a while before finding a peaceful, idyllic beach on which to lie down and ponder our life choices. It was genius, in my mind: the holiday would appear to have been very selflessly planned around the kids but we’d manage to get in a few days of proper all-American journeying. Diner breakfasts with fifty egg options, weird roadside attractions, creepy abandoned gas stations with tumbleweed rolling across the forecourt. Bloody marvellous.

(Is the need for doing road trips at any given opportunity something that simply happens when you hit adulthood? Or is it specific to me and Rich? I don’t know where this obsession stemmed from, but we don’t seem to be able to plan anything without adding a bit of a long drive to the mix:

“Shall we fly to the airport that’s eight hours away instead, and…do a bit of a road trip?”

“Why even fly? It’s only fifty-three hours by car!”

Please tell me it’s not just us…)

Anyway, that’s the background: I tried to cheat a proper holiday out of a visit to Disney World and give the whole family an experience they’d enjoy. Now listen: I’m going to write about Disney separately. I have nothing against Disney – many Disney and Pixar films are in my top, most-watched films of all time list –  it’s just that theme parks are not my particular cup of tea. I love Toy Story, but I don’t feel the need to eat lunch in front of a giant statue of Woody. I have fond memories of Beauty and the Beast and know almost every song lyric from Aladdin but do I feel the urge to immerse myself in a weird, random mix of theming based on the films I’ve seen? Make sure you read my Disney post, coming up next, to find the answer to that particular question. (It may surprise you!)

So here’s my Florida Trip itinerary with accommodation details, hotel ratings and general pointers as to whether each of the planned elements was, with hindsight, a good idea. If you’re thinking of going to Disney World and tagging on some extras, here’s my honest opinion on whether or not to bother.

Miami Beach (Nights 1 and 2)

I decided to give the kids a little hit of culture and city life to start the trip off with a bang: “let’s fly into Miami,” I said, “it’ll be fun.”. This idea seemed more and more ridiculous the longer the flight from Heathrow dragged on. By the time we arrived at Miami airport, finally got through the winding queue at immigration and found a cab to the hotel I was so tired that my eyes felt as though they were falling out.

We arrived at our hotel, The Sagamore, at 10.30pm and all went straight to bed. I had booked The Sagamore after loads of research because it was so well located (it’s right next to the Ritz on South Beach and has direct access to the sands) and it was relatively inexpensive for a room sleeping four, in that location, at around $330 per night. There were loads of cheaper rooms at other hotels but they were half the size and not on the beach and so I went for a midway point. (It was the end of spring break, just after Easter, so rates were relatively high all round, FYI.)

I didn’t want to go all out on a room in Miami because I knew that the first night was going to be a write-off and the one full day we had there we’d hopefully not even need it, because we’d be walking about happily in the sun, our children skipping along beside us asking pertinent questions about Art Deco architecture and the history of Cuba.

(In reality, we spent two hours walking aimlessly up and down Collins Avenue, buying goggles and hats and all of the other stuff I’d forgotten to pack and then we all had a family meltdown over food options at lunch. A meltdown of such epic scale I thought that our marriage might be over.)

What would I rate The Sagamore? 8 for location and pool/beach access but a 5 or 6-ish out of ten for the room. The extra sleeper bed, a pull-out sofa, was so hard and uncomfortable we ended up with one child in with us (she’s tall and she sleeps in a starfish position, which is handy) and the air con was so noisy it felt like a lorry was parked inside the room. For the price, it was OK – as I said, I expected it to be a less than premium experience and the location, pool and beach were great for the kids – but it was a little frayed around the edges and the bed situation wasn’t good.

More importantly: would I recommend a little trip to Miami pre-Disney, with an eight year old and seven year old in tow? Honestly, I wouldn’t bother again. (Ha! What a miser.) It was quite a frantic start to the holiday, really and we probably would have been better off heading straight to….

Anna Maria Island (Nights 3, 4 and 5)

Ah, the “treat to self” part of the trip. A four hour journey on the open road and then the laid-back vibes of an idyllic beach on a lively little island. The initial part of this, the road bit, would have been brilliant had Rich not worked the kids up to an absolute state of frenzy about a mythical superstore that held all of the toys in the world and plastic tat beyond their wildest dreams: a place called….Target.

For crying out loud. I mean, really.

We spent half the journey talking about Target, then we got lost for an hour and a half and had to stop at a McDonalds’s on the way to Target and then we spent so long in Target that we were late getting to our beachside accommodation.

And I was excited about this beachside accommodation because it was right on the beach. Fifty metres away. Never had we stayed so close to sea and sand – I had booked it especially for this reason. In my mind the kids would be able to trot in and out of the room with their buckets and spades! I’d sit sipping a frozen Margarita, watching them frolic in the waves!

We stayed at a place called Cedar Cove. It had almost exclusively rave reviews online and I have to say, it was exactly as described – nothing was a surprise. The white sandy beach was beautiful, you could absolutely just stay out there all day and nip back to your room for snacks and drinks and so on, and you could walk right down the shoreline to Bradenton Beach where all of the restaurants and bars were.

The rooms are very Old Florida style – leatherette couches and cane furniture, tropical print curtains and bright colours painted on the outside walls. It very much feels like you’ve entered another time, which you’ll either love or hate, depending on which rate you paid for your room.

We paid the hiked-up spring break prices as it was a few days after Easter and boy was it a killer. I’d say that the dated feel of the accommodation did make me do a sharp intake of breath, for the rates we were paying (I don’t even want to write the price down!) but the location and beach were so idyllic it all kind of balanced out. It wasn’t as though there was anything to complain about, it was all just very….charmingly basic.

Rating for the hotel? I’d give it 8/10 at normal, non-peak prices. You have to be able to appreciate the faded, relaxed vibe – this is not somewhere you’d come for a luxury stay where you don’t leave your room – but the beach is a 10/10 and is the crowning glory of the place, so it balances right out.

Would I do Anna Maria Island again? Maybe. I’m still processing. It was a great “calm before the storm” moment to rest up before Orlando and felt quite uncommercial and wholesome by comparison (I mean, anything would feel uncommercial and wholesome compared to Orlando) but it was around a four hour drive from Miami and then it was another two and a half to Orlando when we left. So quite the detour.

(Worth noting that Cedar Cove doesn’t have a restaurant – it’s not a resort in the sense that it has hotel facilities. But there are more places to eat than you can shake a coconut at – if I went again I’d hire a golf buggy in advance to get around the island. Lots of people used bikes (and there were loads of free ones to borrow at Cedar Cove) but the one main road that runs like a spine through the island is really busy, constantly. I don’t know whether I’d want to cycle it with younger kids in tow.

Also worth noting that half of the resorts rooms and cottages are across this main road, away from the beach. It’s clear on the website, but you could miss it if you didn’t know… Absolutely 100% book the beachside properties. We were in “Bamboo”, which had views of the sea from the balcony at the front but my pick would be one of the penthouse apartments right on the sand, so long as you’re fine with climbing stairs.)

Orlando, Universal Hard Rock Hotel (Night 6)

From tranquil beach paradise to the noisy chaos of Orlando. But this quick one-night stay was an unexpected little bit of excitement and joy right in the middle of the trip: a single sleep at Universal’s Hard Rock Hotel.

Now here’s the thing: I do not enjoy staying in hotels as a family, as a rule. Unless you’re wedged up like Jeff Bezos and can get one of those suites that take up half a floor and have multiple bedrooms and a dining room with lilies on the table, etc, then for more than one or two nights I find hotels a bit restrictive and cramped and massively expensive. Five dollars for a bottle of water and a shower cubicle that’s filled with all of your drip-drying swimsuits? No ta. I’d rather self-cater. But a short stop-off at the Hard Rock where you can make use of the (excellent) pool and amble easily down to dinner (not so excellent) and then wander on over to the theme parks in the morning? No need to get into the car for a while? Yes please.

It also impressed the kids wildly that we were staying in this colossal place with its endless corridors and multiple check-in desks and people in uniform wheeling huge trolleys of suitcases about. They loved it.

And there was a good, practical reason I did this standalone night at Hard Rock Hotel: to get the Universal Unlimited Express Passes. We’re going to go more into queues and fast passes in my Disney post, but here’s the lowdown: the queues are long! We regularly passed rides at Universal where the wait time was 80 minutes, even 120 minutes – on one Disney ride, the Slinky Dog coaster, there was a wait time of 180 minutes!

Luckily (for some), both places have their own version of fast passes – sort of like priority boarding. You get to go in a different queueing lane to everyone else and more often than not there’s hardly anyone in it – you just walk in and sidle on up to the front, bypassing the ridiculously long snake of a normal queue that winds over and back on itself.

Skipping the queue feels so wrong – and slightly embarrassing if you don’t like to look as though you’re lording it – but it’s also so, so right. If you want to keep your sanity and actually get on more than three or four rides a day then these passes are the best thing you can possible spend your budget on. It’s outrageous that you have to pay for park admission tickets, which are expensive to start with and then you have to pay not to waste your entire life standing about in a line to take a three minute trip inside a fake rowing boat, but there you go. That’s theme parks for you. And a whole other post.

After a week at Universal and Disney my main take-away was that fast passes, or priority passes or whatever you want to call them, are the key to theme park happiness and contentment, especially if you’re trying to do a number of parks over the course of a week. (We were.) Here’s the thing though: Express Passes for Universal were $195 per day. Per person. It would be completely absurd to even think about buying them, unless you had unlimited budget, but we didn’t buy them because – drumroll please, followed by dramatic pause – they came free with our room at the Hard Rock Hotel!

Yes, the room came with free passes for the day of check-in and check-out and so we got two days’ worth and a night’s stay in the hotel for $540. Total saving? $1020.00.

And one marriage.

There are three hotels at Universal that do this deal – you also get early entry to the parks and, obviously, your accommodation. If I could give one top tip for Universal? I’d stay two nights, finances allowing, in one of the hotels that does the Express Pass benefit and then blitz the parks in the three days I had passes for. The pools at the hotels are brilliant and if you have an all park ticket then there’s a state of the art water park with stupidly scary slides and chutes and all sorts of rides that will give you a prolapse and/or make you regret being born.

Rating for Hard Rock Hotel: 9/10. The rooms were boring, just hundreds of carbon copies of the same thing but comfy, very clean and relatively spacious. The pool was great, the grounds were lovely and it was a very short walk to Universal Studios and not much further to the second park, Islands of Adventure. I give it a 9 almost solely because of the express passes – it makes doing the parks a totally different experience. If I ever went back to Universal then I’d make this hotel/passes deal my budgeting priority.

Would I go back? I actually liked Universal a lot. The whole place is walkable from park to park, unlike Disney, and it feels much smarter and newer and sparkly and impressive. There’s little to feel nostalgic about, which is Disney’s whole MO, but the rides are thrilling and fast and the theming is incredible. Would I go again with an eight and seven year old? No. Most of the rides were a little too scary for them and the true “kids” sections were few and far between. We actually went specifically for the Wizarding Worlds because my eight year-old loves Harry Potter but every ride was too scary and so all we did was ride the Hogwart’s train.

Oh, and the Hippogriff Rollercoaster, which looked like a sort of wicker-effect dragon. Do NOT be fooled by the wicker: this isn’t some garden variety toddler ride. It has drops and it’s fast. I almost died of shock.

Disney World Orlando, Air BnB (Nights 7 to 13)

Halfway through the trip but almost at the end of this holiday post, because I’m going to write about Disney in the next one. I have so much to say! Some of it bad, some of it good, some of it really quite surprising! Yay! Disney! Cute!

By this point in the booking process I was having an absolute conniption over the cost of everything; I knew that a Florida theme park holiday was never going to be the cheapest break on the block but the figures on my budgeting list were stacking up at an alarming rate.

I decided, therefore, to book an AirBnb rather than check us into one of the Disney hotels. After approximately nineteen hours of trawling and researching, I found a place near to Universal in a quiet neighbourhood that hadn’t been furnished like a teenaged boy’s room circa 1991. And it had a pool and it was on a small lake and – what a bonus – it had more than one toilet. Surely this would be better than four of us cramming into the ubiquitous long, narrow twin-bedded hotel room that we would otherwise be looking at?

We’ve been giving this a lot of thought, Rich and I. Again, it’s one for the Disney post (and I’ll have made some sort of sense of it by then) but I’m not actually sure that staying “off-site” was such a good call. Despite the rental house being excellent. On the one hand, the nightly rate for the house was the same as the aforementioned Disney option, but had four bedrooms, a large living space, a pool and a view of a lake (!) but on the other…

…our lives would definitely have been easier had we just plonked ourselves at the parks for a week, returned the car and enjoyed* the piped music, buffet food and endless monorail transfers to the Magic Kingdom. Although it pains me to say it, because I am really not a lover of buffets or bedrooms that have Mickey Mouse transfers on the walls, there has to be something to be said for committing fully when it comes to Disney World. In for a penny, in for a pound. Total immersion. Because much as I liked having a house to escape to it also meant more driving (we spent a couple of hours a day on the I-4 and I now know every exit from that section of Interstate) and it meant having to find places to eat outside of Disney (probably both a blessing and a curse!) and it also meant that once we were in the house, we were in. There was no deciding to trot down in the late evening sun to watch fireworks, or go and get an ice cream. We got back to the house and, more often than not, just went straight to sleep. Perhaps staying on resort would have been more jolly. More in the spirit of things. More…magical.

God, I can’t believe I just typed that.

Verdict on the Holiday We Would All Enjoy:

The kids just rated it the trip a 10/10 when I asked them. Of course they did. Best holiday ever, apparently. Their favourite part? The man on Anna Maria Island who was almost definitely related to the Tiger King and who pulled over to us at the side of the road in his truck so that the kids could, wait for it, pet his baby alligator.

“Don’t worry,” he said, as he fetched it from the back seat of the truck, “I tape her jaws shut when there are kiddies about.”

That made for an interesting conversation about stranger danger, later on that day, I can tell you.

“But he was so kind,” said my eight year old, “I think that he was very kind and, and very sensible.”

Mate, he sleeps with a seven foot gator called Delilah in his bed, you need to brush up on your character judgement skills.

And the adults? How did we rate it? Well. I don’t want to spoil the next post but…Rich and I are unanimous in our thoughts. The theme parks were as expected: intense, chaotic and a complete sensory overload. But strangely, though neither of us would want to do them again any time soon, we did come away from them feeling a sort of satisfaction, as though we’d successfully ticked off some kind of life goal or achievement. Perhaps it was just because it was all so crazily different to normal life – it was definitely an experience and a talking point but, as promised, it will all be in the next post.

What about the tagged-on bit at the start of the holiday, the “Mom n Pop pleaser”? We both agree that, though lovely, it did little in the way of adding to our own enjoyment and if we were going to re-plan it we’d probably save the money and leave it out. Use the cash to go away on our own. (Joke.) (Sort of.) Really, we should have remembered the well-worn parenting mantras when it comes to holidays: “same shit, different scenery” and “it’s all about the kids”. That idea of “rest and relaxation” is, for at least a few years when they’re little, an absolute pipe dream. You’re never going to get to relax properly on a beach, because one of you has to be watching to make sure that the kids don’t disappear down a giant hole, or get squashed by a manatee – that they don’t try to ingest a section of conch shell or drink a “sand milkshake”. You’ll always be hunting for snacks, nagging them to eat some of the “proper food” at mealtimes and stopping for a toilet break twenty minutes after you left the house. Road trips are never going to be like they were many years ago, when you rolled down the car windows and smoked a Marlboro light and planned your route on a fold-out paper map the width of the dashboard…

It just ain’t the same. You can’t force it. Though it’s probably better for our longevity that the Marlboros made a departure…

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