Florida, famously known as the sunshine state, certainly earns its capital F for Fun - and Orlando, situated right in its middle, is the ‘great big’ cherry on the cake, the ultimate thrill-seeker's paradise for the whole family.
Everything about Orlando is big and outlandish. Nowhere on earth caters more to kids than here, and adults too are in no way resistant to its unique magic. The destination has a huge amount on offer right on your doorstep, most famously of course, it’s home to Mickey Mouse (you can’t miss him). Putting Disney aside, however, the area has so many other action-packed attractions that appeal to the whole family - from stomach-churning roller coaster rides, whale and dolphin adventures plus every animal under the sun, to giant discount shopping malls, hundreds of theme hotels, sea, sand and not to mention an amazing array of cuisine at every turn.
With so much to see and do, you couldn't possibly fit everything in one holiday, so we've picked our favourite activities in and around Orlando that tick all the boxes for family fun.
Seaworld Orlando is your chance to get up close and personal with a fabulous array of sealife within its 22-acre site. Don't miss Shamu, Seaworld's resident Killer Whale and his own rather emotional show ‘Believe’: it's a definite crowd puller. Smaller sea lovers can enjoy six rides at Shumu’s Happy Habour.
Not short of its own rollers coasters, new this year is the Manta Ride, a high-speed face-down journey which promises to re-create the sensation of actually becoming a Manta Ray soaring through the ocean - it’s the closest you’ll ever get to really flying!
About a 45-minute drive from Orlando, is Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay, so you could combine it with a trip to the beach if you start early enough. This family adventure park bases its attractions around exotic encounters within the African continent. There are plenty of thrilling wet and dry rides, and it is home to one of the country's premier zoo. Be sure to try the SheiKra roller-coaster - it will take your breath away.
Aquatica Get here early: Aquatica fills up quickly and they certainly squeeze everyone in! This huge aqua-park has rapids, lagoons and a man-made sandy beach. There are plenty of water rides, including see-through flumes that shoot you through pools of black-and-white Commerson's Dolphins who swim around you. Aquatica gets very busy so it's a good idea to pre-hire a Roa's Island Lounger or better still a Private Cabana for an extra supplement before you arrive.
Especially for under 5’s
For younger holidaymakers there is plenty to do, from high quality zoos like Brevard and Central Florida to Gator Land, where youngsters are fascinated by the park's gator wranglers and snake handlers.
Here is where we get to mention the 'D' word as there is nothing like watching your child’s face light up as they walk into Disney’s Magic Kingdom to meet favourite characters.
Also, Tykes beach at Disney’s Blizzard Beach is a great way to introduce toddlers to water. It is outfitted with gentle body slides, tube slides, interactive fountains and a wading pool.
Family nights out
Nightlife in Orlando is even more lively- with most of the fun centring in and around International Drive where you'll find a resturant or eatery at every turn!
Our favourites were Cuba Libre, a Cuban ispired restaurant with delicious authentic food and superb, signature mojito cocktails. On Saturday nights there is a real party atmosphere with salsa dancing shows.
The Boston Lobster Feast, an all-you-can-eat buffet with every type of sea-food you can think of, including lobsters bigger than your plate. Don’t worry if you're a novice as the friendly waiters are on hand to give you a lobster-cracking lesson!
For a night to remember and one the kids will love, be sure to take your family to one of the many theme nights. We visited the The Pirate Dinner Adventure and enjoyed a swashbuckling interactive dinner and show, complete with a replicated 18th-century Spanish galleon ship, anchored in an indoor lagoon. The night finishes with a family disco including cast members.
Downtown Disney, with its back-drop of a beautiful lake is great for an evening stroll and is full of kids' favourites like The Rainforest Cafe and Planet Hollywood.
Where to stay
Orlando is not short of a hotel or two! From comfortable family self-catering villas or apartments in Kissimmee to Disney’s dazzling on site-resorts. Here’s our pick of some 3, 4 and 5 accommodations all-great for families.
Located in the middle of International Drive action, The Quality Inn International is a comfortable hotel suited to families on a budget. It has two large pools and spacious rooms that can sleep up to 5. This hotel is great value for money as kids eat free in the restaurant.
About a 10-minute drive to both International Drive and Down Town Disney, the brand new Lake Buena Vista Village Resort and Spa (pictured) is perfect for families who are looking for an upmarket treat and like to do their own thing. The complex consists of huge, Bahamas-style, 2- and 3-bedroom, fully-equipped apartments. All have king-size beds and two bathrooms, even a Jacuzzi jet tub. There are two pools, one quiet for adults to relax and the other is much livelier, boasting a pirate ship flume slide. The complex also offers free transport to all the major parks.
The 5 star, Orlando World Centre Marriott Resort certainly holds the wow factor! The biggest Marriott in the world offers prime family luxury with 4 swimming pools and 4 restaurants, full activity kids club and 18-hole golf course. Breakfast at this hotel is out of this world!
Things to know
* Make sure you arrive at parks early - they get VERY busy and queuing isn’t quite as civilised as it is here.
* Don’t try to pack a packed lunch for theme parks – it’s likely to be confiscated upon entry.
* Do some research before you go. Log onto Orlandoinfo.com for all your planning needs including Orlando theme ticket discounts and offers.
* Use the Free Fast Pass at all the Disney parks. It allows you to book a time slot to prevent log wait times in queues.
* A car is essential in Orlando, especially if your hotel doesn’t offer transport to parks. You can book car hire through First Choice, or if you’re going it alone, Dollar has some great online special rates and vehicle options.
First Choice offers a seven-night holiday in Florida, staying on a self-catering basis at the 4 SUN Lake Buena Vista Village Resort and Spa from £589 per adult, £329 for first child and £479 for second child. Price based on two adults and two children sharing, departing from Gatwick on the 11th September 2009.
To find out more about this holiday, or to make a reservation, please call First Choice on 0871 200 4455, or book online at www.firstchoice.co.uk/florida.
All holidays are subject to availability and booking terms and conditions. Prices include flights, fuel charge and air passenger duty and are correct at the date of issue.